How would you get more people playing RPGs? #RPGaDay2022

How would I get more people playing RPGs? Me?

I am seriously not wanting to sound at all smug here, but I am going to reply, somewhat immodestly, “by doing what I have been doing this last five years.” Primarily by hosting a podcast about RPGs, secondly by recording (some, not all) our games and sharing them on another podcast feed. And more recently by streaming some of them, live on YouTube (and Twitch, but I don’t really care about Twitch).

Now I am not going to argue that any of these are any good. (Well, I am quite proud of podcast.) In fact my point about the actual plays, both podcast and on YouTube, are not great. They are not entertainment. Some people are entertained by them, I hope, but we don’t try to make them entertaining for the audience. We simply share the things that entertain us as we play.

We have two principles, to play (to the best of our ability) the Rules as Written, and to edit only lightly, so we don’t chop out much of the side banter, and we never re-record anything. We want the experience of the audience to be as close to sitting at the table as we can make it.

One reason for this is, we are lazy. But the other is slightly more principled. I worry that great shows like Critical Role are too good. I want to show that anybody can play games, you don’t have to be Hollywood voiceover artists, supported by prop makers, sound engineers and costumiers. I want to show you can sit at the table, with the rule book at your side and with your friends, you can make an adventure together.

And I know it works.

RPGaDay2022

Why will she like this game? Longtime readers met my wife on Day 1. I told you how I was hoping to introduce her to TTRPGs. But I also told you that the game I planned to use was not the one I recommended on Day 2.

Now I reveal that plan to use Nights Black Agents: Solo Ops. And I think she will like it because it is a 1 to 1 game, designed for one player and one GM. Sue has agreed to play a game with me because she wants to spend time talking to me. I don’t think she wants to wait her turn, or shout louder than the other players, especially if there were more experienced players around the table.

When we were enjoying those lockdown walks we had structured conversations. And what is a TTRPG if not a structured conversation?

#RPGaDay2022 Where would you host a first game?

The Social Distancing Dome

A short answer today. The last few people I have introduced to RPGs have been welcomed to our Social Distancing Dome, which my wife Sue, bought presciently just before lockdown 2020. When the lockdown was relaxed but only outside. It was the only place to play, except on-line. And it worked really well.

I know it’s hard for some people to meet face to face. And it’s been made even harder by recent events. So on-line play has probably become “the norm” now. But I would always try to enjoy face to face games. Less tiring. More fun.

#RPGaDay2022 When were you introduced to RPGs?

1977. Games Workshop published a local edition of the first D&D Basic Set in the UK, and of course backed it up with a marketing campaign. I remember we were staying my my grandparents, “Nin” and Granddad, in their cottage in Grafham, West Sussex. It was Sunday and my Dad had bough some newspapers, including the Sunday Times. My Mum handed me the Magazine supplement, open to a page which featured a quarter page article on D&D, with a colour picture of one of Citadel Miniatures’ Dragons (and some other out of focus figures). Only the magazine featured colour print in those days, and the editors obviously thought the dragon picture was worth a place in the magazine. The article was very short, it didn’t say much. But my Mum thought I would be interested.

And I was.

I didn’t get to play though, until the following year.

#RPGaDay2022 What is a great introductory RPG?

The obvious answer here is D&D, it has always been D&D in whatever edition is published at the time. Why? Because that’s the game a new player is most likely to find. It’s the game that has the most groups running. It’s likely to be the game a friend plays. And if not, a complete stranger can walk into any Friendly Local Gaming Store and sign up for a game. Until very recently I co-ordinated Adventurers’ League at my local store and every Saturday, we had five to eight tables of people playing D&D. It is “great” because it is big. But it’s not the game I have introduced new players to RPGs with.

When my kids got their introduction it was with Fate Accelerated Edition. They were arguing over a story they were inventing around a Lego town they were building, and it was getting to the “trashing the town” stage of anger. So I explained that “grown ups” setting such arguments in let’s pretend with a robust set of rules and some dice.

