Game planning


I have been running a Coriolis campaign for 39 sessions now, with the PCs having accrued a lot of experience and a large number of talents and skills. The Coriolis rules are generally very tight and have been very easy to work with (except perhaps the space combat rules), but some parts of the basic rules lack a little depth as you gain levels, and there have been some ways in which my group and I have worked together to enhance the rules and in some ways to change them. Here I list some of those changes, and one change I should have implemented but didn’t.

Talent tiers

Pretty early on we realized that talents should have tiers, with more powerful and versatile effects at higher tiers. So we have made some additional talents that apply beyond the first tier. They still only cost 5xp to buy, but they require the previous talent in the tier first. Here are three examples of these tiers in action.

Tenth life: This is absolutely fundamental to enjoying this game. Once you’ve invested 50 xp in your pc you want some way to cheat death, and this is it. It’s the second tier of Nine Lives, and it has one purpose: you burn the talent to nullify a critical roll of 66. This is the game’s only one use talent, meaning you have to buy it again every time you used it. In our most recent session the PC Al Hamra used this to nullify a 66, and then got hit later in the same battle with another 66, which he could not nullify, and two other PCs (I think) have been forced to use their Tenth Life (then immediately bought it again). This talent is tier 2, with Nine Lives at Tier 1, but I think actually Nine Lives is a massively over-powered talent and should itself be Tier 2 – Tier 1 of this talent tree should be something like rerolling a crit and being forced to take the second roll, or being able to use Nine Lives only once a combat or something. But given how lethal this game is we haven’t quibbled with it: Nine Lives is basically a mandatory talent.

Machine gunner: The Machine Gunner talent now has two additional tiers. The first enables the PC to ignore the bulky quality of weapons (enabling them to carry vulcan machine guns as if they were carbines) and the second to fire full auto using 2AP. Adam has all three tiers, which means he can ignore an extra 1 when he fires his machine gun, he can carry a full vulcan machine gun as if it were a normal weapon, and can reload and fire in one round (he has rapid reload too). This makes Adam absolutely lethal when he rolls well, since he can ignore the first two 1s in an auto fire attack and do it every round even if he exhausts his ammunition. This is just as well since Adam’s player always rolls really badly.

Executioner: Tier 2 of the executioner allows the player to roll a second critical and choose the best one before reversing the dice. It partially nullifies Nine Lives and is used by Siladan, who is a melee fighter and consistently suffers the disadvantage of having to charge through a round of missile fire before he can engage. This is a very bad disadvantage in melee! I suspect that if combined with machine gunner this talent would be horrific.

Combat medic: Tier 2 of the combat medic talent enables the PC to heal damage when stabilizing a crit (but only when stabilizing a crit) so that each additional success grants one wound. Until we expanded mystic powers this was the only way that the PCs could recover damage during combat if they weren’t broken, and avoided this weird and unholy ping pong in which Dr Delekta had to wait for a player to be broken, heal them up a few wounds, and then let them be broken again (I think this ping pong happened in the first few sessions because we misunderstood the healing rules). In any case it’s super important because things spiral down the tube really fast if you can’t heal wounds along with stabilizing criticals. I think this system is far more lethal than even Rolemaster and a lot of our house rules were developed to make it survivable[1].

Expanded mystic powers

These have been described before but I include them here for completeness. In particular the higher levels of the Stop power (which give domination ability with almost no resistance) and the healing powers have been very useful. One of our mystics, Saqr, usually keeps an action point spare for a reaction that increases his armour. Another PC, Kaarlina, has all the levels of technomage and has found them very useful in a lot of situations, and of course Al Hamra loves both the second tier of the mind reading power and his domination abilities. I haven’t really deployed these powers to great effect against the PCs yet but I feel this will come soon.

Enhanced minion powers

I have been following the rule that minions add one die to their attack for each extra member of the group, but I have further enhanced the rules to make them a little more dangerous, enabling extra dice in additional situations.

  • Observation checks: Obviously with more people looking the chance of success should increase
  • Dexterity and force checks: When an entire team tries to get out of combat someone should be able to break through, so I increase dexterity checks accordingly; similarly for force checks, even in grappling-type situations (it’s hard to grapple one mook when three others are whaling on you).
  • Auto-fire: This is the key enhancement. Every extra minion in a group increases the number of 1s that need to be rolled to exhaust their weapons’ ammunition, so for example if there are four minions in a team they need to roll four 1s (the first 1, plus 3 more) in order to exhaust their weapons ammunition when using auto-fire. This makes minions with vulcan carbines absolutely lethal and ensures that my PCs are forced to take minions seriously, especially if I have enough darkness points to pray…

Group and individual skill checks

I follow a ruthless rule for adjudicating skill checks now: if the entire group fails from a single failure, everyone must roll separately; if the entire group benefits from a single success, the person with the highest pool rolls once and gains a +1 for each supporting person. This is done to ensure that the PCs do not basically automatically succeed at everything just from luck, and is something I learnt in D&D. Basically even if an observation check is super hard, if everyone rolls for it one of the group is likely to roll high. So I force the players to roll a single pool for observation checks, research, negotiations and the like – anything where even a single success from one PC is sufficient. In contrast, for stealth checks, where even one failure affects the whole group, I require everyone to roll separately and the entire group suffers from the worst roll. I recommend everyone apply this rule to a party with a fighter in plate mail!

You can really take this rule to new heights of nastiness by rolling some of the players’ dice pool secretly, yourself, so that they don’t know the exact result. I tried this a few times but the uproar led me to give it up. In this embellishment you roll perhaps a third of the dice yourself, so that if the players get no successes they don’t know whether to pray or not (since you might have rolled the one success they need); and if they don’t pray, they cannot guess whether the information they have received is untrue. It also means they cannot tell if they have got a critical success unless they see three dice in their part of the pool.

This is a real dick move, but if you like that sort of thing I strongly recommend it.

Strain from armour

When I played in a long (and excellent) Cyberpunk campaign we had to make a lot of house rules, and one modification we had to make was to armour, which proved invincible once you had more than a certain amount. We house-ruled there that if your armour fully absorbs damage you still take a point of stun damage, to ensure that no one can stay in combat for an infinite period of time just absorbing damage, because armour was so obviously over-powered in those rules[2]. Armour is not over-powered in Coriolis, but I think it would still be good to have a rule that if your armour absorbs all physical damage you still take a point of mental damage. Since absorbing physical damage often means avoiding a potentially lethal[3] critical, it seems reasonable that this should be a stressful experience. This also means that if you’re crouching behind cover absorbing huge amounts of incoming fire without taking damage, you will slowly lose your shit, which also seems reasonable. Unfortunately, however, I forgot this rule until recently and it’s definitely too late to implement it[4]. I recommend that you do!

Final comment on the rules

I have found the Coriolis rules to be very smooth, enjoyable and easy to use, with very little need for house ruling beyond judgements about positives and negatives, and winging it a bit with the use of darkness points. It’s a really well-designed and smooth system that is very fun to use. My only criticism would be that the talents and mystic powers are a bit superficial, and don’t allow the richness and depth of character creation that players demand over a long campaign. But this is a very minor criticism, and embellishing rules is much more fun than hacking them because they don’t work. So I present these rule modifications in that spirit, with the clear qualification that the system works completely fine as it is. Nonetheless, I hope you will consider using some of these rules in your own campaign, and even if you decide to ignore all of them, I strongly recommend the enhanced auto-fire rules for minions. Because, let’s face it, your players deserve the best!


fn1: Perhaps if my players were less reckless this wouldn’t be an issue … but they would argue I’m an arsehole GM and they have no choice. There were good people on both sides of the debate …

fn2: Don’t play Cyberpunk, the rules are thoroughly broken.

fn3: 50% of the time!

fn4: I suspect if my players read this they’ll be clamouring for me to implement the rule, since they’re about to face off with four guys in battle exos.

 

 

 

As my Coriolis campaign comes to its extremely violent conclusion, I am completing preparations for the next campaign I plan to GM. The last few campaigns I have GM’d have been science fiction: Coriolis, before that the Spiral Confederacy (Traveler), and before that a post-apocalyptic water-world campaign called Flood (using Cyberpunk rules, natch). My players are craving some high fantasy and so am I, but I am completely over D&D and incapable of running it or playing it any more – I just find it boring in all its incarnations and although I loved it when I was younger I can’t enjoy it past about 5th level, so I don’t want to run it anymore. I considered Warhammer, but I think my players would like to move away from worlds saturated in darkness and I know that when I GM Warhammer I make it altogether very grimdark, which some of my players don’t need. So, I decided to make my own sunny and upbeat campaign world for Genesys, using a classic fantasy RPG setting with orcs and magic and mediaeval scenes and monsters and completely arbitrary but fixed notions of good and evil which mean the PCs can slay any evil monster they want without fear of repercussions or any moral quandaries. The setting I chose is based on a map I found on the internet, and I choose at this stage to call it the Archipelago Campaign.

