The Free League: the ennui of perfection

In the last post I wrote about the Consortium, one of the few factions that we had not shined the spotlight on,in the podcast, because as Dave memorably admitted on the Patron discord he’s “not very interested in them.” I agreed in the last episode that the Consortium was indeed quite boring, but The Free League has a different problem.The Free League’s problem is that they are the perfect player faction. Too perfect.

©️Fria Ligan

What every crew wants is freedom … freedom to go where they want. Freedom to do what they want. Freedom to make profit on jobs, legal and illegal. Freedom to leave a system when a deal goes wrong and they are wanted for murder. Freedom to find a new planet full of rubes they can double-cross. And Freedom to move on again when it turns out the local crime-lord wants them dead. Freedom, essentially, to live like space RPGers have lived since the first Traveller player rolled 2d6 and wrote their stats in hexadecimal…

And if you are going to be a happy crew of malcontents trading their way from system to system, the Free League is the perfect support network. At least from a gamers’ perspective, if not the characters. They are strong when the players really need help, and weak when the GM wants to take the crutch away. They are connected right across the Horizon, if the players need a job or a contact, yet not so consistent that the GM can’t surprise the players once in a while. If I were a GM taking a virgin group of players on, I would probably recommend that they choose a Free League patron to get them started. And the beauty of the Free League, is I could likely offer them a Nemisis from the same faction, to show that everything ain’t black and white. Indeed if a GM said to me “I have never run a space game at all, what are my players likely to want?” I would probably reply that they should start with a short Free League based campaign. They are a perfect set of training wheels for crews and GMs.

So what’s the problem? How come it’s taken so long to write about them? The problem is that there is no challenge for the GM. An experienced GM will be excited if their players choose to be religious zealots, or secret assassins, each would be a new challenge. But if they want to be Free Leaguers, again, where can a GM find the novelty?
One of the great things about the third horizon is that everything contains its own contradiction. So let’s go to the source material and see if we can find the hidden side of the Free League…

The first thing to remember is that the Free League are a Zenithian, not a Firstcome faction. They are listed alongside the Syndicate as one of the smallest Zenithian Factions ( p 188) and yet … and yet … on page 194 it says “counting official members, the Free League is the Horizon’s largest faction.” This is an interesting contradiction. It speaks I think of a membership not wholly affiliated to the cause of the faction. People join like they join the AA, or the triple A, or whatever your local roadside recovery insurance service is where you live. Thus being a member of this large organisation can help get your ship repaired on a distant backwater planet. But on Coriolis, the seat of power, there are too few powerful members to do much politically. And get this, tucked away in the timeline on page 249 is this little gem: in cc 14 “The Free League faction is founded as a partner to the Consortium.” Partners? Or lapdogs? Free? Or simply another arm of the Consortium? Extending their reach into the smaller markets that the Companies of the consortium are not yet interested in?

On the other hand, are they a Union? It only costs Br100/cycle to join. The Stevedors of Coriolis and the Net exert some power through the free league. Is the Free League getting ready to be the workers champion, and turn against the Consortium as the growth of that faction stutters and begins to fail. Will the Free League become a monster that Comsortium can no longer control? Will they one day be accused or being a terrorist organisation? After all, the Syndicate too, exert power through the Free League. Though the highest placed factionary Jesibel Niales is on to them, and working to curb their influence.

Finally, there is one little hook I really like and that’s the mention of “the Free League’s News Division.” (On page 21) Last time I talked about how the Bulletin, controlled by the Consortium was not the organisation that players wanting to be hard hitting reporters should join. The Free League might offer an outlet for independent journalists eager to seek out the truth rather than regurgitate propaganda.

Beyond Boring: The Consortium

Listener and Patron Nicjar set us an interesting challenge. He has been going though our blogs cataloging all our Coriolis related articles. And he pointed out that we have not done an article on all the Factions in the Third Horizon. I said that I remembered mentioning to Dave that we still had some to to do, but that he had assured me we had done them all. Dave replied that we had done them all… all the interesting ones at least.

