Coriolis Is Over

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? 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 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 Mutant’s is a completely different approach. 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 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.

34 thoughts on “Coriolis Is Over”

  1. I’ve been dreading this likelihood since I read the Coriolis quickstart. Usually I can find something in a game that jumps out at me and makes me excited, and despite my efforts, I couldn’t find that in these rules.

    That said, I think you’re right that a lot of it really does come down to play styles. I have a guy in my group who would probably run a really great game of Coriolis, but at the same, he would be happy just ignoring whatever rules he didn’t like and whatever he felt didn’t work, and making up anything he wanted to fill in the blanks.

  2. Just wondering here, because I am about to read the book and run some stuff in Coriolis, but would the DP economy be better maintained if success was happening on 5’s and 6’s as opposed to just 6’s? That was something I was kind of curious about myself when I was reading the quick start and I did that thing that a lot of us gamers do- pick up dice and see if I can succeed at tasks easily or not.

  3. Apocalypse World games are thuddingly traditional.

    What feels like sadism to the GM is often delightful to players, I have discovered. The wrongness of what you’re doing as the GM is magnified in your own mind. The shit you dump on them is what players end up thinking about and enthusing about between sessions. Although I’m not convinced “you drop your gun” or “your obsession rears its head” is a misfortune of that sort, so that particular list might not be a good one.

    I absolutely agree Coriolis’ money system is a huge misstep. Honestly they should have looked to the 1001 Nights source material, where fortunes appear and disappear more or less instantaneously, and ultimately are not really relevant to the virtue or evil of the characters.

  4. That sucks. I hate abandoning a game in the middle, but sometimes you gotta cut your losses. We did that with The Sprawl – we just wanted too much between-mission play.

  5. You are correct. Coriolis was a gorgeous looking half baked attempt. It promised thing it could never deliver. And the only thing worth a damn is the setting. Like you I was SOOOO hoping for the crew and ship to take the place of the Ark from MYZ and everything else to tie back into that dynamic. But after reading the rules and seeing all this (let’s face it) trad game stuff with miserable and broken lables… I just facepalmed and never even bothered to try it out at the table. Still bought the first campaign book just released though. Because a) it’s gorgeous and b) I might port it into another system.

  6. Paul Beakley I found myself nodding way too much to all of your points. It is a mirror image of the Coriolis game I ran and abandoned last year. I felt bad about doing so as some of the players totally loved the game but from my GM side it was just misery.

  7. Jason Corley seriously, this feels like a missed opportunity to align the two influences. If the spaceship crew / middle-eastern fairy tale genres have taught us anything it’s that the actual numbers aren’t what matters, it’s whether, at that moment, you’re lush with treasure and looking to blow it, desperately need cash to make it to tomorrow, or are doing just fine thank you and soon to be one of the other two things.

    If that’s the source material you want to emulate, this game forcing the GM to try to engineer that in the economy seems like way too much overhead without guiding you to those states. Maybe some time pressure on paying off your ship would have helped. As a big number, it’s distant and abstract.

  8. Right, if the story needs you to be broke, the GM should simply have the option of throwing in a few DP and shouting “YOU ARE BROKE, PRAISE BE TO GOD”

  9. The evil part of me wants to I-told-you-so really bad right now, but honestly, I’m bummed that the game imploded mid-session for you guys. 😕 I was assuming that, at the very least, you’d craft some awesomeness out of the game and then just talk about the hurdles you had to clear in your post-mortem.

    The upside may be that this was the implosion you needed to realize what games work best for you and that you need not take “breaks” from them.

  10. I ran five sessions online, but only managed it because I cut corners, house-ruled, and twisted the thing into submission. Very much cooked instead of raw. There’s a lot I like here, but getting to that is much more work than it needs to be. I haven’t read Mechatron or the Forbidden Lands draft yet because I’m nervous about how they square with the rest of these games.

  11. MadJay Brown ran a oneshot that I played in, and it seemed cool, but when we got into a gun fight, the rules seemed to be poorly explained. So yeah, I think that half-baked seems to fit nicely.

  12. Your experience matches my expectation from having played MZ0 (amazing) and then comparing to what they had changed. They had set up such a beautiful functioning mechanical ecosystem in MZ0. It couldn’t have been an accident. There are too many moving parts that mesh too nicely to have just fallen into it. Somebody over there did that on purpose.

    And then they had the opportunity to do the same with Coriolis. Different theme, different, gears, different sources of stress…but it could have been built with the same mechanical eco-system…and they just muffed it.