The Archipelago

The Archipelago is a collection of island kingdoms of manageable size, isolated from any major landmasses and connected by stormy but navigable seas. There are 8 nations of human settlements, a large wild area occupied by human-like tribespeople called wildlings, a single island for dwarves, and a couple of forests where elves live. There are also a few members of a race of people called Changelings, who are like humans but smaller and a bit weird, who live in hunter-gatherer societies and can change their form to perfectly resemble any human they have ever seen. The entire area is also plagued by deepfolk: orcs, goblins, ogres, dark elves and deep gnomes who are implacably evil and hate humans with all their heart and soul (if they have a soul). The deepfolk live underground and come out through hidden entrances and lairs in mountains, hillsides and forests, and there is constant conflict between these nasty creatures and humans. There are also other monsters in the forests and mountains, and one island has been ravaged and taken over by a dragon.

The refugee history of humans

The human society in this land is relatively light on history and politics. Humans arrived in the Archipelago 1000 years ago as refugees, but were immediately plunged into 200 years of constant flight and conflict as the deepfolk tried to destroy them. As a result of these 200 Lost Years they have forgotten their origins and lost all documents and written stories about their past, and so they know nothing about where they came from, why they fled, or how they came to the Archipelago. After 200 years the dwarves took pity on them and helped them found a few pathetic settlements, and after that they slowly formed kingdoms. They had to learn to read and write from the dwarves, either because they had no written language or all those details were destroyed during the Lost Years. They brought a kind of magic with them, learnt a new kind from the dwarves and a third kind from the elves, and slowly settled and spread across the Archipelago. Out of respect for their refugee history they have no systems of slavery or kings or queens, and generally there is not much conflict between kingdoms – I have set this society up to be light on politics and history so the PCs can focus on uncovering secrets and killing orcs, but without having the stultifying and boring influence of feudalism on the society.

In general human society is at the technology level of Britain in the 9th century, with the caveat that they have little access to iron – all iron and jewels are hoarded by deepfolk and can only be obtained through war. So weapons and armour are slightly neolithic. This introduces a new tier of weapons between mundane weapons and magic weapons, and gives additional reasons to kill those pale-skinned underground bastards.

Magic and religion

There are three forms of magic in the world, each connected to a religion: Salt, the magic humans brought with them; Storm, the magic dwarves love, which helps them become consummate sailors; and sun, the magic the elves prefer, which is most like the arcane magic we all know and love. There is no heaven and hell, no demons, no afterlife and no special moral restrictions from religion, so religion is primarily a reassuring force to make pathetic humans feel they have a place in the world, rather than a strong moral code. PCs can be one of the three religions but can never mix magical forms. There is a fourth kind of magic, deep magic, used by deepfolk, which is the only way that one can learn necromancy or enchantments, but no human has ever used it so domination spells and vampires are entirely the province of the deepfolk. Deepfolk are evil!

Races and classes

In this world as in all my worlds elves are dodgy, shonky wild creatures who can’t be understood or trusted, but players can choose an elven PC if that is their thing. Dwarves are simply small, thin folk who live on the sea and are masters of art, culture and craft – kind of like erudite 16th century explorers compared to the 9th century barbarian humans. The wildlings of the north are maybe a lost tribe of humans or maybe a different indigenous race, no one knows, but they’re bigger and kind of more savage than humans. Changelings live in small hunter-gatherer societies on the fringe of human nations, and don’t seem to have much wealth or care for human activities, but are much sought after for their transformation powers. No one can play any form of deepfolk, because deepfolk are evil.

Resources and plans

The document I have prepared for my players to read can be found here, with detailed information about the world and rules for the Genesys system. We will be starting in the next month or two, depending on brutally the players are able to end the Coriolis campaign. I am looking forward to a long, leisurely exploration of a fantasy realm after many years of science fiction!

My players are a little disappointed with the mystic powers in Coriolis, and to be honest so am I. I like games with magic, and I always want to be able to have some mystery and arcane secrets in my games. I also like those with mystic powers to ultimately be powerful and terrifying: Shadowrun has a rule, gank the mage, which I think should apply in any game with mystical or magical elements, but there’s no point in having this rule if your mages aren’t worth ganking, and in general mystics aren’t very powerful in Coriolis. Given their need to hide and the risk of persecution, this seems a little disappointing. So my players and I came up with some ideas for improving mystic powers.

First of all we thought that they should have expanded powers over djinn and other spirits, and also that they should be able to physically heal and mentally attack. We also thought most powers should have additional benefits if you focus on them. So I have developed a system with three tiers of powers. Each power introduced in the book has an additional two levels of power, which expand on or intensify the basic power introduced in the core rules. I also introduced a new power for healing. To buy a second level power one needs to have first purchased the power described in the core rules; for 5 xp one can then buy the next power in the list. Furthermore, no PC can have more level 3 powers than level 2 powers, and no PC can have more level 2 powers than level 1 (introductory) powers, and no PC can have more level 1 powers than their wits attribute. So for example a PC with a wits of 4 can have 4 level 1 powers, 3 level 2, and 2 level 3 powers; in total buying all these powers will require 45 xp, which in my campaign would probably take about 20-25 sessions to get to. Some of the powers at level 2 or level 3 can be expanded by spending additional xp to increase damage or range, or reduce crit value. So to be a fully rounded, genuinely scary mystic would probably require 60xp or more.

The table of mystic powers, from level 1 to level 3, is shown below. All level 1 powers except heal are introduced in the core rules.

Power class Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Artificer Artificer: go into a trance to understand an artifact Rigger: Activate and control ordinary objects at long range or less using your skill in that item/equipment Technomage: Use an object or technology using mystic powers as if you had the skill
Clairvoyant Clairvoyant: find a person or object Scry: See remote locations, objects or people Act: Cast any mystic power through a video, scry or other remote vision device
Exorcist Exorcist: Drive a spirit out of a person Abjurer: Force a spirit to manifest in a physical form, making it vulnerable to physical attacks Astral champion: launch a physical attack on a spirit in non-physical form. Attack is dmg 1, crit 3, range touch; use xp to increase dmg/range, reduce crit
Intuition Intuition: Ask the GM a question about anything in the world Speak with dead: speak with a recently dead person to find out what they experienced Prediction: Use mystic powers to increase initiative by 1 / success
Mind reader Mind reader: read surface thoughts Detect truth: learn when someone is lying or telling the truth as they speak Mental attack: Does MP dmg 1, crit 3 (stun), range touch. Use xp to increase dmg, reduce crit, increase range
Mind walker Mind walker: see through someone else’s eyes Animal walker: see through an animal’s eyes/senses Machine walker: see through the sensory equipment of any machine, object or system
Prediction Prediction: Use a séance to see the future Regression: Learn the past about a place, thing or person Instantiation: Learn what is happening now to an absent place, thing or person
Premonition Premonition: test mystic powers to sense an impending attack Defense: use a reaction to give a friendly PC or NPC a free defense against an incoming attack, using your mystic powers Nine lives: as a reaction, allow one of your allies to reverse the dice on a critical
Stop Stop: use mystic powers to force someone to stop a single action Control: openly control a person for a single action, such as an attack or an important, obvious decision. Everyone knows you did it Dominate: take complete control of someone for 1 round per success. They get to use force to resist this.
Telekinesis Telekinesis: Applies to small objects Telekinesis 2: Applies to larger objects, up to the size of a person (who can use force to resist your power) Flight: The PC can use their telekinesis to move at a slow flight, including in zero-g. Use dexterity skill to control it
Body control Heal: heal 1 pt of damage per success, even if not broken Armour: Use a reaction to add mystic powers skill to your armour total Heal crit: completely heals a critical of severity less than or equal to the number of successes

 

I thought it might be good to introduce another power which grants someone an additional action point, attribute bonuses, etc., but decided this might be too powerful. Also there is no physical attack capability in any of these powers, so mystics can do mental attacks (which ignore armour!) but cannot do physical attacks. Also to get to a very weak mental attack that is no better than a stun weapon, a mystic needs to burn 15xps, though with 30xps this could be a vicious attack guaranteed to do significant stun damage.

Note also that these powers rely on good mystic powers skill, so most PCs will have to find a balance between new powers and improving their skill. To become a super powerful mystic is a path of privation and extreme limitations on other skills, and it is likely that in any campaign of less than about 40 sessions most PCs will not be able to get to a very high power level. NPCs, on the other hand …

As a final bonus, I think if anyone gets to two or more powers at level 3 they should be able to gain some additional combination power they can activate. So for example telekinesis + mind walker at level 3 might grant the PC the ability to teleport. This would be super useful if the PCs have a nemesis who has 3 level 3 powers … There might also be additional, forbidden powers that are not available to the PCs and require a cadaver clock to activate: permanent attribute boosts, resurrection, etc. Getting that clock and the associated powers could be a campaign goal for the PCs – and battling a mystic who has those powers could be a major campaign in itself. For example, they could discover a mystic who uses body control, stop and mind walker in a cadaver clock to turn people into completely obedient slaves, who fight and die on her behalf without release; the PCs’ job could be to discover the nature of this clock, and somehow destroy this super powerful mystic. That’s a fun and dark campaign! And it might put the PCs in two minds about the true nature of mystics, which could lead to complications when they embark on the Emissary Lost campaign ark …

I know some players of Coriolis will prefer to keep mystic powers subtle and low key, but I don’t like low-key magic and I like magic in my sci fi campaigns, so I will be running with these expanded powers – and making sure my group run into adversaries who have stocked up on them!