The Council of Factions, dominated by the Consortium ©️Free League

And he was right. The only two we had not done (properly) were the Free League and the Consortium. Dave does argue that he covered them in his piece on trade, but not in the depth that we covered most of the others. So I took it upon myself to deal with the Consortium. And immediately regretted it. Because the Consortium are so damn boring.
And they are boring because they are so pervasive. They are the Third Horizon. They are the government, the administration, the bureaucrats. They are the winners, the glue that bound the horizon together and made Coriolis its centre.


As it says on page 190 of the core book, “the Consortium and the Coriolis station are one – so closely tied together that most people in the Horizon can’t tell them apart.” That’s the problem, and not just on Coriolis station. Asking me to get excited about the consortium is like asking a fish to get excited about water.


But let’s give it a go. The Consortium is created from and largely controlled by families from the Zenith. Not the ones who became the Zenithian Hegemony though. These families are known as the Neo-Zenithians, more willling to work alongside and integrate with the Firstcome. So they are not racists, which is good. And good guys are never boring, are they?


Being less interested in bloodlines than their Hegemonic rivals, the Consortium claim to wield power though corporations, rather than dynasties. Though of course the same family names crop up again and again as directors of and major shareholders in the corporations. But here is a pop quiz for you: name four Consortium affiliated corporations. Go on.

Don’t worry, take all the time you need.



You can’t can you?

Well let me help. There is the Parr bio-sculpted food company, and the weapons manufacturers Xoar, Dayal, Tilides, Vulcanor, and Parr-Nestara? Ringing any bells?

Exeter? They offer cruises and tourism, apparently. Advanced manufacturing and research is the purview of those household names Celer-Delekta and Nyala. Alkarra make spaceships, but does any PC group actually fly an Alkarra spacecraft? And if they do, do they even care? Oh, and let’s not forget the first name in gravitics, Nomo!

One could maybe build an adventure around industrial espionage, or illegal research, but none of these companies are Weyland Yutani, let’s face it.

Actually there are three Consortium Corporations your players have heard of, but only one feels like an actual corporation, and that’s The Bulletin, the Horizon-wide communications and media company. The other two are the Foundation which I guess is a corporation in the old fashioned sense, like any university, but with its public interest education a research mission, it does not quite feel like a company. The other even has a word in its name that suggests it isn’t a corporation at all, but rather a quasi-governmental organisation, and that’s the Colonial Agency.

What’s important about these three corporations is that they each have a seat on the Council of Factions, ensuring the Consortium’s heavy influence on that body, but also, possibly making them almost factions in their own right.

Playable factions? I am not sure. While it’s interesting the think that the Faction Standing talent might make you a mover and shaker in the Bulletin, Foundation or the Agency. It’s only the latter two that, to my mind, hold any potential fun for players. While you might enjoy the concept of a investigative journalist reporting for the Bulletin, who should remember that the Bulletin is a mouthpiece of the establishment. A media organisation that does not speak thrush to power as the fourth estate should, but lies to the people on behalf of the Council. And no you are not going to crush it from the inside, because it controls not must the message but the means of communication, the relay stations and probes that communicate across portals. No, any journalism campaign has god to be about underground publications and pirate channels … not being the media lap-dogs of the state. At a push … it might be fun to play a team whose job it is to cover up for mysterious incidents, and make up mundane stories that explain away strange happenings… but it would be a push. And, that seems to better suit the Colonial Agency, really…

A Foundation campaign or adventure might be fun… investigating portal builder archeology like a space Indiana Jones, but the agents of the Hegemony fill in for the Nazis could work.

And then there is the Colonial Agency … who many Firstcome might consider to be as bad as the Zenithian Hegemony anyhow. If you want to play colonists, making a life for themselves in a hostile environment, and learning to get along with the natives (and importantly – you really don’t want to play the Alien RPG), then the agency might be the way to go. Or you could play the Agency as a sort of mixed up Starfleet in a Star Trek style mission to explore strange new worlds. The only problem is there are not many new worlds left to explore.

Which brings us I think to the best opportunity for role playing in the consortium. That lies in the phrase at the top of the core books’ entry on the Consortium: “Expansion is life”.

