People listening to our most recent Coriolis Actual Play may have picked up on a few “references” – from a start, and a bad guy, inspired by the movie The Bad Batch, through scavengers modelled after Steptoe and Son (which our American listeners may know better as Sanford and Son) to a wrecked ship absolutely and openly based on the Liberator from Blakes 7.
But when it came to the creatures infesting that ruined ship, it was the Coriolis rulebook I turned to. I didn’t really find what I was looking for, but I did find some inspiration. And this is the story of how I riffed on that inspiration, fudged the details, and tested my half-formed ideas in play.
The inspiration came from a creature that was almost what I wanted: “The darkbound are regular people that are somehow claimed by the Dark between the stars.”
Until that point, I hadn’t decided whether the creatures I wanted were native to the planet, creatures of the Darkness, or as suggested here, fellow prisoners who were somehow changed. And given that the adventure is partly about how prisoners are changed by exile, it struck me, on reading about the Darkbound, it was suddenly obvious that my creatures should be changed prisoners. The description for the darkbound seemed perfect too, looking “like a thin and twisted human, with only a few torn patches of hair left, and with burning eyes and long claws instead of fingers.”
But the real inspiration came from their mystic power. They only have one – well, arguably they have a couple but more on that later. The only power which is most actually described mechanically is NIGHT VEIL. I won’t quote it here but in short, it is a mental attack. It does not deal out mind-point damage, but it does make it difficult to think , with a -2 modifier on roles for observation, advanced skills and initiative. Now, I didn’t actually use that attack per se, but the idea suddenly made sense of what my creatures were, how they came to be, and the nature of the AI, Qadim, and the ship itself.
Fans of Blake’s 7 may remember the ship’s computer, Zen. When I started planning my adventure, I imagined an advanced AI like Zen, having been ripped out of its ship, enlisting the PCs to get him fitted back back in. The Darkbound’s mystic power unlocked a deluge of different, better, ideas.
What if the relationship between Qadim and the ship was more complex? What if Qadim was the rational thinking part of the ship, the ego? And when it was ripped out what was left behind was the id, the instinctive, feeling part? What if both parts of the ship were damaged by the separation? Qadim can calculate and communicate but it can’t really understand the humans it works with because it has to fake empathy. I’m going to say it’s autistic, while recognising that’s a massive oversimplification of a complex condition.
Meanwhile, the ship, which Dave called Starsinger, but I am going to call Siren, can feel, and emote, it can run subroutines, and try to repair itself but it can’t really communicate. It moans, it sings it’s despair. And it’s that which makes it difficult to think. It’s not a mystic attack at all – the longer you spend in the ship, the closer you get to where Qadim had been ripped out, the harder it becomes to make a wits roll. Mechanically I ran this as a -2 penalty to any wits based skill roll when they were in the chamber which is equivalent to the bridge (but I think I’d recommend doing it slightly differently in future).
So these creatures are not the perpetrators of the mind-dimming effect, but it’s victims. Previous salvagers who spent too long in the vessel, and literally lost their wits. It’s more than that though, they have been transformed in other ways by prolonged exposure to the song of the Siren. They have become automata, part of the ship’s systems. I wanted the alien technology to feel properly alien, unknowable. I wanted it to be composed of strange sealed units that would be absolutely baffling to my engineer. So I imagined these creatures bodies were so changed by the influence of the Siren, long longer eating, sustained only by the song, that they are almost etherial, they can reach into the strange machinery of the ship to maintain and operate it.
They also needed to be a threat to the PCs though, and I had stolen their only mystic power to use as a more general effect. Well, I say it is their only power, and if you look at their stat-block, it is the only one listed. But the description mentions a couple of others, they “move incredibly fast, closing in on their victims in the blink of an eye to sink their claws into them.” And “Just the touch of a dark-bound can paralyze someone completely.” So I treated their touch like a paralysing poison, activating it not on “just the touch”, but when they actually do damage to a PC.
I didn’t want them to be too aggressive though, so I wanted some sort of trigger for an attack. Thinking back to the separation of Qadim’s ego from the Siren’s id, I decided that they would only attack when a PC would try to reason with them, talk to them, so unused were they to communicating in anything other than the raw emotion of The Siren. I liked the idea that they might now be integral to the operation of the ship, and that, if they manage to get off planet in the Siren, the PCs would have to put up with them scuttling around and also remember not to talk whenever they were nearby.
So I was done. However testing them in the play, I decided that, for our ill- equipped adventurers, the paralysis power could be … not dangerous, exactly, but not fun. Combined with their natural speed I saw that it could easily create a situation where the whole party was paralysed, and though they might not be dead (why would the creatures kill them if they were quiet) it might be a very frustrating experience. And the scenario was already frustrating enough. So I am thinking instead about a mystic power which, for the cost of a darkness point, allows them to ignore the effects of PC armour (and maybe, for another DP, makes it easy for them to inflict unarmed crits).
Finally I needed a name, because I feel these creatures are now quite different from the Darkbound that inspired them. I have called them Aabdel’rd, a corruption of an Arabic word that means, simply, crew.