I was running a “Great War veterans vs Body Snatching Aliens” campaign in Fate at the time, so I explained Fate dice to the kids, and very soon, Lily’s Princess Leia was working with Tom’s Cowboy in an Ape MechSuit to rob a train. family fun for all. But Fate isn’t a great introductory game either. It uses a lot of words to explain simple concepts. It works with kids, who aren’t going to bother reading stuff, but grown ups?

No, what grown ups need is Alien. The RPG that I helped write. (I love saying that). Seriously, it’s a great introduction because even people who have not seen Alien have a “folk-memory” idea of what it’s about. And people who are nervous about “acting” a character are helped with the character’s agenda. That agenda also helps players expecting with the concept of “winning” a game get used to the idea of a game where you win only by having fun, in a setting where pretty much everyone not played by Sigourney Weaver loses.

I am not blowing this trumpet theoretically. This comes from practical experience, and from anecdotal evidence. Alien has attracted a lot of fans who had no previous experience with RPGs and even encouraged sone of them to start running games before ever playing in them. The simplicity of the system helps in that regard – as far as Year Zero Engines go, this is one of the simplest. (Not the very simplest, Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood are simpler still.) So it’s a lot easier to learn to run Alien that it would be to learn D&D.

Players like the simplicity too. Throw a bunch of dice to see of you get a six, if not don’t you can though them again adding a stress die to your pool. Watch out for ones on the stress dice. That’s all the rules in a nutshell. The push mechanism is fun possibly the most fun of any Year Zero Engine game – and feels so right for the story. Try harder and get better, more likely to succeed, until you panic.

I have recently introduced three neophytes to tabletop roleplaying with this game, and they all loved the experience.

#RPGaDay2022 Who would you like to introduce to RPGs?

I have to start by saying, I much prefer these actual questions rather than the cryptic one word triggers of recent years. I applaud their return. And while I am here, let’s give a shout out to Dave Chapman, who’s idea this whole thing was.

Anyhow, my wife doesn’t really like games. She likes Scrabble, and she is good at it (perhaps she likes it because she is good at it 🤔). She will play Illimat too, and I have found a couple of games which she at least likes aesthetically (Wingspan, and Sweet Existence) but I am not sure she really enjoys playing them.

However during the lock down she and I started taking walks and taking about our hopes and dreams. And on one of those walks she said she would let me run a one-to-one game with her. We have not done it yet. But “my wife” is the answer to the question.

As to what game I plan to run for her, that will remain a mystery for a few days. But it’s not the game I am going to talk about tomorrow.

Faith in the Third Horizon – first thoughts on a different push mechanic for Coriolis

Two things co-incided to bring me to this point: on our discord we rehashed the old discussion about Darkness Points being the clumsiest of the push mechanisms in Year Zero games, and potentially encouraging an confrontational relationship between the GM and the players; and, on Facebook a new GM was eager to play Coriolis but not comfortable with worship of the icons being so embedded in the mechanics. These two discussions made me think of something I had not thought of before. Something that in retrospect I am surprised I have not already considered. Now, forgive me, readers, but I am going to use you as a sounding board.

But before that, an aside. In our long running Coriolis campaign, Mercy of the Icons, we have reached the last act, In the Shadow of the Zenith (on our Youtube stream at least – the podcast version is some months behind). I recently re-read something that on consideration makes me a little … well, angry. So please bear with me as I have a little rant. You will find the offending lines on page 204 of The Last Cyclade, I will quote it with redactions to be spoiler free:

No new DP are generated at the beginning of the act but it contains two major events that replenish your DP pool: the moment the [redacted] is announced and when the [redacted] (pages 211 and 214)

Antroia, R. 2020. The Last Cyclade, Stockholm Fria Ligan AB

Now, I have never, never felt the need to top up the DP pool at the beginning of an act, but I resent the idea that when bad things happen (and yes, the two redacted events are bad things) the GM is awarded Darkness Points.  The WHOLE POINT of Darkness points is to fuel the bad things in the story. When bad things happen the GM spends DP, they should not be getting more! I am going to be berating Rickard Antroia over this.

Right rant over.