The secret of making the the Consortium interesting lies in it’s antithesis. Expansion is slowing to a halt. If the Consortium can no longer grow, it faces an inevitable decline into entropy and death. There is a great group concept in the idea that the PC s are the good guys, defending the Consortium and everything it has built from the forces of evil, which includes pretty much everyone else: uppity Firstcome, Hegemonic Nazis, religious fundamentalists from Zalos, piratical Free Leaguers and Nomads. Never mind spoilers from beyond the horizon!

If the players can get invested in the idea that the a Consortium is a force for good, excusing the occasional mistakes that the Colonial Agency has made on the way, if they can appreciate the Horizon as we know it is a delicate construction of the a Consortium, which could crumble at any moment, if not for their diligent efforts, then at last, the Consortium becomes … interesting.

A first session of Vaesen

It’s hard writing a scenario for UKGE and GenCon for a game one has not played, so I was eager to get Vaesen to the table. I had that opportunity last week, and this post is a reflection of that session, plans for the next, and lessons learned that I will apply at UKGE. There will be spoilers for The Dance of Dreams, the scenario included in the Alpha, but I will save them for the second half of this post, which is mainly for the players of the game, to remind them where we got to. We won’t get to play again for another week.

First things first. Character generation is quick. Choose an archetype, then an age, scatter the relevant number of points across your attributes and skills, make a few narrative choices, and select one of a choice of three talents. Alien was similarly quick, and I LOVE the idea of only having one talent at the start of a campaign. Having to pick three in Coriolis seems positively onerous in comparison.

Indeed it struck me as almost as simple as making the choices in a PbtA playbook. So I quickly turned the archetypes into something like a playbook, and then gave them to the players to fill out. That process went pretty well.

Tom, Thom, Jase and Craig make characters.

I was thinking of perhaps letting convention players make their characters, limited only their choice of archetypes. But I think, timing the process on this run, that it might take too long, especially as I will also want to make time for safety tools too. So I will provide pre-gens in the adventure, and maybe include fillable playbooks as an option, with a caveat on time.

As it turned out, the players chose four of the six archetypes that I had planned to offer convention gamers: the Academic; the Servant; the Occultist; and, the Officer.

Then we got stuck into the adventure. It’s written as the first adventure in a campaign, so we start by introducing the characters to Castle Gyllencreutz and the society. This was fine… but it strikes me that a better starting adventure might involve a bit of an exploration of the castle itself, rather than what this felt like: “here are the keys to the castle, dump your stuff here and get on the road to the Witch Cat Inn.”

It wasn’t quite that bad of course. After all, the PCs were expected to use the castle’s resources to gather initial clues. This step of the investigation afforded me my first surprise as a GM: the occultist spurned the library and decided to get clues from the source itself, using the MEDIUM talent to summon up the spirit of Oscar Hjort! Now… this stumped me for a moment, the Medium talent is written as though it’s meant to be used “on-site” as it were, and there is a Seance Parlour facility you can purchase for the castle, enabling the very long-distance clue gathering that Niclas (Thom) was proposing. But this one was a one off, not the start of a campaign, and in the pursuit of Maximum Game Fun, I decided that his seance would produce results though it wasn’t Oscar Hjort that he summoned.

I definitely think, though, that a convention game and introduction to the world of Vaesen might do better without a prelude in the castle. Indeed, I am inclined to make mine a sort of prequel whenin three or more investigators meet of rather first time, drawn by different routes to the same mystery, and each coming pre-equipped with different clues, that they can share with each other.

I was really pleased with how the Journey went, with each player recounting an atmospheric scene to earn their advantage. Ghostly figures seen while lifting the cart’s axle, pages of textbooks that disappeared … the players really fell into the spirit of the game with very little prompting.

Other GMing thoughts, the different games have rules variations that mean after you have played a lot of them you find yourself wondering “how does grapple work in this game?” I am pleased I paused to check.

What actually happened *spoilers*

When the players arrived at the Witch Cat Inn and met the private detective Olaus Klint, who had sent them the mysterious note, they were eager, not just to get into the warmth of the inn but also to take rooms upstairs a get get dry. So they did not quiz the other guests for clues. Upstairs they took the opportunity to check out the other rooms, and so quickly found Nora’s Journal, which provided them with most of the clues they needed to understand the nature of Oscar Hjort.

