I’m fiddling with notes and ideas for a No Thank You, Evil! hack that does Hogwarts for Brian Kurtz and I to talk about in a few weeks, but oh lordy I want to do it in Masks instead. Well, as well. Different audiences.
It’d be super interesting to back off the starting age a smidge and figure out a way to ease the characters into being teenagers.
Alright everyone, The Mountain Witch 2nd edition Kickstarter will begin on June 5th!
I will use the Kickstarter campaign to help pay for an editor, layout (by the returning Joshua A.C. Newman), and printing for the book and cards. The beta draft of the 2nd edition is already done, and I’m in the process of receiving feedback on it.
As a stretch goal, I have Kira Magrann lined up to write a supplementary article on role-playing the “outsider”, particularly as it regards feudal Japan. I’m also trying to work out additional pieces from one or two other people that may get added as stretch goals.
I’m really excited to finally get this game back out in the world, and feel really good about the new version! I’ll keep everyone posted on details as they come up. Thanks everyone!
Made it about an hour last night into our third Coriolis session before tons of frustrations and disappointments that have been burbling under the surface broke free. I shut down our game right at that moment, debriefed with the players for a bit, then jumped in on setting up for our next game (The Veil, which I’ll talk about in another post).
I’ve spent most of last night and this morning chewing on just what the heck happened. Still don’t have firm answers but I know it’s a mix of the game and me. I’ll talk about both.
The Game Coriolis has some problems, both at the mechanical and the conceptual/support level. The tl;dr is that the mechanisms in place are super conventional and don’t really do anything at all to support the game’s concepts.
The Darkness Point economy sucks. It just does. I honestly thought I could make it work and do interesting things but it’s just a very shallow, poorly conceived economic cycle. The very short version: when you pray to reroll misses (which happens all the time because of how they’ve rejiggered “success” from Mutant: Year Zero) you hand the GM Darkness Points (DP going forward). You also gain DP from space travel, and from being awful human beings – killing and torturing and whatnot. Then the GM has a list of things they can spend DP on, with what I read as a strong implication that these are all things the GM can’t do without DP. Most of the choices are combat-mechanical: make them drop their weapon or empty their clip, or give NPCs some mechanical advantages they don’t normally have. But DP do other things too! Like invoke a character’s “personal problem” or give them a mania or whatever.
Here’s what happened in our game: because you’re pretty much praying all the time, virtually every time you go to the dice you’re giving the GM a DP. There’s no shortage of DP. I ended up with a ridiculous surplus, like 12 or something left over from session 2. With that many DP, I now have unlimited resources to inflict endless misery on the characters. Then it’s on me to decide, is endless misery actually that fun or interesting for the players? I’m all about challenges and tough decisions, but I guess I don’t have the sadistic streak necessary to either constantly drag down the players with manias and problems, or save up and just dump it all on their heads and cackle because, you dumbasses, why did you give me so many DPs?
The feeling of the DP economy is awful. And it’s uninteresting.
The money economy sucks maybe worse than the DP thing. This to me feels like a junction of lots of small elements of the game: the sandbox quality of the setting, the procedural tools at hand, and the core assumptions of what your crew will be up to.
Coriolis at first appears super conventional in its approach to money: you have a detailed ledger of what you’ve earned, what you own, and what you owe. What it doesn’t have is any kind of guidelines as to what one should be earning, what you should own, and under what circumstances you actually owe.
Newer-wave games like Torchbearer have nailed down this kind of capital/labor cycle: going to town costs and costs and costs, the dungeons are fine-tuned to produce not quite enough, and the whole point of the exercise is the grind. And that’s baked into the premise, right? If you’re a dungeon delver in Torchbearer you fucked up at some point or just never had good choices in your life.
In Coriolis, by contrast, you decide first on what kind of ship crew you’re going to be. That is, what kinds of adventures you want to go on. We chose Explorers, but there are also Traders, Mercenaries, Agents, and Pilgrims. Feels like Blades in the Dark, right? Well, so what the game doesn’t do is demand answers as to why. Why does your crew go exploring? What are you trying to accomplish with that. That was an oversight on my part, that I never thought to really drill into that. So the conventional answer, as always in conventional games, is “for the money.”
