Coriolis with Night’s Black Agents

July 9, 2018

I am running a game of Night’s Black Agents (NBA) in the Coriolis setting. Now that we have half-a-dozen sessions completed, and the basic outline of the Vampires and their conspiracy is known to the players, I think I can post a bit of information about the campaign.

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Night’s Black Agents is a GUMSHOE engine game published by Pelgrane Press with a default setting of secret agents hunting vampires and vampire minions in the modern world. The characters are expected to be competent on par with James Bond and Jason Bourne, but are operating independently of any agency they used to be a member of. The GUMSHOE engine’s core mechanic is to roll a d6, spending points from a pool to boost your chance of success. Points only refresh fully between “operations” with some limited options in play to refresh some points. Investigative abilities work differently – they always succeed, but you can spend points for extra effect. For example, when one of my players went to examine the records at the Prayer Temples on Algol, hoping to track down information on a priest of the Order of Martyrs that no one has seen in almost 50 years, just using Bureaucracy is enough to find the core clue that leads the party closer to their goal, but spending two points meant he got the information in a few hours rather than it taking two full days in dusty archives.

Other things I quite like in NBA include:

  • spending points to just make shit up when you need it: Cover to get new IDs, Network to get reliable NPC help, Preparedness to make sure you packed the rocket launcher when the villain flees in their helicopet
  • MOS – pick a specific ability for an auto success once per session
  • Thriller chase rules – not too complicated, not too simple, they hit the Goldilocks spot for me
  • Heat – a system for tracking how much legal trouble the players are in
  • Conspiracy pyramid – a way of fleshing out the opposition, from street level, to city leaders, to the core leadership
  • Conspiracy reactions – as the players work their way up the conspiracy pyramid, the GM has a set of tools to inspire the conspiracy’s reactions, from bribing the PCs to stop, to assassinating their loved ones and burning their Solace down, to the dread lord Iblis waking to deal with them personally.
  • Our vampires are different – lots of options for customising the vampires to your campaign, and working out what can Block them, what the Dread, and what their Banes are.

NBA is based on the assumption that vampires are evil. There are no good vampires, and no real support for vampire PCs. I like this.

Coriolis is something I backed on Kickstarter in 2016, and is Published by Free League. Like a lot of Swedish games, it has astounding art production values compared to the games I grew up on in the 1980s. The standard game engine is a dice pool system, with a mix of skills, talents, and gear, and the standard mode of play is to assume “have spaceship, will travel”. Where it gets different from the other sci-fi rpg settings is the infusion of religion throughout the setting and game system. Want to reroll? Pray to the Icons, give the GM a Darkness Point, and roll the die. With the Arabic themes, the religion has a lot of the tone from the Abrahamic religions of Earth-That-Was, but the Icons are more of a syncretic Polytheism that can change from world to world.

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I found enough detail in the available material to quickly flesh out factions, NPCs and local intrigues, but also lots of room for me to just plonk things down as I saw fit. In play I found the deck of Icon cards to be a useful mechanic. When I want a scene complication or a guide to NPC reaction, I draw a card and see what it suggests to me. One attraction to Coriolis is that its not too big a setting, unlike say Traveller’s Third Imperium with its thousands of worlds. If you look at the map below you will see that the travel routes all pass through a handful of key hubs in a few big loops or chains. Depending on PC actions, I am expecting them to spend a lot of time on half-a-dozen locations, and to largely pass through other systems fairly quickly.

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My campaign pitch was along these lines: “It is hunting vampires in space, in a setting that is like Firefly meets 1001 Arabian Nights. I promise you will get to fight the big bad, I do not promise that you will survive the fight.” After some discussion on the mode of play, we agreed to play a high trust game and not use the betrayal rules. I also promised as GM to use Darkness Points (see below) to make scenes more interesting or complicated, not just to increase the damage the PCs were going to take.

My reason for using NBA rather than the Coriolis game engine was twofold. First, I wanted to run a focused game, that had a definite goal, which when reached would see the campaign wrap up. My standard GM practice has been to run open-ended campaigns that last around three years, but I am not getting any younger, and I have a lot of game systems/settings I want to try out. The second reason was that NBA looked like a good system for me to run for a game focused on hunting bad monsters. I have run investigative games in the past (Call of Cthulhu) and I appreciated the GUMSHOE philosophy of making clue gathering straightforward so the game can move on to the next chase or confrontation scene. In play I enjoy saying “If you do not have enough information to make a decision, you need to go gather more information”.

