ETHICS IN JOURNALISM DISCLAIMER: I backed the Kickstarter for Cold Steel Wardens at the PDF level, but I was provided a complimentary print copy for agreeing to do a review. No expectations were attached to that aside from posting the review. Affiliate links to RPGNow are used in the review, and purchasing via those links does financially benefit my blog.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Available in PDF for $14.99 from RPGNow, or in print for $39.99, Cold Steel Wardens is geared towards reproducing adventures closer to Frank Miller's Daredevil, the grittier Batman books, The Watchmen, Hitman, Spawn, X-Force, etc...in short, it's designed for supers games in which body counts rack up and you have to kind of squint to figure out the good guys from the bad. This all in one core book is a hefty 274 pages, filled with sidebars along with the pages and full page art pieces being limited to the chapter headings.
Characters are defined by Vitals (MAFIANAP - Magnetism, Accuracy, Force, Intellect, Agility, Nerve, Awareness an Psyche). Skills (Unarmed Combat, Investigation, Reputation, Esoteric Knowledge, Driving, etc...25 in all), Specialties (like Bows...Iron Age heroes like Bows, right?), Masteries (like John Woo Combat Style, for Gun Fu action or Case the Joint to be awesome at surveillance or Friends in Low Places to have, uh, friends in low places), Flaws (Heroic is a flaw in the Iron Age, just like having an addiction or a psychosis) and Powers (not an exhaustive list, by design, but covering most of the tropes you would want from the average Iron Ager like super senses, healing and sorcery...oddly, retractable claws seems to only be a function of Artificial Limb, seeming like an odd requirement).
The system is a d10 die pool system, in which every 6-9 counts as a Hit, and a 10 counts as 2 Hits, and you compare your Hits to target numbers. Beat your target number by 5 or more and you score a Total Success, which translates into a Critical Hit in combat. However, you lose a Hit for each 1. As many games do, Cold Steel Wardens provides players with Vigilance dice, which can be spent to roll extra dice in your pool...except it's a group resource, so everyone has to agree to you using the dice. If you need to, you can spend 3 dice to re-roll your whole roll, or spend a variable number of dice to alter aspects of the scene for narrative control. In keeping with both the supers theme and the gritty theme, your heroes can push themselves to gain extra dice, but they take Strain in doing so, so they can push themselves to a breaking point, at which point it almost becomes a death spiral to physical or mental collapse.
Unlike most supers games, Injuries and Psychoses are very prevalent as Physical and Mental Strain wears you out, and death is a much bigger possibility for PCs and NPCs alike than in most supers RPGs...and even if a character doesn't die, permanent physical injury may well push players into retiring characters....or maybe go out in a blaze of glory, attempting to take their arch rival with them.
Heroes are driven by Memories, Motivations and Stances...Memories being those moments that shaped them (perhaps taking up the mantle of a fallen hero who died evacuating an apartment building after an explosion), Motivations (bringing down the politically connected mafioso that ordered the attack on the apartment building) and Stances - what the hero believes in (maybe they refuse to sacrifice their principals and work with the common enemies of their foe because they believe it would sully them as well). Gaining new Vigilance dice is often tied into the GM targeting these aspects of the character.
Cold Steel Wardens has an assumed setting, the city of New Corinth, helpfully organized by how the various Knowledge skills would reference the city. There's also a slew of sidebars that provide optional bits that drag the city into darker places (like an evil plague carrier the visits the elite of New Corinth every generation and wreaks havoc on them, or one of the local, well connected business leaders being vile and corrupt...and completely essential to the local economy). A number of NPCs are detailed, which can also be used to plot the creation of your own NPCs, of course.
Cold Steel Wardens aims very firmly to set itself apart from the superhero pack by providing a focus on a system designed for violent, street level, anti-hero action and largely does a good job of it. It hits some of its reference material (Daredevil) better than others (X-Force), but the effort is there. A random Investigation generator is also provided, which I always appreciate, as well as 50 Adventure Hooks in addition to those present in the New Corinth section. Honestly, what screamed to mind to me the most as I read it was "Arrow" more than anything else, and given how great Arrow is, that's not a bad thing. I tend to like my superhero games flexible, and this isn't going to do that, but it's not designed to be.
Six Points: 1) I love that the author didn't think "gritty" meant "you can't push your limits", instead applying a potentially brutal cost to it.
2) Very little wasted space in the book, making me feel like I got my money's worth and providing evocative art.
3) Random adventure generators are always a win. The Investigation templates in the GM section are also a great addition.
4) The organization is probably the weakest aspect of the book. The index helps, but I still did a lot of flipping around. Really, the core mechanics should have been segregated better.
5) Specialties are kind of a big deal, opening up character functionality above and beyond what Powers can do.
6) The powers section was a bit disappointing, even given the intended scope of the game...something as incredibly common as retractable claws should have been easier to find, in my opinion.
If you are tired of trying to push heroic superhero systems into street level action, this is going to pretty well do it...just be aware that you might break something trying to scale it back up.