RPG aids

Some years ago now I played in a World of Darkness campaign set in a near-future world where McCain was president and a secret conspiracy was slowly pulling the world into an evil and hellish future. I played a washed-up communist called John Micksen, who served the Winter Queen and had found magic (he eventually tried to retire from service to the Winter Queen, but failed). We fought our way through many obstacles until eventually we reset the world and ended the evil god’s plan, although ultimately the ending of the campaign had a somewhat unsatisfactory “we woke up and it was all just a dream” feeling. We laughed at much of the world that we were adventuring in: the comic book proto-fascism of the McCain regime (complete with martial law and Starship Troopers style propaganda); the similarities to the Butcher books (which our GM swore were a coincidence); the vast and expansive nature of the plot and what we were up against (gods, angels, vampires; we had the helldog Cerberus as our guard dog by the end); the comical paedophilia and satanism of our enemies; the incredibly complex conspiracy theory we were unraveling. But in retrospect we were playing in a foreboding of the world to come. Not the real world, of course, but the strange fantasy world that so many QAnon lovers have fallen into over the past four years. But for all its awful real-world consequences, as a campaign world the fantastic visions of the QAnon conspiracists leave my World of Darkness campaign for dead. On the still slightly optimistic hope that by Wednesday their figurehead will be out of the white house, we can begin to shrug off Qanon as just a particularly weird and unpleasant cultural movement of these weird times, and then maybe we can begin to think about what an excellent gaming world their insane conspiracy theories have left us.

In the Qanon world a cabal of satanists have taken over the US government and are using their power to commit horrible deeds, including harvesting “adrenochrome” from tortured children, and attempting to make a world government where a small cabal of freaky people control every aspect of our lives. Almost every major institution in the US and much of the world is in on it, and only a small group of aware people are in a position to stop it. In this insane view of the world Trump is going to sweep the conspiracy away and save the universe, but the conspiracy itself goes all the way back to when Clinton was in the white house, with the tentacles of the evil organization involved slowly stretching out through all the organs of the state. This means that there are various stages of the Qanon world that could be used as a setting, probably starting with some period in the 1960s (QAnon believe the Kennedy conspiracy, and also seem to see a connection between MK Ultra and what they think is happening now). It blends Stranger Things, the X Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seamlessly with every one of Dan Brown’s craziest stories to make an all-encompassing and absorbing world of evil to take on. Really, it’s an ideal campaign world. Let us consider some of its special features.

  • Demonology and magic: The whole thing is run by a cabal of very rich satanists, who could easily be into devil worship and black magic, or could be some kind of elite and ancient force of magic users, holdovers from the Knights Templar or some weird actual mediaeval cult (a lot of Qanon seem to think the Vatican is involved) or Vampires. Given the far right’s newfound interest in organic food, tarot and inspirational Instagram posts it’s also possible there could be forces of good aligned behind other forms of magic: religious and spiritual magic, norse witchcraft and religion, etc. The sky is the limit! There’s a lot of scope to merge the Qanon conspiracy with a Gaiman-esque American Gods scenario, in which the strings are being pulled by old gods and what is happening in the USA is actually a puppet play with the strings being pulled by fallen gods seeking temporal power. Why not chuck in the Annunaki? (The Facebook Annunaki History group has a thread with 156 comments discussing their link to Qanon!) Maybe John Dee was one of the original cabal? So much to play with!
  • Lots of guns: Most of the action takes place in America, where gun control is now a complete loss, and the PCs can walk around freely as heavily armed as they like. This is always a problem with modern-era games – how to enable the PCs to pack the kind of firepower they need to take down an Annunaki-worshipping paedophile deep state operative with an APC – but in Qanon world that’s no problem, open carry is completely cool and you’re always free to stand your ground where the paedophiles are concerned.
  • All the secret organizations scale: Because almost everyone and almost anyone can be part of the conspiracy, you can start at low level organizations – the paedophile scheme of your local pizza parlour, deep state connections in the local girl guides group, bizarre rituals under the primary school – and scale up to national or international super agencies. You can go from snooping on your pizza parlour to fully armed raids on the UNESCO HQ. The sky is the limit!
  • False flags everywhere: Almost any component of modern history can be turned into a Qanon conspiracy, which opens the potential for the PCs to be present at – or stop – any one of a range of horrible recent events. 9/11, Columbine, pretty much any war, Jonestown, the El Paso shootings, Fukushima, whatever – you can be there to stop it, to investigate who really did it and hold them to account, or to do it. And similar to the City of Mist RPG, if you do get caught in a firefight you know it won’t be news for what it actually was, but will be swung by the deep state media into another school shooting or drug bust, so your investigative and retributive activities don’t need the kind of scrupulous attention to detail that would be required in, say, a Rivers of London -based magic/reality campaign, where even the police don’t have guns.
  • Viral apocalpyse: The whole thing of course can come to a head in 2020, when the deep state unleashes a virus that will overwhelm the world unless Bill Gates gets to inject you with chips. The PCs can be working to stop this happening, or they can be working to prevent the vaccine from being deployed, or protecting an organization developing a real vaccine for true believers (maybe it’s magical – maybe it’s not!), or racing to find the origins of the virus before it mutates and turns even on its creators, or maybe the game starts as everything is really falling apart and they have to stop the apocalypse. What are Iran and North Korea doing anyway? There’s so much at stake!
  • Obvious character classes: The Hacker, the Veteran, the Survivalist, the Scientist, the Occultist, the Criminal, the Private Investigator, the Corporate Dropout, the Activist, the Politician, the Entertainer, the Lion Tamer, the Agent, the Podcaster … the profiles and rules just write themselves in this world, and the ideal party will be a mix of all of them, with their combat skills, science background, occult background and street contacts. We aren’t going to bust this conspiracy open and less we can cover all the bases!
  • Obvious enemies: Forget Blue Lives Matter, recent events have shown us that if you’re a Qultist you need to be flexible about how you deal with the legal representatives of the state, and the agents of the deep state are everywhere – they can be in congress (even the Republican party), on TV (suddenly even in Fox News), in the military (look at all those generals who refused to back the Qult!), and of course scattered all through the corporate world (don’t forget to turn off location services before you storm congress in the campaign finale!) And who doesn’t like raiding the homes, luxury yachts and secret underground paedophile bunkers of the super rich? There is a pantomime list of evil-doers to take on, and no need to feel bad about killing them – after all, they’re all paedophile satanists!

