Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Under Middle Eastern Stars

The Third Horizon is both a place—a system of thirty-six star systems—and a wave of colonial expansion and exploration reached through a series of portals built and abandoned long ago by an alien species now known as the Portal Builders. For centuries the Third Horizon has been isolated, all contact having been lost with the First Horizon and the Second Horizon following an interstellar war which ended in the portals being permanently closed to the previous Horizons. In the time that followed, the peoples of the Third Horizon turned inward and became distrustful, contact between worlds declining as their technology regressed. Then mere decades ago, the Zenith arrived. Together with its sister ship, the Nadir, the colony ship Zenith had left Earth centuries before, heading for Aldebaran. Whilst the Nadir disappeared into the Dark Space between stars, to the surprise of both the Zenith’s crew and its passengers, they found the world and those worlds connected to it colonised—explorers from Earth had found the portals and colonised the First Horizon and the Second Horizon and then the Third Horizon in the centuries since the ship had departed Earth. The arrival of the Zenith proved a catalyst for the inhabitants of the Third Horizon as contact was once again re-established with system after system, colony after colony and relations restored. Even as the colonists from the Zenith settled one world and much of the crew cannibalised the Zenith and rebuilt it as the Coriolis, a massive star station where all could come to meet and trade, the arrival of the Zenith divided the inhabitants of the Third Horizon. Those that were there before her arrival are the Firstcome, whilst those aboard the Zenith are the Zenithians. This is perhaps the primary divide between the peoples of the Third Horizon, but there are others, such as how the Nine Icons should be worshipped; distrust of the Humanites, those Humans who have been biosculpted or altered to adapt to the extreme environments of some worlds; and more recently, how to treat the recently arrived Emissaries, faceless aliens who rose from the gas giant Xene who might be spectres from another world, the actual Icons, or the Portal Builders. This is exacerbated by one of the Emissaries claiming to be an Icon! Further, there have been growing reports of people possessing Mystical abilities said to be the province of the Icons themselves—seeing the future or events on other worlds, conjuring pyrotechnics, and more… Are these Mystics a sign of heretical evolution or the meddling of the Emissaries?

The Third Horizon is not dominated by one government, but a council of factions which meets on Coriolis. The factions include the Consortium, the major corporations of the Third Horizon; the Zenithian Hegemony, the descendants of the captains' family aboard the Zenith; the Free League, a union of free traders; the mercenaries of the Legion; the secretive Draconites; the divine iconcrates of the Order of the Pariah; the courtesans, companions, and assassins of Ahlam’s Temple; and the Church of the Icons. Neither the criminal Syndicate nor the nomad fleets of the Nomad Federation have seats at the council, though the Nomad Federation has observer status and the Emissaries have demanded a seat on the council. As  distrust grows and escalates into proxy wars between the factions—and even within the factions—trade continues between worlds, the devout undertake pilgrimages, xeno-archaeologists search for the secrets of the Portal Builders, and there lurks something out there, in the Dark Space. A fear, a rumour, something…

This is the setting for Coriolis: The Third Horizon, a Science Fiction roleplaying originally published by published by Järnringen and since redesigned and re-released by Free League Publishing. Published in English following a successful Kickstarter campaign by Modiphius Entertainment, Coriolis: The Third Horizon is described by its publisher as ‘Arabian Nights in Space’, but its Middle Eastern feel is joined by that of Babylon 5 and Firefly—though the latter with Middle Eastern rather than Chinese influences—amongst other Science Fiction insirations. It is a far future setting in which the old is set against the new—the Firstcome versus the Zenithians; mysticism prevails and the Icons are worshiped by all; and the Dark between the Stars waits as a corruptive force somewhere between the depths of space and civilisation. Faster Than Light travel is impossible, but travel between star systems is achieved through the portals. Even then, this involves extensive calculations—which takes hours and is expensive—and the portals can only be traversed whilst in stasis lest the traveller suffer severe mental trauma. Interstellar travel is not undertaken lightly and is often done in convoys for safety and to keep costs down. Similarly Faster Than Light communication is impossible, so data and stories are carried between systems and then disseminated. Within systems the infonet is easily accessed, but not always trusted. Anti-grav technology is available, but often expensive to maintain. Personal weapons technology amounts to rocket guns, known as Vulcan guns, magnetic accelerator weapons, and thermal weapons which fire slugs of superheated matter, whilst advanced melee weaponry is powered or made of liquid mercurium. Cybernetic implants—body armour, built-in weapons, language modulators, and more—are not uncommon, as are biosculpts, though there are those who believe the human form to be sacrosanct and to alter it would be blasphemous.

