I had the chance to try out Spirit of 77, a funky 1970’s tabletop role-playing game. I had backed the kickstarter back last fall and thought it would be fun for my Victoria group of friends. As it turned out, although I already had the pdf, my hardcopy arrived in the mail the day before our game.
Spirit of 77 is an over-the-top, pedal-to-the-metal, nitro-burning, action adventure role playing game about an alternate history 1977. Richard Nixon has made a deal with aliens, and is still in the White House; renegade rock gods from another galaxy have shared with us the power of Glam; kung-fu bad-asses wander the city streets righting wrongs, and everyone is trying to stick it to The Man.
Spirit of 77 is about recreating all the classic action and adventure TV shows, movies, and comic books of the 1970’s. It draws inspiration from movies like Shaft, Smokey and the Bandit, The Warriors, Barbarella, Rocky, and Enter the Dragon; TV shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files, and Charlie’s Angels; and music like James Brown, KISS, David Bowie, Jerry Reed, and Isaac Hayes.
The game uses the Apocalypse Engine created by Vincent Baker for his ground-breaking game Apocalypse World and subsequently used in many, many games. The base mechanic is roll 2d6 and on a 10+, you do what you set out to, on a 7-9, you succeed but with consequences or partially and on a 6 or less, the GM says what happens. It’s a simple game system that encourages fast and more narrative play. I like to refer to it as the game system that gets out of the way of you playing the game.
Character creation starts with choosing a role (what you do), a story (where you did or how you do it) and a buzz (what motivates you). Then you pick your stats (Might, Hustle, Smooth, Brains and Soul), pick a talent (your “Thang”), get your gear and select some links to the other players (“Hooks”). Then you’re good to go.
As with most Apocalypse Engine games, character creation takes about 5-10 minutes. This game was not much different. My only complaint was that the normal starting gear and hooks for the various character types wasn’t on the character sheets. That required a bit of referencing the books and slowed things down a little. Normally that wouldn’t be noticeable, but it added another 5 or so minutes nearly doubling normal character creation. I prefer players being able to check off or cross off things on the character sheets if the sheets are already created for each particular role.
Our group was composed of:
- Hugh Mungus, a Good Ol’ Boy who’s One Bad Mother looking for Thrills
- Rex Cranium, a Vigilante who’s a Former Badge looking for Payback; and
- Jackie Chung, a Kung Fu Tough Guy looking for Honour.
Playing the Game
Then we jumped straight into play and our game began in Detroit City, 1977.
A well-dressed and obviously wealthy woman comes calling on Hugh’s autobody shop (where Rex helps out and Jackie has a gym upstairs). She explains friends on the force referred her to them as they are known to be discrete in helping people with problems and that her husband has gone missing for three days now and she’s worried about him. After some prodding, she lets loose that her husband is Lee Iacocca. She gives them a description of his car and a good amount of cash and they accept happily.
First stop, they race over to Ford’s HQ, but it’s late on Friday and closing time. A departing secretary is shaken down for some information and they find out a couple of his favourite haunts – a Chinese restaurant and an Irish pub. They also learn that Iacoka’s been seen earlier that day at the office. They decide to hit the restaurant for some food before going drinking, so they hop back into Hugh’s 1970 V8 Plymouth Barracuda muscle car.
At the restaurant, they notice the menu has page entirely in Japanese. Pulling aside the waitress, they start interrogating her right in the middle of the restaurant while Hugh heads to check out the kitchen. He sees a normal kitchen, but through a half-closed door, he can see a group of women huddled over a desk and a bunch of papers.
The waitress feigns ignorance and when they start asking about Mr. Iacoka, she flips the table, screams “Help!” in Japanese and cold cocks Jackie.
As an aside here, another important aspect of Apocalypse Engine type games is that the rolls are all made by the players. They make rolls to do things themselves and then roll to react to actions of everyone else. There are a number of what are called “moves” that they can do, but the fiction comes first (you describe what you want to happen) and then, if needed, you roll to find out what happens.