I did make some modifications to the game engines

  • Darkness Points were kept from Coriolis. One way in which Coriolis makes space travel dangerous is that you always gain Darkness Points when you jump between star systems, or if you travel out to the Deep Dark in a solar system.
  • Mystic powers were taken from Coriolis and adapted to GUMSHOE. A player with mystic power gets one ability with their first mysticism rating point, and a second ability if they reach an eight point rating.
  • Cybernetic equipment is treated as a GUMSHOE “special power” that costs five experience points to buy (plus some game world money), but the cost by can be discounted by 3-5 points by taking on complications.
  • Armour was adapted from Coriolis, and is generally worth 1-3 points of protection, but advanced suits get more customisation options. Because Cybernetic Armour can stack with worn armour, I made a specific rule that a PCs Athletics rating is divided by their points of Cybernetic Armour for determing if they are eligible for the “cherry” benefits of Athletics 8+ (the actual Athletics Pool is unchanged).
  • Coriolis has a lot of weapon options, where NBA keeps things to 1d6 damage +/-2 on the damage roll (plus a lot of options for thriller combat tactics). I decided to keep the +/-2 damage cap, but to give some weapons the Boon/Bane feature, where 2d6 are rolled and either the best die (Boon) or worst die (Bane) are kept. Everything else was fairly straightforward, although I have made auto fire Thermal weapons extremely lethal. If a Thermal weapon hits two targets in its arc of fire, the user gets a free bonus attack against all other targets in the arc. All targets means all, other PCs, innocent NPCs, fuel tanks, macguffins, etc, the Thermal weapon hits everything.

You will find more detail on the hacks in this Dropbox File.

Coriolis-KS-5

While I also used some material from Ashen Stars, a version of GUMSHOE for sci-fi adventures in a post-post-scarcity universe, I found when working through its rules that it was just a bit too weird to adapt easily. Too much of the game was specific to the Ashen Stars universe, and required a translation step for use in the Coriolis setting. Having made one use of its ship combat system, I am not sure it actually works in terms of posing a threat to the PCs unless I make very high bids from the NPCs, and in future I might use the NBA chase rules more often. Because I think the tone of the campaign should see the PCs running away from Stealth Cruisers.

Session Zero was a bit cliched. The PCs woke up early from suspended animation aboard the Blue Danube, with a couple of months of memories missing. They disabled the medical robot that tried to sedate them, and explored the ship. Through a glass window they get to see a cloud of black smoke killing hapless people in a cargo bay. At this stage, rather than focusing on escape, the PCs worked their way to the bridge, eliminated some mooks and investigated. In the background I kept a lock counting down. So the vampire attacked them while they were climbing down a ladder shaft. The players shot their weapons at it enough to make it run into smoke, but not before one was bitten. In this campaign, a vampire bite will trigger latent mystic powers. Making it down to the Shuttle deck, the PCs tried fighting their way past bodyguards armed with Vulcan auto weapons, with the regenerating reforming vampire coming up from behind. This was a hard fight, with more than one player on negative health by the time they escaped on the shuttle, and a second PC getting bitten.

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From here the PCs were able to hide in a sargasso of wrecked space ships, and salvage one they could escape the system from. My goals in session zero were to give the players a reason to be together and to gel together, and to demonstrate that without knowledge of the vampires, mere application of firepower is insufficient to “solve” the central problem of the campaign (the mystery of why latent mystics are being shipped en mass to a system filled with space wrecks, which as the PCs have found, includes them).

One thing I asked for from the players, was a unique origin story for each PC. This was to provide at least five starting locations for the campaign where the PCs would absolutely most definitely find some clues about the vampire conspiracy.

So after jumping through the closed Menkar gate, getting blamed for the destruction of the science ship Light of Babylon, and stopping at Sadaal long enough to get false papers, the party headed for Nargar. One of the PCs had been involved with a colony placed near a dead alien structure. Shades of Aliens. Not a lot happened here – much careful sneaking around – but the party did meet Jumuna, a Draconite Knight converted by the vampires, but also romantically connected to a PC. Unsure of their ground, the party chose flight over combat.

Algol is where the PCs currently are. They went there to follow another PC origin story, which involved a tale of a vampire hunting priest. The hope is they will pick up information on vampire vulnerabilities or ways of defending themselves against them. So far they have sold “agricultural machinery” to rebels, visited the important temples and nightclubs, but also contacted a djinn who is willing to help them if they can save Ezekiel Wrath, the priest they are looking for, from an assassination attempt that will take place during the next major Demon Star eclipse (now only two days away). The big reveal from the Djinn is that the vampires are Shaitan, children of Iblis, who in Islamic mythology was either a fallen angel or a fallen djinn. Where humans are made from clay, djinn are made from the flame of the fire, Angels from the light of creation, and Shaitan from the smoke of the fire. One PC survived a terror attack from rebels armed with the guns they sold them earlier in the day.