The QAnon conspiracy offers a rich and intense world of conspiracies and dangers that provides a GM a perfect balance of investigation, negotiation, fighting and stealth to keep players constantly entertained. Being set in the real world, maps and settings are easy to produce and use, and inspiration is all around you (just like the conspiracy!) You don’t even need to be balanced – no matter how outrageous and outlandish your story, it will still pale in comparison the fantasies that actual Qultists wallow in, just as X-Files looks lame compared to the QAnon story, and just as my World of Darkness campaign looked kind of tame when compared with what actually happened after 2016. You can go to town!

Of course there is one small problem with the QAnon conspiracy as a world setting: the good guys in this conspiracy are Nazis. That is a slightly unpleasant downside. But there are obvious simple solutions to this plan: you can move the setting back in time a little, to when conspiracy theories were the domain of a wide array of kooks and weirdos and hadn’t been cornered by gun-toting white supremacists. You could simply retrofit the setting so that the Nazis are the paedophile satanists (with conservatives every accusation is really a confession, after all) and keep the entire QAnon world with just the sides switched (there are so many false flags wrapped within schemes hidden inside disguises that who knows, anyway?) or you could play non-Americans who have to deal with the torrent of racism and fascism coming from their American comrades, with associated schisms and additional challenges to fighting through to the heart of the problem. Could it be that Q himself is a double agent, a double negative intended to discredit anyone acting against the conspiracy by wrapping it all up in Nazism, just as at some point in the decline of the X-Files we find out that all of Mulder’s conspiracies had been planted by the government to keep people distracted from the truth of Alien contact[1]?

If Trump manages to cling on past Wednesday, or there is another attempt at insurrection that is actually successful, we’ll be living in the QAnon world and there’ll be no point in playing make-believe games based on it. But hopefully on Wednesday this entire shitshow will fall apart and some degree of normality will return to US politics, after which we can begin to look on QAnon as a hilarious and awful moment of mass hysteria, that provided a rich and complete setting for a modern-era role-playing game with guns and magic. Let’s hope that it will all soon pass into the realms of fiction, so that we can turn it into the fodder of day dreams, and no longer have to give it sly side-eye while wondering if it will soon become the substance of our waking nightmares.

fn1: I could be misremembering this, but there were so many twists and turns in the dismal end of that story that who can say?

Yesterday I wrote a post about the ways in which online teaching and supervision can be superior to physical teaching and supervision, and today I want to follow up with a short post about what aspects of online gaming can be transferred to physical gaming. I finished my Coriolis campaign online, and we have started the Archipelago campaign online too. Gaming online at this time has been necessary to avoid a physical TPK[1], but it has had several advantages:

  • We were able to include a former Coriolis player who moved overseas in the final part of that campaign, which was a good way to end the campaign and reconnect with an old player
  • One of our players is managing a very young child and another is living a large part of their time outside of Tokyo, so we’ve been able to include them in sessions
  • We’ve been able to meet more regularly because we can set weekday evenings without having to worry about commuting or finding a convenient venue

In Tokyo there are lots of venues you can hire on weekday evenings for gaming, so we can find a mutually agreeable location, but the physical meetings are short and interrupted by eating, commuting and so on. When we game online during the week we can start later – 8pm to enable children to settle – and have already eaten and relaxed after the day. I also don’t have to lug my gaming material through the summer heat, and if we finish at 11 with a solid 3 hours’ gaming done, we can still be to bed early without worrying about commuting. We usually start an hour earlier for socialization, and people just join when they can.

