Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #7

As if to prove that my top ten is not all nostalgic waffling, my seventh favourite role-playing game ever was published this century, is one that I do not own, and is one that I have played only twice, and that was four years ago.

Twice? Four years ago? What kind of skullduggery is this?

Well, the truth is that if I had played Cold City any more than I have to date it is possible that it would be higher in my list than it is, because the thrill I felt when playing it was much like that I felt when I first played my number one game. It is that good. Or rather, I think it is that good, it just has one near-fatal flaw.

The default setting for the game is Berlin just after the Second World War and the players take the roles of members of a special unit dedicated to rooting out Nazi secrets of a more esoteric sort. It's sort of like B.P.R.D. 1946, except each player-character is torn -- or perhaps not -- between their loyalty to the Reserve Police Agency and their own national government; no two player-characters can represent the same Allied power so competing agendas are in play right from the start.

On top of that each character has a personal goal that can clash with or complement those of their home nation, and a pool of trust points that must be spent on the other player-characters in anticipation of the game to come; in brief, if a player-character you trust helps you during the game you can use those trust points when attempting to complete the task or action, but if they turn on you -- perhaps as a result of competing secret objectives -- those same points can be used against you!

The system is a simple one. Characters are defined by three attributes and a handful of traits and all tests are based on rolling a number of ten-sided dice equal to the relevant attribute, augmented by traits and trust points but reduced by disadvantages or injury. Rolling is reserved for significant events and the success or failure of a roll can affect the character, leading to the development of a new trait; for example a firefight may be resolved in a single opposed roll, with the loser -- if not killed or incapacitated -- gaining "niggling shoulder wound" as a negative trait that would affect relevant rolls from then on.

I could be getting that wrong as it has been four years since I played it and I've never read the rules, but that's more or less how we played it. The point is that the mechanics are simple and get out of the way of the fun stuff, which is juggling all the different, often opposing, objectives while trying to stop some horrible Nazi occult weapon escaping into the Berlin streets, where it is of no benefit to Uncle Sam a danger to civilisation.

The simple addition of both a trust mechanic and reasons for player-characters to distrust each other lifts this great little title above most other investigative horror type games. With that said, why have I not played it more often and why is it not higher in the list? The simple answer -- as Stuart says in one of the summaries linked above -- Cold City doesn't lend itself well to campaign play; given enough time characters can become long lists of special traits that can be applied in some combination to any task and the system falls apart a little as a result. I enjoy the game too much to let it end up like that, so that's why I haven't played it since 2010.

That said, it must be about time for another go.

Next: Dungeons and Dragons' red-headed step-child, but not the one you think.

4 comments:

  1. I think some of my issues were fixed in Hot War, the follow up game. I note also that the trust mechanic has been picked up in Night's Black Agents and in Tremulus. I am sure Cold City can be tweaked to accommodate longer campaign play, although PC attrition can be high. I was betrayed and killed in the first ever game of it I played...:)

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  2. Interesting. I'd honestly never heard of this game until Scott Dorward spent a whole episode talking it up (along with its cousin, Hot War) on the Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast. It's one of his all-time favorites as well. Was this a game that was primarily marketed in the UK? Or did I just miss the hype when it first came out? Rhetorical questions!

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    1. I'd never heard of it either, until Stuart ran it for us. He first encountered it at a convention -- UK Games Expo, I think -- but perhaps he can tell us more.

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  3. I played in a game of it at UK Games Expo, back in about 2007 or so. It was run by the designer, Malcolm Craig, who'd just got back from a year backpacking around the world. He did a degree in Cold War history. I'd be happy to run it again, and it is a great game to run at conventions. The book is an A5 softback, and surprisingly thin, but as Kelvin says, it is very rules light.

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