Coriolis Wednesdays
Episode 2

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.

20 thoughts on “Coriolis Wednesdays

  1. Tim Koppang to make sure you see this! (I was telling Tim at Forge Midwest that you write some of the best and most readable APs out there and I guess G+ has never shown them to him, hence this tag)

  2. Lots to chew on here, but one thing: it occurs to me that you could make a game like this and say “if this is your first time playing, don’t play Explorers” as a way of making sure that when someone does Explore, they know the society they’re leaving and coming back to.

    I think that there’s more room for “this is an advanced option to take later” in setup choices than we usually do?

  3. So far I have talked to three different GMs whose groups instantly chose Explorer.

    This reminds me so much of the thing that happened in our Urban Shadows game where everyone decided they were new to town. Which totally breaks Urban Shadows but I didn’t realize that until the first faction moves got rolled.

    I wonder if there’s just kind of a common attraction to fish-out-of-water play? Like, it maps neatly to the players themselves, who also feel like those fish I’m sure. Pure speculation and I would not be surprised if there were a zillion other players who are all-in on building tightly embedded power players right out of the gate.

  4. That’s breaking my brain a bit because I am deeply in the “tightly-embedded” end. My brain screams: “With US, how can you be a fish out of water? You’re making the city!” With this, “You have to know the society you’re leaving to play an explorer!” I come with very different assumptions!

  5. Kit La Touche yuuup!

    I think I may have the same assumptions as my players because twice now I haven’t noticed or thought through the implications until they roll up on me. Then I’m like “ohhh.”

  6. I had suggested freedom fighters, pilgrims, or reporters. I think i can’t remember. They had counter offered spies but we had just gotten done with the Sprawl so i wasn’t really feeling it. We eventually settled on explorers because they wanted to investigate the Mysteries of the setting. Here now on the other side of that campaign. Im having a hard time picturing how the game works with those other groups. But thinking about it you could do a cool BitD version of those crew sheets.

  7. “New to Town” is apparently a regular problem for me as a designer too. Some early drafts of Cartel were more ambiguous about your relationship to the cartel and each other… and people get making people who just got involved with the cartel. It’s a thing!

  8. Maybe damage their ship next time or and they get to spend some time in the dock while it is being fixed? Or have it take time to refit/refuel the ships before they are taken out again? Sorry, trying to fix things! One question, though. Do you pay with the cards? They seemed like really strong references for space combat.

  9. Nicholas Hopkins oh yeah, next sesh is definitely gonna be a restock and refit session. Thinking through how to make the most of it!

    Mostly they’ll be limping home after an unexpected side trip to a fucking black hole a couple hundred AU away that interested their djinn. Not nearly enough food and supplies to survive, even flying balls-out the whole way, so they had to trust this psychotic god thing exotic fellow traveler to not turn their ship into candy or something while they put themselves into stasis.

  10. Maybe you could put old djinn artifacts or explorer type mysteries in the midst of civilization, or even in the corridors of power, making for a deadly marriage of urban exploration, politics and djinn-mysticism? To get more people, relationship and setting exploration in there, I mean.

    I’m mighty interested in the MYZ inspired rules hack you thought and wrote about in the last coriolis post, did you try it out?

  11. L. D. I did not! After sitting on it for a week and talking with the players, it ended up not being that compelling. We talked through the implications of the darkness pool and they were okay with status quo.

  12. Paul Beakley Cool, maybe we should have done so too. Maybe it’s like you asked yourself in the last post, that the RAW mechanic works better when the dangers of DPs are properly talked about and understood by the whole group. However, me and a friend couldn’t resist testing a rules tweak. This is only tested in a short session, not really enough to properly evaluate (he only pushed the roll once). The rule was influenced by your idea, but somewhat different and with less “rich” dice.

    The rule:
    The player can pray to the icons to re-roll dice that hasn’t come up on a 6. When this is done, first note how many 1s the player has rolled in the original roll. After the re-roll, the game master gets DPs equal to the total amount of 1s rolled.

    I thought, somewhat naively, that we could do away with the different colored dice, but it’s probably too easy to roll 1s on the first roll, thereby making re-rolling less attractive if all of them generates DP. At least that’s what I think I saw during the session. Oh well! I hope you continue playing Coriolis. Great AP-write up as usual!

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