SotC 9 Tips and Tricks

Spirit of the Century
1. The Basics
2. Character Creation
3. Aspects
4. How to Do Things
5. Skills
6. Stunts
7. Gadgets and Gizmos
8. Running the Game
9. Tips and Tricks
10. Quick Pick Stunt Packages
11. Character Worksheet
12. Character Sheet

9 Tips and Tricks
In the previous chapter, we presented ideas for how to make use of the nuts and bolts of the system itself in order to get the best effect. But that’s only part of the GMing job. Here, we talk about the art of GMing – and more importantly, how to make your game squeeze out the best bits of pulp for everyone’s enjoyment. We’ll also cover things like adventure design, advancement, important “configuration” decisions about your setting, and camera work. Read on!

9.1 The Power of the Pickup Game
Sometimes you have everything you need for a game. The session is planned. The players are all on time. Snacks are on hand. You’re good to go. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always comply. Life comes up and one player or another can’t make it. A babysitter doesn’t show. Family visits from out of town. There’s a work emergency. Reasonable problems, and understandable, but frustrating all the same. You can always just cancel the game, but that’s rarely satisfying for anyone.

One solution to this problem is the pickup game, a game played with whoever is on hand, purely for the fun of it. Pickup games can be tough, because it’s not easy to create an entire adventure on the kind of short notice we’re talking about. It can be even more time consuming to come up with characters and get everything started up.

SotC is written with the pickup game in mind. Certainly, you can run a satisfying campaign in the traditional vein, but even if you do, the elements that make up a pickup game can be useful when players bail, or when you find yourself pressed for time to prepare a session on short notice.

There is one central principle of the pickup game: ease of use. It needs to be easy to prepare, easy to get started, and easy to play. Ease means two things: that it’s quick, and it’s simple. Pickup games don’t have a lot of ramp up time, so speed is of the essence, and since they’re intermittent, you don’t want players needing to relearn an entire system every time they play, so complexity is problematic. It also means that you want to be able to just start playing: long introductions, extended shopping trips, foreshadowing and other tricks that take time now for a payoff later have no place in the pickup game. Make it cool, and make it cool right now. To that end, we offer three different means of planning a game: Structured, Aspected, and Dynamic.

9.1.1 The Structured Pickup Game: Easy as 1-2-3
The characters are the period’s equivalent of jet setters. If there’s something interesting going on in the world, there’s a good chance there’s at least one PC there. With that in mind, there is no pussyfooting around required to explain why the characters are on the scene – they should be there, so they are!

Once you’ve got the ball rolling, the next big advantage for a pickup game is the spirit of pulp. It’s a spirit of action. If players aren’t willing to be proactive, then someone has not communicated or understood how this game is supposed to work. What’s more, pulp plots are simply not that sophisticated, so it’s easy for players to jump headfirst into them. Perhaps even more importantly, it makes them easy for GMs to come up with. With that general idea of what you’re going to want for a pickup game, let’s take a moment to break down the specific steps.

Establishing Characters
While you can use the on-the-fly character creation rules (page XX), that’s not necessarily the best solution. If your game schedule is erratic enough that you expect to be running pickup games with any frequency, it may be useful to do character creation in advance. Having an established character to step into can help players get going quickly when the pickup game begins. A fast creation character will eventually have the same utility, but can make the first few sessions a little rough.

There’s also some incentive for the GM to encourage players to establish their characters in advance of a session – it makes plotting up the session easier. Established characters have aspects and histories that the GM can (and should!) mine for inspiration.

The Pulp Plot Framework
Here’s a secret – once you hit your stride with pulp, all you’re going to need to come up with is an adventure title. But that will come with practice. There’s advice for running adventures elsewhere in this book which will be helpful to you, but some of it may take some getting used to. Until you’re at a comfort level that allows a little more improvisation, you’re going to want to start with a pretty structured model, and that’s what we’re offering you here. Once you have the bones of the structure in place, you can start elaborating on it to suit your needs, but if you ever get stumped, just come back to this simple model.

Endanger the Characters
Reveal the True Danger
The Pursuit Encounters Complications
Certain Doom
The Twist
Final Showdown
Breakneck Escape (Optional)
Obviously, this is not the model for every pulp plot. Rather, it is a structure to follow in creating plots until you want to discard it. You also are not obliged to determine the components of the outline in any particular order. Find something that interests you, put it in the appropriate slot, and then fill in the other slots to better justify it. If you have a really cool deathtrap you want to throw the characters into, go ahead and put it in as Certain Doom, then figure out the rest so the deathtrap makes sense. If you’re at a loss for where to begin, start with the Final Showdown. It’s going to be the most dramatic element of the game, and what villains and elements it includes may suggest how to handle some of the earlier elements.

Endanger the Characters
It may seem odd that the first thing is figuring out how to threaten the characters. Intuitively, it might seem more reasonable to figure out where the game opens. As it happens, these are one and the same thing. Figuring out how you’re going to endanger the characters contains a large component that depends on where they’re going to be. Environmental hazards require certain settings, as do burglaries or wars. The nature of the danger will suggest the setting.

With that in mind, the nature of the danger can vary greatly. The most basic sort of danger is an unexpected attack. This is usually performed by a mob of low-quality, highly distinctive minions of the villain, sometimes led by a lieutenant of some sort. The goal of the attack can vary greatly. They might be after the characters, they might be after someone else at the location, they could be there to steal or destroy something; they might even be there by accident. In determining why they’re there, you put the first piece into place regarding the plot.

Alternately, the danger might be environmental: a ship sinking, a zeppelin going down, a building on fire or collapsing in an earthquake. Any of these is a suitable threat to get things going. Sometimes there is a motive behind the danger, like someone setting the building on fire, and sometimes it’s just bad timing. The cause is important to determine, if only for what it implies. A ship sinking because it’s been sabotaged means that the danger is the saboteur. A ship sinking due to an accident is usually a precursor to washing up on a dangerous uncharted island. It’s also possible to mix and match dangers. A building with a bomb in it requires evacuation as well as discovering and disarming the bomb or bombs. Whatever the danger, it is important that it is a legitimate threat, and that the characters can address it in some way. Even if they can’t stop it entirely, they shouldn’t be helpless bystanders – they can save civilians, keep thieves from taking all the treasures of the Louvre, or keep the ship from crashing on the rocks, killing everyone on board. Go into the game assuming that players will drastically impact the flow of events, and plan anything you feel needs to happen around that assumption.

Possible Dangers
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Reveal the True Danger
Whatever the cause of the previous danger, it was only a taste of things to come. This is the opportunity for characters with strong investigative talents to shine, as they discover the pieces of the puzzle, revealing at least part of why things are in trouble, and where to go next. This step requires two important things – an explanation, and a clue. The explanation does not need to be complete. It may be known that the villains are up to something involving the Eye of Askaton, but that doesn’t mean that anyone knows precisely what.

The clue should point to a place. It may be that it points to a person in that place, or a thing in the place, but it should draw a clear line towards where the characters should go next. It should also suggest that time is of the essence, so there is strong impetus to get moving.

Some Revelations
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The Pursuit Encounters Complications
The players should have a clear sense of what they need to do at this point. They should have a clear direction which they are able to move decisively towards. And this is the point where things go terribly wrong. Maybe another group reveals itself with an attack. Maybe the apparently simple explanation of events is revealed to be deception.

Generally, either something about the pursuit creates a complication, such as an obstacle to bypass, or something external threatens the journey, such as an attack or a disaster. If this sounds a lot like Endangering the Characters, there’s a reason for it. In fact, if the Endangering step was an attack, then the complication should be something environmental or other wise difficult to overcome. If the Endangering was environmental, then an attack might be appropriate. Basically, your goal here is to provide a different type of challenge, to allow different characters to shine.

This is also an opportunity to complicate the plot. If there’s some other element you want to include, now’s your chance. Some traditional complications include new characters on the scene, such as new villains, old enemies, or even rivals pursuing the same goal. Others include a double cross by friendly guides, a loss of supplies or equipment, or another problem demanding attention that conflicts with the issue at hand, leading the characters to a tough decision.

If the complication turns the current course of action into a dead end, it’s important that another action option suggests itself (after a suitable period of dramatic tension). Of course, that course of action may well pass through Certain Doom (see below).

Some Complications
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Certain Doom
Sometimes the complication gets worse, or it leads to another situation, or sometimes another situation entirely comes up. One way or another, the characters end up in a terrible situation, where it seems absolutely certain that the characters will perish. The classic example of this is the fiendish deathtrap, but it can really be anything that looks like certain doom. The whole point is to ratchet up the tension, get things to the point where it looks like there’s no hope, and put the players on the edge of their seats.

Then you go get a drink.

Ok, maybe not, but it’s kind of fun. You really do want to make the players sweat, so this is certainly time for a dramatic pause at the very least before they start desperately throwing around crazy plans and ideas for getting out.

Some Dooms
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The Twist
The twist is a revelation that changes the understanding of the situation. The delivery of the twist can come in many forms. It can be simple information from a captured foe, released prisoner or even a gloating villain. Often, it flows from actions, like the arrival of an unexpected ally providing aid and information, or a villain’s henchman turning against him at an opportune moment.

One bit of secret utility for the twist is that it can get you, the GM, out of trouble. If your Certain Doom is looking a little too certain, or if there’s an element of the story that got missed, now is your time to throw it in. And, frankly, if you discover things have gone too far off the tracks, this is your opportunity to say “Ha-ha, it was all a trick. This is what’s actually going on!” Obviously this is a power to use sparingly, lest your players become skeptical of every plot, but it can really save you when the need arises.

The “twist” doesn’t need to be too much of a twist. Its real role is a revelation, the final piece of the puzzle which makes the path to the final showdown crystal clear.

This should also be the point where the clock starts ticking. If the twist lets the players know what the villain’s master plan is, but also leaves them feeling that they’ve got all the time in the world to deal with it, it will kill all the tension and turn into an extended shopping trip and planning session (which, we’ll remind you, are boring and have no place in a pickup game). As such, it is an important part of the revelation that time is running out.

