By Stuart Fieldhouse
Cold City, from Contested Ground Studios, is one of the most innovative RPGs I’ve played in a long time. I was first attracted to it by its setting, namely Berlin in 1950, at the beginning of the Cold War. It mixes the suspicion and politics of the early Cold War with the ‘weird science’ of an alternative WW2, quite a popular trope these days.
The PCs in Cold City are members of the Reserve Police Agency, a special detective unit established by the four Allied powers occupying Berlin. They are tasked with tracking down lost Nazi technology and occult artefacts in the ruins of a city which five years before was a major battleground between the Soviets and the Germans. The twist here is that each player must play a different nationality – i.e. from one of the occupying powers. With five players, which was the case in the game I ran recently, a fifth player can be catered for with a local German detective, actually quite an interesting role in many respects.
Cold City is very rules light. It takes 10 minutes to generate characters. Players can determine their own positive and negative attributes, which can then add dice to contests in the game. They also decide on their own hidden agendas, both personal and national. Using a PC from the game I ran, Thomas Goodberry, a British code breaker, we have “Recruit demons into British service,” as Goodberry’s national agenda (i.e. that is what his political masters have asked him to do during his tenure in the RPA), while his personal agenda, “Learn occult words of power,” is what he plans to achieve himself. This really helps to drive the game, as each player is working towards their own objectives, and the GM can also throw obstacles and opportunities in their paths.
Each PC starts with three positive and two negative traits, which can be added to during the game. Again, Goodberry boasts an addictive personality as one of his negative traits, but he is also confident, a positive one.
The really great mechanic in Cold City is the trust mechanic. Players allocate trust to other team members, both at the start of the game, and as it proceeds. If a PC you trust is aiding you, then you can add one die per point of trust you have allocated to him. Similarly, if he works against you, he can add your trust pool to his dice pool. In the game I ran, none of the PCs really ended up working against each other, so this aspect of the game was not fully utilised, but it is possible that with more sessions this might have changed. In a previous game I played in, one of my team members chose to betray me, and added my trust dice to his roll to try to shoot me!
Because of the Cold War scenario, the Soviet player usually starts off with a significant disadvantage, although in my game the fifth player, the German, Joachim Leder, was also barely trusted to begin with, but began winning the Allied characters over (only to be eaten by zombies in the penultimate scene of the session!)
Cold City has very simple mechanics, based around dice pools of d10s. These are driven by your Attributes, your Advantages/Disadvantages, and your trust pools. The game’s author, Malcolm Craig, discourages GMs from calling for tests unless there is a real, dramatic reason to do so. For example, in a scene where a player is picking a lock in an empty house, and there is no imminent danger to him, there is no point calling for a contest. It is a locked room, but the team is going to find a way into it eventually, so why bother rolling? In my game, a PC wanted to use a sniper rifle to shoot some street lights out, as he was afraid he was being set up to be killed by communist snipers. I decided that, as an ex-US Army Ranger there was no point making tests for this: first, there were no snipers, he was being paranoid; second, the existence or not of the lights did not advance the plot, and we’d have wasted time rolling dice as he sniped away at the lights; third, he was very competent with weapons. Better to progress the plot.
Contests also give the player an opportunity to add more traits, another reason to keep the dice rolling to a minimum. PCs start with five traits, but in one session one of mine managed to add three positive ones – Face Reading, Multilingual and Acute Hearing-through three successful contests. Obviously, the trait has to relate back to the contest, but as you can see, these are already giving him plenty of opportunity to add more d10s to his dice pools.
I have very few criticisms of this game. If buying it, do buy the Cold City Companion too, partly because of its alternative treatment of negative traits, and also for the useful background information, including setting scenes outside Berlin. This is not a game for long-running campaigns: I have twice played it as one-shots, and I feel it would work bests over 2-3 sessions maximum. It is a useful change of pace from playing a longer running campaign. If you liked Call of Cthulhu, but feel that it has become too samey, or gamers are too familiar with the Mythos, Cold City may be what you are looking for.
My only other word of caution: you may have to think on your feet in this game. A red herring in my adventure related to a hidden stash of porn became a major plotline when I inadvertently dropped in the fact that the pornographer had a coded client ledger with the names of senior Allied officers in it. In a previous game, which I played at UK Games Expo in 2008, run by game creator Malcolm Craig, a black market consignment of morphine distracted the team from its occult investigation.
The mechanics are so simple, you could even drop the game into other settings with similar levels of paranoia. I have heard it was successfully converted to Battlestar Galactica, which seems like a great idea.