Sunday, 22 June 2014

Game Review - Cold Steel Wardens

There’s a new superhero game in town and it’s set in the Iron age of comics…

The Iron age I hear you ask, heard of the Golden Age and the Silver Age, but not the Iron Age?

The Iron age (Or more popularly, the Dark age) was an era of comics when things started going very bad for our heroes, it was a time when anti-heroes were rife, the villains finally sobered up and stopped reciting carefully prepare monologues, and in general…

Things were a little bit rough…

I’d like to say in advance that the copy of the game provided for the review was given freely by Andy Klosky of Blackfall Press, who wanted an honest review of the game and book contents.

To begin with, it’s a points driven system, Thirty two points divided between eight stats.  Those stats are Magnetism (Charisma, not innate magneto skills), Accuracy (Weapons and Vehicles), Force (Athletics and melee damage), Intellect (Knowledge and Wealth), Agility (close combat and stealth), Nerve (Hit points and defense ratio), Awareness (Investigative skills), and Psyche (Mental hit points), which also give rise to the name of the system.


To paraphrase Agent Ward, “It tells me that someone really wanted to spell out the word MAFIANAP”, and that’s not a bad thing if you were going for the zany antics of the earlier time periods, but the focus of this game is the darker times, when the Punisher was almost a regular hero rather than a section 8, so the light hearted touch seemed a little at odds.

The same pool of points is used to generate skills, masteries, specialities, and powers.  Flaws can be taken to get additional points to generate more of the same.  With this in mind, I thought to go with my initial impulse and design the Punisher, more because it wouldn’t take much thought to do so and therefore shouldn’t take me very long.

I may have underestimated that part…

Vitals are the statistics, 32 points divided between them, so in order 3,9,4,3,3,4,4,1.  Accuracy being a stat is a very cheerful thing when you’re the Punisher…

Then 85 points for Skills, with every skill that has at least three points getting a free speciality (and another one at six points, then nine and so on), no skill to go have more than the governing stat plus three in it.  Resisted the temptation to put twelve points into Armed Ranged combat (making the Character Deadshot, not Punisher) and spread about fifty points through skills, leaving me thirty for powers and other goodies.

Then came to the flaws section, of which every character must choose at least two (and you get more points for them), so ended up with Hunted (Mob), Intolerant (Mob, well, they are hunting me…), and Nemesis (Mob, may as well go the whole hog…).  Found the advantages section and got Jaded (Mentally tough), Tough (No prizes), John Woo Combat Style (No lie, you should see what I can do with two pistols), and Assets (Not quite Bruce wayne, but you get the idea).

And finally came to the powers section, in which I found a number of basic powers.  Most of these are in keeping with the generally gritty nature of the setting, you won’t get bulletproof heroes in this, but the power level costs for the powers didn’t sit quite right for me in a number of cases, you can get enhanced toughness for 14 points a rank, wall crawling for 6 points (but beware if someone pours oil down the wall…), Chameleon for 8 points (Mystique, except you can actually change the clothes you wear). 

Or you can get Sorcery for 25 points and replicate any power…

But sorcery would not fit with the character concept (Even though Frank Castle, Shootist Supreme, has a certain ring to it….), so I went with a couple of ranks of toughness and then went back to getting some more masteries.

This done, time to get equipment…

Three pages of weapons and armour with stats, one page of regular equipment with no descriptions or stats, half page of services that can be procured, from Buses that are more expensive than Cabs to the services of Escorts and the general costs for Street and Hard Drugs (the difference presumably being that some you find on the street, some you find on the…).

But there were 7.62mm submachine guns with 150 round clips available, so with my John Woo combat style and no recoil penalties evident (They needed a tripod but there is no entry in the book for where to buy one of those or what the penalty is for using them without), so I got two ….

The Vehicle section is four pages long, including rules for combat and a page of stats on vehicles.

If this sounds like I’m going on quite a bit about the rules, it’s because there’s a lot of them, and while that’s fairly normal (Anyone see HERO recently?), there’s normally a quick start guide to the arranging of things and lists where the various powers and abilities are laid out so that the players can reference back quickly without having to flip back and forth all the time.  The layout of the rules is such that you can read it start to finish completely and be able to put a hero together without having to retcon everything, but if you’re trying to do it in the stages that are listed, you don’t know how many points you need to be holding back, which means that you really have to read through things (or have an eraser handy) when you’re making your heroes.

The next section is the building of the world and the campaign, starting with the chapter devoted to memories, motivations, and stances and the use of the vigilance pool (a collective set of bonus dice in the middle of the table), which the GM refills when the players do something particularly in keeping with their character or group.  The section on organising an investigation for the players to get involved in is equally brief, outlining several different ways of doing things, from the Pyramid setup with the villain at the top, to the flowchart method where all things flow to the Villain, to the Timeline based event, where the events are already mapped out and it’s down to the players to make the difference before things come to pass.  Each section is covered in brief detail, between two and three pages for each, which I honestly felt could have done with some more mapping out considering that it’s a central point to any campaign.

The gamesmastering section can be summed by the last line in the section

“There are no rules for you. Cheat anyway…”

For a game that contains so many rules and details of how to use them, it seems strange that the entire GM section consists of telling the GM to ignore the rules and let things go how they want them to go in the imagined narrative in their head. 

The last sixty or so pages of the book are taken up with thirty pages of setting, and thirty pages of NPC’s, the NPC’s are precisely as described on the tin, stats for various bad guys, it’s the setting that gets the interest.

The setting is a city called New Corinth (Smoke City), based on the rustbelt cities of the America’s as well as Gotham City and New York as depicted in Alan Moore’s Watchmen.  It’s clear that the author knows his comics, and he has a strong vision for what the city is like and what goes on in it, together with the various characters and organisations that operate within and what sort of thing they get up to.

It’s here that I found the greatest shame, because from a number of reports, the author is an excellent GM and a more than competent writer, and this book feels like it’s missing the greatest thing that he can offer and that’s the passion that he has for this world and everything in it.  If this were a setting book with all the Machiavellian weight of his world in it, I’d buy it without hesitation…

The printing is of reasonable quality, full colour on the cover and black/white for the inner illustrations, which are not many, but are appropriate to the section they’re found in and add a level of immersion that’s certainly required.  I’m also given to understand that there have been problems with the printing of the game, so it’s possible that the finished copy may have ironed out all these things, but I’m reviewing from a PDF, so I can only go with what I have.

Cold Steel Wardens is published through Chronicle City, with the main website for the game being