Feedback from the players on the campaign so far has been positive. We are all enjoying the change of pace from our last campaign using Runequest 6. The system is something we are still learning in play, in some cases we have to unlearn reflexes from more traditional games. We spent too much time sneaking on Nagar, when I could have said “the base is empty of life, tell me how you investigate it”. Anyhow, can’t wait for the next game, as we left it on a cliffhanger with a Courtesan pointing a pistol at a PC who had woken from a mystic experience while in a VR proxy tape booth that put him through the experience of being decapitated by a vampire.

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The Cold Stars Shone in Mockery

November 7, 2016
Kapcon registration has gone live, so I will do another post on progress with the Colossus of Atlantis meagagme soon. In the meantime, here are my musings on running a SF campaign next year, based on an email I sent out to my current play group.
Feedback I have on what my players want in an SF game:
  • the current campaign’s episodic/story arc structure seems to work well
  • party should have access to a ship, not be stuck on a station or planet
  • a mix of aliens is okay
  • posthuman/transhuman elements are worth a look.

I was recommended to watch Dark Matter (party wakes up on a spaceship with no memories, the ship has a cargo of weapons and some locked doors) and the Expanse (for a greater dose of realism in space). My recommended reading to my players was Altered Carbon (FTL is only possible via uploaded minds, central protagonist is an Envoy, a type of troubleshooter trained to use whatever tools are available to solve problems). Other media recommendations are most welcome. The title of the post is from a line in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. My current go to place for insight on spaceships and SF tropes is the Atomic Rockets website.

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Art from Starvation Cheap by Sine Nomine Publishing

