As a gamer, I believe in genre emulation ; for this reason, I usually prefer RPGs that are firmly rooted in a single, specific genre rather than games that try to mix completely different genres or that claim to offer ‘entirely new twists’ on existing genres... which is the case of many, many RPGs. And let’s face it, these ‘crossgenre’ or ‘new twist’ RPGs are rarely interesting – at least for gamers who believe in genre emulation over (so-called) originality. Yet, there are exceptions. Once in a while, you stumble upon a a RPG that really manages to mix unrelated genres into a coherent, elegant game setting (like Castle Falkenstein), that really offers a new take on an existing genre (like The Whispering Vault) or, for the real gems, that really succeeds in creating a new subgenre of its own (like Over The Edge). Cold City is one of these very rare gems, with one of the most fascinating and intriguing game settings ever found in a horror RPG (more on this later) and a simple and elegant game mechanics that very cleverly convey the unique mood of the game.
Theme & Mood
So what is it all about ? According to the subtitle, Cold City is a « game of hidden agendas, trust and monster hunting », set in post-WW2 Berlin, during the first years of the Cold War. Players take the roles of Reserve Police Agency (RPA) agents (who may be American, British, French, German or Russian) whose mission is to track down and eliminate various hidden supernatural menaces born from the secret experiments carried out by Nazi scientists during the war… To quote the writers of the game, « think Hellboy meets The Third Man meets The Mandchurian Candidate - or, to use another analogy, think early John Le Carré meets early Clive Barker (remember the Berserkers in Cabal ?). The result is what we could call ‘cold war horror’.
Similar ideas have been been floating around for quite some time in various fictional sources (including Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series or Pagan Publishing’s excellent Delta Green material for Call of Cthulhu) but were generally used as background elements explaining the hows and whys of a present-day situation rather than as the focus of the series / novel / movie / game – until now. Cold City is something of a gaming tour de force : first, it brilliantly succeeds at recycling all those « cold war horror » ideas into a well-defined, coherent genre… and then it gives you a masterful lesson on how to emulate all the tropes of this genre in game terms. The game is packed with ideas that seem at the same time innovative and familiar – you know, the kind of ideas that make you wonder why nobody never thought of that before.
Another remarkable feature of the game is the way is treats the « monster hunters » cliché. You’d thought that, after all those years of dungeon-crawling, Cthulhu-chasing and Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayering (not to mention ghostbusting or Pentex-crusading), the idea of monster hunting was one of the most tired gaming routines – hell, even games that claimed to offer entirely new takes on this old idea, like Hunter the Reckoning or The Whispering Vault, are already several years old and more recently, vs Monsters stripped the idea of monster-hunting to its barest bones, bringing the monster hunting cliché full circle by coming back to its gothic or folklorish roots.
Yet, Cold City manages to brilliantly renew the « monster hunters » concept.
Most modern day monster-hunting games revolve around two clichés. The first cliché is that player-characters are hunting monsters because this is their MISSION to do so. The second cliché is that these heroic battles against evil creatures take the form of a SHADOW WAR, which occurs in secret, unbeknownst to the public. Some RPGs have tried (and sometimes managed) to renew the monster-hunting theme by turning these clichés upside down. In InSpectres, for example, the « shadow war » cliché is reverted : ghost-hunting is not a secret, occult activity but a well-publicized business, complete with franchises, media coverage etc – but BTW this idea was already present in WEG’s original Ghostbusting RPG)… while in Ron Edward’s Sorcerer (a game which scope extends far beyond monster-hunting but which does include conflict against nonhuman entities as one of its core elements), the monsters characters must fight are often their own demons (in all the senses you might want to give to this term)… and the « mission » cliché clearly takes a backseat, since the whole demon-fighting thing often occurs as a consequence of the characters’ own choices and actions in their personal quest for power, knowledge, freedom, redemption or whatever.
Cold City take these two clichés (« mission » and « shadow war ») and, rather than trying to alter or revert them, simply takes them to their logical, litteral end : in the world of Cold City, monster hunting is really the character’s MISSION (since they belong to a special police force) and their activity is part of a real SHADOW WAR – the cold war. And the game does not stop here, clearly presenting this whole « monster hunting » activity as the first layer of a deeper theme. In Cold City, post-war Germany is still « haunted » by the « ghosts », « monsters » and « creatures » of the Nazi Reich – both metaphorically and literally. And Staline’s regime is still breeding « monsters » and « terrors » which have nothing to with the supernatural. World War II and its cortège of atrocities have forever changed the way we define concepts like « ultimate evil » or « inhuman behavior » - even in popular fiction and its interactive spinoff, rolegaming : in a world which gave us real « evil overlords » like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, characters like Sauron, Saruman or even Darth Vader are bound to acquire a metaphorical dimension (whether or not their creators intended it in the first place), the experiments of Joseph Mengele (the « death angel » doctor of Auschwitz concentration camp) and his likes force us to take another look at the « mad scientist » cliché… and the advent of world-destroying atomic bombs gives phrases like « ultimate weapons » or « absolute power » an extra, real-world resonance.
