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. 

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