    I didn’t compare designer credits to see if it was the same or different team, but huge missed opportunity. I said in a Coriolis thread the day after I read the game “If I ever run this, I’m going to run it with MY0”

    Fortunately Forbidden Lands is based on the full MY0 tool kit. They just released a new beta I’m hoping to read this weekend. I’ve liked the mechanics I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen the “ark” equivalent yet, which is supposed to be in this release. Unfortunately they got 1 strike with me for the hatchet job they did on the setting. The quickstart setting was so clean, so perfect, so uncluttered…then they went full stupid on the last release and really bummed me out.

  13. One nice things to come out of the FL KS is that we will eventually see an SRD for the MYZ system. I can imagine several settings and ides which would work by leaning into what made the original so strong.

  14. Yes, All of this — so true. The game system is frustrating as hell. And frankly, I find the setting lacking too, at least if the game wants you to be a crew of a space ship. Or maybe it’s just that I am unused to and therefore feel locked down in published settings of this kind. If I were to play again I would probably either decide to put the player characters right in the middle of the political games on coriolis station, or begin the game just after the sudden destruction of the whole station and it’s council. Just to destroy the sense of static status quo I felt reading and playing it.

    Does anyone know of a good non-pbta science fiction game? With space ships? (I couldn’t care less about production values as long as the ideas and game system are exiting.)

  15. Hey L. D. try out Elysium Flare, from Brad Murray.
    I literally just got the release email, but I’ve been following along on Patreon and it’s a cool space opera game with bunches of aliens, spaceships, and three branches of physics that most any of Your Favorite Space Opera can fit into. – Elysium Flare

  16. You mentioned Mutant Mechatron upthread. I just thought I’d quickly post to say it was a delight to me as a player. The dice mechanic works and does the clever things with colours and rerolls from M:Y0. The setting and theme work for me far better than I thought it would when I was persuaded to play.

    Coriolis I’ve not got to the table as it didn’t do much for me on a read through. I had intended to try again, but I won’t worry too much now. Though it’s the brokenness which troubles me more than the tradness. I’m sorry you couldn’t make it work for you.

  17. I think Fria Ligan is about 50/50 so far with my experience. Really love MYZ and Tales from the Loop, disappointed in GenLab Alpha and Coriolis. Haven’t dug into Mechatron or Forbidden Lands yet.

  18. JPierson71 I ran Jorune using the Coriolis system a few times. In the first installment, the players really felt like they were wandering shits. I could never use the DPs because they were borderline failing at everything without my help. I quickly adjusted in the second game using d10s with success on a 9-10 and that seemed to address the issue. It raises a few issues (like critical hits table on d6s but nothing major). I suspect (but I haven’t tried) that successes on 5-6 might be too radical and unbalance the other way (no incentive to pray, you succeed most of the time).

  19. L. D. I haven’t played Firefly, but I’ve read it and liked what I read. I think it could be a good hack for Coriolis, but would have to go back and look at it more in-depth.

  20. Question — did your reluctance to use the DP maybe break the feedback loop “I pray a lot, I get hit a lot by DP-fuelled trouble, I don’t pray so much in future”?

  21. I’m really sorry you didn’t enjoy yourself. I hope Forbidden Lands works better for you. The one game of Coriolis I played at GenCon already had me thinking “so, I pray for every roll, right? That seems…weird.”

    I was sad about Mechatron. It had the same problem for me that Genlab Alpha had, which was it is essentially a railroad-y campaign scenario with rules attached. In another place, a person replied to me that I should just ignore the campaign scenario and just use the rules to add robots to MYZ, that in fact that was the point of Mechatron to some extent. It is not intended as a robot version of MYZ it is intended as an extended method to add robots to MYZ. I’m not sure if that is true, but its really not my thing either way, as a GM. Like Paul Mitchener I would probably enjoy playing it though.

    Adam D I have a friend who is much the same as yours, I think. Who seems able to just go for it with traditional games in ways I can’t. I’m playing in a Star Trek Adventures game with him and its a riot, and I would fail at GM’ing that game in moments.

  22. Hans Messersmith according to the Kickstarter updates, the delay was from rewriting the campaign to be more like the M:Y0 one and less railroady. Well, I’m “just” going to play and enjoy. Less stress that way.

    As for Star Trek: Adventures it’s great if you seriously trim the rules and ignore many of them. Which strongly supports your point.

  23. Rob Alexander maybe! But for context, what Benoît FELTEN describes above maps to what we saw as well. Everyone’s such a colossal fuckup that they’re praying all the time and it’s not an interesting decision or statement. The decision to not pray just goes away entirely once the GM’s pool gets big, probably more than 6 or so. That’d trigger two “bad” outcomes, like succumbing to your personal problem plus gain a mania.

    The fact that the worst outcomes, as far as I’m concerned, are also “now you lose control over your character” results probably is a big reason I found invoking them so distasteful.

    It could be as easy as rejiggering the DP spends so they give you more interesting outcomes. Like Jason Corley’s thing about being suddenly broke.

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