Coriolis is set in the Third Horizon, a complex of star systems linked by portals that enable instantaneous transport between connected systems (with severe potential complications). Each system is linked through the portals to perhaps 2-4 other systems, so traveling to distant systems requires passing through multiple portals. Portals are all located in the same place, about 0.5 AU from one of the system’s stars, so when you emerge from one portal you are 0.5 AU from the star and at exactly the position you need to be to go straight back through and on to your next destination. Navigating through a portal is dangerous, and requires piloting skill checks to pass through successfully; failure can be very bad, and as a result most travelers pass through in convoys, sharing the portal data provided by bulk haulers which pay extra to access good quality navigational data. No human can travel through a portal without being in stasis, so any ship that travels between systems needs to have enough stasis pods for its crew; failure to go into cryosleep during transit is always fatal.

This creates obvious complications for communications in the Third Horizon, particularly given that many systems have very low populations, are wracked by war or chaos, and have little industry and even less reason to visit them. As a guide, in the System Generator the largest population you can roll up for a whole planet is millions of residents. The systems have low populations that may be scattered across very large planets on very low density population centres. Given this, it seems likely that most systems will not receive much in the way of communications. However, the rulebook gives little information about this issue. All I can find on communications is this tiny inset:

Communication waves travel at the speed of light, which is roughly one AU per eight minutes – thus, getting a reply to a question takes at least 16 minutes per AU between you and the other party. No communication waves can pass through portals. Instead, a ship or a probe must make the jump and then transmit the message on the other side. This leads to great communication delays between systems. The Bulletin keeps multiple probes ready on every portal station, and anyone can pay to use them to send information. This is both expensive and not without risk however, as you never know who might be listening on the other end

This does not give much information about how communication works in the Third Horizon, and I don’t like it for two simple reasons:

  • If you have to pay to send information by a probe, then almost all information from low population centres will never get sent. I don’t like this.
  • It suggests that spaceships with no human crew can pass through portals. I really don’t like this idea: it opens the way for AI fleets, or for automated cargo systems. Not cool.

So, I have decided to revise the communications systems in the Third Horizon by introducing two small house rules that make life a little more complicated:

  • It is very dangerous to freeze and thaw people repeatedly from cryosleep – typically ship’s crews need a few days’ recovery before they can go back into stasis, and repeatedly violating this guideline can lead to insanity and loss of mental function (particularly bad when the security team wakes up in a rage, or the pilot has to navigate a portal in a post-stasis haze)
  • Any path through a portal requires a human to calculate it in order to work. In the entire history of the Third Horizon, no computer has ever plotted a path through a portal successfully. Most scientists suspect this is because the Portal Builders were capable of designing AI ships, and built this failsafe into the portals to ensure no one could obliterate another system using AI fleets

This has important consequences for communications in the Third Horizon. In particular, it means that it is not possible to have a system of automated relays, where probes go through the portals every hour and broadcast information, essentially rendering communication nearly instantaneous throughout the Third Horizon. If probes were possible, then it would be possible to have probes that transport through a portal every hour, collect the latest information broadcasts, and then transfer back through. This would mean that if you were 15 systems away from Kua you would likely get your news from Kua within about 24 hours, since when the probe comes through the portal it can broadcast its information directly to the portal station, and then when the probe to the next system is ready it will be right at the portal so will receive the information as soon as it arrives in-system, and an hour later travel to the next system. If probes were possible the Legion could send a message from Kua to the end of the Third Horizon in a matter of hours, simply by dispatching a probe through a series of portals.

If, on the other hand, only humans can pass through portals and humans require some days to recover from stasis, then sending information becomes trickier. At a busy system like Kua you could still have daily or hourly information exchange, simply by having a large enough number of small ships. For example with seven class I ships capable of stasis, you could send information through to Altai on a daily basis, using a roster to ensure that once a ship has passed through the portal its crew can rest and do other tasks for a few days before passing back through. But in a less busy system such a proposition might not be worth it – news would only be generated slowly, and no one would care what it was anyway, so why would you have seven crews on standby to transfer it? Instead you might broadcast it to a passing bulk hauler once a week, as the hauler passes through, and pay a nominal fee for it to transfer the information to the portal station at the far side. Then that station would pay a nominal fee to the next passing bulk hauler or starship to take information to the next system, and so on. In most cases this would mean that news would travel from one system to another approximately once a day, except in the busiest systems, so that if you lived in the outer fringes your news would take a week or two to get to Kua, and a month or two to travel to the far side of the Horizon. Given the distances involved that’s pretty cool.

This system of broadcasts will only apply to general news, of course. If you want a message sent to your family saying you made it safely to Yastopol then this is your plan: you go to your local Consortium office and select a simple, low cost plan to send your data to your family in Aiwaz, and you have fair confidence that it will arrive in a matter of about 10 days, give or take, uncorrupted and probably unread (let’s face it, you’re pretty boring). But what if you want to sext your lover in Kua? Or send news of a successful kick murder in Dabaran? Then you need more secure and more reliable delivery (you want to be sure he receives that dickpic!)

In this case you may need to provide your own encryption services, and people may be waiting at the other end to capture your data. When a bulk hauler arrives in a system it doesn’t ask questions about who should receive what data: it broadcasts it in bulk to a local receiver and carries on its way, and then that local receiver broadcasts that data on subject to the conditions of the transit. A cheap data transit plan will mean that stuff is just broadcast at every planet in system without fear or favour, and anyone listening in can pick it up. Local data providers will pick it up for sure, and if they recognize the address you gave your dickpic will end up at the correct tabula. But anyone who wants to listen in can also pick up your message, and if the encryption protocols of your backwater farmer’s Grindr app are not suitably good, then now everyone knows precisely how second rate your junk is. Probably not an issue, since the dude you were sending it to has already moved on (sorry to tell you that, but you know what these Kua boys are like – sluts the lot of them). If your news is a successful kick murder, though – well then your data is valuable, and whoever was sifting through your messages is going to be making sure to sell that on.

To get around this you have a couple of choices:

  • Pay for a packet drone, which detaches from the hauler once it arrives in the destination system and travels to a pre-determined local high security data center, from which its message can be broadcast with high security
  • Pay specifically for a tight beam communication to a specific target, which avoids the risk of interception but also leaves a trail of comms from ship to planet that an investigator could find
  • Apply your own high level encryption so even a widebeam broadcast can’t be hacked
  • Pay a secure provider – a dedicated information broker – which passes through some systems regularly and ensures your message gets to its destination, and usually also deletes its records after it passes through

Not all of these options are available in every system, or you may have to wait a long time to get the one you want. That dickpic won’t be fresh if you wait forever! Sometimes no matter how much money you have – or how many people you kill – the thing you need just won’t arrive in the system, and you’ll have to settle for less secure and less reliable communications. That is the nature of life out on the edge of the Horizon. Now let us consider two specific examples.

Banu Delecta’s Red Packet

The Cyclade is coming and as always at this time Dr. Banu Delecta’s thoughts turn to Qamar, a courtesan whose company she often enjoyed while she was a student in Coriolis. Dark-skinned, muscular, graceful, shy and ohh-so talented, Qamar was a boon to her during the stress of exams and a relief during those times when her male peers were exhausting and her rich boyfriends disappointing, and if his plebeian upbringing occasionally showed what did she care? He never judged her for her rich background, but loved her for who she was (really! She was special! Not like those old matrons from the Spire that he so often had to entertain!) Qamar retired after she graduated, but it is tradition in the Third Horizon for rich patrons to send retired courtesans a red packet – a small donation of money – on their birthday, as a kind of reminder of their goodwill and also to ensure that the courtesan’s retirement is not too harsh on them. Ever a stickler for tradition – and misty-eyed at the thought of those lazy afternoons in his apartments near the Ozone market – Dr. Delecta remembered that Qamar’s birthday was just after the Cyclade and now, back in her home system of Sivas, she had best organize the delivery.

A red packet delivery is no big deal, and so she takes a lifter down to her local post office and organizes an interstellar plan (oh how inconvenient! Back on Coriolis you could do all this on your tabula). She pays a little extra to ensure it is delivered on the date she chooses – Sivas is only two portals from Kua so she is confident it will arrive in time – and also pays a little more to add some encryption to the packet, since it is money she is sending. She does not fuss herself about choosing an extra-secure delivery method that would, for example, guarantee no one knew the recipient, since as far as she knows there is no evidence Qamar used to be a courtesan, and no reason to connect her to anything untoward, so it is unlikely that anyone will notice a birthday present as an unusual event. She presses the button and her red packet is broadcast to a passing bulk hauler, which will leave in three days for Altai. From Altai there is likely to be a bulk hauler convoy every day, and so her message will arrive in Kua within five days. From the portal station at Kua it will be broadcast to Coriolis, where – provided Qamar has not changed his number – the communications system will ensure it reaches her delicious former entertainment.

