Sunday, January 24, 2016

Groove Thangs: Our First Game of Spirit of 77

Our nerdy little kaffeeklatsch has finally returned to the world of role-playing games after a ten-month hiatus, at long last using the Spirit of 77 ruleset I Kickstarted over a year ago. We met back in November to get everyone's characters set up, a step that is a pleasure in some systems and an onerous chore in others, so it was gratifying to me that simply gathering everyone together to establish the various roles and names was an immensely entertaining night of gaming.

There are lots of ways to generate player characters, ranging from random dice rolls to using a points system to buy attributes, but Spirit of 77 uses neither of these. Players choose their Role (e.g. Sleuth, Tough Guy, Vigilante) with no duplicates allowed within a group, and then their Story (Ex-Con, Former Badge, Humble Beginnings).  Instead of alignment, So77 uses Buzz (i.e. their character's motivation, like Cold Hard Cash, The Truth, or Justice) to guide character behaviour, and then gets each player to write down two Hooks that describe how their character is connected to another.

In terms of stats, there are 5 different attributes that need to have values applied to them, and 5 different ranges for players to chose from, like +1,+1,+1,+1,+1 for an all rounder, or perhaps +2,+2,0,0,-1 for someone a little more advanced in a couple of areas, but to the detriment of another one. Once they have applied these values to determine their relative Might, Hustle, Smooth, Brains and Soul, and selected the Moves or maneuvers associated with their Role and Story, they can choose a 'Thang' such as a Sweet Ride or Signature Weapon, or even an Animal Companion, as well as any mundane equipment they can afford. This all gets noted on their 'Rap Sheets', and after that, you are pretty much ready to roll, despite never having rolled.

Right off the hop, the thing that sets Spirit of 77 apart from just about any other game I've played is the tremendous amount of creative license it gives players, and this is illustrated by frantic player transactions and intense creativity as a disparate group of individuals do the game master's work for him in terms of "why the hell would these people ever be in the same place, let alone working together?" I mean, it is one thing to have a diverse range of archetypes summoned together by a mysterious employer, or to serendipitously convene at a smoky medieval tavern when an adventure breaks out, but take a look at this rogue's gallery here:

Johnny J. "J.J." Columbia: The Good Old Boy with X-Tech who's in it for the Thrills. A former Hollywood stunt driver hired by a shadowy government agency and assigned to test the limits of a prototype computer controlled VW Beetle named OSCAR (Thang = Sweet Ride, X-Tech prototype), Theme Song: Goin' Mobile by The Who.

Evan Harder: The Honeypot who`s got the Glam and is in it for the Fame & Glory. Having made his name in the adult entertainment industry, Evan has moved from performing to producing (Thang = small film studio), where his easygoing charm, mellow confidence and unflappable nature have served him well, but really just give him enough capital to indulge his myriad curiosities... Theme Song: You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate.

Chris Knight: The Sleuth who's a Former Badge and in it for Justice. When they brought the first desktop computer into the City P.D., Det. Knight saw right away where the next wave of growth in organized crime would be, but couldn't convince his superiors. (Thang = affinity for computers and tech.) As a private investigator he's now free to ask the questions that might just help clean up The City. Theme song: Theme from S.W.A.T. by THP Orchestra.

The Twins - Sean Aeden Finnegan and Niall Angus Finnegan: The Vigilante Ex-Cons who are in it for Redemption. Most folks don't see the Finnegans as brothers right off, what with one of them being a redhead and the other black, but they call themselves twins anyhow, 'cause Mother Maggie says so. They are almost dangerously codependent, but also intent on going straight after a stint in the big house, and know a discreet doctor who can patch them up when plans go awry (Thang = Skilled Doc on call). Theme song: He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother) by Neil Diamond.

Harlan E. Jaeger: The Gonzo Journalist who is One Bad Mother looking for the Truth. Jaeger's known the score since Nixon's Saigon Double Cross won him the Vietnam War, but needs proof about exactly what The Man is getting up to. As a wild and wooly reporter for the alternative press, he criss-crosses The City, rattling the cages of his informants (Thangs = press credentials and connections), looking for dirt, keeping his mind limber with substances foreign and domestic, and waiting for trouble to find him. Theme song: Le Freak, by Chic.