The money thing is badly underbaked in Coriolis. You can decide on what kind of lifestyle you want, but there’s literally no reason at all not to go as cheap as possible. The GM can fictionally position things in your life if you go Spartan or Luxury, I suppose. It would have been interesting and easy to have larger implications to your lifestyle choice. There are other reasons to spend money as well: your monthly ship payment, ship upkeep (which does not work as advertised; I spent a couple weeks trying to make the ship grind make sense and it just doesn’t), cash for gear, cash for portal jumps.
The one place where income is discussed is in the Atlas Compendium, which has a mission generator tool. Well, that right off the bat is totally a sandbox tool, right? Here’s what’s available, take it or leave it. And if the money grind were tighter and better implemented, that might produce some interesting pressure to go out and do shit. But god, how boring. How. Boring.
The Problem Is Me
I think I’m the problem, frankly.
The fact that the game pushes us toward treating money as the point of the exercise (without providing good tools to make that an interesting exercise) just bummed me out so bad. Getting jobs and paying bills, is that really the best and highest use of our make-believe time? Has #latecapitalism insinuated itself that deeply into our fucking brains? Awful. Depressing thought.
So falling back on the easy fallback? My fault, totally. I’ve lost the skill or interest or whatever in building out the bigger picture, the plot. Asking the players “so why are you a crew? Why exploration and not mercenaries?” And the game throws all these sandboxy things at me: a mission generator and a system generator and encounter tables. And none of their sandboxy tools provide anything interesting to hold onto.
This surprised me so much because Mutant Year Zero is so, so good. And it’s a sandbox! But the entire thing is conceived in a completely different way. You don’t give a shit about your money. You give a shit about your Ark and keeping it going and just surviving from day to day. You don’t go out into the Zone to get rich, because the Zone will eat you alive with the Rot and monster encounters and phenomena and cannibal cults. And you’re not constantly facing failure and an uninteresting decision to not-fail. Pushing is good and risky in MYZ in a way that prayer is utterly uninteresting and not-risky in Coriolis.
I can hear some of you asking “but why not spend those DP on badness?” And you’d be right. All I can do is point to my comments above and just say, again, that on the GM side, spending DP feels either boring or sadistic and I just hated it.
I’m not sure when I lost my taste or ability for conventional roleplaying.
It’s probably been a long time coming. And for whatever reason, probably a cocktail of sentimentality and habit, I kept trying to plug away at it despite knowing at a gut level that it would not deliver what I want out of play.
One of my players asked me last night, “Why do you keep bringing these trad games to the table?” And that was funny to me, because I thought I hardly ever did! But we were able to recount a list of conventional games we’ve attempted and shrugged at after: Stars Without Number, Edge of the Empire, 13th Age. I’ve subjected myself to Dungeon Crawl Classics and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay more recently as a player and just kind of shrugged at those as well. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson.
When I think about the games where we really got something out of it, they were not what I would consider conventional games: The One Ring, King Arthur Pendragon, Mutant: Year Zero, Apocalypse World, Urban Shadows, Epyllion, Sagas of the Icelanders. Yeah, it’s PbtA heavy. I explained, half heartedly, that I was trying to break up the drama games and the adventure games. Or more specifically and honestly, I think, I was trying to break up the PbtA games with palate cleaners.
If Coriolis had just recreated the magic they achieved in Mutant: Year Zero I would have been so very happy, I think. But the game’s premise I think would have to be different. Now I’m looking ahead to Forbidden Lands, another Modiphius jam, and I’m really worried that it’s gonna be another Coriolis. Which is my problem, not the game’s problem, which provides enough scaffolding for conventional play fans to get something out of it (i.e a pretty fun interpersonal combat system, pass/fail-with-complication resolution, nice array of level-up perks, seriously cool space combat system). In fact I kind of resent that I don’t have the focus or interest or time or bandwidth, whatever it is, to make this kind of play interesting to me or my players. But I don’t, and I need to be honest about that to myself.