But let’s get back to more down-to-earth, gaming considerations.
What better place to explore those hidden depths of darkness than post-war, sector-divided Berlin ? When you come to think of it, this game setting has it all : mystery, danger, atmosphere, depth, unlimited potential for intrigues, secret schemes, betrayals and personal tragedies… with the added, significant advantage of simplicity, since this setting can be described in only a few minutes to new players.
Speaking of this, the game delivers this background information in a very concise, practical and well-written manner, presenting cold war Berlin as a world (or even a reality) of its own rather than as « just a city » ; it’s all about atmosphere here, and the author manages to get his point across without getting lost in superfluous period details or in those dreadful, first-person monologues that tend to crop up in so many urban game settings. Describing the essential elements of a game setting in just a few pages is something all game authors should strive to achieve – and Cold City is a perfect example of how it can be done.
But enough setting talk – let’s proceed to the next Big Issue – the game system.
As you might expect from the basic premises of the game, Cold City uses very simple rules – what I like to call « compact rules », in the sense my trusty Oxford English Dictionary defines the word « compact » : « closely and neatly packed together ». And that’s exactly what the Cold City game rules are.
This simplicity allows the designer to give Cold City one of the most precious qualities of a game system : elegance. This quality is probably harder to define than simplicity ; as far as I’m concerned, I tend to think of a specific game system as an « elegant » one when it manages to reflect or, better yet, to actually convey the themes and the mood of the game itself and that’s why I don’t generally believe in generic systems – oops, sorry for the disgression.
What does make Cold City an « elegant » game ? The way its system puts the key concepts of the game (trust, fear and even hidden agendas) at the core of the resolution mechanics. The game uses a very simple system of « trust points » to define the internal relationships within the team (more on this later) – and these points are not just another bell or whistle grafted onto a set of basic rules as an « extra touch » of color (as is often the case with mechanics that try to quantify relationships), but a central, crucial aspect of the system.
Likewise, concepts such as secrecy, cooperation and even betrayal all play a major part in the game system – which is not only a nice touch but a simple and effective way to ensure that players (and not only their characters) will tend to think in terms of secrecy, cooperation and betrayal, which is exactly how things should go in a game of espionage and psychological horror. The setting of a game may define its ‘world’, but it is its mechanics that actually define its ‘reality’ : how things work, what things work better than others, on what resources characters can count, how ‘success’ can be achieved and what ‘failure’ actually means etc. This unwritten (and, alas, often overlooked) law of RPG design has been perfectly understood by the author of Cold City.
So, what are the nuts and bolts of Cold City’s game system ? Well, the basic mechanics are highly reminiscent of Ron Edward’s well-known Sorcerer (for the resolution engine) and Gregory Hutton’s excellent Elegant Role Playing (ERP) (for the way a character’s abilities are defined in game terms) – two sources that are explicitly credited by the game designer in the appendix.
Cold City characters have three, very broad attributes Action, Reason and Influence (which respectively cover physical, intellectual and social situations) ; the skills and advantages found in many games are simply replaced by a variable number of freeform traits which may be either advantageous (such as « deadly with firearms » or « incisive mind, at home with speedy reasoning ») or negative (« immensely proud or stubborn » or « overly protective of his comrades ») and must be defined by the player (rather than being chosen from a pre-made list – the above examples being taken from the sample characters provided in the game).
Freeform traits like these are not a novel ideas – under one form or another, they can be found in many games, either as the main character traits (Over The Edge, Risus) or as descriptors which specify or justify the character’s main scores (Sorcerer) but their presence in Cold City adds an extra touch of atmosphere – since phrases like « incisive mind, at home with speedy reasoning », « deadly with firearms » or « overly protective of his comrades » seem to be taken from the kind of confidential personnel files used by secret services and other agencies.
On a more technical level, the combination of very broad attributes and freeform traits also creates an interesting balance in character definition : the three broad attributes make it very easy to compare the overall abilities of characters (something that is not easily done in systems which use a completely freeform approach), while traits ensure that every character will also be a unique individual, with its own strengths and weaknesses.
One of the most important aspects of a Cold City character is his nationality : agents of the RPA may be American, British, French, German or Russian – and in a cold war setting such as this, a character’s nationality will define (or, at least, influence) many aspects of his personality (starting with his ideological outlook) and recent personal history (since each of these five nations played a very different role (and lived a very different fate) during the war.