Now, the meat of the article. Let us address the second discussion first. Personally I love that icon worship is embedded in the mechanics of the game, and I would not play Coriolis without it. What you do at your table is entirely up to you, but I think you are missing the point of Coriolis if you don’t have the players worshipping the icons. Seriously though – the are alternatives if you don’t want to pray. The simplest would be to port Alien’s stress over – or rather to port the more interesting setting of the third Horizon into Alien

But you could also with a bit more work, port over conditions from Vaesen or Tales from the Loop, or with a lot more work (and different coloured dice) stat damage from Forbidden Lands or Mutant Year Zero. All of these games are religion free (yes there are gods in Forbidden Lands, and Priests even in Vaesen, but you don’t have to do anything about them, mechanically) and they are also more elegant, less confrontational cost mechanics for those people who like the prayer in Coriolis but don’t like darkness points.

We have often talked on the show, however, about how the push mechanic changes the spirit of the game. Foe example how Vaesen and Tales of the Loop are minimal -rolling games, where the chances of failure are high and players often look to talk their way out of difficult situations. How the stress mechanic of Alien emulates the tone of the films. How pushing in Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero adds to the feel of resource management in these post-apocalyptic survival games.

So if you want to play in the spiritual, mystical future of the Third Horizon, you need a mechanic that reflects or more importantly encourages religiosity. 

And I suddenly realised that we have one. In our Tales of the Old West game, we are looking at a period when colonisation of the American West was explicitly driven by “Manifest Destiny” and our push mechanic revolves around Faith. We say (in what I think is a latest revision):

Every character has faith. This can be their religious faith, faith in their family, faith in their own self-belief, or anything else. Each player should write their Outlook down in one short sentence of half a dozen words.

Semark, D. and Tyler-Jones, M. (unpublished) Tales of the Old West

Now we do make clear that Faith does not need to be Christian, or even religious, but this is a time when most of the people in the stories of the West go to church. Each character also has a pool of Faith Points. These are connected to their faith, and are spent to Push their rolls. At the start of each adventure, a character will have 2 Faith Points, but you earn more Faith Points in play. 

We describe a number of ways in which a character can earn faith, many of which reflect the tropes of the western genre that we are trying to emulate. Some are momentary actions or events. For example:

  • Taking an action that moves you towards your Big Dream
  • Experience something that tests and affirms your Outlook
  • Put yourself in danger to help a pardner (your pardner also earns a Faith Point – through your sacrifice you have affirmed their faith too)
  • Every time you score 4 or more successes on an Ability test
  • Stand up to a rival 
  • Choose non-violence when violence is the only option
  • Serve frontier justice
  • Take revenge
  • Survive an illness
  • You save a life, or 
  • Pray to your god, ancestors or spirits

Other things are rituals which we say take longer, a whole shift in game terms.

  • Get drunk (getting drunk has other negative effects)
  • Spend time on your own in nature
  • Groom your horse (or a companion animal)
  • Dismantle and clean your gun (or sharpen your blade)
  • Participate in a church service or equivalent ritual with others
  • Share a quality meal around a table with friends (around a campfire does not count)
  • Sleep one full night in a secure warm bed, earn two Faith Points if it’s with your lover (but no points if it’s with a soiled dove – this is about companionship, not sex)

Some of these last rituals won’t work in the Third Horizon and the sci-fi stories players are trying to create, but I can imagine other ones that are more fitting the setting, for example: giving alms to the poor; or, making a sacrifice at a chapel – the core book lists the sort of sacrifices that each Icon prefers.

We also (currently) have rules for mishaps, but I don’t think they are relevant to this discussion. Many Coriolis GMs say that though they might pay darkness points when bad things happen in Coriolis, in any other game they would make those things happen anyway when narratively appropriate.

Which brings us on to cost. The Year Zero Engine is all about the cost of a reroll: stress and panic in Alien; banes, or attribute damage in Forbidden Lands; Conditions in Vaesen. What should the cost of prayer be? Currently, I am going to argue that with the Faith system, the cost is paid up front. The time you take role-playing your devotion and collecting faith points is enough for the somewhat pulpy nature of the game. Of course that would mean that we must let the GM make those bad things happen at will, and maybe give each super-natural creature a small pool of its own points to use its powers.

