Review: Coriolis–The Third Horizon

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imageIt’s no secret that I enjoyed Fria Ligan’s (aka Free League) Mutant: Year Zero. This game came to me as a total surprise and when I finally got my hands on it, I was blown away. It had it all: Simple, but elegant mechanics, a great setting, and extremely high production values. Coriolis is their attempt to adapt the successful M:Y0 formula to the space opera genre. Did they succeed? This review is trying to find out.

The Coriolis – The Third Horizon corebook is a 388-paged book with the same high production values you’ve come to expect from products created by Fria Ligan and Modiphius (which are co-publishing the english-language version of the game). This review is based on the digital version of the game which has been provided gratuitously by Modiphius. Thanks again, Chris!

Middle Eastern Space Opera
One thing that immediately sets apart from other space opera games is the setting heavily inspired by Middle Eastern culture and myths. There’s also a strong element of mysticism and religion in Coriolis. Praying to the Icons is even part of the game’s mechanics but more about this later.

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The setting of Coriolis is the Third Horizon, which consists of 36 star systems which are connected by mystic portals. In the settings’ past two colony ships were launched towards Aldebaran. One of the ships, called Zenith, eventually reached its destination, surprised to find that the worlds were already colonized by humans. The other ship, Nadir, vanished without the trace. While Zenith and Nadir travelled through the dark void of space, Earth’s powers discovered one of the ancient gates which connect the Third Horizon and used the portal as a shortcut. So the Zenithians who left Earth first, actually are the newcomers to the Third Horizon. The earlier colonist call themselves the Firstcome and have already claimed the worlds the Zenithians wanted to claim their own. So eventually one group of the Zenithians colonized the planet Kua, while the remaining ones rebuilt their massive colony ship into a space station: Coriolis.

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Conflict and Opportunity
The Third Horizon is a setting full of conflict. The human colonists are divided traditionally between the more pragmatic Zenithians and the more spiritual Firstcome. There are also various factions which fight themselves in proxy wars. The setting has more than enough opportunity for adventure if you’re willing to give its original setting a chance.

Core mechanics
Before exploring some of the more interesting concepts of Coriolis let’s have a look at its mechanics. Coriolis uses the same “engine” as Mutant: Year Zero, which a couple of tweaks to make it fit the genre better. Coriolis characters have four attributes: Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy, but this time they don’t also serve as hitpoints like in M:Y0. This time there are actual hitpoints which are calculated by adding Strength and Agility. Like in M:Y0 there are general skills each character can use and a set of advanced skills which need special training to be used.

imageThe core mechanic is the same as in M:Y0. When making a check you roll a pool of dice consisting of the relevant skill and attribute. Each die that comes up as a 6 is counted as a success. If you use a general skill, you still can make a check even if the skill is ranked 0. In the case of advanced skills you need to have a skill rank of at least 1 in order to make the check at all.

The “push” mechanic from MY:0 also makes a return. But this time you don’t push yourself but you pray to one of the Icons instead. Mechanically it works quite similar: you can reroll all the dice which weren’t a success. But this comes at a price. Whenever you use the power of the Icons the GM gets a Darkness Point. There are other ways a GM can get these points as well. Whenever you use one of ancient portals, travel through the void of space, or use mystic powers, the darkness between the stars wants its toll. These darkness points can then be used by the GM to change the rules in their favor. Possible DP uses are rerolling the dice, taking the initiative, forcing a player’s weapon to misfire, etc.

Character and Group Creation
Character creation in Coriolis is way more elaborate than in M:Y0. The main reason is that characters are meant to live longer than in Fria Ligan’s post-apoc series. In Mutant life is cheap. You venture too far into the Zone: you die. You push yourself too many times: you die. In Coriolis you’re stuck with your character much longer. Running a campaign spanning many years is much more feasible here.

Character creation actually starts with creating a group. Much like in the books and movies Coriolis was inspired by, the player characters are not just a group of random people travelling together to kill other people and take their stuff (even though this is a viable group concept). The player characters could be a Free Traders, Mercenaries, Explorers, Agents, or even Pilgrims. Each group concept comes with recommended character concepts. If you are playing a group of Pilgrims for example, it makes sense to have one Preacher in the group, etc. I will talk about the character concepts later.

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A group in Coriolis also starts with a spaceship, which the players may actually customize to fit their needs. Of course they don’t own the ship completely. The characters are in debt and have to pay off this debt in monthly rates. This automatically creates a lot of opportunities for cool stories. Last but not least each group also gets to pick a group talent which every member has access to!