And since most RPA teams are supposed to have a single member of each nationality (a restriction which ensures character variety and makes perfect sense in historical and ideological terms), these differences will affect play, probably more than in any other games where multinational character groups are encouraged ; in fact, these differences ARE a part of the game itself. On that subject matter, the game does an excellent job of summarizing the national stereotypes of the period (such as « French : cowardly, alcoholic, fond of good food and wine, rude, snobbish amorous and romantic » or « American : brash, loud, over paid, over sexed, over here, uncouth, assertive, cocky and confident » ) while encouraging players to break the mould and build original characters and not two-dimensional caricatures… but these stereotypes should be taken into account, if only to explain how your French character will react when he meets a NPC who thinks all Frenchmen are cowardly and alcoholic womanizers – or if he really thinks, like many of his compatriots, that all Brits are sport-obsessed eccentrics (not to mention tea and stiff upper lips).
This is a very important aspect of the game, since the RPA represents an uneasy alliance of former rivals (or even enemies) who must work together against the proverbial « greater evil » - in this case, the horrid legacy of the Nazi Reich’s twisted science.
Speaking of uneasy alliances, the game also handles the issue of ‘group cohesion’ in a very neat manner. In most « dark / mature » games, bringing the player-characters together in a solid yet believable way can be very difficult – and keeping them together after a couple of scenarios can be a real nightmare for the referees who care about the coherency of their stories. Sure, a dose of inter-PC conflict may be a very interesting element (and one that often creates very interesting – or at least memorable – game moments) but dosage is precisely the problem here and games which actually encourage this kind of dissension tend to create very short-lived campaigns… especially if they are played ‘properly’ (remember the last time you asked yourself WHY your Vampire character should continue to cooperate with a bunch of other « Kindreds » with whom he has absolutely no common interest and whose bad decisions had placed him in direct danger several times in the recent pas ?).
In Cold City, tensions between characters are unavoidable and are a key element of the game, but the RPA concept creates a very strong frame around such dissensions – better yet, the difficulty of keeping characters together and the risk of « party implosion » are actually made full features of the game. And not just in purely narrative terms, since the game system fully integrates the effects of concepts such as mutual trust (or lack thereof), hidden agendas and even betrayal. Many dark-themed games claim to play on such concepts but most of them actually offer very little practical advice on how to handle such things in play - Cold City does give such advice and even goes further, by integrating such elements at the core of its game system.
The resolution system is, basically, the same as in Sorcerer. All situations important enough to warrant a dice roll are defined as conflicts and must have clearly defined stakes. To resolve a conflict, the player rolls a dice pool of d10s against the opposition’s own dice pool. Note that the « opposition » here may simply be the environment (such as when trying to climb a wall etc), in which case the number of dice reflects the overall difficulty of the task.
A character’s dice pool is normally equal to the relevant attribute, plus one extra die for each applicable trait. Actions which are related to trust, hidden agendas… or betrayal may also receive a number of extra dice, making actions which are important to a character more likely to succeed (and that’s why the system does not have/need a willpower stat or other similar characteristic).
To win a conflict, characters must have dice higher than their opponent’s highest die. Thus, if the player rolls 3 dice, getting 6, 8 and 3 while the referee, rolling four dice, gets 1, 2, 6 and 7, the player’s character wins the conflict, because his best die (8) is higher than the referee’s best result (7). If both sides’ highest dice are equal, they are simply discarded : thus, a roll of 9, 8 and 1 would win against a roll of 9, 7, 6 and 5 (the two 9s cancel out, leaving the 8 and the 7 as the relevant results). The more dice you get over the opposition’s highest dice, the better you succeed. There are a few refinements (ie conflicts involving multiple participants etc), but this is pretty much how the resolution engine works.
A very interesting aspect of the system is that success or failure may cause special consequences with game effects : a significant success may give a character a temporary extra die on further conflicts based on the same attribute or may even allow him to gain a new positive trait (and yes, that’s one of the most elegant ways I’ve seen to handle experience and character development), while a significant failure may have the opposite results, representing anything from the effects of frustration, loss of self-confidence or even physical injury.
Combat, Damage etc
Combat is simply defined as an application of the general conflict rules, with very few specific rules. The damage system is worth mentioning, since it works as a simple application of the general rules on the consequences of failures – instead of losing hit points or taking wound levels, injured characters suffer consequences can take the form of a temporary attribute loss or a temporary negative trait, something which also occurs in all other types of conflicts. These consequences are actually defined by the player himself : a pistol wound, for instance, could result in the loss of 1 Action die or in a negative trait such as « bad gunshot wound in leg » or « bullet in the left shoulder ».
This design choice is interesting for three reasons.