Character creation in Coriolis: The Third Horizon begins not with the character, but the group, specifically, the group concept. By default, the player characters are humans, though modified humans or humanites are available. They will own and operate a spaceship, whether as free traders, mercenaries, explorers, agents, or pilgrims. There are further broken down into subconcepts, for example, Corsairs, Rebels, or Tactical Teams for the Mercenaries concept. Each concept suggests roles for the group as a whole and possible roles for the player characters as well a patron and a nemesis for the group. Several suggestions are given as who this patron and this nemesis might be, all of them potential NPCs who will tie the player characters into the setting. The group concept also provides a talent that everyone in the group has access to. There are several to choose from for each concept. For example, ‘Quickest Route’ for the Free Trader concept halves travel time and reduces the number of encounters trip, but earns the Game Master a Darkness Point, whilst with the ‘Assassin’s Guild’ for the Agents concept, players roll their Infiltration skill instead of Melee when attacking an enemy unseen. Each player character will have a role aboard the group’s spaceship.

As to individual characters, some eleven are given—Artist, Data Spider, Fugitive, Negotiator, Operative, Pilot, Preacher, Scientist, Ship Worker, Soldier, and Trailblazer. Each includes three sub-concepts, so for Data Spider there is Analyst, Correspondent, and Data Djinn, and each gives a key attribute and concept skills plus options for dress and appearance, Talents, personal problems, relationships with the other player characters, and begining gear. A character’s upbringing—Plebeian, Stationary, or Privileged—determines how many points a player has to assign to a character’s attributes and skills, as well as his starting reputation and capital. Besides a personal Talent and a group Talent, each character receives a Talent for their favoured Icon. For example, the Messenger’s Talent enables a character to make someone obey them, including both player characters and NPCs without the need to roll the Manipulation skill. Lastly, a character has four Attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy—and a mix of General and Advanced skills. General skills, like Infiltration and Observation, can be used by anyone and can be used by rolling a raw attribute roll if a character lacks the skill. Advanced skills require training and cannot be rolled for unless the character has the skill.

The Mystical Powers also fall under the Talents group, but require a character to have the Mystic Powers skill and make skill rolls in order to use them. They include Clairvoyant, Intuition, and Telekinesis as well as Exorcism, Mind Walker, and Stop. Like many other Talents, their use also awards the Game Master a Darkness Point.

Our sample character is Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof, a deckhand who doubles as the ship’s engineer. A slummer from the Cellar on Coriolis, she had little going for her apart from her fists and that she could work. Work began early, working for Hassan the Scrap, a merchant who dealt in scrap and broken technology, sorting the broken devices and items and readying them for sale. Over time, her fingers found that she could fix some of them and Hassan could sell them, and so she was no longer sorting scrap, but fixing it. He even got her books and she got better and better. In time, she came to see him as an uncle rather than her greedy boss. When her parents were killed by crossfire in a Syndicate war, Hassan not only agreed to take her in, but also demanded that she marry him. Rufaidah took one look at the old man and floored him with a punch. That day, she decided to get out of the Cellar and off Coriolis. She took her books and she shipped out as a deckhand. She has no plans to be anything else.

Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof
Concept: Ship Worker (Deckhand)
Appearance: Pursed lips
Clothing: Leather jacket
Personal Problem: Short fuse
Upbringing: Plebeian
Icon: The Lady of Tears
Reputation: 1

Strength 4 Agility 3 Wits 3 Empathy 3
Hit Points 7 Mind Points 6

General Skills: Force 2, Manipulation 1, Melee Combat 1 
Advanced Skills: Technology 3

Talents: Quickest Route (Free Traders), The Lady of Tear’s Talent, Zero-G Training

Equipment: Vacuum Sealer, Dura Knife, Arrash, Exo-Shell, Hyper Rope

Relationships to the other player characters
Qasim (Scientist) treats you like a skavara
Faridah (Soldier) plots to hurt your best friend. You must find out how.
Esam (Negotiator) is your closest friend. You can talk about anything with each other.
Hanbal (Pilot) is someone you would follow into death, if needed.

Mechanically, Coriolis: The Third Horizon uses the same system as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, but very much a stripped down version of that system. It employs dice pools of six-sided dice, typically either equal to an attribute plus skill or just an attribute if a player character does not have a skill and the skill is a general skill. Bonus dice may be awarded for use of the right gear and for the situation. All a player has to do is roll results of six on the dice and only one is required for a character to succeed. This is counted as a limited success, but results of two or more success unlock bonus effects which can be purchased using these successes, especially in combat—on the ground or in space. Three or more successes indicate a critical result.

Now if a player does not roll any sixes and the player character fails or needs to roll more successes, then he can pray to the Icons. This allows a player to reroll all dice which did not come six. This can only be done once per skill roll and grants the Game Master a Dark Point. Bonuses to this roll are available if the player character has prayed at a shrine or church beforehand.

Now what is important in these rolls and tests is that they are framed around narrative control. So when a player wants his character to do something, he describes what his character is doing and what he wants to achieve with the roll. If enough successes are rolled and the character succeeds, then the player describes the outcome. Similarly, if the character fails and needs to send a Prayer to the Icons, the player details which Icon the character is making the prayer to and what the prayer consists of.
For example, the Zephira’s Tears is in the Kua System, making a delivery to one of the prospecting stations deep in the system’s asteroid belt. The ship has been jumped by a pirate ship on the prowl out of Surna and taken a hit from an ion cannon. The pirates get a good hit on the Zephira’s Tears and damages the ship’s thrusters. Despite the damage the pilot manages to slip the ship deeper into the asteroid field and go silent. Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof’s player knows that she will have to go out to fix the ship, so tells the Game Master that Rufaidah will pray at the ship’s shrine before undertaking the Extra-Vehicular Activity. If she needs to make a Prayer to the Icons during the task, then the Game Master says that she will grant Rufaidah a +1 bonus.
Rufaidah suits up in her Exo-Suit and makes her way out of the ship and along the hull to the damaged thrusters, toolkit in hand. Her player describes Rufaidah’s action as kneeling down beside the thruster and working to clear the nozzle, so that the ship can maneuvre once again. The Game Master explains that although Rufaidah will not be rolling for whether she can fix the malfunctioning thrusters, but for how long it will take. Rufaidah’s player puts together the pool of dice he will be rolling—Wits and Technology, with a +2 bonus for her advanced toolkit. This gives the player eight dice to roll. He rolls one success. It is enough, but as the pilot begins to test the thrusters, the pirate ship hove into view… The pilot squawks over the radio, “‘Mule’, the pirates! They’ve found us. Get inside now!”
This is a new situation and Rufaidah’s player has to describe her actions and put together a new dice pool. This will be Agility and Force, together with a bonus of +2 for her Zero-G Talent for a total of seven dice. Her action is described as charging across the hull and throwing herself into the airlock, so that the Zephira’s Tears can get under way before the pirate ship can manoeuvre into a firing position. The Game Master agrees, but says that this will require three successes. Rufaidah’s player rolls his seven dice and gets only one success! This is a disaster. Quickly, Rufaidah’s player has her offer up a Prayer to the Icons, the Lady of Tears. He describes this as, “I call upon the judgement of Lady of Tears for my safe passage into the ship so that she may ferry us all to safety.” The Game Master likes this and lets Rufaidah’s player have the +1 bonus from giving prayers in the shrine. Ordinarily, he would have six dice to reroll for making the prayer, having already rolled one success. The prayer brings this up to seven again. Fortunately, he rolls two further successes and Rufaidah is back inside the Zephira’s Tears. Rufaidah’s player narrates this as, “Rufaidah charges over the hull and as the darkness of the pirate ship looms into view, she launches herself into the airlock and slams the outer door shut. She yells into the comlink, ‘I’m in! I’m in! Getting moving. Now!’”
If the player has influence in the game in narrating what his character does and what happens next, then the tool that the Game Master has at her disposal is the Dark Point. Reflecting the influence of the Dark Between the Stars, the Game Master earns these whenever a player character offers a Prayer to the Icons and when certain Talents are used. They can then be spent to allow an NPC to reroll or grab the initiative, force a player character to empty his weapon’s clip or the weapon to suffer a misfire, bringing in reinforcements, up to inflicting a Dark Madness on the player characters.