Some Twists
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Final Showdown
There are a lot of ways to run the climactic fight scene, but there always needs to be something that sets it apart from just a normal fight scene. This may be some environmental element, something distinctive about the opposition, or almost anything else, all with the underlying tension of what happens if the players fail.

And there’s the real kicker – in any other fight, there is a simple tension tied to the character’s health, but the stakes are higher in the climax. If they lose, something specific and bad is going to happen, and it’s going to be all their fault. No pressure though.

As a rule of thumb, you don’t want the terrible thing to be the end of the world unless you’re very confident in your players. Failure is not something we want to see happen, but most failures have the option of creating future adventures. If the Giant Robot is activated despite the heroes’ efforts, then it means that at some point there will be an adventure to stop the rampaging giant robot. When you destroy the world, it’s kind of hard to go anywhere from there (unless you want to take the cheap Hollywood out of temporarily being able to rewind time!).

With the consequences in mind, it’s time to get the ball rolling. Now, it’s possible that the final showdown is some other sort of contest, like a race. If so, the tension is usually coming from the stakes. The only drawback with doing something other than a fight scene is that since this is the climax, everyone should have something to do, and more specialized scenes rarely allow this.

To spice up the fight it’s time to look at your characters. At least a few of the opponents should be suited to the player’s area of expertise. If you have a big, strong character, consider a big, strong opponent; if you have a flying character, consider a flying opponent; and so on.

The tricky part of this is that you don’t want to do that for every character all the time – otherwise it feels like Battle of the Doppelgangers. The best thing to do is look at the big challenge of the scene and figure which characters are most capable of handling it, and then come up for dance partners for the people you feel will be a bit left out.

Here’s a little bit of a trick: come up with a few more detailed opponents than you’ll need. When you see how the fight is going, you can note which characters are at loose ends and zero in on them.

There are a few other tricks and traps to be aware of.

If you have a big main villain, make sure he’s not left in a situation where all the players can gang up on him, since he’ll go down too fast. Give him minions, mobility or some other advantage that can be picked away at, so that he feels like a more substantial challenge.
Use the environment to kill off NPCs you don’t want to track any more. If the characters nail a guy hard enough that one more hit will drop him, rather than just keep him around for bookkeeping purposes, have him be the guy who falls into the lava or is eaten by the pursuing monster. It emphasizes the dangers of the environment and saves you headaches. It also establishes precedent for when the main villain takes a similar plunge later.
Try not to kill any important character, be they PC or NPC, onscreen. Characters coming back from certain doom is a staple of pulp, so such questionable deaths are to be expected.
Whatever reason required the players to get to the showdown in a hurry can still be in effect. Adding a countdown happening during an existing fight can ratchet up the tension drastically. However, it can also trap you. The last thing you want is a literal countdown, since the numbers are a fixed effect. Instead you want to have physical cues that indicate that things are getting worse. Waters rise, ancient statues begin to move and so on. These sorts of cues allow the GM to dramatically indicate things are getting worse, but without nailing yourself to a specific timeframe.
Some Final Showdowns
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Breakneck Escape
Not every game will include a breakneck escape. Traditionally, it’s that flight for life as the enemy’s headquarters blow up behind you or the volcano erupts. How necessary it is for the story has a lot to do with how exciting the climax was. If everyone clearly had a good time with the climax, then the escape can pretty much get hand-waved. If there’s a little more excitement to be squeezed out of the evening, then some attention should be spent on the escape.

A good, convincing escape can be hard to run, simply because this is a stupid place to kill a character. Instead, you need to put something else at risk, so there is a possibility of loss without killing off a character. Escape should be dangerous, but the real danger should be to the thing or person they are taking with them.

Example Escapes
Note that there are fewer example escapes than other scenes, because many of the climaxes didn’t demand an escape.

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Wrapping Up
Once you’ve finished the session, wrap up should be brief, but should make it clear that the characters’ heroism is appreciated and that they made a real difference. The rewards of pulp are not in treasure or money, but it’s not purely in the moral satisfaction either. Not every adventure ends in accolades, but if it’s appropriate, make sure that the characters get recognized for their deeds.

Pulling it all Together
Long as that explanation was, it’s an easy model to apply. Just a line or two of notes for each element are enough to form the basic framework. And remember, just as you can have the player characters created on the fly, you can have your villains created on the fly, too – just write down a few salient points and don’t sweat the details until you need them.

So What’s Wrong With It?
Having this sort of structure easily on hand is a useful tool. But it can also be a boat anchor around your neck. A planned plot is only useful so far as you can get the players to buy into it. Continuing to stick to a plot after it’s gone off the rails can lead to a host of problems, not the least of which are frustration and boredom.

Structured plots are a good place to start… But to really shine, you’ve got to learn the skills of guided improvisation. And that is where our next method comes in.

9.1.2 The Aspected Pickup Game: Improvising Like a Pro
So you only have about twenty minutes to prepare for the session, the pizza is on the way, and you’re staring at the PC’s character sheets wondering what on earth you’re going to do with tonight’s gaming. Suddenly, just before you’ve resigned yourself to a place in GM Hell, an idea strikes – brilliant, masterful, worthy of the greats. You structure it out and chart it quickly, jot down major elements, bask in the glow of certainty, and wear that evil grin all the way to the table when your players arrive.

Play happens. Suddenly, after an hour of the players just being there, the structure of your plot is shot into so many pieces that you don’t recognize what’s going on anymore. It apparently doesn’t matter that session you planned is just that damn good – sometimes things just don’t fall your way.

When structure fails you, it can be useful to step back and think of the game as the story of the characters. That seems simple enough, but consider the implication: just like the protagonists of a book or movie, the most interesting story is wherever they are, and is the story best suited to these characters in particular.

Fortunately, your players have already given you tools to make it easy for you to determine what needs to be important in an adventure, what they want to see in the game, what to hang and hook conflicts around, and what elements you can include to make them feel like the story belongs to them.

These tools are called aspects. Your players put them on the character sheet for a reason. Now it’s time for you to use them.

Basic Assumptions
This approach requires a few basic assumptions on your part as the GM, so let’s get them out of the way now:

It is not necessary for you to know how anything is going to turn out for you to run a good session, and in fact, better stories can (and often do) result when you have no preconceived ideas in that regard. This includes the outcome of any conflict or decision the players make, what scene is going to conclude the adventure, and everything in between. Cooperative effort will be necessary to make the thing work. That’s good.
The use of aspects, whether to invoke or compel, is one of the key methods in this game to add “weight” to any decisions made, and is therefore one of the key methods to create drama and tension during play.
The more that a given session of play involves moments where aspects are invoked or compelled in response to or because of a decision, the more inherently interesting it is. Play is boring when nothing is really at stake.
Whatever the players are interested in is more important and better than anything you came up with. If your ideas are so good that player input ruins them, you should be writing novels instead of playing roleplaying games.
None of these principles should be applied in extremes. If you do have some kind of great idea to throw into the adventure, you can probably work it in so long as it doesn’t violate any of the basic tenets above.
Making the Plot
When you’re making an adventure up the aspected way, you’re not going to be making up an entire plot. You may have a firm idea about how you want to kick things off, but after that, you need to be prepared for the adventure to branch off in any number of directions.

What you do need to do, however, is pick the aspects on each of the player’s sheets that you want to meaningfully incorporate into the adventure.

Usually, one or two per PC will more than suffice, though you may want to pick more if you have a few solid days scheduled to play the pickup game. These aspects, once you select them, are going to form the basis for your adventure’s focus – they’ll determine what the central adventure seed is, what types of decisions the players will have to make, and what context you can draw from when you have to pull things out of your rear end.

Let’s take an example. Suppose you have a two-person player group (we’ll call their characters John and Jane), and one aspect from each of them really catches your eye: John has an aspect of Loyal Like a Dog, and Jane has an aspect of Keeps Her Past a Secret (keep in mind that as the GM, you’ll know what that past is from character creation). An adventure that revolves around these two aspects might do the following:

Create a situation where John’s loyalty is not necessarily the best way to solve a problem, or one where in order to accomplish something important, he may have to betray one of his friends.
Create a situation in which revealing something of Jane’s past is the key to resolving a problem without severe consequences, and she has to choose whether or not her secrets are more important than suffering those consequences.
Thinking about that for a moment, you get an idea for an adventure seed: A former partner of Jane’s in a shady business dealing from her past is using the finances gained from it to fund the robotics research of a mad scientist, so that he can use the robotic creations to hold Washington D .C. for ransom. If he isn’t stopped from buying the last few components the scientist needs and isn’t exposed to the law, he will create a reign of terror that will paralyze the whole country.

Obviously this presents an issue for Jane – she could come forward and testify to what she knows about her former partner directly, but the proof would reveal her participation as well, damage her reputation, possibly cost her friends, get her in potential legal trouble, and give her enemies leverage over her.

How do we work this into an issue for John? Simple enough – if someone John trusts is investigating the situation, he may ask John to look into Jane’s potential involvement in the matter. If Jane knows about this investigation, obviously she could cover it up however she wants, so discretion becomes paramount. Suddenly, issues for John come up to the fore. Does his loyalty for his friend Jane outweigh his devotion to justice? If he does find evidence implicating her, will his loyalty allow him to use her to stop what’s going on?

Between resolving these issues and whatever other confrontations occur between the villains and the PC’s, you’ve definitely got enough material here for a four-hour session.

Decision Points
So, now you know the core of the adventure. What’s next? You still don’t have any idea what’s actually going to happen in the course of play, and you’ve only got ten minutes to go before your house will be filled with wily, structure-killing gamers (gotta love ’em). The next step is to take the elements you thought up and structure them into decision points. These points will focus around an open-ended choice that can’t be ignored and will push the action in a certain direction (for those familiar with Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer, these are, indeed, “bangs”). The decision points should make use of the seed material. Be sure to keep most of them flexible enough that they could be introduced into the adventure at any time, and don’t predetermine any outcomes.