For Coriolis we used roll20, and for the Archipelago campaign we are using a system called RPG Sessions for characters and dice, run partly through discord, and roll20 for mapping[2]. As the number of coronavirus cases stabilizes in Tokyo and maybe begins to curve down, we’re thinking about returning to physical gaming sometime in September, but I think we are going to continue with some online sessions permanently, because it’s difficult to gather the whole group regularly on weekends and easy to gather them on a weekday night. Also I think when we do game physically we will retain a few aspects of online gaming.

In particular I aim to keep using roll20 for mapping. There is this constant problem with maps and tabletop RPGs that they have to be put in the centre of the table, where there is usually a huge pile of snacks, and some people always have to stand to look at them, and then also the map is oriented towards half the group and upside down to the rest. I think we can get around this by having each person see the map on their own tablet, and also have it on a big screen at the end of the table (I have a tv in my kitchen that I can share with chromecast). Thus we will all be able to see the map but have a shared map at the same time. Players can move their own PCs on the map, and we can maintain the sense of physical space without having to invest in horrific things like miniatures and the like[3].

Using roll20 for mapping also avoids the annoying situation where players are supposed to navigate their way around a physical map based entirely on my descriptions, when I can just use the fog of war on a map software to immediately reveal the rooms they can see, and the monsters they can see, when they see them. This is a vast improvement over physical maps or – worst of all – the horrible 1980s tradition of having a “mapper” who mapped out the dungeon as you explored it and always got it wrong. Having virtual maps also enables us to flick between them quickly, to have pictures of enemies and so on. Why go back to printed stuff?!

I think we will also continue to use RPG sessions for character sheets. It is very nicely integrated with the Genesys system so that for example it even records criticals, which is great. Instead of having my PCs note down the name of the critical and its details they just hit a button and roll one up and it gets added directly to their character sheet. I am using onenote to track campaign sessions, so now we just put the date of the crit into the character sheet and we know exactly when to attempt crit recovery, etc. There is also no risk anyone will ever forget a character sheet, since there’s zero chance they’ll leave home without a phone.

I have recently subscribed to the new Twilight 2000 kickstarter (and I suggest you do too!) which funded in 7 minutes, and is now up to its 9 billionth stretch goal. One of those stretch goals was the development of virtual tabletop tools for all the major applications, so that when you receive the game it is ready out of the box to be played online. I hope all new RPGs will do this in future, so that we can have a fully integrated virtual mapping, gaming and dice rolling system all in one. Of course some players like to roll dice (even though they’re shit at it[5]), which they will still be able to do, but the availability of ubiquitous online gaming platforms also opens the possibility of arbitrarily complex dice systems, since there’s no reason to physically assemble them or calculate the results. Who needs ideal polygonal forms for your dice when you can just roll d73? We could have dice systems based entirely on prime numbers! Or just go straight to arbitrary probability distributions … why go back?

This pandemic has forced the world to deal with the fact that the internet is no longer an ersatz reality. It’s no longer the case that things done online are not relevant to or close to real life. We should accept this, and instead of seeing online experiences as inferior to physical experiences, things we were forced to compromise on for our health, we should see them as ways to improve our past physical experiences to make them better. Rather than going back to how things used to be, let’s use the improvisations we had to make during this time to improve our physical lives when we are able to reconnect. I am trying to do this with my teaching, and I aim to do it for my gaming too!

fn1: Touch wood none of our players have got coronavirus, though two have been through some health scares, but some of us are older and some of us overweight, so we’re in the risk group for getting it badly if it does happen, and a gaming group is a perfect scenario for a cluster

fn2: Roll20 supposedly has an api for genesys dice but it is completely broken so I had to give up on using it. This was frustrating!

fn3: I’ve never been a great fan of miniatures for gaming, because I can’t paint them and they’re an absolute bastard to lug around, and for the first 15 or so years of my gaming experience they were only available in lead[4], which was heavy and ugly

fn4: Yes in the 1980s parents willingly allowed their still-developing children to participate in a hobby that involved casting lead, and playing with things made of lead. WTF

fn5: Jesus christ people, have some dice discipline will you!

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!