Each group needs a Nemesis and a Patron. You can pick those from a short list or make up your own – with GM approval of course. What I really like about Coriolis’ group creation is that it solves the age-old question of how to get the party together. It also makes sure everyone is on the same page and they also have someone who can provide them with missions and someone who tries to foil their plans.

Ok, let’s have a look at creating characters. You start by choosing your background, picking your origin and your upbringing. The latter determines your starting attribute points, skill points, reputation and starting capital. Privileged characters have less attribute points than Plebeians but have more skills and a higher starting capital for example. You can also opt for playing humanites, who are genetically modified (aka biosculpted) humans. These characters can not be from Privileged upcoming and their Reputations are halved, but they get access to certain talents later.

Concepts and sub-concepts
One of the most important choices is your concept and sub-concept. The concepts work a bit like M:Y0’s roles. The concept provides you with a list of concept skills, starting talents, a fitting personal problem, starting gear and modifiers to attributes and/or Reputation.

The concepts in Coriolis are Artist (Courtesan, Musician, Poet), Data Spider (Analyst, Correspondent, Data Djinn), Fugitive (Criminal, Mystic, Revolutionary), Negotiator (Agitator, Diplomat, Peddler), Operative (Assassin, Guardsman/-woman, Spy), Pilot (Driver, Fighter Pilot, Freighter Pilot), Preacher (Ascetic, Missionary, Prophet), Scientist (Archaeologist, Medicurg, Technician), Ship Worker (Deckhand, Dock Worker, Engineer), Soldier (Legionnaire, Mercenary, Officer),  and last but not least Trailblazer (Colonist, Prospector, Scout). The available sub-concepts are listed in paranthesis. The concepts allow for basically every character you might come up with and are definitely not as restricting as classes in other games. But they also provide some guidance and inspiration if you’re unsure about what kind of character you want to play.

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I really like that Coriolis provides a lot more freedom when it comes to character creation compared to the Mutant series. In the Mutant games things are way more focused, while in Coriolis you have a lot of options to choose from. Of course Mutant’s focus has its advantages, especially for the GM. Mutant is almost a prep-free game (Check out my M:Y0 review for more details). Coriolis is in comparison a way more traditional game. That means the GM has to do the heavy lifting himself. But the group creation helps to alleviate some of this by solving some of the common problems.

The last step of character creation is picking your Icon. Each character was born under a certain sign which will grant you with a special Icon talent. Each icon is also tied to one of the game’s skills. For example you pray to The Lady of Tears when you attempt to get better results in your Medicurg skill, or you call out to The Judge during ranged combat. Mechanically it’s all the same, but it’s great for narration.

Talents
In many roleplaying games talents help to give your character a certain edge, something to set them apart from their fellow men. Coriolis is no difference. I list a couple of talents below as examples.

  • A FRIEND IN EVERY PORT (Agents Group Talent)
    You can find a useful contact in a new place. The contact can
    protect you, lend you gear, or vouch for you with the local
    rulers. The GM gets 1 DP per use. One use per session for
    the whole group (not once per PC).

  • THE JUDGE’S TALENT (Icon Talent)
    You deal an automatic critical injury when your attack hits,
    regardless of whether the attack penetrated cover and armor.
    Any other effects from the attack are resolved as usual.
    (Editor’s Note: Each use of an Icon talent grants the GM one Darkness Point.)

  • RUGGED (General Talent)
    You are used to extreme weather and other natural hazards
    (cold, storms, strong gravity, fire, etc.). The talent counts as
    “armor” with an Armor Rating of 3 against natural damage.

  • RESISTANT (Humanite Talent)
    Your body can endure extreme weather and other natural
    hazards. The talent counts as “armor” with an Armor Rating
    of 6 against natural damage. You can combine Resistant with
    Rugged, for a total Armor Rating of 9 against natural damage.

  • CYBERNETIC MUSCLES (Cybernetic Implant)
    Muscles enhanced with ceramic fibers make you an extremely
    fast and strong runner. Your Movement Rate is increased by
    4 meters per fast action (cannot be combined with Sprinter or
    Quick). The damage of your unarmed attacks is increased to 2.
    Cost: 7,000 birr.

  • BEAUTIFUL (Bionic Scuplts)
    Your beauty is breathtaking. Whether by classical standards
    or tasteful originality, you turn heads wherever you go. Your
    biosculpted looks give you a +2 to manipulation whenever
    they can affect the situation. People with the appropriate
    sexual orientation tend to fall in love with you. If you are in
    a place with different ideals of beauty, the GM may decide
    to ignore your modifier.
    Cost: 25,000 birr.

