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.

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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.

The crew

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. 

Democracy in Action

A few weeks ago after episode 2.6 we ran a poll (or three) on whether we should play (and record) Coriolis or Forbidden Lands. We don’t play on line, and we don’t get together often, less than once a month, to play around a table. Given that we have traditionally taken turns GMing, it means that we might only play a couple of sessions on each game a year. Dave is running Symbaroum, Tony runs L5R, Andy, Savage World of Solomon Kane, so this poll has been about what I run. We are all enjoying both games, so this is a real quandary.

So, we asked our listeners. I put a poll on Facebook, Twitter and G+. It’s interesting to see how differently each “constituency” (users of each social platform reacted).

I put the poll on all three platforms in the same day. People responded quickly to the ones on Twitter and G+, less quickly to Facebook. I automatically shared my poll post on G+ with the Coriolis and Forbidden Lands groups, but I didn’t think to do that at first on Facebook. When I noticed how low the response rate was on Facebook, I shared it with each game’s group and the respondents came – in the end Facebook returned the most answers.

Twitter responses started well, outpacing Facebook on the first day, but in the end returned the fewest responses. You can set how long the poll lasts on Twitter and Facebook. For Twitter I thought it wouldn’t not last long, and set it for three days. I might as well have set it for one day though, given the nature of Twitter, most responded on the first day, I might have got a couple more on day two. Nothing in three.

As you can see nine people voted Forbidden Lands, six Coriolis. A win for Forbidden Lands it seems. But Twitter is our smallest constituency. Let look the next largest. G+ doesn’t let you set a time for polls. To end it, you just delete the post. Which isn’t very satisfactory – people can’t check if I am telling the truth about what the vote was. I would write to Google to tell them to fix it, if they weren’t shuttering the whole thing. Anyhow, the G+ poll lasted over a week. And saw the scales tipping one way, and then the other before:

The G+ poll was the last to close, and before I finally deleted the post I took this screen grab. Thirty two votes for each game. The G+ constituency was just as divided as we were.

And so we turn to Facebook. I already mentioned that, in the end, the Facebook constituency returned the most votes, enough to tilt the scales back in the Coriolis direction, or was Facebook too more balanced?

97 votes, and another small but clear majority for Forbidden Lands.

So Forbidden Lands is the clear winner. It’s also interesting to note that the Forbidden Lands AP episode that we released a month or two ago, are already becoming out most popular downloads. Session Zero, for example, is already our sixth most downloaded episode ever. So the next game I will run in the new year will be Forbidden Lands. We won’t forget Coriolis though, in fact the next AP to be released will be our Coriolis adventure Song to the Siren, which we recorded back in November, just as soon as I get round to editing it.

So in conclusion: this is what we are expecting to put out over the next few weeks

  • This week: The fifth and final episode of our current Symbaroum adventure Troubled Spirits
  • Next week: Episode 2.7 of The Coriolis Effect, with reports and interviews from Dragonmeet
  • Then: weekly releases of only our second Coriolis AP. The crew find themselves marooned on a prison planet in Song to the Siren
  • After Christmas more The Coriolis Effect, and from Dragonmeet, The Grindbone Slave Tournament

The Draconites

Last episode, we speculated that the Draconites knew what dreadful racists the Zenithian Hegemony would become and set themselves up to defeat it. So I am going though the books looking for evidence of the nazi-punching heroes I hope the Draconites will turn out be.

If we paint the Hegemonists as the dark uniformed Imperial space nazis of Star Wars, then it follows that the Draconites – a secretive “Order” with a system of Apprentices, are the Jedi Knights of the Horizon, though they have no history of guiding a Galactic Old Republic to the light …

On page 183, we read of the Draconites as “traitors” , a third faction in the nascent disagreement between the the Hegemonists and what will become the Consortium. But we don’t get told whether any particular family leads them. Are the Draconites made up of more liberal members of all the Zenithian families? It doesn’t seem that they are “liberal” at all, actually, with their worship of the Executioner aspect of the Lady of Tears, and their motto “Through conflict, the truth.” Do they have sleeper Agents imbedded in both sides of the Zenithian debate?

