The Riddle of Steel Quick Start
The Riddle of Steel Quick Start Capsule Review by Blake Hutchins on 13/02/03
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Quick Start rules to a fantasy RPG, featuring unique and innovative character motivation rules, a gritty combat system that marries tactical thinking to carnage, and a magic system that carries real consequences for the user.
Product: The Riddle of Steel Quick Start
Author: Stephen J. Barringer
Company/Publisher: Driftwood Publishing
Page count: 41
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Blake Hutchins on 13/02/03
Genre tags: Fantasy
The Riddle of Steel - QUICK START RULES The Riddle of Steel: Roleplaying with an Edge, written by Jake Norwood, is a roleplaying game by Driftwood Publishing. The Quick Start rules under review here were written by Stephen J. Barringer and come in a 41-page free .pdf available from the Driftwood website at www.theriddleofsteel.net.
TROS is a set of RPG rules and a gritty medieval fantasy milieu in which to stage adventures. Driftwoodís website spiel claims TROS offers a powerful and flexible magic system, story- and roleplaying-based character progression, and ďthe most realistic, dangerous, and strategic RPG combat system ever developed.Ē The Quick Start Rules cover all these elements and present a slice of the default game setting, a world called Weyrth.
Presentation Text is laid out in a double-column format with headers using an exotic-looking fantasy font that reminds me of the banner for the computer game Neverwinter Nights. The few pieces of art are reasonably well executed, but strike me as stiff, generic Northern European fantasy fare without much emotional punch. If they donít rev up my imagination, neither do they detract from my impressions of the game.
The table of contents doesnít reference page numbers, and you wonít find an index. The author didnít embed Acrobat bookmarks in the document either, which is a shame, as this feature is one of the cardinal advantages of the digital format.
In the end, the Quick Start is a pretty clean read. The few charts included are serviceable, although further editing on these would have increased their clarity. As it is, they look tacked on from an Excel spreadsheet.
Content Overview The Table of Contents lists seven chapters: Introduction, Mechanics, Character Creation, Combat & Injury, Sorcery, A Part of the World of Weyrth, and Seneschal Strategies. The Introduction contains a decent little piece of flavor fiction, some boilerplate definition of an RPG, and a summary of the differences between TROS Quick Start and the full TROS book.
Mechanics At first blush, the mechanics arenít remarkable. They use an exploding d10 dice pool engine, with dice rolled against a target number to garner successes. Multiple successes either increase the quality of the result or are necessary to pull off especially difficult tasks. Fumbles bring the usual disastrous consequences. Target numbers increase with difficulty in a range of 2 to 12, except in the case of vocational rolls, in which case you roll against your own skill level instead of a target number set by the GM (Seneschal in TROS parlance). Accordingly, lower vocational numbers represent greater skill. Itís a counterintuitive way of handling the common addition of stat plus skill to determine die pools, but it also moderates the number of dice you have to roll. I donít know how this twist handles in play, but I suspect once you get the hang of it, this rule might solve some of the problems involved with gigantic die pools.
A meaty example of gameplay follows the mechanics description.
Character Generation Character creation in TROS: QS resembles the prioritization found in Shadowrunís character generation system. You assign alphabetical order to the following four areas: Socal Class & Wealth, Attributes, Vocations, and Proficiencies. A is the highest priority, D the lowest. Your choices determine your social status (vital in a feudal society) and the number of points available to buy your attributes, vocations, and combat proficiencies.
Attributes break down into Agility, Brawn, Wits, and Presence, plus Coordination, Resistance, and Move, which are derived from combinations of the first four. The scale ranges 1 to 10, with 4 said to represent the average Joe. Nothing new here.
You also choose Spiritual Attributes, and these truly are something new and extraordinary. Iíll cover them in their own section a bit later.
Skills collapse into single word blanket vocations, e.g., soldier, rogue, scholar, courtier. Each vocation has a short list of skills associated with it, but these arenít broken out to individual numbers. Your prioritization determines the number of vocations your character possesses, along with their skill level. Personally, I like this approach more than the granular systems with their exhaustive lists of skills.
Finally, we come to Proficiencies. These consist of your Melee, Missile, and/or Sorcery Pools. For combat, you allocate points to dice pools in individual weapon types, such as axe, short bow, or longsword. For sorcery, you purchase levels of arcane power in the three realms of Temporal, Mental, and Spiritual.
Spiritual Attributes Okay. Up until now, Iíve stayed pretty clinical, but now Iím about to gush, because Spiritual Attributes are, for me, the innovative heart and soul that set TROS: QS a cut above many other RPGs out there. Let me explain why.
Spiritual Attributes, or SAs, describe what matters to your character. Itís that simple. Unlike the other attributes, they have a range of 1 to 5, and they fluctuate greatly during play, depending on a characterís choices.
To start with, you allocate five points to three Spiritual Attributes in character creation, regardless of how you set your alphabetical priorities. The Quick Start offers three types of SA among which to allocate points: Conscience, Faith, and Passion. Conscience represents your characterís personal sense of honor or integrity - doing the right thing no matter what. Faith expresses your characterís connection to God or gods or religious philosophy. Passion must be specified as a particular love, hate, or loyalty directed at a person, place, or institution. You can pick Passion more than once to reflect different passions. Faith and Conscience, if selected, may only be chosen once each.