This was the moment I decided to bring the players attention to the Countdown, buy having the innkeeper, Sami, wailing in horror as his customers fell asleep. (I failed the have the players roll for fear, as I should have done, at the sight of this mass narcolepsy). They confronted Sami (at last) with the playbill for Sophie’s shadowplay, so Sami raged, took Sophie into the kitchen to scold her and slap her, at which point she ran out of the kitchen and up to her attic.

Which act prompted the most wonderful reaction from the players: the party split up!

Not only did they split up, they went to all the right places. Prof. Brugge (Craig) sent West, his servant (Jase) to investigate the Orangery while he himself investigated the Root Cellar. Nicolas (Thom) followed Sophie up into the attic while Frank Linden (Tom) stayed with Sami. The dominos were all in the perfect places.

So, we started with the Shadowplay. Sophie suggested that Niclas watch her rehearsal, and in her sweet voice started to narrate Oscar’s story as she turned the clockwork. Her voice slowly became rougher until Oscar himself appeared from behind her screen and accused Niclas of his murder. Niclas failed a fear roll and panics, flinging himself down the ladder (for an old man however, he is mobile, and did not hurt himself).

Cut to Prof. Brugge, who broke into the root cellar to be confronted by a horrific vision of a rotting cave, and a vision of Oscar’s murder. His fear roll succeeded. West, sees the sleeping patrons of the inn coming out to attack the professor and tries to grapple one of them.

Meanwhile Franz realises that Sami is somehow possessed and has to stop him hanging himself.

Niclas, stumbling out of the house sees his friends seemingly attacked by the sleepwalkers. Rolls for Fear and fails again. Rather than flight, he choose a fight response and stabs one of the sleepwalkers, the priest.

Then using his advantage the Professor removers what was on a disappeared page on the journey here. A prayer against enchantment. I wasn’t sure how to handle this, rules as written, but in the last few seconds of the session, citing Maximum Game Fun I let him make a roll and he succeeded. (Perhaps a pro would have made him wait ’till the next session.)

The Song to the Siren podcast is complete

Tiny figures approach a huge old spaceship, like the three petals of an upturned snowdrop
Approaching the Siren ©️ John Salquist

Last week Effekt published the last part of our Coriolis actual play, but given that it was recorded in two sessions a year apart and released in five episodes a year ago, and another four more recently, I though it might be worth posting links to all the episodes, on order, to help new listeners find them more easily.

Part 1 – Arrival https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/song-to-the-siren-part-1-arrival

Part 2 – Trade https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/song-to-the-siren-part-2-trade

Part 3 – Club https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/song-to-the-siren-part-3-club

Part 4 – Qadim https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/song-to-the-siren-part-4-qadim

Part 5 – Siren https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/song-to-the-siren-part-5-siren

Part 6 – Intervention https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/song-to-the-siren-intervention

Part 7 – Persuasion https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/siren-persuasion

Part 8 – Córdoba https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/cordoba

Part 9 – Ascent https://www.effektpodcast.org/episodes/song-to-the-siren-ascent

Córdoba and the residents of Salvagetown

Córdoba ©️Effekt/Tom Tyler-Jones

In episode eight of Song to the Siren, our Coriolis actual play, Yaphet and Salah confronted Córdoba, the “cannibal king” of Salvagetown. To be honest, I don’t think we heard enough about him in the AP, so as I am writing the adventure in full for the forthcoming Free League Workshop, I thought I might share some of that write-up, here, so that anyone who is interested can see what how I had intended him to be played, even if my players “turned left” (with an excellent shiv in the eye way back in episode one).

Córdoba

  • Strength 5
  • Agility 4
  • Wits 4
  • Empathy 2

Skills: Melee combat 4; Survival 2; Medicurgy 1; Culture 1

Reputation (as the “cannibal king” of this prison colony) 6

Talents: Hardened Epidermis; Executioner; The Judges Talent.

Equipment:

Cleaver (Bonus +1, Init 0; Damage 2, Crit 2; Range Close; Light; Tech P.)

Wheeled motorbike (Bonus +1, HP 6, MR 15, Armor 0; Passengers 1, Fuel Hydrogen; Tech P.)