At least that’s what I think right now, but its an unfinished thought, a work in progress as it were. There are still unanswered questions, like whether mystic powers and talents are powered with Faith (I think they are). 

I would be interested in your feedback. 

I look at MYZ: Genlab Alpha

Ola Larsson Genlab Alpha cover detail. Copyright 2020 Cabinet Entertainment LLC

A few weeks ago, Dave challenged me to read GenLab Alpha and suggest a campaign. I have not played any Mutant Year Zero games. I created a character for Dave’s campaign, but it was a midweek game on the other side of the capital, and I decided the days of me driving round the M25 for a game on a school night were behind me. I do recall that character’s name though – she was Raven.

The fact that I had chosen such a name for my character perhaps indicates that I would be more keen on GenLab Alpha than the base Mutant Year Zero game. Not that Mutant is a bad game at all – I very much liked the idea of the Arc and the internal politics during that session zero. I was, if I am going to be honest about my recollections perhaps less keen on the random nature of mutations. It was less of a worry in character generation, but I could imagine feeling upset if I built a persona for my character around her mutations, and there another is triggered that works against that persona. Not that such a thing ever happened to me, because I never actually played after that session zero. I don’t even know if such a thing can happen. But I recall that being a worry.

I remember liking the idea of Genlab Alpha because the danger of corruption wasn’t random mutations, but instead a regression to your bestial nature. I preferred the idea because … lets say your Mutant Character has a mutation that makes him a bit Dog-like, and you build the character around that – call him Spot, having him growl a lot, sniff the ground etc. But then a roll of the dice or a draw of the card gives him Dragonfly wings. You suddenly become less dog-like, and you have to take that into account in your playing of the character. If you are playing a Dog character in Genlab Alpha and you roll a 1 on the dice when using Feral Points, you become more animal-like. In this example, more like the Dog concept you built your character around. Which I am more comfortable with.

There are other things I like about this game too. Its a small thing but I LOVE the advice on naming your character. The the labs where the PC were created there was a naming convention for each animal – a name and a number. But the dogs are all named after astronauts, cats after ancient Romans, rats after composers (I bagsy Glass 433 – maybe another mute PC!), apes are physicists, and so on. Its a lovely way of promting a player (who sometimes struggles with naming their character) without being as limiting as an actual list of names. But what is that I hear you say? Maybe you don’t want to name your Rabbit after a football player? Of course you don’t have to. That what the lab calls you is all, its an oppressive slave-name. You can reject it and give yourself a name of your own choosing, any name, at generation or later, by which you are known within the resistance. Boy, I could have a lot of fun with that.

Another thing I like about the system is that damage is specific to each attribute. Pushing your role risks damaging your attributes as it does in Forbidden Lands and the other Mutant games. So damage to Instinct (one of the two mental attributes) is doubt. And you can recover it by indulging in a behaviour specific to your animal origins. Apes pick fleas off each other to recover doubt, and cats lick themselves clean. A lot of the ways of recovering Doubt are socialising (except for the Bear and the Moose who both seek solitude). Something else happens when animals get together too – unlike the mutated humans of the Zone, the residents of the labs can have litters. Which brings a whole new aspect into the adventure.

Of course like many early Free League books, the rules make up only the first third of the book, and the other two thirds are given over to GM exclusive stuff, some of the secrets beyond the PC’s understanding, a range of antagonists, and a short campaign. I won’t reveal too much for fear of spoiling an adventure for any listeners who have been inspired to give it a go as a player. But I do just want to mention the beautiful horror of the Psionic Butterfly. 

But what sort of campaign should I run? Dave challenged me to present a campaign concept for this particular bit of homework, and I can’t just stop here, after telling you what excites me about this game. So … let me tell you instead what is missing, what I might have to house-rule and what the (short) campaign is that I would like to run. 

What I don’t want to run is Road to Eden, the tactical computer game with similarities to, but importantly not based on, Genlab Alpha. That game features ducks (which is required by law in Sweden) and boars – animal types that don’t feature here – but the changes I want to make are not about adding those. I also considered the recent Netflix success Sweet Tooth, apart from Gus, the hero of the story and Pigtail, most of the hybrids in that show have limited language.  Given that the PCs of Genlab Alpha are themselves kind of hybrids, I did briefly consider an adventure based on that. But my influence is a little older. 