It seems to me, that they actually left the Zenith before it finished it’s tour of the Third Horizon at Kua. I wonder if they discovered some ancient secret on that tour, and, without revealing it to their crew-mates, abandoned ship to take advantage of what that secret offered…

But there is very little detail in the core book, where again and again it says how little is known about the faction. And even in the Artefacts and Faction Technology supplement it mentions only Meson weaponry and an (admittedly impressive) camouflage sphere. No mention is made of any truly ancient artefacts that they might have discovered.

One thing we do know is that pretty much the first thing they did as an independent faction was not join with the Consortium and the Legion to wipe out the Hegemony, but rather to join with the Order of the Pariah (and the Legion) to wipe out the Nazareems Sacrifice. Why? Were the Sacrifice the greater threat? Or did they think the continued survival of the Hegemony would be useful to them, if only to keep the Consortium occupied?

One last unanswered question. What is a Draconite Dragoon? Sometimes, I feel that when writing the sub-concept suggestions, the authors just chose words that looked kind of cool, without really thinking about what it might mean. And perhaps that’s OK, it’s just a couple of words slammed together to prompt the player’s imagination. But Draconite Dragoon rubbed me up the wrong way. It’s in the operative concept, which is kind of about secret agents. But it’s a word which, to me invokes images of grav-bikes and dashing uniforms.

At this point, regular readers are probably shouting at their speakers that EVERYTHING makes me think of grav-bikes and dashing uniforms. But this time I genuinely have a historical precedent. You see, a Dragoon is a specific type of 18th century soldier, a sort of mounted infantry. They would ride into battle on horses, but dismount to engage the enemy. Unlike traditional cavalry, they carried guns, short barrelled muskets called carbines. The name still exists today, for highly mobile pathfinder troops operating lightly armoured vehicles. All of which seems a far cry from the workings of “the most secretive” faction in the Third Horizon.

But … everything I just said about Dragoons is from my memory. And I have just gone to Wikipedia to fact-check myself. And I learned some interesting things, not least that the British Army converted all its cavalry regiments to Dragoons in the eighteenth century, because Dragoons were paid less than cavalry. But that’s by the by. What’s most interesting is the the French persecuted Protestant Hugenot households by forcing them to accept a Dragoon as a ill behaved “houseguest” until they either converted to the catholic faith or left the country.

Now, I like the idea of this sort of “secret policeman”, even if it doesn’t quite fit with the nazi-punching hero faction I was looking for when I started with research. We don’t know, from the published books about any systems where the Draconites are the governing faction. And indeed the core book suggests that they is no system which the Draconites call “home”. But I can imagine that, somewhere, they might well aggressively repress other ideologies in this way. In such a case, the Dragoon would be a thuggish, lower caste policeman, not privy to the secrets of the Draconites but steeped in their philosophy. And let’s face it, if that philosophy included punching Nazis, we’d possibly forgive other boorish behaviours.

But it doesn’t seem that the Draconites are the Nazi-punchers I was looking for. If anything they hold the Hegemonists in contempt. But only because the Hegemonist’s racist dogma is so far removed from the truth that they seek, and the secrets they keep to themselves …

A problem like The Zenithian Hegemony

I am going to say it straight. The Zenithian Hegemony are the bad guys. The Syndicate are actual criminals of course, but the Hegemony are the evil empire. I put it to you, that this is the faction you should love to hate. The Zenithian Hegemony is Imperialism writ large. No, more than that. The Zenithian Hegemony are racists plain and simple, convinced that they are superior to the Firstcome, and obsessed with preserving their al-Ardhan bloodlines.

