The Publisher: Evil Hat Productions
Degree of Familiarity: None in actual play, but it's influenced my thinking on systems and presentation of ideas quite a bit.
Books Required: Just the corebook, though I might use a house-rule found on RPG.net
Spirit of the Century is in many ways the quintessential pulp game for people who don't mind sharing some of the narrative power. It's use of the 3rd edition of the Fate system and heavy focus on Aspects not just for characters but for scenes and props can really make a game sing. It does need the group to be on the ball to create aspects, but it is a pulp game.
Lots of people, notably including bruceb, claim that SotC is better than White Wolf's pulp hit Adventure!0 While the latter does have ties to the rest of the Trinity Universe, those ties also explicitly make the world into a more pulpy place (and after the events of Process 418 in Trinity, the whole future into a mish-mash of SF pulps). Personally, I actually prefer Adventure! Dramatic Editing gives the players some narrative control, but it's got plenty of old-fashioned hooks for players who don't want that narrative control and just want mechanics for doing cool stuff. SotC can rely too much on Aspects, running a real risk of becoming a metagame about assigning, tagging, and compelling Aspects rather than a game about playing characters.
Don't get me wrong, Spirit of the Century is a wondeful game crammed with flavour and interesting mechanical twists. Characters are members of the Century Club, heroes who have to stop the terrible machinations of such dastardly villains as Gorilla Khan1, the twisted electrical genius of Der Blitzmann, and of course the Deadly Doctor Methuselah, mathemagician and master of the Eternity Equations. Heroes fill all the pulp archetypes, from the classic two-fisted bruiser to the flying ace, the spiritual guru, the masked avenger, and more. It's not a game of thought, it's a game of action.
One concept that isn't played out in the sample characters but that has plenty of support elsewhere is the gentleman thief. Think Raffles, Lupin, or Fantomex2. A well-meaning man who just happens to liberate property from it's rightful owners not out of need and certainly not out of malice, but from a sense of adventure and the thrill of possibly being caught. He's a moral thief, taking from those who can easily afford it and preferring not to hurt people (he's got the same attitude towards violence as Fantomas, rather than the happy sociopathy displayed by Diabolik).
I've not seen the 1939 Raffles film starring David Niven, which shames me. Especially as that's basically who I'm going for.
I need a good, strong Pulp name to go along with the concept. I'm thinking that he likes to leave a calling-card at the scene of his crimes (to riff off the literary Simon Templar), the Ace of Diamonds. To that end, I'm going with Jacob Diamond; given that Marius Jacob was one of the possible influences on Arsene Lupin. To picture him, think of David Niven in Murder by Death.
We run through five phases of the character's life, leading up to his debut as a member of the Century Club. Each phase helps identify the character, as well as providing two of the ten Aspects that will come to describe the character.
Phase 1: Background
Very roughly, ages 0-15. Contrary to the image he later presents, Jacob (never 'Jake') Diamond grew up so poor that church mice used to give him charity. His parents had moved to America from England before he was born, and they made sure that he knew that they had a better life—though considering their situation, Jacob wondered just how bad things were in England. He learned to trust in himself, because nobody would come through for someone living an inch from the gutter, and to treasure every little thing he can grab. Though he wasn't well-educated, he learned to fake being from a far richer area as a cover for petty theft.
Aspects: Reach out and take it; Trust only yourself.
Phase 2: The Great War
Jacob Diamond came into his own in the war, though not in the trenches, oh no. Sneaking into the officers' club, he saw a life that could have been his were it not for the accident of his birth. He asked around, and greased the wheels with fine cognac and finer cigars. Soon he was on his way to Paris, his base during the war. He spent more time in Berlin, liberating documents and overhearing plans. He actually cut an X into his cheek with a sharp bayonet to have something he could pass off as a dueling scar. He liked the life that spying allowed him and kept it up when he returned to New York, living the unearned life of a gentleman and stealing to maintain his position in society.
Patron: Arthur J. Raffles inducted him into the Century Club, but drowned soon after.
Aspects: Whoever you want me to be, old bean; Plenty of class
Phase 3: Novel
A pulp novel starring the character. Let me think, pulpy titles... Jacob Diamond and the Atlantean Diamonds! The discovery of an antique diamond necklace would normally draw the attention of Jacob Diamond, gentleman thief. Scientists are sure that these diamonds are from the lost continent of Atlantis, and have placed them in the vaults of the First City Bank. But Jacob Diamond isn't the only one with his eye on the ice—the deadly Doctor Methuselah wants them for his own nefarious purposes!
