Faith in the Third Horizon – first thoughts on a different push mechanic for Coriolis

Two things co-incided to bring me to this point: on our discord we rehashed the old discussion about Darkness Points being the clumsiest of the push mechanisms in Year Zero games, and potentially encouraging an confrontational relationship between the GM and the players; and, on Facebook a new GM was eager to play Coriolis but not comfortable with worship of the icons being so embedded in the mechanics. These two discussions made me think of something I had not thought of before. Something that in retrospect I am surprised I have not already considered. Now, forgive me, readers, but I am going to use you as a sounding board.

But before that, an aside. In our long running Coriolis campaign, Mercy of the Icons, we have reached the last act, In the Shadow of the Zenith (on our Youtube stream at least – the podcast version is some months behind). I recently re-read something that on consideration makes me a little … well, angry. So please bear with me as I have a little rant. You will find the offending lines on page 204 of The Last Cyclade, I will quote it with redactions to be spoiler free:

No new DP are generated at the beginning of the act but it contains two major events that replenish your DP pool: the moment the [redacted] is announced and when the [redacted] (pages 211 and 214)

Antroia, R. 2020. The Last Cyclade, Stockholm Fria Ligan AB

Now, I have never, never felt the need to top up the DP pool at the beginning of an act, but I resent the idea that when bad things happen (and yes, the two redacted events are bad things) the GM is awarded Darkness Points.  The WHOLE POINT of Darkness points is to fuel the bad things in the story. When bad things happen the GM spends DP, they should not be getting more! I am going to be berating Rickard Antroia over this.

Right rant over.

Now, the meat of the article. Let us address the second discussion first. Personally I love that icon worship is embedded in the mechanics of the game, and I would not play Coriolis without it. What you do at your table is entirely up to you, but I think you are missing the point of Coriolis if you don’t have the players worshipping the icons. Seriously though – the are alternatives if you don’t want to pray. The simplest would be to port Alien’s stress over – or rather to port the more interesting setting of the third Horizon into Alien

But you could also with a bit more work, port over conditions from Vaesen or Tales from the Loop, or with a lot more work (and different coloured dice) stat damage from Forbidden Lands or Mutant Year Zero. All of these games are religion free (yes there are gods in Forbidden Lands, and Priests even in Vaesen, but you don’t have to do anything about them, mechanically) and they are also more elegant, less confrontational cost mechanics for those people who like the prayer in Coriolis but don’t like darkness points.

We have often talked on the show, however, about how the push mechanic changes the spirit of the game. Foe example how Vaesen and Tales of the Loop are minimal -rolling games, where the chances of failure are high and players often look to talk their way out of difficult situations. How the stress mechanic of Alien emulates the tone of the films. How pushing in Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero adds to the feel of resource management in these post-apocalyptic survival games.

So if you want to play in the spiritual, mystical future of the Third Horizon, you need a mechanic that reflects or more importantly encourages religiosity. 

And I suddenly realised that we have one. In our Tales of the Old West game, we are looking at a period when colonisation of the American West was explicitly driven by “Manifest Destiny” and our push mechanic revolves around Faith. We say (in what I think is a latest revision):

Every character has faith. This can be their religious faith, faith in their family, faith in their own self-belief, or anything else. Each player should write their Outlook down in one short sentence of half a dozen words.

Semark, D. and Tyler-Jones, M. (unpublished) Tales of the Old West

Now we do make clear that Faith does not need to be Christian, or even religious, but this is a time when most of the people in the stories of the West go to church. Each character also has a pool of Faith Points. These are connected to their faith, and are spent to Push their rolls. At the start of each adventure, a character will have 2 Faith Points, but you earn more Faith Points in play. 

We describe a number of ways in which a character can earn faith, many of which reflect the tropes of the western genre that we are trying to emulate. Some are momentary actions or events. For example:

  • Taking an action that moves you towards your Big Dream
  • Experience something that tests and affirms your Outlook
  • Put yourself in danger to help a pardner (your pardner also earns a Faith Point – through your sacrifice you have affirmed their faith too)
  • Every time you score 4 or more successes on an Ability test
  • Stand up to a rival 
  • Choose non-violence when violence is the only option
  • Serve frontier justice
  • Take revenge
  • Survive an illness
  • You save a life, or 
  • Pray to your god, ancestors or spirits

Other things are rituals which we say take longer, a whole shift in game terms.

  • Get drunk (getting drunk has other negative effects)
  • Spend time on your own in nature
  • Groom your horse (or a companion animal)
  • Dismantle and clean your gun (or sharpen your blade)
  • Participate in a church service or equivalent ritual with others
  • Share a quality meal around a table with friends (around a campfire does not count)
  • Sleep one full night in a secure warm bed, earn two Faith Points if it’s with your lover (but no points if it’s with a soiled dove – this is about companionship, not sex)

Some of these last rituals won’t work in the Third Horizon and the sci-fi stories players are trying to create, but I can imagine other ones that are more fitting the setting, for example: giving alms to the poor; or, making a sacrifice at a chapel – the core book lists the sort of sacrifices that each Icon prefers.

We also (currently) have rules for mishaps, but I don’t think they are relevant to this discussion. Many Coriolis GMs say that though they might pay darkness points when bad things happen in Coriolis, in any other game they would make those things happen anyway when narratively appropriate.