Going back to our example, we can immediately see some decision points that need to happen:

At some point, the true identity of the bad guy ( Jane’s partner) will have to be revealed, probably as the crux of the adventure, leaving Jane stuck with the choice of how to deal with it. This might best be accomplished through a clandestine meeting where he taunts her, warning her to stay out of his way unless she wants to bring herself down too.
At some point, another investigative party (like an informant, cop, or contact) will inform John of their suspicions regarding Jane, pressing the urgency of the situation upon him, and ask him to snoop on her secretly. John will have to decide whether he’s going to do that or not, if he’s going to tell Jane, etc.
These two decision points alone will spin off into a potential group of scenes. If John goes straight to Jane, they may decide to work together to root out what the precise connection is to Jane’s past and reveal the villain that way. If they choose to keep secrets from each other, there will be a little cat and mouse as John tries to get Jane away from her house and office long enough to snoop. That other investigative party might provide some harassment for Jane as he pursues his own motives. Jane might try and find a way to alter the evidence that links her to the villain. Lots of stuff.

But it may not be enough. Here are some more, off the top of your genius head:

Robots descend into the street when the characters are present, unstable prototypes of the mad scientist. They get involved in a brawl with local cops and start wreaking havoc. Do the characters intervene? The cops will probably be able to handle it themselves, and it’d keep them in a low profile, but some people could die and the cops would likely take away all the evidence of the attack. If the characters fight the robots directly, they could potentially get in trouble for any collateral damage, and it would inform the villain that the characters are in town. This is the kind of scene that’s great to open an adventure.
The characters discover that the research company that the mad scientist is getting technical equipment from is also involved in humanitarian efforts, providing certain important pharmaceuticals to hospitals in need. If an NPC is involved in helping them get this info, he or she will beg the characters not to make the company’s involvement public, claiming that there was no way the company could know better. Can the characters afford to implicate the company if it means that they could get shut down? Can they risk being caught if they selectively alter the evidence? Is that justice?
The villain offers to demand something of great value to a PC (perhaps relevant to another aspect) as part of his ransom, and he genuinely doesn’t want to see what the full potential of the robots are – he’s just a businessman, and he wants his money. He is genuine about his offer, and will accede to demands from the characters if they leave him and his ransom demand alone. The mad scientist may have other plans, so it’ll still come to a showdown, but it gives the player a chance to decide whether or not his character really does have a price…
What Happens in Play
So there it is – all the material you need for a successful night’s adventuring. Start with a bang-up opening scene, get into a decision point, and run whatever scenes are necessary to explore the consequences of the choices made. Mix more decision points in whenever you need to and continue riffing off of them, and you’re guaranteed at least a whole evening of play. Even better, because those scenes all rebound off decisions the PC’s have made, the episode will definitively be “about” them in a way that no preplotted adventure structure can be, even at its most flexible. Because you have nothing predetermined, the outcomes will surprise and entertain you, and the stories will be full of unexpected character development and thematic weight.

Getting Decision Points into Scenes
So this is all well and good, but how do introduce new decision points into play? If you’re chaining a whole group of scenes off of one decision, do you need to introduce more if there’s a good momentum going?

Emphatically, no you don’t. Don’t get married to the idea of including everything you’ve come up with in the session – a lot of decision points you come up with may be rendered irrelevant by the action of play or simply be extraneous in the middle of all the action you have going on. Often, with a proactive group, you may only need one or two major decisions per character to fill the night with scenes.

In the end, pulp is about action. If you have action going on, roll with it! But, if the pace starts to flag or the events of the first decision point resolve more quickly than you expected, introduce a new one. The easiest way to do this is through NPCs – no matter what, people will always respond to people better than they’ll respond to other stimuli. People the character is connected to, with a strong need and the will to pursue that need, are often all you require to push decision points. What if a PC has a rivalry with a cop on the scene when the robots attack? What if the person who wants to spare the research company is a doctor friend of a PC? What if the villain was in love with Jane back then?

It also might help you to restructure more traditional adventure scene goals (break in here, defeat these guards, make this investigation roll, etc .) to be the beginning for a decision point scene instead of the end. Instead of spending all your time trying to figure out if the characters are going to get their hands on the smoking gun, drop it in their laps with one bullet left in it and a villain who just torched their friends/lovers/parents/children. Justice or vengeance?

That’s the kind of pressure that will get you stories.

Avoid Dithering with Pacing and Structure
Often, going with this method will require you to be very flexible with overall plot structure, as reacting to decisions may not net you an adventure in the traditional “beginning-middle-end” format. But you know what? That’s okay, as long as everyone’s having a good time. On the other hand, you don’t want to create a situation where scenes get muddled from one to the next and the pace drags on because of a lack of proactivity. This is pulp, for God’s sake. Things have to keep happening. Do not let your session dither. If you’ve only got four hours on a Tuesday night to play and you’re still unraveling initial plot complications during the third hour, you’re probably going too slowly. Take the dulled wits and bleary nods from your players as a sign.

Remember, as the GM, you are in complete control of when scenes transition from one to the next, what the actual decisions are that have to be made, and how much pressure gets applied by NPCs or in-game situation to move things along. You’re still in control of a lot, and like a smart movie editor, you need to know how to frame scenes, which is talked about in more detail later in this chapter (see page XX).

Luckily, a lot of the basics of scene framing happen by instinct – people have a tendency to subconsciously structure things, and the general anatomy of a story is something practically hardwired into our brains by now. When things start to bog down, though, it’s your job to kick your game into gear. Your power to frame scenes is paramount to establishing pace (see page XX for more).

For this reason, the adventure structure provided earlier can still be useful to you in this method. Taken as a general example of how stories go, it can give you a good hint on what kind of scene you’re going to be running at what point in the evening. If the game ends at midnight, and the villain gets unmasked at 11:30, it’s time to enter the push toward the final showdown – take whatever decisions get made at that point, and raise the consequences appropriately. Haven’t unmasked the villain at 11:45? Do so in the next scene. Make him a little careless. Bring in the final showdown, lights and guns blazing. It’s 10:30? That last decision point might be a great springboard for you to introduce your Big Plot Twist. Keying into these kinds of things can lend a little structure to your sessions and cast the whole thing into a sense of the familiar, despite the fact that you don’t know what the scenes are going to be.

Long-Term Play
All this advice can be applied in a larger scale also, if you’re looking to run a whole series of adventures. With ten aspects per character and an average of three to four players in a group, you have plenty of material to thread a long-running series together that makes those characters matter. If you want to spread the love further, you can deliberately center individual adventures on the aspects of a couple of PC’s who become your “stars” for that storyline. Players usually won’t mind this kind of focusing if they’re confident that they’ll also get their time in the spotlight.

9.1.3 The Dynamic Pickup Game: Set ’Em Up and Knock ’Em Down
The Dynamic game is a little looser than the Structured game from above, but it has a tighter framework and more narrative thrust (i.e., deliberate plot structure) than the Aspected game. Designing it is still pretty procedural, but it depends a lot on the GM being able to set the balls in motion, and keep track of where they go.

Set Up the Board
Step One: What is the Hook?
A dynamic game begins with a central hook. It might be a thing, like a valuable treasure or a trade secret. It could be a person, like a traveling billionaire, a famous diva or a brilliant scientist. It might even be a place, like an opera house on opening night, or a just-disturbed gravesite. What it is doesn’t matter, what does matter is what people want with it. <Example>
Step Two: Who Wants It?
The next thing you need is an NPC. The best choice for the first NPC is the character you expect to be the villain of the piece. That character has an interest in the hook. Maybe they want to steal it, maybe they want to destroy it. The why, will be answered in the next question.

“Who” does not always need to be one person. It may be a group, such as an organization, or perhaps an interested individual and his lieutenant. These secondary characters usually are just extensions of the motives of the main character. <Example>

Step Three: What is He Going to Do With It?
Ask yourself, if no-one got in the way, and nothing went wrong, what is the NPC going to do with the hook? What’s their plan?

Bear in mind, when you answer this question, you’re really looking in the medium term. In the short term, they’ll be doing whatever they can to get (or protect or destroy or eat or whatever) the hook, and in the long term, they’ll have applied whatever it is they did with the thing and started using it towards their ultimate goal. The medium term plan is what they’re going to have to do to bridge that gap.

Note, sometimes what the character plans and what the actual consequences are not the same thing in all cases. Thieves stealing something dangerous to sell, but instead being inflicted with a terrible curse, is a great example of how this can go wrong. <Example>

Notice that because plans are medium term, the result is very rarely something so extreme as “and then I rule the world”. Instead, it focuses on a step in the process towards ruling the world.

Step Four: Is That Enough?
If you think you’ve got enough to start things going, then rock on. If not, go back to step two and come up with a new NPC, and answer questions two and three. Keep doing this until you feel you have a sufficiently dynamic situation and a clear picture of what’s going on.

In these subsequent steps, take a moment to consider the characters’ aspects. If they have any aspects for appropriate NPCs, this is a great time to bring them in. Barring that, take a look over the aspects and see if you can bring in NPCs whose plans or motives are going to resonate with those aspects. <Example>

Look at the Big Picture
Once you’ve complicated the mix enough, you should have several potentially competing threads. Each participant has their own goal, and it’s very unlikely that they can all get what they want. At the same time, the competing goals should suggest a matrix for how the story would work itself out if no one else got involved. Stop and take a moment to think about how you would see this playing out if the players never got involved. <Example>

Get the Ball Rolling
Once you’ve looked at the big picture, it should suggest the direction the narrative is going at the point when the players get involved. Figure out where the players enter into the situation, and then simply start having events play out. When players do take action, consider the consequences of their actions, and whether or not it increases the likelihood of one or another of the desired outcomes.

