Are you an Alien GM going to Dragonmeet?

Its just been confirmed that we will be at Dragonmeet at the end of November, running the Free League stand. We will be handing over hard copies to pre-order customers who want to pick it up there and save delivery costs, and there will be copies for people to look at, if not buy.

I am sure the Alien buzz will be high, and we want to try and ensure there are games people can join in on. So if you are coming, and have pre-ordered, please consider signing up to run a game. You will have received the full PDF by then, so we humbly suggest that the adventure in the core book, Hope‘s Last Day is very con friendly. It’s what they ran at GenCon 🙂

If you want to volunteer, you will need to tell Dragonmeet, before us. You can find the sign-up form here: https://www.dragonmeet.co.uk/gms.html but do also drop us a line, so we know how many games are running. If you are running any other Free League games, tell us about them too, and we’ll promote them on the next couple of episodes of our podcast.

And remember if you want to pick up your copy, you will need to tell Free League (not us) in advance. Check your newsletter, which said “If you want to pick up your pre-ordered copy of the game at any of the three pickup locations, please email to tomas and write “PaxU Pickup” in the subject line. We will then refund your shipping cost, but only after the pickup is actually done.”

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Village of the Monster Hunters

The Legend of Brightwater

Before the Bloodmist, a fearless warband was banished to the marshlands for a crime they definitely did commit. These men and women survived and thrived, their antecedents living in the village of Brightwater. Today, wanted by the Rust Brothers, they survive as heroes for hire. If you have a monster problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find Brightwater … maybe you can hire The Monster Hunters.

The Monster Hunters are inspired by half-naked battling heroes of pulp fiction and comics

The village of Brightwater is not in the best part of the world. The lowland swampy surroundings of Brightwater is frequently flooded and all the houses are built on stilts. But they are well maintained, comfortable, not poor looking. And around the village, well fed, athletic men and women stride across narrow bridges with easy confidence.

There is a thriving market hall, where travelling traders visiting the village can set up their stalls alongside the village’s own craftspeople. Visiting adventures will find a tailor here, a tanner, a smith and a bowyer, all selling goods of uncommon quality.

There is an inn too, though travellers report disappointment in its fare. The ale is good enough, but the food is mostly a vegetable stew, only occasionally improved with the meat of a rabbit or some similar rodent caught in the marshes hereabouts.

By contrast, the smells of roasted flesh and sounds of good cheer coming from the village longhouse can make a visitor in the Inn long for an invitation there. But though the villagers here are polite and easy going, such an invitation is never forthcoming. The Longhouse and it’s delicious smelling fare is strictly for villagers only.

These are the famed Monster Hunters.

Since the Bloodmist lifted, the men and women of Brightwater have earned a reputation as fierce hunters who prey upon the Demons that flooded through the Nexus, and Zygopher’s abominable creations. They relish the hunt, which they see variously as subsistence, sport and business.

As a business they sell their monster-hunting services to surrounding villages. The fees they charge are high but flexible, taking most of what the village produces in a year, but leaving just enough to sustain the village in the next year. Despite the high cost, villagers are willing to pay – the monsters terrorising the villages are, after all, truly fearsome and will have killed previous hunting parties sent out by villagers themselves. Indeed, Brightwater now sees travellers from more distant villages, even other kin, come seeking aid, as the reputation of the Monster Hunters spreads.

The Rust Brothers see the monster hunters of Brightwater as competition, and would like to investigate them further and, if possible, induct them into the order, or if necessary, remove them entirely. But so far, their clumsy attempts to find the location of the Brightwater village have met with obfuscation and misdirection from those who rely on the Monster Hunters’ services.

When a creature is targeted by the Monster Hunters, the villagers of Brightwater organise it as a sport. First two or three scouts are sent to observe the creature and ascertain it’s habits. Then depending upon what the scouts have learned, a hunting party is formed. This is normally made up of up to five “Pickers,” the Master Monster Hunter his or herself, and an apprentice who carries the Final Cut, a ceremonial Halberd.

A number of other villagers accompany the hunting party, including builders who will create a “course” – a series of obstacles designed to funnel the creature into an arena where the Monster Hunters do their work; and even occasionally, a grandstand, from which the client villagers can watch the kill.