On old Al-Ardha there was a nation of deltas and rivers, a low-lying land that had made its history and its culture at one with the sea. Rich nations far away from this tidebound kingdom polluted and ruined Al-Ardha, and as the seas of the warming world rose this nation that had lived at peace with the brine for 1000 years was inundated and ruined.

The people of this nation had a proud tradition of ship-breaking, taking the terrestrial ships of other nations and reducing them to their bones and parts, repurposing them and selling them. When the people of the First Horizon went into space the people of this nation followed, taking their ship-breaking skills to the Dark between the stars and becoming consummate recyclers of the ships of the richer nations that were ruining the surface. But for all their labours, when the people of the First Horizon sent out their generation ships to colonize the second and third Horizons, the people of this proud riverine kingdom were not included. Watching their own land sink beneath the waves of their dying world, they decided to build their own generation ship, fashioning a mighty vessel to take them to the Third Horizon and preparing it with loving care over decades to send out to the stars.

As they finished their ship, however, the people of the First Horizon discovered the portals, and generation ships were no longer necessary. The river-folk of this drowning land saw their chance, and quickly redesigned their ship to travel through the portals. They set off through the portals with the rest of Al-Ardha’s fleet, arriving in the Third Horizon and becoming part of the wave of migration known as the Firstcome.

This nation’s ship was called অটুট, Atuta, in their language. In the language of the Third Horizon this would be interpreted as the Unbroken. While the other Firstcome ships had been designed for the portals, the Unbroken had been designed as a generation ship, and it dwarfed the other Firstcome ships. 4km long, carrying some 500,000 people and a wealth of equipment and materiel, the Unbroken was twice the size of the next largest ship in the Firstcome fleet, and carried far more people than any of the other ships in the fleet. When the Firstcome arrived in the Third Horizon a mad scramble began to find new planets and places to settle, but the people of the Unbroken, being themselves victims of colonialism, refused to join the frenzied competition for land and resources that characterized that first wave of settlement. Instead they traveled the Horizon looking for a place to rest. By dint of the skill of their captains, long honed in a land that had grown with the sea and leapt into the sky, they were able to navigate the unstable portals of the Dabaran circle, and were among the first to arrive in the Dabaran system. While some of those who came with them chose to settle planets in the system the people of the Unbroken decided to make their fate in the stars, doing what they had done in the First Horizon. They brought the Unbroken to rest in a far orbit in the Dabaran system, and turned the huge ship into a massive space station, hundreds of years before the arrival of the Zenith. The massive engines that had powered it were repurposed into material for factories and shipyards, and the Shipbuilders of Dabaran began their trade.

Over the next generations, before the portal wars collapsed the portals and destroyed the connection to Al-Ardha, the people of that drowning nation set out on many small ships to the Third Horizon to join their pioneers from the Unbroken, bringing their ship-breaking yards and their factories and their culture to the Third Horizon. Over those generations another million people joined the original settlers, and the original space station grew in size, the Unbroken now surrounded by platforms and barges and dormitory stations and factories. The complex grew, and in this complex developed the largest, most productive and well-known of the Horizon’s shipyards: the Dabaran Shipyards. These shipyards could do anything: repurposing, renovating, scrapping, salvaging and building. They took old ships and reduced them to their components, recycling the parts into new ships for clients all across the Horizon. They refurbished and repurposed ships, adding and removing modules, changing shapes, grafting in new components, redesigning anything they were asked to do. And using the components they stripped from other ships, or materials brought in from distant systems, they build new ships to order. Mira could make faster, more beautiful ships; the freighters of Darkos were unparalleled for their solidity; Harima’s ships were faster and more luxurious; but if you wanted versatility in your design, at a reasonable price, or just wanted a simple, all-purpose ship with no problems and no fuss, the shipyards of Dabaran could build it for you. Everyone in the Horizon knows about Dabaran ships, but somehow they pass through every system unheralded, unnoticed and without awe or disgust. They are the workhorses of the Horizon, the vessels that all the people of the systems of the Horizon do not even know they depend on. These are the many progeny of the shipyards of Dabaran.

A ship being broken, viewed from the deck of the Legion destroyer Azure Sky

Over the years the shipbuilders of Dabaran have become synonymous with the system itself. Their language, Dabari, is spoken on all its planets, and the industry of ship building dominates the economy of the whole system. Over time the shipbuilders themselves have become associated with the system, and so they themselves are called Dabarani. Some live on the surface of the Dabaran system’s planets, but the majority – perhaps 2 million in total – live in the many stations and satellites of the shipbuilding community, which is generally referred to as Atuta by its residents. Atuta is a huge, thriving complex of interconnected spaceships, space stations, platforms, barges and habitats, linked by a complex network of transport tubes, docking stations, and tiny fliers and transports that swarm around the habitats themselves. Even a lifetime spent on Atuta is insufficient to understand its many communities, souks, gardens and factories, and to visit Atuta is to understand what the Horizon could be like if only everyone were as industrious, as busy and as energetic as the Dabarani. People from all over the Horizon come here to trade ships and ship parts, to do business in the hectic and confused bazaars and marketplaces, and to make money from the shipping industry. In particular the agents of the Nomad Federation and the Free League swarm to Atuta to do business, and it is a stronghold of these factions. The Legion have a presence here as well, ostensibly to ensure security but in reality to ensure a steady supply of spare parts and new ships for their expanding empire. Far out from the centre of the Horizon, Atuta is a hub of commerce and industry.