Players may end up supporting one of the NPC’s goals, but the GM needs to be prepared for them bringing the situation to an entirely different conclusion. <Example>

Plan It Out
Give a little bit of thought to the likeliest outcomes. You’re not obliged to make any of these happen, but these are the things the NPCs will be actively working to make happen, so there should at least be a decent chance of it occurring. <Example>

Sketch It Out
If it makes it easier, imagine the hook as a small sphere. Each interested NPC has an arrow running through the sphere from their name to their goal. With multiple hooks in play, each character may have multiple arrows. Use this map to keep you aware of what’s going on with the characters you bring into a scene at any point. <Example>

Play It Out
You’ve thought it through enough. Now get cracking!

Was it Enough?
Ok, so, the pacing didn’t go quite right, and you finished the first chain of events too quickly. You need to do more and you need to do it quickly. No problem at all! Start with the goal that was successfully achieved, whatever it was – that is the new hook. Some of the same characters are probably still interested, but some will probably have dropped off the map. Replace them with new interested parties until you’ve rebuilt the model. With a few minutes’ break, you should be ready to go all over again. <Example>

It doesn’t hurt to think about these potential outcomes, but don’t get too attached. The one thing they don’t account for is the goal achieved by the characters if they do something entirely unexpected. Thankfully, the same model can be used: look at what the characters accomplished, and use it as the hook for the next setup. <Example>

Expanding and Contracting the Model
It’s worth noting that this tends to assume complex, multi-motivational situations. That’s great for establishing things, but as you move out to secondary hooks, feel free to loosen up a bit, and make the sole obstacle to the goal something simple, like a temple full of death traps.

Alternately, you can complicate the path to the hook. If the hook is not immediately accessible, interested parties may need to go through one or more intervening steps before they can interact with the hook. For example, there may be a temple deep in the jungle as the hook for multiple groups, but there are still the dangers of the jungle to get through before that is ever an issue. This allows you to combine the dynamic factors coming from active, agenda driven NPCs with more traditional problems.

Like dinosaurs.

The Bottom Line
Each of these approaches to running a pickup game have been presented to you in a pure form – and you could certainly pick any one choice and run a great, solid pickup game using it. But your real ninja power as a GM is going to come from putting all of them in a big blender and turning it on to puree.

The structured pickup game provides a good, default set of bones for any adventure. This makes it the ideal fall-back position if the other two strategies are running dry on you. And any dynamic pickup game is going to be stronger if you take the aspected perspective on it, and work your aspectbased decision points into it.

Think of this as a hammer, screwdriver, and wrench. Each tool has a particular function that it’s especially good at, but without all three, your toolbox just isn’t complete.

9.2 Keeping it Pulpy
Pulp is exactly the right kind of genre for a pickup game because it’s so damn simple. Pulp isn’t complicated. Good is generally good, bad is generally bad, science and good intentions fix the world’s ills, and evil can be defeated with determination and two swinging fists.

This isn’t to say your pulp scenarios can’t have some complexity here and there – everyone loves a good mystery now and again – but pulp really starts to sing when it builds a kind of crazy, tumbling-ever-forward momentum. A good pulp game session should leave the players feeling like they were desperately scrambling all over the surface of some monolithic vehicle hurtling with great determination at a very tall, very unsympathetic wall – and managed, somehow, to pull it all together at the last minute.

To say it another way, great pulp games are nearly always some kind of a race – against a clock, against distance, against an opponent. Everything is in motion, and conclusions – coming right at you – are inevitable. When your players cross the finish line, it should be with the same panting elation of a runner who came in first by the skin of his teeth thanks to a desperate last-minute sprint.

Some GMs can manage this just by exercising the techniques they’ve already honed, but many of us are not so blessed. This chapter’s already given a number of ideas for how to run your game such that you’ll have room to create the kind of experience we’re talking about. Here we’ll focus on techniques that directly address the idea of the “race”.

9.2.1 Staying Action-Oriented
Action is the proud beating heart of adventure fiction. It’s the GM’s job to see that that heart never skips a beat. Read on, fair GM, and learn the true tempos of your pulp game’s heart.

Put Them on the Clock
There’s nothing like a clock for keeping your game’s metronome regular. Whether you’re running a pickup game or a longer series, you’ve already got one clock going – the length of real time for the session. You should already have a concern for making sure that you pack in enough events and interest in the bounds of that clock’s timeframe, but here, we’re talking about something else.

We’re talking, instead, about the in-game clock – something which the characters should always hear ticking away over their shoulder, hounding them. In-game time pressure is vital to encouraging an ongoing action atmosphere. No situation that needs the players to act should come up without having some sort of time limit on it before dire consequences shall befall the dawdler. <Example>

As a GM, you should tune your ear to the sound of this clock, and move quickly to renew it whenever the sound falls silent. The tension in a dramatic scene should never fall slack; if it does – put them on the clock! Your players could use the occasional nudge to get going; they may be inclined to sit around and talk rather than take action – put them on the clock!

Provide Plenty of Cues and Clues
You may think you’ve given the players all the clever hints and subtle cues necessary to solve the riddle and get to the heart of the matter … but they’re sitting there looking unsure of what to do, or asking all the questions that aren’t on target. The game is, in essence, paralyzed. Why did it happen?

Unfortunately, it’s likely you only have yourself to blame. If all those questions the players are asking are off-target, it’s very likely because you didn’t make the target big enough. If they’re sitting around and unsure of what actions they can or should take, you probably didn’t give them enough cues as to what their options are.

We’re not saying that you shouldn’t leave the field open for players to pursue whatever agendas they want to – because after all the characters are the big focus of the game. But when players stop having somewhere to go (and whether or not that’s true from your perspective is irrelevant if it’s effectively true from theirs), it’s because you didn’t show them what the destinations were. Show them.

Pulp plots have a certain inevitability baked right in. This is not the same as saying they’re built to “railroad” the players. Rather, each step that is taken should naturally reveal the shape of the next ones available. In a vacuum, players will follow that shape, so long as it’s clear enough to be recognizable. <Example>

If you’re putting together a mystery in a pulp game, for example, then you must make sure that there’s more than one way to solve it. You should also exercise a broad tolerance for wacky solutions that the players come up with (but we’ll get more into that below), or letting them pursue some side-threads before getting back to the main one (if it seems to be dragging the game off course, however, make sure you’ve put the main thread on the clock, as above).

This goes back to what we said just a little bit earlier. The targets you put into the story need to be big enough – big enough to be noticed and to suggest a course of action, and big enough to be hit if someone’s trying to come at it from any number of directions. Paralysis arises from a simple lack of the obvious. Don’t be afraid of the obvious – it’s part of pulp. Provide plenty of cues and clues, and your players will move ever forward.

Embrace Crazy Plans and Schemes
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” — General George Patton
The General may as well have been talking about pulp when he said that. Players are going to be more likely to take an action-oriented approach if they feel like they aren’t going to be penalized for less-than-perfect plans. Be understanding of flaws and be willing to gloss over them in the interests of fun and entertainment.

Even if you can see several holes in a plan, don’t go taking advantage of those holes right off. Villains can have blind spots; they’re not perfect either. Jeopardize the holes, certainly, to increase the drama, but don’t go after them to the point of unraveling the plan. If it’s even halfway decent (and especially if it’s violent or involves characters taking some kind of crazy risk), then it’s going to make for a solid, entertaining element of the story. Support their plan – like it – and be glad to be a part of it!

Encourage Action over Contemplation
Sitting around and thinking about things can be the death of pulp. The characters are men and women of action.

When given the choice among “thinky/ talky”, and “smashy”, smashy wins!

This is not to say that the thinky/talky side of things shouldn’t get its screen time. The world of pulp is also the land of strange technologies that need examining, ancient inscriptions that need deciphering, and powerful delegates that need schmoozing. But each of those is only half of a pulp situation, never its whole. Strange technologies that need examining can come to life, attacking all in the lab! Indecipherable inscriptions that need deciphering unlock tombs chock full of death traps! And powerful delegates that need schmoozing are the targets of sinister assassins!

Dropping action into the middle of an otherwise contemplative scene can liven up the game, keeping things jumpy and in motion. Don’t be shy about doing it. But do be shy about doing it when characters are interacting with each other excitedly. The idea here is to encourage action over contemplation – not to mandate it. A good social scene where everyone’s chewing the scenery is fantastic – you don’t want to nip that in the bud by any means. What you do want to prevent is the spiral from that point towards things which are less interesting. Stay sensitive to the nature and pace of the conversation, and when it starts slowing down, make sure that action awaits.

When the thinky or talky side of things comes up, you should still make sure it’s valuable. If the players have created characters who are eminent scholars and scientists, or people well-connected in the halls of power, they should get every chance to make use of those skills. But these sorts of examinations, discoveries, and conversations should be abbreviated where possible, and should always give quick rise to potentials for action. They can be the glue that holds together two pieces of action, but without those two pieces, they are glue best kept in the bottle.

It boils down to this: when in doubt, fill out the second half of something thinky or talky with something dynamic, exciting, and pregnant with the potential for violence – something smashy! Encourage action over contemplation. <Example>

Allow Two Fists to Solve What Ails Us
Part and parcel of accepting the action principle of pulp is embracing the idea that two swinging fists (and a mug full of raw determination and good intent) are enough to get through just about any situation. In pulp, violence works as a solution.

Some of this idea overlaps with the action over contemplation principle. If someone is struggling with something thinky or talky, it’s appropriate to give them something they can smash to get their answers (provided that the group is otherwise stymied with the less violent approaches). This also means that the characters shouldn’t face problems that are impossible to fight. Pulp is simple, and occasionally players will want to dive into the simplest solutions, and hitting something until it stops doing the bad thing is really, elementally simple.

There are, of course, complications to this. Should you allow swinging fists to solve the problem of the snooty bureaucrat? Well, no (even if it does make the character feel better). What we’re talking about here is the use of fists (and guns, and weapons) against the big problems of the adventure. If a giant monster is trying to eat your apartment, you can fight it to solve the problem. If a vastly powerful mathemagician has run off with your girlfriend and plans to incant dark equations that will siphon off her life force – your guns will be proof against his evil.