Back in the early 2000’s Grant Morrison (who is my god) and Frank Quietly produced a limited series comic called We3. It was a version of the Disney children’s classic Incredible Journey, but with a manga aesthetic and … well, plenty of high explosive. Its the sort of campaign I want to run, but the animals in We3 are not as … evolved, not as human (forgive me, I know its an insult among animal-kind), as the PCs in Genlab Alpha. At the risk of spoiling a secret of the last two thirds of the book I would love to create a campaign where the PCs are what this book calls Abominations. An alternative to the process that created the genetically modified animals of Genlab Alpha, Biomechatronics was the creation of mechanically enhanced animals, a bit like the ones in We3. The list of Biomechatronic implants in the GM’s section is pretty limited but I think I would like to try recreating something similar to the armoured animals of We3, and send them out to innocently explore the world of the apocalypse.

The “New” Seekers?

At many tables or virtual table-tops round the globe these past couple of years, there have been many shoot-outs in the Garden of the Seekers on Coriolis, and many times brother Ramas has been shot, stabbed or other-wise killed on that peaceful bridge at it centre. This garden, like many more across the Horizon, is maintained by acolytes of the Circle of Seekers. But who are the Seekers?

The Lotus City, Dabaran

It is said that the Seekers could have become an important faction on their own, but for some reason chose not to. Instead they are credited with being instrumental in the creation of of the Church of the Icons, which is, remember, “the Horizons youngest faction” created after the arrival of the Zenith. But if that is the case the seekers did not hang around for long. Once the Church had a firm footing in the Horizon’s politics the Circle of Seekers retreated, or were they pushed out? The core book says “Today, the Seekers […] have been marginalized, looked upon as wise ascetics and prophets rather than actual figures of power within the faction.” Being “marginalised” seems to suggest it was something done to them, but I think its more likely to be their choice – they are after all ascetic philosophers, dedicated to “understanding the Horizon and the innermost nature of the universe.” Perhaps the hurley-burley of factional life is something they would prefer to do without. Perhaps they created the Church specifically for that political purpose.

That said, they do sometimes involve themselves in modern politics. The core book tells us that with a reputation for being skillful and neutral negotiators, they have often been called upon to end bitter conflicts. But such interventions are rare and at the request of at least one of the participants. Apart from this and the gardens they maintain, they keep themselves to themselves.

So where do they retreat to? According to the core book, apart from “scattered colonies and temples” on Menau they are “strongest on Sadaal, on Mira and her sister systems, and on Dabaran, where they have both the Temple of the Circle and a monastery school in Lotus, the holy city.” This last is their headquarters as it were. The Temple City of Lotus is a bit like our Rome, an independently run city state: “A mere fifteen years before the beginning of the Portal Wars, the Circle of Seekers — having tirelessly cared for the city’s pilgrims through a tumultuous series of coups and usurpers — were entrusted with governing Lotus.” That said, there is a schism in the Lotus City according to one the adventures in the Last Cyclade. The Lotus Council is in the ascendant, claiming to better represent the ice worship across the Third Horizon.

The idea of retreat, of separation from the rest of society is a very import one in Seeker philosophy. According the to the core rules the title of Seeker “is only awarded someone upon initiation into one of their monasteries, which are always shaped like circles.” This reminds me of the Neal Stephenson novel Anathem, where each monastery is a series of concentric circles, and progress through ranks of the monastic order is market by moving into an inner circle, getting closer closer to the centre of the monastery. I must admit, I had the same thought about the monasteries on Zalos, so perhaps the Seekers and the Order of the Pariah share some commonalities? But what are the secrets held by the innermost circles of the Circle of Seeker?

One thing not every Seeker will publicly admit to is that their acetics can manifest Mystic powers. Importantly, they could even before the advent of the “Mystics Disease” when people started manifesting such powers spontaneously. Is there a connection? Well this is where we got into real spoiler territory and if you don’t already have an idea what I am talking about you might want to stop listening/reading.

