The Riddle of Steel
Author: Driftwood Publishing (Jake Norwood)
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2002-07-24
The Riddle of Steel is published by Driftwood Publishing, owned by Jake Norwood, who wrote the bulk of, designed the bulk of, and partly illustrated the game. It sits squarely in the same ecomorphological category as Obsidian (1999): a gorgeous, standard-size hardback, produced entirely on the dreams, sweat, and debt of a core group of role-players. Just like the Apophis Consortium, these weren't industry freelancers who decided to publish their own game, but rather a group of folks who said, "Hey, we can do it better than what we've been paying for all these years." Just publishing in the first place is work enough, but the real achievement is that TROS is no heartbreaker, but a fine and innovative role-playing game.
The publishing strategy was risky, but it worked. They promoted the game to a number of stores, took some pains to have it "approved" by a western combat-simulation organization (ARMA), and set up a small fan base through store demonstrations. Then they printed 300 copies at a substantial cost as the starting point, then showed up at Origins to make a splash. Many game companies have tried this model, to fail miserably. Why has it worked out for Driftwood?
1) They have a great game that actually pays off in play. Role-players are so used to getting feverishly hyped about an upcoming game, to buying it indiscriminately, and then playing it to ill effect, only to get feverishly hyped about the next upcoming game, that an actual good game is like a bolt from heaven. But this, by itself, is not enough.
2) They (or Norwood, specifically) went to great pains to fact-find regarding publishing. He arrived at Origins knowing that his primary goal was to establish a fulfillment contract that met his needs, just as I had done the previous year.
3) They utilized the internet to establish a real fan-base, and this is where the payoff hit big. Jake Norwood quickly established an on-line presence as a responsive, friendly, and yet always disciplined correspondent. RPG.net is the place to be in order to attract the casual game customer, and interacting in both a friendly and firm way on those forums is the way to attract more of them. The TROS thread broke all records of use and interest even at that well-traveled site, and a hastily-established PayPal button at the home website led, beyond expectation, to selling out of that initial print run.
In combination, #1-3 did exactly what they should - promoted the success of the game, without relying solely on the vagaries and fears of the three-tier distribution process. It worked for Apophis, it worked for Orkworld (my comments on Orkworld's finances are available in my review), and it worked for Sorcerer (whose "first print run" was electronic). The lesson could not be clearer.
I have already posted some extensive comments about the game in both the Actual Play forum and the TROS forum at the Forge, as well as on the enormous RPG.net thread associated with the game. Some of what follows is lifted from my posts there.
Yes, he's going on about GNS again
The Riddle of Steel includes multiple text pieces regarding the thematic drive of the game, which I have paraphrased to the Premise: "What is worth killing for?" It also includes a tremendously detailed, in-game-causal combat system. My call is that we are looking at Narrativist-Simulationist hybrid design, with the latter in a distinctly subordinate/supportive role. This is a scary and difficult thing to do.
The first game to try it was RuneQuest. Realism, so-called, was supposed to be the foundation for heroic, mythic tale-creation. However, without metagame mechanics or any other mechanisms regarding protagonism, the realism-Sim took over, and RuneQuest became, essentially, a wargame at the individual level. The BRP (RuneQuest) system is right up there with AD&D and Champions in terms of its historical influence on other games, and no game design attempted to "power Narrativism with Simulationist combat" from the ground up again. I can even see dating the false dichotomy of "roll vs. role playing" back to this very moment in RPG history.
One functional solution to the problem, as illustrated for just about every Narrativist game out there, is to move combat mechanics very far into the metagame realm: Sorcerer, Castle Falkenstein, The Dying Earth, Zero, Orkworld, Hero Wars, and The Pool take that road to various distances, and it works. Until recently, I would have said these and similar designs presented the only functional solution from a Narrativism-first perspective.
However, The Riddle of Steel is like a guy waving his hand in the back of the room -"Scuse me, scuse me, what about that first road? I'm not ready to jettison that idea yet." It's as if someone stepped into The Chaosium in 1977, and said, "Hey, you know, if you don't put some kind of player-modulated personality mechanic in there, this game is going to be all about killing monsters and collecting Clacks." This didn't happen in 1977, and that's why RuneQuest play was often indeed all about those things. But it's happened now ...