In pulp, when the cards are down, and the big doom is upon us, violence doesn’t beget violence – violence begets victory. Allow two fists to solve what ails!

When All Else Fails… Send in the Ninjas
Games will inevitably stagnate at some point or another, no matter how much effort is put into heading off that undesirable eventuality. Leads will get exhausted, players will get frustrated with puzzles, and nobody will come up with a good, crazy plan to save the day. There’s only one thing you could possibly do in such a situation.

Send in the ninjas.

Seriously. Send in the ninjas.

For one, a good sudden explosion of violence gives you time, as a GM, to think, and gives everyone else something to do too, what with all the pointed sticks and knives and poison darts and kung-fu fists and feet flying at their heads.

For two, the ninjas will inevitably fall before the derring-do of the heroes, and then they’ll have someone to interrogate. By this time you’ll have used the combat time to figure out where to send folks next.

Naturally, the captured ninja in question will only offer enough information after a good Intimidate roll (okay, if you’re at this point, really, any Intimidate roll) to point the characters as to where and what to do next, before the cyanide capsule he has under his tongue dissolves and kills him, or a more talented villain nearby puts an arrow through his heart, but by that time, he’s said enough, and the game is back on a roll.

Naturally you don’t always have to dress the ninjas up like ninjas. Sometimes they’ll be the shambling undead. Sometimes they’ll dress up in pin-stripe suits and carry tommy guns and say things like “youse guys” and “fuggedaboudit” instead of “kii-yah!” and “you want to fight – fight me!” But make no mistake, though their costumes and customs may be different, you are dropping ninjas onto the party, and it’s time to go to town.

But beware! Use the power of the ninjas carefully. There is such a thing – though we know you may doubt it! – as too many ninjas. Overuse of this technique leads to players getting wise to it real fast, and one too many fights of this nature can start to feel like hollow or meaningless victories. Try the other things we’ve talked about first, but when all else fails… send in the ninjas.

Slightly More Subtle Ninjas
There’s one trick to remember with the ninjas, or whatever else you send in. Players can get pretty accustomed to threats to themselves. Nothing is more frustrating than having some gun toting mooks come in through the door, get creamed, and have the players go back to studying their navels.

When this is a concern, the trick is to have the ninjas bust in on someone else! The players may be blasé about attacks on themselves, but if the ninjas attack the shoeshine guy at the corner that’s suddenly a challenge and a mystery! Can they save the guy in time? And even if they can, why are ninjas after him?

9.2.2 Good Cliche, Bad Cliche
There’s a hearty embrace of cliché which, while not necessary, can go a long way to making an adventure feel like it’s a “pulp” adventure. One thing you can do to help this out is to add a twist.

Once you’ve thought up a reasonable explanation for events, add one more layer. Don’t make things more complicated. Instead, make them more colorful. If your story involves gangsters, consider making them zombie gangsters, kung fu gangsters, gangsters with freeze rays, gangsters led by a talking gorilla, or anything else that comes to mind. In most games, you would not want to overuse this sort of thing, but for pulp, it’s encouraged.

9.2.3 NPCs on the Fly
When you need to introduce a new character, simply start with a blank character sheet and fill in a few critical pieces of data – their best skill, a stunt or two, the aspects that jump out at you as most important – and leave the rest blank. When a situation arises where the NPC needs to roll a skill or use an aspect you haven’t written down, go ahead and write it down in one of the blank slots, then roll appropriately. This results in NPCs getting fleshed out over time without needing to invest a lot of time or effort up front.

9.2.4 R-E-S-P-E-C-T
A lot of games center on a ragtag band who exist in the grey area outside of society where they live a life of danger and adventure. This is only half true for characters. They get the danger and adventure, certainly, but they are also firmly within the bounds of society. They are storied individuals, and the people they meet are going to develop opinions of them over time, both good and bad.

Two things are true of the player’s characters – they are heroes (we hope) and they are very good at what they do. That should merit a certain amount of respect from the NPCs they deal with.

Now, a certain amount of fawning and sycophancy is to be expected. The characters get invited to all the best parties and will always have people wanting to bend their ear because they’re presumed to be well connected, but that’s admiration, not respect. Some players really enjoy that, so feel free to heap it on, but respect is a rarer, more valuable gift for characters. Respect only really matters when it’s coming from people who understand what you do. The world may recognize that Maggie Honor is a brilliant engineer, but that doesn’t mean as much as when Dr. Avenarius Herborn pauses for just a moment, impressed by her latest creation. When Diego McKinnon cows a group of thugs, that’s no great thing, and it’s nothing compared to when a hot up and coming gunslinger shows a tiny bit of quiver of fear in his voice when he speaks because this is Sky Freakin’ Hobo!

Opponents, rivals and peers should be aware of what players do, and should be respectful of it. One way this manifests is that opponents will plan based on you being awesome, and try to take it into account. Traditionally, this is done by the villain doing something cheesy that completely devalues the characters’ strengths. This is lame and almost insulting. The villain should provide a check against the character, not simply overwhelm him.

<Example>
One thing to note: all of the cheesy options are valid adventure hooks if, and only if, they are the central hook of the adventure. Depriving Diego of his Hobo Harpoon is fine for the adventure about Diego needing to cross a war zone on foot to get back to his jet pack, but depriving it for the adventure about Dr. Avenarius Herborn’s attempt to split pi is just lame.

This may seem like a lot of space for a very small thing, but please remember it. When characters get a little bit of the respect that they feel their characters deserve, it’s a big payout for the players.

9.2.5 Deathtraps and Other Dooms
Sometimes the characters will be faced with situations where the potential for a lethal outcome is clear - fights on the edge of a bottomless chasm, crossing a field full of artillery fire, trapped in a building with a big bomb – that sort of thing. Certainly, if the character were to fall into the chasm, get hit by an artillery shell, or be caught in the explosion, it would be the end for them.

As a rule of thumb, try to never put a character in a situation where it is “make this roll or die”. Instead, have the threat affect the contest in other ways – an artillery shell landing nearby should scatter the combatants, not decimate them. A nearby hazard like a bottomless crevasse provides color to descriptions, and is best used as an aspect for the scene.

All that said, while you should go out of your way to try to keep these things from bringing about an arbitrary death, sometimes characters do die, and when that time comes, let it happen with dignity, and help the player get his next character started as quickly as possible. A little heartless? Yes, but it’s necessary – if death is entirely impossible, the game shifts from pulp to being a full on cartoon.

9.2.6 Information Management
Information management: what does that mean? Consider for a second that as a GM, you know a lot. You’ve read the whole book, you’ve got some notes, you have solid ideas of what makes the various NPCs tick. You’ve got information that you probably haven’t even thought about yet, that you just think of as logical extensions of what you know. As a GM, one of your most important jobs is making sure that that information flows steadily towards the players – too little and they may grow frustrated, too much and they’ll get overwhelmed.

The trick of this is that you need to control the quality of the information the players receive. This is partly about interest level – if you read a passage straight from a textbook, don’t expect a lot of interest – but it is more about how you expect the information to be used. Practically speaking, there are two types of information, color and drama.

Color
A lot of information is going to provide color. Most descriptions and explanations are color. Color is most important to maintaining the feel of the world – if you don’t provide things like descriptions, play begins to resemble little more than a board game. On the other hand, if there’s any kind of information you’re liable to provide too much of, it’s probably going to be color. There’s no one way to do color right, but there are a few guidelines.

Scenes
The first is to realize that people don’t need all the details to fill in the appropriate ones. If you describe a narrow alley between two brownstones, a lot of players will fill in things like windows and fire escapes, maybe even trash cans and litter without you needing to describe “four by three windows every twelve feet or so, and a rusty fire escape going up to the next floor”.

Improvising Detail
Sometimes players will have a slightly different view of things than you. If this difference is drastic, it may result in them taking an action that doesn’t entirely make sense. When this happens, just ask the player what they expect. If they’re making an assumption that seems entirely unreasonable, you may need to discuss that with them, but if it’s not unreasonable, then it’s an excellent opportunity to suggest to the player that this would be a good use of the editing power of a fate point (page XX). Usually, the player’s expectations are more minor, and usually come in the form of “Is there a ladder here?” The answer to a question like that depends on your response. If you feel the answer is “yes”, or even “no, but there should have been, why didn’t I think of that?” then say yes. If you feel the answer is “no, but while that’s not very likely, it’s not unreasonable” then the answer to give is “I don’t know, is there?” while looking meaningfully at the player’s fate points. It is only if you feel that the request is entirely out of line that your answer should be “No .”

People
As with scenes, don’t try to provide too much detail. Players usually pick one or two things to remember a character by, so try to pick perhaps three elements and describe those. If there’s some other element you need to reveal, work it into the scene, describing it as part of an action the character takes.

A Trick
Find an author whose work you enjoy, and take a moment to look at how they describe things and people. When a new character shows up, how much time does the author spend on the description? How many elements does the author reveal? Every author has a slightly different cadence, but if you can isolate one that you enjoy, you may find that using it to provide your own color makes your life much easier.

Drama
Drama is that information which leads directly to action. The clearest form of drama is the immediate threat – “there’s an axe swinging towards your head, what do you do?” – but there are also discoveries like “This clearly proves the Colonel is the killer. What do you do?” Implicit in any dramatic information is that question: What do you do?

The hardest part about providing such information is remembering that the more immediate the requirement for action is, the better. Consider the second example above – you have proof that the Colonel is the killer. If all the suspects are just milling about waiting for the detectives to come along, then there is no immediacy. The players could sit on the information as long as they like, pursue secondary goals and otherwise generally twiddle their thumbs until they feel like it.

If, on the other hand, the Colonel is already across town, and he’s about to have a private audience with the likely next victim, then the characters must act! Naturally, the Colonel has cut the phone lines, so the players are going to have to race across town to try to catch him at the last moment!

