AcadeCon Roundup: Cold Steel Wardens

I had a great time at all of the sessions I was a part of at AcadeCon, but I have to say that I think the Cold Steel Wardens session I played in was my favorite.

That session was my first time trying out an RPG system other than Dungeons & Dragons, and it happened to be the only one I played without Peder — he was running his suspense/thriller D&D session at the time. And while I think the novelty that came with those two factors was part of why I liked the CSW session so much, there were a lot more reasons why I enjoyed playing a session based around this system.

Image Credit: Drive Thru RPG

Image Credit: Drive Thru RPG

Cold Steel Wardens is a newer RPG, just a couple of years old. As the game’s subtitle, “Roleplaying in the Iron Age of Comics,” suggests, the game is based on gritty dystopian comics created during the 1980s and onward. The characters tend to resemble iconic superheroes of that time — as the GM of my session put it, “one-trick pony” heroes like Batman, Superman, and the like. The tone is dark and gritty (it’s been compared to Gotham or the world of Watchmen), and the stakes are high for all concerned.

I won’t go much further into the base game than that, as that basically sums up what I know about it. That’s weird coming from someone who played a four-hour session of this game, you say? Not so! The session I was part of was a homebrew mashup version, so my first experience with CSW was different than most. Granted, it was a mashup put together by the game’s creators, so it wasn’t too far afield, but…well, you’ll see.

I didn’t know anything about CSW before signing up for the session I played in — I was interested to learn a new gaming system, naturally, but what really hooked me was the session’s title: “Avatar: Fury Road — The Last Waterbender.” That’s right, folks — this was a bona fide, never-before-seen mashup of Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra and Mad Max: Fury Road. And if you don’t think that’s the greatest mashup to ever be mashed, well…I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.

Both because this mashup was truly great and because it happened to hit so many of the right notes for my particular brand of nerdiness, I straight-up loved it, y’all. In the world the GM had created, many years had passed since Korra’s time as Avatar, and since then, everything in the world of ATLA/LoK had pretty much gone to pot. Republic City and Bah Sing Se were in shambles, the denizens of the Earth Kingdom had turned cannibalistic, airbenders had become glorified sky pirates, and only one member of the Water Tribe remained — the current Avatar.

waterbender

Image Credit: Avatar Wiki

As players, we made up a rag-tag band of post-apocalyptic benders whose goal it was to shepherd the fledgling Avatar to a bending master who would be able to train her in the other bending disciplines. Along the way, we faced gangs of Wheel Boys (this world’s equivalent of the War Boys from Mad Max, who had sacrificed various body parts and had replaced them with mechanical appendages), bands of airbender pirates, and dark creatures from the super out-of-whack spirit world.

One of the things that I liked best about this scenario (and one of the aspects I most enjoyed about ATLA/LoK, incidentally) was that the setting allowed for the further exploration of new and creative forms of futuristic bending. For example, firebenders could now use lightning-style bending to techbend, or use the heat energy of fire to bend radiation. And airbenders could modify their skills to super-oxidize metal — in other words, they could rustbend.

Beyond the truly fantastic setting of this game, I found its mechanics to be simple, elegant, and easy to pick up. The mechanics are based around rolling multiple d10 dice. As with all RPGs, you have your list of skills, all of which are assigned a number — this is the number of d10 dice you must roll whenever a skill is tested. After rolling the dice, you then add the total of your roll to the number assigned to the core skill, or Vital, associated with it (unless Vital itself is being tested, in which case it’s just the roll total). Additionally, only certain numbers count toward your total. A roll of 2 to 5 equal zero hits, a roll of 6 to 9 equal one hit, a roll of 1 equals a negative hit, and a roll of 10 equal a double hit.

So to give an example — my character was an airbender (ex-) pirate; let’s say I was trying to use an airbending “blast” attack against an enemy. If the number of dice I can roll to use my attack is 5, and I roll a 1, a 3, a 6, a 6, and a 10, I would have a total of 3 hits from my roll. I’d then add the number assigned to my Force Vital — we’ll say it’s 5. So all told, I’d end up with a total of 8 to try to hit my opponent. Though this setup sounds a little complex written out, rest assured that it isn’t difficult in practice. Even as someone who typically has a hard time picking up a new game quickly, I found this game to be quite easy to understand.

An additional mechanic that I really liked is one that has similar iterations in other RPGs. In CSW, you have a bowl full of d10s that belong to the GM. If a player does something really cool or creative or funny, the GM can choose to add more d10s to the pool in the middle of the table. Later, if a player rolls poorly or wants to manipulate the story, they can take dice from the pool and choose to either reroll some dice or take narrative control away from the GM to decide what happens next. The catch is that all other players around the table must agree to your decision to use dice from the pool. I really liked the way this mechanic acted as an incentive for players to keep the story moving along and keep things interesting, and it added a different element of engagement with the GM than I’d seen before. It made the story creation aspect even more collaborative, and encouraged us to think on our feet and make bold, compelling choices as the story progressed.

As much as I’d love to play a CSW session based on this mashup again (or just see Nickelodeon do a show version of it, because holy crap, you guys), I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to play the original version of the game sometime. As someone who’s relatively new to playing RPGs, I found this game to be very accessible, easy to pick up, and a ton of fun to play.

Have you ever played a Cold Steel Wardens session? What did you like most about this system? If not, is it one you’re hoping to try out?

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