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Author Topic: Cloak of Steel  (Read 1366 times)


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Cloak of Steel
« on: October 17, 2006, 05:49:48 pm »

This is a review of the Cloak of Steel OGL game, currently the last of a series of reviews of PDF products submitted for review by Postmortem Studios.

First off, let me say that of all the PS products sent to me, this is the one that appears to have the most sophisticated production values.  Its also the only D20 product that was sent, and I was very curious when I started reading it, considering that Grimgent had appeared in public statements to be less than a fan of the D20 system.

The basic concept of the game is that of a "Fantasy Mecha RPG"; that is, a fantasy setting that incorporates the giant robots we all know and love.  The production of the PDF is fitting with the genre, with anime-style art, including a very nice full-colour anime-style cover.

I've noticed that with PS's products, as with many RPG products, you can always tell a lot about the values of the author by what he chooses to highlite on his back cover. In this case, the back cover informs us that:
1. the product is powered by a particular variant of the OGL.
2. it is a "well thought out fantasy world where ideology, not good and evil, determine the conflicts of the world"
3. it is "a world where the existence of the gods is uncertain" is " a world where magick (sic) and technology meet, clash and blend"

He also informs us that Cloak of Steel features "streamlined and deadly combat", "feat based magic", a "merits and flaws" system, "well described and realized nations and religions", "anime style art throughout", and "everything you need to start playing".

I've already said that there is indeed "anime-style art throughout". Everything else that he's claimed remains to be seen.

Usually, its around this point in a review where I'll start talking about the physical layout of the book. But in this case, I think the more central issue is Desborough's take on the system. There's a lot here, right off the bat, that reads with the undercurrent of "guy who hates D&D trying to remake D20".  The basic system is definitely D20/OGL; but Desborough seems to take deliberate pains to point out, wherever possible, how his system will differ from D&D.  He mentions very prominently that his system has no classes or levels, elevating the importance of skills uber alles. Also, how "rather than having learned spell lists or a certain number of castings per level", his "magick" system (he insists on the magic-with-a-k spelling throughout) is based on magical feats.

There's nothing wrong with any of this, and its certainly nothing that other OGL products haven't done before (M&M is classless and level-less; and True20 uses magic-feats); but the WAY he says it just reeks of the atmosphere of "fantasy heartbreaker". This is, I guess, a kind of "D20 heartbreaker", in that right from the start the attitude of the writing seems to suggest that this book is Desborough's magnum opus of trying remake D&D into something he likes.

Ok, now back to the production values for a moment. They are without a doubt very fucking high.  The covers are full colour, and while the rest of the illustrations are in black and white, they're much nicer than any other Postmortem Studios' product I'd reviewed. There's very nice quality to the layout as well, including really fine maps of "Tierplana", the setting world, and lots of other nice touches that make the game look very sweet indeed.

Speaking of which, just what is the Tierplana setting all about?  For starters, its literally flat, not a planet at all as such, and the sun orbits around the world rather than the other world around.  Its surrounded by gigantic mountains on all sides (presumably so no one falls off the edge?), and has a number of continents, only one of which is detailed fully in the setting as the default for playing the game.

A tremendous amount of attention has been put into the details of the setting; including things like the weather, the seasons, geography, crops, animals, etc. etc.
The world itself seems to be comfortably nestled somewhere in between the "hopelessly wierd" (ie. Jorune, Tekumel etc.. settings that are really sophisticated but so different from what we're used to that they're often unplayable due to extreme wierdness) and the conventional (all the fantasy settings that are basically thinly veiled metaphors for medieval europe). There is just enough of the familiar in this setting that you can still relate to it readily, and yet there is enough wierd shit in the setting to make it plain that this is NOT just a fantasy version of our own world.

As for the "default continent"; the continent of Luropae, its a relatively standard mishmash of 7 nation-states, which fit into the varied types that make for good fantasy gaming: the two countries at war with each other, the tribal nation that wars with itself, the "old empire" that has fallen into decline, the promising new rising empire, the high-tech country, and the wierd dark colony of a distant empire from across the sea that practices wierd and scary magic... sorry, er, "magick".