Which brings us on to cost. The Year Zero Engine is all about the cost of a reroll: stress and panic in Alien; banes, or attribute damage in Forbidden Lands; Conditions in Vaesen. What should the cost of prayer be? Currently, I am going to argue that with the Faith system, the cost is paid up front. The time you take role-playing your devotion and collecting faith points is enough for the somewhat pulpy nature of the game. Of course that would mean that we must let the GM make those bad things happen at will, and maybe give each super-natural creature a small pool of its own points to use its powers.

At least that’s what I think right now, but its an unfinished thought, a work in progress as it were. There are still unanswered questions, like whether mystic powers and talents are powered with Faith (I think they are). 

I would be interested in your feedback. 

I look at MYZ: Genlab Alpha

Ola Larsson Genlab Alpha cover detail. Copyright 2020 Cabinet Entertainment LLC

A few weeks ago, Dave challenged me to read GenLab Alpha and suggest a campaign. I have not played any Mutant Year Zero games. I created a character for Dave’s campaign, but it was a midweek game on the other side of the capital, and I decided the days of me driving round the M25 for a game on a school night were behind me. I do recall that character’s name though – she was Raven.

The fact that I had chosen such a name for my character perhaps indicates that I would be more keen on GenLab Alpha than the base Mutant Year Zero game. Not that Mutant is a bad game at all – I very much liked the idea of the Arc and the internal politics during that session zero. I was, if I am going to be honest about my recollections perhaps less keen on the random nature of mutations. It was less of a worry in character generation, but I could imagine feeling upset if I built a persona for my character around her mutations, and there another is triggered that works against that persona. Not that such a thing ever happened to me, because I never actually played after that session zero. I don’t even know if such a thing can happen. But I recall that being a worry.

I remember liking the idea of Genlab Alpha because the danger of corruption wasn’t random mutations, but instead a regression to your bestial nature. I preferred the idea because … lets say your Mutant Character has a mutation that makes him a bit Dog-like, and you build the character around that – call him Spot, having him growl a lot, sniff the ground etc. But then a roll of the dice or a draw of the card gives him Dragonfly wings. You suddenly become less dog-like, and you have to take that into account in your playing of the character. If you are playing a Dog character in Genlab Alpha and you roll a 1 on the dice when using Feral Points, you become more animal-like. In this example, more like the Dog concept you built your character around. Which I am more comfortable with.

There are other things I like about this game too. Its a small thing but I LOVE the advice on naming your character. The the labs where the PC were created there was a naming convention for each animal – a name and a number. But the dogs are all named after astronauts, cats after ancient Romans, rats after composers (I bagsy Glass 433 – maybe another mute PC!), apes are physicists, and so on. Its a lovely way of promting a player (who sometimes struggles with naming their character) without being as limiting as an actual list of names. But what is that I hear you say? Maybe you don’t want to name your Rabbit after a football player? Of course you don’t have to. That what the lab calls you is all, its an oppressive slave-name. You can reject it and give yourself a name of your own choosing, any name, at generation or later, by which you are known within the resistance. Boy, I could have a lot of fun with that.

Another thing I like about the system is that damage is specific to each attribute. Pushing your role risks damaging your attributes as it does in Forbidden Lands and the other Mutant games. So damage to Instinct (one of the two mental attributes) is doubt. And you can recover it by indulging in a behaviour specific to your animal origins. Apes pick fleas off each other to recover doubt, and cats lick themselves clean. A lot of the ways of recovering Doubt are socialising (except for the Bear and the Moose who both seek solitude). Something else happens when animals get together too – unlike the mutated humans of the Zone, the residents of the labs can have litters. Which brings a whole new aspect into the adventure.

Of course like many early Free League books, the rules make up only the first third of the book, and the other two thirds are given over to GM exclusive stuff, some of the secrets beyond the PC’s understanding, a range of antagonists, and a short campaign. I won’t reveal too much for fear of spoiling an adventure for any listeners who have been inspired to give it a go as a player. But I do just want to mention the beautiful horror of the Psionic Butterfly. 

But what sort of campaign should I run? Dave challenged me to present a campaign concept for this particular bit of homework, and I can’t just stop here, after telling you what excites me about this game. So … let me tell you instead what is missing, what I might have to house-rule and what the (short) campaign is that I would like to run. 

What I don’t want to run is Road to Eden, the tactical computer game with similarities to, but importantly not based on, Genlab Alpha. That game features ducks (which is required by law in Sweden) and boars – animal types that don’t feature here – but the changes I want to make are not about adding those. I also considered the recent Netflix success Sweet Tooth, apart from Gus, the hero of the story and Pigtail, most of the hybrids in that show have limited language.  Given that the PCs of Genlab Alpha are themselves kind of hybrids, I did briefly consider an adventure based on that. But my influence is a little older. 

Back in the early 2000’s Grant Morrison (who is my god) and Frank Quietly produced a limited series comic called We3. It was a version of the Disney children’s classic Incredible Journey, but with a manga aesthetic and … well, plenty of high explosive. Its the sort of campaign I want to run, but the animals in We3 are not as … evolved, not as human (forgive me, I know its an insult among animal-kind), as the PCs in Genlab Alpha. At the risk of spoiling a secret of the last two thirds of the book I would love to create a campaign where the PCs are what this book calls Abominations. An alternative to the process that created the genetically modified animals of Genlab Alpha, Biomechatronics was the creation of mechanically enhanced animals, a bit like the ones in We3. The list of Biomechatronic implants in the GM’s section is pretty limited but I think I would like to try recreating something similar to the armoured animals of We3, and send them out to innocently explore the world of the apocalypse.