The rules for combat use the same mechanics to present a fast , if potentially deadly system. Each turn a character has three Action Points to spend on actions. Slow Actions, such as firing an aimed shot or administering first aid require all three Action Points. Normal actions like taking a standard shot or reloading take two, whilst taking a snapshot or diving for cover takes only one. This is in addition to free actions like talking or defending oneself. Spending these Action Points in this way gives a strong narrative flow to the action and the narrative during play.

Where the system becomes deadly is when a player rolls multiple successes as he can use them to buy critical damage effects. Every weapon has a critical effect value, the number of extra successes needed to roll for critical damage, for example, a Vulcan pistol has two, but an Accelerator rifle has one. Any successes leftover can even be spent to increase the severity of the critical effect, allowing a re-roll on the critical damage table. Dislike the critical effect rolled? Then spend and re-roll again and again to get the one you do! Other effects which can be purchased using extra successes include increasing damage, striking fear into a target, raising initiative order, disarming, and grappling.

In melee, a defender gets to react and his player can roll to get successes which will negate the attacker’s successes. In addition, a character can wear armour, which other than taking cover will be their primary means of protection—especially in ranged combat. The deadliness of the system is not assuaged by the armour mechanic, which only stops damage when successes are rolled for its Armour Rating, for example, an Armour Rating of one for a flight suit and four for light armour. Further, characters will only have a few Hit Points, typically five or six, and no more than ten. That said, being reduced to zero Hit Points only puts a character down rather than killing them, it taking a fatal critical hit to do that. Plus of course, the player characters are likely to have access to advanced medicine.
Continuing the previous example, Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof has managed to make her way back into the airlock of the Zephira’s Tears and everyone sat round the table thinks that she is safe. Unfortunately for Rufaidah and his player, the Game Master has a handful of Dark Points in front of her and decides to spend one to bring some reinforcements into play. The pirates sent out an exo-team to board the ship and one of them has managed to reach the airlock just as Rufaidah is about to close and lock it. The pirate reaches in and grasps at Rufaidah, trying to stop her shutting the airlock. Both Rufaidah’s player and the Game Master need to roll initiative on a six-sided die each, but the Game Master states that since this is a surprise attack, so the pirate gets a +2 bonus to the roll. The Game Master rolls 3 and adding two, gets 5. Rufaidah’s player rolls 6!
Rufaidah gets to act and her player decides that Rufaidah will attempt to push the pirate out of the airlock. This will be Close Combat, a Normal Action, whilst her remaining Action Point will used to parry whatever attack the pirate makes. This uses up all three of Rufaidah’s Action Points. His player gets roll five dice for Rufaidah’s Strength and Melee, to which the Game Master allows him to add another two for Rufaidah’s Zero-G Training, so seven dice. The pirate will be defending with a Strength of 3 and Melee of 2. Rufaidah’s player rolls two successes. The Game Master rolls two success and fends off Rufaidah’s push attempt. For the pirate, the Game Master decides that he wants to clear Rufaidah away from the outer airlock dock so that he can climb in. The Game Master rolls three success, but Rufaidah’s player rolls two, cancelling two of the three out. Rufaidah is knocked back and the pirate eases his way into the airlock.
Round two. Rufaidah’s player states that she will draw her dura knife (Fast Action) and attempt to use it to drive the pirate out of the airlock (Normal Action). Again, Rufaidah’s player will have seven dice to roll and comes up with three success! This might not be enough, so Rufaidah will offer up a quick prayer to the Icons, muttering under her breath that a pirate in the airlock is not ensuring a safe journey. Her player rolls the remaining four dice which did not come up a six and gets another two successes for a total of five. The pirate fails to parry and rolls only one success for the armour of his Exo-Shell, so Rufaidah’s player has four. One of these he uses to confirm that Rufaidah hits with her dura blade with another two being used to get a critical strike and a roll on the critical table. He keeps the fourth success in case he needs to increase the severity of the attack and get a reroll on the table. He rolls ‘d66’ and reads each separately rather than adding them. The first roll is 16, which is a bruised lower leg. Rufaidah’s player decides that this is not quite the effect he wants, so he increases its severity and rerolls. This time, the result is 35 or a gouged eye. This stuns the pirate and reduces his Ranged Combat and Observation. Her player describes this as Rufaidah’s dura knife cracking the faceplate of the pirate’s Exo-Shell and the shards peppering his eye. Then says, “Okay. As the pirate stumbles back stunned, I have time to shut the airlock’s outer door and then grab the pirate’s Vuclan rifle. When he comes round, I will be pointing it at him. We have a prisoner!”
As part of setting up the player character group and deciding on the concept, the players also need to decide on what ship they should operate. This primarily consists of selecting a ship to fit the group’s concept, for example, a light or medium freighter for free traders, a flying circus for pilgrims, courier ship for agents, and so on. Then the players get to build it by selecting modules according to its size, including the type of cabins, medlab, weapon systems, and even a chapel, which is where the ship’s crew will worship the Icons. Many of these modules provide bonuses, the Medlab doing so for the Mediurgy skill, as does Chapel for when praying to the Icons and when travelling via the portals. A ship aso gets a problem which the Game Master can activate by spending a Dark Point and three features to further individualise it. Various ready-to-play ships are given in the book, including deckplans.