The message arrives in time, but Delecta has set it to arrive only on the occasion of Qamar’s birthday. Five days after the Cyclade and 10 days after she sent it, Delecta’s red packet arrives on Qamar’s tabula. By now Qamar has married, a nice dockworker, and the two of them live in a charming apartment near the Spring Market, Qamar’s husband unaware of his past as a courtesan to the rich and lazy students of the Academy. Of course Qamar lied to Delecta about his birthday (and his name, and how much he enjoyed her company …) but still he has had to set up a separate, private list of former clients, and remember to disable notifications on his tabula on this day, lest his new husband see a sudden cascade of red packets all arriving on the same morning. This year, just as last year, once his husband has departed for the docks, Qamar checks his messages and looks at the long list of red packets in his inbox. He opens Delecta’s, considering once again the possibility of blocking all of the former clients on his secret list. But then he sees the amount Delecta has sent him (he does not bother to read her sweet message), and decides that no, perhaps he will think about blocking them next year …

Dr Wana finds an artifact

Dr Wana, famous architect whose reputation is known across the Third Horizon (at least among people who matter) has been working a dig in Ghodar for 3 months, and on a harsh and stormy morning in the Merchant she and her team of students uncover a haul of Portal Builder remains. It is unfortunate that Al Hama does not survive the discovery, but archaeology is an exacting science which occasionally demands its sacrifices, and let us be frank – better it were Al Hama, untrained and undisciplined, than Wana herself. After the initial excitement and tears (not Wana’s) have passed, she prepares to send a message to her funders on Zamusa. This is a slightly complex situation, because her funders would prefer their identity were not known to passersby – indeed Wana herself is uncertain as to who they really are – and she needs to find a way to get this information to them that does not link them in any way to her.

Unfortunately information brokers are not common on Ghodar, out here near the edge of the Third Horizon. Indeed out here even bulk haulers are infrequent. She speaks to her data djinn and organizes a message with wicked encryption, to be sent wrapped in a triggering condition. Three days later a bulk hauler passes through and receives the packet, taking it on to Dzibann, where it waits for four days before being broadcast to a fast merchant heading inward. Unfortunately the portal at Dzibann is unstable and the ship is cast out again after two days; it then rests for three days before trying again, so the message reaches Errai after 12 days. At Errai the message is broadcast across the system, where it is picked up by a data broker and the triggering condition is read. Here the broker discovers that she will be paid 1500 birr to ensure that the message contained within is sent to a specific person in Aiwaz. This is easy profit, since Errai has regular bulk haulers and she knows in particular one she trusts; she sends it on two days later for a small fee and pockets the huge profits, sitting back on her cushions in her small apartment to applaud the stupidity of scientists (if only she knew what Wana had found!) The message is transmitted to Kua, where it is broadcast directly to the contact person Wana had nominated. This person, a shady data broker by the name of Oleagi, reads further instructions, repackages the message in a data probe, and sends it on; he takes his payment directly from Wana’s prodigious array of grants at the Academy. The data probe speeds to the bulk hauler Aurora 3, which picks it up and carries it as far as Awadhi through two portals over three weeks. At Awadhi the data probe is released, broadcasting its message to the portal station. From here the message is broadcast again to passing bulk haulers, and arrives at Zamusa 5 days later. It took a total of 40 days to cross the Horizon from Ghodar to Zamusa, and delivers very pleasing news to Wana’s funders. In the process it has been through multiple changes of sender, including a physical transfer of information, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will learn who sent the message unless they either hack the message, or intercept the data probe – which would require attacking the bulk hauler that carried it. Wana is certain the secret of her Portal Builder artifact is safe for now.

Conclusion

My preference is to have interstellar campaigns be a little like colonial era exploration, with information passing at the same speed that people do. This is a crucial component to keeping the PCs ahead of the law, and it is also a really useful tool for making the frontiers lawless and dangerous. If information takes weeks to travel the PCs can get up to mischief and move on, and by the time they return to somewhere that knows of their crimes their crimes are already old news; the same applies to their enemies. It also lends rumour, stories and gossip a stronger value, and forces the PCs to sleuth around. In such a setting information gets fragmented, and important facts go missing. In a system where probes pass hourly through portals and broadcast information automatically, information spreads at the speed of a fax machine, which is too fast to allow the PCs to stay ahead of the law and ahead of their enemies – and too fast to allow the rims of the system to fragment and break away from the center. This is why I have decided to change the rules for communication in the Third Horizon, and to make it more wild west. In this communication system the PCs will think they’re so far ahead of their enemies – and won’t know when they’re being chased. And that’s exactly how I like it.

 

 

Who is Dr. Abad?

In the words of Banu Delecta, medic on the Beast of Burden:

  • Md. Jenin Abad was my senpai at medical school
  • Came from a poor Nomad Federation family
  • Big chip on his shoulder about class and the station/planetary divide
  • Soooo exhausting to deal with, constantly inserting politics into like everything
  • Ultimately became my classmate can you even believe it?
  • Because he took a year’s leave of absence to go do volunteer work in Odacon
  • To do this he spent 6 weeks picketing the School President’s office, and putting up fliers on the academy grounds, we were all like can you even believe what he’s doing?
  • Everyone thinks he only got into the school and got his leave of absence because we all know that Nomad Federation and Free Leaguer students get affirmative action
  • I mean It’s fair enough but like I had to study really hard and he was just doing zero-g acrobatics and working shipside and he just got into school just because of AA and then I bet he didn’t even have to pay the fees
  • Anyway diversity is good
  • So we studied together and I guess he was okay because even though he was always like complaining about my parents’ summer house on Kua not that I would have invited him I mean ewww he would help me with homework on the anatomy classes and he was really good in the clinic like I couldn’t understand what those kids from the cellars were even saying and even though his accent is pretty thick with Nomad federation slang he always managed to get through to them so I guess like his bedside manner was okay? I dunno if he should have passed but I guess the quality of healthcare out there in the Dark is so bad that it probably doesn’t matter but I hope he never works on Coriolis
  • Also he dated my friend Katmus and that didn’t go well and they had a big fight on her holiday yacht about like privilege and she dropped him off in Lubau lol and he had to get working passage back as a medic on a pox ship can you even?
  • Anyway from his work on Odacon I met Adam, so I guess that’s good right?

In Adam’s words

The picket didn’t work out for us and the Legion came in through number 1 and number 3 docks. I set up some of the renegades at the stairwell from 3 dock and we crashed a loader down the stairwell to 1 dock but it only slowed them down, and the retreat to 2 dock was vicious. We had to leave some of our wounded behind, I wanted to terminate them but the rebel leader said no not my choice to make, he’s a nice guy but it doesn’t surprise me he died a year later on Errai with attitudes like that. When you’re up against the Zenith you don’t have time to be sentimental do you? I don’t waste my time on that shit but I follow orders so I left each of them with the ammunition we could spare and we pulled back. The legion broke through to 2 dock as we were still trying to load the ship, because the leaders wouldn’t leave the wounded behind. Sheria was one of the leadership and she was gunned down pulling some wounded girl who was obviously useless, just going to bleed out on the ship if we even got away, but you have to be fair to Sheria and the other leaders, they didn’t hide on the ship when the bullets were firing. I’ll never forget Sheria, or the bravery of everyone else on that station. Foolish, pointless bravery, but better than I’ve ever seen from any professional soldier. I include myself in that because I don’t feel fear, and you can’t be brave if you aren’t scared, can you? Anyway I put a bullet in her head when she asked for it and dragged the wounded girl back, she died in my arms a few minutes later so that was a waste just like I expected. When the legion saw they couldn’t get the ship in time they fired some kind of bioweapon canister, we didn’t realize until we were in the Dark and the coughing started. But Ayman the political operative knew this doctor, Md. Jenin Abad, who he said might be able to help. For some reason I was immune but the rest of them progressed fast so we went to Abad, at a displaced person’s camp out in the edge of the system. He saved us all (except Ayman, whose gut wound was too serious for anyone to help). He’s a good man, Abad, a bit serious about politics but isn’t everyone in Odacon? Except me, I kill for money. When I got to Coriolis I was looking for a medic and I put a message through to Abad, who I knew was from the Academy. He recommended Banu, told me she’s a clueless princess but she’s good and under all the layers of lace and faux-naivete she cares. I don’t know about that, but she is good. So I owe Abad for that I guess. I don’t expect him to last with his attitude, idealists never do, but I hope he does a lot of good before he goes out.

You came in that?

Our PCs have had their first battle on board their ship, and I have been forced to think in detail about how large it is and how it is laid out. This is difficult, because many RPGs give guidelines on what to put in your ship and how much it costs, but very few talk about how it should all be laid out, how big it is and what it all looks like in the end. Some early games like Traveler provided deckplans but the ships they provided were very closely modeled on nautical ships and had a lot of flaws in their design (including that the final deckplans didn’t much match the design). So I did some thinking about how ship sizes and scales work in the Third Horizon, and came up with some guidelines, as well as some house rules for ship design. This post summarizes them.

The motivation: The Beast of Burden

The PCs’ ship is the Beast of Burden, a Class IV converted luxury yacht that they use for exploration and – as little as possible – combat. I have described the Beast of Burden elsewhere but its key modules of interest for ship design are:

  • 4 Luxury suites and 16 standard cabins
  • Two hangars, each capable of holding one class II or two class I ships
  • A single cargo hold, which in the original rules should hold 250 tons of cargo
  • A salvage unit
  • An arboretum

I ruled at the start of the game that the arboretum is a module, not a feature. The Beast of Burden is also armed and has various other modules, but for the purposes of ship design I think the ones listed above are crucial. So I need to figure out how all this is laid out and what it all looks like.