I won't go into every nuance of the mechanics of the game, but here's my overall point. Reward systems generate value systems. In role-playing, reward systems are usually expressed through increased effectiveness and in some cases increased "author power," or ability to influence the game thematically through the character's actions. In The Riddle of Steel, these elements of design aim unerringly toward one thing: the character as a philosophical statement and the insistence that playingthe game should be about something. The rhetoric of character creation, scenario design, and other mechanics aspects of the game all say this, throughout the book, but as I say, the meat is in the mechanics of the reward system, and here's where the game really shines. It's all in what are called the Spiritual Attributes, which are discussed in some detail later in the review. For now, I cite The Riddle of Steel as perhaps the best example ever published of hard-core Narrativist design that uses Simulationism, sub-set "realism" as an auxiliary motor to support the primary goal.
Obsidian, I think, is probably the nearest equivalent, as it too relies on a heavy-Sim combat and resolution system, with an overlay of Narrativist reward system. However, the relative roles and interactions between the two are much more integrated in TROS, and it also has an exceptionally significant metagame mechanic which is lacking in Obsidian.
One concern that faces such a game is in hooking the wrong fish - that is, if a person is drawn to the game due to its realistic, gritty, gut-ripping combat as a first priority, then they may discover that in application, some "other thing" is going on. Jake Norwood is quite blunt about this and considers it a feature rather than a bug. Basically, he has no sympathy: such a person adapts to the thematic goals of play or stops playing, because his character keeps getting maimed. (I kinda like this attitude, as it matches my own regarding people who are flummoxed by certain features of Sorcerer.) Another functional solution, of course, is Simulationist Drift, and some evidence on the forums suggests that a certain subset of TROS fans have already headed in that direction.
At first glance, TROS combat offers little that we haven't seen in multiple editions of RuneQuest and Rolemaster: tons of weapons with a variety of features involving length and weight, multiple combat maneuvers, extensive damage tables full of text about arteries, variables like Pain, Shock, and Blood Loss, and still more. At first glance, it's a tome of 80s-style Simulationist, subclass Realism. However ... there is a "however," a big one. Before getting to it, I'll describe the basics.
Attack and defense are handled simultaneously, through allocating dice to each from one's "Combat Pool," for both combatants. Under most circumstances, attacking someone means they may well be, automatically, "attacking you back."
Thus combat is resolved through a series of clashes rather than a series of isolated actions; the point is to avoid that "freeze-frame" effect in which one character, when that player's turn comes around, gets to act in a world of statues, and then the turn moves to the next player or to the GM, etc. (This feature, which is touted as "real time combat" in the rules and also as "unique" in role-playing, is already familiar to most of us who've played a variety of the newer designs out there, particularly Zero and Sorcerer.)
Damage is brutal. Therefore fights tend to favor the side with the most people and/or the side who ambushes the other, as well as those individuals who commit heavily to offense without being stupid. There's a steep learning curve to the combat system, but it does pay off, especially since what is learned is actually sensible - under most circumstances, evasive action and capitalizing on an opponent's over-extension are the best way to go.
On the whole, the combat system deserves its recent recognition as one of the finest detailed-event combat systems in role-playing. It's not without some rough spots. The initiative rules, which unlike many RPGs are necessary and interesting in TROS, include some overly-complex options. The rules for ties aren't very coherent. The system itself includes modifiers for both (a) target number and (b) number of dice rolled, and the botch rules result in a higher-attribute individual getting a worse botch, if it occurs (Norwood suggests that it takes a real expert to screw things up royally, and I admit he has a point). Some of the individual weapons and maneuvers modifiers approach paragraph-level lists, such that the emphasis on individual distinction among circumstances threatens to become the main effort of conducting combat.
In terms of ease of learning, TROS is about the same as RuneQuest (ie hefty), but a lot less frustrating in actual play. It's more toward the search-and-handling level of Cyberpunk, or even Star Wars (the original) once you get used to it, with much more specific and detailed outcomes and effects.
I think the only RPG that has approached combat similarly is Swashbuckler from Jolly Roger Games. The two games have a lot of similarities. (1) They share a commitment to the intensity of combat in terms of player identification with the process, in part through the players choosing specific maneuvers, in part due to simultaneous resolution. (2) They have no "hit points:" - people hit the dirt by failing attribute rolls, which gets easier to do as resisted hits accumulate. (3) Skill values do not stack to increase fighting proficiency; the mechanics for skill use and those of fighting are almost entirely separate.
