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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Iron Age Vigilantism

Most superhero RPGs, whether it is TSR’s Marvel Superheroes, Mutants & Masterminds from Green Ronin Publishing, or Arc Dream Publishing’s Wild Talents, tend to take a broad approach to their sources. So they have to take in Four Colour superheroics as much as they do gritty street action. Thus they have to encompass Thor or Superman as much as they do Daredevil or The Question. Now this can be an issue in a game where the players want to play heroes of differing power levels. Not so in Cold Steel Wardens: Roleplaying in the Iron Age of Comics where the power options are low and the shadows are deep. For this superhero RPG the inspirations are specific—the Dark Age of comics when following the publication of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the heroes turned inward and reflective, becoming more human amidst grittier, more realistic, often more violent stories that frequently dealt with social issues. This was coupled with the rise of the anti-hero, of which the Punisher is the leading example.

Of course, the typical superhero RPG will support one type of game by releasing a sub-genre specific supplement. For example, Dark Champions for Hero Games’ HERO System, whilst Green Ronin Publishing released Iron Age for Mutants & Masterminds, Second Edition. Of course, Cold Steel Wardens is an RPG all of its very own, one that like those supplements, harks back to the 1980s. Originally launched on Kickstarter, Cold Steel Wardens: Roleplaying in the Iron Age of Comics is published by Blackfall Press via Chronicle City. It comes with a complete set of rules for gritty vigilantism and low powered superheroism, GM advice, and a grim city setting, essentially everything necessary to play a game in which the heroes are principled if flawed, prepared to break the law, even kill, to uphold what is right, what is honourable, and of course, justice. There is though, a hurdle to overcome first.


Cold Steel Wardens uses what it called the MAFIANAP mechanic. Which has to be as inelegant a name as a horse on roller skates or Dick Cheney in a tutu. It makes sense when you realise that MAFIANAP is actually the initials for the game’s attributes or Vitals—Magnetism (charisma), Accuracy, Force, Intellect, Agility, Nerve, Awareness, and Psyche. It is also probably a nod to ‘FASERIP’, the very similar name for the mechanics in TSR’s Marvel Superheroes, but that still does not mean that it is as inelegant as—well, see my earlier comment.

Creating a character involves points from two pools. First, thirty-two points are divided between the eight Vitals, and then eighty-five points are spent on skills, (skill) masteries, and powers. Skills are rated between one and fifteen and a character needs to have a minimum of one in a skill to do anything related to it. For every three levels of a skill purchased, the character receives a speciality. For example, Gambling for the Deception skill or High Society for Canvass. A speciality typically grants bonus dice when it comes into play. Masteries are essentially advantages derived from particular skills, for example, Staredown requires Intimidation 6 and Speciality—The Stare. A character also has two Flaws, but can have more for extra points. Lastly, every character has at least one Memory, one Motivation, and one Stance, each of them a roleplaying hook that the GM can reward for being played and to drive a player character to act.

Codename: Yōkai Secret Identity: Fukui Chinatsu
Age: 29 Height: 4’10” Weight: 120 lbs.
Magnetism: 3 Accuracy: 5 Force: 4 Intellect: 3 
Agility: 5 Nerve: 4 Awareness: 4 Psyche: 4 
DV: 9 Pace: 7 Wealth & Status: 3
Strain: 15 Physical: 5 Mental: 5 

Physical Skills: Armed Melee (3+5), Armed Ranged (6+5), Athletics (3+4), Stealth (3+5), Unarmed Combat (6+5)
Physical Specialities: Acrobatics (+1d), Chain Weapons (+1d), Bow (+2d), Move Silently (+1d), Unarmed Damage (+2d)
Investigative Skills: Canvas (2+3), Examination (3+4), Investigation (3+4), Notice (3+4), Research (3+3), 
Investigative Specialities: Appraisal (+1d), Quick-Analysis (+1d), Keen Hearing (+1d), Newspapers (+1d)
Social Skills: Deception (3+3), Intimidation (3+4), Intuition (3+4), Persuasion (3+3), Reputation (3+3)
Social Specialities: Disguise (+1d), ‘The Stare’ (+1d), Negotiation (+1d), Criminals (+1d) 
Knowledge Skills: Criminal (3+3), Cultural (5+3), Esoteric (5+3), Historical (3+3), Scientific (3+3)
Knowledge Specialities: Crime Families (+1d), Philosophy (+1d), Myths & Legends (+1d), Japanese History (+1d), Medicine (+1d)
Technical Skills: Driving (1+5), Fine Manipulation (1+5), Mechanics (3+3), Piloting (1+5), Vehicle Combat (1+5)
Technical Specialities: Sabotage (+1d)
Flaws/Injuries/Psychoses: Hunted, Uncultured, Layman, Merciful
Masteries: Judo, Combat Style; Archery, Combat Style; Cult Affiliation; Quick; Artist
Powers: None
Memory: The face of the child whose family she had to kill
Motivation: To destroy the Society of Imminent Harmony
Stance: There must be justice and honour
Major Equipment: Bow, Arrows, Throwing Stars, Kevlar Costume

