Game Main > The Riddle of Steel

The Riddle of Steel RPG

designed by Jacob Norwood, Rick McCann, Ben Moore, and Brian Leybourne

2002, Driftwood Publishing

The vast majority of RPGs are "simulation-driven". The main focus is on combat, and more to the point on strategies and tactics. Two swordsmen fight, one uses a clever feint and skewers the other. The stricken swordsman falls to the ground and bleeds out. The end. Ho hum.

In other words they simulate reality. People in fights get killed regardless of which side they are on.

However, in stories and novels (which RPG's are set up to emulate) survival is heavily biased in favor of the protagonists. The heroes tend to win, or more specifically, the ones with the passion. This is the "narrative-driven" RPG.

(There is another type, the "game-driven" RPG. You can read more about this here, here, here, here and here. )

The Riddle of Steel has an elegant game mechanism which not only allows this, but subtly forces the players into such gameplay. Well, maybe "non-overtly" is a better word than "subtly". The result of ignoring the mechanism is that your player-character tends to be unsubtly killed dead with depressing regularity. If you go in without committing to your character as a protagonist, the combat system will kill you.

The mechanism is Spiritual Attributes.

When you create your character you give them up to five Spiritual Attributes (Ken Burnside likes to call them "Dramatic Hooks"). These define your personality. They represent your Faith, your Passion, your Honor or whatever you want to call it. They are what transform your character from a person into a protagonist. In a real sense these attributes define what your character thinks is worth fighting for.

Inigo Montoya would have a Spiritual Attribute of "seeks vengeance on the six-fingered man". Robin Hood would have "Robs from the rich to give to the poor".

In combat, if one or more of your Spiritual Attributes apply, you get extra dice for success in combat. This means that if the player of Robin Hood has him engage in a sword fight for no good reason, Robin Hood has a fifty-fifty chance of dying. But if Robin Hood engages in a sword fight in order to obtain some gold to give to the poor village folk, his Spiritual Attributes give him extra dice so odds are stacked in his favor.

See what happens? The player who just tries to play the combat rules winds up with dead player characters. The player who makes a point of having their character act like a protagonist in a novel keeps on winning.

It is also possible for Spiritual Attributes to change over time (for instance if Inigo Montoya manages to kill the six-fingered man).

There is a bonus cool bit. Spiritual Attributes can be expended permanently. The players keep track of this. When their characters are killed, they get to use the spent points in order to make a new character that has bonuses. This allows a player to give their character a dramatic death, and rewards them with a better character.

Here is an excerpt from a review by Ron Edwards:

A character has several Spiritual Attributes, named variously as Faith, Passion, Honor, and similar, and specified by the player. They act as metagame mechanics on any other roll you make, if the Passion or whatever applies to the situation. In other words, fighting some random schmoe uses the plain old ombat rules (speed, weapon, etc, etc), but fighting the Six-Fingered Man gets you all sorts of bonuses since your various personality scores are involved.

People who have been drawn by the ultra-gritty combat system often miss this point. Sure, you can get two to five bonus dice in a given combat exchange by picking and choosing your combat maneuvers carefully. But if your Spiritual Attributes are firing in tandem, you can have up to twenty-five extra dice, many of them re-usable! There's just no comparison: given competent opponents, a player who does not make use of these Attributes will see his character die screaming; a player who does can and will often triumph.

Another aspect to this system is that the Spiritual Attributes are exceptionally dynamic and "pump-able" during play. To understand how, three things must be understood to interact: (a) these Attributes are capped at 5, (b) they go up and down depending on the character's behavior, and (c) they may be spent permanently (as opposed to "used") to improve various features of the character, such as attributes.

For instance, let's say I've maxed my character's Drive, Passion, and Destiny, and they all apply to the current situation in a big way.

Scene A: I've used those 15 extra dice to get into milady's bed-chamber, in time to prevent the assassin from killing my lover (who's disguised as milady, blah blah).

Scene B: I spend those 15 dice, right now, to improvement some things (whatever: Proficiencies, Attributes, buy off a Flaw, doesn't matter as long as I haven't improved it or them already this session). Note that my three SA's are all now flat zero.

Scene C: While we are escaping the tower, we get hammered by enemies who again represent a fine instance to exercise Passion, Drive, and Destiny. Great! I fight like a bastard without any SA help ('cept now it's time to spend my Luck, say). But I go up at least one point in Destiny, Drive, and Passion, due to my actions. Cool!