SAs work to drive play by setting character-relevant goals. Whenever a character attempts a significant action that supports or furthers an SA, that SA gains a die. Conversely, when a character acts in violation of an SA, that SA may lose a die. When a character is in a situation where one or more SAs are relevant, whether it be fighting the lackeys of the hated Baron or defending the faithful from the infidel, the character may add his current SA number to the dice pool for that roll.
Thatís not all SAs are good for. TROS has an experience system for character improvement, in common with the overwhelming majority of RPGs out there. Where TROS is different is that the SAs ARE the experience points. At any time, a player may burn SA dice to buy up aspects of the character or attempt to improve vocational skill. Consequently, characters only improve by pursuing the things they really care about.
Binding the reward system to individual character goals is, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant. It offers a simple but powerful means to facilitate player-driven stories and spark roleplaying within the context of the mechanics. As a GM, Iím practically drooling about a game that requires players at the outset to build a moral structure into their characters that also maps out the kinds of stories they want to pursue. Finally, improvement comes at a temporary cost of character effectiveness, since experience allocation depletes the SAs. All this feels elegant and efficient to me.
According to the Quick Start, the full version of TROS expands SA rules, including the new SAs of Luck, Destiny, and Drive.
Combat TROS pushes its combat system as the core game feature, a gritty, fast-moving, utterly lethal system where victory comes more from smart tactics than luck of the dice. Based on my reading of the combat rules, I think itís likely to achieve this end in play. Taken as a whole, the feel of the combat system gets the blood moving and conveys the impression of authenticity, as if the authors Know Their Shit. Letís take a closer look.
To start with, there are no hit points to lose or injury blocks to fill up. Any weapon can kill anyone, and any wound taken could be the killing blow. Combat occurs in exchanges during which players allocate dice to offense and defense from their charactersí dice pools. Initiative is decided by each combatant throwing down either a red die (signifying offense) or a white die (signifying defense).
Combat is designed to bring a tense, suspenseful feel to TROS fights. Since any blow can kill or maim, the fighter who strikes first might gain a permanent advantage. On the other hand, the red die forces the attacker to commit first to an action, and a savvy defender can seize the opportunity to turn the tables. Players select offensive or defensive maneuvers and pay the cost from their dice pools. Choice of maneuver in combination with the weapon being used determines the target number. The Quick Start offers only three offensive maneuvers (thrust, swing, and feint), and three defensive maneuvers (shield block, parry, and dodge), but you can also opt to invoke a nifty taunting rule to goad your opponent into striking first.
TROS: QS handles damage in a way that emphasizes its brutal, no-holds-barred flavor. When an attack occurs, the attacker selects one of seven target zones on the opponentís body. The winner of a contested roll (see above) inflicts damage determined by the margin of success added to the damage rating of the weapon used. Once the value of the defenderís armor has been subtracted from this damage number, anything thatís left goes in to play merry hell with the defenderís health. After youíve determined the wound severity and cross-referenced the Target Zone, you get to see just how nasty TROS combat can get. Here the rules track Shock, Pain, and Blood Loss. In brief, Shock consists of the immediate but temporary penalty suffered, Pain is the lasting penalty, and Blood Loss... well, Blood Loss is what kills you. Permutations include knockdowns, possible loss of consciousness, and that perennial favorite, instant death.
Another lengthy example of combat follows this section, and I greatly appreciate it. The point gets made that selecting the right maneuver at the right time is often the deciding factor in a combat. Despite the complex-sounding granularity of the system, it reads quickly and clearly, and my guess is that it plays smoothly, with minimal hang time needed to figure out what happens. A pretty fast-moving deal, in other words.
Since the combat system feels more like a dueling system, itíd be interesting to see it applied in the chaotic context of a major battle, with all the attendant carnage and confusion. When you add in the SAs, though, I can easily envision TROS combat delivering a real cinematic punch on a level with your favorite clashes from movies or books. As I read this section, I couldnít help but think of Rutger Hauer in Flesh and Blood, a gritty little bloodfest that epitomizes TROS flavor for me.
A final point to make here is that the Quick Start provides plenty of armor and weapon choices, and here is where most of the tables appear. The weapon stats donít look terribly dense or abstract, so folks who dislike reams of crunchy sim data shouldnít be discouraged. Thereís enough there, though, that those of you who do enjoy the minutiae can lick your lips.
The missile combat portion of the rules is similarly clever. The main factors are range and prep time. Your Missile Combat Pool starts at zero and begins to refresh toward its maximum only after you have begun to aim your weapon. Thus a bow might take a few rounds to get the arrow out, nock, and draw it, and only then can you begin to build your dice pool up to take a decent shot. I like this - it infuses ranged combat with that same realistic, suspenseful flavor, and it brings aiming in as a necessary component rather than a bonus. On the downside, the reload and aim times mean things will necessarily move more slowly than melee combat. Archers are not the stars of this game, though they will surely have an impact on a fight. This section ends with another fine, blood-spattered example.
