RPG Systems


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.

 

 

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 …

 

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

Let the Games Begin …

On the weekend I ran a one-off adventure set in Neolithic England, in the area around Stonehenge. I ran this after being inspired by my recent trip to the area. These ancient sites, and the lives of our stone age ancestors, are a complete mystery to us, which means they provide an excellent backdrop for adventure, since you can use the adventures to fill in gaps about the history of real places, and the few things we do know as an opportunity for new stories. Neolithic England also appeals because the extremely low technology means that adventurers will be defined entirely by their abilities and not their gear, which always appeals to me. Of course I chose to include magic in my neolithic world, because I always want magic in my settings. As with my last two one-offs that I set in real locations, I gave every character a suite of special powers regardless of whether they were identifiably wizards, with the hope that the game would depend heavily on the use of special powers rather than skills. I think I was not disappointed.

The setting

The adventure starts in Stonehenge at the winter solstice, with all the people of the local community gathered in the Avenue to watch the rising of the sun through the stones. The PCs have been invited to join the chieftain of the community along with the Head Priest at the Heel Stone itself, as guests of honour, because of a recent heroic deed they had performed. I asked the PCs to decide what that deed was, and they settled on the slaying of a half-man, half-wolf creature that had been terrorizing the people. Having described the stones and the people, and had the PCs describe themselves, I then introduced the chieftain, a weak-jawed old stick-in-the-mud who was a fighting hero in his youth but has begun to become indecisive. Recent weak harvests are blamed on a decision he made when he first ascended to the chieftainship, to move some of the bluestones inside the Stonehenge circle itself, and there are rumours of moves against him, though nothing solid will happen until the priests of the heavens shift their allegiances. I also introduced three factions within the People, and asked the PCs to pick one. These are listed here.

  • The Farmers: A conservative faction that wants things to stay roughly as they are, no major changes to the way things are done, who support the current chieftain but are uncertain about his religious views and the decision to move the stones. They are currently neutral on his position but could be convinced to switch sides if they could be convinced that his leadership threatens the harvest or the natural order
  • The Drowners: A small and radical faction who believe that a time of change is coming, and who think there needs to be a major period of human sacrifice to appease the changing forces of nature. They are led by a young priest, and contain amongst their numbers some of the poorer, landless folk who live on the edges of the community, some younger more radical priests, and wilder people generally seen as troublesome. They advocate the sacrifice of all who commit crimes, and some elderly people, by drowning in the marshes and in the heads of streams, to appease the gods of the underworld. They even mutter about abandoning the traditional worship of the heavens for darker, more sinister religious ideals
  • The Dawntreaders: A convocation of warriors and priests of the heavens (the main religious sect among The People), this faction sees the recent difficulties as the work of outside enemies. They think their religious ideas and beliefs are fundamentally correct, but that people from Cornwall, Wales or the barbaric tribes to the East are trying to undermine them. They advocate punitive expeditions to the moors, with their most extreme members in favour of extermination. They believe that stealing the other peoples’ harvest and bringing some of their young back as slaves and human sacrifices will warn them and remind them that The People are at the centre of the universe, not to be trifled with.

The PC’s choices were kept secret. They were then asked to pick a language from amongst the neighbouring areas – Welsh, Eastern Barbarian, or Cornish – and the adventure began with the solstice rites.

The system

I used a variant of the Coriolis system, which is a very simple and easy to use system that is very easy to generate characters for. Available skills were slightly reduced and reorganized, primarily to strip out skills like Data Djinn and Technology, and to shift Survival to an advanced skill (survival is the primary skill used to understand and assess new technology in this world of stone and wood). I also added a Darkness attribute, which is basically a limit each PC has on how many darkness points they can use. Every time they use a darkness point to push a roll, the GM gets one darkness point and the PC’s tally increases. When their tally reaches their limit they are consumed by darkness, and something horrible happens to their character, after which they reset. I renamed mental points as will, and this was used for invoking powers. Each PC had a special method for quickly recovering will in combat – drinking booze, or killing a helpless enemy, for example. Each PC also had a method for shedding some darkness points, which usually took longer and was slightly more difficult.

Something I did not expect was that my players would roll really badly. At one point in the session two players rolled a combined total of 24 dice and got no successes. Even with large dice pools and pushing things they seemed to fail a remarkable amount of the time. This would be bad in the normal rules, but with the darkness mechanic it proved a little punishing. I haven’t run Coriolis before but I have run mutant, and I never noticed this problem in Mutant. This session it produced some punishing results, though.

The PCs

Three players joined this session. I made all the PCs as bespoke characters, and they had a choice of four, listed here.

  1. The Dark Priest: a priest of earth and shadow, who specializes in magic that can bring the spirits of the dead back, drain people’s health, heal people, and curse them. He is old, weak and creepy. He sheds darkness by sacrificing a helpless person, and regains will by injuring himself or sacrificing helpless person.
  2. The Nature Priest: A priest who specializes in tracking, learning the secrets of the wild, and granting boons to his allies. He can transform into a bear. He sheds darkness by making a tincture of rare herbs, and can recover will by sparing an enemy he could have killed, with no benefit to himself.
  3. The Berserker: A warrior type who can fly into a berserk rage, commands rituals that make him a superhero in battle, and can intimidate and terrify his enemies. He sheds darkness by killing foes in battle, and recovers will by drinking alcohol.
  4. The Rogue: A scout and assassin, who is accompanied by a bird familiar that he can use for spying and vigilance. He can also go invisible, and has special powers with his bow. He can shed darkness by doing something that causes an ally to be harmed, and can recover will simply by running out of combat.

Everyone decided the Rogue was too much of an arsehole, so in the end the Dark Priest, the Nature Priest and the Berserker started the adventure, lined up next to the Chieftain at the heel stone as the ritual of the winter solstice began …

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.

 

I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

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