It is the Pickers’ job to drive, or tempt, the creature down the course to the arena where the Monster Hunter and their apprentice wait. The preferred way to do this is on foot, armed with javelins, with which to weaken and enrage the monster. But if circumstances demand it, two of the pickers will be on horseback. And occasionally, for particularly tough monsters, the javelins will be replaced with heavy crossbows. Sometimes one of the pickers will even be a sorcerer. All their attacks are ranged, however, it is not their job to get close to the monster.

Their job is to drive the monster to the Monster Hunter, and to weaken it enough that the Monster Hunter can fight it in melee. Each Monster Hunter has their preferred weapon for melee combat, but at some point will always switch to the Final Cut, the halberd carried by the apprentice, to finish the creature off. The apprentice never normally engages in combat, unless they are the last Hunter standing, in which case they are raised to the rank of master Monster Hunter.

All the monster hunters eschew armour, preferring instead to fight scantily clad in cloth and leather, showing off their athletic physique. Everyone agrees that Monster Hunters are very attractive.

But there is a dark secret behind their looks. During the Bloodmist and after, the villagers of Brightwater survived by feasting on the creatures they killed. Many such creatures, and especially the misgrown are held together by the substance Mog. Not many people, other than Zygofer and later Zytera know about mog, but most people instinctively realise that meat from monsters in tainted and stay well clear.

The villagers of Brightwater though, had no such fear (they all have the Fearless talent), and feasted hungrily on the chaotic flesh. Over the years they even created myths of butchery, deciding, without much evidence, which parts of the flesh are edible and which must not be eaten. And, at first, their culinary courage seemed to be rewarded. They felt healthier, grew stronger and yes, became more good-looking as monster flesh became a regular part of their diet. They even seemed to age more slowly.

But then they learned the terrible cost of eating mog-tainted flesh. It poisoned not them, but their unborn children. All their children are born deformed. And most die within a few hours of birth. Only a few survive and these are looked after well by their loving parents. But the village’s collective shame means they keep their children hidden from visitors. The “school house” where the women go to give birth, and all the surviving children live out their lives, is a little way away from the village’s more public buildings, and visitors are prevented from getting too close.

The villagers of Brightwater never explain the lack of children in public life, or the real reason why visitors only get vegetable stew while the natives feast on meat. They know that one day, even the longest lived of them will be gone and the village of Brightwater will only be a memory. But if they live like heroes, that memory will be a legend.

Fire!

Apparently, just an intensity six fire… ©️Fria Ligan/Martin Grip

If you listened to the last part of our Forbidden Lands Actual Play, you will have heard our confusion, when the party wanted to set fire to a Gryphon’s nest, and we realised that the rulebooks contained very little guidance on fires and damage. In fact, a similar question had been raised in an earlier, unrecorded adventure. Then, the adventurers had discovered that ghosts could be dispersed with fire, and set about making fire arrows. There are no rules for fire arrows, either for their construction or for their damage. We fudged something about needing cloth and lamp oil to make the arrows. But we never actually needed to work out the damage until this adventure.

In the FL Players Handbook is a reference to being broken by fire damage (it suggests using the the non-typical critical “table”) and a couple of very specific applications of fire damage. Well actually one of those, the Immolate spell, isn’t a fire attack as such. Let be quote from the book “You can heat up your victim’s blood to the point where he literally bursts into flames.” So the damage is done internally, the flames are a symptom of the damage, not the cause. Demons can have a fire attack, which uses the same mechanic as other monster attacks rolling a number of base dice (in this case, between seven and twelve) for attack which can not be parried but can be dodged. Such attacks can’t be pushed. So that means a low powered (seven base dice attack) has something like a one in ten chance of inflicting serious damage*, and with twelve base dice, the probability of being hurt increases to something like one in three. That said, the victim continues to take damage every turn until putting the fire out with a move roll.

There is also the Making Camp mishap, Fire!, wherein the campfire gets out of control, characters must suffer an attack with five base dice.

In Coriolis the rules state “If you are in, or within Close Range of, a large fire, you will suffer attack rolls once every turn. The GM rolls the attack at your turn in the turn order, and before you get to act. The size of the fire determines the number of dice on the roll, and that is up to the GM to decide.” with no guidelines. Well, we could apply the guidelines from Forbidden Lands, five for an out of control campfire. Seven to twelve for a demon attack. But those aren’t terribly relevant. There is the example of a wildfire in Mutant: Genlab Alpha – “Roll six Base Dice“ if you are caught, which for a *wild* fire seems somewhat small. And given that Coriolis characters are roughly twice as resilient as characters in the other year Zero games, fire doesn’t seem to be that big a risk in the Third Horizon.

