The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I’m just relaxing in my virtual office, enjoying a virtual Lucky Strike, when this fella comes swinging in through the window. He looks pretty much like one of those masked supers guys… ‘cept with more belt pouches. And skulls. And guns. And belt pouches.
“All RIGHT!” he says, brandishin’ twin Uzis at nothing in particular. “WHO’S ready for Cold Steel Wardens — the game that blows the living [CENSORED] out of evil??”
“Uh… I guess I am,” I says, “if that’s your way of sayin’ you’ve got a case for me.”
“Damn straight,” he says. “Had enough of these namby-pamby four-color so-called ‘superheroes’?”
“Well, actually, I…”
“THAT’S where Cold Steel Wardens comes in! The IRON AGE of Comics, baby! 100% pistol-packing, power-blasting, neck-snapping, scum-wasting BADASSES!”
He unloads a few rounds through the ceiling. To emphasize his point, I figure.
Or maybe he was just doin’ his part against roofies.
Cold Steel Wardens (hereafter CSW) is a game about the Iron Age of Comics — the gritty era ushered in by the the likes of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Superheroes often pack heat. Superheroes often make tough moral choices. Superheroes often bleed. Superheroes often die.
The setting certainly allows for superpowers, and from multiple sources; however, they tend to be low-key and limited. Powered PCs won’t be lobbing cars or flattening skyscrapers. Indeed, Spider-man is beyond the scope of the default level of the game, and Wolverine would be pushing it. Heroes of this scale may exist. They just aren’t the PCs.
For that matter, superheroes may not even be “super”. Powers are also optional. It’s entirely feasible to strip them from the setting altogether. This highlights the fact that “mundane” superheroes in the setting are perfectly able to keep up with their powered brethren.
Note that while the setting does allow for multiple power sources, the presumption is that all powered heroes are some form of human. You can have a supernatural power source, but you aren’t going to be a demon. You can have cybernetic parts, but you aren’t going to be a robot.
Powered or unpowered, vigilantes must deal with the fact that their activities have been declared illegal. This severely restricts in-costume activities to sneaking about at night. Even swinging about like Spidey and Daredevil seems ill-advised. This makes going on patrol for crime rather problematic. In fact, any hero unable to sneak most likely will find himself having to change into costume when the action starts. In short, being a costumed hero in this setting is a real pain in the ass. That may be realistic, relatively speaking, but it may not be much fun for some players. Just something to keep in mind.
The default setting is New Corinth, a.k.a. “Smoke City”, a Detroit-like Rust Belt metropolis riddled with decay and corruption. The book describes the city and its eight major districts in terms of the five Knowledge skills — Historical, Cultural, Scientific, Criminal, and Esoteric — making for easy reference. The book also includes a map, although only three specific locations are identified per district.
As a nice touch, various sections include a “The Lights Go Out…” subsection providing non-canon behind-the-scenes explanations for what’s going on in the main text, many of which are quite cool and some of which are downright weird.
The book divides NPCs into three levels of increasing power and system detail: Mooks, Made Men, and Masterminds. Of these, the game includes 23 Mooks (including 6 animals and a zombie), 15 Made Men, 8 Masterminds, and 8 pre-generated heroes. I was able to get a lot of mileage out of these offerings in my game. I do wish there were more “monsters” included other than zombies, if only to get a better feel for what the setting allows. (I do know from my GenCon game that monsters do, indeed, exist. Boy, do they ever…)
Players begin with 32 Vital Points to assign on a 1/1 basis to the eight Vitals (attributes) that give the system its name of MAFIANAP: Magnetism (charisma), Accuracy (hand-eye coordination), Force (strength), Intellect, Agility, Nerve (constitution), Awareness, and Psyche (willpower). I always appreciate games that distinguish hand-eye coordination from overall agility. A Green Arrow type shouldn’t have to have Spidey-like agility in order to be a natural crack shot.
The Vitals scale is 1-10, with 3 considered average, although that’s not a hard cap — NPCs may exceed that range, and even PCs may break the 10 barrier on occasion. For perspective, a character with Force 10 can lift a ton without effort. If that seems like a lot, well, it is… but keep in mind that Spider-man can lift 10 tons without breaking a sweat. A better comparison might be 1970s-era TV superheroes, for whom special effects budgets made single-handedly flipping a car the pinnacle of super-strength.