Also, this is the first Apocalypse Engine game I have seen published that uses an advantage/disadvantage system (called “rolling with something extra/less). Since you’re rolling 2d6, you roll 3d6 if you have “something extra/less” and drop the lowest or highest roll respectively. I’d incorporated it into my own Apocalypse Engine games after first seeing the mechanic in D&D 5e, so it’s interesting to see it start to crop up in published games. It’s a good mechanic and I recommend it for all your Apocalypse Engine games. It works well in this game as well.
The waitress races to the kitchen where Hugh has just missed beating another waitress to grab an SMG from a nearby cupboard. She opens fire in his direction as he hits the dirt. Jackie uses his Floating Cherry Blossom training to quickly cross the busy restaurant (now full of screaming, running patrons) and drops the fleeing waitress before she can reach her friend. Meanwhile, Rex has pushed his way through the crowd and exchanges fire with the armed waitress, both of them are hit. She is stunned, dropping her gun, which Hugh gets ahold of and dispatches her. Our heroes can see the women in the backroom are fleeing out the back and by the time they reach there, they have gone and are speeding off in a car. No one even manages to catch its license plate.
The combat system is fairly simple, as is common with these types of games. You have a basic fighting move, a basic shooting move and one for getting out of the way of or blocking attacks. They’re all named to fit the theme though (Deliver a Beatdown, Smoke his Ass, Get in their Face, Scope out a Scene, etc.).
The group decides, given all the sirens approaching, that it’s time to get going, so book out of there in a hurry. Not before catching some Heat though.
One of the new mechanics for this game is the concept of “Heat” or also known as police interest in you. As you gain more Heat, the more the police start looking for you and harassing you, until they start actively hunting you with all units. This worked fairly well and was a suitable consequence of the group having been involved in a major gun battle at a restaurant. There are apparently some moves associated with particular roles that can reduce Heat, but otherwise you are left to judge how much Heat the characters gain and lose based on the story, which worked okay, but seemed a little bit of a weakness for something they have made part of their game mechanic.
Since Rex has been hit pretty hard and they don’t have any ability to heal, they look up a back alley doctor they know and get fixed up there. Meanwhile, Hugh speaks with some youths in the area and, after plying them with “goods”, finds out that their gang has been dealing with a “Chinese” woman, in fact she just gave them a fancy new car.
The group decides rather than check this lead out, to head to the Irish bar. There, they lay low as they realize it’s home to the cream of Detroit society. Rex drops in uninvited on the police chief (we’ve established he left the force on okay terms) and asks about Iacocca. He’s told that he should keep his nose out of Ford’s business, they’re too powerful in this town to mess with. Rex explains he thinks Iacocca’s in trouble and confides that he’s helping the wife out to find him. The chief lets Rex know that the last time he saw Iacocca, it was at the Detroit Opera House, where a Japanese Kabuki theatre group is in town for the week.
Meanwhile, Hugh strikes up a conversation with a very inebriated regular at the bar and finds out, after buying many drinks, that he’s seen Iacoka in here on a few occasions recently with an asian woman.
One thing that many games leave out are social mechanics. Apocalypse Engine games don’t. There are moves in Spirit of ’77 for persuading others and these worked fairly well through these scenes.
They decide to turn in, it being very late at night, heading back to the garage. The next morning, they are woken up by a knock at the door. Hugh answers it and is confronted by two plainclothes detectives. They ask him about last night and he feigns innocence, convincing them that while he might not be innocent, that they’re not going to get anything more out of him. They warn him to keep his nose out of trouble and leave. The Heat is rising.
The group heads for breakfast to figure out their next steps and when they emerge, there is a group of gang members that surround them and start threatening them to stop poking their noses where they shouldn’t. Rex reaches the car and draws his pistol. He fires a warning shot at the gang members, who quickly back off and leave, making further threats. The group again speedily leaves the scene, having gained even more Heat.
Time is running out, so they head to the Opera House, bribe a guard to let them in (it’s closed on Saturday afternoon) and inside they are confronted as they make their way through the aisles by the lead Kabuki performer, the Dragon Lady, and two of her costars (each wielding two Katanas). She tells them that they have made a grave mistake pursuing this matter and offers a huge sum of money to walk away. They agree to take it and leave, but they want proof that Iacocca is okay.