Assuming that the second description is closer to the kind of game you want to run, there are three necessary elements to any dramatic reveal: tension, consequence and clarity.

Tension is required to make sure that a choice must be made now. This usually means that the matter is time sensitive in some way. Tension is also the implicit difficulty of the task at hand. If it can be done casually, there’s no tension to speak of because no choice needs to be made. Tension is what forces the player’s hand, and makes them make a choice.

The most important consequence of any piece of dramatic information is what will happen if the players do nothing. Whatever those consequences are, they should be bad – inaction should always be one of the worst choices that the players can make.

Even if you get the other two elements, they’ll be nothing but frustrating unless you also provide clarity – players must have at least one clear course of action available to them. Without that, the players are reduced to being spectators, which is not where they want to be. Don’t be afraid to be obvious. The clearest course of action may be a simple as “Get over there and keep hitting him ‘til candy comes out!” Even if there are multiple potential courses of action, go out of your way to make sure that the players are aware of at least one with a better outcome than the consequence of doing nothing.

Consequence, Consequence, Consequence
Tension and clarity are usually the easy part of the equation. Tension is usually just an extension of the consequence, and clarity depends mostly on the GM’s ability to communicate. Consequence is really the heart and soul of drama, and as a GM, you are going to need to get a firm grasp on what that means.

The simple yardstick for consequence is how much the players are invested in it. Sounds easy, sure, but what are your players going to invest in? For some players, it’s going to be the same things that their characters are invested in. For others it’s going to be whatever makes for the most interesting story. For others, it will need to be a threat directly to themselves or their stuff.
No one knows your group better than you do, so there’s a limit to how far our advice can take you. Make the decisions that work best for you. Still, in case it’s useful, here are a few tips.

Consequences that are absolute (death and destruction) are usually less potent than more transitory ones (injury and damage). While may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense if you remember that if an NPC dies, it’s very sad, but it is only if they’re badly injured that they can blame the character for what happened to them.
Especially avoid any consequence that will end the game. When you plan a consequence, you must be sure you have a plan for how things will move forward if it comes to pass.
A consequence that makes characters look foolish is surprisingly motivational, especially if you make sure NPCs have long memories.
Remember, consequences don’t always need to be bad. The only thing that needs to be bad is that inaction is the worst option, but that can be highly relative. If a player discovers that he has a winning lottery ticket, but has only 10 minutes to get to the office to turn it in, then you have all the elements you need: tension (only 10 minutes to get across town), consequence (if no action is taken, the player won’t win, but if he succeeds, he’ll get a prize) and clarity (get to the ticket office, and fast!).
Clarity and Choice
Sometimes (almost always, even) a piece of dramatic information will have more than one potential course of action available as a reasonable response. Sometimes the difference is merely one of tactics or appearance, but sometimes the choice needs to be made between multiple options which each have consequences (albeit consequences which are not as bad as doing nothing).
Now, these choices are good opportunities for play all by themselves, but as a GM, these are the moments you want to look for. These are the times when a character’s aspects are at their most meaningful – if they have two choices, and their aspects would lean them towards one over the other, that’s exactly when you roll out a fate point and brandish it casually. If the choice their aspect leans towards is a little tougher, that’s even better.

Getting Blindsided
Players will sometimes outsmart you, or just get crazy lucky. Sometimes you will provide a piece of dramatic information and have all the pieces in place and they will respond in a way that comes completely out of left field, and which undercuts your entire expectation for the scene, perhaps even leapfrogging past any amount of preparation you’ve done. This is insanely frustrating, and the instinct is to immediately invent a reason why they can’t do that so as to force them back on track.

For the love of all that is holy, don’t do it.
If you do this, your players will know. They will. Honest. And they’ll think it sucks because it will feel like you’re punishing them for getting into the game. And they’ll be right.

If this happens, roll with it. You should have a strong enough sense of the motives of the various NPCs in play, their plans and consequences that you should be able to adapt to it. And if you can’t? Don’t sweat it. Take a second, look sheepish, then praise your players. Let them know they did something pretty clever, and have them take a few minutes to grab a drink or a smoke or whatever while you rough up some notes to deal with this. It’ll work out, and by the time they get back, you’ll probably find you’ve been inspired by this turn of events. So there’s your pressure valve: confess to getting caught off guard, step back, look at what’s happened, and you’ll find yourself fueled by this turn of events rather than burned. Your players will get a chance to grin and feel clever out on the back deck while you prepare their next challenge.

Building a Mystery
Now that you have a clear idea of the difference between color and drama, you need to keep it in mind as you play. One of the most frustrating things that can happen in play is that the GM muddles the two, and includes some dramatic information in the midst of a barrage of color and expects his players to “catch on”. This is dirty pool, and it leads to nothing but frustration. Don’t mix these things up. There are always cases which seem like they’re a little bit of both, and handling them can be tricky. The cases you most want to look for are clues and tells.

Tells
Tells are pieces of color information that may seem like dramatic information, but aren’t. They are pieces of information which wave a flag and say “there’s something to investigate here!” without revealing what that something is. Think of them as a bit like a poker “tell” – something’s showing on that guy’s face, but what does it mean? Tells draw in player curiosity without innately satisfying it – until that player then takes action to dig deeper. Therefore, in practice a tell is usually a piece of information about a person or thing which is not immediately apparent to all observers, but which one character discovers. While this information may provide perspective, or be useful in any number of ways, it suggests no course of action (other than saying “there’s a rock to turn over here!”), which is why it stays firmly in the color camp.

<Example>

The line between a tell (color), and drama that the player doesn’t care about, is almost indistinguishable.

<Example>

Tells should be interesting. As color, interest is their only currency, and they may eventually turn some other piece of information into drama rather than color, or it may influence a choice later on. Tells are also a great way for you, as a GM, to test the waters of player interest. In a given situation, if a player picks up four tells, but only pursues two, the ones he pursues are where you want to situate your plot.

Clues
Clues are pieces of information that are dramatic, but which handle tension and clarity differently than usual. Usually, tension exists for the larger situation, rather than for an individual clue. When a character is faced with a complex piece of drama, it is often broken into smaller sections, represented as clues.

<Example>: What's the next (immediate) action of the characters?

The answer to that question is usually “look for clues”, but that’s a fairly meaningless piece of advice. Clues, as discrete pieces of information, must also suggest action, but that action may simply lead to the next clue. This is a very tricky balancing act, but done right, it means that each clue is its own piece of dramatic information. But to look at these clues another way, they all have the same tension and consequence, and they only vary in terms of clarity. Thus, for a mystery, the mystery itself provides the tension and consequence, but not the clarity, while each clue may provide no new consequences or tension, but does provide clarity. This sequence of clues is the chain of evidence.

<Example>
Tells and Clues
Tells should not be clues in their own right, but they can affect the clarity of a clue, by making it clear that there are more options than the obvious. To the player, this distinction may seem almost unnoticeable, but it’s useful for the GM to keep in mind because it’s critical for keeping mysteries framed in such a way that they are neither to easy not or hard to solve.

<Example>

Notice that the tell expanded the options for the clue, but it was the clue itself that suggests the course of action.

Secrets Kill!
Now, bearing in mind that we’ve been talking about mysteries here, at no point have we talked about how to keep information from players. There’s a simple reason for that – it’s a bad idea.

This returns to that core responsibility of the GM as the provider of information, but here is a basic rule of thumb: if there is a piece of information to be found, a player should find it, the only question is when and how. A piece of information in your notes should be treated like a gun introduced in the first act of a play – it’s going to go off sometime before the end. By the same token, if there’s a secret door in the complex, then it is not the player’s responsibility to find it, it is your responsibility to show it to them.

This may seem overly generous, like you’re giving everything to players on a silver platter, but remember that it is the player’s responsibility to act, and to face the consequences of his actions. Rather than hand the results to the players outright, you are giving the players opportunities to act.

How do you make that happen? Stick to the rules of providing drama. As long as there is tension and consequence to make players act, and clarity to provide them a means to act, then you’re good to go.

Gathering Information
When players set out to gather information, be it research, contact or any other means, you need to decide if they’re going to get drama, a clue, or a tell. This is partly influenced by the situation, and partly influenced by your read of player intent.

If the characters already have a dramatic situation, but they’re gathering information because they don’t see the clear path of action, then they should find a tell which helps provide the clarity.

If the characters already have a dramatic situation and they see at least one clear path, but they’re researching to try to find another (or to find another solution entirely) then you make a judgment call. If there is another potential path that you think would be useful for them to see, give them a tell that points to that. If you think the players are grasping at straws, take a moment to assess the situation. It’s possible you’ve been too harsh, and your players are flailing around, looking for an alternative. If you agree, this might be your cue to throw them a rope, and introduce a new option with a tell. Of course, if you think they’re just trying to weasel out of a tough choice, then give them a tell that underlines the forthcoming consequence (your most basic form of clarity is a simple reminder).

The best way to tell which one players are doing is this simple test: Are they trying to simplify a complex situation so that no one has to suffer any consequences ? If so, they’re acting like bureaucrats, not heroes, and you need to emphasize to them that their job is to do the best they can with what they have – not to spin their wheels endlessly worrying about what-ifs.

If the characters are already in a mystery, then they’re probably researching to get more clarity on their clue, so feel free to provide a tell to that end. If, however, characters are gathering information because the players can’t think of anything else to do, then it’s time to throw some drama at them. That’s what they’re here for.

9.3 Testing the Breeze
When you tell a player to pick up the dice, you’re communicating that something is about to happen. In fact, sometimes, the entire point of the roll is to communicate that something is going on far more than to find out how well the character rolled. These are situations were you could just tell the player that they see something, but by first calling for an Alertness or Drive or other roll, you capture their attention. Generally, you can use their roll to indicate how to twist the description. If they roll badly, perhaps something goes wrong, or you couch the data in very obscure terms. If they roll very well, you’re welcome to throw in some extra detail, which may be a clue, or may just be a bit of extra flourish.