The “New” Seekers?

At many tables or virtual table-tops round the globe these past couple of years, there have been many shoot-outs in the Garden of the Seekers on Coriolis, and many times brother Ramas has been shot, stabbed or other-wise killed on that peaceful bridge at it centre. This garden, like many more across the Horizon, is maintained by acolytes of the Circle of Seekers. But who are the Seekers?

The Lotus City, Dabaran

It is said that the Seekers could have become an important faction on their own, but for some reason chose not to. Instead they are credited with being instrumental in the creation of of the Church of the Icons, which is, remember, “the Horizons youngest faction” created after the arrival of the Zenith. But if that is the case the seekers did not hang around for long. Once the Church had a firm footing in the Horizon’s politics the Circle of Seekers retreated, or were they pushed out? The core book says “Today, the Seekers […] have been marginalized, looked upon as wise ascetics and prophets rather than actual figures of power within the faction.” Being “marginalised” seems to suggest it was something done to them, but I think its more likely to be their choice – they are after all ascetic philosophers, dedicated to “understanding the Horizon and the innermost nature of the universe.” Perhaps the hurley-burley of factional life is something they would prefer to do without. Perhaps they created the Church specifically for that political purpose.

That said, they do sometimes involve themselves in modern politics. The core book tells us that with a reputation for being skillful and neutral negotiators, they have often been called upon to end bitter conflicts. But such interventions are rare and at the request of at least one of the participants. Apart from this and the gardens they maintain, they keep themselves to themselves.

So where do they retreat to? According to the core book, apart from “scattered colonies and temples” on Menau they are “strongest on Sadaal, on Mira and her sister systems, and on Dabaran, where they have both the Temple of the Circle and a monastery school in Lotus, the holy city.” This last is their headquarters as it were. The Temple City of Lotus is a bit like our Rome, an independently run city state: “A mere fifteen years before the beginning of the Portal Wars, the Circle of Seekers — having tirelessly cared for the city’s pilgrims through a tumultuous series of coups and usurpers — were entrusted with governing Lotus.” That said, there is a schism in the Lotus City according to one the adventures in the Last Cyclade. The Lotus Council is in the ascendant, claiming to better represent the ice worship across the Third Horizon.

The idea of retreat, of separation from the rest of society is a very import one in Seeker philosophy. According the to the core rules the title of Seeker “is only awarded someone upon initiation into one of their monasteries, which are always shaped like circles.” This reminds me of the Neal Stephenson novel Anathem, where each monastery is a series of concentric circles, and progress through ranks of the monastic order is market by moving into an inner circle, getting closer closer to the centre of the monastery. I must admit, I had the same thought about the monasteries on Zalos, so perhaps the Seekers and the Order of the Pariah share some commonalities? But what are the secrets held by the innermost circles of the Circle of Seeker?

One thing not every Seeker will publicly admit to is that their acetics can manifest Mystic powers. Importantly, they could even before the advent of the “Mystics Disease” when people started manifesting such powers spontaneously. Is there a connection? Well this is where we got into real spoiler territory and if you don’t already have an idea what I am talking about you might want to stop listening/reading.

Players who have participated in a Song for Jarouma make have worked out that the “Emissaries” were scientists, possessed at an incredibly long distance by people from the Second Horizon. These people are called the Symetry, or the Santulans (it may be that the Santulans are the leaders of the Symetry). We are told that they fled the tyranny of the the First Horizon and became the dominant political force in the Second.

The Atlas Compendium tells us that the Circle of Seekers were originally a part of the Symmetry, and together they discovered several nodes in the Third Horizon which could create a mystical link between systems in a fashion that falls outside of the technology and methods used by the Portal Builders. Using the nodes, the Seekers could stay in contact with their mystic allies in the Second Horizon. Its one of the these nodes – long thought destroyed by the forces of the first horizon during the portal wars, that was used to possess the scientists on Xene.

Which raised questions. The Seekers claim to have severed all connections with the Symetry during the portal wars? But have they? Is that actually something they convinced the other factions of to avoid being purged like the Nazareems Sacrifice? The Lotus Council has split with the other seekers because (the say) the seekers are too wedded to older, second horizon thinking. Are they really still in communication with the Symetry? The Last Cyclade says that “after the loss of their observer at the (Coriolis) Council, the Santulans (the Symmetry) instead strengthened the Children of the Song and are preparing their acolytes in the Circle of Seekers for the coming darkness. The mystics of the Third Horizon are being turned into a secret strike force for when Ardha once again shows its true face.” Well if that is true, it suggests its happening via these nodes.

And if at least some nodes still exist, do the Circle of Seekers have an instantaneous communication network across the whole Third Horizon? Are they secretly manipulating the Church of the Icons from a distance? According to the Last Cyclade perhaps not, or rather, perhaps not as successfully as they had hoped: “the Circle’s leaders are becoming worried about [the Church’s] submissive attitude when dealing with the Hegemony and the Consortium […] it is becoming increasingly clear that the Seekers will have to start acting independently.“

If you are a GM, running players who have opted to be part of the Circle of Seekers, what does all this mean for them? How much should they know? The idea of circles within circles and advancing though the monastic ranks means they might have to purchase Faction Standing before being let on on these secrets. Maybe even faction standing isn’t enough. Maybe though, they could be surprised by fast communication across the horizon, or offered a way of learning the mystic powers talent and an mystic talent appropriate of the Circle, like Thought Transferance or Puppeteer.