  • STOP (Mystic Power)
    You can stop an NPC from performing an action she otherwise
    would have. It must be something subtle, that can be
    attributed to simple forgetfulness. Typical examples would be
    that the NPC lets the PCs pass a roadblock without checking
    their papers, or forgets her keys somewhere. The power
    cannot be used to stop an incoming attack.

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Rules, rules, more rules
What I really liked about Fria Ligan’s Mutant series (sorry, I can’t help myself comparing Coriolis and Mutant), is that it’s a very rules-light ruleset. It takes mere minutes to explain basically everything a player must know. In Coriolis things are slightly more elaborate. Character creation has more steps, combat has a couple more options, there’s a very detailed space combat system, etc.
While I am sure some people love the added complexity, I have to admit I preferred the more basic approach Mutant took. I guess it’s the problem with most space opera games.

Having said that I actually like how Coriolis treats space combat, even though it’s more complex than I hoped for. Each space combat turn is divided in five phases: Order Phase (in which the captain chooses his orders secretly), Engineer Phase (in which the engineer of the ship distributes energy to the ship’s various systems), Pilot Phase (in which the pilot decides on how to maneuver their ship), Sensor Phase (in which sensor operators lock on targets, break locks or do data attacks), and finally the Attack Phase (in which weapons and countermeasures are fired). Phew! That’s quite a lot of stuff to do in just one turn. But the system makes sure that everyone get’s something to do, and if done right, it should feel more like operating a real ship than just throwing the dice a couple of times. I especially like that the orders the ship captains (usually the party’s captain and the GM) decided on are written down secretly. It’s just another touch which could make space combat more interesting and a bit less predictable.

Guns, Guns, Guns!
imageCoriolis has an extensive section on Weapons & Equipment, which contains everything from everyday items to high-tech weapons and cybernetics. Like in many other space opera games, Coriolis uses technology tiers, but instead of a something like Traveller’s Tech Levels, only three tiers are used: primitive, ordinary, and advanced. In addition to that there are also artifacts left over from the species who built the portals. Primitive tech is what you get on backwater worlds, remains from the stuff the Firstcome brought with them, adapted to local enviroments and materials. Ordinary tech is what you can get mass-produced on most worlds of the Third Horizon. Advanced tech is at the high end of what’s available.

Some technology is also restricted (which means the characters need certain permits to obtain it), or only available from certain factions. Overall I’d compare the tech level of the Third Horizon to what you know from space opera TV shows like Firefly or Babylon 5. There’s antigravity, holographic displays, etc. Weapons use rockets or magnetic-accelerated slugs or even superheated matter. The list of weapons and armor is quite extensive. There are even Battle Exos, which are basically Coriolis’ version of Warhammer 40,000’s power armor.

The Third Horizon
There are space opera games where the mechanics portion of the corebook is pretty generic, with only the chapters on the setting which really focus on the worlds you are going to play in. This is definitely not the case with Coriolis. The setting permeates the whole book. It’s present in the artwork, the layout, the sidebars, and even in the mechanics. Small touches like referring to Earth as Al-Ardha make all the difference. The Third Horizon setting feels different than most other space opera games I’ve read. The closest I could compare it with might be Fading Suns. While the inspiration in western media like Firefly, Revelation Space, and Alien are obvious, the Middle Eastern culture gives it an intriguing twist.

I also think that the introduction of the Icons and the fact that praying to them has a mechanical effect, was a great idea. Sure, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it adds another element of mystery – as is “The Dark Between The Stars” which is described by the book as “the unspeakable, corrupting force at work in the intersection between civilization and the endless nothingness of space”. Is this a real force or just human’s fear of the unknown? Regardless it has a real mechanical effect.

Emissaries, Mystics, and Distress Calls
Giving you a long descripton of what the various worlds and factions of the Third Horizon look like is not what I want to do today. Half the fun of reading Coriolis’ setting chapters is exploring all this on your own. But I want to talk a bit about what Fria Ligan came up with to make the setting exciting for adventure.

As I mentioned earlier, there are various Factions which influence the lives of the people living in the Third Horizon, some of which have come together as Council Factions on Coriolis station. Think of these of Coriolis’ equivalent to Babylon 5’s Council of Non-Aligned Worlds. The Factions and the Council could be the perfect source of adventure if you’re into scheming, politics, and the work of spies.