Background: Raised as a child in the Society of Imminent Harmony, Chinatsu was trained as an arm of the society, which is dedicated to the survival and glory of Japan—through any means. She has killed for the cult, she has broken into buildings for the cult, and more. She was devoted to the cult; it was her father, her mother, and more. At first, she never had any compulsion against killing, but then she baulked at killing children. She discovered that she could not kill the innocent and she was rebuked for her failure to serve the cult. She was ordered to complete the task, but instead of doing so she fled, killing the cult’s minders sent to ensure that she was truly devout. The cult has not only disowned her, but placed a bounty on her. She has found a place in America where she is living as a Japanese exchange student and artist. At night she strikes at the cult and its criminal activities as well as those of other gangs and organisations with links to the cult.

There is also the option to purchase Powers and if a hero has one or more Powers, then their source—for example, magic or mutation—needs to be defined. The selection available is limited to just twenty five and for the most part they are expensive to purchase as their power levels also need to be purchased too. Just like skills, for every three levels of a Power, a character can have an Optional attribute, an extra benefit for the Power. For example, a hero with Phasing might select ‘Carrier’ which allows him to use Phasing on another person or for Elasticity, the hero can ‘Wrap’ or entangle a target. Ranging from Adhesion, Affliction, and Alter Emotions to Telekinesis, Teleport, and Toughness, these Powers tend to be fairly low level and it would be very expensive to attempt to build anything near a Four Colour superhero. That said, there is nothing here to stop a player creating low level versions of characters such Spiderman, Daredevil, Bloodshot, Green Arrow, Kitty Pryde, and so on.

Codename: Haunt Secret Identity: Regina Mowbray
Age: 25 Height: 5’5” Weight: 135 lbs.
Magnetism: 5 Accuracy: 3 Force: 3 Intellect: 5
Agility: 3 Nerve: 5 Awareness: 4 Psyche: 4
DV: 7 (10) Pace: 5 Wealth & Status: 11
Strain: 12 Physical: 4 Mental: 4

Physical Skills: Armed Melee (1+3), Armed Ranged (5+3), Athletics (3+3), Stealth (3+3), Unarmed Combat (3+3)
Physical Specialities: Pistol (+1d), Gymnastics (+1d), Stakeout (+1d), Unarmed Damage (+1d)
Investigative Skills: Canvas (1+5), Examination (1+4), Investigation (2+4), Notice (1+4), Research (1+5)
Investigative Specialities: None
Social Skills: Deception (5+5), Intimidation (1+5), Intuition (3+4), Persuasion (3+5), Reputation (3+5)
Social Specialities: Bluffing (+1d), Gambling (+1d), Fast Talk (+1d), Aristocrats (+1d)
Knowledge Skills: Criminal (1+5), Cultural (3+5), Esoteric (1+5), Historical (1+5), Scientific (3+5)
Knowledge Specialities: Art (+1d), Psychology (+1d)
Technical Skills: Driving (3+3), Fine Manipulation (6+3), Mechanics (3+5), Piloting (1+3), Vehicle Combat (1+3)
Technical Specialities: Motorcycle (+1d), Lockpicking (+1d), Sleight of Hand (+1d), Electrical (+1d)
Flaws/Injuries/Psychoses: Coward, Loyalty
Masteries: John Woo, Combat Style; Gambler; Assets; Safe Cracker
Powers: Phasing (6d+4)
Optional Attributes: Organic Phasing, Combat Phasing
Source: Mutation
Memory: The darkness which blocks her memories
Motivation: To find out what happened to her
Stance: I will not take an innocent life
Major Equipment: Kevlar Costume, Glock 18 (×2)

