Review: Coriolis – The Third Horizon

My mate Dave was coming to the end of running his SOIAF campaign, and was going on and on about how he’d Kicked in on Coriolis, and how brilliant it was. As the Kickstarter campaign closed I foolishly replied, saying something like “I suppose I should get the PDF then” expecting that’s what we would be playing next. He came back like a shot, telling me “It’s the game I want YOU to run next. I always run the games I want to play, and never get a chance to play them.” In a fit of madness, I agreed to run it for my next campaign, and ended up Kicking in for the full physical package. Which has now arrived, so a review is in order. 

This is an English Language version of a Swedish game, published by Fria Ligan, a company set up when the original developers of the first version of Coriolis folded. Fria Ligan are gamers and part-time developers/publishers, who include a surgeon, and the artist of the moment Stålenhag. Though set up to support Coriolis, their first ruleset was Mutant Year Zero, later published in English by Modiphius. This English language version of Coriolis is also distributed in partnership with Modiphius, and it’s seems theirs is the storefront you’ll be heading to, if you want to order a physical copy online. 

It’s a big book at 388 pages. A symptom of Kickstarters is that an easy stretch-goal appears to be adding more pages to the core book, and while I can’t deny the value of all that extra content, I do wonder if the book might be a little unwieldy at the table. The production quality is high, the book is well put together and printed, and the design is full colour throughout. I’m not entirely convinced by full colour layout of text heavy books – I prefer white pages, but the design isn’t over-fussy, and despite off the text being held in graphic frames, it’s very readable. 

There is also a very nicely produced, sturdy, three panel, landscape format GM’s shield available. With some useful charts on the inside, it may prove to be a useful tool in play, though a table of how the GM might use Darkness Points (one of the distinct mechanics of the system, as I’ll explain later) is a notable absence. 

The thin but glossy double-sided map of the Third Horizon and Coriolis Station is smaller than I expected, and looks like it will age quickly with use. Similarly, the production quality of the optional Icon card deck isn’t brilliant. Which is a pity, as a lot of thought has been put into their use at the table, and some groups could give them a lot of play. I’m not normally an advocate of card protectors, but you may want to invest in some before using these. 

Last, but not least is the Atlas Compendium, another Kickstarter stretch goal, which a nicely printed, sturdy but stapled 64 page book. 

So, that’s what it all looks and feels like, but what about the content?

The usual what is an RPG gumph is followed by a section titled “What do you do?” and the answers to that question are apparently “Crew a spacecraft; explore the Horizon; unravel secrets; plot and scheme onboard Coriolis; carry out missions; and, pray to the Icons.” This last may be the game’s USP. Traveller famously eschews any religion (unless PCs are “Gods” to some primative race). Even the world of Warhammer 40k, with its God-Emperor, doesn’t make Prayer a mechanic. (Or, I should say, it didn’t when I last looked.)

Character generation in Coriolis starts, not with you, but with your group. The players are meant to agree a group concept before anybody decides on who their character should be. It does prompt you into thinking, together, about the sort of game you all want to play. You also get to choose, as a group, a Patron and a Nemesis. The point is, by choosing they are helping the GM to set up the campaign, and telling him (or her) what sort of game they want to play. 

One aspect of character generation that is random in your Icon, effectively the star-sign you were born under, or the “god” that takes an interest (good or bad) in you. This is selected by a roll of the dice, or a draw from the icon deck. But other attributes and skills are bought with a numbers of points based upon your background. 

Which brings us to the dice mechanic. Roll a number of d6 equalling your total scores in skill and relevant attribute. Target number = 6. One or two sixes and you succeed, three of more and it’s critical success with bonus effects. Difficulty is respresented by the GM taking 1-3 dice away before you roll. If it’s easy the GM might give you 1-3 dice, but as the book says, if it’s easy why are you rolling? Some gear and talents etc may give you one or two extra dice. 

No sixes? Or too few? Then you can pray to the relevant icon and reroll any dice that didn’t come up six last time. If you visited a temple earlier, and prayed properly to the correct icon, then not just do you get a reroll, you also get to add a die. 

So prayer is very powerful. But it costs. Every time you pray to the icon to re-roll, the GM gets a Darkness Point. You don’t give her a darkness point, you don’t have a pool, there’s no limit to the number of times you pray. The only person you gets darkness is the GM. So this effectively reverses the Bennie/Fate Point mechanics of many 21st century games. Rather than the GM enabling characters to cool stuff by distributing tokens, players can be cool as often as they like, but pay for that by enabling the GM to be a dick. 

“Are you shooting at my favourite GMC? Hah! I spend three DP, your gun jams. Or reinforcements arrive. Or for one DP your gun runs out of ammo. Or I get to re-roll” Darkness Points don’t reset at the beginning of the next session/scenario. Darkness points the GM didn’t spend in the previous session carry over into the next which means the final session in a campaign could be a scary as hell for the players. 