Their attitudes are so extreme they spurn biosculpting and cybernetics because of their obsession with blood purity. Indeed they consider themselves superior to other Zenithian factions like the Consortium, who have intermingled, culturally, with Firstcome. That said, some Firstcome might qualify for acceptance into the Hegemony. The Hegemony have a branch of science, hemographers, tasked with surveying, recording and testing pure Zenithian bloodlines. I imagine it’s those professionals who identified the Expatriates living in Xhi, a domed city on Amedo. Though their forebears arrived with the Firstcome, they claim to be related to the Families that left al-Ardha in the Zenith

In keeping with the duality that Fria Ligan build into all their work, there is a “less racist” part of the Hegemony. Some of the great families, who call themselves neo-Zenithians, at least believe in co-operating with the Consortium, and even with the Firstcome. It is this, slightly more liberal (but I am sure, just as patronisingly superior) part of the faction, which created the Judicators, to help police Coriolis. When I read on page 206 of the core book that the Zenithian Hegemony sends people to the courtesan academies of Ahlam’s Temple “to be taught the mysteries of subjectivity and sensory input” I can only assume it’s the Neo-Zenithian families. The Hegemonists are surely too arrogant to think that can learn anything from a Firstcome faction.

Their arrogance is somewhat justified. Their elite pilots and so called “peacock troops” defeated the Legion, who “were originally hired by the Consortium to wipe out the fleets of the Zenithian Hegemony, but suffered terrible losses and retreated, instead being tasked with hunting corsairs” (p198). The Consortium backed off after that, but they were right to try I think. The Hegemony obviously intend to replace the Consortium as the supreme Zenithian power in the Horizon.

And if the Hegemony achieved their ambitions, and took over from the Consortium to become the most powerful faction in the horizon? What would life be like under them? We can glimpse that terrible future in the Conglomerate, the city that surrounds the Hegemony’s base of operations. “They […] leave most of the daily affairs to hired Algolan colonists, who in turn rule the plebeians and slummers with an iron fist.” What are Algolans famous for? Their slave trade. No one with any sense of fair play wants the Hegemony in charge.

So, how do they work in play? Could they be a client or patron for your crew? Possibly. Very probably one you don’t like very much. Let’s explore possibilities for each of the group concepts:

Free traders will work for anyone, for the right price. If the Zenithian Hegemony are handing work out to any trader without a blood connection, it’s probably dirty work they don’t want to be connected with, like smuggling slaves from Algol to the factories of the Conglomerate. Alternatively, if you have a blood connection with one of the families, you could get a franchise on a lucrative route, which while perfectly legal, you might still find a little distasteful. I am thinking something like the British Empire’s Opium trade, transporting the drug to China, and bringing Tea back to the Empire.

Mercenaries might get a job enforcing trade. When the uppity Chinese tried to stop the British selling drugs to their populace, the Empire sent the gunboats in to ensure the trade continued. The Zenithan Hegemony doesn’t need mercenaries – they have some of finest militaries and fleets in the horizon. But they might subcontract some work out to a mercenary company with the right connections. Actually if your players want a military campaign, there is a concept I am half inspired to develop and run, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Explorers might well find employment seeking out the “lost colonies” of true-blood relatives that the Hegemony believe might have arrived on the Nadir, or indeed travelled with the Firstcome, but descended from those members of the great families that were left behind when Zenith and Nadir left al-Ardha. Or you might be seeking out portal-builder relics for them. Actually though I think it’s more likely that some Hegemony archaeologist is your rival, like Doctor Belloc or Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Agents, these are your enemies. The Astûrban seem to be set up as antagonists for your players rather than allies or patrons. As it says on page 215, “they are not prone to hiring freelancers, but it happens, if unofficially.” If they only hand out the shady jobs to Free Traders, then the sort of work they give to freelance Agents is going to really dirty, with ultimate deniability. Take a mission from the Astûrban, and I reckon you are expected not to survive. And if you do, I have a sneaking suspicion that might may have a terrible “accident” later on when you least expect it.

Could you play Astûrban agents? Could your character be a factionary in the Zenithian Hegemony? Do you want to play an arrogant racist secret policeman? I am reminded of what Denis Detweiler and Greg Stolze said about playing Nazis in their excellent World War Two superheros game, Godlike. Or rather in Will to Power, their supplement about the SS. In fact, let me read you some choice lines from that book, an answer to a hypothetical question about playing the game with SS player characters: “Will I can’t stop you – but if you do, you’re an idiot. […] If you want to play a black-uniform-wearing baby-killer – if that’s what gets you off – go ahead, but don’t pretend this book is inviting you to do so. The characters, organizations and facilities presented within are targets for the players’ characters to kill, disrupt and destroy.” Yeah, I am calling it, The Hegemonists are Space Nazis.