The main difference between the games is instructive. Swashbuckler combat is largely defined, exchange to exchange, by whatever moves were performed in the previous exchange. Each maneuver has a limited range of possible following maneuvers, and the authors did an exceptional job of picking "flows" that match cinematic sword combat. Just where a blow lands, or what combination of blood loss and pain takes a combatant down, are handled through Drama.
By contrast, The Riddle of Steel combat is largely defined, exchange to exchange, by whoever hit or didn't (retained or gained initiative), and by the specific damage done to a specific body part, defined mainly through attendant shock, pain, and blood loss. Just how a blow (taking or receiving) feeds into the body postures and the next exchange's options is handled through Drama.
They both work. They both achieve an immediacy of decision-making within the context of specific maneuvers that role-players often crave. And to my way of thinking, both benefit from leaving certain aspects of the combat events open to colorizing through Drama, rather than nailing down every last detail procedurally. However, exactly what is formalized, and what is left "open," is the opposite for these games.
Now for that big "However."
Historically, personality mechanics are used in two ways: (1) as a kind of mental hit points (as in Call of Cthulhu) and (2) as a set of parameters which a character should not stray from without being penalized (alignment in AD&D; psychological disadvantages as in Champions or GURPS). Recently, a lot of games are using them as "pumps" instead of limits, and The Riddle of Steel provides a really solid example of this trend. Wedding this idea to sword-and-sorcery is, in my view, something that role-playing has needed for a very long time.
In other words, the title of the game is not just fluff. It's about what kind of hero you, the player, think is the most important kind.
A character has several Spiritual Attributes, named variously as Faith, Passion, Honor, and similar, and specified by the player. They act as metagame mechanics on any other roll you make, if the Passion or whatever applies to the situation. In other words, fighting some random schmoe uses the plain old combat rules (speed, weapon, etc, etc), but fighting the Six-Fingered Man gets you all sorts of bonuses since your various personality scores are involved.
People who have been drawn by the ultra-gritty combat system often miss this point. Sure, you can get two to five bonus dice in a given combat exchange by picking and choosing your combat maneuvers carefully. But if your Spiritual Attributes are firing in tandem, you can have up to twenty-five extra dice, many of them re-usable! There's just no comparison: given competent opponents, a player who does not make use of these Attributes will see his character die screaming; a player who does can and will often triumph.
Another aspect to this system is that the Spiritual Attributes are exceptionally dynamic and "pump-able" during play. To understand how, three things must be understood to interact: (a) these Attributes are capped at 5, (b) they go up and down depending on the character's behavior, and (c) they may be spent permanently (as opposed to "used") to improve various features of the character, such as attributes.
For instance, let's say I've maxed my character's Drive, Passion, and Destiny, and they all apply to the current situation in a big way.
Scene A: I've used those 15 extra dice to get into milady's bed-chamber, in time to prevent the assassin from killing my lover (who's disguised as milady, blah blah).
Scene B: I spend those 15 dice, right now, to improvement some things (whatever: Proficiencies, Attributes, buy off a Flaw, doesn't matter as long as I haven't improved it or them already this session). Note that my three SA's are all now flat zero.
Scene C: While we are escaping the tower, we get hammered by enemies who again represent a fine instance to exercise Passion, Drive, and Destiny. Great! I fight like a bastard without any SA help ('cept now it's time to spend my Luck, say). But I go up at least one point in Destiny, Drive, and Passion, due to my actions. Cool!
Then, during Scene C, on the next exchange, I have three to five SA dice to add, right there. Same thing happens through the next round, if I live through it - and, although it might take a scene or two, I'll be back up to 5 in all three of those SA's within the foreseeable future.
Therefore, right there during play, not only does my character improve in the "hard" elements of his sheet, but all manner of dramatic music and intense bonus-ing is going on the whole time.
My favorite example in play so far, regarding an NPC, was the Destiny "to die in a ditch" combined with a Drive to captain the best mercenary troop. Therefore, in combat with the player-character regarding control over the troop, in a ditch, the NPC gained huge bonuses when the combat turned against him - hence rallying, and putting the player-character in serious trouble.