The more I think about Darkness Points the more I believe that Fira Ligan have quietly snuck a real innovation into gaming, with no fanfare. First of all, it means that there is no longer a limit on how often players chose to re-roll, or use a power. They can do so whenever they feel their character needs it. Some people complain that Bennie point systems spoil players’ immersion, or worse, that they are not real roleplaying, because the players have a resource to keep account of which isn’t part of the game-world. In this system, only the GM needs to keep track of points – there’s nothing to take the players out of the story. Secondly, players don’t have feel as though they should “earn” Bennies though good role-playing, or making the GM laugh or, in the case of Cortex+ Plot Points, by risking failures and complications early in the scenario. And that brings me to the third benefit: unlike Cortex+ which tries to emulate modern TV story-beats of failures and complications build up until the third act where our heroes come up trumps, this system gives Coriolis a darker mode – a sense of growing doom, as players push their luck again and again.

The skills are few in number, and broad. So if you give your medical examiner a four in science expecting her to be good at biology and pathology, then there’s nothing to stop her using those four dice plus her wits to solve an Astro-physics problem. It even says “You are well-read on everything from astrophysics and geochemistry to bionics and socio-arithmetics.” This might lend to quite a pulpy feel, but I guess the GM can dial in a little more “realism” by imposing difficulty dice if it’s “not her field.” Me, I like pulpy sci-fi well enough, but it might not impress GURPS players. 

I’ve been wondering quite what my mate Dave was so excited about in his proselytising Coriolis to me. “Hot damn yes! What are you waiting for?” He wrote to me “Based on the fucking brilliant concepts in Mutant Year Zero and mixing in the bits I love about Firefly, this one promises to be a possible life-long fave for me.” To be honest, I don’t think I’ve seen any “fucking brilliant concepts yet”. I like the prayer thing, but nothing else is “new”. However, even though there isn’t much new in the combat chapter either, I think I begin to see that Dave might like. And in fact, I think I like it too. This, more than anything else I’ve read so far, makes me want to run the game. Though, initiative doesn’t. 
Initiative is the roll of a d6, and there’ s a somewhat clunky if necessary system for breaking what must be frequent initiative ties. Actually, one function of of the Icon deck is to be a (slightly) more elegant initiative randomiser. There are ways of raising your initiative through later combat rolls, and you can volunteer at any point to lower yours, but otherwise, the turn order remains the same for every round until the end of the combat. 

Then, with some trepidation, I read of “three action points” to spend each turn, and “slow, normal and fast” actions, and I’m thinking, “this is old school.” But when we get to hand to hand melee, and defence rolls, I’m won-over. This is one of the few systems I know wherein you can defend yourself with a counter-attack. Suddenly I’m interested. Suddenly I really really want to run a combat to see how it works. 

The attack roll mechanic is much like a skill test, the first six in your pools means you hit, and you can choose a variety of bonus effects for each extra six you roll, including achieving a grapple, for example, or raising your initiative. You can only roll defence dice if you have action points to spend still (which is one reason you may want to voluntarily lower your initiative). Every success you get, you get to choose the effect. 

Ranged combat uses the same sort of rolls, but of course there is no defence roll. Cover is important, but doesn’t work to reduce your chances of getting hit, instead working like armour. You run out of bullets when the GM spends a darkness point, after three quick shots in a row, or during auto fire, when you just keep rolling dice until you roll a one. There are also workable and deceptively simple rules for overwatch fire. 

You can’t die from losing hit points, they just leave you “broken”. You can be broken through combat stress (delivered through things like suppressive fire) too. But you can, you very very can, die through crits. Every weapon has a critical number, which is the number of sixes you need to roll beyond the first to get a crit. If you do, roll 2d6 as a d66 (or draw an Icon card if you have the deck). 11-35 describe a number of injuries. 36-64 describe your injury and tell you how long it’s going to take to die. 65, 66? You are dead. That table is followed by other ways you can die. Fire, drowning, vacuum you know the sort of thing. And all pretty unforgiving. This could be a deadly game. 

Ship combat starts with rules on detecting each other and silent running. Assuming both ships have made combat, the captain rolls her Command skill, and the highest scoring dice goes first. As there is a good chance two competent captains will both get sixes, the one with the most goes first. If they tie the one with the highest Command goes first and if they still tie, then they roll another dice. Like personal combat, a rather clunky initiative system. Then there are five phases, each fight ship completes each phase in initiative order.

1) Order phase – the captain writes down one of four orders and makes a Command roll, any success will count as bonuses in one of the next four phases.

2) The Engineers distributes Power points

3) The pilot maneuvers

4) The sensor operator attempts to target the enemy/break the enemy’s target lock

5) The gunners… gun.

All of which is very admirable for involving all the players (at least, five of them), but it does feel like a boardgame or miniatures wargame.

