GHR: Cold City

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

A game with intriguing mechanics and a fantastic setting that could have re-written the history of RPGs.

Cold City was written by Malcolm Craig and released in 2006 through Contested Ground Studios. Craig and Contested Ground form an interesting corner of RPG history as they emerged at a point after the rise of the Forge but before indie/non-traditional games had become their own distinct scene. Contested Ground games were aptly named in that they were often mechanically very similar to the first generation of non-traditional games despite looking like traditional games and adhering to the idea that one of the best ways to attract attention as a small publisher was to put out games with settings that were entirely unique and original: Wind back the clock back maybe 5 years and a game like Cold City would have been too weird to find an audience. Wind the clock forward another 5 years and a game like Cold City would have sold itself on its mechanics and been quite content to present itself as having a largely generic setting like ‘cold war espionage’ or ‘dystopian monster hunting’.

Cold City is set in Berlin in the aftermath of World War II. In this timeline, the Nazis channelled all of their resources into weird Hellboy-style occult. While this experimentation did not win them the war, it did crack the fabric of reality and left the Allies with stewardship over a Germany infested with weird monsters and sinister alien technology.

The player characters are part of a multi-national agency known as the Reserve Police Agency or RPA. The RPA is staffed with personnel from each of the major Allied powers and they are responsible for tracking down and controlling any manifestation of Nazi occult technology. I use the term “controlling” with caution as this is not a morally straightforward game about killing monsters or arresting Nazis… this is a game about Cold War espionage, and the moral compromises required to become a great power.

Complicating matters is the fact that the rapid Russian advance across the Eastern Front allowed the Soviet Union to capture a load of Nazi occultists and sequester them in a Soviet city where their skills have been put to use building Communist weapons in much the saw way as the Americans hoovered up all of the Nazi rocket scientists in our history. Russia’s aggressive accumulation of Nazi occult technology has caused an element of mistrust to creep into Allied relations and with no enemy keeping them pointing in the same direction, the various Allied powers have started plotting against each other and trying to grab as much Nazi tech as possible in preparation for the next war. In other words, the player characters are torn between different sets of loyalties: Do they pursue the mission of the RPA, or use their status as RPA agents to help their own governments? Are they loyal to each other, to themselves, or to their bosses back home? Do they trust what they see before their eyes, or do they rely on old stereotypes about their foreign colleagues?

Cold City is very much a game about trust, loyalty, and paranoia. It models all of these by asking the players to invest in the amount of trust they have for their colleagues; if you invest in a colleague who is loyal to you, then you get a bonus when working with them. If you invest in a colleague who is in the process of betraying you, then they get a bonus on their attempts at betrayal. The tension between trust and distrust is both personal and professional as there will always be to temptation to grab the sizeable bonus you get for betraying everyone and furthering your own ends. However, the less trust-worthy you behave, the less people will invest in you and so the bonuses decline. Thus, a skilful player will spend their time managing the tension between their job and their nation as well as the tension between their duty to their colleagues and their own private agenda.

If this seems like a lot, that’s really because it is. I would even go so far as to say that managing loyalties is the core mechanic of Cold City and it speaks to the fact that this is supposed to be a game about investigation, intrigue, and contested loyalties. You’re not supposed to be comfortable and you’re not supposed to be able to completely trust the other player characters. It’s not quite PvP-style with ‘I kill him while he’s asleep… what’s in his backpack?’ notes passing back and forth across the table, but that tension is there and it is deliberate.

Cold City is a game that owes a real debt to both Ron Edwards’ Sorceror and Edward Hutton’s somewhat more obscure Elegant Roleplaying system, Craig even acknowledges the debt inside the book. The first major difference between Cold City and more traditional RPGs is its level of granularity: Most traditional RPGs have the basic unit of action be the use of a particular skill. Like Sorceror and most of the non-traditional RPGs that followed it, Cold City steps back from individual actions and asks us to think in terms of entire scenes. While each scene may involve the use of different skills, Craig asks us to consider each scene in terms of its core conflict: Is the conflict physical, mental, or social? Determine the core conflict and make an opposed roll on that. Granularity is re-introduced by free-form skills that are less discrete skills and more sentences describing abstract characteristics such as ‘being a great shot with a pistol’, ‘knowing how to get people to loosen up’, or ‘loves to read’. If a conflict seems to touch upon one of these skills then the character gets a bit of a bonus. You then factor in the various loyalty bonuses and penalties and you have the basic unit of player action and how it is determined.

Cold City is a small book and while there is a version 1.1 that includes errata and additional material, the aim of the game was always to be evocative rather than exhaustive: There is no map of post-war Berlin and there is no list of important NPCs. The opening of chapters of the book give you an evocatively written introduction to the political situation and the closing chapter of the books give you a loose historical timeline, and a few ideas when it comes to the kinds of eldritch horrors that the characters will be expected to deal with. Everything else is up to you and your group though there are a load of suggested books, films, and websites from which to draw inspiration (and by the way, we 100% need to normalise this practice… any game that ships without a reading/watching list ships broken).

This last point is another area where Cold City is historically interesting as while later non-traditional games would lean into the idea of the GM having to share their narrative powers with players, Cold City somewhat skirts around the issue. It’s not that the game is outright traditional as players are encouraged to set narrative agendas, suggest scenes and share some of the narrative duties in flashbacks, but the idea that the shape and content of the campaign should be determined as much by players as by the GM is either downplayed or entirely absent. This makes perfect sense when you consider when Cold City was published but also when you consider that Cold City is a game with a very obvious style-sheet and a very clear direction. More recent non-traditional games often hold back on giving too many setting details because they want to empower the players to make their own creative decisions and populate their own worlds but the specificity of Cold City’s setting and timeframe are one of its many pleasures and it would be harder to maintain that style were narration to be spread out across a number of different people.

Cold City is a wonderful game that dates from a really fascinating period in the history of RPG design as its openness to non-traditional mechanics gives it an original system while its dedication to a singular vision and style-sheet make it evocative in a way that the text of many non-traditional games are not. Surveying the list of games that Malcolm Craig worked on, I am starting to see his decision to move on from designing RPGs as a great generational loss to the hobby. Contested Ground Studios stood on the border between two RPG traditions that have grown not only more distant but also more introverted with the passage of time. One of my recurring complaints about contemporary RPGs is that D&D has allowed to become so large that it effectively blots out the cultural sun but I think it’s telling that the traditions that Contested Ground embodied have effectively deserted the field: Traditional Simulationist RPGs are slipping into the nostalgia of lavishly-produced crowd-funded new editions of 30 year-old titles while non-traditional games are being unceremoniously dumped on with only a tiny minority of titles ever reaching a broader audience. There’s a nearby universe in which Contested Ground stuck around for a few years until Malcolm Craig was hired to work on a roots-and-branches re-think of the World of Darkness or Call of Cthulhu. At the moment that universe seems a lot more interesting and culturally hospitable than the one we currently inhabit.

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