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.

Breaking Down the Wall

Article by Chris Michaud

If you flip through the manuals of the more popular role-playing games, almost every single one of them has a paragraph that reads something like this:

"Sometimes as a (Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Referee, et al), things might not go your way. An important character might have bad luck with the dice, and it may throw your game for a loop. In this case, it’s okay to cheat sometimes. You can do this by making all your rolls secretly behind our special cardstock screen, available for $9.95 at your local hobby shop..."

Most of the people I play with are game masters - and most game masters I know are very much guilty of fudging their dice. I’ve run entire campaigns where I paid little or no attention to what my rolls looked like. Dammit, I had a story to tell!

Certainly, the logic behind fudging makes sense. If you’ve invested a lot of effort into designing a campaign, or if you’re running a canned adventure without a lot of room to breathe, then wacky die rolls can easily derail your game. Cheating allows you to maintain a certain level of control, so you don’t have to worry about the adventure turning into a train wreck.

The problem with fudging, however, is that savvy players know you’re doing it - and they will react accordingly.

The Trouble With Fudging I was running a game of Deadlands once off of an adventure I had spent a lot of time designing. One of the crucial parts of the adventure required the player characters to be thrown in jail for the night. The guys, of course, resisted arrest -violently so. I needed to make sure they failed the encounter, though, so I fudged away. This came back to bite me when one of my players rolled a 56 to hit (In Deadlands, this is an excellent roll). I bounced some dice for my character’s Dodge, pretended to look at them, and said, "Ah, man! You guys are getting robbed!"

One of the players stood up, threw his chair on the floor, and declared, "What the hell is the point of playing this game if you’re not gonna let us do anything?"

I was tempted to dismiss this behavior as immature. After thinking about it, however, I realized that this was a reaction to poor judgment as a game master. What, exactly, is the point of using a system of rules to govern a game of make-believe fairly, if the person in charge has every intention of discarding them when it doesn’t suit them? If you're going to make it impossible for players to succeed, then what do they have to gain? Further, if you choose to protect players from the dangers of your world by fudging, what is going to stop them from getting lazy with their role-playing or, even worse, taking advantage of your gracious attitude?

Some would argue that role-playing games are primarily exercises in storytelling - and manipulating die rolls helps to protect important characters (including player characters) who will be important later on. If your table is perfectly cool with this, and you use this tool in a judicious manner, then that argument is fine. In fact, there are many systems out there which can provide you with mechanics that emphasize drama over death (I recommend Scarlet Wake by Ben O'Neal, which is currently in the final stages of production).

The problem is, even if your group is primarily concerned with spinning a good tale, your players still want to flex their characters' muscles once in awhile. If your players know that you're the cheating kind, then the burden of determining victory or defeat is perceived to be on your shoulders at all times. If this perception becomes too strong, it can potentially devalue everything about your game--the rules, the characters' stats, even the actual role-playing itself. When the illusion of a "Fair Game" disappears, a number of things can happen:

Players can feel "Boxed in," like their actions will have no real effect on the game world or the story your group is trying to tell.

People who are primarily in it for the "Game" aspect of role-playing (completing challenges, vanquishing villains, etc.) may become frustrated by someone exercising veto-power over their efforts.

Some players who think their characters are "Protected" will stop putting real thought into their role-playing...or, even worse, they may make stupid decisions on purpose because they think they can get away with it. These players may be especially upset when you put your foot down, because they might feel like they're being treated differently.

Of course, if you can manage to cheat while still maintaining the facade of a "Fair Game," then these issues won't really affect you. Good luck trying, though - because I've never once met a player who could keep their nose out of the Game Master's Section of your favorite RPG. You show me a seasoned player who is oblivious to the art of fudging, and I'll show you someone who thinks professional wrestling isn't fixed.

A Radical Concept The thing about being a Game Master is, your players are investing a lot of trust in you. They trust you not only to entertain them, but to run the game in a fair way. They trust you to not only to adjudicate the rules, but to take the talents and actions of the characters into account before narrating the scene. Fudging can potentially erode that trust--because it is, in essence, playing favorites (no matter whose side you're on). If your players are starting to lose their trust, let me lay some advice on you... can strengthen your gaming experience by trying a game where GM rolls are completely out in the open.

Upon reading that statement, many GMs are already typing another address into their browser as we speak. After all, fudging is a time-honored tradition, dating back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons. Regardless, there are advantages to playing it fair.