The head man of the Salvagetown “community” is Córdoba. He is big. Indeed, he is the “biggest guy in the yard,” who some players may choose to fight in the hope of asserting their violent credentials among the other prisoners.

Córdoba is not just big, he is in shape, and his skin has the reddish tone of a humanite with the Hardened Epidermis Talent. His physical abilities give him a confidence which can seen in the slow, casual way in which he approaches everyone he talks to or prepares to fight. He prefers to fight unarmed, but does carry a meat clever which, if he is pressed he in not adverse to using it in combat.

His preferred use of the cleaver is what gives him his fearsome reputation. He eats people. He is an adherent of some remnant of the Nazareem’s Sacrifice, the long outlawed, and mostly eradicated worshipers of the Beast. In his warped morality, he sees nothing wrong in this harsh environment, in feeding not just himself, but his community too, on the flesh of the weak.

Salvagetown is situated on the edge of the desert dropzone known as Harvest for a reason. Córdoba and followers are always first to arrive when a new consignment of prisoners makes planetfall. The new arrivals are usually battered and dazed by their decent, and easy prey for the harvesters and their dury-rigged Stunsticks. Swiftly incapacitated and bound they are taken back to Salvagetown as chattels . Their ration bars and water are of course all confiscated, of course, to be added the the communal stock. Some arrivals see what’s happing and run away. Neither Córdoba, nor his Harvesters will chase them far. Some will die in the desert, others will come crawling back, and the few that make it to Club Topeka are of no concern. Indeed their they might make the produce that Córdoba occasionally trades for.

Those that put up a fight just might avoid the cleaver. Córdoba is impressed by strength. He will allow any arrival who fights one of the Harvesters to try and challenge himself too. And even if defeated, anyone who puts up a spirited fight is inducted as a Harvester.

Those who don’t make the grade, the chattels, are not slaughtered, but rather eaten piecemeal. Kept tied, Córdoba will remove an arm or leg first, cauterising the wounds against infection. If they seem submissive, they may be allowed some freedom, to move about Salvagetown, and through work, earn the right to eat. Córdoba is no fool though, and will chop more limbs off troublemakers, and finally cook their offal too. Eat the whole beast is his motto.

The motto applies in a way to everything that lands on Harvest. Once the prisoners themselves are rounded up, the Harvesters return to collect the landing pods themselves. Back in Salvagetown they, and some paraplegic chattels set to break them up for raw materials, trading parts, and making these equipment they need to sustain their way of life.

Córdoba’s motivations are simple: the survival of his community, and the display of strength. Submit to him and you will be looked after, either as a harvester or as a chattel/slave.

Typical Harvester

  • Strength 3
  • Agility 4
  • Wits 3
  • Empathy 3

Skills: Melee combat 3; Dexterity 2; Survival 1

Equipment:

Improvised Stunstick (Bonus +1, Init 0; Damage 1, Crit: Stun; Range Close; stun , cel powered ; Tech 0.)

Harvesters are driven by loyalty to Córdoba and the desire not to be eaten

Harvester Combi

The Harvesters drive solar powered scratch built vehicles to go about their gruesome task in the scrubby desert of Harvest. Consisting of a small cab at the front and a platform at the back, partly shaded by the photoelectric panel that powers the motor. They have a battery of sorts but quickly run out of power after sundown, only viable modes of transport in daylight.

Bonus 0, HP 4, MR 11, Armor 0; Passengers 3 (plus whatever you can fit on the platform – maybe six hogtied prisoners?) Fuel solar; Tech P.

Typical Chattel

  • Strength 2
  • Agility 1
  • Wits 4
  • Empathy 2

Skills: Survival 3; Technology 2; Manipulation 1

Chattels have little drive, a lot of apathy and are motivated by fear.

Review: Mörk Borg

https://youtu.be/zdDd3S7gQ7w

On the Effekt podcast, we don’t do reviews. We tell you about the games we like, because we play those games. We occasionally tell you about what we don’t like about the games we play. But we tell you this things because we play the games. If we were a review podcast we’d have to play the games, and we don’t have time to play all the games we have already got!