Aspects: Competitive to a fault; Swashbuckling flair
Phase 4: Guest Star
Oh, cock. I can't do this bit, as I don't have other people to crib novels off. I could just make up four other Aspects, but that's not much fun. So let's make one up...
Starring in: Dirk Dashwood vs. John Sunlight!3
John Sunlight captures Jacob Diamond to convince his nemesis Dirk Dashwood to carry out John's nefarious plan! Charged with only twelve hours to destroy the Century Club, how far will Dirk go? Can Dirk foil this dastardly plot and free his comrade? And does Jacob want to be freed from the clutches of John Sunlight's sirens of evil?
Aspects: Insatiable curiosity; Perfectly charming
Phase 5: Guest Star
Guest starring in another novel.
Starring In: Claire Holloway and the Gentleman Ghost
Claire Holloway investigates the ghost of an English Lord terrorising families in London. When she's sure that the ghost is no more than a common thief, she enlists the help of Jacob Diamond to capture the scoundrel—if he can keep his eyes on the prize, rather than Claire!
Aspects: Eye for the ladies; One step ahead
15 Skills total. 1 Superb, 2 Great, 3 Good, 4 Fair, 5 Average.
I run through the skill list, making a note of the ones I want. I find it helps to pick skills first, then add them to the pyramid. I get one at Superb. I'm going to get the most use out of Burglary, Deceit, and Rapport. Burglary's the apex skill at Superb, with the other two at Great. Deceit covers things like being a master of disguise, while Rapport is great for talking even the most annoying person around.
For Good, I want Resources (the proceeds of Jacob's burglaries), Sleight of Hand, and Stealth.
Down to Fair, and I'm starting to spread the net a little wider. Academics is him faking his own education, Alertness and Gambling should be obvious, and he's sharp to all the tricks which means he's got a decent Resolve.
At Average, things branch out. Athletics is useful for climbing buildings (and possibly one to bump up later). Contacting is all about knowing people all over the place Endurance, well, one often has to lie in wait for just the right time. Investigation is a typical one for criminals, as they need to know how detectives think. And for Weapons, he knows how to use a sword-cane, though he really doesn't want to, old chap. Wouldn't be sporting, you know? And, frankly, your wife's such a lovely creature that I wouldn't want to shock her with such a vulgar display. I'm sure she'd be quite taken aback, might need a lie down and a breath of air, her clothing loosened by an expert... I'm sorry, old boy, are you still here? Your wife and I will be along shortly.
Stunts are special uses of Skills. I start with just five. The writers assume that'll be enough, but for some concepts it really isn't. I could easily take anywhere up to 10. I stop by the Burglary section first.
Given the limited budget, I can't go too deep, which is annoying. Hatpin Maestro means that I can open anything as long as I have something that could pass as a lockpick to the untrained eye, and can pick locks at great speed, but he's not really a speed kind of guy. Tripwire Sensibilities makes more sense and can lead in to Trespass Tempo later on. Jacob Diamond is all about the forward planning. I take Mental Blueprint (being perfectly aware of a web of cause and effect) and The Big Heist (I can add Aspects to a joint by casing it).
The best Deceit Stunt is buried three-deep in the tree. Looking at it, I can't make that work. If I could houserule it then maybe, but it also feels a bit counter to the character. He's not a master of disguise, he's a charming cad and bounder who gets past people by force of personality.
Oh, right. That'd be Rapport. Two jump out immediately: Best Foot Forward means that I can't ever fuck up a first impression. At worst, they'll not like me any less than they always do. Ladies' Man is just too perfect for the character for me not to take it.
So, yes. Imagine David Niven in full flow, with either a black bow tie or a silk cravat, smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder. A dueling scar in the shape of an 'X' on his right cheek, and a silver-tipped sword-cane in his hand. He's rarely without a set of lockpicks somewhere, though it's often best not to know where, and always has a fresh carnation in his buttonhole.
Name: Jacob Diamond
Competitive to a fault
Eye for the ladies
Not in the face, old chap!
One step ahead
Plenty of class
Reach out and take it
Trust only yourself.
Whoever you want me to be, old bean
Sleight of Hand
The Big Heist
Best Foot Forward
0: How does one punctuate after a name that ends with an exclamation mark, anyway? In this case I'm deliberately using the exclamation mark to end sentences, so it's okay.
1: The urge to use the presence of Khan to riff on the Flash/Grodd repartee in Justice League is almost too great.
2: From Grant Morrison's run on the X-Men. After which the series ended. Fuck Marvel and anyone who says otherwise.
3: An actual Doc Savage baddie.