1. Games Become More Challenging: If players know they can no longer count on you to save their characters from the doom of the dice, they will be more inclined to work harder to protect themselves in-game. This means they'll have to role-play harder, and really use their heads.

2. The Burden of Failure Shifts: Yeah, it stinks when the dice just don't cooperate with the players' interests - but at least the problem is with the dice. If your rolls are out in the open, players are less likely to blame you for the three consecutive critical hits from a peasant guard or a neonate Caitiff.

3. Games Become More Unpredictable: Let's face it--without surprises, role-playing games can fall pretty flat. However, things can get a lot more interesting when, all of a sudden, a relatively weak NPC starts annihilating the adventuring party, or a 13th Generation Vampire scores a lucky blow to take out the elder Prince. This plays well into the story aspect of games - because it creates twists which much be accounted for in the story.

4. The Game Master is Challenged as Much as the Player: First of all, you will need to more carefully design encounters to suit your players. Second, when the players throw you a curveball (Like successfully outwitting an "Invincible" character), you'll get a chance to use those storytelling muscles in a way you weren't expecting. When this happens, you'll find yourself playing the game just as hard as the players are.

And finally, the most important one...

5. Player Characters are Elevated to their Rightful Place

Let’s face it - when a GM cheats frequently to "Protect the story," said GM is often just making sure the story goes their way. This is counterproductive to the essence of role-playing games. The object, at least as I understand it, is to allow player characters to have a real impact on their game world, through their actions and ideas and talents. Take this away, and the players are left with nothing. Unless you’re telling the best damned story ever told, your players are going to lose patience while they impotently bang on the walls of the impenetrable "Story Fortress" you’ve built around your game.

in 99 games out of 100, Player Characters are supposed to be the most important part of the story. They are the main characters. Numero Uno. This means that their characters are the ones who drive the story. So if they try something you don’t want them to do because it will affect your carefully planned storyline, it’s up to you to accommodate their efforts rather than feign a disappointed look at the dice and say, "You got robbed!"

Of course, running a fudge-less game can be a difficult challenge for people who are used to using such a tool. I know it was for me - but you’ll find after awhile that it’s more fun to roll with your players’ punches than it is to cheat your way out of a narrative bind. This is especially true if you’re into role-playing games for the story aspect. Any storyteller can write a story in advance and read it aloud. It takes a master, however, to be able to flex in and out of the influence of a group of player characters. After all, they're just doing what player characters are supposed to do!

Now, I’m not suggesting that you stop fudging forever and ever. We all know better than that. Even I’ll probably fudge again someday - fudging has just been around too long.

What I am suggesting is that you try running a couple of games without the protection of your cardstock screen. Make yourself vulnerable. Push yourself as a game master. Then ask your players if they had fun afterwards. I know mine did.

Chris Michaud can be found online at

Proactive gaming

For a hobby that prides itself on interactivity, RPGs can sometimes throw up some odd habits. One I've noticed is that all too often the players don't really take ownership of the game.

It's a weird kind of mindset amongst players that the GM has to control everthing, that their word must be final and that the players job is to sit there and take it. No matter how poor the plot, no matter how uninterested the players are in the events that are thrown arbitarily at them, the GM is god. This attitude kills games.

It seems to stem from many RPG books, where the advice given to players is to shut up and listen to the GM. I really hate those pieces of advice. They seem to be written by people who've never actually played an RPG. See - to me at least - part of the fun of playing an RPG is knowing that your choices and contributions matter (otherwise, why not just read a book?). If the GM is overruling everything then play gets dull very quickly.

Often GMs just have to be this way though, because the players haven't given them anything to work with. They haven't contributed anything to the game beyond their presence. They expect to be fed everything and just take it. Both sides are as guilty as each other.

So the cycle continues.

There is a very simple solution. Both sides of the GM/Player split need to be more proactive. The key is for both sides to actively take ownership of the game. Not the rulebooks that you're using, not the characters your playing, but the game as a whole. The event of the real people getting together and playing.

Both sides need a solid stake in what's going on, otherwise they're going to start wondering why they're present. Talk about the game and where it is going. It's a simple thing, but it amazes me how often people don't do it. What do you want out of it? Where do you want your character to head? What's actually fun for you, as a player or GM?

Being proactive starts before the game. It starts right at the moment when a GM says "Hey guys, I want to run game X". What often seems to happen is that the GM comes up with some background and a plot and just forces the players into it. This is the first mistake. Roleplaying is a group exercise, so bring your players in at the earliest opportunity. What would be cool for them? What works with their characters? How could that work with your ideas? If the players have this input, then they are more likely to enjoy themselves, they have a stake in the game.