Also, unlike many personality mechanics in role-playing games, they can actually change their nature almost at will; if two are brought to zero either gradually (through role-playing "against" them) or immediately (through spending them on improvement) then the player may change one to another. Hence a Destiny may be achieved, a Passion abandoned, or whatever.
Therefore the big creative task for the GM is to provide situations in which Spiritual Attributes are either highly coordinated or highly opposed. The first two sessions of play, in our group, brought a character's Destiny to become the new Voivode, his Passion for the Voivode's wife, his Drive to drive out foreign invaders, and his Faith in his religion all into play, for solid 20-die bonuses to most of his rolls during a big battle scene. But after that, his Faith and his Passion came into conflict as his lover turned out to be opposed to the Church, and as it turned out, his new Voivode status became exploited by a more subtle invader, putting his Destiny at odds with his Drive. So now the player is in the process of making hard choices for his character and possibly changing his Spiritual Attribute profile, right there in the middle of conflict situations during play - in other words, in the process of true authorship in highly-focused Narrativist role-playing.
The final mechanic based on the Spiritual Attributes is called Insight, which is spending them. One keeps a running tally of how many are spent, and the total amount contributes to the effectiveness of one's new player-character, should this one happen to die. I like this idea in many ways, especially the interesting concept of, during a climactic scene, of spending off all 25 points - thus losing one's bonuses, possibly with fatal results - and getting a really great character made to carry on. It's one of the first "dramatic death" mechanics I've seen that could work off of already-existing game elements, rather than being imposed through a secondary mechanic. The only objection I have to these rules is the amount of bookkeeping involved.
The Sorcery chapter underwent a major revision between the first print run and the new one; the original prose was pretty half-baked. The newer version is much better explained. However, Norwood admits to downplaying or even ignoring sorcery in most of his games. I think the full potential (or hidden flaw, if there is one) of the system remains unrealized.
Magic in TROS is handled through components, or concept-categories, which may be applied singly or in combinations. For instance, one might have Conquer 3, Movement 2, and Summoning 3; hence one might cast a spell of Summoning (1, 2, or 3) or some version of Summoning (1-3) + Movement (1-2), etc. There are nine components (Vagaries) to choose from; their mechanics are almost the same as the combat mechanics, that is, dice allocations from a central Pool.
It's pretty wide open stuff in terms of specific application. "I summon a fire-breathing pterodactyl!" is not an unreasonable statement. Neither is, "I blow his head off in a fine mist of spraying blood!" In fact, the latter is a rather minor spell. This kind of power isn't entirely unfamiliar to Hero Wars, Sorcerer, or The Pool players, but to most role-players, it borders on nightmarish. In TROS, the most frightening aspect is that the sorcerer character is not limited in number and variety of spells - only by the degree and the mode of application (one's Vagaries), and those are easily raised after only a few sessions of play.
Magic use is subdivided into several logistic categories as well, ranging from fully improvisational, to formalized, dormant, and more. A fairly complex relationship holds between these categories, casting time, and the target number (difficulty) of the spell. In fact, that target number is one of the more high-search-time features of the entire rules set, and I suspect that a hell of a lot of fudging ("oh, 10, 15") goes on in actual play.
The primary constraint on magic use is a personal health-variable, specifically aging. At the most basic level, it's old-school: magic harms the body, so its use is strategized relative to character survival. The "magic fueled by hit points" idea first appeared in The Fantasy Trip in the late 70s, and the usual modified version, found in dozens of games, is to have magic use be fatiguing (endurance points, fatigue points, etc, etc). However, the TROS version is the first time I've seen it applied specifically to age, which I think is awfully interesting.
After all, when you're playing Abbatz the Magic Guy in the dungeon, who cares whether he's 20, 30, 50, or 80 years old? He's a pile of spells, and spells are there to be used. However, sorcerers in this game suddenly take on a whole different realm of strategizing - for instance, it's almost impossible to play an NPC who "just doesn't care" about how old he or she gets through casting spells. It's so basic to care about this issue, and yet this issue is so rare in traditional role-playing, that all of a sudden TROS magic becomes unique after all - old-school as the basic constraint-idea may be. I'm interested in learning, over time and extensive play, how much the aging issue does or doesn't matter as a constraint relative to the time-scale of specific games.
