The Mystery of the Church of the Icons

I am guilty of taking the Church of the Icons for granted. And I think that is because for most of us, our experience of churches is of something that has always been there, or at least been around for centuries. Whether for not you go to church, the building itself is a landmark in your life, and similarly the traditions of whatever faith you are, or choose not to be, have become landmarks in our annual calendars. Our churches have become part of the background of our culture. Something we take for granted.

But there is a perplexing mystery at the heart of the Church of the Icons. The Church of the Icons is young.

Or rather, both old and new. The religion or folk law has been around for centuries, but the church, with its trans-Horizon structure, is “the Horizon’s youngest faction”

It’s rise to prominence is extraordinary. New international churches in our world do exist. For example the Church of Scientology, created by Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is about as old as the The Church of Icons. It’s a global organisation, yes, but it doesn’t have reach and acceptance that the Icon Church appears to have achieved. What is the secret to their success?

The core book tell us that the Church of the Icons has “grown strong through collecting, canonizing and institutionalizing the wide, sprawling faith that has existed in the Horizon for centuries.” So, rather than making up a pantheon of Thetans, like L. Ron, the Church of the Icons appears to be more like the Baha’i faith. The Bahá’ís philosophy is one of unity, their belief is that every prophet, every religion, reveals a different aspect of the truth of god. Similarly the Church of the Icons seek out and embrace local variations of faith, progressively revealling the truth of the Icons. But the Bahá’í faith has not achieved the level of acceptance and authority the the Icon Church seems to have managed. Indeed its adherents are persecuted in the Middle East where it was founded by an Iranian, 125 years ago.

How has the Church not only become accepted, but risen to prominence so smoothly and so completely?

Perhaps the answer lies in its structure. The Icon faith is not a cult of personality. There is no L. Ron or Bab. Its a federation, the Matriarch and Partiarch appear to have little power except as notional figureheads, and there are two of them anyway, so neither one is THE leader. The Seekers, an ancient cult which may have had something to do with the founding of the Church, have been marginalised. They “looked upon as wise ascetics and prophets rather than actual figures of power within the faction.”

So, the Church of the Icons seems less like, say, the Catholic Church, under the Pope, and more like the international Anglican Communion, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is more a figure head than leader. I therefore imagine that the teachings of the church can be very different in different systems, just as the philosophies of the Episcopal church in the United States regarding, for example, homosexuality, are very different from those of their Anglican brethren in Africa.

So, how does anything get decided? How does the church make any decisions, if not by Papal Bull or Fatwa? I think, every two or three Cycles a great Synod is held, with representatives of the church from all corners of the Horizon attending. Much discussion is had, many topics are debated and occasionally, very occasionally something is agreed. Between such Synods, weighty topics might be the subject of an Ecumenical Assembly, which would present its findings at the next Synod. Thus it was the Nine Sacred Rites were only put in writing in CC49, only a couple of decades ago, in game canon. Before that, I imagine, that doctrine which denies the duality of Icons, and that evil exists, not in the Icons but within humanity was agreed in a similar manner, with much muttering around the periphery.

Indeed, I think that despite one of the nine sacred rites being that “Once a year, during the Cyclade, a believer should openly declare her faith by reciting the creed together with others in a temple” that Creed itself might still be in flux. The Creed isn’t defined anywhere in the core book after all, and we know very little about it other than that Icons are only good doctrine.

The core book mentions two schisms, which I think are not schisms at all, but rather issues upon which a Synod has not yet agreed a wording for the Creed. So right now, the creed does not mention Humanites at all. But perhaps, the first Cyclade after the Oikoumene as Najim Assembly has reported to the Synod, the Creed will include a line about whether Humanites have a soul, or are simply biological automata or animals.

Talking of souls, I am amazed that the Creed is not yet clear on what happens to your soul after you die. The Church of the Icons assures us that our souls do not become monsters trapped in the Dark between the stars, for which, personally, I am grateful, but stubbornly refuse to confirm whether you are rewarded with an afterlife in an Al-Ardhan paradise, or as the Seekers believe, becomes one with the Icons in the eternal Aoum.