Now at this point it's often the case that the GM will go "But it's my game, I want to run it this way!" We're back at that Group Activity thing again, by coming to the table with a group of people you're saying "I want you guys involved too". You have to admit that, or you'll end up with unhappy players. Or no game at all. That said, each player should equally not expect everything to focus solely on their ideas. Everybody's contributions are useful. It's a group thing.

During a game a bit of self analysis, and changing based on it, can help boost the amount of fun you have. What worked for you? Did your character get too little (or too much) &quo;screentime". Did you feel like you were being led by the nose? Did you feel like every idea you contributed got shot down by other players or the GM? Knowing that these things are going on is the first step to improving your situation. The second step is to raise the issue with the other people at the table. Talking about how you can improve the game, and whether what you think will work will work for everybody else. You might even find that the reason you're not having fun is that what you want out of the game is completely different to the other players, but at least you know.

In the end, roleplaying is a social activity. If you don't talk about game dynamic outside of play, the actual play will be less fun.

Review : Blood Games

By Clash Bowley and co, Flying Mice, $10 PDF

One of the nice things about reviewing is that you can watch companies evolve. I reviewed Flying Mice's Starcluster a while ago, and commented on how the production values were a bit lacking. Since then they've obviously put in some time improving layout skills, since Blood Games is a much nicer manual. The cover art in particular is nicely evocative.

Blood Games is an Occult Horror RPG. Now this is a popular market, with the likes of White Wolf dominating and Eden Studios following close behind, it's a hard market to stand out in. Does Blood Games stand out enough to survive? Let's see.

Weighing in at 188 pages, Blood Games covers a fair amount of material. It takes its basic system from Starcluster, but the rules more clearly explained and there are plenty of tweaks for the setting. The essential premise is a party-based monster hunters game, where some of the hunters have funky powers. It's set in the modern world, one that's not too different from our own, bar the monsters of course.

It starts with some fiction. I'm generally not a fan of opening fiction, and whilst it isn't too bad, it didn't enthuse me to play the game. Following on we get some background material, about how magic exists but was pushed back by Nullity (a belief in science). Nothing too revolutionary (shades of Mage), but it helps frame the concept of the game's heroes being fighters against dark forces, living on the edge of society.

As a PDF product, Blood Games makes a few suppositions about the reader, so don't expect  explanations of what an RPG is or how you play. It launches into concepts without introducing them, making it occasionally an annoying read as you try and grasp what you missed.

The intro gives a brief overview of the character types available, and how they might mesh. Players can take the role of Hunters (like Buffy's Slayers), Templars (Religous fighters), Cambions (which aren't explained at this point, so could be anything), normal humans or turned (marginally good-guy) vampires. There's also some mention of Shamen, Exorcists, Magi and Witches. Plenty of options here for findign your niche.

Next we get character creation. Decide the age of your character, roll (or points buy) some statistsics, and choose if you're a special character or a normal human. Then we get to run our character through schooling, college and careers randomly gaining (or choosing) skills. The process is quite involved, possibly more than it needs be. It's nowhere near as streamlined as Burning Wheel's careers system, for example. The results should give you a solid character who's ready for action.

Following character generation we get a summary of the path characters (those with funky powers), and how they modify the basic character you created. Hunters get boosted stats, a special luck triat and the ability to do cool wire-fu style stunts. Gambions get some vampire-like bonuses, but aren't full vampires, though they can head that way if they aren't strong willed. Witches, Exorcists, shamen and Magi get some magics to play with. Each has their own style, with its own game rules. The Magi follow a fairly hermetic style and can call upon angels, witches have an rustic / new-age witch approach. Exorcists get a grimoire based magic and shamen get a totem based spirit magic. Normal humans get some nice little quirks if they've been monster hunting and believed what they saw. Vampires aren't really covered in this section, but get a huge chunk later in the PDF, complete with historic character generation.

The system for bloodgames is skill based. You have skills, which are percentile based, higher stats modify the appropriate skills. If you have a high skill you get rerolls. Overall, this seems to result in a high handling time on some actions, but less of a dufus factor (your skilled character doesn't fail often). Combat wise, minute long rounds are broken down into 120 initiative phases. You can trade initiative/to hit/damage around. Damage goes to a constitution stat, which is split into four wound categories with differing levels of penalty. Nothing too revolutionary, but it works, I'd prefer something a bit more elegant personally.