But Coriolis goes on to say “The number of dice is then increased by one per turn” and “As soon as you suffer 1 or more points of damage from the fire, your clothes catch fire, and you will continue to suffer the attack rolls even if you get out of the fire itself. Putting out burning clothes demands a successful dexterity test (you or someone else within Close Range of you may attempt the roll). Armor may be tested.“

And indeed there is similar text, in Alien, which starts “A fire is measured in Intensity. A typical fire has Intensity 6.” So now we have a word at least for the attack strength of the fire. And in a similar paragraph to the one from Coriolis, it adds “As soon as a fire attack inflicts no damage, the fire goes out by itself.” I am taking this to mean, as soon is no successes are rolled, rather than damage being mitigated, by armour for example.

So, from clues between these games we can pull together a set of rules for fire in Forbidden Lands. And in particular guidelines for intensity. I am thinking for example, that your fire arrow has an intensity of one. It does it’s normal damage (one for a bow, or two or three from crossbow bolts) then rolls another single dice then, and every subsequent turn. On a 6 you take a point of damage and your clothes catch fire. On a 1 or 2 it goes out. This differs from the rules as stated in Coriolis and Alien, I will put this down to them lamp oil. You can put it out with a move roll too.

If you take damage, your clothes catch fire you roll two dice the next turn, then three and so on.

Get pushed into a camp fire? Then it’s three attack dice.

A room that’s partially on fire has an intensity of four. And it’s worth pointing out that the attack still happens even if your player says “I am avoiding the fire.” It’s about the radiating heat.

The whole place (zone) is burning? Well who am I to argue with Coriolis AND Mutant: Genlab Alpha. We’ll call it intensity six. But remember, all these increase by one die the longer you are in it. You can justify the increase by the fire using the fuel and oxygen in the room (or wherever).

Escape the fire with move rolls. But if you take any damage on the way it comes with you, you are the fuel now. Your clothes are on fire, treat that with escalating dice as above. Oh, and that demon fire we mentioned at the beginning, that doesn’t escalate in the same way. The rules in Swedish clearly state that you take the same amount of damage every turn until you put it out. Why is is different from my rules? Demons. They are just weird.

*Which for the purposes of this calculation I counted as three or more successes

Alien: Chapter 4. Combat and Panic

Continuing my read-through of the Cinematic Starter Kit. Chapter four starts with some definitions. We learn that maps are divided into zones, and that zones are flexibly defined, “from a few steps across to 25 meters”, essentially, unless a room is huge, it’s one zone. Time is measured in Rounds (5 to 10 seconds), Turns (5 to 10 minutes) for Stealth (more on this below) and Shifts (5 to 10 hours) for longer term things like Recovery.

In a chapter entitled Combat and Panic it might be strange to find a large section on avoiding combat. But Stealth mode is such a vital trope of the films to replicate, whether it’s the haunted house horror of Alien, the Vietnam of Aliens or even the caper mode of Resurrection. In one turn, humans can move through two zones, or spend the whole turn in the space to do a thing, such as access a data terminal. The GMCs, human or alien, must obey the same rules but many aliens can move faster.

Passive enemies can be detected as soon as you move into a zone, or even further away if you have line of sight. Passive, is I feel the wrong word here. I was confused thinking it meant hidden, like the Alien in the shuttle at the end of the first film. But what it really means is unengaged, not hunting you down. Even such an unengaged enemy will see you as soon as you see them, unless you are sneaking (rolling mobility against their observation).

Active enemies are those that are hiding, or sneaking up on you. You can spot them with an observation roll if they are sneaking up on you. But if they are hiding, you won’t spot them unless you tracked them to a spot with a motion tracker, or accidentally look exactly in their hiding place. The motion tracker that was a staple of the movies works up to four zones, ignoring line of sight (though of course you can’t shoot the enemy until you actually do have line of sight – if they are small you might also need an observation roll).

Initiative is, like Forbidden Lands, based on the draw of a card numbered 1-10, and then playing in that order. I am sure there will be Talents about drawing a choice of cards in the full game. Two PCs bale to speak to each other can swap cards, and of course we know there is a close combat stunt about taking an opponent’s card. Not quite sure how that plays with fast moving aliens, who normally seem to draw two cards, and act on both. Scary!

