Age of Steel Review
I've been thinking about writing some reviews of other people's games for a while now and have been a little nervous as to how to approach the subject and any potential biases I may have, given that I am also a publisher myself. However, I am a big believer in the solidarity of small publishers and think we should be doing more to signal-boost each other's work.
Hence I have decided that I am going to write a few reviews, focusing on other small press indie publishers. I'm not going to use this to trash anyone's work, so if I don't rate a product I'll just keep schtum, but neither will my reviews be without critique. However, any criticism will be vouched as constrictive feedback to a peer, and I hope it will be taken with the intended respect it is given.
With that said, lets get on to my first review...
Age of Steel is a unique indie roleplaying game made by fellow British outfit, Isolation Games. Despite being fantastically named for the pandemic, they've been around a few years longer, and seem to be a similar mainly-one-person operation to myself. The one-person in question being Rob Leigh, who seems to have done a bit of freelancing for Chaosium, but mainly works on his own stuff (apologies, Rob, if I've got this wrong). This seems to be a similar sort of CV to myself, so that may make me a little biased. But anyway. On to the meat of the review..
Age of Steel is a pulpy, diesel-punk game with both a unique system and a unique setting. Unlike other pulp games, Age of Steel doesn't try fit itself around real world history, instead creating it's own fantasy setting. with its own unique nations and religions. Whilst there are some clear parallels with 20th Century history that are necessary for a a setting to have that sort of pulp/noir feel, there are many cases where it diverges just enough to give the setting some mystery, yet give you a place to rest your hat if you're looking for a particular trope or archetype to play with.
As an illustration of this, when creating characters with one of our group who hadn't bothered to fully read through the setting background, they asked "Which of these countries is most like America, then?" to which he got three answers from each of us who had read the background. Each of these answers started with "It's not really like that but" followed by our own interpretation of which area might give you the flavour you want for your character. All three suggestions were different and all equally valid.
This is a key strength, I feel, to the setting. It's different enough not to make it difficult to build a character to a classic pulp archetype, whilst also giving you lots of different ways to find a place for your character in the setting. From experience I can tell you how difficult this can be to achieve. Whenever I have tried to do similar, my nations always end up looking as cheap pastiches of real-world nations (it's why I tend to stick to alt-history).
The setting also has some superscience weirdness going on in the name of Anslertech, named after it's initial inventor Johann Ansler (who is also a bit of a setting bogey-man/hero depending on your point of view, having ended the war in an almost Hiroshima/Nagasaki sort of way!). This provides some expensive but powerful kit your characters can play with, but also allows very Scythe-like mechs to be wandering around the setting.
There's also an optional cosmic horror/occult element you can choose to add in or not according to your personal tastes, but rather than just copy or pastiche the other notable pulp/noir-era cosmic horror, Age of Steel has it's own "Coiled Ones" with their own mysterious goals and desires, and secret cults (and possibly even government organisations) worshiping them within the setting.
A final point to make about the setting is the way it handles what some make call "woke culture" and others (including me) just call respect and decency. In my own writing I tend to stick to real-world history, which creates tensions over the horrible way in which people were treated on grounds of race, gender or sexuality in less enlightened times. My personal take (which has led to some criticism) has always been that these things are bad, but were also a part of history, and that in exploring them as themes within the safety of a roleplaying game they can be enhance the drama and personal struggles of the individual characters people want to play. The freedoms of a fantasy setting has allowed Age of Steel to create a world that has not experienced slavery or colonialism, and so allows you to explore all the fun aspects of early 20th century pulp adventures, without the baggage that often comes with it. It's subtly done, unlike some recent works that seem to want to irritate right-wingers (how ever much I may sympathise with that sentiment, I don't find it a constructive way of making life better for anyone) and it just works without generating arguments.
The system is really quick and fun. You have a stat that tells you how many dice to roll and a skill that tells you whether you need 5+, 4+, or 3+ to score a success. Given the number of dice rolled, this can potentially lead to some whiffy rolls, even if you only need a single success, let alone for anything more difficult. However, there are two features that make this more likely to swing in your favour, and that both tie in to the pulpy feel of the game: Knacks and Moxie.
Knacks apply to three skills you pick that gain an additional 2 dice whenever you make a roll with those skills. In a class-less character generation system, this is kind of how you build your character archetype, in my mind. My journalist character, Dottie Penfeld, for example, has knacks in Bluff and Awareness. It's also, though, a way to chore up some weaknesses without needing to spend vital skill points on those skills - my third knack is in Reflexes, so that I have a chance of dodging out of the way when her curiosity inevitably gets her into trouble.