Connections-wise, it didn't take too long for Mike to suggest that maybe his Sleuth got Jeff's Honeypot out of a vice frame-up, and for Jeff to note that now Evan feels he owes Chris one. Jaeger has done some write-ups on J.J. and OSCAR, and hopes that their X-Tech can give him an inside track on the strange stuff he's heard about it. By the time everyone had jotted their Hooks down, there was a real network of interconnections explaining how everyone knew everyone, even if it was as a friend of a friend. It required no artifice, no huge leaps in logic, and best of all, no additional work for yours truly, the Gamemaster (or DJ as So77 refers to the role).

We were itching to play immediately, but alas, December was just too hectic a month to get everyone together; last night we finally did.

My original plan had been to cobble together a bare-bones narrative so we could acclimatize ourselves to the new mechanics.  I was having trouble getting used to the idea that unlike every other RPG I've ever played, the DJ is never required to roll dice.

No, seriously; RPGs typically use dice to determine the outcome of events, such as did my shot hit the target, or how much damage did my sword do to the owlbear, or did I spot the hidden door. The GM uses a similar process to determine the outcomes of enemy actions, and there are usually modifiers involved to increase or decrease difficulty, but Spirit of 77 uses none of that.

If a player wants to, say, shoot a gangster off a motorcycle who is threatening his friend, he would Make a Move, specifically, Smoke His Ass (hand to hand combat falls under Deliver a Beatdown). He would roll two dice and add the appropriate attribute, Hustle in this case. If the roll totals 10 or higher, it is a total success. A result of 7-9 is a partial success, with the DJ getting to exact some sort of consequence, such as a counterattack, or running out of ammo. A 6 or less is a failure, and nets the player an experience point, because we learn more from our failures than our successes, Grasshoppa.

Should the player miss and afford the gangster a chance to return fire, the DJ doesn't roll any dice, he just tells the player he is being shot at, and the player can decide if they want to Take the Hit or Get Out of the Way as a response.

With all this to take in, I was hesitant to jump in on one of the pre-created adventures supplied with my pre-order, but when I took a look at the adventure "Beast: Bound and Down", another difference presented itself. Instead of presenting a bunch of maps and numbered cues, or even a timeline of suggested events, the module simply lists the various settings and 'Fronts' (antagonistic characters or situations), as well as suggestions as to what might tie them together. It is incredibly free-form and liberating, as well as a little intimidating to those of us used to something far more proscribed.

Best of all, this adventure has a great device to kick off the gaming session: a provocative question called the "Fuel Injection". After taking a moment to reacquaint ourselves with the characters, I started asking questions about what they were all wearing, and what drink they would order in a bar. Then I popped the Fuel Injection query out to the group; "So, whose bright idea was it to steal the beer truck?"

After their eyes unglazed, the players looked at each other around the table to find a likely suspect, many of them looking at Scott, who rose to the challenge as The Twins, saying, "Look, I promised to bring the refreshments to the orphanage for Mother Maggie's birthday party..." and it took off from there.

The game's mechanics and ethos are both loose enough to support this sort of in media res kickoff, so instead of wasting time on how and when it was stolen, we determined very quickly that The Finnegans were at the wheel of the Aloha Express (well, one drove while the other pouted) with Chris and Harlan riding shotgun, while J.J. and Evan used OSCAR as a blocker car up ahead.

Well, it being the Seventies and all, no one was particularly surprised when the players pulled over to inspect their cargo and discovered a drugged up bigfoot trussed up in logging chains amongst the beer.  And of course this revelation would come in the parking lot of the 225 Roadhouse, just as some of the surliest members of the Road Gators M.C. came staggering out, and immediately prior to The Man showing up, in the form of Marmut County Sheriff Wardell Allen Drutherford.

Caution was thrown to the winds as players mouthed off bikers and The Man, leaned out of Beetles at highway speed and took risks for no better reason than their theme song was playing.

We all had a tremendous time, with less time devoted to tactics and maps and more turned to 'what would be the most fun?' Sure, there was some gunplay, some vehicular chases, and a lot of on-the-fly plan revisioning.  Much of the game had less in common with playing D&D than it did with improv theatre or drama games, but there is just enough structure to keep things focused and moving along.

Despite the inevitably adversarial nature of such games, this was probably the most collaborative role-playing session I have ever experienced as a GM, thanks largely to the tremendous amount of player agency the system provides. The whole thing was satisfactorily wrapped up before 11:30, and we are already looking forward to returning to the groovy and messed up world of Spirit of 77.

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