Then, during Scene C, on the next exchange, I have three to five SA dice to add, right there. Same thing happens through the next round, if I live through it - and, although it might take a scene or two, I'll be back up to 5 in all three of those SA's within the foreseeable future.

Therefore, right there during play, not only does my character improve in the "hard" elements of his sheet, but all manner of dramatic music and intense bonus-ing is going on the whole time.

My favorite example in play so far, regarding an NPC, was the Destiny "to die in a ditch" combined with a Drive to captain the best mercenary troop. Therefore, in combat with the player-character regarding control over the troop, in a ditch, the NPC gained huge bonuses when the combat turned against him - hence rallying, and putting the player-character in serious trouble.

Also, unlike many personality mechanics in role-playing games, they can actually change their nature almost at will; if two are brought to zero either gradually (through role-playing "against" them) or immediately (through spending them on improvement) then the player may change one to another. Hence a Destiny may be achieved, a Passion abandoned, or whatever.

Therefore the big creative task for the GM is to provide situations in which Spiritual Attributes are either highly coordinated or highly opposed. The first two sessions of play, in our group, brought a character's Destiny to become the new Voivode, his Passion for the Voivode's wife, his Drive to drive out foreign invaders, and his Faith in his religion all into play, for solid 20-die bonuses to most of his rolls during a big battle scene. But after that, his Faith and his Passion came into conflict as his lover turned out to be opposed to the Church, and as it turned out, his new Voivode status became exploited by a more subtle invader, putting his Destiny at odds with his Drive. So now the player is in the process of making hard choices for his character and possibly changing his Spiritual Attribute profile, right there in the middle of conflict situations during play - in other words, in the process of true authorship in highly-focused Narrativist role-playing.

Chris Safruik had this to say:

At first, when I saw Spiritual Attributes (abbreviated as SA) in the Quick Start, I thought “Bleah. Lame”. I have since changed my mind.

Actually, changing my mind was easy. Once I learned that Spiritual Attributes gave you extra dice, I thought “Wicked!” Then, when I found out that characters advance through using Spiritual Attributes, I was in love. This is a fiendishly clever way to reward players, advance characters, develop story lines as well as cause the player to think about why their characters are doing the things they do in the first place, all at once. Killing things and taking their stuff is pointless, unless the person you are killing is King Lazarus, and the thing you are taking is his crown, because he killed your brother.

The SA's really helped in getting the players to visualize a character they wanted to play, and gave me great pointers on the kind of game they wanted. Essentially what they allowed us to do is for me to say: "This is the game. This is the setting I'm using. What kind of game do you want to play?" with the players saying "We want a blood soaked tale of honor, hate, destiny and revenge." We probably wouldn't have come up with this concept if we had all sat around and talked about it; it came about as a result of defining the SA's.

In addition, they are the ultimate boon to the GM. SA’s provide clear direction on what the players want to do in the game.

The players told me what kind of game they wanted to play. Not verbally, but by defining their Spiritual Attributes. This process has enabled me to tailor the game to their desires, rather than trying to shoehorn sometimes incompatible characters together into a contrived plot (ever play with an assassin and a paladin in the same party?).

A great many games have been run with only a couple of index cards of notes for potential enemies and an event or two. The players drive the game. The players tell the GM what they are going to do in the overall world, rather than the other way around. In other words, the players say “We want to kill the King of Hrothwulf, because he killed our families” and the GM provides the events of the world. Simple, yet effective.

ZenDog said:

Remember the SA's should address things the players not characters are interested in, within the game the GM is offering to run.

Paka said:

This is the most important facet of SA's to master. Once I told the players this, I watched the light behind their eyes go on and all was clear.

I transfered a DnD game over to TROS and a player was writing his SA's up. Many were clear but there were 3 possiblities open for his last slot. He debated based on what his character wanted and when I told him that these should be things that HE wanted, not that his PC wanted, I saw his whole notion of the game chance.

There is some kind of method acting school of thought in some story-oriented RPG playing where the character must come first. In all of the successful games I have ever played the game somehow paralleled and highlighted things that were going on in the players' lives or touched on a subject that was important to the players.

Players make games, not characters. Realizing that the PC's are only fictional creations was a simple but powerful realization I've recently come to about gaming.