And consider, after the events of The Last Cyclade, what are the motivations of the Seekers? Are they still in league with the Symetry? Or are they more loyal now to the people of the Third Horizon. What might they do, with an army of mystics. Are they the “New” Seekers?

The Syndicate

On the podcast we last talked about the Syndicate back in episode 18. Wow! Over three years ago. Back then we were still called the Coriolis Effect, and experimenting with the format. That piece was a discussion rather than an essay and we never consolidated our thoughts into a written article. So here it is. 

Dave prompted the discussion by asking:

“The Syndicate, are they all bad?”

And I answered, yes, yes they are.

They are bad in two ways. Obviously the first is that that are criminals – they do bad things. Now you might argue it is not a bad thing, if there is a thing you want or need, and there are asinine laws preventing you from getting hold of it legally. Look at prohibition in America for example, Many people enjoy a drink, and while drinking to excess can be dangerous to one’s health and irresponsible drinking might cause social disorder, a lot of people who were in other ways perfectly law abiding, felt it reasonable to acquire booze from criminal bootleggers. But even though the thing you want isn’t bad, the people selling to to you are.

But the second way in which the Syndicate is bad is, in a rare misstep from the creators, it is a badly written faction. Let me present as evidence the story of the Syndicate as presented in the core book, which tells us that “The faction is made up of a group of wealthy families from the crew of the Zenith who joined forces with Firstcome criminal groups on Algol, Sadaal and Zalos.” When the core book tells of the Consortium families and the Hegemonic families it lists them and names them, yet the write up for the Syndicate lists only the Birbasils, whom we meet in Mercy of the Icons in Beybasin on Kua. So… who are the other wealthy Zenithian families? Are they any?

The core book goes on: “They cooperate with the Guard to combat petty crime because it disturbs their more lucrative forms of business: protection rackets, gambling, pimping, drugs and smuggling.” The first item, protection rackets, I quite like, especially because it sort of fits with Dave’s concept of Crossroads Colleges. But the other things on that list I have issues with, especially when reading in the next column “The only areas the Syndicate stays away from are slave trading and the smuggling of faction tech.” Well, this is a nice distinction. We know from our own modern world that slavery exists in many forms, not just the slave trade of two hundred years ago, but debt bondage, indenture, and sex trafficking. Pimping is not that far removed from slavery actually. And we see the Birbasils directly involved with actual slavery in Baybasin. They might say they leave the slavery to the Algolans, but two parts of the Syndicate are Algolan after all. I don’t buy it. And I don’t buy that “the Syndicate is the largest criminal organization in the Horizon,” not when only one column before that bold statement the authors admit that “the basis of the Syndicate is the gangs that run the different plazas on Coriolis.”

Let’s get this straight, my overriding point is the Syndicate is not a “Faction.” It does not have a seat on the Coriolis council, neither it does have a fleet (even if these rumoured “black ships” are real). It does have one Zenithian crime family, two more from Algol and another couple from Sadaal and Zalos, dividing up the rackets in various parts of Coriolis station itself. Yes their influence extends as far as Kua, miles below the station and maybe, with family connections in the systems of Sadaal, Zalos and Algol they may have some little influence there. But with the slow communications available through the portals their influence can not be effective direct control. The parts of the Syndicate families in those systems will not automatically obey the word of distant Zenithians, two or three jumps away. The Syndicate may be a moderately successful extended crime family, but only one of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of criminal organisations that, importantly, compete with each other, rather than with the other Factions the Third Horizon. 

So how can we reconcile the fact that core book gives them such prominence? First of all, we should realise that the Corebook can be an unreliable narrator. Its representation of the Syndicate may well be written by the Birbasils themselves, always eager to sound more powerful than they are. Such exaggeration is helped by the Bulletin, which claims to be a horizon-wide news network but has a Coriolis centred bias. When it reports upon the thugs and gangs of Coriolis station as “the Syndicate” while ignoring the criminals in other parts of the horizon, it’s easy to think that they are all part of the same thing. And as Dave said when we discussed it before – local gangs in other parts of the Horizon might be using the Syndicate’s name to burnish their own reputation.

And the other thing, that really is growing their influence, is Havaleh, the idea we discussed back in episode 143 in September. The Consortium do have banks, yes, but for doing trade across thee horizon the have to rely on the Havaleh network, and the Havaledahs that they have been pumping money into these last six decades are mostly the Syndicate ones on Coriolis. So the Consortium are reliant on the Syndicate to enable business transactions, and the Syndicate’s influence has grown, is growing – not so much through their criminal activities, but through what many Firstcome consider a more legitimate practise.

What does this all mean for players and GMs? First all GMs should big-up some of the other criminal organisations out there: the Serpent (who have a base on Coriolis after all), the Ferekam and the Okra Darma. If your crew are petty criminals themselves, have their patrons be one of these (or an organisation that you have made up) so they don’t start with the impression tax the Syndicate a Horizon spanning mega-gang. Maybe introduce the Syndicate as upstart rivals. Especially if your crew are mostly Firstcome. And if they are, and you do, focus on first on the Syndicate’s Zenithian component, the Birbasils. Perhaps even introduce them as the Birbasil crime family. 

OR if you are starting on on Coriolis station itself, begin by focussing on the rivalries between the Syndicate gangs – have the Rafas teaming up with the Afyana family against the Adibals or Intisaars, and only when the player characters are deeply involved in the turf war, have the Birbasils step in to negotiate, and if necessary, enforce the peace.

