Sunday, 5 December 2010

Cold City: Transformations

So, we played Cold City again last night, this time with three players, and using an adventure I cooked up myself based on a plot seed in the Cold City rulebook. Rather than just a blow-by-blow commentary on the session, I'd like to focus instead on some of the key aspects of the game that rose to the surface, and some other elements that didn't, perhaps slightly disappointingly.

When running my own material, I always feel slightly nervous, because ultimately you're going into the game with a totally untested scenario, and you have no idea whether it will work out, especially with the time allotted for a one shot, in this case slightly more than three hours. Cold City is, however, a game I find it very easy to write for: I like the background of Berlin in 1950, complete with Cold War politics, while at the same time it is still a horror role playing game. The player characters are armed to the teeth, and in this session were able to call on the US military police to stage a raid against a warehouse full of black market contraband, but at the same time can find themselves cut off and alone, scouting through a large, deserted townhouse with nothing but a flashlight, some small arms, and a hand grenade for company.

Cold City is, if anything, atmospheric. Given we had experienced a recent snowfall here in the UK, I brought in ongoing wintry weather in Berlin as a constant theme in this game, and I think it worked.

My second observation is that the plot structure seemed to work well: I deliberately avoided making it sequential. The corrupt US air force colonel selling military supplies to a Berlin crim lord was kept as a sort of 'floating threat' - i.e. someone I could toss in where it suited me. As it happened, he and his network became the focus of the investigation early on, and one of his minions, sent to shadow the characters, became a key linchpin when he spilled his guts about the systematic theft of supplies - after being shot in the leg by Ben's new character, a particularly amoral former British military policeman.

Taking a leaf out of Masks of Nyarlathotep, and an earlier Cold City session, I left each 'scene' or faction as a floating, self-contained mini module. The Berlin gangsters, for example, existed as a sort of level on their own which could be approached from a variety of directions. Each module was also glued together by key NPCs, like the party's VoPo minder, Heinrich 'Garlic' Gerlach, who could both promote and impede an investigation according to his own hidden agendas. Indeed, Gerlach became quite an important NPC, forcing the players to work hard to hide their activities from him, but also using him to help organise a raid in the Soviet sector.

Gerlach was fun to play. Sebastian sat in on the early part of the session, and I let him play Gerlach initially, which I thought he did well, duly obstructing the investigation's efforts to obtain the belongings of a victim from the VoPo's. But Gerlach was also interesting as someone the PCs hard to work with, especially as, inevitably, they had to have him with them if they were going to operate successfully in the Soviet sector. I think they genuinely missed having David's Soviet character to help them out here, instead having to rely on an East German they trusted even less. Nor did they have the local expertise and contacts of Ben's old PC, Joachim Leder, killed by zombies in the last Cold City session.

On to my criticisms, and the first relates to the fact that the team seems to gel too well. There is little conflict between the national hidden agendas, and the players tended to focus on solving the mystery rather than pursuing the interests of their characters. I guess it is the role of the GM to try to sew some of this into the plot, but I was hampered by the fact that two players from the previous session were missing, and one character was really only generated in the 24 hours preceding the game. Still, I could have made more effort to bring personal objectives into play. The fact that players could double traits if they somehow involved their objectives did not seem to tempt them to do so.

Secondly, the trust mechanic which is such a great part of the Cold City system largely sat on the sidelines. There were hardly any situations where we felt a character's trust for another was an essential part of a contest. In a way, it started to feel more like a 'normal' RPG, with few of the real characteristics of the Cold City system coming to the fore.

Without the above, the mechanics began to feel a tad simplistic, particularly in the combat sequences when the team were tackling a dangerous mutant with a range of weapons in a delapidated townhouse. I found myself wishing we had a slightly more sophisticated combat system, even the BRP one. It was good not to have miniatures on the table for a change, and again I found the battle developing into three dimensions, with the villain (a shape changing killer) falling from a window, and the PCs battling another villain (a fugitive Nazi biologist) on a stairwell. I like running combats that end up going up and down as well as sideways!

Overall, the game leaves me mulling over the Cold City system and setting. I lean more towards the latter and less towards the former. I note that creator Malcolm Craig has made some changes in Cold City's 'sequel' game, Hot War, but will this be enough? We shall have to see.


  1. I like the fact that there is no combat system, that you're not rolling dice to resolve an attack, but much more than that. It's nice and abstract, but also gives room for the narrative to change; Ben's poor roll when trying to shoot Brandt resulting in him being shot by one of Brandt's henchmen, for instance, a result you wouldn't get in BRP, much as I love it.

    The trust mechanic works better with more players, I think. With only three of us, I think we knew we had to rely on each other more, so the trust didn't get adjusted or used as much as when there were five of us.

    As for the plot structure, I won't go into too much detail, but when we've finished Carrion Hill, I'll loan it to you, as I think you'll find it interesting.

  2. I liked the game Stuart- and I think you've made some good observations for the 3rd session you will have to run! ;)

    1) set up the game where each pc is given their objectives for the mission from their HQ - or work with them before the game on that one (I think tell them - they are orders afterall)

    2) work with pcs to get a personal story that works with the game potentially... distractions which could clash with the main plot, and thus take them out of the picture for a bit, diminishing the team, creating mistrust/ discord 'where were you all this time'....

    3) Give uber npcs better skills so they last longer (like I do!)

    But I reckon with 1 and 2, we can work on drawing out the tension a little. Maybe a little refresher before we start, as in you speaking to each of us seperately as our commanding officer, to set the espionage idea better, with locations given to us of secret national bases/ drop off points for 'stuff/ assets' to push the game more paranoia way.... ;) Even a tournament point scoring system which then translates into xps later to spend on pc development. ;)

  3. PS but I loved it! So these are reflections on what you have said to draw out the mechanics- my view - more please! :)

  4. That made for an interesting read, along with your review post, because I just picked up a copy of Hot War and had been looking at Cold City as a companion piece. HW is a bit different for this, it's basically Paranoia with the sf and humour elements stripped out and replaced with horror. You have the same trust issues, this time with members of other departments, but it's much more survival focussed.

    For those that don't know, it's defined as a possible sequel to Cold City. The background is that Britain was devastated a year ago (1962) by a limited nuclear strike and a subsequent invasion of Soviet monsters. Nobody knows what's happened to the rest of the world, or even the UK outside of London and the military is attempting to hold things together - PCs are members of the Special Situations Group who are trying to clear out the monsters, amongst other things. The writing is very atmospheric, and I find myself wanting to give it a try in the new year!

    It's interesting to contrast it with The Laundry RPG, which I picked up last week: British Civil Service vs the Cthulhu Mythos, on a tight budget...