Review : Cloak of Steel

By James Desborough, Post Mortem Studios, $10 PDF

Cloak of Steel is a game of Anime-inspired giant mecha combat in a fantasy world. It’s a PDF from RPGNOW.COM and an OGL product, so it uses lots of familiar D20-style notation. However, there’s a fair few tweaks to make for a “more cinematic” experience, more on this later.

First thing you notice is that it’s got some great manga illustrations, of a quality much akin to Exalted. For a PDF is’s got some very nice design quality and lovingly prepared maps. It’s pretty obvious that lots of effort went into the production design.  A few illustations are re-used, but for a small-press game we can forgive them that. It has PDF bookmarks, which make navigating it onscreen very easy.

Cloak of Steel is set on the world of Teirplana, and we get 70-odd page rundown of its various continents, seas, nations, gods and races. All with illustrations of characters, iconography and Cloak (mecha) types. That’s quite a lot compared to some PDFs I’ve seen, and it almost suffers from being too dense to pick up anything at first reading (there’s everything from calender and language details to ocean writeups and approprate names).

This is a background heavy setting, so it would probably need a summary for the casual player. There’s lots of setting colour to pick up and run with here as a GM: We have a flat earth, a variety of nation states vying for supremacy, some religious factions, civil wars, all ripe for possible conflicts to use in game.

Character creation is described in a solidly organised way. You can play humans or a varity of half-animal breeds. All the typical hybrids are here, but it’s good to see a game with Badgerfolk and Toadmen in too. Character creation is basically a modified D20 one, with abilities, skills and feats, but no classes. Instead of classes, you choose 15 skills that your character can learn more easily. Starting stats and their maximums are determined by age category. There’s a section of Bonuses and Detriments, background traits to tweak your character at creation. It’s nice to see this in an OGL context. Another addition to OGL is dividing hit points up by location. I’m not sure how appropriate this is to the setting, but that’s a taste thing.

Combat gets a big section, as you might expect from a game that owes something to D20 (roll, add numbers, compare with target). Characters get 3 normal actions and 3 reactive actions (dodging, parrying, reflecive attacks) a turn. The three actions make combat fast against weaker opponants, especially when combined with hero points. In addition, you can use an extra action to perform a stunt, narating a cool maneauver, rolling the two actions and gaining bonuses to the results and extra hero points. Again, reminiscent of Exalted, but that’s not a bad thing.

Rules wise vehicles, and Cloaks in particular, get a good deal of explanation. Cloaks (and their smaller cousins, Squires) get their own feats to buy, which make each suit nicely unique. There’s lots of equipment for you to arm your characters and their not-quite-mecha with. There are also rules for airships, and I’m a sucker for airships, so was pleased by their inclusion.

The Magick (yes, with a K) section has some cool spells and trinkets to play with; From golem-arm bionics to clockwork guns. Spells are briefly described with lightning and curses and all the effects you’d expect. The different styles of magic add flavour, from magic based on sacrifice to sword magic, the varieties tie in to information given in the background chapter. Spells use Mana points (a new derived attibute) to be enacted, not revolutionary, but very workable.

There are plenty of suggestions for adversaries and monster design, along with special powers for them. There’s also advice on converting from standard D20 stat blocks to the CLoak of Steel variant.

Cloak of Steel sells itself as cinematic, and whilst more cinematic than normal OGL/D20 it’s a long way off something like octaNe, since it retains a good whack of tactical-style play. It does have things like Hero points to soften some of the sharper system edges, but your 6 second rounds, hit points and modifiers are still here. Now obviously, depending on your tastes, this could be a good thing, but it clashes with my personal definition of cinematic.

There are a few places where the text slightly irked me, typical things like telling you not to do things that the rules seemingly encourage. But generally the text flowed well and leaves you with a good feel for the game and world.

Overall: Cloak of Steel is a solid RPG product. It’s pretty heavy on rules, and its tweaks on the OGL/D20 system seem solidly thought out. It’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but if you like anime-inspired fantasy, mecha, or D20 tweaks it’s definitely worth a look.

Review : 101 Fantasy Adventure Seeds

A set of scenario ideas for your typical fantasy game.

James Desborough, Portmortem Studios, $6.50 PDF

If ever there was a candidate for “doing exactly what it says on the tin”, then this is it. 101 Fantasy Adventure Seeds is a series of scenario ideas for fantasy games. No stats (since it’s not tied to a particular system), not much in the way of illustration (but not marred by this I might add), just ideas. Lots of them.

101 Fantasy Adventure Seeds is a PDF download, available at RPGNOW.com. It’s produced by Post Mortem studios, the publishing imprint of James Desborough, who did most of the work on the supplement himself. Considering that this is the case, he should be applauded. At $6.50 (about three quid) it won’t break the bank either.

If as GM you’ve ever been at a loss for ideas five minutes before a game (you know you have), and have needed ideas quickly, then this PDF is for you. It’s a series of scenarios for generic fantasy games, so here you’ll find all your staples of goblins, princes, merchants, vampires, dragons and so on. What you’ll also find is an entertainingly written set of adventure seeds. So if you’ve run out of ideas, get that nail file ready, since you’ll find it easy enough to remove the serial numbers from these and insert them into your game.

The tone of the writing is spot on. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but is helpful, amusing and friendly. It’s the type of book I’d recommend for a newbie GM, but sadly its PDF status will probably limit it to more experienced roleplayers, who won’t get the full benefit from it. That said, it would still be a handy resource for any busy GM.

Each scenario is a page long, so if you’re looking for detailed ideas then you won’t find it here. Despite this, each adventure idea is given a different spin in the space available. Every one has a series of twists to help spice it up, along with an idea of where to take things after resolution. Some also have a couple of general suggestions to help you along with running a game based on the ideas. I won’t detail any of the adventure ideas here, since they vary in approach quite a lot.

Generally the quality of idea is pretty good, and many have a nice moral twist applied to them that thoughtful groups will lap up. These occasional morality plays make the ideas stand out from other sets of adventure seeds I’ve read. Too often fantasy scenarios are black and white, but here we get a fair few morally grey areas to play in.

Are there any problems? Well, the copy editing is a bit ropey in places, and some sentences run on a bit. Considering the author did everything himself I think he can be excused these, since many more “professional” publications suffer from the exact same problems. Also, with 101 ideas to choose from there’s going to be a few that you like and a few that you loathe, but that’s just ‘cos there’s so much choice.

Overall: If you never have a bad day when the inspiration fails to flow, then you won’t need this. If you have plenty of experience as a Ref/DM/GM/ST you probably could come up with these yourself given time. If time is short, and you need a kickstart for a game, then 101 fantasy adventure ideas is a good place to begin.