Pilgrims? What sort of pilgrims would they be? Atheist blood-cult space-nazi pilgrims, looking for the lost tribes of the Nadir? I’ve had to put my Nazareem Sacrifice campaign on hold to concentrate on my thesis, but those mad chaotic evil cadaver clock building nutters are preferable to the cold, calculating LAWFUL evil of the the Zenithian Hegemony.

Actually I quite like the idea of giving a character the problem “Pure-blood Zenithian Heritage” If you are descended from one of the great families you could find yourself rescued from a dire situation in a Deus Ex Machina extraction by a Hegemonic strike team. Indeed you might find yourself being “rescued” when you didn’t think you needed recusing, if there is any danger of being “brainwashed by anti-Zenithian interests.”

Seriously though, how could player characters come from the Zenithian Hegemony without their players having to wash the foul taste of racism out of their brains afterwards? I have an idea that has been floating about in the back of my head for decades. (You may have already read a version of it) Seriously, I remember sitting in my Dad’s study when I lived with my parents to plot some of it out. It was for Traveller, but not set in space, rather it was planet based, on a sort of Luxurious University Planet called Academè. It was a mix of Oxford, West Point, and those universities in Victorian era Germany, where student would duel and wear their facial scars as a badge of honour. I imagined the players as privileged students with many many surnames, competing for house points, uncovering deeper mysteries, and realising their idyllic life was serviced by an underclass that never saw the daylight of the sculpted landscapes in which they had their adventures. It didn’t go anywhere back then, but I think a story set in and around a Hegemonic Military Academy might be quite fun. Think of it as part Harry Flashman, and part Harry Potter, with a dash of Jane Austen thrown in for good measure. Everyone would be a scion of one of the major families. And would get to wear a colourful uniform, because they would also have an honorary rank in a family regiment, one of the so called Peacock Troops. The good guys in this context would be the NEO-ZENITHIANS, slightly more liberal, and patrician in their outlook. The families of Arianites; Laskarid; Vanna; Din Eusidia; Aristides, would in this scenario be like Gryffindor and Hufflepuff. The bad guys would be the HEGEMONIST families: Quassar; Din Hrama; Konstantinides; Zenone; Astir, some Ravenclaw, but the Quassars and Astirs definitely more Slytherin. Players could choose to be from any family and initially family rivalries and blood-bonds would form the basis of the drama. In the end though, I hope the characters might see the inherent evil of the Hegemonists, and graduate not to serve the faction but to fight against it…

Thoughts about extended Manipulation challenges in Coriolis

You have heard me grumble about the Reputation and Manipulation mechanics in Coriolis. My biggest gripe, as I explained in season 1 episode 17, is the potential for two starting characters to have a modifier of plus or minus six on manipulation rolls.

A few weeks ago, I played the QuickStart for the new Expanse RPG. It didn’t make me want to kick in for the game but I did like their social encounter rules. In that system, you have to work on building a relationship with your interlocutor, winning them over with a sequence of approaches and rolls. So for example, though they might be suspicious of you to begin with, you might buy them a drink to shift their attitude to a more neutral one. Then you might, for example flirt with them to make their attitude more positive, friendly even, then hit them with the question you really wanted to ask in the first place.

We’d recently been playing Tales from the Loop, and this longer social encounter mechanic, reminded me of Extended Trouble from that Year Zero Engine game. That is only really used in the climatic scene of an adventure. Most of the Troubles player characters face in Loop adventure can be overcome (or not) its one simple roll. Remember in Loop, the GM doesn’t roll, it’s a player facing game.

So, I thought, could we create something like an Extended Trouble for more dramatic manipulation rolls? I think we can.

Now I have to be clear, I have not tested it in play yet. I am having to take some time away from my local group, so the opportunity to do so won’t come up for a month or so. But this is my idea: Rather than use the difference in reputation as a modifier on manipulation rolls, make it a target. Make it the number of successes one party has to roll to manipulate the other.

