Review – Coriolis: The Third Horizon

Unlike the more egalitarian state of affairs in novels, the realms of science fiction roleplaying games, while far from barren, are somewhat sparsely populated compared to the their fantasy kin. If you want fantasy, there’s always Dungeons & Dragons, and several other games that have been going for a decade or more. But it seems to be harder for science fiction games to stick around. Unlicensed games have historically had a tough time. Even licensed games can lack staying power in a particular version – there are Star Trek and Star Wars games out now, and there were Star Trek and Star Wars games out in the 1980s, but each modern game is several reinventions (and several publishers) away from the first game set in that universe.

In that context, it’s noteworthy that Coriolis has, as a setting, been around for over a decade now (and now that the original publisher, Järnringen, merged with the new publisher, Fria Ligan, it’s sort of like the world has only had one publisher) – although Coriolis: The Third Horizon, published in 2016, does represent a mechanical reboot of the 2008 original. This time around, Coriolis uses an iteration of the Year Zero engine (first used in Mutant: Year Zero). This iteration of the engine is significantly more mechanically expansive than the others, as is discussed below. But what of Coriolis, the setting?

To rely overmuch on comparisons to other properties, Coriolis feels like a lot of Firefly, but with a Middle Eastern styling instead of the Old West, with some backgrounding drawn from Guardians of the Galaxy (the originals, not the ones you can see in the movies) and Mass Effect.

Coiolis feels like Firefly in that there’s been a lot of technological advancement, but that doesn’t mean everyone has all of the shiniest new toys, there’s still a relative lot of isolation and emptiness (instead of a vast interconnected civilization), and in a lot of ways people dress and live like they would have before the advancement. And, although there’s already a crew (the player characters), that whole “find a job” element is definitely there, and there will be plenty of opportunities to have to work to keep flying.

Part of that isolation is why Coriolis has a Mass Effect element to it. In Coriolis, humanity (unless you dig around for a sidebar in the GM section, all player characters are human) never developed a practical means of travel between star systems. Instead, they discovered pre-existing ‘portals’ (built by an unknown species known only as the Portal Builders) that allow for transport to other portals. They never figured out how to build their own, and each portal is directed only at one other portal, so even taking portals means going along a specific route. And that travel time is extended because it takes a lot of computer time to calculate a jump and crews have to be put in stasis for the jump or suffer psychological breakdown. So even in the limited world of the Third Horizon (36 star systems) there’s no whizzing from star system to star system.

That lack of further technological development is related to another major theme of Coriolis, which is the conflict between factions, with those factions arrayed into two basic camps. One camp is mostly peoples who have been in the Third Horizon for centuries. Their ancestors came through the portals (it’s the Third Horizon because this was the third enclave of humans set up in this way). Then there was a war between the more advanced First and Second Horizons, which resulted in the Third Horizon being cut off. It technologically stagnated, then decayed, as the various star systems grew more and more out of touch with each other. The other camp, which I like to think of as “Team Vance Astro” (this is the Guardians of the Galaxy part) arrived in the Third Horizon only in the last century – but they left on their voyage much, much sooner. These new arrivals came on a cryoship, which had been launched before the first portals were discovered. However, due to the decay experienced in the Third Horizon, they generally had a higher level of technology – and, just as important, the will to use it to restart things like interstellar trade.

Finally, there are the Icons, the predominant religious system in the Third Horizon (alas, despite being set in a Middle Eastern-flavored world, the Icons are unrelated to the endless iconophile/iconoclast controversies that consumed the Byzantine Empire, which were in turn prompted in part by developing Islamic views on depictions in art … although it’s probably for the best that the religion in the game has nothing to do with anyone’s real life religion). I think it’s most comparable to a zodiac/astrology system, but if the constellations were seen as deities one could pray to. The other aspect of this belief system is The Dark Between The Stars, which can be deployed as a horror element of the setting (if you want an adventure that’s less Firefly and more Alien … or still Firefly if Reavers were more cosmic in their origins).

Basic Mechanics

Coriolis uses the same core mechanic as all Year Zero Engine games. Characters have a attributes and associated skills. Attempts to succeed at a task involve rolling a number of six-sided dice (d6) equal to attribute + skill + applicable gear. A 6 is a success, with one success needed to accomplish a typical task, while more successes can be used for bonus effects.