Another Kabuki performer in make-up, armed with an SMG emerges with Iacocca in tow. He’s not bound and shows no signs of distress. He simply walks forward and stops when he reaches the Dragon Lady. A suitcase of money is slid to the group, who immediately draw guns and begin firing. Two more henchmen appear from the balconies above them, raining down SMG fire. The whole scene explodes into gunfire and swordplay.
Jackie engages one of the sword maidens, but finds she is far more skilled than he even could have imagined (and consistently rolls poorly against her for the whole combat, poor guy). The other two exchange fire, eventually taking out the various gunwomen, but meanwhile the Dragon Lady leaves with Iacocca out the back. By the time the fight is over, Jackie is badly injured and they can again see a car speeding off, but this time Rex manages to hit a tire and Hugh has raced out to get his car, then picks up the rest of the team and is in hot pursuit.
The chase is on as they race through the streets of Detroit, Kabuki performers hanging out of one car shooting up Hugh’s Barracuda while Rex and Jackie return fire. Just then, bad almost goes to worse as a pick up truck races up behind the heroes with a heavy machine-toting Kabuki performer. But before she can unleash a torrent of bullets, Jackie drops her with a single lucky shot.
Unfortunately, there are no chase rules in the game. There are some vague vehicle rules, which worked okay, but it would be nice to have chase rules given it’s a highly used trope in such a setting. Apparently there are racing rules in the Wide World of 77 Expansion, but actual chase rules would be useful.
The Barracuda tries overtaking the car ahead of them, but just barely avoids a head-on collision from on-coming traffic. Instead, he rams their car just as Jackie leaps from one car to the other. He lands on it as sirens can be heard behind them, the police have joined the fun.
The escaping car loses control and smashes into a building, Jackie is thrown but lands on his feet, but Hugh doesn’t stop in time and slams into their car, bashing himself against the windshield and losing consciousness for a second.
The Kabuki gunwomen emerge from their car and begin shooting back at the police who have also stopped and set up a perimeter. The cover fire allows the Dragon Lady and Iacocca to escape into a nearby building.
Our heroes let the gunwomen and police trade shots as they also race into the building. Searching through the rooms, they find the Dragon Lady with Iacocca. Before she can even say a word, a single shot from Rex drops her just as police fill the room. Rex and his friends are all carted off to jail and have to do some fancy explaining to get free.
They never hear from Iacocca’s wife again and Iacocca mysteriously resigns from Ford and is not heard from again. The group are eventually released, but have gained some powerful enemies.
The players had figured out that the Dragon Lady was with the Yakuza and trying to steal secrets from Ford using Iacocca, but didn’t figure out that the Iacocca they saw with her was a robot clone and she had already killed the real Iacocca earlier and stuffed his body in the stolen car’s trunk. If they had searched for the car and found it earlier, they might even have found the executive barely alive and been able to rescue him. The clone was being used to enter the Ford building and steal secrets for the Yakuza. The robot clone was uncovered after the heroes were arrested, which is why they were eventually freed, but the Powers That Be decided to keep it secret, so the public was never told and in this timeline, Iacocca simply resigns from Ford and is never heard from again.
Our group had an awesome time and are clamouring for another game of Spirit of 77, so I think that’s a pretty resounding success. The theme of the game is easy to use in a variety of settings and works well as an Apocalypse Engine hack.
I would have liked some things to be clearer (what happens if a PC has Armour 3 and most weapons do 3 or less harm? Can NPCs never harm that player? And how mechanically does Heat increase/decrease?), but those are minor complaints.
It’s a good game overall and we certainly enjoyed it. Check it out if it sounds like something you’d enjoy. I’m not sure it would work well for a long-standing game, but for a few one-shots, it’ll definitely fit the bill.
Here’s my notes for the adventure if you want to try it out for your group.
There is also a free adventure – Cruise Ship of the Damned, if you want to play something official. It also has a lot of quick-start rules if you want to give it a try before buying.