Here’s how it goes:

1. Work out the difference between the reputation of the person you want to manipulate, and that of the member of your party present in the scene with the lowest reputation. (Which is to say, that you may be a courtesan with a high manipulation skill, and an excellent reputation, but you you bought your humanite soldier, with a rep of one or zero with you, it’s that reputation you are comparing, not yours. Faceman always worked best without BA around. )

2. That difference is the TARGET, the number of successes you need to get (though it never goes below one). You always have to get one success of course, which means that between two characters with the same reputation, manipulation rolls would work pretty much as they do already. The same would be true if the characters had one rank of reputation difference between them – although the one die modifier that the rules mandate would not apply under this system.

3. If the TARGET is between one and two, or maybe three, the manipulator can risk a single dice roll. If it is four or more, an extended manipulation attempt is required. The manipulator (and their allies if they wish) must work their way to achieving the objective.

4. Make a series of social gambits, which might include: offers or requests for hospitality, the exchange of gifts, ceremonial tea, compliments, chat up lines etc, banking your successes against the target.

5. Each roll will be modified by your opponent’s attitude towards you. Zero modifier if their attitude is neutral, minus one die if they are suspicious if you, minus two dice if they are hostile, and maybe minus three dice when there another aggravating circumstance. You can get positive modifiers too, maybe plus one die, if they owe you a favour, or plus two if they are a real friend already.

6. You must bank at least one success against your TARGET with every roll. If you fail to do so at any stage, the extended manipulation challenge is over. If you get extra successes with any roll, you can bank them against your TARGET too, or you can spend no more than one extra success to reduce a negative modifier by one die.

7. When you are close to your TARGET, you can risk asking your opponent for your objective. (If you achieve your TARGET number of successes with previous social gambits before the gambit that gets your objective, you still need to make one more roll, to ask for your objective.)

So for example, if you want a favour from some high ranking factionary, you might need six or seven successes. But you don’t need them all in one roll. You would, of course, if you demanded that favour straight away, but a wise traveller in the Third Horizon knows not to be so rude. You and your crew know how to be polite. So you might start by humbly requesting hospitality, make a roll for that, maybe with one less die, because the factionary is suspicious of your motives, and earn one or two successes. Bank those against your target, and compliment your host upon the quality of their baklava. You earn another couple of successes there, and chose to spend one to reduce his suspicions to a neutral attitude. Offer to pour the tea, roll and earn another couple of successes. That’s four successes against your TARGET of six. You could butter up the factionary some more, but time is short, you ask for the favour, and roll. You can always offer a prayer to Icons if you say the wrong thing…

Almudakhir and Kharon

My very basic sketch as I tried to apply the aesthetics of an Egyptian Barge of the Dead to space travel. I have no 3D modelling-fu.

For Icon worshipers across the horizon, including the Church of the Icons and the Order of the Pariah, it is traditional to cremate the dead, except those revered as saints. Their holy bodies are preserved so that their spirits may continue to find a way to the horizon and continue their good work. One of the many heresies that the Nazareem’s Sacrifice were accused of was their insistence that every initiated member of the cult was a saint. To the horror and disgust of other societies, The Nazareem’s Sacrifice no dead cultist was cremated. Instead the “beautiful dead ” were interred on Charnel Ships, which constantly plied the Dark between the stars.

Nazareem Charnel Ships were never designed for atmospheric entry. Generally class four of five, they were serviced by shuttle and supply ships. Their main hull took the form of an ancient boat lying on its side heading, keel first, into the Dark. Two huge archaic graviton projectors extended rearwards. The macabre “cargo” was kept externally, the vacuum of space desiccating and preserving the bodies of the saints while giving their spirits the opportunity to commune with the Dark Between the Stars. The structure that holds the dead is a scaffold frame between the graviton projectors, which can be expanded as more bodies are added. It is built around the entrance to the hanger, so that cortege shuttles could pause on their way into the hanger to inter the saintly cargo in their appointed place on the scaffold.

When the Horizon turned against the Nazareem’s Sacrifice in the early years of the Portal Wars, it was considered a matter of both faith and hygiene to instruct the Legion to seek out and destroy every Charnel Ship that the Sacrifice had launched. It is doubtful whether this task was completed. With the arrival of the Zenith, the Legion gradually became distracted by other tasks. There are rumours of ships of the dead still playing the space lanes.

