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.