Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Hot War

Last week I spent most of a three-hour plane trip reading Hot War, the spiritual successor to the very excellent Cold City by Contested Ground Studios.

Set in Berlin just after WWII, Cold City’s crowning achievement was a spate of innovative “trust” mechanics that realistically modeled the intrigue and conspiracy surrounding American, German, French, British and Soviet operatives as they investigated horrific Cthulhu-esque monsters and dark occult happenings in the shattered urban cityscape.

Hot War took Cold City’s setting — teetering, as it were, on the brink of out-and-out war — and advanced it to its logical conclusion. But the war that Hot War chronicles involves more than simply atom bombs; this conflict also makes ample use of the so-called “twisted technology” that both sides were voraciously developing as a deterrent to traditional nuclear arms. So Hot War’s London was scourged with hellish mutants, otherworldly creatures yanked to Earth from alternate realities, and crude Soviet cyborgs powered by arcane technologies.

The result is an apocalypse, which creator Malcolm Craig chronicles through a chapter’s worth of diary entries, official memos and propaganda posters (including one shown here). This sets the scene for the game setting: a ruined London struggling to survive amid dwindling resources, even as the terrifying leftovers of the botched Soviet invasion stalk the landscape, menacing the cowed population with indirect terror.

In place of a trust mechanic, Hot War has each player describe two agendas: one representing their player’s personal motivations (ex: “Find out where my sister went after the war”) and another representing a missive handed down from whatever branch of the government they work for (ex: “Find the mole who’s selling Navy secrets”). This is especially important because the UK’s fragmented military factions are a source of great drama in the game; each branch is vying with the others for manpower and resources, which leads to intense behind-the-scenes struggles.

The agendas are rated in terms of how long it will take to accomplish them and given a die bonus that can be employed on all dice rolls associated with them. Longer agendas give fewer dice — but they can be used more frequently. Once they’ve been roleplayed out to their conclusion, agendas are fulfilled in some way and the player makes a new one — very similar to Burning Wheel’s belief mechanic, though Hot War’s agendas appear much more actionable on first brush.

The game revolves around encounters, not tasks, so there’s no “rolling to hit” in this game. Rather, players assemble a die pool for a particular encounter, adding in one die for various relevant abilities (a mechanic that’s gotten a lot of mileage lately in indie games). Then players roll the dice pool, determine a winner, and narrate the outcome of the encounter. It’s graceful, sure, but there’s a distinctive lack of crunch. Character equipment and environmental effects are all boiled down to a series of pluses or minuses applied to the die pool.

A very cool aspect of Hot War is that players can take over narration duties at various times during the game. Whenever a player wins a particular conflict scene, he or she gets to dictate the outcome (within reason, of course). The same goes for agendas: When they’re fulfilled, the player describes the outcome and its effect on the game. This is great, but it demands a very mature, involved group of players, since they’ll each serve as GM for about 20% of the game.

Hot War is among the most satisfying post-apocalyptic games I’ve read in a long time. It’s not campy; it’s stark and hopeless. While reading the description of the war itself (told via diary entries and government posters) I kept thinking about Threads, the made-for-BBC documentary that presented a similarly unflinching look at nuclear war and the immediate aftermath. Imagine my surprise, then, to see Threads listed as one of a number of film and TV shows that served as Malcolm’s inspiration for the game.

Up next: An actual play review, to be completed as soon as I can manage to assemble a group.


PatrickWR said...

Update: Here's an interview with Malcolm Craig, creator of Hot War, over at Living Dice.

Malcolm said...

Hey Patrick,

Thanks very much for taking a look at Hot War and for taking the time to talk about it.

I'm glad you picked up on the Threads influence! It certainly is one of the touchstones for the game. Have you seen The War Game, directed by Peter Watkins? It dates from 1965 as is, to my mind, even scarier and more chilling than Threads.

Oh, and just as a small clarification, Hidden Agendas were also in Cold City. In Hot War, Relationships now take the place of Trust. They are a bit broader in scope and serve a somewhat different function in mechanical terms.


PatrickWR said...

D'oh! That was what I meant to explain. Good catch, Malcolm.

Threads is an absolutely fantastic piece of television. I've only been able to watch it once -- it gets to intense near the end that I don't know if I can make sit through it again. That's definitely how I want my Hot War games to feel.

I'll check out The War Game as well...although I can't imagine something more chilling than Threads!

Supah said...

You know I'm down to play this whenever.