Using sorcery increases the complexity or rules-attention in play significantly. One must deal with Target Number (including previous skill rolls in some cases), the spending and refreshing of the Sorcery Pool (which does not "spring back" automatically like the Combat Pool does), Aging resistance rolls and potential fainting rolls, and possible resistance from the spell's target. The tables and explanations for all of these things are clear, and the system itself is not broken - it works - but my point is not to sugar-coat the fact that TROS with magic is, essentially, double or more-than-double the rules-effort in play.
As with combat, the Spiritual Attributes step into a central role for magic during play. They are tremendously significant to magic use, when they can be used in tandem. A 25-dice modifier to one's Sorcery Pool is ... mind-shattering, especially taking into account that they apply separately to one's resist-aging rolls. A sorcerer character with this sort of thematic dice-motor in action is arguably god-like in his or her power.
I have found sorcery to present some difficult concerns in play, from the GM side of things. One of these days, I'd like very much to play a sorcerer player-character for an extended game, to see what it's like, but that hasn't happened yet. The difficulties arise in managing the sorcerer character's Spiritual Attributes, dormant spells, and improvised spells. One has to spin two dials: (1) the target-number calculations for the spells themselves, and (2) the pool-allocation management, which means spell-roll vs. aging-roll for each of the spells currently under way.
Clearly, a GM can't devote the some kind of in-play attention to these things as a player can, and the result (for me, anyway) is a lot of fumbling about and time-outs while I try to figure out what the hell the sorcerer will do. On at least two occasions, player actions have essentially flummoxed me because the rules for sorcery occupy the weird space between "open" and "fixed" that I describe above, and the necessary mental work to respond requires that all the other acts of GMing have to get shut off for a while. All this may be my own personal problem, but I'd be very interested in learning what other GMs have done or experienced in play. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of "pop in and out" scenes for sorcerer NPCs, to reduce the amount of interactive impact between player-characters and sorcerer.
Setting and context
I've been on record for a long time suggesting that many RPGs benefit from emphasing either character or setting, prior to play, but not both. To stick with my general comparison, Obsidian does well with this by providing a rich setting and starting with sketchy characters who rapidly achieve depth through play. TROS succeeds equally well by doing the opposite. The depth of the setting is just right relative to the passionate and driving quality of the starting player-character.
The rulebook provides "Weyrth," another of many role-playing settings which I suspect were generated because playing plain old pre-industrial Earth was perceived as boring, even though that's what the designers wanted to do. It reads to me like a bit of a punt: Weyrth is central and eastern Europe, c. 1450-1600, with the rest of the world squeezed into the edges of the continent. I think it would have worked better for the setting to have remained smaller, mainly Poland and its neighbors including Italy, and to have signs saying "the orient is that way" pointing off the map. Part of my reasoning comes from my perception that the Polish, German, Hungarian, and Italian elements of the setting are superb and fascinating, whereas most of the rest (the England-equivalent, the Japan-equivalent, etc) has a sketchy and Hollywood feel to it.
The slightly bland effect of these parts of the setting also creeps in with the text's "bladeslinger" concept, i.e., the option for a character to be more-or-less a "wandering fighter." The rest of the character creation options are grounded very firmly in a given character's culture and role in society (much as in Hero Wars), which makes the bladeslinger especially odd-looking. My play of the game is set in the Hungarian-Polish equivalent
I do like how Norwood did a cunning job of incorporating historical religions and cultures into a fictional world-history, such that both the Borgia popes and the Orthodox Church are recognizable in the Three-in-One church of Weyrth. He also provides a fictional equivalent to the Judeo-Christian tradition by having, essentially, the medieval versions of Judaic, Christian, and Muslim world-history be represented as "takes" on the same story, and I think it ranks among the best RPG prose and concept regarding religions, especially in fantasy games.
Driftwood Publishing is clearly a rising star in role-playing, both from a business and a design perspective. This game may well be the "door" that many have been looking for - it attracts folks who value many aspects of old-school play, especially elements of detailed in-game-causal combat, but it rewards effort and attention toward thematic content on the part of the players, as well as gives them exceptional control over what that content will be.