Living Steel High-Tech Adventure Game
Living Steel comes as a PYOD hardback rule book which smells professional, featuring quality black and white art, a clean type face, clear writing, and a directness bordering on sparse. The many wry margin-quotes aside, it's not a romantic game: the authors have taken the anti-White Wolf approach, presuming gamer competence, and thus devising practical mechanics and a soullessly precise combat system for the participants not to use so much as to don. For this reason I don't recommend it for novices. Note that this book is out of print, and its publisher, Leading Edge Games ("Aliens", "The Lawnmower Man"), is quite defunct.
The setting itself is handsomely designed, with the intelligence if not the lushness of Blue Planet. It's also fairly specific: A futuristic resort world at the centre of Imperial political and military intrigue gets isolated by an alien invasion, and descends into criminal anarchy featuring too many guns, too little food, and too much aggression (some of it bacteriologically induced). The main characters are resurrected heroes from a quashed future democracy, brought out of cryogenic stasis by their secret Phoenix Command to exploit the chaos for the twin purposes of saving humanity from the aliens, and of replacing anarchy and tyranny with authentic democracy. Their advantages are their vision, their skills and their possession of Living Steel power armour. Noble, heady stuff.
That said, Gamemasters should expect to spend months of design-work trying to live up to the potential of the setting by translating it into something intimate. There is a lot of resource material here: beyond a 20-page equipment section talking about how Gauss guns, Laser Weapons, and Power Armour work, there is a mission generator, mission suggestions, a big chart of stock NPC statistics, a blessedly-included example task table, an initial base set-up for the PC team, an unimpressive introductory scenario, charts for determining how much garbage you can salvage from bombed-out ruins, and even rules for building everything from lightbulbs and hydroponics to light trucks or even 1 ton of lubricant (which you can whip up in an hour with 5 tons of Standard Chemicals, Level IV tools and Chemistry skill level 6). Not conveyed is how any of this is supposed to gel. The game presumes you already know where you're going and what you're doing, and is merely outfitting you with toys, techniques, tables and factions for the journey.
In combat, each character receives a number of Combat Actions (CA) every two seconds, to spend on running, aiming, putting on a helmet, etc. Play flows better with elaborate maps, otherwise the excessive detail paid to physical motion will seem superfluous, risking white-room syndrome. Whilst melee gets a cursory treatment using the basic task resolution system, guns get a special system employing many charts and die rolls, which works well for brief duels but which gets quickly overloaded at the squad level - for big firefights I recommend boiling most of the outcome down a few 3d6 task resolution rolls and getting on with play. Overall I recommend Living Steel's combat system for anyone who desires realistic outcomes and enjoys the actual process of finding those outcomes. I'm enamoured with it enough to seriously consider memorising all the basic charts, but of course not everyone wants to have to dedicate themselves to a system in order to enjoy it. Those who want fast-food movie combat should steer clear. Living Steel's combat is vivid and painful.
On that note, I should mention that the bodily injury system is brilliant. No hit points, check-boxes, or wound-levels in sight: Injury is measured in Physical Damage (PD) points, applied on an open-ended scale. Thus while a stubbed toe might equal 1 PD, a concussion could be 200, a skull fracture 3000, and being cut in two around 40,000. The higher the PD sustained, the more likely a character is to stop fighting and curl up in pain and fear (depending on willpower and combat training), or simply die (depending on health and medical treatment available), while special results indicate disabling injuries like broken arms, spines, and such. After the adrenalin wears off, a character's Combat Action pool gets reduced proportionate to how long it will take to fully heal (usually measured in months). Don't get shot!
Although equally unforgiving, the task resolution system, however, should not be judged so harshly as the combat system often is, for its basic procedure is flexible and elegant: The Gamemaster determines at which skill level (0-20) the task in question would be easy to perform, deducting that number from 16 to determine the base odds. The character's skill level is added to the base odds to produce the number needed or less on 3d6 to succeed. Contested rolls modify the base odds by the difference between the contestants' skill levels. In a complicating twist, each skill gets its own experience-point tally. Outside a span of years it's practically impossible to improve higher-level skills anyway, so this isn't much of a hassle.
Which brings me to another of the game's biases: long-term campaigns. With rules for building houses, characters teaching skills to each other over the course of months, realistic combat and healing rates, the scope of the Phoenix mission itself, the political potential of the various competing factions, the fact each player is encouraged to roll up five or six separate characters initially, and rules for transferring "karma points" from dead characters to live ones, campaigns are seemingly expected to run across months or even years of game-time. In the short term, characters are both frighteningly fragile, and their skills advance like cold molasses, so unless the milieu is made full use of the game will default to sterile tactical exercises.
I should mention that there's a dearth of future culture here: we know the factions and the government systems and the army breakdown, but we don't know what songs they sing, what religion(s) they adhere to, what's on television, what people wear, etc. This can be a blessing or a bane, because it allows/forces the GM to customise the future as desired. Because of this I'm docking it one point for content. Overall, though, a nice presentation and layout, smartly idiosyncratic rules, and a plausible hard-science milieu make this potentially worth the while of anyone keen on playing a futuristic equivalent of Twilight 2000.Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 3 (Average)