Although, Coriolis: The Third Horizon is a relatively light game in terms of its mechanics, where it is complex—and understandably so—is in handling space combat. Just like the Star Trek III Starship Combat Roleplaying Game published by FASA for use with its Star Trek roleplaying game and the more recent Ashen Stars from Pelgrane Press, the player characters take positions aboard their ship and then act in the specific five phases of a round in space combat. So in the Order Phase, the captain secretly writes orders which will grant bonuses to subsequent phases, then in the Engineer Phase , the engineer assigns energy to the various systems aboard the ship. In the Pilot Phase, the pilot maneuvres the ship; in the Sensor Phase, the sensor operator attempts to get or break a target lock, launch electronic data or meme attacks, or even operate stealth technology, if the ship has it; and lastly, the gunners get to open fire in the Attack Phase. It is a set of mechanics designed to keep everyone involved and the fact that the ship is also the player characters’ home, enhances this aspect.

A good half of Coriolis: The Third Horizon is devoted to detailing the setting of the Third Horizon. This covers the history of the setting in more depth and the current state of the Third Horizon as well as looking at each of the many factions operating in the region. Not just the major factions like the Zenith Hegemony or the Church of the Icons, but the minor ones too, such as the various intelligence and mercenary agencies, travellers and space caravans, spy nests, and so on. Further, lots of supplementary information accompanies this information, so there are lots of lists of companies, and NPCs, and so on. This continues throughout the descriptions of the culture, everyday life, and faith of the Third Horizon into the lengthy descriptions of the Coriolis Station and the nearby planets of Kua System. Many of these lists amount to no more than names, but they add easy verisimilitude to the setting.

Perhaps the shortest section is devoted to the ‘Beasts and Djinni’ of the setting. It includes some semi-intelligences, the Badger-like scavengers, the Skavara, and the tiny, Lemur-like Ekilibri, for example, most of which are available as player character races should the Game Master allow it. In general though, this is an option and not really the focus of the game. The section also details several threats, such as the Darkmorphs, creatures from the Dark Between the Stars; Constructs, artificial intelligences from the distant past or straight out of the design laboratories; and spirits and sarcofigoi, including Djinn, Bokor, and Hazared—the latter inflicting nightmares on those it possesses and obviously inspired by something...