System

Past feedback was that some of my players would prefer not to use a D100 system in the next campaign (so that rules out Eclipse Phase, River of Heaven, Revolution D100 or M-Space). One issue identified was never actually feeling like your characters were competent, or not being able to judge your relative competency against opponents, which was really brought home by watching how an 80% Endurance skill meant next to nothing if the blow taking you down was a critical hit (you had to both roll a critical yourself, and have it exceed your foe’s roll, so that 80% baseline skill might only end up with a 3% chance of success). I have also found a few elements of the RQ6/Mythras system to be fiddly (adjusting skill chance by dividing/multiplying skill level, a lot of die rolls lead to boring outcomes, and choosing combat effects after the skill roll is made is an immersion crushing waste of time). I do have some ideas to retool D100, but that would take some work.
I have backed, but not yet received a few SF kickstarters, which might arrive early next year:
  • Bulldogs! (Fate based courier missions/salvage teams)
  • Mindjammer (Traveller based agents for the Culture-like Commonality in a universe where thousands of years of STL colonisation happened, and FTL is only a few centuries old)
  • Coriolis (Firefly meets Arabian nights, with mysticism in the dark voids of space)
  • SF ports of Blades in the Dark (Apocalypse World derived system that is probably the most mind bending system I have read in the last year or two)
I have a few other SF games lying around, mostly in PDF format:
  • Firefly (Cortex+ dice pool system)
  • Edge of Empire (Star Wars dice pool system)
  • Stars Without Number (old D&D in space)
  • Strontium Dog (Traveller, focus on mutations and bounty hunting)
  • Nova Praxis (Fate)
  • Cepheus (OSR Traveller clone)
  • Fading Suns (D20 decadent nobles in a declining empire)
  • Rocket Age (retro 30s pulp)
  • Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds, near future with Cthulhu)
  • Numenera (Cypher D20 system)
  • Night Witches (okay its a WWII game powered by the Apoclaypse, but on reading it I thought its completely adaptable to a SF game where everyone is a fighter pilot on the losing side of the Great Patriotic Space War)
The problem with nearly every SF game that tries to handle transhumanism, is that there is lots of paperwork when shifting bodies, and its pointless to spend character generation resources on physical attributes, when you can buy better in-game. As such I don’t think any first generation lineage game engine can cut it. Eclipse Phase is weirdly over complicated for what it tries to do. Zak Sabbath had a simpler OSR take on this issue.
I lean towards something more descriptive, like Cortex+ or Fate, but that means buying into the abstractness of plot point meta currency systems, and being in tune with not trying to track every last plasma round and credit chip. The alternative is to drop the mind uploading/body hopping aspects of transhumanism. If I did that, then I might build the combat engine around fighting to the point where the PCs combat armour is knocked out, rather than fighting to the point where carbonised brains splatter the bulkheads. At which point why not go full Mecha?
None of the Apocalypse World hacks for SF look like a finished product to me.
So far I am not sold on any particular game engine – more suggestions are welcome. Systems I have not looked at much include:
  • Ashen Stars (Gumshoe variant, good for investigations)
  • Fragged Empire (creatures created by humans after humanity’s fall)
  • Polaris (a French game, looks blue)
  • Corvus Belli Infinity (a 2d20 roll under Target Number game , so I have some familiarity with that from Conan, and its going to be used for the John Carter of Mars game as well).
I am not fond of the level of detail and 3d6 systems used in GURPS/HERO systems. After playing Dragon Age and D20, I am not fond of hit point bloat systems, so while I could retool Fantasy Age into “Space Age”, that would take some work. I don’t see any ports of 13th Age into an SF setting yet either.
Do you have a system recommendation, or preference for one of the above game systems?
The Cold Stars Setting
I am thinking of mixing the following:
  • Earth colonised by aliens, like the British Raj, there has been some uplift, but much of the alien ways remain incomprehensible
  • At least one group of aliens has mucked around with humans and enabled psionic powers (its a way to establish character exceptionalism), and the concept of a psionic gestalt could provide another reason for why the PCs are in a party together
  • Several powerful alien races, and an ongoing cold war, and humans can be clients to various alien patrons, so there is background tension, espionage, boundaries that are forbidden to cross, Casablanca zones, and no one wants a war to break out with dinosaur killer level kinetic weapons
  • FTL: entry into FTL space is easy, the hard part is getting out again – you need to home in on a beacon signal or specific type of variable star signature, before the heat build up inside your ship kills you.
  • The characters are specialists in dealing with colony worlds where the beacons go dark, so they have a good ship and a job that gets them into trouble. They also have a license that keeps all of their high tech equipment functional, but if they go dark themselves, then it all stops working four weeks later when it realises it has not received the latest security update.
A Future History
The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy has future history as a colonisation-empire-collapse pattern, although it assumes that human beings will be doing the colonising. TvTropes also has a standard future history, similar to the above and a standard Sci-Fi setting. The “Consensus Cosmogony” (to use Donald A. Wollheim’s phrase) is as follows:
  1. Exploration and colonisation of the Solar System
  2. World War III
  3. Interstellar exploration and colonisation
  4. First contact with aliens
  5. The cycle of empires
  6. The final empire
  7. Humanity’s final fate (these days its likely to be some kind of singularity ascendance, in the old days it was white togas and flared shoulders for everybody).
The key insight here, is that most visions of the future recycle the past. Not every SF work follows this pattern. In Andre Norton’s “Star Guard“, humans are only allowed off Earth to act as mercenaries for other aliens, and this occurs in quite a few other series, such as Jerry Purnelle’s “Janissaries” books. In The Course of Empire, by Eric Flint and K. D. Wentworth, humans are sepoy soldiers for aliens who have conquered Earth. Which is getting closer to what I want for a setting I think.
The Raj Pattern
The Raj Pattern for Sci-fi could be summarised as:
  1. Present day – human princes feud among themselves, while in the background the planet begins to burn from climate change
  2. First contact – aliens become involved in trade with Earth, and by “divide and rule” tactics quickly establish permanent outposts
  3. Alien influence grows as governments outsource their core functions in exchange for trinkets and longevity
  4. Alien influence consolidated in corporate governance that effectively controls all taxation on most of Earth
  5. Human rebellion/mutiny against their alien corporate overlords is quashed