In short – remember that criminals keep to the shadows, and keep the Syndicate shadowy, amorphous as long as you can. Don’t let the players assume that they are all powerful. Indeed let them assume they might be beaten… and have the Syndicate’s power and influence grow with that of the players, but always one step ahead. 

A form-fillable character sheet for Twilight: 2000 (alpha)

The alpha release of the new edition of Twilight 2000 has generated a lot of debate and requests already, but a regular request is for form-fillable PDF versions of the character sheet. Form’s can be a bit of a pain in PDFs but I have had a go at creating all the required fields, including converting from grades to die types in attributes and skills.

Thank you to Thomas Boulton for helping out with the java on the Hit and Stress capacity calculations.

Alien RPG Spaceship design – gah!

I don’t think Free League should have included ship design rules in the Alien Core book. We didn’t really need them, and I don’t think they create ships that are useful mechanisms for play in the Alien universe.

Now, admittedly, I am basing this on my frustration with trying to build a UPP battleship with the tools provided, and on Dave’s attempts to do the same for the Three World Empire in the last show. It could reasonably be argued that neither are the sort of ships we should be building for an Alien adventure, and neither are they the sort of ships players would want to build. But even though I am using these tools to do a job they were not designed for, I will argue that my frustrations point to a flaw in the philosophy of ship design in Alien that, by putting the rules in the core book, Free League have now stuck in our (the fans’) mindsets and which will be difficult to change.

But first of all, let me tell you about my response to the the challenge. I had been warned by Dave’s failure to make HMS Yamato anything but an aircraft carrier – the rules as they stand push you towards that solution because there is precious little else to fill your larger spaceships  with. So for a while I thought about not making Potemkin a battleship at all. I flirted with the idea of making it like one of those little vessels that haunted British seas in the eighties, passing themselves off as fishing boats while actually packed with all the latest Russian surveillance gear. (When I say the eighties, its only because we heard a lot about them at the time. We hear less now, but perhaps we should assume they haunt our waters still.) But its the Potemkin, the ship which started the Russian Revolution of 1905, and the subject of a film which started a revolution in film production (called “editing”). It deserves to be better than a spy-ship dressed up as a fishing boat.

So, I turned to the core book with a determination to make a battleship, not another aircraft carrier. And the first problem I discovered is – how big should it be? Of course all this is abstracted, But the book lists four classes: C, G, M and R, and suggest m class vessels are what PCs should aspire too. So if an M class vessel is Nostromo, and G – Class vessel is Serenity (errr… I mean “The Betty”) what class, in size terms, would a warship be? They give us a warship, the frigate Conestoga. Its about the size of a R class but has many fewer modules – a R class can have 21 or various sizes.The Conestoga has … 9. Oh – hold on it has 20 EEVs – so its has … er 28… hmmm. An R class has capacity for six weapon systems. The Consetoga has … 8. So it doesn’t follow the Rules as Written – OK, author prerogative. Thats OK (he fumes). (And he notes that in the listing on page 180, each vessel has its class listed – except the Conestoga, which has a class of … Conestoga.)

The Potemkin is a Battleship though, so has to be bigger than this vessel. Should I invent a class? My notes say S?, T? V?

V… in my head-canon the Potemkin is a V class or Volga class ship. Mmmmm yessssss. But still, what size should it be? I try instead to build it from the inside out. What are the components I want? I will build it and size it around those. Redundancy is a theme I want to include on this UPP ship. Two of everything! Even two AIs! I have a lovely idea about ship AI conflicts, mirroring counter-revolutionary vitriol in communist politics. I even think of calling them LEN.N  and Tr.T.S.K.Y. for a while, before deciding that is too heavy handed. And I am looking through the list of modules with a sinking heart, realising that there simply are not enough components of a suitable size to even double up in a warship, when my eyes alight on the hanger. A size five hanger can accommodate a Class M ship.

And suddenly my vision is transformed. Potemkin will be a ship of two parts – the hanger does not contain a class M but rather is a complex set of systems that allows the class M vessel to be connected with the… errr… the other part (class R?) to make an even bigger vessel. YES! And the class M vessel of course has the Planetfall Capacity upgrade (don’t get me started on upgrades) so its  like a big landing craft, while the other section becomes an orbital bombardment platform! Yes! This is starting be be a thing.

So, I start with what I am now calling the Atmospheric Interface Komponent. Two sets of size three scrubbers (redundancy you see?) then one size four cargo hold (this ship has to feed its orbital mother) and a size four vehicle bay packing ten APCs (for the marines, it has marines now) plus a size three bay for a tractor, and two size two bays (for Gyrocars – who else thinks about Edward Olmos’s car in Bladerunner when they read that word? Just me?). So now we have marines we’ll need a size four cryo unit and a size four galley too for when they wake up. Not duplicating those at all, they have their own redundancy. But there are four class D lifeboats, three medlabs, and two docking umbilicals. An M class is not a weapons platform and I consider the Added Hardpoints  upgrade but in the end decide against it. So just one heavy and two medium rail-gun turrets. Oh! And even though the glorious UPP does not have decadent things like corporate suites it does have a Diplomatic suite which is where you will usually find the Commissar. 