The chapter on weapons and equipment is a disappointment, partly because of layout. Text descriptions seem disconnected from tables of data. And there seem to be some items that are not explained very well. I think these might have come out of previous play, and they make sense to people in that game but not much to us readers. Take for example this: 

BALLISTIC M-INJECTOR (O)

A medicurgical injector that can be fired with a Vulcan weapon to lend medical assistance from afar (Short Range). First, test ranged combat to hit the target – if you hit, the injector counts as an m-dose

Cool you think, first aid from afar. I can see that being useful if I have an injured comrade covered by an enemy sniper. But what does an m-dose do? Well it gives +1 to Medicurgy rolls. Assuming your injured comrade isn’t a medic, it’s bloody useless to him. That’s 1000 birr (the Third Horizon’s currency) down the drain. If he is a medic, he’ll likely have his own m-doses, and only b50 each.

So with the rules out of the way, let’s have a look at the setting. My heart sinks at first, when I see a chapter called ”Factions”. I find that many RPGs use “factions” or similar as a replacement for class in D&D. Every player chooses a faction for the their character, and that choice opens up special abilities that makes the character distinctive: this clan are the sneaky ones, these the proud soldiers, for example. Similarly many RPGs use factions in place of D&D’s alignment, this faction hates that one, those are the crazy ones. All rather simplistic and tiresome.

So its refreshing to see that Coriolis makes things a lot more messy and complex. None are the “sneaky ones” and many have their own “sneaky” spies or secret police. All are entangled in each others business too,so for example, the Judicators are a creation of the Zenithian Hegemony, commisssioned by the Consortium, whose practices are based on Ahlam’s Temple (who if anything are a rip-off/homage to the Companion’s Guild of Firefly).

And its important to point out that none of the characters need belong to, or side with any of these factions. I note that only three character concepts (effectively classes) can even opt for the talent “Faction Standing” that makes them a member of a faction. Overall, its as though the factions are meant to feel like the competing and compromising political players of real life, and the PCs more likely to be crushed by, than to influence, their machinations.

I don’t like story-fluff in RPG settings, but I do like a travelogue, and Coriolis delivers in spades, starting with Coriolis itself, the de-facto new capital of the Third Horizon. But the real gem isn’t the maps and descriptions, it’s an actual timeline, which explains our adventures start less than seventy years after the arrival of the Zenithians. Which I like. 

I like that the world is so young. Suddenly, everything I’ve read about Factions and Judicators and so on seems fresh and exciting. Some settings seem to have millennia long histories where nothing changes except the ebb and flow of evil empires, the technology, the society, stays the same. This world does have centuries of history too, but like our own world, most of it is archeology. 

I also like that the descriptions of places are littered with side-bar story hooks, and short d6 tables of characters you might meet in your exploration of the station. These are sort of stories that I find useful, and I know I’ll find them useful because at some point my players will say “let’s go to X” and I can look it up between sessions and find interesting things for them to do there. 

What impresses me is, in just a few paragraphs for each planet, the writers manage to evoke a varied ecosystem and a variety of societies on each planet. So Labou is not just a “desert planet” but an interesting magnetospherical anomaly with the “south” pole permanently pointing sunwards and reaching temperatures of 600 degrees, but an icy “North” and a vaguely habitable bit in between. Kua describes not just one city, but many, with a variety of cultures. What frustrates is the lack of “GM answers.” The story hooks hint at what might be happening, but the book doesn’t reveal what actually is. That might not usually be a problem, isn’t in more fun for the GM and players to make up the secret story through play? But I’m aware that Fria Ligan’s previous English language game, Mutant Year Zero, had a definite meta plot, that was concealed from players and revealed to GMs. I guess I’m suffering from a sort of GM paralysis, not wanting to make up my own secrets behind the mystery for fear they might be retconned by a really cool idea that comes out in a later campaign book.

For example, the introductory scenario, The Statuette of Zhar, leaves many questions unanswered, and feels a little underwritten. It is sort of railroady, and I don’t think, given that nature, that it tries hard enough to create encounters that demonstrate the game’s systems to new players. Far more useful are the two “scenario locations” that follow it. Each of these describes a place, with maps and plans, describes some of the NPCs one might meet in such a place and offers a good number of story hooks that might get adventures started. 

There is an answer, and a good one, to one of the most frustrating unanswered questions I had – the nature of “the Emissaries” in the Atlas Compendium. That book too, offers more of the travelogue that I love. Not more planets, but deeper descriptions of the systems that were covered in the core book, and what looks like a fun random generation method for the systems that are not described in detail, so every GM’s Third Horizon will be unique. If you are a GM, this supplement is a must buy. 

In conclusion, the corebook, cards and Compendium do not add up to a perfect package, but it’s inspiring enough for me to want to run the system and to explore, with my players, the Third Horizon.

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