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The Riddle of Steel

April 18, 2010

Riddle of Steel is still one of my favorite games that simply never got enough love.

It came out in 2002, right around when Burning Wheel “Classic”, aka the first, unrevised version dropped. In many ways, the two games are siblings-independently developed fantasy rpgs built with an eye towards historical research, tactical combat, and reward mechanics for pursuing beliefs and passions. Burning Wheel got revised to polish out it’s rough edges, while Riddle of Steel ended up getting more supplements with more options, which I feel hurt it in terms of accessibility.

Spiritual Attributes

The Spiritual Attributes mechanics in Riddle of Steel were one of the first, and finest, bits of design that began the idea of giving advancement points AND bonuses for a character pursuing abstracted motivations – “Loyalty to the King”, “In love with the Countess”, “I must keep the Church from falling to the Heresy” etc.

Most games now that use a similar mechanic usually offer either a bonus to rolls OR a form of reward points, but not both together. By making these things do both, Riddle of Steel tightly wound play all around the pursuit of Spiritual Attributes.

The second slick thing about the SA mechanics was they set up a pacing/climax cycle to the game.

Each SA could go from 0-5, and would give bonus dice equal to it’s current rating. In order to increase stats, you’d have to spend down your SAs, often from 2-3 different ones at the same time. If an SA was at 5, you got no more points, even if you would normally be eligible for more.

What this meant was, a) you had to pursue several SAs to improve your character, b) you had to strategically choose WHEN to spend out points, since you’d lose your bonus dice afterwards, giving rise to a very cinematic build up of tension and ability, followed by a lull in ability, c) holding onto the bonuses for it’s own sake would cost you in the long run, as you’d be missing out on points you could be using for improvement.

Tactical Combat

Riddle of Steel has one of the fastest and elegant systems for combat. If you look at the book, you wouldn’t figure it right away- it’s got charts in the back for hit location, which look like Rolemaster critical charts, but all of that is extra on top of the core mechanics.

At the heart of the combat mechanics, you have a dice pool (“The Combat Pool”) which must be budgeted over two exchanges before it refreshes. Deciding how much to commit to the first Exchange vs. the second one is crucial to play. Over-commitment leaves you open to getting whomped in the second exchange, and since wounds in Riddle of Steel are brutal, most folks play for caution.

The second aspect which is brilliant is it’s handling of terrain. You don’t have maps or tons of modifiers- Terrain is a difficulty to beat each round. You only need one success, but you’re pulling the dice from your Combat Pool- so it becomes a matter of gambling how many dice do you want to commit? Failing the roll costs you 1/2 your Combat Pool, which is a brutal price. Likewise, if you’re facing multiple opponents and want to maneuver to only face one at a time, it’s done with this same mechanic.

It’s quick, elegant and fun.

All Said

I wish it gotten cleaned up and was still in print. It’s a game I think is great for exposing folks who only really know the mainstream rpgs to some smart and innovative game design.

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