Background: Regina knows that she is a gambler and that she has money. How she ended up in her current situation—able to become intangible—she cannot recall. She aims to find out though…

The MAFIANAP mechanic uses dice pools of ten-sided dice. To undertake an action, a character rolls a number of dice equal to the skill level, with results of six, seven, eight, and nine counting as a single hit, and rolls of ten counting as two. To the number of hits rolled are added the associated Vital. Specialities and Masteries increase the number of dice rolled. A Routine test difficulty is between six and eight, Difficult is between nine and eleven, Complex is between nine and eleven, and Impossible is between nine and eleven. Rolls that result in five or more Hits greater than the test difficulty are counted as being a Total Success. The difficulties for Vitals tests are set slightly lower.
For example, Yōkai is chasing an agent of the Society of Imminent Harmony who has fled into hotel suite. The window is open, as are the doors to the bathroom and bedroom. She wants to know where her quarry has fled. So Yōkai’s player rolls her Notice skill—three dice, plus the extra die for her Keen Hearing. She rolls 4, 6, 8, and 10. Two Hits plus another two Hits for the rolling of 10. To these four Hits are added Yōkai’s value for her Awareness Vital, for a total of eight Hits. This result puts it at the upper limit of Routine Tests and so the GM states that Yōkai hears the sound of movement coming from the bathroom.     
Combat uses the same mechanics, including rolling for damage. So a character rolls to attack, aiming to get more Hits than the target’s Defence Value (DV). Damage is then rolled according to the type of attack and suffered as Strain. A Total Success in combat is a Critical Hit, which doubles the number of dice rolled to determine damage and any damage inflicted also doing an injury to the target. Should a character suffer Strain enough to exceed his Physical (threshold), then he is also in danger of suffering an Injury, anything from an Abrasion and Bruised Ribs to Ruptured Organ and Spinal Column Tear, essentially temporary to terminal. Similarly, once a character suffers enough damage to exceed his Mental (threshold), he can also suffer from a Psychosis. Of course, both Injuries and Psychoses impede a character’s ability to act… 

The Strain mechanic is designed as a ‘downward spiral’, modelling the act of a hero pushing himself in the face of adversity, like that seen for example, in how Batman pushes himself in the storyline, Knightfall. This is supported by the fact that a hero can push himself to gain extra dice, but this comes at the cost of suffering yet more Strain. In addition all of the characters have access to a pool of Vigilance dice that can be used to add to Tests, to reroll a Test, or even temporarily gain Narrative control. The Vigilance pool is usually refreshed at the start of each session, but a GM can add to it if the heroes overcome obstacles caused by their Memories, Motivations, Stances, and Flaws.

For the GM, there is a guide to setting up investigations using the Pyramid structure (with the ‘big bad’ at the top), the Concept Map (essentially an interconnected map), and Event Based (driven by time rather the players’ actions). At just a few pages, this section feels just a little too short, though the examples of each do help. Likewise, the Gamemastering section is somewhat disappointing. Whilst the discussion of Iron Age tropes and of the controversial subjects often explored in the comics and investigation hooks are all worthy, the actual advice for the GM undermines itself. Advising the GM that there are no rules for him and that he should “Cheat anyway.” seems distinctly unfair and pointless especially after spent several pages giving out actual advice.

Although there is no advice on creating a setting, Cold Steel Wardens comes with its own setting—New Corinth. Otherwise known as ‘Smoke City’, it is modelled on various ‘Rust Belt’ cities by way of Batman’s Gotham and Green Arrow’s Star City. It feels a bit identikit in places, but comes with a good mix of nasty, nasty story hooks and write-ups for everything from mooks, made men, and masterminds, as well as sample heroes. Together with the investigation hooks, there is a lot to get out of New Corinth, a cesspit of a criminality and cynicism.

Cold Steel Wardens is a game of gritty superheroes and it has gritty mechanics to support it—especially in the rules for Strain and suffering Injury and Psychosis. Yet the game feels as if it should be simpler and the book as if it should be easier to use. Both hamper the use of the book—especially having to flip back and forth during character creation—and to a lesser extent running the game. Nevertheless, Cold Steel Wardens: Roleplaying in the Iron Age of Comics is a solid treatment of 1980s superheroic stories that showcases the author’s love for the Iron Age of Comics.

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