Games, Design & Game Design

Game Chef Review: Oath of Steel

In Contest, Game Chef, Links, My Thoughts On, Roleplaying Games on April 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I participated in this year’s “Last Chance” Game Chef game design competition. Part of the deal is providing peer review to other people’s submissions. This is the second of a series of such reviews. Also, you can download my entry by clicking here (PDF): This Match Is Scheduled For One Fall.

Oath of Steel, by Jeffrey Fuller (download PDF)

Oath of Steel is a GMless/GMful game that asks the players to both threaten and defend the last bastion of magic in a world on the brink of destruction. Two of the nine pages of the game give the flavor and background of this world, where the Nations of Spire (mad godkings) are besieged by the 72 nations (united by an anti-magic faith). Six of the pages are the pre-generated Champion characters, each provided with two differently-gendered names. The overall structure for the game is contained on the remaining page, and each Champion sheet has a copy of the character-centric resolution rules and options, so there’s essentially two pages of hard rules.

Structurally, the game is of limited scope and has a definite endgame. The Champions are presumed to be defending the last surviving Godking from the encroaching armies of the Faith. Each player generates a set of Events and related Threats that face the Champions. These Events and Threats are organized into Waves, and each Champion faces a Wave in turn. The game ends once either all of the Champions Burn Out (i.e. are destroyed), or once all the Waves are defeated.

Honestly, after reading the color-drenched, evocative opening text, I found the actual procedures of gameplay to be a little underwhelming. The setting is rich in contradiction (is magic always going to corrupt? are the godkings really worth defending? what do you do when you’re functionally immortal but you can’t remember each individual lifetime?), but the game is very linear. Over the course of the game, each character has the opportunity to answer a set of questions (called Drives) about their character. This is the only real opportunity I see for the players to address any of these questions, but mechanically, answering them feeds into the only reward cycle, which is focused on fighting the Waves. So, an opening, but not necessarily one that leads out of the hallway of play, as it were.

Mechanically, I had a couple of questions. The main currency, Power (essentially “magic points”) seems like it’s a little incomplete. You can wager Power on any die roll, picking one number (on a d6), and potentially recovering Power if any of your dice roll that number. I don’t see any downside for making a wager, making it a no-brainer to wager on every roll. Also, you can spend Power to get more dice (which are “strikes” on 4+), or you can spend Power directly to make strikes. Threats need between 1 and 5 strikes to overcome, and you start with 20 Power. Your character reincarnates as long as they have 1 Power remaining.

So, is there any reason not to spend Power directly to take out Threats until you’re down to 1, then let the next Threat kill you (if you take 4 stress, you die)? You reincarnate with 20 Power, and can continue without ever having to make a roll. I may be missing something here, but having this cycle be this straightforward really takes the teeth out of the potential tension of having final destruction for your Champion be on the table.

I do really like the evocative world, and the character write-ups. The idea that Magic is this horrendously powerful force is compelling and well-supported by the mechanics behind it. I like the ritual swearing of the Oath of Steel. Structurally, this game is primarily cooperative – yes, you create Threats at the beginning, but the point of play certainly seems to be working together to overcome the adversity. In this kind of setup, that adversity really needs to have mechanical teeth provided by the game itself, or there’s little tension to drive the players choices.

I would recommend lowering the amount of Power that characters start with (maybe to 10, or even 5), and make sure that there’s a downside to wagering Power points that makes it a real risk (perhaps you lose all remaining Power, opening you to the risk of Burning Out). Finally, I think that answering the characters Drives should give the players an opportunity to say something about the world, as opposed to more currency to put into fighting, that could have some relationship to the Epilogue at the end of the game.

I’m sure that Jeffrey already has answers to some of my concerns in his head, so I think the next step for this game is taking a look at the text and making sure it says what you want it to say, and a solid playtest where you see whether the game hits all the points you want it to hit. I would personally need to houserule a couple of things (like the Wager mechanic) in order to feel like I could play the game right now – however, I don’t think I’d have any trouble pitching it, as the setting and situation are, as I’ve said, extremely evocative and eminently playable.

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  1. You pointed out some glaring omissions in the text. Allow me to clarify a few of the points. When a wager is placed you only get power back if the dice match the bet. If no dice match the wager is lost. Also, for the rebirth cycle, only the physical form of the champion is recreated, the actual sum of power does not reset. The game should wear down the champions’ power.. The only way to regain it is through the wagering system, which the odds are against you for participating in (you win about 97% of what you wager over the long run, if I remember the math correctly).

    I agree with you on the limited scope of the rules. It was originally broader in scope but I decided to tighten it down to mechanics I knew worked. One example was the original purpose of the drives. In the original text, drives not only rewarded you with fight mechanics, but they allowed you to alter the setting in the process. Kind of like how you change the game by playing in risk legacy.

    So, yeah, I need definitely need to plug some holes in the next revision.

    Thanks for the great review.

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