The fact that there appears to be no ecumenical agreement upon this important matter, surely confirms that the Seekers are indeed marginalised, and are not the power behind the Church. But, conversely this fudging of the issue of the afterlife also raises questions about the rapid growth and success of the Church. In our world, the one key selling point for religions is the promise of an afterlife, be that in heaven, Valhalla, or a more successful reincarnation, if you follow the teachings of the church. And of course the many alternative hells or unfortunate reincarnations for those that don’t follow the path. If the Church of the Icons can’t define how your soul is rewarded, how come so many people, have accepted the Church and the Creed into their lives?

The Atheist’s Talent

A discussion in G+ prompted me to share this talent, which featured back in an early episode of The Coriolis Effect, but never saw publication on this blog. That is partly because it’s never been play-tested. I wrote it just in case a player might want to be an atheist. So far, no-one has. So this is a transcript of what I said on the ‘cast.

Not everyone in the third Horizon believes in the Icons. As the corebook says on page 191 “The secular Foundation is the part of the Consortium mainly concerned with research and development.”

That said, not everyone in the Foundation is an atheist. On page 243 it refers to “the most ardent disbelievers in the Foundation” which suggests that most of the foundation are, shall we say, less ardent. I’m sure in fact that the majority pray to the Icons, if only under their breath. After all it’s the rational thing to to do isn’t? Even if you don’t have scientific evidence that the Icons exist, uttering a short prayer when you want things to go right isn’t going to do any *harm* is it? We know that Rhavinn Bokor, the Foundation’s Akbar on Hamurabi portal station, is a friend and frequent dining partner of the preacher, Talib Ogor. Not everything in the dark between the Stars can be explained with science.

But what about your players? What if a player wants their character to be a hardline foundation scientist, an atheist? How do they play that in the game?

This hasn’t come up for me, yet, and currently, the Factions aren’t a big thing in my campaign – where they do appear they are like the wheel of fate, crushing the characters beneath its rim. That’s one of the things I like about the rules and the setting. Unlike many games with factions, no-one is forced to become a member of one. Indeed, only three character concepts give players the opportunity to start with the Faction Standing talent. But what if your players do want to get more involved in the politics and traditions of the factions, and represent the scientific method if the Foundation? Or to play a hardcore Zenithian with a sceptical view of the Firstcome religion? Or wants to play an atheist just to be different?

How does that work out in play? And more importantly, how does that square with the Icon Talent that every character receives? Shouldn’t there also be an Atheist’s Talent?

My first thought was that perhaps an Atheist should get a bonus on his or her more “rational” skills. But what do you call “rational”? Do I mean all the advanced skills? Well, sure, I can get behind a bonus on: COMMAND; CULTURE; DATA DJINN (of course); and, MEDICURGY but MYSTIC POWERS? I don’t think so.

Indeed I’m making a house-ruling here – you can’t be an atheist and have mystic powers.

So that made me think, you get a bonus, not on advanced skills, but all skills that are based on the Wits ability. I quickly ruled that out though – yes, it extends bonuses to skills like OBSERVATION and SURVIVAL, but it would exclude culture. And more insidiously it equates rationality with intelligence. As my mate Tony pointed out, with all the evidence there is of the existence of the Icons and the Dark Between the Stars that characters discover, Atheism is an irrational philosophy.

So no, I’m not giving a bonus to rolls exclusively involving Wits.

In fact I’m not sure a mere dice bonus is a good idea anyway. My thought *had* been to give just plus one dice to each roll, given that the bonus would apply to so many rolls. But given the way the dice mechanic works, that there’s a perception out there that it makes players feel their characters are incompetent, despite rolling a good number of dice, a plus one die bonus may not cut it.

Especially because I sure of one thing – that the *cost* of the Atheist’s talent is that you are not allowed to pray, *ever*. Well that’s not quite true. I want the cost to be that if you ever do pray, you lose the Atheist’s talent.

The whole point of this rule is to create a situation, where the player must weigh up the cost of admitting that the Icons exist, against the opportunity to succeed when they’ve failed a roll. I want the temptation to pray, to be counter-balanced by a talent that has *real* value’ so that losing it, and opting in re-roll, is a big decision.