So, like I said, we don’t do reviews. But here I am reviewing Mörk Borg. And we haven’t played it. So what the hell am I doing?

Well first of all, let’s talk about why I backed the Kickstarter. The first reason was that this is a book that comes with Free League’s name on it. Though that’s only one of the names. This is, in many respects, an Indy project, supported with Free League’s publishing experience and distribution. It demonstrates how the Free League has grown. When they first started publishing in English, they looked to Modiphius for their experience and publishing networks. Now they are in a position to take a similar mentoring role for the creators of Mörk Borg.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note there are two Free League logos on the cover. Their standard publishing logotype and one for the Free League Workshop, the brand that will soon appear on DriveThru as an outlet for fan-created content. All that content will, I think, be supplementary material for most of the company’s stable of Year Zero engine games and Symbaroum – not stand alone games like this one.

The other reason I backed it was the typography. I am a typography snob, ever since I trained with proper metal type back in art school, and the sample pages on the Kickstarter campaign convinced me I had to have this book, even if I never played the game. So it in that spirit in which I am reviewing Mörk Borg, not so much as a game, but as a book for your library. We’ll therefore return to typography in a while.

But first I want to talk about how the book FEELS. Never has so much thought gone into RPG texture. I raved before about how the texture of the Forbidden Lands book is exactly right for the neo-traditional nature of that game, but I am blown away by the mix of textures in this slim volume. You may already have seen the rushed unboxing video I made for our new YouTube channel. And if you have you will note I can’t stop fondling the book. It starts with the subtle embossing of the illustration on the front cover, and it ends with how different signatures (the blocks of pages that are sewn into a hardback) are made with different qualities of paper, so that the rules are smooth and the scenario is rougher. This is not a book that you want to buy on PDF.

Even the bookmark is a thing of considered beauty

Actually there is another reason you don’t want the PDF. In a rare lack of attention to detail, the PDF has been compiled without separating the cover from the interior spreads. So where the design goes over two pages (and it FREQUENTLY goes over two pages) PDF readers can’t appreciate the beauty of the layout.

Huh. Looks like we are talking aesthetics already. So be it. The book LOOKS gorgeous. It has the aesthetics of the photocopied punk rock fanzines of the seventies and eighties. But that analogy does not do it justice, because if you haven’t seen it you’ll be thinking it’s black and white. It isn’t. It’s a riot of colour, with Cadmium Yellow covers, bright emo pinks. It switches between monotone, spot colour, three colour and full colour printing between spreads. It even uses metallic foil. It’s only a slim book, but every turn of the page is a surprise and a delight.

You can just make out the subtle embossing. Plus the shield is glazed, the rest is matt. Oh and since writing this I discovered come “invisible” letters on the spine.

I said we’d talk about typography. Now, you should understand that has a typography snob, I HATE HATE HATE poor use of type. Every time my co-host Dave sends me a document I wince at his choice of typefaces, the way he uses too many different fonts, underlines all his titles… gah, I am tensing up just writing about it. I tell people again and again that just because your computer comes with a gazillion fonts, it doesn’t mean you have to use any more than two in a document.

They use more than two fonts in Mörk Borg. There are over 100. But they use them all so well! Every spread is a delight! There is a crazy logic to all their choices. In the hands of most people this could be a hot mess, but designer Johan Nohr knows and loves his type. This is the work of a master. He is also responsible for the illustrations which have the carefree mastery of early Picasso sketches – each one simultaneously looking like something you doodled in your exercise book at school, and something you could never draw as well, not even with 100 years of practice.

So let’s talk about the system. Now I am not a fan, or indeed any sort of expert, in that gaming thing called “OSR.” Hell, I don’t even know whether the R stands for “Old School Rules” “Revival” or “Renaissance.” In fact, just about the only thing I do know, is the OSR community can’t agree what the R stands for either. However, I think I have just taken delivery of an OSR game. Do correct me if I am wrong, but I understand OSR games to be based upon a stripped down rules light take on the early versions of D&D. And this bares all the hallmarks of that philosophy.