The Dabarani build ships, and they also break them. But they do not, officially, break or refurbish illegal ships, and it is an unwise adventurer who brings a stolen ship to the Dabarani to be refitted or scrapped. However, a large industry of hackers and criminals has grown around Atuta, laundering the names and registrations of stolen ships so that they can be merged into the industrial landscape and repurposed or scrapped by its official industry. The Dabarani ruling council claim to be ignorant of any such crimes, and promise to punish them with extreme prejudice if caught, but everyone knows that in reality they tolerate these people in their midst in exchange for the business they bring. Some say the Legion maintain a presence here so they can watch this business, and keep track of all the ships that are being stolen and scrapped – and the people doing it. Others say that the Dabarani are nothing more than the permanent home base of the Nomad Federation, who sometimes need to trade in stolen and salvaged ships, but the truth is simpler: Atuta is open for business, and any business can be done here for the right price, if you are careful and you do not cross the Legion or the leadership of Atuta. If you have a stolen ship all you need to do is find one of the many Data Djinn who work at the fringes of Atuta, laundering ship licenses, and then you are free to take your new, “clean” ship into Artuta to pay the Dabarani to modify it.

With commercial influence and power has come cultural independence, and the Dabarani have retained many unique cultural practices over the years. The hull of the Unbroken itself remains largely untouched, but within it has been renovated to reflect its new purpose as the centre of Dabrani culture. The old hangars, vast spaces designed to hold the many courier ships and shuttles of the original generation ship, have been turned into a complex of gardens and shrines, with at its centre a huge hall for reflection and revelation. Most of the ship’s stasis pods have long since been stripped away and turned into parts for an expanded medical bay, but a few remain, converted into tombs to hold the remains of the Nabi, the navigators, captains and engineers who guided Dabarani society through the first generation of its growth in the Third Horizon. The Unbroken also bristles with ancient Firstcome weapons, installed during the portal wars, and although quiescent now represents a potent military force if roused to action. The Dabarani also follow a variant of the Church of the Icons, in which the Icons are not revered as gods but as messengers of an ineffable elder god. While others in the Third Horizon hold all the Icons as equal, the Dabarani revere the Messenger above all, seeing him as the original conduit for the wisdom of the ancient god, and like to quote from a book of his ideas that they claim he brought with him from the First Horizon (and which the other Firstcome lost).

This is Atuta, the Unbroken, the home of the last refugees of a drowning land, its best pilots and its most industrious shipbuilders. The entire Horizon is connected by its labour, and the entire Horizon can be found here, in Atuta.

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!


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.

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.


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



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



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



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

During a moment of sudden frenzied violence in yesterday’s Shadowrun adventure our wizard character Adam Lee deployed an indirect mana attack spell for a grand total of only 2 or 3 points of damage. Immediately afterward our opponent – a russian Shadowrunner mage – dropped an indirect attack spell on me that something like 8 points of physical damage even though I have a monumental full defense dice pool, decent armour and good body. This prompted me to declare that “Direct spells are shit!” Today I thought I’d check this statistically, and see if I can identify some guidelines for using direct and indirect attack spells. There seems to be a general consensus that direct spells are better against people with heavy armour and high body, and reliably deliver damage while indirect spells have bigger upper limits. Is this true?

This post assumes the reader knows the Shadowrun 5e rules.

The difference between direct and indirect spells

Direct spells use the force of the spell as a limit on the spellcasting check, and target either body or willpower only. So for example our wizard Adam Lee, with a 14 dice spellcasting pool, will be making a challenged check against the body or willpower of the opponent, which will typically be 4-6. In contrast, indirect spells use the spellcasting skill with the same limit against the opponents defense (Intution+Reaction, no limit). Any net hits then do damage as a weapon with damage Force and AP -Force. So it appears that if you can get through the defense you can do a lot of damage, but high dodge opponents will be a challenge for this spell.