As with other Year Zero games, Coriolis has a re-roll mechanic, but here it’s called praying to the Icons. All non-success dice are re-rolled. And there’s a bonus – an extra die (or two) can be added if the character had (in-character, not mechanically) prayed to that Icon earlier in the session. But there’s a cost – the GM gets a Darkness Point (DP). The GM can later spend DP to get re-rolls for NPCs, to activate powers on some cosmic bad guys, or certain types of mayhem (e.g., reinforcements show up, the PCs lose an item).

Character Creation and Advancement

Character creation begins with the group which must, in addition to some flavor steps, choose a starting starship and a group talent. Then each character must (in addition to some flavor steps) choose a background, choose a concept, distribute attribute and skill points, pick a talent, and randomly determine the Icon of their birth (which determines their Icon talent).

Note that, although the factions are significant within the world of Coriolis, they are likely not significant during character creation. Many of the factions are entirely unsuitable for player characters, consisting of religious fanatics, full-time military personnel, pureblood aristocrats, etc. Most of the others aren’t great. The Free League is about the only one that could fit well (note: Free League Publishing the company is younger than Coriolis and is named after the this faction). Rather, the default is really that the player characters are freelancers – they will certainly interact with and be affected by the factions, but (at least at first) they are not part of one.

Within background, the mechanically significant choice is upbringing, which affects starting attribute points, skill points, reputation, and cash. Higher status means fewer attribute points, but more of everything else.

Concept, which at first seem like character classes, are surprisingly immaterial. They each provide a list of three starting talents, determine starting gear, modify starting reputation, and identify the key attribute. That’s it. There are subconcepts for each one, but these have no mechanical effect (except that you have to pick the mystic subconcept within the fugitive concept in order to start with a mystical talent). However, for the purpose of getting an idea of what character concepts the game envisions, I’ll note that the list is artist, data spider, fugitive, negotiator, operative, pilot, preacher, scientist, ship worker, soldier, and trailblazer.

There are four attributes – agility, strength, empathy, and wits. These range from 2-4 to start (except for they key attribute, which can be a 5). Assuming the key attribute is bought up to 5, the other three attributes will average about 3.

There are 16 skills and, while the attribute points feel relatively plentiful during character creation, the skill points feel scarce – characters will likely only have a few skills unless they opt only to have them at rank 1. General skills (which can be used untrained) include dexterity, force, infiltration, manipulation, melee, observation, ranged, and survival. Advanced skills (which can’t be used untrained) include command, culture, data djinn, medicurgy, mystic powers, pilot, science, and technology.

Talents are more quirky aspects of the characters, and each will start with three – the group talent, a talent from the list with their concept, and the talent associated with their Icon (which tend to be more powerful). Many of these talents are generic, such as combat veteran, seductive, or tough. But there are also cybernetic implants, bionic sculpts, and mystic talents.

In addition to the above, their is the option to play as a humanite, a human who was heavily biosculpted (or whose ancestors were) for a particular (probably unpleasant) task. They start with an extra talent, but with less reputation, and are generally an underclass at best (although they are not the worst off, which will be discussed later).

Combat

Combat, and its associated technology, is where one can start to see Coriolis ramp up the complexity from other Year Zero Engine games. Characters take turns in initiative order (which is random, not stat-based). Characters get 3 Action Points (AP) in a combat turn. This cam works out to a traditional attack + move or full-round attack, but there’s also a one-AP ‘quick attack’ option, or three moves can be taken in one round. But many actions that might be ‘free’ in other systems (taking cover, parrying, starting a vehicle) take AP. Although range has categories (close, short, long, extreme), it is not a ‘range band’ system – movement and distance are in meters, and although a map isn’t per se required, it may be helpful.

Combat can inflict damage (which reduces Health Points), but also stress (which reduces Mind Points). Both HP and MP are based on attributes (strength/agility and wits/empathy, respectively). Unlike many Year Zero games, non-health damage can be a real threat – it readily heals automatically, but if a character drops to zero (and has a breakdown), their MP maximum might decrease. Health damage itself is no problem, but a standard use of extra successes on an attack is to inflict critical injuries. The critical injuries chart includes death, so it is possible to get shot once by an opponent who rolls a few successes and just die.

There is a variety of weaponry available. Most technology is divided into Primitive, Ordinary, and Advanced. This tech is usually readily available, but certain skill levels or prerequisites are needed to interact with some Advanced tech (such as an Advanced repair station to fix broken Advanced components). Other technology is restricted to certain factions or is leftover from the Portal Builders.