  6. The real alien government turns up and implements direct rule, while still trying to help the poor primitive apes to ascend the ladder of civilisation
  7. The Great Big Space War – humans have a choice, help their alien overlords, passive resistance, or active rebellion.
  8. Independence?
In terms of how it relates to PCs, its the value/loyalty choice in step seven. At any other point of the cycle prior to that, the smart money is on the aliens.
I am thinking that a lifepath character generation system makes some sense, if it gets player engagement with the setting. Traveller used to have as a feature death in character generation. In a Transhuman setting, you could have a conflict that causes players to roll 1d10 to see how many times their character was KIA and restored from backup.
Espionage
I found a few blog posts on espionage in SF. Sadly the series does not seem to have been concluded. Its key points:
  • spy stories are about tension, in particular, they are about middle class apprehensions, the current threats to personal comfort
  • part of the tension comes from familiarity with the world – and SF worlds will inherently be unfamiliar (even if they do adopt the Consensus Cosmogony)
  • there are two strategies for coping with this:
    • stress glamorous, exotic locales, so in SF, ham up the alien and the weird
    • focus on quotidian elements, so in SF, keep it human and current tech
  • using technological Macguffins leads you into Technothriller territory (which tend to be more black/white morality than the grey quotidian novels which draw on the threat of betrayal to ramp up tension)
  • in speculative fiction, “while the underlying themes may get representation in the narrative’s plot, it is harder to overlay those themes onto our real world because their relationship to our world is more oblique”
I did a search for Cold War rpgs a while back, and found a few – most of which had an occult focus with the Cthulhu Mythos or similar. I suspect its harder to do the betrayal theme in a long running campaign with the 4-6 players you usually have in a tabletop campaign. If a Firefly game can be summarised as “get a job, stay flying”, then an espionage focused Cold Stars game could be described as “find a secret, stay alive”.
Cold Wars
Being old enough to remember watching the Berlin Wall come down, just in time for my end of year Political Science exam on the Cold War, I can remember the fear of nuclear war. Its abated today, and shifted to the rogue state. So in an rpg reflecting modern fears, its not so much the alien invasion, its the one shot dinosaur killer strike from a splinter faction or rogue captain with a ship and an FTL drive (which is the key problem with reactionless drives, every merchant captain controls a world killer).
A thought a had a while back, to represent this tension, is to just ask the players if the world ends in fire at the end of every game session., if any of the players says ‘yes”, then the campaign is over. Time to move on to a post-apocalyptic game?
Technology in the Future
Currently on Earth, technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. It is increasingly difficult, even for experts, to remain on top of this change. This makes SF games date quickly. It also means that any single person trying to figure out how people will behave and what physical items will look like in the future has some problems. I have a few present-day topics that I want to explore:
  • social inequality
  • automation
  • 3-D printing
  • the shared economy
Social Inequality
One reason to have aliens in the setting is to create an “upper class” that human characters can never truly be part of. I have a couple of different ideas for implementing this mechanically in the game. One is to have the players roll dice to see which one of them has a privileged background. That character starts with property and cash. All the other characters start in debt. Another is to invert the benefit table from Traveller, with each term of service prior to start of play leading your character ever deeper into debt.
Automation
The future of warfare is likely to involve human-machine teams, where the sharp end of conflict is conducted at machine speeds. Human decisions remain important for starting and ending conflicts, and for resolving complex situations not anticipated by software. In space warfare, I simply don’t see any reason why humans would be climbing into turrets to shoot at piloted fighter craft in line-of-sight ranges. Machines will do that job better than we can. The important human decision is around hiding, running away, starting the fight, or trying to surrender before the ship explodes. In other fields, I think close quarters urban fighting is likely to remain a human skill set, but everyone will be using drones to make their perception checks, and calling in precise-strikes from networked assets.
One idea I had for implementing automation in combat is to make the PCs make a survival check in each round of combat. The PC with the worst roll takes one point of damage per combat round, e.g. in round three they take three points of damage. If you can’t win quickly and break the enemy’s lock on your location, you need to run before the rest of the drone swarm turns up. At any rate, I think SF games need to move beyond replicating World War II or Vietnam in space.
3-D Printing
I had this idea of disposable spaceships. Order it, a 3-D printer makes it, its engines are good for a few jumps, then you recycle it when you dock because that is cheaper than paying the docking fees for three days. Amusing, but I suspect players prefer a more permanent home. It would be a universe where you only own what you choose to carry. Escalated to a mass scale, it gets you lots of small starter colonies that no longer have functioning spaceships, and are always interested in imports of up to date printing templates and OEM printer gunk.
Shared Economy
This flows from automation, the current trends in copyright and licensing, and social inequality (I donate money to EFF.org to try and stop this from happening). While there will always be work for humans, the amount of work that will propel people into the property owning class will diminish. Everyone else will end up using major items on a time share basis, with no true ownership.
What the characters spend their time on is pretty important, as different games will vary the emphasis on:
  • trading, aka spreadsheets in space
  • movement between points in space, is it routine or risky
  • fine tuning gear, aka more spreadsheets in space
  • relationships between characters, love and hate in a tin can
  • character archetypes – broad roles and competencies
  • character skills – specific competencies, less niche protection
  • old school character attributes (strength, charisma etc)
  • character values – passions, drives, triggers.

I asked my players what they preferred to do in games. For the most part my campaigns have been old school (there have been dungeons, monsters and loot) with the addition of lots of social action with NPCs and grey morality – hopefully giving the players meaningful choices about who their friends and enemies are, and whether they are heroes or “the baddies”. I am still thinking a lot about what the core character activities in a Cold War in Space game should be.