Moxie is the game's meta-currency, and it can have some pretty big effects. The one I like best is that you can spend multiple at a time to make your dice rolls even better, but that when you do it counts as both a win-more effect and a safety blanket. If I spend 2 Moxie points on a roll, for example, I get to triple any successes I make on the roll, but if I don't roll any, I instead get 2 automatic successes. In the games we've played, we've found that being generous with distributing Moxie as a GM allows the players to be more extravagant in their expenditure of it and hence turn that pulp dial up to 11.
Combat mechanics are fairly simple, allowing for one "primary" and one "secondary" action each round, in a similar way to many other systems over the last 20 or so years. Again, from play experience we've found that allowing characters to use their skills and moxie points in interesting ways can allow for much more classing pulpy gameplay.
As a GM you don't get a huge amount of guidance from the book for how to deal with every little situation, but there are a few different design levers you can pull on the fly to describe the effects of each player's skill use. For example, in a recent game, Dottie had managed to sneak behind cover when a gang of cultist thugs attacked us in the street, so she snuck around behind them and yelled at them that they'd gone to the wrong hotel and were attacking the wrong group of people. I got a couple of successes on my bluff roll, so the GM just applied that as a penalty to their initiative rolls in the next round, giving our party a big opportunity to take down a few more cultists before they got to react. There's nothing in rules specifying this particular interaction, but an experienced GM can easily make up that sort of ruling on the fly to allow characters to do more than just move and attack each turn. This brings me to my first piece of constructive criticism: add in some ideas for how players can use skills to gain different advantages over their opponents beyond just making attacks.
Whilst we're on constructive criticism, if I could offer my another: I feel there's a need for something a bit "more" to characters and mechanics interplay - something that really gives your character that sort of cool pulp edge and allows them to do their thing with style and panache. However, I think this might be something Leigh is aware of, as his most recent offering, When the Moon Hangs Low, seems to have addressed this particular feature by adding in "Edges" that do just this. I'd just love to see a supplement for Age of Steel now that brings these into that game, too. (When the Moon Hangs Low also adds in the idea of negative dice that reduce successes on a 5+ roll, which provides another interesting lever for using skills in combat to play with, as per my point above.)
Art & Graphics
For a small-press indie outfit, the art on offer in the book is far from bad. Rather than rely on stock art (something I am very guilty of myself), there are a number of commissioned pieces of art that really capture the flavour of the setting nicely. It's far from perfect, but I appreciate the efforts gone to in producing and commissioning these. If I could offer a another piece of constructive criticism here, its in the layout and page dress. As much as it is crisp and clear, using a nice font, it is also a bit dull, with only simple art-deco style borders offered as page dress, and you can go many pages before being offered the tiniest image to break up the monotony of text. I own a physical copy of the book, bought through Drivethrurpg.com's POD service, and some of the images are very dark in print. Anyway, I don't want to dwell too much of a negative here, as I know this is the hardest aspect of a game to get right as an indie publisher, and I certainly appreciate the efforts of having as much bespoke art is it does.
Overview & Conclusion
The product overall is short, clocking in at only 120-odd pages, which if I'm honest is a nice starting point. I've got pretty much enough rules and background to get me started, and at only £8 for the PDF and £14 for it in print, you can hardly complain at the size. Whilst I'd love to have some more details on the different cities and nations of the setting, at this price I can cope with them coming in a further supplement. There's no starting adventure here, either, but at £2.50 for To Catch a Thief, it's just in separate PDF, technically saving you money on the print copy if you don't want to go down that route. If there's one final criticism I could add, it's that I'd like a few more stat blocks to help me populate my own adventures with, especially more Coiled One gribblies.
Overall this is an excellent little indie game that I and my group have really enjoyed playing through. In terms of support there's a player's guide (which is basically just a bit more equipment) and a more lengthy adventure, The Hunt for the Midnight Crow, which we are playing through and very much enjoying.
At the time of writing this, Age of Steel is an electrum best seller on DrivethruRPG, and deserves to be much higher ranked. It comes highly recommended, and I'd advise you to go out and pick yourselves up a copy - at that price you can't go wrong!
Whilst you're here...
I'm also hoping that this review might bring some new traffic to my site, too, so if you're interested in what I make, too, please check out my latest work, Newtonium Engine and have a look out for new stuff when it comes down the line in the near future.