Blood games has a large section on religions, with system bonuses for various religious practices. A nice idea, but one that's bound to raise some hackles or possibly giggles from your players. The inclusion adds a different style to the game, which can be no bad thing.

There's a nice catalogue of sample creatures, including the standard zombies,werewolves, demons and so on. Plenty of stuff here for player-characters to do battle with. Sadly there aren't any sample characters, which I think would have been a benefit.

The GM section is a bit slim, and focuses on bringing the player character team together (it's very focused on team-bsed play), and on alternate play styles. The alternate play styles suggested are interesting (generational play and flashbacks), but there's not much meat on how to go about running them, just suggestions that you do.

Overall: Bloodgames has a style very similar to many 1980s games. Number crunching,  rules exceptions and percentile skills put me in mind of Palladium, the careers system is much like Traveller. As a monster hunt game it 's a fun romp, and the focus on religious types, mystics and other characters should give it a slightly different feel to something like Buffy or Hunter: The Reckoning. The rules system isn't quite to my tastes though, and those used to this genre will find many things naggingly familiar.

Review : Gehenna

By White Wolf, £14.99 Book / $14.99 PDF

The end of he world as we know it...

So, after 10 years of releases White Wolf are closing shop on the World of Darkness. The time of judgment is here to sweep away (deservedly in some cases) the accumulated detritus of a decade's metaplot. Soon there'll be a new version, with a new continuity...

Gehenna is the end of the world as seen by the protagonists of Vampire: The Masquerade. Well, more precisely it's four different endings and some advice on how to go about making it really good for your players. Some spoilers may follow, so if you plan to play, you might want to read something else.

First off, it's a nice book. Hardback and with a cover that evokes the events presented within. Illustrations inside are also excellent. It looks like they went to town with the last book of the line.

The early parts of the book are general advice on Gehenna and how to use and abuse it. There's also a general who's doing what and to whom, and which antediluvians are involved. It also introduces the concepts that will spill through all the scenarios, including the Withering, the failure of the curse of Caine, a nice plot device for making seemingly insurmountable enemies weaker. There are also some letters between various metaplot characters that add some nice colour.

The first scenario is called Wormwood, and of all those presented is probably the truest to the original premise to Vampire. It's a story about humanity and what it means, and striving for some sort of redemption. The scenario will involve a lot of talking, a heavy amount of angst, and maybe a bit of salvation. The character's are drawn to a church and while the rest of vampire kind is expunged by the rays of the red star, they get to prove their worthiness and humanity. Great stuff, but not for everybody.

Scenario number two is a bit of a mix. It involves Caine and Lilith. Lilith turns up on your PCs turf and tries to draw out Caine in order to punish him for his sins. The scenario is quite abstract, and is vague as to its purpose in places. To my mind it would be harder work to get players interested in it. Part of this stems from the way the scenes are described. The scene where characters fight off Liliths minions at the docks is a good example, there's not the motivation there should be. Still, if you like the Lilith mythology this scenario is brimming with it.

The third scenario is the Metaplot one. It's full of signature characters and railroading. If you enjoyed Transylvania Chronicles then it would make the ideal climax to that series. It's a good story, but how much your players could actually affect events is limited as written. If you just want to go along for the ride, then it's an entertaining romp, and involves the masquerade being torn asunder, the PCs hunting for clues to various antediluvians and ending up at the city of Gehenna in a confrontation with the awakened ancients.

Scenario four is called the Crucible of God, and features a Gehenna where the antediluvians war on each other. Again the masquerade is torn asunder (by your player's characters, nice) and what follows is a series of abstract scenarios dealing with humanities reaction, the war that ensues and the way in which the different antediluvians approach it. There are also a few set pieces thrown in. There's a lot more opportunity for PC influence over events here too, rather than just witness them.

Chapter 6 is about storytelling and is full of sensible advice (like making sure your PCs are center stage). In fact it's better than much of the storytelling advice in other Vampire books, and really tries to hammer home the themes of the game and how they should be approached at the end. It's followed by a couple of appendices, one on characters who appear in the scenarios and one on how to use (or not) Caine.

Overall: What's nice about this book is that it has something for everybody. If you like your Vampire to be moody and angst filled, or rowdy and katana wielding, if you like metaplot or loathe it, there's something for everybody here. Obviously, this broad scope also means that there'll likely be something in here that you don't like too. But the ideas here are well worth looking at for anybody who wants to end their vampire game with a bang.