There is a shitload of details about each country, its culture, its military, its history, its heraldry, and all kinds of other stuff. You can tell this setting is a labour of love, and you get somewhat a feeling that this is a world that has either been the subject of the author's homebrew campaign, or the subject of obsessive elaboration in the author's head. But I don't mean either of those as a bad thing; its something that in this case gives the setting enough of a lived-in feel of sophistication that doesn't make it feel "prefab" the way a setting like Eberron does. The nations are also similar enough to each other that they don't feel like a patchwork quilt setting, and distinct enough that each one provides its own set of play possibilities.

One little note: Random Name Tables.  This is something that should be fucking REQUIRED of any good fantasy setting. And in Cloak of Steel, we get them. Good for Grimgent!

Also, there is a lot about the setting that reminds me of anime series like Lodoss war; or some of the Final Fantasy games; that kind of wierd atmosphere.  Even the names like mecanisola, Hielonevia, Royomuertivo, etc. sound like they come out of some kind of japanese video game, which I guess is the point. Good for emulation of genre, though sometimes a bit high on the wierd-factor.

Each nation also has details of particular "national" weapons, like the Straholm "mana gun", or the Verderran "Cadensolan Sword" . There are also many special cultural feats for particular nations, or bonus rules that apply to certain nations.
The degree of attention to detail, in other words, is really spectacular, and the setting really shows a lot of completeness. There's way more info in here than I could possibly provide in this review. I mean really, everything from incidental shit like the eating habits of individual cultures, to thorough details about religion, which seems to play a very central role to the setting (in spite of, or perhaps beacause of the fact that the setting does not have visible divine intervention).  Religion is divided into various kinds by culture; and the religious groupings appear to have been inspired (or more accurately, are influenced by Desborough's real-life perceptions of) Catholicism, Islam, Eastern Philosophy, and Shamanism.  In general, these belief systems are presented in a fair light, the only prejudice in the author's preferences showing through when it comes to the "atheist underground" movement in the setting, highlited for their rationality and radical thinking; something that is an utter disconnect from our own world, where both the humanist movement of the renaissance and the rationalist movement of the Enlightenment was born from religious backgrounds, and atheism was only the byproduct, not the originator, of these streams of thought.

Ok, now, an important warning: this setting, being an anime genre emulation, contains "half-men", which are basically catgirls, furries and other such stuff, as races. If that's a dealbreaker, do not get this game.  On the other hand, if you adore catgirls, this will certainly be a plus for you.  Me, I dig a good catgirl drawing but I could usually do without it in my RPGs in most cases, but in this case it makes sense, since this is pretty much a standard of countless anime settings.  There's some good rules on creating and playing these "half-men" races.

There's also airships. Again, some people really hate airships, others really love them.

But obviously, the most important setting convention that is central to the "selling point" of the game, is the Fantasy Mechas. These are specifically called "Cloaks" in the setting, hence the title "Cloak of Steel", and they are explained in the setting as "giant armoured suits made of metal, wood, leather and other materials containing within it magickal or scientific means of control as well as other devices to enhance its attack capabilities and provide it with other unique abilities". The cloaks are endemic to Tierplana, and are considered the standard vehicle/armor/weapon of the Tierplanian knight. They essentially supplant the armoured cavalier in role and purpose for a medieval culture.  There are basically three standard classes of Cloak: the heavy-combat cloak, the light-and-fast Cloak, and the Magick-enhanced cloak. But within each of these there are countless models that vary from country to country; some cloaks looking like giant armoured fighters, some like animals, and some like none of the above. In addition, they can be divided in size between Cloaks (the giant robots) and "Squires" (power armour).  Most Cloaks are powered by "mana stones".

Now, onto the nitty-gritty of character creation. You start out by picking a race (which includes such furry indulgences as "badgerfolk" or bunnygirls), then choose a package of 15 skills that connect to a particular archetype (ie. "engineer", "magician", "noble", etc). Your age determines how many points you have to spend on abilities, how many skill points you get, your base attack and defence, hero points, etc.
Technically speaking, the system is classless the way that D20 Call of Cthulhu is classless. The system is totally level-free; being one where you gain xp that you then spend directly on improving your stats. A playtest would probably be needed to determine how balanced this system would work out to be in comparison to the standard levelling system.