Players who have participated in a Song for Jarouma make have worked out that the “Emissaries” were scientists, possessed at an incredibly long distance by people from the Second Horizon. These people are called the Symetry, or the Santulans (it may be that the Santulans are the leaders of the Symetry). We are told that they fled the tyranny of the the First Horizon and became the dominant political force in the Second.

The Atlas Compendium tells us that the Circle of Seekers were originally a part of the Symmetry, and together they discovered several nodes in the Third Horizon which could create a mystical link between systems in a fashion that falls outside of the technology and methods used by the Portal Builders. Using the nodes, the Seekers could stay in contact with their mystic allies in the Second Horizon. Its one of the these nodes – long thought destroyed by the forces of the first horizon during the portal wars, that was used to possess the scientists on Xene.

Which raised questions. The Seekers claim to have severed all connections with the Symetry during the portal wars? But have they? Is that actually something they convinced the other factions of to avoid being purged like the Nazareems Sacrifice? The Lotus Council has split with the other seekers because (the say) the seekers are too wedded to older, second horizon thinking. Are they really still in communication with the Symetry? The Last Cyclade says that “after the loss of their observer at the (Coriolis) Council, the Santulans (the Symmetry) instead strengthened the Children of the Song and are preparing their acolytes in the Circle of Seekers for the coming darkness. The mystics of the Third Horizon are being turned into a secret strike force for when Ardha once again shows its true face.” Well if that is true, it suggests its happening via these nodes.

And if at least some nodes still exist, do the Circle of Seekers have an instantaneous communication network across the whole Third Horizon? Are they secretly manipulating the Church of the Icons from a distance? According to the Last Cyclade perhaps not, or rather, perhaps not as successfully as they had hoped: “the Circle’s leaders are becoming worried about [the Church’s] submissive attitude when dealing with the Hegemony and the Consortium […] it is becoming increasingly clear that the Seekers will have to start acting independently.“

If you are a GM, running players who have opted to be part of the Circle of Seekers, what does all this mean for them? How much should they know? The idea of circles within circles and advancing though the monastic ranks means they might have to purchase Faction Standing before being let on on these secrets. Maybe even faction standing isn’t enough. Maybe though, they could be surprised by fast communication across the horizon, or offered a way of learning the mystic powers talent and an mystic talent appropriate of the Circle, like Thought Transferance or Puppeteer.

And consider, after the events of The Last Cyclade, what are the motivations of the Seekers? Are they still in league with the Symetry? Or are they more loyal now to the people of the Third Horizon. What might they do, with an army of mystics. Are they the “New” Seekers?

The Syndicate

On the podcast we last talked about the Syndicate back in episode 18. Wow! Over three years ago. Back then we were still called the Coriolis Effect, and experimenting with the format. That piece was a discussion rather than an essay and we never consolidated our thoughts into a written article. So here it is. 

Dave prompted the discussion by asking:

“The Syndicate, are they all bad?”

And I answered, yes, yes they are.

They are bad in two ways. Obviously the first is that that are criminals – they do bad things. Now you might argue it is not a bad thing, if there is a thing you want or need, and there are asinine laws preventing you from getting hold of it legally. Look at prohibition in America for example, Many people enjoy a drink, and while drinking to excess can be dangerous to one’s health and irresponsible drinking might cause social disorder, a lot of people who were in other ways perfectly law abiding, felt it reasonable to acquire booze from criminal bootleggers. But even though the thing you want isn’t bad, the people selling to to you are.

But the second way in which the Syndicate is bad is, in a rare misstep from the creators, it is a badly written faction. Let me present as evidence the story of the Syndicate as presented in the core book, which tells us that “The faction is made up of a group of wealthy families from the crew of the Zenith who joined forces with Firstcome criminal groups on Algol, Sadaal and Zalos.” When the core book tells of the Consortium families and the Hegemonic families it lists them and names them, yet the write up for the Syndicate lists only the Birbasils, whom we meet in Mercy of the Icons in Beybasin on Kua. So… who are the other wealthy Zenithian families? Are they any?