Again like Forbidden Lands, you get one slow and one fast action, or two fast actions. There is a list of example slow and fast actions, but it’s pretty intuitive. Some actions can take place out of turn order, for example parrying an attack, but they still count against your two actions per round limit. Sneak attacks (testing mobility vs observation) give you one free action, fast or slow before initiative cards are drawn.

It’s worth rehearsing resolution. To hit you roll your close combat skill, one success (6) does whatever damage rating your weapon does (mitigated by armour perhaps) extra success can do more damage, or you can spend them to swap initiative, disarm your opponent, push them over, or grapple them.

They may choose to block you, and you can block their attacks too of course. You must declare your intention to block before they roll, for every success you roll, you can choose to parry each of their successes, disarm, or indeed counter attack, choosing to take whatever damage they were dealing out, so that you can sneak a knife in their gut.

There’s a new action (I think) exclusive to Alien. You can push your engaged opponent into short range (so that you or someone else can shoot them). Given how often the players in our UKGE games pushed each other, I must admit it’s a very useful rule to have.

Which brings us onto ranged combat. same mechanic as above, but a different skill of course and some interesting modifiers. Shooting at a target as small as a chestburster, for example, means -2 dice on your roll.

Autofire works differently to Coriolis. In Alien, declaring autofire adds two base dice and one point of stress (and the accompanying die) to your roll. Extra successes can be directed at additional targets (within short range of the original). Auto fire doesn’t empty your clip like it does in Coriolis, but any 1s rolled on a stress die indicate you have to reload, as well as making a panic roll. The idea being that unstressed, you can manage your ammunition, but in the heat of battle it’s easier to find yourself with an empty clip. Is it realistic? Not exactly. But it does emulate the spirit of the movies.

In another difference from Coriolis, you don’t get to spend stunts (extra successes) on critical injuries, you must break your opponent. And of course if you are broken you must roll your own critical injury. It’s easier to break opponents that in Coriolis as Health is based on strength alone, not strength plus quickness, as in Coriolis. But if you are broken, somebody with medical aid skill can help you recover, or after one turn, you recover one point automatically. Most of the other Y0E games rely on someone else being there to get you back on your feet, so I think this rule suggests that you might be alone more than in other games.

If you want to kill a broken human, you must first fail an empathy roll, and take a stress die (unless you have the Cold Blooded talent of course).

And so to stress dice.

You’ve been collecting these as you have played, one of two doesn’t matter so much, indeed they give you a slightly better chance of success. But now you have three or four, and the consequences of a panic roll are more serious.

When you roll a one on any of the stress dice, (and in some other situations, such as when you are attacked by a creature you have never seen before – we forgot that at UKGE, I just gave them an extra stress die), you must make a panic roll: 1d6 plus the number of stress dice you currently have, and consult a table. Results of 1-6 are “keeping it together” but seven or more and bad things happen. For example: on the seven you jerk nervously, and you and everyone around you takes an extra stress die; on eight you get the shakes, and on nine you drop something. On ten and above you the rolls controls your actions to some extent: you freeze, or you are forced to seek cover or you scream. The latter two cathartic responses actually let you lose one stress die, but again, everyone around you gains one.

On thirteen (only a risk if you have seven or more stress dice) you flee uncontrollably. And everyone else must make a panic roll too. I won’t spoil 14 and 15.

Panic lasts one round if specified, or one turn (5-10 minutes), or until you are broken. Someone else can calm you down with a successful Command roll.

A whole turn spent resting in a safe area let’s you lose a stress die, in a new rule (new since to the cinematic starter kit since we first saw it, you can also interact with your signature item in a significant way to reduce stress.

Towards the end of the chapter is a section dealing with other hazards, including conditions such as Starving, Dehydration, Exhaustion, and Freezing, plus: vacuum; falling; explosions; fire; disease; radiation; drowning; and suffocation. Space is Hell indeed. Then there is a section on synthetics and a little bit, for players I guess, on Xenomorphs. This is written in a way that gives very little away but explains that the GM is not cheating when the Xeno gets twice as many actions as everyone else.

A form-fillable character sheet for Alien RPG

graphic link to PDF
click on the picture to download the PDF

I am not sure I will get to post chapter four of my “Where I read…” today. But instead here is a useful resource. Dave and I have been preparing for the last month or so to run Alien taster sessions at UK Games Expo. To that end I pulled the blank character sheet out of the Starter Kit (that was a story in itself, some errors in the postscript made it impossible to do the easy way) and have made it form-fillable.

