Riddle of Steel – Path of the Nokwazi

February 15, 2013

Quinn Murphy has been doing a blog run on RPGs and Black History Month and we ended up brainstorming with a couple of friends an African fantasy setting that we’re running using Riddle of Steel.

Riddle of Steel, background and context

The Riddle of Steel came out about the same time Burning Wheel did, and both were parallel creations that hit similar places from very different angles – action + drama in a fantasy setting.

Both placed an emphasis on tactical combat, though Riddle of Steel leaned towards abstraction a bit more and ran quicker. More importantly, ROS had an amazing reward system built on motivations – “Spiritual Attributes” which became the inspiration for Keys in Shadow of Yesterday (and Lady Blackbird, which then also became Milestones in the Marvel Roleplaying game…)

Sadly, though, Riddle of Steel is currently out of print, and probably one of the biggest issues was that the game needed a lot of clean up in terms of cutting off crusty design bits and a better presentation, though the folks who picked it up after the creator, Jake Norwood, sold it, focused mostly on supplemental material.

Setting up to play, rules-wise

Anyway, it’s been years since I last played it, and in my head, I had remembered it as having a solid core and thought, “I’ll just have to cut a few spots and it’ll be good”. …well, I actually cut a lot and still am finding places where I’m like, “that’s… just a terrible rule.” and having to cut more. So it went from “cut a little” to “Just remove the heart and rebuild a body around it”.

This really came from a simple urge – “Do I really want to subject my players to this shit?”

Things still on the “to-do” list: rules for ranged weapons, rules for falling/throwing people that are better than what’s listed…

Structure and Premise

The Nokwazi have a rite of passage – youth reach the age of majority and leave the people for a year or two, traveling the world and proving their strength, courage, and intelligence by doing great deeds in the world and seeking to bring something home which will improve everyone’s lives – which could be anything from a magical artifact to a new way of doing architecture. Part of their belief system is a general skepticism – the world is magical, but not all of it, and a lot of people fall victim to superstition, therefore, investigating the truth is part of this process.

Gameplay-wise, I’m basically setting up different people with their own sets of problems that the PCs run into, and what the people BELIEVE is going on, both politically, magically, etc. and as we play, there’s a random roll at points on the magical elements to see if they are, indeed, magical in any way. As one of the players put it, “It’s like a fantasy X-files, maybe there’s something weird going on, maybe not.”

Our First Session

Things went really well. I was quickly reminded that fighting in Riddle of Steel is over quickly once you can get past someone’s defenses. The short actual combat was the PCs having gotten in on unprepared enemies and straight murking them. I’m looking forward to a more prepared fight where the enemies actually get a chance to try to attack back or a few rounds of back and forth before a killing blow.

Once the players started clicking in with their Spiritual Attributes, we started picking up momentum. What’s interesting is that some of the SAs I expected to hook into didn’t and others did, but at least it served to help me understand the characters better for the next time. I think with a few sessions I’ll be better able to home in on exactly what will be solid.

Setup-wise, I found myself using less than 1/2 of what I prepared, but that’s fine – most of it was simply a character name, title, and a motivation. I generally set up these situations with characters who are on different areas of the “reasonable” to “unreasonable” spectrum, but even unreasonable characters can be good as long as you give them an understandable motivation for their actions.

The other part is making sure that any of these places the characters reach, that the people are not completely hapless and helpless – they’re making choices to deal with their problems – maybe not the best choices, maybe not good choices, but choices still.

More to come!

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