My gaming group just wrapped up a Cold City campaign. It was fun, and we liked the setting, but afterwards the other players and I were unanimous in our dislike of the game’s system. There were some good bits, but too many bad bits getting in the way. For example, stats increase when you succeed and decrease when you fail, and if they decrease too far (which can happen on the turn of a single roll, especially if you were a min-maxer like me) that leads to a downward spiral and then it’s almost impossible for your character to become competent again.
Another player suggested that you could play a campaign with the same setting in another game like The Dystopian Universe Roleplaying Game (a Fate game). He was probably right, but I’ve never played that game, so I’m going to hack Cold City for Cortex Prime instead. Enjoy!
What is Cold City?
Cold City is, according to its tagline, a “game of hidden agendas, trust and monster hunting”, set in Berlin in the 1950s, at the start of the Cold War.
Player characters are members of a monster hunting, paranormal investigating international agency called the RPA, short for Reserve Police Agency (the name is intended to be as bland as possible for extra cover). Each member of the agency is a representative of one of the occupying nations of Berlin (Britain, France, USA, USSR), or a native German, and they are required to work together despite growing international tension to locate and recover examples of Twisted Technology, which are super science Nazi experiments left over from World War 2.
The tagline’s reference to trust and hidden agendas isn’t just colloquial either: each PC has a Trust stat with each other PC (which will initially be based on their stereotypical views of the nations those PCs represent) and two Hidden Agendas (one from their nation, and one that’s more personal) to drive drama and conflict between team members. Both Trust and Hidden Agendas provide mechanical bonuses when they become relevant. Trust can be changed regularly (players get the choice at the end of each scene), but while increasing Trust is better for you when you’re working with your allies, if they ever betray you they will add your Trust in them to their roll for free, so there’s a balancing act.
Those are the most relevant things for this hack, but I’ll also mention the three types of Twisted Technology that RPA teams will encounter: the Alternatives (people transformed by twisted experiments), the Incursors (entities from other worlds or dimensions), and the Dead (which is basically what it sounds like).
How do you adapt Cortex Prime for a Cold City game?
Here is a quick list of the rules mods I’d use for a Cold City hack, using the latest draft of the Cortex Prime Game Handbook from January 2019 (released to Kickstarter backers):
- Characters have the following trait sets: attributes, trust, hidden agendas, distinctions, and stress. Of these, only attributes are expected to be used in every roll, but one of each of the others (except stress, which follows the normal rules for stress) can be used for free if they are applicable.
- The attributes are Action, Influence and Reason (which are just the Cold City labels for the standard Cortex Prime attributes of Physical, Social, Mental).
- Trust is based on relationships, but the rating of the die is explicitly how much you trust the person referred to.
- If you are relying on someone, use your trust rating with them; if you are betraying someone, use their trust rating with you. Always use the trait if it’s appropriate in this way, even if it’s a d4.
- A trust rating can be stepped up or down at the end of any scene you have shared with another character covered by the trust trait.
- All characters initially have the following trust traits: American, British, French, German, Soviet. Trust with specific individuals can be earned later, through challenging (next).
- Trust traits have trait statements and can be challenged for triple dice. Once challenged, rather than being stepped back, the trust trait is shut down until the end of the session. At the end of the session, re-activate the challenged trust and either 1) re-write the trait statement to reflect your new understanding of the individual or nation, or 2) if the trust was for a nation, you can choose to restore the original trait statement but create a new trust trait (plus statement) for the individual who caused you to challenge it, showing that you no longer consider them to be a typical member of their nation.
- Characters have two hidden agendas, one for their nation (they are assumed to be working secretly on behalf of their government) and one that is personal to them. These are essentially freeform statements-as-traits, and they can be challenged if a character acts contrary to one of their agendas. At the end of the session, challenged agendas can be re-written, but keep in mind that national agendas are set externally and can’t be changed on the whim of the individual.
- One of a character’s three distinctions must be the nation (Britain, France, Germany, USA, USSR) to which the character belongs. The distinction is relevant whenever the stereotypical traits of that nation (actual or perceived) could help or hinder the character (granting d8 or d4 respectively). The other two distinctions are freeform. The stereotypical traits of the nation are as in the Cold City rulebook (where it also explicitly states they are largely incorrect):
- American: brash, loud, over paid, over sexed, over here, uncouth, assertive, cocky, confident
- British: reserved, stiff upper lipped, always takes a break for tea, eccentric, sport obsessed (especially cricket and football), superior
- French: cowardly, alcoholic, fond of good food and wine, rude, snobbish, amorous and romantic
- German: hard working, humourless, efficient, bureaucratic, rude, orderly, precide and, given recent events, more than a little warlike
- Soviet: stoic, alcoholic, fiercely loyal to the Motherland, a firm believer in Communism, robotic, irreligious, melancholy
- Stress is used instead of complications to track injury and other negative effects. The three types of stress are Action, Influence and Reason (attached to the character’s attributes), and the shaken and stricken rules are in play.
- Players can’t add multiple dice from a single trait set, even by spending plot points. Other standard uses of plot points are unchanged.
- The GM uses a doom pool.
- For character advancement, you can use session histories, but I’m actually tempted to try out Rob Donoghue’s achievements levelling system. This would grant xp for interacting with the game’s mechanics, e.g. by rolling specific attributes, using trust, betraying someone’s trust (using their trust against them), challenging trust or a hidden agenda, creating a new trust trait for an individual, recovering stress (your own or someone else’s), using a national distinction at a d8 or at a d4. The available achievements (of which there would be around 3) would be randomly determined, perhaps on a stack of index cards, each time they need to be drawn. To ensure that nobody gets stuck with an achievement they don’t want, remaining achiements can be discarded and replaced at any time, but players earn more xp for completing all three from a set (1 xp for the first, 2 xp for the second, 3 xp for the third, for example). I haven’t particularly thought about how these xp are spent, although they may only apply to attributes and temporary assets.
And that’s it. A fairly straightforward hack, but one I think would work for a cool campaign in a cool setting. What do you think?