In practice it looks something like this: with a direct spell Adam can expect an average of about 5 hits, while the target can expect 1-3, so Adam can expect to fairly comfortably deliver 2-4 damage at a low risk of drain. With an indirect spell Adam will also get 5 hits, but the opponent will be likely to get 3-5 hits so perhaps half the time Adam won’t hit, and when he does hit he will get 1 net hit. But that net hit is added to the force of the spell, so e.g. with a Force 6 spell he might do 7 damage that is then challenged by the opponents soak with AP-6. If the opponent has body +armour of 17, this means the opponent rolls 11 dice, gets about 4 hits, ends up taking about 3 damage – so it seems like it levels out in these kinds of scenarios, but that the direct spell is more reliable. Is this correct?

Comparing effectiveness using average hits

I ran a brief comparison of the average damage to be expected from Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spell using a basic excel spreadsheet. Here I calculated the average hits for each spell, the average defense, calculating damage for the indirect spell only if the average spellcasting hits were bigger than the average defense hits, and then using average hits from the soak check to further reduce damage. I did this for a target with defense pool 10 and with body values of 3, 5 or 8. I ran the analysis for spells of force 3 to 8.  For each level of force I calculated the minimum armour value at which the direct spell did more damage on average than the indirect spell. This is the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell. For example at Force 4 the direct spell is better against anyone with armour higher than 7, largely because the net hits from the indirect spell attack are so low (due to the Force-based limit) that it can’t do much damage.

My first interesting discovery was that this armour threshold is independent of the target’s Body – it is approximately the same for all three simulated Body values of 3, 5 or 8. This surprised me, because I thought the direct spell would really lose out against higher body, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. I also found that as Force increases, the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell really skyrockets. Figure 1 shows this for a target with Body 5 and defense pool 10 (it is approximately equivalent for other Body values), and you can see that for a Force 8 spell the target needs to have armour of 23 or more in order for the direct spell to be better than the indirect spell. This is because a force 8 spell has 8 acc, 8 damage, and AP8 – it shreds through anything except the scariest armour, and in fact this spell is basically as good as the best sniper rifle in the game.

Armour threshold for effective direct spells by spell Force

So my first finding is that while in theory direct spells might be useful against heavily armoured foes, they typically are only better than indirect spells at very high levels of armour, and if you’re playing a mage capable of spells of force 6 or higher you are unlikely to be meeting the kind of armoured foes against whom you need to deploy your direct spells.

When is an indirect or direct spell better than a gun?

Next I conducted a few rough calculations to see when either of these kinds of spell is better than a good old fashioned lead injection. For this I posited a street samurai with a 14 dice pool to hit using a Colt America L36, which is Acc 7, dam 7P, AP1. Can’t go wrong with those stats! I compared it to Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spells against a couple of targets: one with defense pool 7, and total soak of 12 or 20; and one with defense pool 12,  and total soak of 12 or 20. I found that in all cases the indirect spell was better than the gun at Force 6. This was independent of the total soak or defense pool. In some cases the direct spell was simply never better than a gun, but interestingly for the higher defense pool against the higher soak, even a Force 4 direct spell was better than a gun.

The reason for this is that as the Force of an indirect spell increases its damage increases even more. Assuming you can hit on average, even the thinnest margin leads to increasing damage with increasing force, and the damage increases by more than the force. For example, against someone with defense pool 10 and soak 12, the average damage of the indirect spell ranges from 0 at force 3 (it doesn’t hit) up to 8 at force 8. At higher force values, damage increases by 1.3 – 1.5 for every unit increase in force. This is because the increased force simultaneously increases damage and decreases armour, so even when the force-based limit is well beyond what your mage can expect to roll on average (e.g. Adam Lee expects about 4-5 hits on average, so any spell of force 5+ applies a higher limit), you still see your damage increase.

This means that in general, as you increase the force on your indirect spell to make it do more damage, you also raise the threshold above which a direct spell of the same Force would be any use. And you make your spell increasingly better than a gun. And it appears that Force 6 is the sweet spot beyond which a readily-available and relatively dangerous gun is no longer better than a spell for a relatively beginnerish mage.

Direct spells as one-shot killers

There is a way to make a direct spell a one-shot killer, though: cast it at low force and Edge it. Remember, Edge adds 3 to your dice pool, sixes roll again, and you get to ignore limits. This means that a Force 4 direct spell has no upper limits, but is defended against by a very small dice pool. Adam Lee, Edging the spell, will likely get 10-11 hits, with no upper limit on how many he can get, but the target having to roll just 3-6 dice to defend. Chances are this will do 7-9 damage, which brings a single target perilously close to death. A similar indirect spell is much less likely to achieve this, because the defensive dice pool is larger and has no limit.