Players then receive 85 Generation Points to buy Skills, Masteries, and Powers. Note that superhuman attributes are not treated as Powers in this context, which means that if you want a character to have an extraordinarily high Vital, you’re going to have to compensate with correspondingly low Vitals elsewhere. My group didn’t like this. Upon consultation with the author, we decided to allow for the purchase of additional Vital levels with Generation Points at the admittedly high 5/1 ratio permitted when spending Experience Points.
The game groups Skills into five general categories — Physical, Investigative, Social, Knowledge, and Technical — with each category covering five Skills. Skills cost 1 Generation Point per level. Skills are fairly broad under most categories; the Physical Skills, for example, are Athletics, Armed Melee, Armed Ranged, Stealth, and Unarmed. Investigative Skills, by contrast, are very specific: Canvass, Examination, Investigation, Notice, and Research. This makes creating a detective type — something axiomatic for the setting — fairly difficult. On a positive note, it does encourage teamwork.
For every 3 points in a Skill, characters receive a Specialty, such as Medicine under the Scientific Skill or specific weapons like Knife under Armed Melee.
The system really begins to shine with Masteries, which cost a flat 3 Generation Points each and most of which have prerequisites in the form of Skill levels and Specialties. These can be as simple as having an Investigative lab or as flashy as the Archery Combat Style, which lets you do more damage with bows, make easier called shots, and use bows and arrows as improvised melee weapons. Very cool.
CSW includes 26 powers:
- Alter Emotions
- Animal Control
- Artificial Limb
- Force Field
- Size Change
Powers have an initial purchase cost, then have a cost of 2 points/level. Like Skills, for ever 3 levels of a Power rating, the character gains an Optional Effect; e.g., a character with 3 levels of Blast can gain Dead Eye, rendering anything less than total cover ineffective against the attack.
At the default level of play, powers generally aren’t that, well… powerful. Don’t get me wrong: they are very useful. It’s just that basic characters are unlikely to be heavily powered and powerful. Teleporting, for example, is line-of-site and of limited range (10 x Teleport rating in yards). And strictly in terms of damage, Blast really isn’t much better than a gun.
Really, unless you’re going to start characters at one of the optional higher levels, powers are going to be more of an edge than a theme. Just to be clear, this isn’t a criticism. I like to think of standard CSW heroes as something akin to modern-day incarnations of powered pulp heroes like the Shadow, who battles crime with psychic powers backing up his twin .45s. If you want a character who solves pretty much every problem with his powers, on the other hand, this probably isn’t the game for you.
I do think gadgetry could use a bit of work, in two respects. First, while powers can be defined as gadgets, there’s no indication in either setting or system terms of how such devices could be built. And second, while the Sorcery power, which allows limited use of all other powers, can be defined as gadgetry, the associated Strain (see below) cost of the power doesn’t really make sense when used in that way.
Money in the game is handled in a hybrid of hard numbers and abstract wealth. A hero’s Wealth and Status Rating is equal to his combined Intellect and Reputation. This amount times 50 is an employed hero’s monthly income in cash, and heroes also start with $1,000 to purchase equipment. That’s not very much.
In play, however, characters can roll their Wealth and Status Ratings against a difficulty based on the cost of the item. If they succeed, the item is purchased with no impact on Wealth and Status. If they fail, the item is still purchased, but with a reduction to Wealth and Status equal to the degree of failure. This mechanic didn’t come into play much in my game, but I do like having the option of rolling or simply paying in hard cash.
Weapons and equipment are all of the mundane sort, although a sidebar describes how the Weaponsmith Mastery may be used to create custom ammunition for bows and guns. Weapon stats include everything from light pistols and knives up to grenade launchers and chainsaws, with certain weapons having appropriate perks or flaws; e.g., whips give a bonus to disarm attempts, and chainsaws are just plain awkward to use in a fight.