One more thing to note. This component has no AI or displacement drive. Those are both on the CosmoKomponent as the weapons platform is called. And of course so are their redundant systems. Most the core components are duplicated of the CosmoKomponent – two bridges, two sensor arrays, comms arrays, reactors, and drives. That will fill up a lot of space. Plus two more sets of scrubbers (size four) and two class D lifeboats. Another, smaller galley and cyro deck, another couple of med-labs. Maybe just one science lab. I am not sure I am using up all the modules this way but I have stopped counting. 

Instead I am giving it all the weapons on the Conestoga, but two of each. Because I can … because this is a class V and there are no rules for a class V… yet. And because now, I am having fun.

But that brings us to the nub of my argument. Free League have given us a simple, fun system not massively different from that found in Coriolis. No its doesn’t really work for building battle ships, but that can be solved with a later supplement, if that’s what the audience wants. 

But I argue that ships in Alien shouldn’t be fun. It can be fun in other space games to spend some big haul you earned (or stole) on an upgrade for your ship, just like to might upgrade your armour or your gun or some other tool. But the ships in the Alien verse are not tools, they are settings. They are not meant to be fun, and definitely not meant to be upgraded. They should be imposed on players – PCs should feel weighed down by their responsibility to their ships, not liberated by them. They should find them confusing and get lost in them, not know it with a designers eye. If they had not included ship design in the core book, this philosophy would be inherent in the system, even if later on some supplement gave players the opportunity to design or … ugh upgrade, their vessel.

But now Free League have handed over the keys to the car, they can’t ever take it back…

Havaleh – money transfer and banking across the Third Horizon

Copyright Martin Grip/Free League Publishing

Here, where we live on old Al-Ardah, we have become used to the convenience of modern banking. The recent covid related changes have encouraged an accelerated adoption of contactless technologies, a little like the money-tags in the Third Horizon. But our world is small, the distances tiny and complex transactions don’t take long to travel. Now, most of us carry a computer in our pockets that can send money to a friend on the other side of the world, seemingly instantaneously. 

Each world in the Third Horizon may have networks and transfer technologies that are just as quick. I am sure it takes moments to transfer money from Coriolis itself to the Monolith on Kua for example. But when the start talking about transfers across systems, or between systems, the speed to light becomes an issue. Money can not break the laws of physics. Instantaneous communication of data is just not possible. So the modern banking systems that we think of today just aren’t up to the job.

However, the Third Horizon has access to a tried and tested alternative. One that started in 8th century India when communications along the Silk Road were just as slow as would be across the Third Horizon.

Havaleh basically works like this: it is the day of settlement, and your group must facilitate their regular payment on their ship loan, but they are three portals away from their generous benefactor. All they need to do is find a local Havaledah or money broker, give them the birr, and the details of who it is intended for. If their creditor needs the money on that day,. they will visit their local Havaledah, who will give them the sum, on trust that the group’s will have paid another Havaledah somewhere in the horizon and effectively, they are owed the money by that Havaledah. Trust is an important factor here, and there is very little paperwork involved. Indeed the word “havaleh” is synonymous with the word “trust” in many languages. It is considered somewhat rude (but not entirely unacceptable) to even ask for a receipt when you make your deposit with a Havaledah. 

Sometimes however, there does need to be some security and passing of authentication between different Havaledahs. The first level of security is to chose your havaledah from your trusted network. All firstcome factions maintain their own havaledah networks, and among the Zenethians, only the Consortium and Hegemony mistrust the very concept of havaleh. All the faction networks are interoperable, and money can be exchanged between them. The largest and most used, especially for inter-faction exchange is that of the Syndicate. Indeed, there are those that say that without its havaleh network the Syndicate would be nothing more than local criminal gangs and crime lords, and thus the Syndicate IS is havaleh network. The consortium tries to maintain what it calls “a civilised banking system” via the Bulletin’s communication technology but to do any real business it resorts to havaleh, and is the Syndicate’s biggest customer. The Zenithian Hegemony however generally does not use havaleh, and its propagandists like to talk about the way it enables crime, tax evasion and political unrest. 

The second level of security is a complex system of verbal code-poetry that havaledahs use to authenticate their own communication. While generally the system works on trust, sometimes one may have to resort to a distant havaledah one has not worked with before, so send someone to a havaledah they don’t know – and of course that havaledah is unlikely to hand out money to someone who comes in off the street. So, sometimes, a creditor will be a given a code-phrase to use to identify themselves as the legitimate recipient of the money. By necessity, given the slow speed of travel between systems, such phrases are exchanged among havalehs in advance, and usually they are two-part cyphers, to ensure that if a transmission of codes is intercepted, it can’t be used on its own to defraud the havaleh for whom it is intended. Traditionally, the two parts of the cypher are sung, not written down, and for generations families of talented song-poets have served the havaledah community as code couriers called angadias.

What happens when it goes wrong? When the intended recipient doesn’t get their money? Well, first of all, the recipient always gets their money. The debt is between two havaledahs. And the havaledahs don’t cheat each other, not even when two different factions are involved. So they work together to see where “failure of communication” (as it is euphemistically known) occurred. They will likely enlist investigators to help. The nature of these investigators varies by faction. The Free League and the Nomads use private invetsigators, but most of the firstcome factions have their own investigative systems. The Syndicate is unusual, they use their own angadias, who possess not only beautiful soprano voices, but the tools and authorisation to collect the debt by any means necessary. The very least anyone who is caught cheating the havaleh system can expect is ostracisation, loss of faction standing and previous friends and allies turning their backs to them. Of course they are no longer able to use the havaleh network to move birr, and for most sensible  people this is deterrent enough.