Regular readers will know I am not a fan of the d20 and it’s linearity. But there are things I read in this book that almost, almost, make me want to play this game. For a start, there are no character classes. (Well, there are, but that’s an optional rule.) You start your character by rolling a d6 and a couple of d12s to find out what equipment you have. The d6 gives you things you can carry stuff with, and the d12s give you stuff. Then you roll a d10 for your weapon. Oh! The typography! Oh! the layout! The weapons table is three pages long! And there are only ten items on it! This might sound like a bad thing, but it is not. It is a thing of ugly, punkish beauty!

Your roll for your ability bonuses too, a traditional 3d6 for each, and hit points. And then step five is , and I quote: “Name your character if you wish. It will not save you.” Yes the setting is very dark.

How dark? As dark as confronting your worst self on a moonless night, in a cellar, with a blindfold. This world is ending. There is no way to save it. Your characters are scrabbling for some tiny comfort, some moment of safety, before the end. Which is inevitable. According to the Calendar of Nechrubel, your campaign lasts long enough for six prophesies to come true, then the seventh prophesy occurs: “The game and your life end here. Burn the book” it says.

Which is why I will never play. I don’t want it to end. I can’t burn this.

Grindbone 2183

We featured this on the podcast a few weeks back, and for some reason I never posted it. But now, on the event of #Dragonmeet, and our Grindbone Tournament in the #PodcastZone, now seems as appropriate moment as any to share it.

The Correctional Detention Colony on the heavy moon, G71b, has a reputation.

It is built along the Panopticon principles of Victorian prisons, modified for life support controlled closed systems. A secure observation and administration block post sits at the centre of three (in this particular case) wings of the facility.

Kitchens, eating areas and all other communal facilities are on the upper floor with the cells themselves on lower levels, cut out of the unforgiving rock of G71b. Each wing is entirely self contained. With its own life support system. There is one way in and out of the wing, and that is through the core. Once past the security lock into the core, prisoners mostly head down into the mines where they earn their keep. Rarely they head up, into the administrative block, but that is usually only to visit one of the infirmaries when they are injured.

They never get into the panopticon itself. The giant multi-level control room, with screens that can peer into every aspect of a prisoners life, and large Plexiglass windows, that afford a clear view down the length of all the communal areas of each wing. On G71b, the views offered by this design have inspired the guards to create a novel spectator sport.

Every third week, after the inmates are locked safely in their cells, the wing’s guard patrol tours the wing, hiding a number of basic weapons in locations scattered about the wing. Then, once the guards are safely back behind the bars and plexiglass windows of the observation block. Lots a drawn, and five random cell doors open.

Prisoners new to the facility are often reluctant to leave their cells and explore the wing, if their is one of the cells that opens. But, if they choose to stay in their bunks, they soon learn the error of their ways: a more experienced prisoner will eventually charge into the cell and beat them in their beds, until they are broken.

If your cell door opens in the middle of the night, and you are wise, you will quickly leave this dead-end trap, and search for one of the hidden weapons. For the next guard patrol will only happen after at least three prisoners have been broken. Deaths are rare, and the injured prisoners are taken the infirmary. The winning prisoners have learned that, if they return to their cells quietly, they will have earned trustee privileges from the guards. If they don’t go quietly, the guards are more numerous, better armed and better armoured than them. The choice is stark – end up in the infirmary with your victims, or back in your cell with light duties for the month. More than that, the guards that bet on the winners, and won money will seek them out and proffer rewards – the chance to record a message to send home, contraband, fresh food, etc.

Those messages home are vetted of course, but enough clues have escaped the censors to spread rumours about this sport, and the inmates’ nickname for the Correctional Detention Colony: Grindbone.

Until recently, the authorities have turned a blind eye to this illegal activity on behalf of the staff at Grindbone. As long as the ore kept coming from the mines of G71b, the Company, and by extension the government were happy with any … incentive programmes that the Governor might choose to run.

But recently, production has not been meeting quota. Governor Mitchell is under pressure. Recently a Company Operative called Dostoyevsky has arrived, with a team of scientists and a strange cryogenically stored cargo. They took over one of the infirmaries, complete with three of its patients. And now Dostoyevsky is pressuring Mitchell to turn the regular Grinbone tournament into what she describes as “A scientific study…”

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.”

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