When was the last time a game showed you a substantially new way to approach play?
I’m not talking about recognizing first movers (X did it first! Z is just an evolution!). I’m talking about the actual game that opened your eyes to new possibilities.
I’ve been thinking about that for a bit now, both as a wannabe designer and as a player and consumer of this thing of ours. As a designer, there’s a draw, I think, to being The One Who Showed Us A New Way. As a player, though, maybe I’m basically conservative in my approach but A New Way is more often than not a stumbling block to overcome. Not always! Might be an age thing.
When I say A New Way, I don’t really or necessarily mean a killer app. I do think any good game will have (at least) one thing it does in a really good, effective, and maybe novel way. I might do a series about killer apps at some point. But back to A New Way, yeah? I’m thinking about a new paradigmatic approach to how we do the thing.
My operating definition of the thing, by the way, is “participating in an organic narrative.” That’s the most compact phrase I can come up with. I honestly do not feel like fighting over it (it’s my definition, doesn’t have to be yours) but I can unpack it if anyone’s interested.
Probably the first game that showed me a new way of participating in an organic narrative was GURPS/Hero. My games leading up to that started at Traveller, and moved quickly on to everything TSR had put out by the mid-80s: D&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Top Secret. None of those substantially moved the needle for me, I don’t think. But point-buy games, whoa! My first introduction to play was to funnel characters into trope sets: fighters or pilots or wizards or mercenaries or whatever. Gamma World and Top Secret kind of broke away from that, come to think of it, but not in as assertive a way as the early point-buy games. Point buy puts all the creative onus on the players to cook up something on their own, even if mostly we just cooked up variations on the tropes we had learned from earlier games. Still, it was a big one.
Next big one had to have been the World of Darkness games. For me, the new thing was seeking out conflict and tension amongst the player characters. Up to then, my games had been externally focused, I think: us versus the dungeon, or the ruins, or NPCs.
(Quick break to remind everyone that I’ve already addressed my disinterest in pedantically assigning credit or providing a comprehensive longitudinal study of all game design everywhere. I’m just talking about my own revolutions.)
Since then, the revolutions have come fast and furious at me: Burning Empires/Wheel for re-centering play on explicit player priorities, Dust Devils for modeling outcomes on narrative priorities rather than character abilities, Apocalypse World for uncertainty triggered by fictional context, resulting in narrowly shaped fictional and mechanical outcomes, Fiasco for player-driven scene setting.
I’ve played a lot of games since 1980. My personal revolutions have come in spurts, then dribbles, then floods, then nothing. There’s really no way of telling when the next revolution will come. But they’re always a mix, for me, of excitement and dread. I want to discover new ways of conversing! But I also hate feeling frustrated about being inarticulate in this new language.
What was the last game that showed you a genuinely new way of doing your thing?
This is the point in running Coriolis where I need to get really real about whether I actually have the time, juice, appetite, whatever to put in some hard prep time.
As you may have heard, we’ve been going through a teacher’s strike here in Arizona. That means days spent with my kindergartener, who will suck up all my bandwidth faster than Spotify. So, unfortunately, I tried improvising my way through our game last night.
It’s also only our second session and we’re still feeling our way through the system.
The game started out with a playthrough of the space combat rules, which are 90% awesome and 10% cluttered and confusing. Like, now that I’m actively using the book to track down rules, I’m realizing what a jumble it is. I mean it’s still definitely the most gorgeous game book I own. But it’s really hard to track down a billion tiny tables scattered throughout the text, and sometimes not quite on the same page as the referring text.
So! Space combat! The 90% awesome part kind of makes me want to just do space battles all the time. Everyone gets a ship role (captain, pilot, engineer, gunner, sensor ops) which provides a little mini-game to work out. Some of those minigames are more fun than others. Like, being the captain just means barking out orders, which provide a die pool bonus if the crew does the thing. Pretty cool and possibly very interesting if the crew has reason to disagree. Which, as the combat proceeds, they might.