Debtors are rarely killed, its more difficult to get your money back from dead people, but that does not mean and anyone who owes birr to the Syndicate can relax on the Day of Settlement.

A date standard for the Third Horizon

Art by John Salquist
Inspired by the article below, John Salquist and I created a beautiful calendar which is available in PDF format from the Free League Workshop.

In any space-travel setting, there are going to be local calendars based on local orbits. A 24 hour day means little if your world spins around in nine hours, or 37.74 hours. We know as well that in the Long Night, when the third horizon cultures rejected portal travel and turned in on themselves, local calendars would have become even more entrenched. We are not entirely sure how long the Long Night lasted, and that’s partly because for some systems it may have been one hundred years, for others it might have felt like 300, or even, for one to two, something like one long year. 

But with the coming of the Zenith, and the Consortium’s design to rebuild communication and trade across the Horizon, a shared standard was required. That standard would, of course, have been based on the movement of the planet that the Zenithians decided was their new home. On page 232 of the core book, we are told that the Coriolis Cycle is based on the time taken for the planet Kua to orbit it’s star, and on page 248, we discover that is 336 days, so Kua’s year is slightly short than ours on old Al-Ardha. But remarkably Kua’s day is exactly the same length as ours, 24 hours!* We are also told that each year or Coriolis Cycle (CC), is divided into nine months or Segments as they are called, each one named for one of the icons. Each segment is 37 days long. So that accounts for 333 days. The three remaining days are annual holidays: The Founding; the Cyclade and the Pilgrimaria. 

So we know the length of the year, and the length of the months, we know the hours of the day, but not the days of the week. 37 is a prime number, which means that its only divisible by itself and one. So it does not quickly suggest how long a week might be… but if we go with the 37th day being an “extended rest” which the core book mentions, then 36 is divisible, not by seven, but by six and nine.

So this calendar works on a nine day week, or Novena. The word Novena comes from the latin, not middle eastern tradition, but it means “nine days of devotion” so it feels like a good fit for the theme. Nine days of course reflect the nine icons. But rather than name the days, as well as the segments, after the Icons I was inspired by the four transformations mentioned in Mercy of the Icons. The four transformations are represented by four things that are important to many Firstcome cultures, which I am sure the Zenithians would adopt without necessarily realising what they mean. So rather than name the days, in this calendar the weeks are named – the Novena of Grain, the Novena of Water, the Novena of Light and the Novena of Incense and they days numbered, so you might say “the second day of water, segment of the Deckhand”, or write “2 water Deckhand” or abbreviate it “2wDec.” In notation the Segments are capitalised because they are Icons and the novenas are often written in lower case because they are mundane.

Given that our day of rest on old Al-Ardha is actually a day of worship in a monotheistic culture, I don’t think the idea of an “extended rest” quite works. Instead the extra day in every segment “the day of settlement” or “the day of accounting”, when ship loan payments are made, and other bills are paid, no matter when during the segment they they were incurred. Maybe it is a day when no trade takes place and no work (other than accounting) is done, because people are rushing around paying what’s owed. Maybe its also a day when darker debts are repaid. Perhaps its a day when those who have crossed powerful people hide in fear – a day for assassinations.

For the calendar we created, I also wrote nine short parables, and attributed them to the mysterious Storyteller of Dabaran:

No one really knows if Fadma al Kamath, the Storyteller of Dabaran ever really existed. The collection of parables and homilies which is attributed to her, may not even have been written by one person. They are it seems, somewhat impolite about every system’s culture other than that of Dabaran which is held always in high praise. This alone suggests that the stories come from one place, if not one writer. There are versions the parables in pre-Zenithian literature, but the translations included in this calendar appear to be more modern as some of them refer to Zenithian institutions.

*There is some discrepancy on this detail. It is clear that the day on Coriolis lasts 24 hours (four six hour shifts), but according to planetary data, Kua’s day is 26 hours. Perhaps this is why most business is conducted in “shifts” rather than hours.

Gorham’s Folly

Last episode I was challenged to imagine the Three World Empire’s Northern Ireland. It was my own stupid fault – I made the case in the last episode that the Three World Empire should be a reflection of Britain in the last seventies and early eighties. It should probably also reflect Japan and India in that period too, but I know nothing about the political situation there at that time, so lets leave that aside for the moment and concentrate on The Troubles.

©️Fria Ligan/Martin Grip

And as I type that, I am immediately aware that as an English man, I actually, really, know next to nothing about that conflict, even though it was something I grew up with, and even though I had friend on both sides of the conflict in the 90’s. But for the sake of context I am going to attempt the stupidest thing in the world and try to summarise the conflict, in as non-partisan a way as I can.

The Troubles refers to a specific period starting in the late sixties and ending with the Good-Friday agreement in 1998, in Northern Ireland, the corner of the island of Ireland which, since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, remained part of the United Kingdom. I am not going to get into the detail of why, which would take us into the realms of being an entirely different sort of podcast. Instead I am going to oversimplify the situation by saying that there was, and is a significantly large population of protestants in some of those north eastern counties, and those people considered themselves Unionists.
In the early sixties around the world, civil rights movements began to make headway. Just as Martin Luther King spoke and organised in the Southern US, so too in Northern Ireland people spoke out against inequalities between Catholics and Protestants. Though I promised I would not go into detail, I think its important to list some of these inequalities, as they have resonance with the situation in other parts of the world at the time and even now, and with potential situations in the future Alien universe…

For example there was gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, to ensure that the poterstant Unionists retained political power even in places with Catholic majorities. The gerrymandering was made easier because there was not universal suffrage, – only “householders” could vote (remember this is the early sixties I was shocked when I found out). The police force was 90% Protestant, and had Special Powers of search without warrant and arrest and imprisonment without trial, which of course were pretty much exclusively used on Catholics. And of course there were plenty of examples of “softer” discrimination – preference given to protestants for jobs and housing.