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Recently the Emissaries appeared – spectres from another world, the Icons incarnate, or descendants of the Portal Builders? It’s another of Coriolis’ mysteries. Or what about the Mystics? Ordinary people suddenly and randomly developed mystical powers. In addition to that the whole Third Horizon is littered with ancient ruins. Who were the Portal Builders? Are there any of their artifacts left to uncover? There’s ample opportunity for a group of treasure hunters or explorers.

The appearance of the Emissaries caused the Zalosian conflict. One of the Emissaries called himself the Judge incarnate, which caused the Order of the Pariah to threaten leaving the council. They didn’t but closed their home system, Zalos,  to foreign traffic. What’s happening in the closed down system? How can Pilgrims now get to the pilgramage sites beyond Zalos?

And there’s the Taoan Distress Call. Tsubari on Taoan is attacked by an unknown enemy. The rescue mission was a failure with the majority of the forces destroyed. What has happened on Taoan? Is it a sign of things to come, of a larger danger lurking in the dark void?

What Coriolis gets right is to present a universe full of great opportunities for all kinds of adventures. There are game settings out there which look very cool and intriguing at first look, but it’s actually quite hard for GMs to come up with interesting adventures. Each time I leaf through the corebook I find new cool ideas and interesting hooks which I have missed before.

Beasts & Djini
One of my favorite chapters of Coriolis is the bestiary. The game’s creators came up with a couple of very exciting and original beasts you as GM can throw as your players. There are semi-intelligences which can also be played as player characters. Semi-intelligences are species which show several signs of intelligence (like speech, tribality, etc.) but who are not considered true intelligent species by the common scholar. There are the Beast of Horizon which include common beasts and biosculpted descendants of animals humans brought with them.

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Darkmorphs are widely feared creatures which are said to be spawned by The Dark Between The Stars. Thinks of creatures the mind of H.P. Lovecraft might have created. They are dark, twisted and have abilities which can activated by the GM by using Dark Points. Below is an example for such an ability:

  • NIGHT VEIL: The darkbound can affect nearby minds with its own darkness. This works like a mystical attack and costs 1 DP. The victim will experience the world as dark, cold and surreal. Seeing, thinking and acting becomes harder (-2 to OBSERVATION, all advanced skills and initiative), unless the victim wins an opposed roll using empathy (no skill) against the mystic power score of the darkbound.

Constructs are basically robots, either new ones, or the ones left behind by the Portal Builders. Spirits and Sarcofagoi are another manifestation of The Dark Between The Stars and also have abilities which can be activated by DPs. Some of these beings are incorporeal like ghosts and can do things which are usually beyond what you expect from creatures in a space opera setting. A sidebar actually recommends that you can easily just not use them for your game if you deem them too supernatural.

Last but not least this chapter lists a couple of common diseases and mind memes which could possibly afflict your characters. I especially love the idea of mind memes, which remind me of cases of mass hysteria not unknown of in our history.

A GM’s Job
The gamemastering section of Coriolis mainly gives common tips on how to run games and to use Darkness Points in game. There is also a handy table with a list of common NPCs with attributes and skills. There’s also an introductory adventure called “The Statuette Of Zhar” which should help to introduce the players to both the setting and the rules. There’s ample opportunity for roleplaying and at least one opportunity for combat. In addition there are two scenario locations you can use in your own scenarios: a jungle on Kua and a cantina on Coriolis station.
Before wrapping this review up, I should mention that the corebook also contains a character sheet, space combat map, spaceship sheet, and deckplans for various spaceships and a space station. There’s also a multi-paged index.

Conclusion
Coriolis is definitely a very intriguing space opera roleplaying game with a fresh and original setting. There are some religious and supernatural elements which might turn off a few people, but if you can look beyond that (or even embrace it), there’s a lot to love about Coriolis. In addition to that it’s a very gorgeous book which is a pleasure to leaf through. But this comes at a price. Because of the colored backgrounds (the sideabrs are white text on a grey texture) the readability and printer-friendliness suffers. M:Y0 and Tales From The Loop (which I will write about at a later date) both have a much clearer and more printer-friendly layout. The mechanics in Coriolis are not that crunchy and should work very well at the game table even though the system is not as rules-light as the one in M:Y0. Is Coriolis a good space opera roleplaying game? Yes. Is it a better game than Mutant: Year Zero? No. But it’s still an extremely well-made game. It was a pleasure reading it, and I can’t wait to actually play it!

You can buy Coriolis – Third Horizon either from the Modiphius online store, DriveThruRPG, or at your favorite local dealer. The core rulebook will set you back about €45 in print (hardcover book) and €23 as a PDF copy. There’s also a free quickstart booklet available.

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