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The Riddle of Steel is my favourite RPG of all time. I started out with blue book Dungeons and Dragons way back in 1980. I played a few games then moved on to Runequest, Dragonquest, and Traveller and others. Eventually our gaming group became wholly attached to Chivalry and Sorcery.
In 2002 I was losing interest in C&S and so I began looking for a new game -- not just another game, but a new game, one that took advantage of the changes in game design that had taken place over the previous twenty years. One of the games I cam across was The Riddle of Steel and it's author, Jake Norwood. Seven years later I still play this game and I still think it is the game that is best suited to myself as a player and as a referee. What follows is my review of the game.
The thing that caught my initial gaze was a statement on the back cover of the book.
The only RPG approved by the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts
I had always believed that the game I had played and helped house-rule, C&S, had a realistic combat system. So I was intrigued by this statement. In fact I bought a copy of the book based on this statement. When the book arrived I flipped straight to the combat sections (Book 3: Training covers Proficiencies and also Maneuvers while Book 4 is entirely dedicated to combat). A quick read through followed by a slower, more considered read through and I was convinced that no game I had ever played actually worked in a manner similar to real melee combat. The Riddle of Steel (TRoS), however, was a completely different game.
In TRoS, the weapon you use is far less important than the manner in which you wield it. Proficiencies are fighting styles, such as Sword & Shield, Cut and Thrust, or Polearm. Each Proficiency has a number of offensive and defensive manoeuvres. As a character's skill in a Proficiency increases they gain access to more advanced manoeuvres.
TRoS is a dice pool game. A character has a Combat Pool, a number of dice they may use in combat. Each Round of combat is divided into two Exchanges. In each Exchange the character performs a manoeuvre, either offensive or defensive depending on whether they hold initiative. The Combat Pool refreshes each Round, and the player must divide the Combat Pool between the two Exchanges of a Round.
The great differentiator between TRoS combat and other games is that in TRoS the player has to understand how the manoeuvres work. In most games the character has a value on the character sheet and the player simply rolls the dice. In TRoS, it is quite possible for a good player with a weak character to win a combat against a new player with a more powerful character. This is because combat isn't simply a matter of rolling the dice and looking at a value on the character sheet. Instead, combat is fought by performing manoeuvres and committing a number of CP dice to each of those manoeuvres. A skilled player will know when too many or too few dice are committed in each Exchange and they will be able to exploit that. In TRoS, a sequence of manoeuvres is used to position or soften-up an opponent for a killing blow. That takes some skill on the player's part; such an approach to gaming is not to everyone's taste.
While the combat system is great fun and certainly convinces a number of people to try the game the real stroke of genius in TRoS is the Spiritual Attribute mechanic.
Each character has a number of Spiritual Attributes. A Spiritual Attribute may be a Conscience, a Destiny, a Drive, a Faith, Luck, or a Passion (in fact a character may have two Passions). The player uses their character's Spiritual Attributes to tell the referee what they want the game to be about; the story they want to tell through their character. The player picks up to five Spiritual Attributes for their character and then writes a brief synopsis regarding how the Spiritual Attribute applies to their character. For example:
Drive: To see the young duke achieve his majority and take his rightful place upon the Ducal seat.
This indicates that one of my character's top concerns right now is to protect the young duke and it indicates to the referee that I, as a player, want to be involved in this plot arc.
Once the player characters are created the referee has at his fingertips everything he needs to know regarding what the players want the game to be about -- via the Spiritual Attributes. So the referee produces scenario material with scenes that bounce off the character's SAs. What then?
When a player engages with a scene wherein his character's SA(s) is/are relevant then at the conclusion of that scene he gains a point in one of the relevant SAs. If he does not engage with the scene then he loses a point in one of the relevant SAs. Furthermore, when SAs are relevant to a scene then the value of the SA in dice is added to any dice pool used in the scene.
Finally, while SAs are limited to a maximum of 5 SA points are traded in so that the player may develop the character -- increase skills, proficiencies, or attributes.
So the SA mechanic allows the player to tell the referee what they want the game to be about. When the player follows the material that the referee has created for their character, based on their character's SAs, the character performs better (more dice in the dice pool)and the character receives extra SA points. This in turn allows the player to develop their character. This mechanic goes a long way to ensuring that the material that the referee prepares for the players will suit them and won't be wasted. To me, this is just brilliant.
Just as with the combat system and the Spiritual Attributes TRoS is all about placing choices before the player, choices that matter, that will affect the player and their character. The Riddle of Steel really is one of the best Indie games and remains my favourite.
"What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?"
Nice review, Ian.
Coincidentally (or IS IT?) a friend posted an article this morning on his Facebook feed on the recent resurgence of interest in traditional western martial arts, and I pointed him to the TROS quickstart which, against all odds, is still available on the website.
I've heard of people running games with just the quickstart, so it's pretty complete and I would recommend it to anyone else interested in an otherwise hard-to-find game:
(About 2/3rds of the way down the page.)
The premature death of TROS was really unfortunate and a real loss for the hobby. Not least because I was one of the suckers who preordered Sorcery & The Fey right before the company died and the owner absconded with all our money -- but honestly I would happily give it up to see the game come back to life. I know you've been doing a lot of work over at trosfans.com, and that's a good thing, but it's not the same as actually having vibrant and active company promoting the game.
While the game wasn't perfect it was very different and it has my favorite rules-heavy combat system of any game. (Of course not all games need a rules-heavy combat system and I'm not always in the mood to play or run one, but when I am....)
I hope someday that TROS rises from the dead. It really needs a second edition, a major cleanup, and so on. But the game has a few real gems at its core that can totally transform the experience into something transcendent.
Nice review, Ian.
Thanks Kevin -- I'm just starting to wade through my very modest collection of games and review each of them. I've only recently encountered this site and I quite like what it offers. A home for every game!
The premature death of TROS was really unfortunate and a real loss for the hobby.
I think that there is a natural life cycle to any Indie publisher that only publishes rulebooks and rule supplements. If SatF had been produced then to me that may well have been a natural end to the game.
Indie games rely on the author(s) maintaining a presence on the forums. Players like having their questions answered by the guy(s) who wrote the game. Once that connection was lost (in fact, I think once the connection to The Forge was lost) the bulk of the promotion of the game was being done by the fans. Where we are today became inevitable.
I know you've been doing a lot of work over at trosfans.com, and that's a good thing, but it's not the same as actually having vibrant and active company promoting the game.
I agree completely. However, I expect that sometime in the next twelve months a successor to TRoS will be published based on the work the community is doing over on trosfans.
have the fans considered buying the rights, like what happened to ICE/Rolemaster several years ago.