The ‘standard’ gun technology (referred to as Vulcan weapons) fire tiny rockets, but function as high-powered versions of typical kinetic weaponry from pistols to full-auto rifles (a modern day firearm would be a Primitive weapon). There’s also magnetic accelerators (slow rate of fire, high-precision), thermal weapons (fire superheated matter; require batteries and ammo), stun weapons (laser/electrical pulses), missile launchers, and grenades. On the melee side, weapons range from axes and the like to energy weapons, power gloves, and liquid metal swords.

Most armor is weaves of advanced materials, with more and more plates incorporated for heavier armor. There is little differentiation here. There are also massive exoskeletal battle suits, but these aren’t typical starting PC fare.

Gear

The sort of gear available in a science fiction game can be indicative of the sorts of activities characters are expected to get involved in. In addition to weapons and armor, there are living expenses, communicators (audio or holographic), drugs, computers, a variety of medical equipment, a variety of equipment repair tools, exploration equipment (cartography gear, binoculars, survival gear, rations), recon/infiltration gear (chameleon suit, lockpicks, sensors). Vehicles include hovercraft, crawlers, exosuits, and jet packs.

Ships and Space Combat

Ships in Coriolis can be customized, although there’s fairly high amount of semi-required components, so it isn’t quite as customizable as it seems at first. Ships are divided by size into classes, which then define how many modules they can hold, how they maneuver, how easy they are to detect, and how much armor they have. The standard PC-level ship is class III, which includes light freighters, patrol ships, gunships, and couriers – really anything that isn’t so small as to be a starfighter or shuttle, but isn’t so big as to be a heavy freighter, passenger liner, mining vessel, or capital ship. There is a specific ship type (the Oryx Courier) that is singled out for PCs, which comes in three different models (standard, patrol, and express freighter).

A class III gets 10 optional modules, with the bridge, reactor, and graviton projector (maneuvering thrusters) being required. I imagine that most groups will also want a docking station, cabins, medlab, service station (required to repair the ship), stasis hold (required for portal jumps), a workshop (required to repair gear), at least one bit of cargo space, and at least one weapon system. That would leave two spots for salvage, a chapel, escape pods, mining, more cargo space, or more weapon systems. Weapons include mines, torpedoes, missiles, energy cannons, kinetic cannons, “memes” (a hostile program that attacks ship systems), data pulse (a.k.a. an ion cannon), and more. Ship repair will be required even if there isn’t combat, as they are constantly wearing down.

Beyond that, ships are customized with a ‘problem’ (cursed, eccentric AI, bad acceleration, unreliable sensors, etc.) and three features. Features are kind of like talents for the ship. Most of them are flat +1 bonus to a certain aspects of ship operations – countermeasures, a particular weapon system, scientific analysis, etc. Some particularly notable features include the Advanced Workshop (required to repair Advanced tech), Atmospheric Entry (required to be able to land on a planet), Bonus Modules, Explosive Decompression Fields (if you don’t want to get sucked outside when there’s a hull breach), Ship Intelligence (can perform any ship function, but not that well), or Ship System (takes over one crew position, and does it well).

When operating the ship, characters take a specific role – captain, engineer, pilot, sensor operator, and gunner. One of each (through a character or automation) is vital (so a group of four PCs in a Class III ship effectively has to buy a Ship System feature). There are fairly detailed rules on detecting ships (and avoiding detection), but when combat ensues each position will act in turn. The captain gives an order (repair, evade, retreat, attack), which will give a bonus to a relevant action. The engineer assigns the ship’s energy, which will be in short supply unless the ship has an enhanced reactor (for example, a class III ship by default has 5 EP, which will be fully consumed by a maneuver, use of sensors, and one weapon shot … and that’s not counting the engineer trying to fix anything). The pilot can simply move, but could instead engage in evasive maneuvers, ramming, or boarding. The sensor phase is surprisingly important – it’s often a semi-pointless station in science fiction games that provides marginal benefit, but there the difference between having and not having a target lock is enormous (and the sensor operator both establishes target locks on enemy ships and breaks target locks on the characters’ ship). A gunner, of course, shoots a weapon system.

Further Setting

At the metaphorical center of the Third Horizon stands the space station Coriolis itself, crafted from the remnants of the cryoship Zenith. It hosts what passes for a governmental council, and will likely be the ‘home base’ for the player characters. It orbits around one of the few planets with a significant population that isn’t environmentally or socially hostile to outsiders.

I mentioned above that the factions are important, and divided into two groups. As also noted above, these aren’t so much groups that player characters will start out as members of so much as groups that with which the characters will interact, as most of them aren’t particularly well-suited for the vagabond lifestyle the game envisions.