You can download it by clicking the picture or HERE.

This is designed for convention play, so rather than a number of talent fields this has just one, with space below to describe the talent.

Alien: Chapter 3. Skills

Before we continue with the read through, let’s pause and head back to the credits page (page 2 on the PDF). What’s this?

Dave and I are listed as play testers! That’s nice🙂. We did offer feedback from our games, I wonder if anything has changed?

I have spotted at least one so far. As I predicted yesterday, Victory Points no longer exist. Instead we have Story Points. But that’s enough looking back, let’s crack on with Chapter 3. And let’s start with Story Points! Buried in chapter three is a new use for these newly named Story points. You can spend them, one for one, for an automatic success, after your roll.

There are twelve skills in this game, just three of each attribute. Not sixteen like in Free League’s other Science Fiction game, Coriolis. And unlike that game, all the skills can be rolled “unskilled”, on the attribute only, if you don’t have points in the skill. Attributes, skills and gear all contribute to your pool of base dice. Like Coriolis there is no damage to stats or gear for pushing, so you don’t need to split them out.

What you do need to split out are your stress dice. You earn one every time you push, and add it to all subsequent rolls, including the push. Sixes, on base dice or stress dice mean success. So the more adrenaline running through your system, the more successful you can be. But ones rolled on the stress dice mean panic. More on that later. Ones on stress dice mean something else as well. If you are testing Ranged Combat, and firing a weapon with a limited magazine, then that magazine empties.

There is interesting advice here in a boxout which should be heeded. Don’t roll too often say the authors:

In the ALIEN roleplaying game, a dice roll is a dramatic moment. Pushing rolls increases stress and can trigger panic in your character. With that in mind, you should never roll dice unless it is absolutely necessary. Save the dice for dramatic situations or tough challenges. In any other situation, the GM should simply allow you to perform whatever action you wish

Our experience suggest this is good advice. In my co-host Dave’s first playtest, he made his players roll the dice too often. Many rolls were pushed and stress points earned. Panic rolls can cause more stress, so there was a sort of cataclysmic chain reaction. I ran a playtest with that in mind, and made fewer (too few?) rolls, and didn’t experience a Panic cascade.

Dice rolls can be modified by difficulty (ranging from +3 for trivial actions, to -3 for formidable actions – though I don’t think we should be rolling for trivial actions, considering the advice above). Or, you can get help from other PCs, as with many Year Zero Engine games, by adding one dice per character helping, up to a maximum of three. Some rolls, for example when you use Mobility to sneak, can be opposed by the NPC with an Observation roll, you have to get more successes than they do. NPCs never push their rolls.

If it’s not opposed, then one success is all you need (difficulty modifiers are on the dice rolled, not the number of successes needed). And each skill description includes a list of stunts you can spend extra successes on. These include things like; rolling an extra die on a related skill check; completing the task more quickly or quietly; sharing a success with a PC in the same situation; or, in combat, simply dealing more damage.

Finally, for those wanting to compare the skills other Y0E games, they are:

  • Heavy Machinery (STRENGTH)
  • Stamina (STRENGTH)
  • Close Combat (STRENGTH)
  • Mobility (AGILITY)
  • Ranged Combat (AGILITY)
  • Piloting (AGILITY)
  • Observation (WITS)
  • Comtech (WITS)
  • Survival (WITS)
  • Command (EMPATHY)
  • Manipulation (EMPATHY)
  • Medical Aid (EMPATHY)

Alien: Chapter 2. Your Character

STOP PRESS! I just heard the first batch of the Starter PDF is coming though, so from now on, you will be able to read along with me 🙂

Continuing my “Where I read…” the starter PDF does not include full rules for character creation, but rather gives readers a guided tour of what makes a character. It’s a sort of introduction to the pre-gens included in the scenario.

As usual with Year Zero Engine games, there are four attributes, Strength; Agility; Wits; and Empathy, each with up to five points allocated. A sidebar indicates that Androids generally have higher physical scores. There are three skills attached to each attribute, but there is a whole chapter on skills later.

There are two other stats: Stress starts at Zero, but goes up by one every timid you push a roll; and Health starts equal to your Strength stat. So, I guess damage is not linked directly to the attribute like it is in the Mutant games and Forbidden Lands – you don’t become less effective as you take damage – but your “hit points” are just as few as in those games.