Ship size: The surprising scale of Coriolis ships

To figure out ship size I thought about hangars. These are the largest components of a ship, and are available from Class III up. A Class III ship should be able to hold a single Class I in its hangar, and a Class V should be able to hold one Class III. We can make some judgments from this. First of all, how big is a class I ship? It has 3 modules, so let us assume that each module is either a hangar capable of holding some small air raft or similar sub-orbital vehicle; or that each module is a 5x2x1 m cargo hold [for more on cargo holds see below] then we could imagine that if we laid these modules end to end the longest they would reach to would be perhaps 15-20 m long and 5 m wide. Add on a 5x5m floor plan for the bridge, and then a general padding for the external shell of the ship, engines etc, we can imagine that the longest a Class I ship would be is about 30m. Perhaps its total dimensions would be a maximum of 30m x 20m x10m.

This tells us that a Class III ship hangar would have to be about 50m x 30m x20m to comfortably fit such a ship. Realistically a Class III ship couldn’t have more than 4 modules for hangars, and we could imagine laying them in a 2×2 pattern (or in a ring of 4). So a Class III ship’s hangars alone could be 100m x 60m x 20m, or a cylinder 50m long and 60m in diameter. Add in some extra space on each end for cargo, service, engines etc and we can imagine the maximum size for a Class III ship would be about 150m x 80m x 30m. A Class IV ship needs to be able to hold 2 Class I ships in a single hangar, so that hangar must be about 100m x 50m x 30m. A Class IV ship could have 8 or maybe even 12 hangars, so its maximum size (with padding for crew space etc) would be 350m x 150m x 80m. Based on this we can present the following table for ships in the Coriolis system.

Ship class Max length Max width Approx weight Equivalent vessel (Earth)
I 30m 20m 600 tons Fast patrol vessel
II 75 m 40m 9000 tons Naval patrol vessel
III 150m 80m 60000 tons Container ship
IV 350m 150m 420000 tons Largest ships on earth
V 600m 300m 3600000 tons None
VI 1.2 km 1km An enormous amount None
VII 2.5 km 2 km None
VIII 5km 4km None
IX 10km 8km Coriolis station

The Beast of Burden herself is approximately 240m long, which makes her about the length of a Panamax cargo ship – some of the biggest ships used on earth[1]. Most of this is on the service deck, which holds two hangars, the salvage unit and the cargo. Without these modules she would be much, much smaller, but a Class VI ship with a hangar needs to have a hangar large enough to fit her, so its hangars need to be at least 300m long – in fact they need to be large enough to hold a much bigger Class IV ship than the Beast of Burden, which is why a Class VI ship can be 1.2km long.

Astute readers might notice that the weights given here are huge. I found some guidelines for calculating the weight of an ocean-going ship which suggest its weight is its volume divided by 5, and I have calculated the spaceship weights on the assumption that they would be half the weight of an equivalent-volume ocean-going ship. The reason for these enormous weights is that a terrestrial ship is long and slim, but no such restrictions apply to a spaceship. The Knock Nevis was 70m wide and maybe 80m in height, while a Class IV ship is twice as wide and higher as well. These larger volumes lead to much greater weights. In any case, in space weight is unimportant, so the main concern is volume, not weight.

For comparison purposes, I estimate the Coriolis space station is about 4.8 km wide and 7km long, making it a Class IX ship.

Dimensions of some components

It’s worth noting that ships of the same class can be remarkably different in size. A Class I ship with three weapons modules might be only 10m long, and a class IV ship that was devoted to carrying pilgrims in coffins might be only 100m long. Without hangars and cargo we can expect they are much more compact, but the ship class is decided by the total quantity of its components, not its size. Let us consider the size of some of these components.

For living space, I assume that a luxury suite is a 10mx10m floorplan, while standard suites are 5mx5m. I assigned 1m3 of space to the service station per 10m3 of volume of the ship. I decided not to measure cargo by weight, but instead by volume – 1 ton of cargo can be tiny if it is iron ore, or large if it is raw cotton. So instead I assign 10^class m3 of volume to cargo per module (so a class IV ship cargo module is 10,000 m3). The salvage station should be half the size of a hangar on a ship of that class. For class 1 and class II ships I assume a hangar (for sub-orbital small vehicles) might be about 10mx5m. Everything else I consider to be malleable in size and allocation, and I assume extra space for luxury suites or shared living space is natural. Docking stations, etc. scale up with the ship.

I assume the height of a deck for living space is 2m, or 3m if the ship is spacious, plus 1m per class of the ship. The Beast of Burden has two levels on top of its service deck, so as a class IV luxury yacht each of these levels would be assumed to be about 7m in height, with 3m of actual space experienced by the people in the ship. Obviously service decks don’t follow this plan.

Finally, I multiply the total volume by a small amount (perhaps 10%) for super structure, and then by a percentage equal to the cost inflation of the ship’s features. So if a ship’s features make it cost 30% more, then it also takes up about 30% more volume.

House rules for ship design

I made a few house rules for ship design, which I list here.

  • Cargo by volume: As mentioned above, I think cargo should be measured by volume. I assume 10^class m3. On a class IV ship this means one module takes up 10,000 m3, which is a 100mx10mx10m cube. On the Beast of Burden this is two sections, each 25mx20mx30m, forward of the hangars. A Class IV ship with 12 modules devoted to cargo could have 200mx60mx10m of space, 100mx60mx20m, and so on. By way of comparison I think the largest super-tankers can hold about 500,000 m3 of oil, about 4 times as much as a Class IV bulk hauler.
  • Divisible modules: If modules scale with class, I have decided ship designs can swap a single module for multiple smaller class modules. So for example a single class IV module could be composed of two Class III modules, four Class II modules, or eight Class I modules. So instead of having 64 stasis pods, a Class IV ship could opt for 32 stasis pods and an extra 8 escape pods (both class III modules). This will cost more because module price doesn’t scale with class, but it makes the ship design more versatile
  • Extra class I modules: For ships of class III and above, a couple of free class I modules can be chucked in to represent the vast space in these designs. These ships get 2^(class-2) extra class 1 modules, so a class IV ship gets 4 extra Class 1 modules. For example, an extra tiny hangar for sub-orbital vehicles, one more coffin, an extra escape pod, etc. This is just flavour.
  • Prison modules: The cabins module can be exchanged for a prison that holds as many people as the coffins option. Put it next to the medlab for added torture chamber options.
  • Hangar expansion: The rules suggest that the number of ships should increase as 4^class (so a class V ship can hold 16 class I ships) but this is madness: I have chosen to make it 2^class. On my calculations this means that Coriolis station can hold up to 192 class I ships at any time. I think that’s okay!

With these rules it’s easier to design flexible ships that suit their purpose.

Ships beyond Class V

I have included ships up to Class IX in my table of sizes to allow for the Coriolis to be described by the rules. I have not considered how modules, hps etc. scale up with these sizes, but a basic progression from the rules would suggest a Class IX ship has 640 modules, 24hp and 11 EP, and 17 armour. I would guess that some of these values (particularly armour and hp) would scale further, and modules might plateau, so you might expect 400 modules, 40 hp and 30 armour or something similar. That’s basically indestructible. Good thing there’s only one, and it’s not mobile!

Conclusion

The Coriolis ship rules lead to staggeringly large and very cool ships, with a lot of variation in size and structure within a class, and a lot of flexibility to describe different ship designs. Coriolis station is outside the core rules, but probably the way the rules work they could be scaled up to describe Coriolis station accurately. It’s likely that your PCs will encounter ships up to 1 km long, and they’re probably flying in some rusting hulk that is bigger than most ships on earth. I think there is a problem with Class 0 ships – we need some designs for in-system fighters but the current rules don’t support that – but otherwise the rules scale well and it works nicely. By adding dimensions to some components and changing the size of cargo, it’s possible to come up with some guidelines for how to lay out deckplans and design ships that are awesome in scale and lots of fun to fly in.

I want my spaceships big and exciting. I’m looking forward to the moment my PCs encounter a 1km long spaceship, and have to negotiate …

Edit to add:

I have house-ruled the hangar module to allow the hangar to carry more ships of lower class at a rate of 2^(class step). So a class 4 ship hangar can hold 1 class 2 ship or 2 class I ships. But the official rules say this should happen at a rate of 2^(2*class step). So a class IV ship hangar holds 1 class II ship or 4 class I ships. This leads to a really rapid rate of increase of ship sizes, even if we make generous assumptions about how small a class I ship is. For example, suppose we say the biggest a class I ship can be is 15m long and 10m wide, and a hangar should allow 5m on all sides of this ship. So a class I ship needs 25m x 20m of space in a hangar. Then a class III ship hangar would need to be 25mx20m in size, and the largest a class III ship would be would be perhaps 70m x 50m, if it had four hangars. However after this hangars scale up rapidly! A class IV ship hangar would need to hold four class I ships so needs to be 100mx20m, and a class IV ship could potentially have 8 of these, which in a realistic cylinder shape would make its hangars 200m long and 50m across – so the whole ship is about 250m long. After this things scale fast. A class V ship hangar holds 16 class I ships and needs to be 100m x 80m or 200m x 50m, so a class V carrier could be 1km long and definitely more than 600m. Then a class VI ship hangar would hold 64 class I ships and need to be 400m x 100m, and so on. By this reckoning I think the largest ships in each class would be about 1km (class V), about 2km (class VI), 4 km (class VII), 10 km (class VIII) and 20km (class IX). These are huge! And that’s assuming that class I ships are half the size of my starting assumption. In this variant there is much more diversity of size within ship classes, and the PCs will likely never encounter a ship bigger than class IV, but it does raise the possibility that the Order of the Pariah are sitting on some ginormous battleship (let’s call it the Yamato) that is going to appear in the Kua system some time in the future and be bigger than the Coriolis …


fn1: The largest ship on earth was the Knock Nevis, which was 460 m long. Panamax ships are routinely 250m long.

bob3

The Beast of Burden

Tomorrow my Coriolis campaign begins, and in preparation the players have generated their ship, and their group concept. Here I describe both.

