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.)