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.
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.