This isn’t meant to be a history lesson, but long story short, some small concession were made to the catholics, protestants protested, tensions were raised, clashes became more violent. From south of the border, the Irish Taoiseach called for a UN peacekeeping force but instead the British Army was deployed to build a barrier between the most violent communities. Militants on both sides formed militia units. Things got worse. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, how am I going to reflect that in Alien? And why, even?
The why is the easy bit. Because conflict is messy, and Alien is a messy world. Because two communities clashing over a long and complex history is exactly the sort of conflict your space marines would be dropped into, not knowing which side has justice on their side, or who might be trusted, or whether your assigned targets are the “right” ones. There is only one certain enemy in Alien… and that’s the Xenomorphs, everything else should be a moral maze.

So the how. And the where. Last episode I said Corona. I have no idea where that is, its not mentioned on the map, just in text on page 224. That gives us the opportunity to put it anywhere, but thinking about it, it should be pretty close to the solar core, both to mirror the nature of Northern Ireland’s proximity to Britain, and to imagine a relatively long history on the colony itself so that deep-seated historical differences can be found on both sides. Perhaps it is in the cluster of stars known as Proxima Centuri. But there are lots of mentions of USCM bases there. So perhaps I should switch it to the named colony that IS mentioned on the map, Gorham’s Folly…

But who lives there, what is that central conflict between two communities? Now my first thought was to better reflect the more international nature of the Three World Empire. But this is a quagmire I am not going to step into. Who am I, a European to start creating strife between two interpretations of Buddism, or between Muslims and Hindus, or between Hindus and Buddists? So my future conflict will at least be a based in the Judeo-Christian culture that I know a little about. But it won’t be between Catholics and Protestants. I will create two new space-denominations to clash on Gorham’s Folly. And we have already got inspiration for one of those. Arceon, the wooden space station dreamed up for an unused Alien 3 script, and given new life on page 157 of the RPG. All we know about the “monks” who inhabit Arceon is that they were and named :”back to nature” movement who released the New Plague (no – not corona virus, but a computer virus that wiped out “an inordinate amount od data on Earth” and it seems handily for our aesthetics, all displays more advanced that green-screen CRTs). Well I have a name for them. It the name of an order I created for a Firefly RPG – actually it was Shepherd Book’s order back then but it fits even better for the inhabitants of a wooden space station: The Carpenters.

So a significant proportion of the population of Gorham’s Folly are Carpenters. They are not as radical as the followers of Saint Tomas, but they are tainted with his reputation. The New Plague was considered an act of terrorism, and Carpenter citizens on Gorham’s Folly suffer from various forms of discrimination – poor housing, persecution by non-representative police force, gerrymandering, poor employment opportunities etc. For example, perhaps Gorham’s Folly is famous for its shipyards, perhaps the new Royal Navy joint flagship, HMS Yamato is being built there. But none of the skilled jobs go to the Carpenter population. Note, they are not direct analogues of Catholics in Northern Ireland – the Carpenters as their name and “back to nature” philosophy suggests they are more protestant in their worship and organisation, and I would be inclined to draw influences for their way of life from Quakers and Amish.

Which means that the oppressive established church on Gorham’s Folly is a more colourful catholic (with a small c) faith. In my old Firefly the Carpenters were going to eventually face off against the Intercessionists. So I might as well port that name over for the “majority” faith on Gorham’s Folly. Though be aware that gerrymandering may be keeping them as a electoral majority, while they could in fact be outnumbered statistically by the Carpenter Population. Of course 70 percent of the colony’s police force are Intercessionists and perhaps most of the rest are made up of other faiths, Sikhs, Muslins, Buddists etc as befits the nature of the Empire.
There are no good guys and bad guys here. Neither the Intercessionists nor the Carpenters are “evil,” even though a “Carpenter Terrorist” did wipe out most of humanities computers that time… and forced us all to use green screens. But there are radicals in both populations, who perhaps value human life less than their ideals.

In the playtest of Destroyer of Worlds we tried a character I enjoyed having on the team but who didn’t make the cut for the publish version – local marshal having to work with the marines. I am already revisiting that situation in my head – a local Constable from the minority Carpenter population, trusted by neither side, who has to work with a squad of Royal Marines to uncover a plot by an Intercessionist militia, who plan to blame something more horrific than a bomb on the Carpenters.

#RPGaDay2020 – Want

This year, as I have said Dave and I were not up to doing a (short) podcast a day, as we have for the last couple of years of #RPGaDay. Instead I have been using it as an opportunity to review the podcasts that we have put out over the last three years. You might not want this, you might want daily audio content from two old geezers recording five minute conversations prompted by an RPGaDay topic.

Today it downed on me that you CAN have what you want, and we can carry on promoting old episodes at the same time. We just promote our old RPGaDay episodes. The first year, especially was pretty good. Check out day one 2018 here.