Advice for the Game Master is brief and to the point. It does highlight how the Dark Between the Stars represents something that nobody can agree on across the Third Horizon, but everyone fears and hopes the Icons will protect them against. There is an existential aspect to this malign something, whatever it is, and perhaps here is where Coriolis: The Third Horizon veers into Cosmic Horror, though this is not explicitly stated. In terms of support for the Game Master, the book includes a mini-adventure, ‘The Statuette of Zhar’, a MacGuffin hunt aboard Coriolis the station, plus a couple of scenario locations which the Game Master can develop into something of her own.

So what is missing? The obvious omission is a guide to names for the inhabitants of the Third Horizon, which would have been helpful for players and Game Master alike. The other omission is a bibliography, a selection of suggested reading and thus inspiration for the Game Master. Some sources are mentioned, but it definitely feels as if there should be more. Although there is an extended example of spaceship combat, it is a pity that there are not examples of extended play or character generation. Also, the scenario is a bit short, just two sessions in length, at the very most. It will certainly leave the Game Master wanting more and of a longer length.

Physically, Coriolis: The Third Horizon needs an edit here and there, but is well written and beautifully presented, with large text boxes placed against a black background. The artwork though, is stunning, very easily imparting the feel of the setting. The cartography is also very good, the deck plans of the Coriolis in particular being nicely done and easily imparting a sense of scale. In addition to the core rules, an Icons Deck is also available, which can be used to foretell the future, create scenario seeds, determine combat initiative, simulate dice rolls, manage your ship crew positions, and more. The range of artwork on the cards is limited, but the deck is a handy tool. 

In drawing from sources other than occidental inspirations, Coriolis: The Third Horizon feels not a little like the roleplaying game, Fading Suns, and the setting of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Certainly there are parallels in the mysticism present in the setting of the Third Horizon and in the mystic powers also present, but significantly, only just emerging rather than being prevalent. Both settings are rife with factions, just as Coriolis: The Third Horizon is, but unlike in Coriolis: The Third Horizon, there are factions both settings that stand out as good and stand out as bad. Further, Coriolis: The Third Horizon lacks a central ruling figure, an emperor, if you will. Of course, no faction in the roleplaying game is exactly good or exactly bad, which has certain effects on the game. One is that the game feels rather flat, almost monotone in its setting and culture, but delve beneath the surface and the rivalries between and within the factions are rife and thus rich pickings for the Game Master to develop into scenarios and adventures. The other is to avoid the danger of relying on stereotypes when drawing upon another culture to detail the various elements and NPCs of the Third Horizon.

Coriolis: The Third Horizon presents a rich and detailed setting before using its simple mechanics and narrative tools—the group concept, the ship design, relationship to the Icons, player input over their character’s actions and their outcome, and so on—to pull the players and their characters into the setting. It also presents inumerable hooks and descriptions which the Game Master can develop into adventures of her own. Yet as good as the game feels and looks, there remains the issue of the game’s tagline of ‘Arabian Nights in Space’ and just how much it truly lives up to that. Certainly, the setting of the Third Horizon draws deeply from the Middle East for its inspiration and certainly, mysticism and reverence for the spiritual play a large role in the setting in the form of the Icons and some of the creatures described. For all that, it still feels as if there should have been more of these elements present, as if Coriolis: The Third Horizon should have embraced it more, perhaps by making more of it in a scenario. Hopefully, future releases will do so.

Coriolis: The Third Horizon has the potential to be run as space opera with strong cultural and religious aspects, as space opera with cosmic horror with the Dark Between the Stars, and as space opera with Middle Eastern flavour. All of that currently exists in the game and as much as it is decently supported by the simple, elegant mechanics, the Game Master will need to work hard to impart the importance and sense of each to her players. If she can, the rulebook provides plenty of content to work with, though of course supplements and scenarios would be very welcome. Above all, the setting of Coriolis: The Third Horizon is both enjoyably different and very well designed, pulling the reader in to want and go adventure in the Third Horizon.