The core book goes on: “They cooperate with the Guard to combat petty crime because it disturbs their more lucrative forms of business: protection rackets, gambling, pimping, drugs and smuggling.” The first item, protection rackets, I quite like, especially because it sort of fits with Dave’s concept of Crossroads Colleges. But the other things on that list I have issues with, especially when reading in the next column “The only areas the Syndicate stays away from are slave trading and the smuggling of faction tech.” Well, this is a nice distinction. We know from our own modern world that slavery exists in many forms, not just the slave trade of two hundred years ago, but debt bondage, indenture, and sex trafficking. Pimping is not that far removed from slavery actually. And we see the Birbasils directly involved with actual slavery in Baybasin. They might say they leave the slavery to the Algolans, but two parts of the Syndicate are Algolan after all. I don’t buy it. And I don’t buy that “the Syndicate is the largest criminal organization in the Horizon,” not when only one column before that bold statement the authors admit that “the basis of the Syndicate is the gangs that run the different plazas on Coriolis.”

Let’s get this straight, my overriding point is the Syndicate is not a “Faction.” It does not have a seat on the Coriolis council, neither it does have a fleet (even if these rumoured “black ships” are real). It does have one Zenithian crime family, two more from Algol and another couple from Sadaal and Zalos, dividing up the rackets in various parts of Coriolis station itself. Yes their influence extends as far as Kua, miles below the station and maybe, with family connections in the systems of Sadaal, Zalos and Algol they may have some little influence there. But with the slow communications available through the portals their influence can not be effective direct control. The parts of the Syndicate families in those systems will not automatically obey the word of distant Zenithians, two or three jumps away. The Syndicate may be a moderately successful extended crime family, but only one of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of criminal organisations that, importantly, compete with each other, rather than with the other Factions the Third Horizon. 

So how can we reconcile the fact that core book gives them such prominence? First of all, we should realise that the Corebook can be an unreliable narrator. Its representation of the Syndicate may well be written by the Birbasils themselves, always eager to sound more powerful than they are. Such exaggeration is helped by the Bulletin, which claims to be a horizon-wide news network but has a Coriolis centred bias. When it reports upon the thugs and gangs of Coriolis station as “the Syndicate” while ignoring the criminals in other parts of the horizon, it’s easy to think that they are all part of the same thing. And as Dave said when we discussed it before – local gangs in other parts of the Horizon might be using the Syndicate’s name to burnish their own reputation.

And the other thing, that really is growing their influence, is Havaleh, the idea we discussed back in episode 143 in September. The Consortium do have banks, yes, but for doing trade across thee horizon the have to rely on the Havaleh network, and the Havaledahs that they have been pumping money into these last six decades are mostly the Syndicate ones on Coriolis. So the Consortium are reliant on the Syndicate to enable business transactions, and the Syndicate’s influence has grown, is growing – not so much through their criminal activities, but through what many Firstcome consider a more legitimate practise.

What does this all mean for players and GMs? First all GMs should big-up some of the other criminal organisations out there: the Serpent (who have a base on Coriolis after all), the Ferekam and the Okra Darma. If your crew are petty criminals themselves, have their patrons be one of these (or an organisation that you have made up) so they don’t start with the impression tax the Syndicate a Horizon spanning mega-gang. Maybe introduce the Syndicate as upstart rivals. Especially if your crew are mostly Firstcome. And if they are, and you do, focus on first on the Syndicate’s Zenithian component, the Birbasils. Perhaps even introduce them as the Birbasil crime family. 

OR if you are starting on on Coriolis station itself, begin by focussing on the rivalries between the Syndicate gangs – have the Rafas teaming up with the Afyana family against the Adibals or Intisaars, and only when the player characters are deeply involved in the turf war, have the Birbasils step in to negotiate, and if necessary, enforce the peace.

In short – remember that criminals keep to the shadows, and keep the Syndicate shadowy, amorphous as long as you can. Don’t let the players assume that they are all powerful. Indeed let them assume they might be beaten… and have the Syndicate’s power and influence grow with that of the players, but always one step ahead.