Personal agendas are mentioned briefly, if only to say the campaign version of personal agendas will be covered in the full rules, and that in cinematic adventures you get given personal agendas each act. If you take actions toward you personal agenda during the act, you can remove a point of stress before the next act, and you get a “Victory Point”. We’ll see if this last survives to the published version though, as there was talk from Free League that suggested Victory Points might get changed. You also have buddies and rivals, though with no game mechanics attached to them. If the other Year Zero Engine games are a guide, there will probably be experience points attached to them in campaign play. Androids can’t push skill rolls, don’t suffer stress and never make Panic Rolls. They also suffer damage differently.

Unusually for a RPG, there is a box out on PVP or, player vs player. Basically when tensions get high, the GM warns everyone that PVP is imminent, and the aggressor loses their character.

The most important part of a section on gear is the resource roll. Roll a number of dice equivalent to your resource, and for every 1 rolled, lose a point of resource. Ammo isn’t included as a consumable. We’ll read about that later.

Alien: Chapter 1. Space is Hell

Today, pre-orders for Free League’s new Alien RPG go live. To inspire you to buy it, I will start a “Where I read…” going through the Starter PDF that will be free to everyone who pre-orders. (Yes, I know I haven’t finished the Where I Read … Liminal, but I will return to that when I am done here. Sorry.)

Effekt co-host Dave and I have been asked to run taster sessions on the Free League stand at UK Games Expo, so we have had access to a not-quite-finished version of the Starter PDF to prepare. When I say not quite finished, I mean, missing a few illustrations, the text is there, all 168 pages of it. I wouldn’t rule out there being a few tweaks between this version and the final one, but I am pretty sure they will be minor.

Anyhow, let’s crack on with Chapter 1. This serves as an introduction to the world, and introduces us to the ships log of Captain Charlize, for whom I fear, things will go badly wrong by the end of the book.

We will be playing among “the rough and tumble colony worlds on the Frontier of known space.” There are three “great powers” in space, the dominant being the United Americas. The largest, not not the most successful economically is probably the Union of Progressive Peoples. I have a soft spot for the Three Word Empire formed from a formal alliance between Britain and Japan, and the merger of Weyland and the Yutani corporation. Weyland Yutani plays well with both the Empire and the United Americas, but it hedges it bets, also owning outright some independent worlds. These and other privately owned planets reject the three super powers and band together as the Independent Core System Colonies. Other companies, BioNational and Seegson being two examples, are also manipulating the national governments and, really, driving colonisation.

The game is set roughly three years after the events of Aliens, and Alien 3. Something of what happened on the prison planet in the third film is known publicly, because of of the prisoners published an ebook, that also implicates Waylamd-Yutani in bioweapons research. Some people argue that Wayland-Yutani may be working with a rouge nation to assume control of the frontier colonies. The chapter includes a timeline, from “Peter Weyland’s infamous TED Talk address of 2023” to the publication and subsequent banning of “Star Beast.”

The rest of the chapter is written for both newbies and experienced players. It starts with what you can play, adding Company Reps to the triad that pre-publicity had already mentioned: colonists, Marines and space truckers. Then there is a description of what the Gamemaster does, and the two different modes of play, saying in cinematic mode “In fact, most of your PCs probably won’t live to see the end of the scenario.” Whichever mode, the key themes of the game are: Space Horror; Sci-fi Action; and A Sense of Wonder. In its last few pages the chapter runs through the tools of the game, character sheets, dice, and cards, before finishing with “What is a Role Playing Game?”

Right at the end of the chapter? Well, if they didn’t know by now …

The Emissaries

This is a transcript of my piece in Episode 97 of our podcast, on The Emissaries. It reveals spoilers for the Mercy of the Icons campaign, if you are a player and don’t want to be spoiled, read no further.

Art©️FreeLeague/Gustav Ekland

If you can level one criticism at the Core book in Coriolis, it’s that it teases you with, seemingly, a million snippets of lore that it doesn’t explain fully. Most of these are fine, I have imagination enough to make something up, and indeed some of those snippets have provided inspiration for pieces on this very podcast.

But one bit of lore left me, and I expect, a lot of other readers very confused. Who, or what, were the Emissaries? In this piece I am going to answer that question, drawing exclusively from the published books, not adding any of my own ideas. The first we read of the Emissaries is in an extract of THE REALM OF THE ICONS – A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF THE THIRD HORIZON by Kaldana Mourir, quoted on page seven:

“Zenith heralded the dawn of a new era – and the Horizon blossomed once again. Three dozen star systems, linked by fate and by the will of the Icons, wandered together towards a brighter future. But as the Emissaries arrived, the happy days drew to a close, and the Dark between the Stars slowly came creeping back.”