The Beast of Burden

The Beast of Burden is a reconfigured Class IV luxury yacht, built in the Harima shipyards. After 15 years of faithful service she was sold off by her owner and taken over by a criminal gang, before their leadership was slaughtered in a Legion raid in Sadaal. Desperate for cash the remnants of the gang sold her on to the Free League, who reconfigured her as a luxury hotel for senior members before an unfortunate series of accidents caused all on board to die horribly and the ship to go missing. After two years she was found and claimed as salvage by some intrepid scrappers in the Tarazug system, but they soon lost her after some faulty repairs caused a portal jump mishap in Sivas. Whatever creatures from the Dark Beyond the Stars killed the crew were gone when she was rediscovered in Altai, though considerable cleaning was required to make her spaceworthy again. By now her reputation was stained far worse than the Medlab floors, though, and the salvage crew that found her sold her on for scrap. It was at this point that the media mogul Drefusol Amadi saw a chance at a bargain, bought her and reconfigured her for long distance exploration and research. In CC69 he handed her over to the PCs, saddled them with 50% of the debt for the scrap purchase and refit, and told them they would be hearing from him in due course. Whether their motives were best described as confidence, stupidity or desperation, the group agreed, and traveled to Coriolis station to collect their new ship.

bob2

Her origins in the Harima shipyard mean that the Beast of Burden is a graceful, fast and luxurious vessel, capable of surprising feats of power despite her apparently playful interior. She is large, with a 250 ton cargo hold and two spacious hangars. The cargo hold was originally a pool and party area, which is rumoured to have hosted some crazy parties, but which has now been converted to storage specially designed to enable its easy reconfiguration into a research facility or a cage for alien species.

One of the Beast of Burden‘s hangars originally held a large number of small entertainment vessels, but has been reconfigured to hold a fighter, the No Satisfaction, and an unnamed space scooter for movement between vessels. The second hangar holds the Kashmir, a class II shuttle capable of ferrying 24 passengers. In addition to the No Satisfaction, the Beast of Burden is armed with a torpedo launcher and an accelerator cannon. Though not sufficiently heavily armed to provide real military power, the combination of fighter plus two weapon points means that she is capable of defending herself until escape (or until help arrives). During her refit by the criminal gang she was equipped with advanced stealth technology, which adds to her capability in both escaping combat and exploring planets where open approach might be considered unwise.

kashmir

The Kashmir prepares to leave the hangar

Designed for long distance exploration and research missions, the Beast of Burden has an onboard workshop, service station, medlab and Arboretum. The Arboretum hosts a lizardlike Threng of Algol stock, called Neverwhere, and three colorful and raucous parrots from Kua. The two ships’ cats are allowed to prowl the Arboretum, but have come to an agreement with the parrots and prefer not to venture into the garden too often, as Neverwhere is aggressive with smaller animals. None of these animals are allowed into the Chapel. The Chapel is an essential part of the Beast of Burden, since the ship is generally considered to be cursed and homage at the chapel is essential before attempting any portal travel. The PCs have yet to grow used to the curse, or the strange sounds and sudden chills that they encounter in the darker sections of the ship.

bob deck

The Beast of Burden’s observation deck

The Beast of Burden has retained her core luxury service area, and is graced with four luxury suites and their attached galleys, entertainment spaces and cinema. The library has been converted into a media room, capable of broadcasting radio and including an encrypted messaging station for communication with their patron. On a lower deck are 16 standard cabins for crew. There are, unfortunately, only enough escape pods for 16 people, so the ship is not capable of safely operating at full complement. It does, however, have a stasis hold capable of storing 64 people, so in an emergency it could serve as an evacuation or rescue vessel, though life would be very uncomfortable for all on board. The hangar also holds two ground vehicles and a few basic drones, which can be used for mundane surface exploration, though they are not armoured or capable of all terrain travel.

The Beast of Burden offers a luxurious living space for all purpose extended missions on exploration, research or journalism tasks, ideally suited to a team of explorers hired by a media mogul with dubious intentions. Let us explore this team’s background and composition.

the group

Exploring

The Group: Explorers

The players have configured their group as explorers, with the group talent Survivors. Their members are listed here.

  • Al Hamra, a mystic, captain of the ship
  • Adam, a humanite soldier, the ship’s medic
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist, the ship’s gunner
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist, the sensor operator
drefusol

In the palaces of the powerful

The group’s patron is Drefusol Amadi, a media mogul who runs the Free News. He is a rich man who has been forced out of the centers of power, for reasons the PCs do not know, and intends to use his vast wealth to finance a media organization that will dig up secrets on the rich and powerful, their schemes and private lives. He funds paparazzi and private investigators in the central cities of the Third Horizon, paying them to dig up salacious gossip that undermines politicians and religious leaders, keeps them honest and keeps him paid. He also finances investigative journalists who risk their lives to hunt out the deeper and darker secrets of the powerful factions that vie for authority in the systems of the Horizon. As a side project he pays a smaller number of elite adventurers to explore the old ruins of the Horizon, and to visit frontier colonies searching for dirt, stories, rumours, and hints of ancient ruins and origin myths. His real motivations are unknown, but his animus towards the ruling powers of the Horizon is legendary. He has given the PCs no limits or obligations, simply the responsibility to pay back the debt on their ship, and has made clear to them that at some time in the future he will call on them for aid.

Opposed to Drefusol is Dr. Wana, an unconventional and reckless archaeologist who works for the Foundation’s Archaeological Institute. She has been opposed to Drefusol since his reporters uncovered the damage she was doing in a dig on a frontier planet, and the way she was treating her local labourers. It does not help that Siladan is an untrained amateur archaeologist, the kind of neophyte she hates – were he to make any major discoveries it would drive her crazy. As soon as the PCs took up Drefusol’s offer to work for him they became her enemies, and she is not a nemesis to be taken lightly – she has contacts in the Colonial Agency, the Legion, and – it is rumoured – the Draconites. She is also very well endowed with grant money and the legacy of her mother’s money, inherited from a mercenary business her mother ran in the early 40s. That mercenary company is long gone, ground to blood and bone in a brutal war on Menkar, but that isn’t to say that her contacts in the world of independent military contractors died with her mother’s sellswords … she is not one to be crossed lightly.

It is against this background that the PCs arrive at Coriolis station, to take control of the Beast of Burden, and their destiny in the Dark Beyond the Stars …

 

A shining future awaits!

The year comes to an end, and as I do every year I turn my mind to the year’s successes, its excessive slaughters and magical high points: a review of my year in gaming.

Unfortunately 2018 was something of a year of false starts. I began the year by ending my Mutant: Year Zero campaign, which finished with a war for the Ark and the revelation of the cause of the Apocalypse. I did not tell the players this, but my idea for the cause of the apocalypse in this campaign tied in with an old post-apocalyptic campaign I ran many years ago, in which the world had been brought to an end by the Catholic church, who unleashed magic and demons on the world in order to reduce it to a dark-ages level of technology in which religion would again be ascendant. The Mutant: Year Zero apocalypse was a variant of this, and so the PCs were playing in an immediate post-apocalypse world that would ultimately evolve into the world of the post-apocalypse campaign. It would be nice to return to that post-apocalypse world, perhaps using the Genesys system, which I bought this year. Mutant: Year Zero was an extremely enjoyable campaign and opened my eyes to the joys of Fria Ligan’s work. They are a genuinely excellent gaming company who make great games based around a simple and flexible and fun system, which I used a variant of later in the year and will be returning to in 2019.

Aside from the successful completion of the Mutant: Year Zero campaign, though, 2018 was a year of false starts. Our Shadowrun campaign, set in the post-awakening city of New Horizon that followed on from the awesome Cyberpunk campaign of 2016/2017, ended without resolution because our GM got permanent residency in Canada and moved there. This member of my group leaving, and two other members running into major real life hurdles, meant that the regular group I had been gaming with for several years fell apart and a bunch of campaigns that could have got started fell into ruin after just one session. We had a go at The One Ring, and also some D&D, but nothing got up and running. Our Degenesis campaign had a session in 2018 but floundered for the same reason, which is a shame because that world is very powerful and engaging.