And while I think that a plus one bonus on every roll is *actually* a big deal, I worry that players won’t appreciate its value. And will discard the talent on the first fluffed roll.

And then it hit me. Certainty. The Atheists in this universe are stubborn believers in an idea, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They know (or think they know) how the world works. They are confident that they can explain cause and effect, action and reaction.

So how about this?

The Atheist’s talent.

This talent may be chosen instead of randomly selecting an Icon talent. For each advanced or general skill in which they have one level (except Mystic Powers – if they have mystic powers they shouldn’t be an atheist) the player makes a roll, with a plus one bonus before the game starts, and notes the result. A failed roll means that the first time they use that skill in the adventure, the character will fail, but after that they can roll normally.

Any roll with one or more successes can be held until the player chooses to spend it. They don’t have to spend it the first time they use the skill, they can always choose to roll normally instead and accept that roll. Any difficulty penalty the GM imposes is taken from failed dice before dice that rolled six.

If the player chooses to pray (re-roll) on any role, the character loses the Atheist talent, and must spend five experience points to draw an Icon talent.

Reputation and Oases

What do you think is the worst rule in Coriolis? It’s an elegant system, and frankly I don’t think there is much wrong with it. But I do have a problem with Reputation. And this bit in particular:

Your Reputation score and that of your opponent will affect your MANIPULATION roll. If yours is higher, you get a +1 for each step you outrank your opponent. If your score is lower, you instead get a -1 for each step of difference. Reputation will, however, only affect your roll in situations where your social standing in the Third Horizon is relevant. The GM has the final call on this.

What’s wrong with this? Well, first of all, it could amount to a massive modifier on manipulation. Reputation for starting characters ranges between 2 and 6, before any modifiers for profession, race (if you are humanite) or talents. Play a humanite soldier for example, and your reputation is zero (it can’t go negative). You could argue that it’s a perfectly valid for a humanite to be challenged trying to convince a Coriolis council member to change their mind, but most other difficulty modifiers range between -3 to +3. With manipulation it’s feasible to have a negative or positive modifier of six dice, before the GM starts awarding points for good deeds.

And that’s another thing, reputation is only awarded for “something generally considered good and heroic”. So, if you set out to be the most feared pirate in the horizon, you had better give up any hope of succeeding in a manipulation roll. In the forthcoming Forbidden Lands version of the ruleset, your Reputation can be good or bad. Though it has a similar modifying effect to Manipulation, it also works for basic recognition rolls. In essence, does your reputation proceed you.

Which brings me to my main point. Space is big, even that little bit of it called the third horizon. It takes be best part of twelve hours to relay a message from Kua to Djachroum and back, traveling at light speed. And ships don’t go that fast. You’d take three weeks to fly between those two places. The only way to communicate between systems is via portals, and though it’s possible it’s by no means instantaneous, and is very expensive. Yes, the Bulletin has its network of probes to transmit news but even so, news travels slowly in the Third Horizon. There are also millions more people than there might be in the Forbidden Lands. And, remember, these are systems that have different cultures, languages and structures after decades of isolation. My argument being, in the Third Horizon you will never be as famous as you think you are.

So, as GM, I have always seen Reputation more as a score of self-respect, honour, than people actually trusting you more because of your good deeds. I might be wrong in this, but if I were to start using Reputation as actual renown, it would rarely modify dice rolls. I even wonder if it isn’t an optional rule – I always find it slightly weird in fact that the text I read out earlier for using Reputation appears as a sidebar (on page 62) and not in the body text. After years of reading RPG layouts, I’ve come to think of sidebars are places for examples or optional rules. I’d written it off as a layout error or rather a forced compromise, but perhaps it’s intentional, sidebarred because it should be a rarely used rule. Anyhow, I rarely house rule but I do houserule this. If there is a difference in reputation you get a single modification die on your Manipulate roll. If the difference in massive it might be two or at the most three dice of modification, but no more than that.