<Example>

One important qualifier on testing the breeze – sometimes players will look at a bad roll and feel they need to use aspects or fate points to bump it up. You can discourage them, a simple “Don’t worry about it, I was just checking something” will often suffice. If you don’t want to discourage them, however, take it as a reminder that you need to create an opportunity for that character to earn that FP back as soon as possible.

9.4 Controlling Perspective
Not every GM realizes the importance of controlling the audience’s (i.e., the players’) perspective in a game, but it’s just as important in a roleplaying game as it is in a movie or television show. What you show the players, how you show it to them, when you show it to them, and what you don’t show are all key components in building excitement and story.

The questions of how to manage perspective are nothing short of vital. Here, we’ll give you some answers.

9.4.1 Scene Framing
If you’ve ever played a roleplaying game before, you’ve framed a scene without thinking about it. Even if you’ve never played a roleplaying game before, you’ll frame a scene without thinking about it. The fact that we give it a formal title may disguise how common it is – scene framing is merely what you do when you decide when a scene starts and stops, where it happens, and who’s involved in it. Every time a GM says, “So you’re all sitting in a bar when…” or “So now you get to the villain’s secret hideout…” she’s framing a scene. It’s as simple as establishing the transition for the next piece of game action. The easiest comparison to make is to a film editor, who routinely cuts scenes off and begins others. That’s scene framing, and everyone does it whether or not they realize it.

So, why point it out? Because mindful scene framing is a GM’s primary tool to establish pace in a session of play, especially in a pickup game. When the pace is flagging, it’s the GM’s responsibility to focus everyone on the game and frame the next scene, to keep things moving along as they should in a pulp game, where the action is fast and the “camera” isn’t willing to focus too long on a particular subject if it no longer serves a purpose in play. This can be a rocky road to walk sometimes – one or all of the players may truly enjoy going through all the minute details of their characters’ shopping trips for better equipment. You’re going to have to cater to those preferences, if the whole group exhibits them. If they don’t, however, you’re going to have to take those rolling eyes as a sign that you need to be proactive about framing scenes. How will you know when to move things? Look no further than the next few paragraphs.

Starting Things Off
When you frame the beginning of a scene, you’re typically going to want to start it just before an important piece of action (not necessarily violence) is going to take place. If the characters are going to the villain’s hideout, you don’t want to start describing events in the scene from the moment they leave their apartment unless something important is going to occur then. If Maggie is waiting for a contact to arrive at a rendezvous, you don’t want to start the scene two hours before the contact shows up. This may seem like common sense advice, but it’s something that can trip people up on the fly – it’s easy to fall into a pattern of narrating every block of time the characters spend in play without realizing and chomping up game time with “okay, so you leave the store and start heading back home, and you’re walking down…” kind of material. Keep an eye out for it and cut when necessary to save yourself idle time.

When a Scene is No Longer a Scene
How do you know when it’s time to move on? Well, just about every scene you could envision has a purpose, a moment where you can definitively say that the point of the scene has happened. Usually, this happens after the resolution of some kind of conflict, but that isn’t always the case. If the characters are shopping for equipment, the scene’s purpose is for the characters to find out whether or not they can acquire the gear they want. If they can (or can’t), and they know it, the scene is over – whatever bickering Gerald Carter’s player is doing with the antiques dealer can safely be glossed over. If the characters are trying to figure out the meaning behind an obscure puzzle left at a crime scene, the scene is resolved when they discover (or fail to discover) that clue. If the characters are in a fight, the scene is resolved when that fight’s over and they figure out where to go from there.

Even in purely character-driven scenes, like when Drake’s player wants a scene so he can fail to convince his pursuers how he really converted from being a criminal yet again, that time eventually comes. He’s failed to say what he needs to say, probably milked some fate points out of the GM for good roleplay, shown his true colors, and it’s time to move on. Going into a scene, you have to ask yourself: What’s the point? Why is this scene happening? And when that point occurs, whatever it is, close up loose ends and move on.

Making the Transitions
So you’re sitting in play, the time has come to change scenes, and you’re trying not to ruffle feathers when doing it. How do you frame a scene without abusing your power? How do you avoid stealing a player’s thunder if he’s riffing off some good roleplay?

Well, first rule of thumb is that if it looks like your players are getting into the action at hand, let ’em run with it. Unless you’re totally strapped for time, letting the players revel in immersion or in a particular aspect of setting (no pun intended) isn’t going to do your game any harm. Roll with what they give you. You may find your game enhanced by it. It may not be what you planned, but if they enjoy it, your gaming session is a successful one. And if the NPC interactions are interesting enough, you can always take this as a cue to move decision points around to be initiated by different NPCs than you thought. Your plans are the ones that need to be flexible.

The second rule of thumb is that when you’re in doubt, just ask. Your players know you aren’t a mind reader, and no rule in this book can substitute for honest, direct communication with them. You may be in a place where you’re strapped for time and only have the length of one session to run your adventure. If that’s the case, no one’s going to begrudge you asking, “Hey, guys? Gerald’s got the equipment he wanted… can I go ahead and cut to the next scene?” If you have a player who would begrudge you asking that, it might be time to review his inclusion in your game.

The third rule of thumb is that if you feel the purpose of a scene has been fulfilled but you don’t know what to transition to next, then turn to the players and ask them what they want to do. If you’ve set up your decision points right, or some player has a clear goal in mind, they’re more than likely brimming with ideas about what scene they want to run next. All you have to do is solicit ideas, and you have an instant wealth of scenes you can possibly run.

The fourth rule of thumb is that if there’s any dead air, do something. Are the players not talking anymore, looking at you expectantly or at random details of the room? More than likely, a scene’s gone off its course. Do whatever you have to – bring in a new NPC encounter, ask to frame a new scene, narrate two guys bursting in the door with guns – but under any circumstances, do not let dead air dominate your game time. Your time for making stories is valuable; make sure you make it count.

9.4.2 Camera Work
When it comes right down to it, the GM is the director for her game – or at least the cinematographer – and can deliberately control the “camera” through descriptive techniques. When she takes control of the camera, she’s saying to the audience, “Hey – look over here, right now!” This ability of the GM is powerful juju, and if you juggle and tweak it just right, you can really drive up the excitement level of your game.

To pull off solid camera work, you need to picture yourself as the camera crew, a set of ghostly, invisible people placed within the scene. Each interesting thing in the scene should get a camera on it, and any given set of interesting things should contain all of the characters. If a PC is missing from the list, figure out why – it may be a warning sign that you haven’t given them anything interesting to do (and, thus, there’s nothing interesting to point a camera at around them). Come up with something interesting for them, and include them with a camera.

Sometimes even certain NPCs – usually the big villains of the piece – may get a camera as well, but we’ll get into that a bit more in “Cut Scenes”, below.

<Example>

In the above example, all of this is one larger scene, yes, but each camera’s point of focus can be looked at as a smaller, contained scene of its own. The exchanges Drake spends climbing up the temple needn’t be the same exchanges shared by Gerald and the Sky Hobo.

With this in mind, the GM gets to control which camera is turned on, when. When she wants to focus on what Maggie’s doing, she can run a few exchanges’ worth of Maggie struggling to make it up a rusty scaffold; when she wants to watch Drake and the Sky Hobo wallop cultists, she can do much the same.

In situations like these, it’s important to make sure that each camera gets a healthy chunk of screen time. To put it another way, each camera should get roughly the same amount of time and attention. Here, we’re talking more about real time than in-game time – there’s no formula of exchanges-per-camera to be had. Further, with multiple cameras, the length of real time each camera is “on” should be kept short – a few minutes, perhaps, but not much more than five (or maybe eight or ten).

This sort of camera work should be active and deliberate. Think about the angle something would best be filmed at, and describe it from that perspective. Taking the role of the camera man, talk about zooming in on particular details, pulling back to reveal a vaster whole, or panning over to a new, sudden development. You can even use this method to describe transitions from one camera to the next, showing how the smaller scenes are connected inside of the larger whole.

Nearly always, if an exchange has ended on something that would make a good short-term cliffhanger, it’s time to cut over to the next camera. Other times, it may even be worth it to pause a camera in the middle of an exchange – say, after someone’s made a bad roll – in order to ratchet up the tension.

Bringing this sort of description into full form can give players the immersive sense of starring in a movie, and can go a long way to holding their attention even when it’s not their camera that’s turned on.

<Example>

Solid camera work achieves two primary goals. First, it makes sure all your players get “spotlight” time. (This makes players happy, and happy players make a better game .) Second, it drives the pace of your game within the larger scene. In the end, the high action of pulp is only as exciting as how it is filmed. Film it well.

9.4.3 Cut Scenes
If you’re particularly invested in making your game feel like a movie, consider the idea of using a cut scene. In this context, a cut scene is a short bit of narration by the GM that follows what’s going on with the NPCs without any of the characters present, while the PCs are off doing whatever it is they’re doing.

Most cut scenes should tease about what the NPCs are doing. For example, you could show two NPCs having a conversation, but don’t let it be too clear what the specific topic is. Other times, you may want to keep one of the NPCs in the scene “off camera”, but heard – and save the revelation of his identity for when the characters actually encounter him.

Cut scenes also work well as an anticipation-building commentary on what the characters are doing. For example, when the PCs have just walked into a trap, consider doing a cut scene to the bad guy (ensconced elsewhere in his lair) saying something sinister and pulling the lever that unleashes the killer robots. “He pulls the lever, cackling. Everyone roll Alertness!” They also work well as transitions from one player scene to the next, particularly if the characters are doing some lengthy travel in between actual on-screen scenes.

Finally, cut scenes can give the audience (your players) a nice view of a hated villain’s demise when their characters aren’t able to stay around to see it themselves (what with them not wanting a more personal demise experience). The sight of the master villain shouting “nooooooo!” as his creations rise up and destroy him, his lab exploding all around, is the stuff of satisfaction. Provide it!

