Monday, 13 February 2012

Can you Savage Cold City?



Cold City is an excellent role playing game published by Contested Ground Studios. It is based on the premise that a special unit of police formed by the Allied powers is searching the ruins of Berlin for lost Nazi technology and scientists. We have played a couple of sessions of Cold City, and you can read my thoughts on this here and here.

I like Cold City because it has such a perfect setting for RPGs: there is the background of WW2, which has just finished, and the onset of the Cold War. The Allied powers are still working together, but only just, and lack of trust is starting to set in. There is also espionage, horror and sci fi, all mixed up in the same volatile pot pourri. And there's no Cthulhu Mythos in sight.

The characters are all assigned to the Reserve Police Agency, an inter-power police unit which seeks out any remaining Nazi technology which has not been accounted for. Because each character in the team must hail from a different power, an element of distrust is meant to creep into the game from an early stage.

The game is very rules lite, using dice pools to power 'conflicts'. Players can build pools for conflicts based on their attributes, advantages/disadvantages, and the levels of trust assigned to their character by other players. Trust can be re-adjusted after every scene.

The game is well-suited for playing shorter campaigns of about one to four sessions, which suits me down to a tee. Where I have issues is that the game still lacks an element of crunch for me: there are several concepts within it which I'd prefer to port over to another more generic system, while still preserving the setting and the RPA itself. The two systems I've alighted on as alternatives are Savage Worlds and World of Darkness.

Savage Worlds is one of my favourite systems at the moment. We've used it recently to play a skirmish wargame, which you can read more about here and here. But, I feel it is still better purposed as a roleplaying system. It features an element called Bennies: players are assigned three of these at the start of each session, and can use them to purchase a variety of in-game benefits. My focus is very much on the Bennies mechanic in Savage Worlds if an effective replication of Cold City's trust mechanic is to be adequately replicated.

Plain vanilla SW sees three Bennies allocated at the start of the session. The game used to allow players to convert unused Bennies into XP, although that rule seems to have been dropped in more recent iterations. In playing Savage Berlin (my Cold City variant), players would be given a pool of Bennies to allocate to other players. Each player would have a different colour, in order to be able to properly identify where the Bennie came from. Trust Bennies would be allocated at the beginning of a session, in secret, prior to their distribution to players.

In a typical game of SW, with each player being assigned three Bennies (four if you have the Lucky edge), the GM is looking at 12 player Bennies in a four player session of the game. The more Bennies in circulation, the higher the 'pulp' feel of the game. My idea would be to provide each player with THREE Bennies to allocate between other players in terms of their level of trust, and TWO Bennies that are linked to their hidden agendas (personal and factional). Players would still determine what their hidden agendas ARE, and would automatically begin each session with a Bennie in each.

Okay, so players could end up with five, six, seven or more Bennies in this game, but the pulp element would be restricted because Bennies can only be played if an additional condition is met. Hence, your hidden agenda Benny can only be played with an action in association with your hidden agenda. Trust Bennies can only be played if the character who assigned you that trust is somehow involved - even if you are working against them. So yes, players could have more - or less - Bennies than in a usual game of Savage Worlds, but they can't play them whenever they like, thus balancing it out.

The other alternative would be to restrict the Wild Die, the d6 all players get to roll with attribute-related tasks. PCs would keep their base Wild Die, but could add additional Wild Dice to a roll based on the number of Trust points assigned, or if their hidden agenda was somehow engaged. For example, if the Soviet player assigned two Trust to me, I could add 2d6 to rolls in which he was directly involved (on top of my 1d6 Wild roll). This means certain actions in the game could be turbo-charged with extra d6, if the characters that trust you are at stake. It is down to the GM to interpret whether this is warranted.

Another possibility is that I introduce a mix of both: Bennies are dictated by Trust, while the bonus Wild Dice are introduced when a character's hidden and factional agendas are involved. This will force characters to consider both the intra-team Trust mechanic AND their own agendas. I guess play-testing will sort it out in the end...


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