Riddle Me Steel

I moved to Korea a long time ago and in the early days of my time here, it was not as easy to keep up with developments in RPGs as it has since become. One of the games that I missed when it was new, and in fact did not even hear about until it had all but vanished from casual conversation and second-hand availability was The Riddle of Steel by Jacob Norwood, and Rick McCann. Part of the early independent publishing movement, the game was produced for direct distribution by their company, Driftwood Publishing. That I heard of it at all had more to do with my interest in exploring historical European weapon use than my regular searches for new RPGs. It was hard to do too much exploring into the history of such things without bumping into ARMA, or the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, and the game had earned itself support among those with similar interests. While my explorations into European techniques can scarcely be said to have risen much above the academic level due to constraints of time, training partners, and very serious limitations on the tools I am able to import and register for use here, my passion for it has not died down. Contenting myself with Asian martial arts practice has had to do. Eventually, however, I did hear of the game and began to wonder how Norwood had approached his goal of producing a game that could help reproduce the feel and flow of combat as he and his training partners experienced it. Talk of the game’s thrust toward a specific realism tended to overshadow its other qualities, but over time I came to hear whispers of those as well. What I could not seem to do was find a copy to read.

A few years after its initial release, the company and rights to produce the game were sold as the author had a pressing duty to be elsewhere, namely serving his country in the military. The game and its supplements slowly slipped out of sight, kept alive by small pockets of players with a passion for the game and its still-novel meld of gaming elements. That passion, and the game’s lack of availability in print or otherwise, eventually inspired another company to tackle a sort of spiritual successor project, Blade of the Iron Throne, a few years ago. While heavily inspired by The Riddle of Steel, that project attempted to correct problems in the original and to present a new setting. As a part of this series, we will look at both, but for now the focus will be squarely on the original.

Thanks to the lucky convergence of Wayne’s Books fall sale and his re-acquisition of some copies of the game, my long search is over. I kept looking even though I had given up on finding a copy, and as usual, after surrendering all hope, that is when I found one. In the years between hearing of the game and finding a copy I had seen pieces of the system online, and discussed it with people who had read it, or better  – read and played it. Opinions on the game were divided, sometimes very strongly. I suppose it was that, ultimately, which motivated me to keep looking. Games like these highlight how our interests and actions do not always align, and how a group can say or believe it is doing one thing, when really it is doing another. Those sorts of clashes between game and group, while disruptive to the group’s fun, are an essential part of the learning process to play better. One way to come to terms with these clashes and to learn to handle them is to look at what a game wants to do, at how the writing fares at producing that outcome, and at what expectations reading it leads you to have. Reading and discussing this book, I feel, may help demonstrate this process effectively.

The game made bold claims to realism and ease of play. This series will look at those claims. The game blended innovation with tradition in its approach to system. We will look at the interplay between the game’s elements, and also look at how the new approaches went on to appear in other games. Finally, the game offered a challenging take on magic which surprised or baffled many. This series will draw to a close with a look at the game’s magic and how it fits in with the underlying notions of the Riddle of Steel. Throughout we will reference Blade of the Iron Throne, and the reviews ‘out there’ which comprise most of what is left of this curious game.




One Response to “Riddle Me Steel”
  1. Peteski says:

    Ooh, I’m looking forward to this

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