The Emissaries are a BAD THING then, or at least they are in the eyes of Mourir, who is obviously a Zenithian apologist. Perhaps the Firstcome see them as allies? Perhaps not, because on page 13:

From the depths of the gas giant Xene rose the faceless Emissaries. Spectres from another world, Icons or Portal Builders? The theories about their origins are many. The Emissaries demanded a seat at the Council – and got one. One of the Emissaries claimed itself an incarnation of the Icon the Judge, to which the Order of the Pariah cried “sacrilege!” and closed their home system to all travel. A new age of shadows and suspicion has dawned, and the peoples of the Horizon all wonder: what is the true agenda of the Emissaries?

I think it was at this point, with their description as “faceless” that I started to imagine them as the Vorlons from the TV show, Babylon Five. On page 184 they are described as “ghosts from another world.” And, indeed on page 240 is says “often described as either spirits or spectral phenomena”. Often described? So, rarely actually seen it seems. And mostly spoken about in rumour. We are not even sure how many there are: “rumors claim that there are really nine altogether and that the Foundation and the Consortium are hiding the truth.”

But we know about only five of them, three of whom are out and about, location unknown, ready to meet your adventures whenever time, and story are right. This I like, we don’t need to pin them to a place your players might never choose to visit. One remains on the Foundation station orbiting Xene, now a place of pilgrimage, because that one claims to be the icon the Judge. The fifth is on Coriolis itself, as a (non-voting) member of the council. And one has to ask, what power do they have that one can “demand a seat on the Council”, and get it?

Talking of powers, we also know that people only started manifesting mystic powers when the Emissaries appeared. Obviously the two phenomena are connected, but how?

Moving on to the Atlas compendium, the back cover teases “the true nature of the mysterious Emissaries [has] only been myth to the common people of the Third Horizon – until now.” But does it really deliver?

It does explain the war between the Terran Empire of Ardha, and the Symmetry of the Second Horizon, which is known in our Third Horizon, of strategic value to both sides, as the Portal Wars. It also describes (on page 23) nodes: “A node can create a mystical and physical link between systems in a fashion that falls outside of the technology and methods used by the Portal Builders.” Nodes were created and destroyed during the portal wars as the First and Second horizons used the Third to attack each other. Eventually most were destroyed. But one survives on Xene, a weak point in the Second Horizon’s defences.

On page 25, the Compendium describes how, when a prospector ship made an emergency landing on Xene, mystics of the Second Horizon possessed the crew. Or tried to at least. Only one crew member was successfully taken over, with the mystic in the Second Horizon managing to retain her identity as she took over her host. That one is the one that now sits as an observer on the council. The other four (or eight?) were affected to varying degrees by the Darkness between the Stars.

So, not Vorlons after all, or Faceless, or even “described as […] spirits or spectral phenomena”- they look human it seems… except … in the book Coriolis: The Art of the Third Horizon there is an image captioned, The Spirit of the Emissary. It shows a cloud of fractal light and darkness above a writhing human on an altar or bed, so perhaps some people can see the Emissary as a spectral phenomenon in certain circumstances.

Most people can’t though, because we can witness actual possession if we play A Song For Jarouma, from Emissary Lost (page 228): “Mid-argument, or on their way to the next installation, a person believed to be dead or dying suddenly comes to life. With a spasmodic jerk and a terrifying scream, the team member tumbles onto the floor. Then, equally suddenly, they stop spasming, and stand up slowly. Looking around, they nod and blink, confused. They look like they are uncertain of their whereabouts (the person has been taken over by an Emissary.)” No mention of fractal clouds there. In that adventure we create the true story behind that prospector ship making an emergency landing. (It turns out not to be prospectors, and not quite the sort of emergency that the Atlas Compendium suggested.)

Emissary Lost has more to divulge about the Emissaries. It turns out they are Santulans, the highest ranking mystics in the Second Horizon. They introduce themselves to the people of the Third Horizon as “The Light of Peace” but whether they are remains to be seen.

