Calvin’s Commentaries: Wandering Steel

“Doval Robotics claimed that abandoning its headquarters on the island of Korvorak was a strategic cost-cutting measure. When asked to comment on the armed coast guards preventing entry to the island, a spokesperson assured the assembled press that they were a public good, a safety measure. Somebody could get hurt exploring unmaintained facilities,” notes the Kickstarter campaign for Wandering Steel.

“In Wandering Steel, players take on the role of beings that survived or were created by the ELDRIS disaster, a man-made catastrophe that ravaged Korvorak, warping machine and organic life alike. Hidden from the rest of the world, it’s up to them to survive the strange threats that have arisen from the corporate rubble and find new meaning. Whether that means salvaging old work, escape, vengeance, or something else.”

It is this sort of lead-in on a role-playing game that catches my attention. That Wandering Steel comes from a Canadian developer; Graham Trudeau out of Calgary helps too.

What also intrigues me is Wandering Steel is not initially designed to be an RPG where players invest multiple evenings creating characters and going on quests that can take months. This is a quick outing game, which means you can gather friends for an all-nighter and not worry if getting everybody back together regularly is impossible.

Wandering Steel is an ezine RPG.

“Wandering Steel will be a handmade 32-48 (pending edits/layout) A5 page saddle-stitched booklet (zine) with laminated cover, and it will contain everything required to run a one-shot or short campaign,” detailed the Kickstarter campaign. “That includes NPC’s, monsters, and more, as well as advice for running and hacking the game. Printable and digital character sheets, as well as a rules-reminder sheet, will be made available once published.”

That was enough for me to chase Trudeau down to answer some questions via email.

As one might expect he has been an avid fan of RPGs himself.

“Absolutely! I’ve been a digital and tabletop gamer since I was a kid,” said Trudeau.

“A recent favorite on the computer side of things would have to be Disco Elysium, the quality and quantity of writing are both second to none.

“On the tabletop side, I’ve been enjoying a lot of indie TTRPG’s (tabletop RPGs) over the past few years, Riley Rethal’s “Venture” (based on Avery Alder’s “Dream Askew) sticks out as a favorite.”

But liking to play RPGs is one thing. Creating one is quite another, so why do it?
“A couple of different things influenced its making,” said Trudeau.

“On the narrative side I’ve always been a fan of robots and science fiction, although I’d frequently find myself frustrated with the limited and often hostile view of what robotic life could look like, so I hope the game will provide a more nuanced view on the topic.

“In terms of game mechanics, I love a lot of the more narrative-first design that’s been happening in TTRPG’s over the past decade, although I occasionally find myself missing some of the trappings of games like Dungeons and Dragons; incremental stats, the more grounded combat, etc. Wandering Steel is my attempt to lightly incorporate some of those elements into more story-driven gaming.”

Trudeau said he hopes Wandering Steel is a good launch point for players.
“I’m hoping people will find the game to be easy and fun to play, and that it provokes some thought about the core themes; the ethics and ontology of different life, the disconnect between corporate goals and the real world, etc,” he said. “Of course so much of what people get from a game depends on who they’re playing with, so more broadly I’m hoping the game’s structure itself evokes some of those ideas, even if a given playgroup doesn’t use every bit of lore I provide.”

Trudeau said Wandering Steel is a concept that has been percolating for some time.
“Some of the broader ideas have been bouncing around my brain for years, although the game’s been in more active development for about four months,” he said. “I’m expecting there to be at least another month of development after the Kickstarter, not accounting for manufacturing and shipping times.”
So what has been the most difficult aspect of designing the game?
“As far as specific parts go, the implementation of ‘Composure’, the measure of a character’s stress, stamina, etc,” said Trudeau.

“Game mechanics that touch on a character’s internal life are always a relatively high-risk high reward, in the sense that they can provide an additional layer of strategy and be an evocative way to invite emotional investment, but they can also add needless complexity or alienate players by forcing the narrative in un-fun directions.

“It’s definitely the part of the core design I’ve had to subject to the most scrutiny.”
Yet, Trudeau also suggests Composure and the tags (descriptions as stats/mechanical flags) system as the best elements of Wandering Steel too.
“While neither is exceptionally groundbreaking in the context of TTRPGs at large, I feel that the work I’ve put into making them integrate into the game’s broader conflict resolution systems results in a complex and fulfilling play experience,” he said.
So what does the RPG offer others don’t?
“This is a tricky question for me, as I tend to fall into the ‘Creativity is mostly remixing’ school of thought,” said Trudeau. “In that sense, I hope that Wandering Steel as a collective work provides people with a new lens for looking at conflict, a way to tell stories that are more flexible than the narrowly focused games it’s influenced by.”

And, as might be anticipated more could be coming for the game.
“If the game’s well received there could be new content for it,” said Trudeau. “The thing in that direction I’d be most interested in would be producing an expanded second edition that’s similar in scope to traditional mass market RPG books.

“Honestly I’m not really looking that far forward right now. I’m just still so surprised and delighted by the fact it looks like I’ll be able to put more time and effort into Wandering Steel than anything else I’ve made so far.”

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