Each side has five factions, although some of those are more formally recognize and organized than others. The factions identified as Zenithians (named after the cryoshiph) are:

The Consortium – The organized business/trade faction, the Consortium is the preeminent faction on the Zenithian side, with its fingers in everything – weapons, mining, media, research, starships, electronics, colonization, etc., etc. Everybody hates them, everybody needs them.

The Zenitiah Hegemony – The aristocrats of the Zenithians, the Hegemony are all descended from the family of the captain of the Zenith. After a power struggle, they ended up leaving the ship to what would become the Consortium.

The Legion – A full-time military force, the Legion serves as the armed forces of the Zenithian side of things.

The Free League – Free traders, ship crew, dock workers – the Free League has significant strength in trade, but especially outside of the core areas of the Third Horizon. However, they are still in no position to really challenge the Consortium.

The Syndicate – Organized crime, especially on the Coriolis. Not formally recognized as a faction by anyone else, for obvious reasons.

The factions identified with the Firstcome (the people who were there before the arrival of the cryoship) are:

The Church of the Icons – A surprisingly recent organization, the Church of the Icons has codified Icon-worship across systems in a way it never had been before, in the process largely suppressing veneration (or discussion) of the darker aspect of each Icon.

Ahlam’s Temple – The exact teachings of this religious faction are a bit vague, but they seem to focus on experiences as a way to achieve enlightenment. They seem most famous for running courtesan academies (the term courtesan is used broadly here, with eight public orders and a ninth, secret one, focused on ‘the pleasure of death’ – assassination).

The Order of the Pariah – Religious fanatics who focus on a single Icon (the Martyr, an aspect of the Judge), the Order of the Pariah allows none to visit their homeworld, but sports some unique biotechnology and a significant fleet.

The Draconites – The only Firstcome faction that arose from among the crew of the Zenith, the Draconites left the ship, and came back a few years later with more advanced technology and a philosophy of strength through conflict (perhaps we should be looking for Shadows?)

The Nomad Federation – A largely unrecognized faction of miners, scientists, and their descendents from the outer asteroid belts of the setting central system.

One catalyst point in the setting is the arrival of the Emissaries – strange, alien beings who recently emerged from deep in the atmosphere of one of the local gas giants. They claim to be the Icons themselves, which has enraged the Order of the Pariah. They have also been given observer status on the Council, which leaves unrepresented factions (like the Nomads) none too pleased. What, exactly, the Emissaries are or what their goals are remains a mystery. Given the philosophy of the Draconites, I personally recommend watching out to see if they start spouting koans about three-edged swords or how the avalanche has already begun.

Coriolis: The Third Horizon presents further detail on the station and its layout, and the Third Horizon generally. Feeding the Firefly vibe, there is a relative dearth of welcoming major settlements – outside of the system containing the Coriolis, there are an awful lot of small-scale settlements for the player characters to impact on.

Buried in the GM section is the more information on semi-intelligences, something that is referenced in passing in the main part of the book. I found it a bit disturbing, because the “semi-intelligences” are basically intelligent (although less-advanced) species that were mostly enslaved by the humans when the humans first arrived in the Third Horizon. But the book really seems to shy away from addressing, much less grappling with, the implications of what seems like a significant aspect of this civilization.

Other material in the GM section includes the bestiary, which sports both mundane adversaries (security guards and the like), spirits (such as djinni), and darkmorphs (Lovecraftian horrors from the deep … space, that is).

Thoughts

There are a lot of interesting things going on in Coriolis, which might be its greatest strength, but is also something of a weakness. There’s just so much going on that, even with a hefty core book (full size RPG book with ~400 pages, to include solid construction, layout, and art), there are many aspects of the setting/game that didn’t really feel fleshed out. For example, there’s a type of character with mystical powers, which is usually the sort of thing that is a prominent feature of a sci-fi setting (see, e.g., the Force in Star Wars, biotics in Mass Effect, Bene Gesserit in Dune), but in the Third Horizon it’s barely touched on. There are a couple of setting supplements (including one on artefacts and technology, and one an atlas), but I suspect that more on a lot of these aspects of the setting have to be picked up through the fairly numerous published adventures available from Fria Ligan, including the massive upcoming Emissary Lost. I suspect it’s there that GM’s will more readily be able to start fulfilling the game’s promise that the player characters will be able to have a pivotal role in the setting.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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