Lingua Zenithia

Art ©️ FreeLeague/Gustav Ekland

*Update* I published this early because of a discussion on Facebook, and to get it out quickly, I didn’t do my usual check through the “primary source” – the published books. Preparing this for recording, I have now added references in.

Zeni is uncommon on Sadaal. The language is growing slowly on Bahram, but the indigenous tongues still dominate in Alburz. Priests and diplomats claim not to understand a word of Zeni and use translators in all meetings with foreigners. (Atlas Compendium page 17)

I am not generally a fan of language skills (or lack of them) getting in the way of fun roleplaying. But I appreciate the point of view of players who might be inspired by the cultural history of the Third Horizon to play with language difficulties. The core rulebook makes a number of references to the diverse languages of the Third Horizon, but apart from providing a couple of technological workarounds (such as the Language Unit on Page 109 and the cybernetic Language Modulator on Page 75), doesn’t offer much mechanically to emulate the complexity of communication. If I had a group of players eager to be explorers, traders in exotic goods, or missionaries, and turned on by the difficulties of communicating in the Third Horizon, I’d house rule it like this:

Zeni is the common tongue

“The language of the Zenithians, Zeni, has grown into the lingua franca of the Horizon today, as trade and commerce are dominated by the Zenithians. Most travelers (and PCs) speak Zeni in addition to their native tongues” (page 223). A closed community traveling for generations to the Horizon, would have a strong shared language. The work the Zenithians did in opening up the portals and bringing together Firstcome communities who had cut themselves off from one-another puts them in the place of colonial Britain, spreading English around the world and replacing French as the Lingua Franca. Even if what results in some places is a Patois like Singlish in Singapore, there will be enough Zenithian words in the dialect that even the least educated Plebeian can make themselves understood.

I am not ruling out the idea that different Zenithian families might have preserved their own language, or that the sleepers on the Zenith might have struggled to learn the Zenithian that evolved during the centuries of the voyage. But those are complexities that I am not going to get into here. Maybe in the future sometime, if I have a campaign based around the politics within the Zenithian Hegemony, there will be an opportunity to get into the nitty gritty. Speaking of the Hegemony, you just know they have a Language Institute defining Zeni grammar and vocabulary, and ineffectively banning words borrowed from Firstcome languages.

How many languages are there?

All Zenithians speak Zeni, and all Firstcome speak their native language and Zenithian. These are the base languages for every PC. Yes, this puts Firstcome characters at a slight advantage, but I don’t care. If you really do care, how about this? Only Privileged Firstcome speak Zeni like a Zenithian, Stationaries take a -1 modifier when rolling to, for example, manipulate a Zenithian of equal reputation, and plebeians a -2.

What IS their native language? Whatever the player thinks fits their character. A number are mention in book, including: Dabari; Miri; Kuan; Algolan; and, Zalosi. And we know that the Nomad tribes have enough different languages to make presenting themselves as a single faction to the political structures of the Third Horizon very … confusing.

One imagines that the Order of the Pariah have ensured there is only one Zalosi language, and everything else spoken in that system is heresy, but you can also imagine the heretics of Zalos B have also stamped out every language other than their TruZalosi. I like to think the planets of the Third Horizon are not monocultures, and that each has developed a variety of linguistic communities. But just how detailed your players want to go is up to each table to decide. If your native community is a particular forest of Labuan you could say that tribe’s dialect is your native language, but you might prefer to say you speak “Labuanese”. And let’s not forget the languages of the semi-intelligent – the ekilibri and the nekatra on Kua and the skavara on Amedo.

Cultured Linguists

“Ameda from Amedo is perhaps the most popular artist in [Tattoo] alley. She is well traveled, [and] speaks several languages” (page 256). In a multilingual Horizon, your PCs will have the opportunity to speak more than one language, but how many? A simple house rule I’d use to manage this would be that you can speak as many exotic languages fluently as you have points in Culture. Thus a Zenithian with three points in culture can speak a total of four languages: Zeni and three others. A Firstcome with three points can speak five: their native language; Zeni and three others.

I would recommend that players don’t pick which Languages they speak at character creation (though a Zenithian player character choosing to speak TruZalosi at creation is that player lobbying the GM for an adventure set on Zalos B, surely). Rather, when the party encounter an exotic language, any player with an unassigned culture point and a decent reason why they might speak it should claim to right to be translator for the party.

If none of the party have unassigned languages, or a technological solution, then it’s up to those with Culture to make a roll with any modification the GM chooses, every time they need to make themselves understood.