And there is at least one still in operation.

The Almudakhir is hundreds of years old. No one knows its yard of construction, and some have suggested it may have been built in orbit around Al-Ardha itself in the First Horizon. How it survived the purge is unknown.

Features

Almudakhir features ancient glyph-type 8 point armour had predates the sort used by the Order of the Pariah. Apart from being very hard to actually look at, the armor can negate all damage from an incoming attack. (This generates 2 DPs for the GM. If the attack is a torpedo attack, 3 DPs are generated. This effect can be used only once for regular attacks and once for torpedo attacks in a spaceship combat.) Like every Charnel Ship, it carries its cargo externally, there are around 1250 tons of corpses in the scaffolding that project from the aft of the vessel, between two old and outsized graviton projectors. In theory, if there is a revival of the sect, and many more adherents to inter, the cargo scaffold could extend even further. A cloistered arboretum of remembrance sits below the base of the cargo scaffold. It’s a long, square walk with a number of stopping places – benches, tables and chairs or water features. Looking up, the plexiglass ceiling reveals the ranks of the dead stacked high above. (The artificial gravity of board is orientated so that aft is “up”, and “down” points to the keel of the ship and the direction of travel.)

Modules

The arboretum has become the defacto social space for the crew, because the crew quarters are 20 basic “coffin style” bunks with shared facilities. There is also, of course a Stasis hold, which as usual for a ship this size, holds up to 60 people in Stasis. The bridge is on the lowest deck, at front of the vessel. The consoles are set around a large round plexiglass viewport, set in the floor, which can be disconcerting to visitors as the ship appears to be falling through space. The original Nazareem’s Sacrifice chapel, with its cadaver clock, is still in place, but to disguise the true nature of the ship a more normal, nine Icon chapel has been retrofitted around it. Access to the cadaver clock is now through a secret door in Dancer’s alcove. None of the crew actually know what the cadaver clock does, so many mysteries of the Sacrifice were lost in the Purging. Close to the false chapel is a chapel of rest, which had been fitted out to do double duty as a Medlab.

Other modifications to the vessel include a number of weapon systems. There is a torpedo launch system, currently stocked with four ancient antimatter torpedos. Given that this ammunition costs almost a third of the value of the ship, the crew are advised to use them only as a last resort. Even more recently, the vessel was fitted with a data pulse system and an accelerator cannon.

The current crew have not yet explored the entire ship, but they do know there is a workshop and a hangar, which contains a vessel specially commissioned for their mission.

Kharon

The Clave of the Nazareem’s Sacrifice which sponsored this mission have commissioned a modern class II shuttle craft to act as the ships shuttle, and its public face. In an effort to disguise the true nature of Almudakhir and it’s crew, the Clave ordered Kharon from the Chelebs shipyard of Mira, heart of the Icon Church. It’s living quartets include four coffins and more standard cabin. There is a concealed section in the hold, for the transport of illicit cargo such as stolen relics. It’s only defence is an auto-cannon. Designed for atmospheric entry, it leaves its more macabre mothership hidden in the dark of space.

Kharon is equipped with a ship’s intelligence to make it semi-autonomous, capable of operating without a pilot if required. With its brand new, precise, thrusters it is very capable flier. However it takes its mission to hide the true nature of its crew and protect them from exposure very seriously, which can make it somewhat more obtuse than obedient.

Together these two ships, and their crew are on a risky mission. Emboldened by the discovery of a copy of a book once thought lost, A Soliloquy of Sacrifice, and Council’s decision to publicly release the text, the Sacrifice Clave hidden on Zib have repurposed the Almudakhir to seek out other Claves around the Horizon, and especially to recover the knowledge and artefacts that, since The Purging, have been hidden or lost for generations.

A fillable PDF ship sheet for Coriolis

ShipSheetImage
Click on the image to download the PDF

I think there is only a full colour version of the official ship sheet out there, so I took it apart in Acrobat DC, removed the ink-sucking space background and drop shadows, replaced the Coriolis logo with a black version, and of course, made it form-fillable. I left the little crew icons in colour. Please do feedback any errors I’ve made, or improvements I could change in the comments. If you are looking for the character sheet, its available here.