First, it is perfectly consistent with the idea that combats should simply be treated as all other conflicts, which strengthens the internal coherency of the system.
Secondly, it means that some wounds may have psychological (rather than purely physical) consequences – a character caught in a nasty gunfight, for example, could suffer a Reason attribute loss or gain a negative trait reflecting « combat shock » or psychological trauma rather than a purely clinical condition.
Thirdly, this approach allows players to show creativity in a field that usually leaves very little room for personal interpretation : even RPG systems that take a relatively flexible approach to things like attribute tests or skill rolls usually have a very fixed and clear-cut damage system. Why ? Probably because many gamers believe that « matters of life and death » must be treated with maximum « fairness » or « objectivity » (or even, gasp, « realism ») and that the only way to achieve such things in play is to require hard-and-fast, strict rules, so that if your character dies, the blame falls on the cold, impersonal Game System (and not on the careless player or on the ruthless referee). Yet many gamers feel that the death of a player-character should never result from a bad die roll and should always be meaningful in dramatic terms, just like in novels or movies.
So how does Cold City handle character death ? In a simple and (once again) elegant way, with a « crisis point » rule that encompasses death as well as everything that could also cause the end of a character’s part in the story, such as suffering a nervous breakdown, being sacked or re-assigned by your superiors or simply deciding to quit because you have seen too much. One last thing I really liked about these rules is the way they are presented : even when the mechanics use what you might call « avant-gardist » concepts (such as the aforementioned « character death as a dramatic crisis point » idea), they are written in a practical, concise tone. The author never loses sight of the fact that he is writing a set of game rules and not a gaming manifesto ; there is a single page of designer’s notes in the appendix but on the whole, the rules are left to speak for themselves – and do so with great efficiency.
Monsters & Scenarios
Another great feature of the game is the way it handles monsters and the supernatural. Instead of showering the reader with dozens of stat blocks (which may be OK or even Very Appropriate for some games but certainly not for dark, modern horror games), Cold City only details six sample creatures but do so in a very story-oriented way, going beyond mere stats to explain how these creatures could be used in play, not only as combat opponents but as major story elements – which is what monsters should be in any horror game.
The horrors RPA agents may face are traditionally divided into three very broad groups : the Dead (yes, resurrected corpses), the Alternatives (aka « Die Veranderten »), beings which were once humans but were transformed into horrid parodies of humanity by Nazi twisted technology (and here we could have our Berserkers from Clive Barker’s Cabal) and the Incursors (aka « Die Eindringlinge »), beings from other dimensions which were drawn in our world by the crazy experiments of German mad scientists. This classification is extremely well thought out because it avoids the « RPG bestiary syndrome » (dozens or even hundreds of creatures, each with its own rationale or origin) and manages to offer great variety (since Alternatives and Incursors may encompass many different creature types) while giving to ALL supernatural creatures a single, unified origin (the consequences of Nazi twisted experiments).
The game also offers interesting and practical GMing tips (instead of the pretentious verbiage we are all too often offered), a complete scenario (called Prisoner 8) and two scenario synopses – all of which are well thought out and no, I’ll say nothing about them (a) to avoid unnecessary and (b) because this review is already long enough.
The Physical Thing
The Cold City rules take the form of a 21cm x 14cm (that’s roughly 8,5’’ x 5,5’’ or, if you prefer, one-half on an horizontal A4 sheet), 127-page booklet. It has a very stylish black cover, with a few red blood stains and a white title. I was a bit surprised at first by this small format, fearing the interior text would look very crammed, but this was not the case, since the inside of the book uses single-column text and the font size is, well, normal. Reading the book is, in fact, much like reading a two-column horizontal A4 page – or a paperback novel.
On the whole, the game is very well laid out, with a very clear yet suitably evocative presentation. The B&W artwork is limited to a single full page before each chapter and ranges from the quite good to the excellent – note that « black & white » here actually means « shades of grey » (perhaps as an artistic reflection of the overall mood of the game).
The book comes with a CD containing various extra goodies : two PDF versions of the rules (one « fullartworked » version and one « printer-friendly, text only version), PDF Berlin maps, PDF character sheets, a PDF game aid dossier and even four desktop wallpapers – all this for 15 British pounds (circa 30 US dollars), which is a real bargain considering the exceptional quality of the game. This print version package can be ordered directly from Contested Ground website (http://www.contestedground.co.uk )… or you can buy the PDF version alone, for 13 US dollars, from RPGnow.
To sum up, Cold City is simply one of the best RPGs I’ve read in years. It is a brilliant game, full of well-developed concepts, mechanics and ideas and has the potential to become a cult classic. And I mean every word of this. Kudos to Contested Ground studios and game designer Malcolm Craig for this outstanding game !