Okay so the captain barks orders, then the engineer gets to do the best minigame: distributing the ship’s “energy points” (EPs) around to the rest of the crew. The other crew members’ available actions all take ship energy and it’s on the engineer to make sure they’re covered. Like, just flying the ship costs lots of energy, but in a big firefight it might actually make sense to let the pilot sit out for a bit to free up those EPs so the sensor operator and gunner can totally light up a target. Neat decision points. You can also give a role excess EPs that grants bonus dice. And of course the engineer can go all Scotty and overclock the reactor to get even more EPs (which damages the ship).
After the captain and engineer do their thing, then the pilot does a thing, maybe multiple things if the engineer pushed the reactor: reposition, advance/retreat, ram (!) or board (!!!). All very cool options. The game runs on a super-abstract “range bands” system so the pilot is mostly looking at changing bands — either to get weapons into range, get out of enemy weapon ranges, or maybe close the distance and try to board.
The sensor op has lots of neat choices like locking targets for the gunner (passing a bonus down to them), breaking locks, or waging electronic warfare on the enemy ship to fuck up their EP allowance. Again neat.
And finally the gunner does gunner things, either directly firing on the enemy or cutting torpedoes loose. Torps are slow-ish and can be shot out of space by the enemy but will pretty much 100% wreck the enemy.
In our thing, our heroes were clearly outgunned but had a significant speed advantage. Their goal was to GTFO and leave a Draconite patrol ship eating their space dust. Well, the game doesn’t really spell out how to disengage from a space battle. You can kind of suss it out — we decided that once you were out of weapon and sensor range, and the enemy failed to regain you on sensors, the fight was over — but it felt weird to have to make that call on the spot. I think it’s mostly built for dogfighting to the death. Not terrible, and we did come up with a RAW solution, but remember what I said about flipping around trying to find tiny tables? Yeah. It was a long slog.
After the fight and escape, the bulk of the game revolved around a mysterious shuttle they pulled out of a long-abandoned space hulk — with a low residual charge, an operational AI…and a mystery passenger. The only thing I had come up with in my 20 minutes of free brain time while driving around doing chores or entertaining my kid was “mystery passenger — djinn?” So yeah. It turned out to be a djinn. This was fairly quickly revealed via the group talent that gives our intrepid explorers a Gumshoe-like “just fuckin’ tell me” moment per session. Well, that 20 minutes didn’t actually give me any time to work out what a wandering space djinn might want, but I have all these Lost style loose ends kind of fluttering around so I just grabbed onto a couple of those and ran with it.
Improvising inside a conventional RPG (I’ve decided I hate the term “trad,” I can write about that later) is a skill I’ve let get rusty. It’s especially tough in an unfamiliar game! Like, I’ve improvised plenty of Mutant: Year Zero sessions because I’ve got that game dialed. I can feel out threat levels, and I know how to navigate through fuzzy patches in the rules. But Coriolis is different enough that I’m not super comfy doing that yet.
Jonathan Perrine made a really nice point in the debrief that conventional games require you to form strong opinions about what to care about whereas most storygames’ designs are built to provide those opinions instead. Like how a well designed PbtA moves set will not only provide specific context for where the interesting uncertainty lies, but also provide a framework for snowballing through moves and providing clear prompts for when and what to talk about. And conventional RPGs just don’t do that, right? It’s 100% on the GM to make the calls. That’s cool, I’ve done it for decades, but I just wasn’t quite in that head yet.
I’m gonna give the game one more session to feel out my own feelings on all this. Do I really have the juice to do the heavy lifting? Is the game providing enough fun structure (procedural or fictional) to want to spend time inside of it?
I will say that I’m super curious how the game feels if you don’t go the explorer route. I’m betting you spend a lot more time soaking up the setting if you’re merchants or pilgrims or whatever. Explorers by definition remove themselves from the setting for big stretches to go out to where the mysteries are. It’s probably just on me but I do feel an interesting tension there, where the external mysteries and the setting meet. When the crew returns with one huge payday and a job completed for a patron, I’m betting they’re going to want to head right back out fast, in no small part because their characters are built for that and not dealing with people, ugh.