The main campaign that has been running successfully in 2018 is my skype D&D campaign, which has had about 8 sessions that I have written up as 5, and which has been a lot of fun. This campaign has players based in Japan, Australia and the UK, and is generally run over roll20 for about 3 hours on Sunday evenings every two weeks (when we aren’t too busy). We have been running the Lost Mine of Phandalver campaign, which seems to be a really well-written and organized campaign and has been a lot of fun to run. The gaming atmosphere is a mixture of horror, comedy and serious fantasy, so that for example one of the PCs is a middle-aged wizard who is only adventuring because he has lost his grant funding, and Goblins speak with a French accent (mon dieu!) but it also has serious moments in which brutal battles end horribly, rogues speak with ancient stones about lost secrets, and horrible evils are thwarted. Much more than my previous attempt to experience original D&D with this skype group, this campaign has really allowed me to enjoy D&D again, to the extent that I even recently ran a session in Japanese for some newbie friends. D&D remains a bit too crunchy and capricious for my tastes, but the 5th edition has made it a lot more fun and a lot easier to GM or play without needing a PhD (perhaps it has been reduced to Master’s level). D&D 5 also shows what an execrable mess Pathfinder is, and how shallow 13th Age is.

Besides the Japanese one-off, I also ran a one-off adventure set in Neolithic England, inspired by my recent trip to Stonehenge, in which the PCs were stone-age adventurers who had to get the sun to rise after the desecration of a holy spot by Bronze Age invaders. This went really well, although I based the system on the Coriolis system and did some tweaks that made it extremely difficult for the players to use all their powers as much as they wanted.

This brings me to my plans for 2019. In my review of 2017 I wrote that I intend to set up a Coriolis campaign in 2018, and run it for a long time with a core group of players, but this did not happen because my regular group fell apart and my work became a lot busier and more demanding than I expected. I also experienced an extremely unpleasant disease in mid-2018, Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which completely wrecked my schedule for a few months. Things have stabilized now, however, and I have identified a new group of players and rounded them up, so beginning in early 2019 I will start the Coriolis campaign I have been waiting a year to begin. Aside from a few one-offs, this and the Skype D&D campaign will be my main gaming in 2019. I will run a long, excellent campaign of intrigue and dark magic in an Arabian-themed space opera setting, alongside continuing violence and comedy in the Forgotten Realms. A nice mixture!

So, here’s to a healthier 2019 and a more successful year of gaming. Let’s enjoy the Dark Between the Stars together!

I am playing in a GURPS campaign that is a muskets and magic setting, in which our go-to fighter is a rifleman called Bamiyan. I haven’t been recording this campaign here because it has been written elsewhere up until some months ago (though with permission from the GM I may start). GURPS is a complex and fiddly system, with a heavy focus on realism, and one consequence of this is that our rifleman is constantly hampered by the amount of time it takes to reload his stupid muskets. Seriously, the dwarves need to do something about that! So, since we haven’t got a better technology, my wizard Freya Tigrisdottir is going to learn a new school of magic, Battle Magic, which enables her to affect guns and rilfemen. Here is a list of spells for that school.

Aim

Increases the accuracy rating of the weapon on its next shot by up to +5.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 1/bonus

Prerequisite: magery 1

 

Perfect mechanism

Increases the affected weapon’s reliability rating to 20. Can be extended to additional weapons at a cost of 1 pt/weapon.

Duration: 1 minute

Base cost: 2, 1 to maintain

Prerequisite: At least 1 point of xp in the affected weapon’s class

 

Magic shot

Renders the next shot by the weapon magical, so that it can penetrate spells like Missile Shield. Also enables the weapon to affect non-corporeal magic targets (such as mages under the affect of Body of Air spells, ghosts, etc). Does not offer any other bonuses. Can be extended to additional weapons at a cost of 1 pt/weapon.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2

Prerequisite: Aim

 

Sniper

Grants a hit and damage bonus on the next shot fired by the subject. Note that the bonus affects the damage as well as the skill of the user. This spell does not render the weapon magical, since it affects the user of the gun, not the gun itself.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2/bonus

Prerequisite: Aim, Magic shot, at least 1 point of xp in the affected weapon’s class

 

Far sight

Enhances the shooter’s eyesight so that the range to the target is effectively less than the actual distance. This reduces the shooter’s penalty and also potentially (if enough points are sunk into the spell) removes the half damage penalty for firing at extreme range, or enables the shooter to fire beyond the usual range of the weapon.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2/range class

Prerequisite: Sniper

 

Fierce powder

Enhances the force at which a gun fires, adding 1d6 of damage to the resulting shot. Cannot be scaled up (it’s only powder, after all). Most effective when cast on pistols.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2

Prerequisite: Magic shot, Perfect mechanism

 

Stability

Renders the shooter’s upper body immune to the vicissitudes of environmental stress such as riding a horse or wagon, standing on a heaving ship, etc. Nullifies any penalties due to this condition and enables the shooter to automatically pass skill checks to maintain focus.

Duration: 1 minute

Base cost: 5

Prerequisite: Magery 2, sniper, far sight

 

Fast reload

Reduces the load time for any weapon to 1 second, provided the subject is holding the necessary components (powder, shot) and the gun. Can be extended to multiple weapons. Note that this still means that reloading will take at least 2 seconds –one second to cast the spell, and one second to load the gun. Note the process by which an officer and his batman can fire rapidly when in conjunction with a wizard: in second one he swaps his unloaded gun for a loaded gun his batman holds; in second two the batman produces the components for the unloaded gun (during which the soldier fires the loaded gun); in second three the wizard casts Fast Reload; in second four the batman loads the gun; then in second five the batman and officer swap the guns again, and so on. Note that this process can apply to two lines of soldiers if the wizard has enough mana to cast the reload spell on all the auxiliary reloaders at once.

Duration: 1 second

Cost: 2/gun

Prerequisites: Perfect mechanism, aim, magery 2, at least 1 xp spent in the gun being affected by the spell

 

Complex form

Enables the caster to combine two or more spells from this school together in a single casting. This is an additional cost on top of the standard cost of each spell, that costs 2 points per spell combined. So for example to cast aim and perfect mechanism in one casting would require 4 points plus the cost of those spells. Note that this form must affect the same subject so it cannot combine spells that affect shooters with spells that affect weapons.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2 per spell combined

Prerequisite: Magery 2, at least 2 other spells from this school.

 

Elemental embrace

Enables the caster to imbue the next shot fired with the damage from an elemental attack spell such as lightning bolt, fire bolt, etc. The caster must successfully cast the elemental attack spell within one minute of this spell, and the shot must also be fired within one minute of this spell, or the effect dissipates. It is wise to cast perfect mechanism when combining with this spell, since fumbles can be quite catastrophic. Note the total time to cast this spell is 1 second plus the number of seconds required to cast the elemental spell. Can be combined with Complex Form.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2 + elemental spell cast

Prerequisite: Magery 2, complex form, aim, fierce powder

 

Artillerist

Enables the caster to direct the rifleman’s shot even if the rifleman cannot see the target. This spell requires that the wizard be able to see the shooter and the target, and that there be some way that the bullet can cleanly travel to the target (i.e. open air all the way). It does not provide the shooter any bonuses, and the shooter cannot aim (since he/she cannot see the target). All it does is allow the shooter to shoot things he/she cannot otherwise see.

Duration: 1 minute

Base cost: 5

Prerequisite: Magery 2, complex form, Aim, sniper

 

Duelist shot

Enables the subject to fire two weapons at once with no penalty.

Duration: 1 minute (until next shot fired)

Base cost: 5

Prerequisite: Aim, sniper, artillerist, stability

We’ve all been there: Your PC is up against a much weaker opponent, deploying your primary power or skill, but in the crucial moment the d20 roll comes up low for you or high for the opponent, and you once again find that your best power failed you when you were sure it would work. This happens all the time in D&D because the d20 has a flat distribution and that means that low rolls are just as likely as high ones. Although this means on average you might expect your best power to work, unless you are absolutely obliterating your opponent you can’t rely on the dice to turn up even in the ballpark of where you need them to be. This is also a problem in Cyberpunk (d10) and Warhammer 2nd Edition (d100). I have always found it really frustrating, because if use a peaked distribution we can be fairly confident that the dice will roll around about the middle of their distribution more often than the edge. I have complained about this many times, but I have never bothered to see how big a difference a peaked distribution would make to the flow of the game. So here I compare the easiest peaked distribution, 2d10, with 1d20 as a basic die structure for D&D. I have chosen 2d10 because the average roll is about the same as 1d20, and its most likely value is close to the basic DC values of D&D, which are abut 9-11.

Method

For this analysis I have conducted three basic calculations, on the assumption that a PC (the “attacker”) is in a challenged skill check with another PC or enemy (the “defender”):

  1. Comparing the probability of success for the attacker for every die roll on a 1d20 and a 2d10 basic roll
  2. Estimating the total probability of success for the attacker across a wide range of possible skill bonuses, and comparing these probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10
  3. Comparing the probability of success for a highly skilled attacker against a low-skilled attacker, across a wide range of defensive bonuses

For objective 1 I have performed the calculations for attackers with skill values of +0, +4 or +8, against a defender with a bonus of +4 or +0. The specific pairings are shown in the figures below. I chose +4 because it is the basic bonus you can expect for a 1st level character using their proficiency bonus and their best attribute, and +8 as a representative high bonus. For objective 2 I have calculated total probability of success for attackers with bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, against defenders with skill bonus of +0, +4 or +6. I chose +6 because this is the typical bonus you expect of a 5th level character who is working with their proficiency and has sunk their attribute bonus into their top attribute. For objective 3 I have compared a PC with a +6 bonus to a PC with a +0 bonus, for defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10.