CSW uses a d10 dice pool mechanic. When testing Vitals, the player rolls a number of d10s equal to the Vital in question, where 1 = -1 success, 2-5 = 0 success, 6-9 = 1 success, and 10 = 2 successes. Testing Skills is similar, except that Skills form the pool and Vitals serve as automatic successes. As you might imagine, this means that the target numbers for Vitals tests must be lower than those for Skills tests. This also means that Vitals tests are more variable. I think it might have been more efficient to treat Vitals tests as Skills tests, with the Vital scores serving as both the die pool and the bonus and keeping the difficulty levels the same. In any case, the die rolls proved to be nicely transparent in my playtest.
An Agility test determines initiative. Attacks have a difficulty based on the target’s Defensive Value, which in turn is the target’s Nerve + Agility. This makes the Defensive Value somewhat akin to armor class, since being tough makes you harder to hit. I found that to be a bit problematic, as it meant that the big bruiser type in my game was both hard to hit and hard to hurt, but having a fixed target number does save a roll.
Damage is a standard roll based on some combination of Force and weapon damage, depending upon whether the attack is unarmed, armed melee, or armed ranged. As with Vitals tests, this makes results fairly random; however, an attack that succeeds by 5 or more is a critical hit and does double damage.
Damage takes the form of Strain and can be physical or mental. Characters have Physical Strain equal to 3 + (3 x Nerve) and Mental Strain equal to 3 + (3 x Psyche). In addition, both sorts of Strain have a Breaking Point equal to 1/3 of the total. If damage hits the Breaking Point, the character must test Nerve (for physical damage) or Psyche (for mental damage) or take an Injury or a Temporary Psychosis, respectively. (On a critical hit that results in damage meeting the Breaking Point, the target gets no Nerve test to avoid injury.) An Injury or Psychosis can be Minor/Temporary, Moderate/Minor, Severe/Moderate, or Terminal/Severe, depending upon how far below the Breaking Point the damage goes.
This is where combat gets really nasty. I had several NPCs bleed out or otherwise go down due to Injuries, and recovery from Injury or Psychosis is a long process. (Even the Regenerate Optional Effect of the Healing power is slow and difficult.)
Driving home the game’s grittiness is the fact that non-lethal attacks cannot achieve critical successes. That means heroes trying to do the “right thing” are hamstringing themselves. (And on a related note, the Blast power can’t be used non-lethally at all.)
The combat section covers a number of fancy combat maneuvers, although many more moves fall under Masteries, and what I consider the coolest move of all, the Silent Takedown, is actually a Specialty of the Stealth Skill. Remember the Dark Knight yanking the hapless goons into the darkness in Batman Begins? There you go.
These are the game’s version of Fate/Drama/Hero Points and can be used to add dice to a roll, to re-roll, or to assume a degree of narrative control. The big difference here is that the dice are a communal resource, the use of which must be agreed upon by all players, despite the fact that the GM replenishes the pool when challenging the individual characters’ flaws, memories, motivations, or stances — or when the players roleplay these aspects particularly well of their own volition. What this means, of course, is that less active roleplayers will benefit from the actions of more active roleplayers. This arrangement didn’t grate on anyone in my group as far as I could tell, but then, most everyone contributed to the roleplaying equally.
Also, you may notice that I didn’t mention damage reduction in the list of Vigilance Dice applications. That’s correct: They don’t do that. Again, gritty.
The artwork is pretty mediocre throughout. There’s nothing truly ugly about it, but nothing particularly eye-catching other than the cover art. The writing, by contrast, does a great job of evoking the gritty feel of the setting. No typos stood out to me, and the layout keeps the book very readable.
Cold Steel Wardens does exactly what it sets out to do: Presenting a grim-and-gritty world of morally ambiguous Iron Age superheroic crimefighting. Aside from a few system tweaks, I’d say the main problem with the game is, perhaps, simulating the source material a little too well. As previously mentioned, not only are Iron Age superheroics dangerous, but they’re also a pain in the ass. Imagine having to even consider taking a cab to a stakeout, for example.
The thing is, though, that such problems may well be more of a feature than a flaw to those likely to enjoy this game, just as dealing with the filth and drudgery of the Warhammer world can be seen as a feature of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. As such, I have to give this game high marks for a job well done.