Souls of Steel Play Report

On Sunday at GeekGirlCon, I got to play a Powered by the Apocalypse game called Souls of Steel, run by the designer. Here’s how it went for me, and what I thought.

The game bills itself like this:

Souls of Steel is an ace pilot military drama RPG loosely based on the Apocalypse World system and inspired by shows like Battlestar Galactica and Gundam Wing.

Okay, very good. I’m the guy who wrote Force Effect. I have a ton of giant robot on my shelf: most of the Gundam franchise, GaoGaiGar, Escaflowne, Macross, Giant Robo (live action), and more. Robotech was the first anime (don’t start…) I watched, and Battletech was one of the first games I played.

Our Games on Demand customer had some experience with PbtA, as did the rest of us, so we were able to dive right into picking a playbook, building a world, and kicking alien ass. The playbooks are built around the team role your character occupies: the Leader, the Veteran, the Rookie, the Loose Cannon, the Specialist, and so forth.

I created a Leader character named James L. Rowe, essentially a mashup of Jamil Neate from After War Gundam X, borrowing his sunglasses and “father to his men” attitude, and Alex Rowe from Last Exile, taking his militaristic and taciturn nature and revenge motive. The latter never came to light, but in a convention game, you don’t have time for everything.

We defined the conflict as an invasion of Earth in the mid-21st century, with biomechanical alien cyborgs attacking Seattle. Our vehicles were giant robots, created by using a special nanotechnology inspired by a combination of Brave Exkaiser and Turn-A Gundam that would transform existing large structures into viable mecha. So our Rookie was piloting, literally, a Bob’s Big Boy statue, and my Leader had his old ground tank mashed together into a mecha.

The stats (called “Core Virtues”) model personality: Fire, Steel, Style, Heart, and Brains There was a decent mixture of moves for both combat and social situations in each playbook, and from what I saw, they all followed a similar pattern: enhance the tasks the playbook is supposed to be good at, use one Virtue for another when making a particular basic move, increase a playbook-preferred Virtue by +1, and so on.

The game is as focused on the debriefing and dramatic moments that follow a combat, of course, and this is good. The best mecha anime alternated between these tense moments when people faced each other, and when they had to sortie again to deal with a more immediate problem. Our Specialist and Rookie teamed up well, with me basically trying to keep them out of trouble, support them against the high command, and so on.

What works

First and best, the Respect mechanic. Rather than just giving a dice bonus, you can effectively buy success in a social situation. This is a huge deal for me in PbtA, because of the way the engine handles difficulty.

I liked the combat/drama yin yang. I’m glad to see an interesting system for relationship dynamics. Games built around personal relationships don’t show their strength as well in a convention setting, but I’d love to see how a longer campaign plays out.

Vehicle combat felt quick and potentially lethal. You could apply damage to either your mecha or the pilot inside, which was thematically on point. You can design primary and secondary weapons for your vehicle. There were a large number of tags, either as advantages or disadvantages, but it wasn’t always clear what they meant, or whether they’d have a meaningful impact on the game.

The con playbooks we used were slightly altered to remove the Apocalypse World-style sex move and references to seduction, and added different special moves. I actually appreciated this. While Battlestar Galactica might have a fair amount of sexual drama, it’s not usually a big factor in a military mecha series, which is where I prefer to come from. Having moves that let you model the broader range of relationships makes it possible to tell more types of stories, such as the sort of Lost Lenore angle I’d have for Rowe if this had been a longer game, which would obviously keep him from romantic entanglements.

What doesn’t work

It might have been nice to see a little more "specialist equipment" (extra armor, unique devices, and so on) as an option for vehicles. I get that this isn’t Mekton, but it might be interesting to see support for things like combiners, the empathic power-up, and so forth.

I’m not yet sure about the friend-vs-rival distinction for relationships. Mechanically, they’re distinguished between bonuses to help vs. bonuses to harm or interfere. This meshes with my understanding of “rival” from anime, which is a “friendly enemy”, someone who drives you to do your best by competing with you or opposing you, but it’s hard for me to to square that with the specific wording of the move, which says specifically “interfere”. I think this is probably a word choice issue rather than a fundamental problem with the move.

I would have liked to see events from the social side carry over to the deployment side. For example, maybe you and your rival have a tense standoff in the break room, and the rival says something that affects you deeply but helps you realize an important truth about yourself. You might gain hold that you can spend during deployment to get the +2, without the implication (as it stands now) of your rival actually messing with you during a vital combat.

Relationships aren’t always bidirectional, which may or may not be important to model. You see this sort of thing play itself out in Gundam SEED Destiny, where Athrun and Shinn clearly have a “rival” relationship from Shinn’s perspective, but not from Athrun’s. I asked Dana about the “Char Clone” archetype, and I think this is one key to making Char work: a character whose relationship with others isn’t what they think it is, or want it to be.

Conclusion

I really like the PbtA game engine, and I really like Souls of Steel’s take on the military drama genre. I would love to see a little more attention paid to the vehicle side of the house, and I hope the relationship system continues to be roomy enough to accommodate the complex dynamics you get in these sorts of works.

I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking to play in a typical Giant Robot-inspired series.