Probabilities of success for any particular die roll are easily calculated because the distributions of 1d20 and 2d10 are quite simple. Total probability of success is calculated using the law of total probability as follows:

P(success)=P(rolls a 1)*P(defender doesn’t beat 1)+P(rolls a 2)*P(defender doesn’t beat 2) +…

I have presented all results as graphs, but may refer to specific numbers where they matter. All figures can be expanded by clicking on them. Analyses were conducted in R, which is why some axis titles aren’t fully readable – you can make them bigger but then they fall off the edge of the graphics window. Stupid R!

Results

Figures 1-3 show the probability of success for every point on the die (from 2 to 20) for 1d20 vs. 2d10. In all figures the 2d10 is in red and the 1d20 in grey, and a grey vertical line has been placed where the probabilities of success are equal for the two die types.

Figure 1 shows that the 1d20 has a better chance of success for all die rolls between 2 and 15. That is, if you have a bonus of +0 and the defender has a bonus of +4, you are better off in a 1d20 system for almost all rolls. The point where the probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10 are equal is a die roll of 16. This corresponds with the defender needing a 12+, and all die rolls after this (17-20) correspond with the defender needing to get a high number on the downward peak of the 2d10 distribution. It may seem counter-intuitive that the 1d20 system rewards you for rolling low, but it is worth remembering that the comparatively low rolls – below 10 – are less likely on a 2d10, so although if you do roll one you are less likely to succeed than if you had a 1d20 system, you are also less likely to roll one. We will see how this pans out when we consider total probability of success, below.

Figure 1: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

Figure 2 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +4 and a defender with +0. In this case we expect the attacker to win on a wider range of dice rolls, and this is exactly what we observe. Now the point where 2d10 is better for the attacker than 1d20 corresponds with dice rolls of 8 or more – in this case, dice rolls that the defender needs to get 12 or more to beat. We see the same process in action.

Figure 2: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +4 bonus and defender +0

Figure 3 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +8 and a defender with +0. Now we see that the 2d10 is more beneficial to the attacker than the 1d20 from rolls of 4 and above – again, the point beyond which the defender needs to roll 12 or more.

Figure 3: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

These results are summarized for two cases in Figure 4, which gives the odds ratio for success with a 1d20 compared to 2d10 at each die roll. The odds ratio is the odds of success with a 1d20 divided by the odds of success with a 2d10, calculated at the given dice roll point. I use the odds ratio because it is the correct numerical method for comparing two probabilities, and reflects the special upper (1) and lower (0) bounds on probabilities. The odds ratio grows rapidly as a probability heads towards 0 or 1, and reflects the fact that a 10% difference in probability is a much more meaningful difference when one probability is 10% than when one probability is 50%.

 

Odds Ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10, for two attacking cases

In this case I have shown only the case of an offense of +4 and a defense of +0, and an offense of +8 vs. a defense of +0. I used only these two cases because the case of +0 vs. +4 has such huge odds ratios that it is not possible to see the detail of the other two cases. This figure shows that for an offense of +4 and a defense of 0, the 1d20 has 2-3 times the odds of success at low numbers, but also much lower odds of success at high numbers. Effectively the 2d10 smooths out the probability patterns across the die roll, so that you get less chance of success if you roll poorly, and more chance of success if you roll well, compared to a 1d20.

Figures 5 to 7 show the total probability of success for 1d20 and 2d10 in three different cases. The total probability of success is the probability that you will beat your opponent when you roll the die. This is the probability you roll a 2 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, plus the probability you roll a 3 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, up to the probability you roll a 20. I have calculated this for a range of attack bonuses from -2 to +10, against three defense scenarios: 0, +4 and +6.

Figure 5 shows the total probability for 1d20 and 2d10 when rolled against a defense bonus of 0. Probabilities of success for both 2d10 and 1d20 are quite high, crossing 50% at about an attacking bonus of +0 as we would expect. The 2d10 roll has a lower probability of success than 1d20 for bonuses below 0, and a higher probability of successes for bonuses above 0.

Figure 5: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +0

Figure 6 shows the total probability of success for 2d10 and 1d20 against a defense bonus of +4. The ability of the 2d10 system to distinguish between people weaker than the defender and stronger than the defender is clearer here. At an attack bonus of -2 (vs. defense of +4) the 2d10 system has about a 10% lower chance of success than the 1d20; conversely, at attack bonus of +10 (vs. defense of +4) it has about a 10% higher probability of success. Both systems have an approximately 50% chance of success at a bonus of +4, as we expect.

Figure 6: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +4

Figure 7 shows the total probabilities against a defense bonus of +6. Again we see that the 2d10 system slightly punishes people with a lower bonus than the defender, and slightly rewards people with a higher bonus.

Figure 7: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +6

These results are summarized as odds ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 in Figure 8. Here the odds ratios are charted for the full range of attacker bonuses, with a separate curve for defense bonus of +0, +4 or +6. Here an odds ratio over 1 indicates that the 1d20 roll has a better chance of success than the 2d10, while an odds ratio below 1 indicates the 2d10 roll has a better chance of success. From this chart you can see that for all offense bonuses lower than the defense bonus, the 1d20 system gives a higher probability of success than the 2d10 system. As the defense bonus increases this relative benefit grows larger.

Figure 8: Odds Ratio of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 across a wide range of offense bonuses, for three defense bonuses

 

The odds ratio curves in Figure 8 raise an interesting final point about the 2d10 system vs. the 1d20 system. Since the 1d20 system has higher probabilities of success at low offense bonuses, and relatively lower probabilities of success at higher offense bonuses, it should be the case that the difference in success probability between a skilled PC and an unskilled PC will be smaller for the 1d20 system than for the 2d10. That is, if your PC has a bonus of 6 and is attempting to do something, he or she will have a higher chance of success than a person with a bonus of 0, but the relative difference in success probability will not be so great; this difference will be more pronounced for someone using 2d10. To put concrete numbers on this, in the 1d20 system a PC with a +6 bonus trying to beat a defense of +2 has a 65% chance of success, while a PC with a +0 bonus has a 39% chance of success. In contrast, using 2d10 the PC with the +6 bonus has a 72% chance of success, while the PC with the +0 bonus has a 34% chance of success. These greater relative differences are important because they encourage party diversification – if people with large bonuses have commensurately better chances of success than people with small bonuses, then there is a good reason for having distinct roles in the party, and less risk that e.g. even though someone has specialized in stealth, the chances that the non-stealthy people can pull off the same moves will be high enough that the stealth PC does not stand out.

This effect is shown in Figure 9, where I plot the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus compared to +0 bonus, against defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, for both dice systems. It shows that across all defense bonuses the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus is about 3 times that for a person with +0 bonus when we roll 1d20. In contrast, with 2d10 this odds ratio is closer to 6, and appears to grow larger as the defense bonus increases. That is, as the targeted task becomes increasingly difficult, the 2d10 system rewards people who are specialized in that task compared to those who are not; and at all difficulties, the difference in success chance for the specialist is greater than for the non-specialist, compared to the 1d20 system.

Figure 9: Odds ratio of success for bonus of +6 vs. +0, in both dice systems, against a wide range of defense bonuses

 

Conclusion

Rolling 2d10 for skill checks and attacks in D&D 5th Edition makes very little overall difference to the probability distribution of outcomes, but it does slightly change the distribution in three key ways:

  • It increases the chance that a high dice roll will lead to success, and reduces the chance of success on a low dice roll;
  • It lowers the probability of success for PCs targeting enemies with higher bonuses than they have, and raises the probability of success for PCs with higher bonuses;
  • It increases the gap in success chance between specialist and non-specialist PCs, rewarding diversification of skills and character choices

The 2d10 system does not change the point at which the PC has a 50% chance of success, but it does reduce the probability of criticals. It is worth noting that with a 2d10 system, the process for advantage requires rolling 4d10 and picking the best 2 (rolling 3d10 and picking the best 2 actually reduces the probability of a critical hit). Some might find this annoying, though those of us who enjoy dice pool games will be happy to be rolling 4d10. For those who find it annoying, dropping advantage altogether and replacing it with +3 will likely give the same results (see e.g. here and here). But if you like rolling lots of dice 4d10 choose 2 sounds more fun than 2d20 choose 1.

I don’t think that switching to 2d10 will massively change the way the game runs or really hugely unbalance anything but it will ensure that when you roll high you can have high confidence of success against someone of about your own power; and it will ensure that if you are the person in the party who is good at a task (like picking locks, sneaking, or influencing people) you will be consistently much more likely to do it than the rest of your group, which is nice because it makes your shine really shine. So I recommend switching to 2d10 for all task resolution in D&D.

A final note on DCs

The basic DC for a spell or special power used by a PC in D&D 5e is 8+proficiency level+attribute. This means that against someone with proficiency in the given save and the same attribute bonus as you, they have a 60% chance of avoiding your power. I think that’s very poor design – it should be 10+proficiency+attribute, so that against someone with your own power level you have a 50% chance of success, not 40%. It could be argued that 40% is reasonable since people often take half damage on a save and the full effect of a spell is quite serious, but given wizards have few spells (and most other powers are restricted in use), this doesn’t seem reasonable. So I would consider adding 2 to all save DCs in the game, regardless of whether you switch to 2d10 or stay on 1d20.

 

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