There are a lot of little variations to the standard D20 system that require that the rules be ready very carefully by anyone already used to the standard D20 mechanics.  To provide just one example, just like in regular D20 there are critical hits, but you also have "critical botches" in this system, where any roll of a natural 1 is a "botch threat", and failing the second roll indicates some kind of catastrophic failure. Other "innovations" include hit locations and expanded movement rules in combat, both of which I would imagine would end up slowing down combat compared to D20, and a totally different mechanic for actions per round that seem curiously similar to the Palladium system.  Players have a set number of actions per round, and can use these actions to attack, or to make "reflexive dodges/parries", making a check to avoid being hit rather than relying on armour class.

In addition to the skill system and the feat system, both of which are detailed in the standard form, there is also a series of "merits and flaws", a mechanic for character creation that is borrowed no doubt from the story-based systems the author obviously admires. The actual structure of this mechanic doesn't add anything that Feats couldn't have done, however, and thus seems pretty pointless.  Just like you can take a feat in regular D20 that adds +2 to your will saves, there is a merit that lets you do the same here. It would have made more sense to simply incorporate the concept of merits or flaws into the existing feat system.

On to the mechanics of the Cloaks:  The Cloaks are presented in a format similar to a template, that is that they supplant or enhance the attributes of the wearer. Cloaks will each have their own particular "cloak feats" which represent the parituclar abilities of that Cloak model, and a "mana battery" with a reserve of power that is sometimes spent in order to activate special abilities. Curiously, cloaks can apparently gain new powers or abilities through the expenditure of experience points as if they too were characters.
The choice to design Cloaks in accordance with the standard D20 mechanic rather than incorporate some new mecha design or combat system is a good one, it guarantees that the system does indeed fulfill its promise of being smooth flowing.  Mechas in D20 have always suffered from the problem of designers either having difficulties scaling the giant robots to the D20 system or trying to invent entirely new subsystems for mecha design or occasionally mecha combat that mean a whole new set of complicated rules to learn for the player/GM.  That is neatly avoided here.

Also included are complete rules for the design and use of the airships that are ubiquitous in the setting: unfortunately, these rules DO present a wholly new subsystem for design (as is again often the case with vehicle design in D20 games), and that does create new (and IMO unwanted) complexity. Even so, the rules themselves appear sound, at least on paper. Again, a playtest would probably be required to confirm the practicality of the rules.

The "magick" system, as previously mentioned, is feat-based, with a variety of different styles of magick, including "kata magick" (a kind of mudra-based magick of hand gestures), "material magick", sword-based magick, ritual magick, prayer-based magick, and even a style of magick apparently based on cutting-yourself (that one must be for all the goth-kiddies out there). There's also rules for the creation of all kinds of magick items, from the standard scrolls to magickal tatoos; and for the creation of magickal "implants" (ie. magick-based cyberware). A lot of this section also strangely reminded me of palladium, either Fantasy or RIFTS, and I have to wonder if Mr.Desborough isn't a closet Kevin Siembieda fan.

Not to say that its bad; there's a lot of variety, a lot of options here; and that's always a good thing, in my book.

The book ends with a rather lengthy section on adversaries; not just a bestiary, mind you (though there is a small bestiary included), but a chapter on how to design monsters and opponents.

My conclusions on this product:

The Good: Most of the book.  The setting is very detailed and interesting to play in, the concepts are cool, and the nime emulation feel is definitely accomplished. The system is apparently quite sound, and an interesting variant on the standard D20, though its not any more radically different than many D20 products on the market.

The Bad: Not much; other than some of the scale of author pretentiousness.  James Desborough tends to put a lot of his personality into his writing, in a way that sometimes takes away from the slightly more professional appearance of objectivity that most gaming books prefer; and in this case that personal touch reveals some of his prejudice against standard D20.  Also, some of his writing tends to have that "fantasy heartbreaker" mentality that makes it appear as though he believes his system to be a radical improvement over standard D20, and that he seems to believe that his game is much more revolutionary then it really is.

That said, in conclusion I would suggest that anyone who digs the idea of an Anime-esque fantasy world with MECHA! should look into this game. They will indeed find that it has all they need to run the game, and that both setting and system are satisfying.

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