The main wrinkle with cut scenes is all about your comfort level, as a GM, and your players’ comfort level, with the ability to separate the “in character” stuff from the “out of character” stuff.

Cut scenes are there solely for the players’ enjoyment – they provide no information to the characters, and the players shouldn’t act on the information that is supplied. If you stick tightly to the recommendations above – in particular going for the tease and saving the revelation – you shouldn’t run afoul of these issues that much (unless your players just plum don’t like such scenes). But if you do have the kind of trust and comfort levels that let you reveal more, by all means, do so – provided you’re sure you’re keeping your players entertained. Avoid the temptation to hog the spotlight. Cut scenes are spice; they’re not the main dish.

9.4.4 The Montage
Some skills take a lot of time and their use is best described as a montage. A montage is a term from film that describes a series of short shots that collectively indicate time passing and a character or characters doing something. If you’ve ever seen a training montage in a film where the hero spends several quick scenes lifting weights, running up stairs, practicing under the sharp eye of his mentor, and at the end, he’s mastered whatever he started working on, then you should have a good idea of how a montage should play out.

When you describe a character performing such a task, take a moment to describe a few key scenes, trying to visualize how this might be presented if the story were a movie. This gives an opportunity to give a little more color to long efforts, like researching and contacting.

9.5 The Long Game: Advancement
SotC is intended to be a pickup game with a revolving cast of players and characters. As such, it’s not truly intended that characters receive individual advancement (character improvement) based on, say, how many adventures they’ve gone on. Instead, the intention is entirely that the characters advance en masse if they do advance at all, with the entire group receiving credit for being a part of the game.

Player characters should always receive the same amount of on-sheet rewards, in order to make sure that everyone remains a peer of one another. Giving out advancement only to those who manage to attend one or more sessions means you’re penalizing those players who may have busier schedules. It’s impolite; don’t do it. The game will benefit when the characters are mutual peers. No one should come back from a playing hiatus to discover he’s become the sidekick.

The easiest form of reward, and the only one allowed to be a little “uneven” from character to character, is in terms of fate points. If your game allows someone to carry his fate points forward from the last session he was in (if the total’s higher than his refresh rate), then it’s entirely appropriate to give out fate points as rewards for clever, entertaining, or well-crafted play. Characters with a pile of fate points at the end of a session may also have had less to do, or were particularly “goosed” by compels on their aspects, so letting the karma wagon roll on into their next session is a good way to compensate for whatever the situation was.

In terms of even-handed advancement given to all characters, there are three ways characters can improve: their skills, their aspects, and their stunts.

9.5.1 Skills: Raising the Roof
It should be rare, if ever, that a GM lets characters raise the peak level (top adjective) of their skill pyramids. The characters that the players embody are Superb-level characters, quite capable in a wide array of activities as it is. Increasing the peak of a skill pyramid increases all the skills underneath as well, and raises the default level for skills not shown. It should only be done to represent a fundamental shift from what the game was about before, and what it has now become.

Furthermore, such a change in character power level will only have meaning if the rest of the world does not come along for the ride. Old enemies who might have been supremely potent by comparison will now be more within reach. Normal people, who still cluster around the Mediocre and Average skill levels, get left just a little further behind. If you instead take all, or even more than a few, of the old things and give them the same boost, then everyone is still in the same relative position to one another, and you’ve changed very little about the game.

For this reason and more, we recommend you leave the skill peak where it is.

9.5.2 Aspects: Deepening the Story
Any major advancement effort – and in SotC, any amount of advancement should be considered major – should first look to adding aspects to characters.

From the perspective of game rules, adding an aspect has two effects. First, the characters get more opportunities to improve their performance and gain fate points. Second, the refresh rate goes up by one – everyone starts each session with one more fate point.

Looking past the rules, adding an aspect allows a character to open up a new part of his story. The best aspects picked up from advancement are those which are a sort of commentary on in-game experience. These aspects tie characters into the ongoing storyline of the entire series, and as such should be encouraged at every turn.

Maybe a new catch-phrase has shown up for the character (“I Hate It When I’m Right”); maybe he’s made a new enemy or friend who deserves a nod (“Dr. Herborn Must Be Stopped”). If a consequence aspect turned out to make play more entertaining, the character could “promote” it to full permanence – maybe changing it a little, turning a “Lost Eye” into a “Fashionable Eye Patch”.

It’s the player’s choice, in the end – if he wants to go to a place that doesn’t tie back to prior events, that’s fine too. Characters in television and other media reveal new secrets about themselves all the time. Only one aspect should be added in any given “advancement period” and your game should cover a healthy number of sessions in between any increase in the number of aspects the characters get.

9.5.3 Stunts: New Tricks for Old Dogs
Looking at the numbers, new characters get half as many stunts as they have aspects. Stunts are potent and game-changing, so this ratio should be maintained when possible.

In practice, this means that characters should get a new stunt on the third “round” of any advancement cycle – the first two would be a new aspect each, and the third would be a stunt. This pattern can “lather, rinse, repeat” from there.

Don’t be afraid to be stingy about stunts. Stunts are a potent path to carving out individuality and shtick, and if your larger play-group taking part in the pick-up game is big enough, you’ll want to make sure everyone’s niche doesn’t get too threatened. As always, any stunt pick a player makes should be reviewed and approved by the GM.

The first stunt after the starting five is a crucial one. Roughly speaking, every three or so stunts gives a character a potent, easily identified shtick, carving out a niche for them in the story. This means that a sixth stunt potentially increases the number of niches to two. And in some of the more potent stunt combinations, some stunts aren’t even available until someone can take a sixth stunt.

A GM should also be ready for her players to start pushing the boundaries at this point. If a character has maxed out the stunts under a particular skill, but wants to go further, she’ll need to be ready to work with them to create new stunts.

Don’t be afraid of the idea of creating new stunts. New stunts are a natural process for the game, and there are plenty of examples in the stunts chapter to draw on as ideas for what does and doesn’t work.

If a player wants a stunt that’s too powerful at this point, come up with a few intermediate steps (stunts) that he’ll have to complete first in order to get it. Stunts with prerequisites are meant to do more than the usual – embrace this principle, and make use of it.

9.5.4 Shuffling: Staying Put is Still Travel
There’s a final kind of advancement that a GM can make use of in her game, with one catch: it’s not really advancement, per se, even though it can and does represent a kind of character development and growth. In fact, this is the safest option for a GM to offer her players, and even if the GM is running a “growthless” campaign, this approach should be strongly considered for use.

At the end of every session, the GM may offer her players the option to shuffle their sheets around a little. This means the players may do one or more of the following (but not one of the things listed twice or more), all subject to approval:

Swap out one aspect for another
Swap out an Average (lowest rung) skill for another not currently in the pyramid, or, change the places of two skills in the pyramid that are not more than one rung apart from each other.
Drop a stunt that hasn’t seen much use, and pick up a new one.
The idea behind this is that characters, even if they don’t grow in power or necessarily deepen in story, still change over time. Lessons are learned. Some abilities fall out of practice, while others come to the fore. This technique helps cover that, and can give players a real feeling of their characters not being the same-old-same-old they started out with on day one.

9.6 Setting Decisions
Every game is a little bit different, but there are a few questions that every GM is going to want to answer for themselves.

9.6.1 How Weird Is Your World?
The rules, you’ll notice, include space for impossible science and even more impossible magic. These things go hand in hand, and you’re going to have to decide how you want to handle them. There are a few possibilities to choose from.

The World Outside Your Window
In a fairly realistic campaign, the weirdness is almost entirely removed. Weird Science, Mad Science and the gadgets which require them are no longer allowed, and Mysteries can no longer provide artifacts. Under this setting, the characters are exceptional only due to their training and natural talent, and a number of the setting’s NPCs are no longer valid. You may even want to consider removing Mysteries from your skill list.

World of Mystery
This slightly more cinematic campaign presumes that there are oddities, but they are few and far between. Weird Science and Artifacts are available, but are in the hands of very few individuals. There may be one or two incidences of Mad Science in the world, but no more than that, and certainly not for the characters.

World of Adventure
Weird Science is hardly common, but there are easily hundreds of people across the globe practicing some version of it, and a handful push the limits all the further into the realms of Mad Science. Long lost mysteries are still to be found in ancient ruins, and mysterious cults work in the shadows to gather and recover this lost lore. All options are available; and this is the default setting for SotC.

World of Magic
Much like the World of Mystery, there is some Weird Science, and perhaps a tiny bit of Mad Science, but much of that is magic that the scientists have merely not recognized yet. The true power is held by a select few, hidden in the shadows, fiercely guarding the secrets of magic from the crass masses. In this more magical world, the characters may find their roles carry potent symbolism, and Artifacts may access Mad Science improvements.

World of Tomorrow
Science will free us all! As in the World of Adventure, arcane mysteries have a small following, but Weird and even Mad Science run amok! Most every scientist of any stripe in the world has some grasp of Weird Science (change the stunt so that it includes the Scientific Invention stunt’s functions, reducing the number of stunts it takes to get there), and the Mad Scientists number in the hundreds, their rivalries threatening to reshape the world. This option more or less demands an ahistorical game (see below), and is well suited to “retro” science fiction.

9.6.2 Building a History
As a historical game, there is always the danger that player may do something to change history in small or large ways. You should decide in advance how you intend to address that possibility. There are a couple potential models, which we detail in brief, here; make sure you determine it – and agree upon it with your players – in advance.

Rigidly Historical
History will occur as written, no more, no less. The characters’ adventures take place in the margins around real events, but any attempt to alter those events will meet with aggressive failure.

Fluid History
History will go in about the same way it did in the real world, though some of the details may change. As long as the end results of the large events work out about the same, all is well. Things that would drastically change history, like new technologies, tend to just end up forgotten rather than realizing their potential. This is the default assumption for Spirit of the Century.

Ahistorical
Once the game begins, history is your canvas to write upon. Left to its own devices, history will unfold roughly as you’d expect it to, but the adventures of the heroes and their opponents have the potential to change history into something else entirely.

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