This strategy is especially effective against targets with very high dodge, because it ignores dodge, and it’s particularly effective for GMs to deploy against PCs since the NPCs don’t need to save up their Edge for later. If the opponent is protected by a mage they may get some counterspelling, and they can Edge the defense, but even then it is likely that by pooling all of that together they will still have a smaller dice pool than the attacker. If there is no mage in the party then even Edge is going to be of little use, and the spell is going to cause a lot of trouble. This is especially true for those mages who have both a stun and a physical damage direct spell in their arsenal, since they can choose the spell to match the target – a troll street samurai deploying Edge will likely still only get 6 dice to defend a stun attack. Note that Edging an indirect spell to make into a killer is less effective, since the real power of indirect spells lies in their high damage rating and armour piercing, so they are at their most effective when cast at the kind of Force ratings that do not put crippling limits on the caster’s success.

A final note on the effectiveness of attack spells in Shadowrun

Above I found that a 14 dice attacker with magic is only more effective than a 14 dice attacker with a basic pistol at Force 6. This is a big problem for magic, because Force 6 will cause physical damage on the caster unless they have a very high magic attribute, and for an indirect attack spell to be significantly better than a gun it will need to be Force 8 or 10, at which point any human mage will be risking very large amounts of physical damage that cannot be healed. I think this under powers magic a little relative to the other fighters in the game, unless the PC is somehow carefully balanced to make sure that it can be super good at resisting drain and casting spells, probably also with a high Body. One way to get around this could be to relax the limits on Magic attributes, allowing them to become 7 or 8 in basic characters, which means that a combat mage who really focuses on that aspect of their character could be able to sling around Force 7 or 8 spells without suffering physical damage. Another option could be to drop the rule that drain can become physical when the Force exceeds the Magic attribute – it means that Force 8 spells are still high risk but not fatal. This is particularly important because Force acts as a limit on spellcasting rolls, and if you can only cast Force 5 or 6 spells you are suffering a significant reduction in maximum attack capability compared to say a street samurai (7 with a katana) or a sniper (8 with some rifles). I think in general the rules on limits may be a problem for high level characters – when you have a limit of 8 on the number of hits you can roll, but your opponent has 30 dice in dodge and no limit, you’re simply never going to hit, and fights are going to become very long and boring as people trade blows that never hit or only barely hit and do little damage. I think a quality that allows you to increase accuracy, or some other property for higher level characters, might be useful. At the moment wizards have the ability to exceed all limits by casting high Force spells but in reality they never will – a Force 10 spell will carry a large risk of serious injury for a wizard. I think it would be more exciting and make wizards more dangerous if they did not face this extreme risk. Remember that wizards have low initiative and weak armour (in general), and everyone aims to gank them, so it would be nice if they could be more able to take these risks in the one round of combat where they’re still alive.

Another possibility is that mages just aren’t that powerful in Shadowrun, and that it is better to play a mage who is good at a single material thing (e.g. shooting a pistol) and give him or her moderate background magic for support – healing, armour, that sort of thing. But even then, a PC who can get a maximum of +3 to your armour for a short time is not an especially great contribution to the party, especially if their shooting is good but not top notch. I think a few things here need to be tweaked to make mages more dangerous at the extremes of their range.






Naevia contemplates a Scourging

Naevia contemplates a Scourging

My group has started a Fate short campaign that we’re calling Magica Romae, a campaign set in the Roman era with light magic. I missed the first session, in Gaul, with undead; my character joins on the second. She is Naevia the Holy, once a Vestal Virgin who finished her 30 years of service with distinction, became a patrician landowner in Rome, and now is traveling to Gaul with her retinue on some kind of secret business, probably in service of the Vestal Virgins.

Vestal Virgins are a group of six women, recruited between the age of 6 and 10, who are charged with maintaining the sacred Fire of Vesta, and who are punished brutally for allowing it to be extinguished or for sullying their virgin status. They served for 30 years, and after retirement could own property and vote, unlike the majority of women in Roman life. During their service they were charged with many tasks and entrusted with many responsibilities, and enjoyed a reputation for purity and trustworthiness. Naevia was selected at 8, served to 38, and is 42 at the time of the campaign; she has spent the last 4 years since her retirement building up political connections and power in the city, and maintains a connection to the College of the Vestals and to the other Vestal Alumni. It is through these connections that she finds herself on a mission to Gaul.

Naevia, being a Vestal, has magical powers related to healing, protection and divination, though she deploys them sparingly and as much as possible avoids using them for her own benefit. She prefers to exercise temporal rather than supernatural power, and is usually accompanied by a retinue of servants and bodyguards who act on her behalf. In Rome she usually travels incognito, avoiding public displays of her presence, since people who recognize her will tend to make a big fuss at her presence. Naevia is a short, slender woman with tumbling dark hair and somewhat coarse features, marred by childhood illness, but she has a rich, commanding voice and the natural charisma of a woman used to being listened to. Her eyes are remarkable: deep violet pools with a strange power of fascination over lesser people. Naevia is not an actor or a seductress – she deals with people honestly and in the frank and direct manner of a woman entrusted with many spiritual responsibilities and great wisdom.

