Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cold City Recap: We Were Playing It Wrong

Our Cold City one-shot last week was a lot of fun, but in retrospect it’s pretty clear that I was running it incorrectly. I kept clinging to the old way of doing things — namely, keeping narrative control firmly in the hands of the GM (me). Nothing malicious or mean-spirited — I just forgot, repeatedly, to pass off the story narration to the players after they won a conflict. This is how Cold City is supposed to be played; players are supposed to feel invested by devising clever ways to win arguments and deal with combats, which is then rewarded by having them receive a few minutes to narrate the outcome (within reason, of course). It’s a very mature style of roleplaying that I really dig — but in the heat of the moment, I forgot all about it.

That’s not to say we had a bad time. The session was great, in fact, and very moody. I’m a WWII history buff, so I feel like I presented a pretty atmospheric, spooky rendition of postwar Berlin. Plus, Ben’s brother-in-law was at the table for his first-ever pen-and-paper RPG experience. I gave him the British paratrooper character and he warmed up instantly, delivering his lines in a cocky Brit accent for the entire evening. That’s about as much as you can hope for from someone who’s never played tabletop RPGs before!

The plot was fairly straightforward: civil engineering crews composed of German and American workers were trying to repair a sprawling power station in a bombed-out Berlin neighborhood. Something kept happening, though. Every time the engineers would start the generators and power up the turbines, the entire setup would crap out. Fused wires, burnt-out transformers, the whole lot. Then, in the night after each attempt, there would be a horrible attack reported somewhere in the immediate neighborhood. Something was happening — but what? The players discovered a hidden Nazi hospital in a forgotten sub-basement below the power station, dating back to 1939. A little room-by-room exploration revealed a collection of metal sarcophagi, each containing a gruesome-looking humanoid creature.

The lab was hooked into the power station’s supply, so whenever the engineers would attempt to start up the generators, the nefarious operation would draw off some energy, short-circuiting the whole affair and, incidentally, activating one of the stasis coffins and releasing the inhabitant. The players tracked down one of these unfortunate creations, killed him in a blaze of gunfire, and brought the corpse back to the headquarters for research.

We played a little bit beyond there and then stopped abruptly to head out to a bar for some beers. The session was a lot of fun — and really ideal for a newbie who might be intimidated by the math of certain other, more complex games — but I still regret not playing Cold City as the developers intended. I think we would have had a much more robust session if I would have remembered to pass narrative duties around the table a bit more.

Also, the trust mechanic barely came into play. I love the idea behind this element — a multinational gang of cautious allies who are always casting sideways glances at each other — but it didn’t really click for a one-shot. We didn’t have the well-developed interactions and backstories that seem necessary to bring in the trust bonuses. All the same, we shoehorned a few trust-based rolls into a couple scenes, just to try them out. Used as part of a campaign, they would have added a lot of depth to the whole setup.

Regardless, a fun time was had by all, and we pledged to re-try Cold City and/or Hot War again the near future.

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