So I am going to use the Reputation score on your character sheet as a measure of self-respect and confidence. So how am I going to measure how well people know you, speak of you, and trust you? Well I think that’s more local, and based not or word of your good deeds spreading across the horizon, but rather on the places you go and the people you deal with. There have been some suggestions that perhaps you might earn different reputations with different factions. But I disagree. Factions, like space, are too big to care about the little people. The Faction Standing Talent is, I think, the only mechanic we need to reflect characters that have some influence in a faction. So instead I offer this:

If you visit a place more than once, you might begin to consider it a safe port, or “Oasis”. A place to retreat to, to lick your wounds, repair your ship and fence your stolen artefacts. And that’s when you could start measuring your relationships in that local community. Each Oasis will offer one or more services. Right now I am thinking the list includes: Ship service and repair; Prayer; Brokerage; Security; Traders; Counselling (by which I mean treatment of Mind points); and Medicurgy, but I’d be interested in hearing any others that people might suggest. On the ‘cast Dave suggested “protection” or “sanctuary”, but I think that’s what I really meant by security, rather than “law and order” (though of course law and order may well provide security for some crews. It sort of depends on what sort of crew you are. There may also be a separate Administration.

So for example, your Oasis might be Samar’s Hamam. Though it’s a small location, and ostensibly a bathhouse, which would probably count as Counselling, a crew might also use it for Brokerage there. Or your Oasis might be Djachroum, the asteroid station on Kua’s Rimward reach, where pretty much every service is on offer. On Djachroum, the administration is the enigmatic Aqbar, at Samar’s it’s of course the boss, Samar herself, but here, the administration and the main service, Counselling, are one and the same. The Brokerage service at Samar’s is actually another regular customer – let’s call him Bardas. On Djachroum the services might be provided by named individuals, or more probably organisations, for example the Samaritans will be the main providers of Medicurgy. It’s possible for your crew to have a relationship with those organisations, without have to name an individual, but your relationship is only at a local level. Having a good relationship with the Samaritans on Djachroum does not mean you can expect the same welcome when you visit them on Coriolis. Just as the Samaritans are an extension of the Order of the Pariah, other service providers might also have a relationship with a faction. Our broker friend Bardas might be connected with the Nomad Federation for example, but they don’t need to have such an allegiance, the Aqbar of Djachroum is famously independent.

To track your relationship, I’m thinking about a very simple scale with zero, one or two dice modifiers. Your relationship starts at zero, you are just another customer. But there are two ways to earn positive dice. Do a favour or a job of work for them, and you get a one die bonus. Or spend five experience points to claim a personal relationship with the organisation and get another die bonus. (The GMCs created with the Friend in Every Port talent don’t get the bonus die, unless you also spend five XP.) It’s possible to get both bonus dice, but two is the absolute maximum. And you can’t pay 10 xp, or do two jobs to get two dice, you must earn one with each method.

Of course you can make an enemy of any of these providers. Wrong them, or screw up the job they gave you, and you’ll get a negative modifier on future dealing with them. Punish them for that slight (I know what players are like) and the modifier is -2 dice. It’s hard to recover those negative dice, just ask Sergei Skripal. But each job you successfully do for them will help you get back a zero modifier. I think though that you will never earn a positive die with them.

I’m putting together an Oasis record sheet, to help the GM keep track of those relationship. Right now, I am thinking that each crew can only have one Oasis, but given that the sheet I’m designing might currently fits more than one, I might change my mind. Dave lobbied hard on the podcast for more than one. And I was reminded that Kosta said in our interview, that one of the reasons there were no “Ark Rules” was because crews would get “home” very rarely. Either way, when I have completed it, I’ll share it here.

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We’ve been publishing The Coriolis Effect podcast since May, and it quickly became more successful than we ever imagined. Thanks to you, all our lovely listeners. To be honest we bashed that first episode together quickly to see if there was any interest. And when it turned out there was interest, we thought “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and carried on in the same vein.

Of course we have tried some new things – the actual plays, our Swedish adventure, and most recently, The Symbaroum Effect special. As we head, full steam towards 2018, we thought this might be a good opportunity to review what we were doing, and what we might want to do in future. We’ve had some ideas, but we thought we should also listen to our listeners and ask you what you think about our future direction.

Don’t worry! It doesn’t mean The Coriolis Effect is going to change, we’re just floating some ideas by you to see if you like them. If you prefer us just the way we are, say so! We’re very happy doing what we’e doing.

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