Naevia does not usually have to deal with others, though, for her extensive retinue deal with most daily irritants. While traveling in Gaul, her retinue consists of the following people.

  • The Lictor Curiatus: Naevia’s chief bodyguard, Rufus Faustus Varro, a dour 30-something pleb elevated to lictor status and entrusted with guarding dignitaries on foreign duties, is an old friend of Naevia’s from her travels in the latter half of her period of service. He is only a little taller than her, squat, heavily muscled and heavily scarred, dressed in traditional Roman field armour but armed with an outlandish German axe. He seems to spend much of his time lazing around, drinking wine and directing the guards, but he also appears to be Naevia’s confidante and final executor of her will. It is rumoured that he is her lover, but he scoffs at such rumours – after he has soundly scourged the fool who uttered them.
  • The Illyrian Scourge: Naevia’s retinue includes four bodyguards, freed gladiator slaves originally from Illyria, who are fiercely loyal to her and Rufus Faustus Varro. These four men are whip-thin, lean, tall, blonde-haired men with wild eyes and fast fists. They never speak, and it is generally accepted that their tongues were removed before they entered Naevia’s service. Rumour has it that she personally imposed upon the authorities to pardon them of their crimes and put them in her service; darker rumours suggest witchbonds they cannot break. There is little point in asking the Scourge their opinion, since they cannot speak and are quick to do violence to those who impugn their vestal sister.
  • The maid: Known only as “the Greek”, Naevia’s maid accompanies her on all her travels, and is never far from her side. The Greek is a luscious young woman from Greece, a lascivious creature made entirely of curves, tumbling dark hair, and flirtatious looks and touches. Aged perhaps in her late teens or early twenties, the Greek is everything Naevia is not: wanton, cheerful, sexual, and extremely shy. She is also rumoured to be Naevia’s preferred assassin, the tool Naevia uses on unsuspecting local lords to work her most vicious wiles, trained in some cruel Macedonian fastness in all the secret tricks of poison and blade. Challenged on such stories, the Greek will demur and blush, and hide behind her indulgent mistress. How could one so innocent and shy be mistaken for anything except a simple maid?
  • The accountant: Lazy, wine-sodden, cynical old Gnaeus Paterculus Flaccus, known to one and all as Flacco, is rarely far from Naevia’s retinue and almost never at her side. He cares for her money and worldly affairs, keeping careful track of her holdings and earnings, helping her to buy oddities and trade goods during her travels, and keeping her informed of the latest machinations of the councils to which she is not invited. Flacco has a penchant for young boys, though none would consider it a weakness, and is rumoured to have bedded the serving boys and slaves of almost every noble family in Rome and its most important satellites; whether he does this for his own pleasure, or to maintain a complex web of spies and eavesdroppers, is a matter of much debate. Certainly though, everyone agrees that over his long life he has elevated those of his boy lovers who served him well to positions of high status, while those who disappoint or betray him have inevitably disappeared. Darker rumours suggest that in amongst his books and ledgers he keeps another, secret ledger that records the fate of all those who serve him. But how could such a silly old accountant accrue such power, and why would he end up in service to one as noble as Naevia the Holy?
  • The Hag: Known universally as just “her”, the Hag has her own wagon and supplies, and attends Naevia’s retinue almost as if she were wilfully pursuing the younger woman, rather than a servant. Sometimes she and her blind dwarven manservant, Puggus, will disappear for days, rejoining the retinue at some later point and giving no account of their deeds. Naevia and the Hag almost never speak, meet or even make eye contact, and for much of their journey together Naevia appears blissfully ignorant of her presence, but occasionally they will draw together for counsel and scheming. Rumour has it that the Hag is an old and disgraced vestal virgin, who was sentenced to be buried alive for her transgressions but was somehow rescued by a young man who she subsequently ate. Others say she is Naevia’s grandmother, or actually a Siren or Medusa who has joined Naevia’s retinue for her own reasons. Some whisper that Naevia needs the hag as a tool to cast dark magics, which are outside of Vesta’s pantheon but almost certainly within Naevia’s power. If anyone knows the secret of the Hag, they do not speak of it. Only a fool would meddle in the affairs of such a sinister crone.

This retinue, and a few hapless slaves dragged along for the duration, came as far as Gaul with Naevia. Unfortunately they were separated in heavy weather, and attacked by Gauls. When the adventure starts Naevia is a captive of these Gauls, and her retinue struggling to catch up and free her. If only fate would deliver unto her some heroes who could free her, and help her in her secret mission …

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