Magic Magic in TROS is sorcery, plain and simple. It doesnít employ divine spellcasting or channeling, though the text notes that miracles are possible through faith. If you consider how much a buffed out Faith SA can add to your chances of success, youíll realize this statement isnít a throwaway comment. Characters who believe may well achieve miraculous deeds by virtue of their hefty SA bonuses.
If youíre used to the wimpy spellcaster archetype, and you think only more experienced wizard types present much of a threat, think again. Sorcerers in TROS look deadly. Think of them as heavy artillery. They can, given time to prepare their spells, really mess up your buffed out warrior. But since Sorcerers can opt to put proficiencies into weapons as well, thereís (once again) the potential to get your head split open if the magic doesnít finish you.
The spells run the usual gamut of illusion, elemental, summoning and divination options. The Quick Start divides sorcerous proficiency into the three spheres of the Temporal, the Mental, and the Spiritual. Power levels are Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master. In brief, you cast a spell in one of two ways: cantrips are fast and simple, and rituals are slower and more powerful.
The unique aspect of TROS magic comes from the potential consequence attached to any magic use. If magic goes awry, meaning the sorcererís player blows a saving roll, the character instantly ages by an amount proportional to the power of the spell being cast. For those readers familiar with Shadowrun, itís like resisting Drain, but with permanent consequences attached to failure. The rationale describes the sorcererís life force as a prerequisite for channeling arcane power. Even minor magics can cost a magician several months of his or her lifespan. This aging canít be reversed. Thus, magic-using characters in TROS have a strong incentive to tread carefully and reserve dice in their Sorcery Pools for soaking the Aging roll. All by itself, this adds a boatload of flavor to concepts that otherwise feel pretty well-trodden.
Sample Setting of Weyrth Weyrth comes across as a medieval world that parallels all the major nations of late medieval/early Renaissance Earth. As a sample, we get the summary writeups for Weyrthian analogs to Ireland, England, and maybe Prussia. A characterís nationality entails marginal stat modifiers that reinforce the settingís stereotypes, things like Stahlish honor or Angharad magical talent. I like the nationality modifiers. They ground you more in the setting and force players to choose a bona fide homeland. There are elves, apparently, magical immortals akin to the Sidhe of folklore (though magic can apparently age them), and an orc/troll kinda critter called a Gol. Otherwise, I didnít see any dwarves, halflings, or other generic ďraces.Ē The Gols, like orcs, seem like theyíre there to provide default ďevilĒ cannon fodder for the setting, but thatís probably more reflective of my own prejudices about that branch of modern fantasy literature that merely seeks to emulate Tolkien. Overall, the setting details presented here are sturdy, but pretty vanilla, as if TROS is merely presenting a fantasy version of medieval/renaissance Earth with different names. Thereís nothing new here, though thereís also no indication of a metaplot. Finally, the description of Angharadís floating castles and the like flew in the face of the systemís gritty flavor. My impulse on reading this section is to jettison it entirely and use my own stuff.
Conclusion Itís tough to evaluate a Quick Start offering without sliding into at least tangential discussion of the full game. The way I look at it, a Quick Start package exists for two purposes. First, it should provide an experience close enough to the full scale product that you can fairly evaluate the game and decide whether itís worth it to shell out the thirty to forty bucks that serves as the standard book price these days. To do so, it ought to comprise a complete game in itself, something fun on its own merits rather than depending on an upgrade to the full meal deal.
Second, a Quick Start should whet my appetite for the full game. By playing the game I should get a good sense of what the full version offers, and if the Quick Start is doing its job, I ought to think, ďBoy, this is cool. I bet the whole shebang is even moí betta.Ē
The TROS Quick Start has done its job and done it well, especially given my preference for lighter, less granular rules sets. It looks like a complete system with a few areas that were obviously stripped down into something more compact, but not so much so that you lose the core feel of the system. Itís easy for me to imagine playing this, and not a great leap to picture how it would go with a few more stats, detailed skills, and expanded SAs. Barringer is pretty explicit about the differences between the Quick Start and the full game, and I liked having the bullet point summary located the beginning of the document. If thereís a weak point here, itís that the sample nations donít excite me about the setting. I plan to purchase the full game in the near future, though Iím thinking about whether to use the Quick Start Rules for the core mechanic. At this juncture, Iím mostly interested in the SAs and expanded combat maneuvers.
By comparison I point you to White Wolfís Quick Start rules for Exalted, which try to sell you on the setting more than anything else. Those rules are so sketchy as to bear only a threadbare resemblance to the full game. It barely qualifies as a complete game, in my judgment, and itís a poor example of a Quick Start.
I will add one more comment about my impressions. The Driftwood website provides lots of free resources to download for the game, including quite a bit of player-generated content. Jake Norwood, the author of TROS, is a regular at The Forge and readily available for questions in the TROS forum there. In short, the customer support is great.
Bottom line? The TROS Quick Start rules are an excellent chance for you to preview what looks like one of the most promising new roleplaying games out there, and itís a straightforward, well-written set of rules that stands on its own. Check it out.