Science fiction has always seemed to loom over fantasy in the realm of TV/movies. However, in the land of books and tabletop RPGs, epic fantasy remains king. Now, we have seen a number of fan favorite franchises do well as RPGs. These tend to be well established IPs that began in another media format. Franchises such as, Star Wars, Firefly, and Star Trek come to mind. That being said, the tabletop RPG market has grown as the hobby penetrates popular culture once again. There’s a desire for new worlds to explore, and this is only proven further by the success of the Expanse TV show, which is now an RPG as well, and the topic of today’s article; Coriolis: The Third Horizon.
Created by Free League Publishing, Coriolis is described as Arabian Nights in space. Similar to what Firefly did by incorporating western and Chinese aesthetics into science fiction. Obviously, now we’re taking a middle eastern approach. Personally, I find this re-fleshing, as this isn’t something we’ve seen before, and a slight change in perspective often reveals something new. This concept, along with gorgeous artwork, was the primary reason I picked up Coriolis at my local game store. As a fan of tabletop RPGs, I love learning new rules systems, as well as, exploring interesting worlds. Upon reading the core rule-book, I have to say that Coriolis knocked it out of the park. The rule system, art/themes, and setting all flow into each other organically. The feeling that rules are there to support the strong narrative is permeated throughout Coriolis.
Art & Themes
Whenever I review a new setting or rule system, I ask myself: What questions is this world trying to answer? For Coriolis, I feel their inspiration is worn on their sleeve, which makes the answer easily observed: What would a hard science fiction setting look like through the lens of middle eastern culture? In order to sell this concept and draw in players, the art really needed to capture the imagination. The books cover invokes images from a more hard science fiction setting. Something akin to Mass Effect or the Expanse, rather than a science fantasy setting like Star Wars. With its darker palette, I get a sense of mystery or horror just by looking at the cover. Which of course led me to picking Coriolis off the shelf. Upon flipping through the pages, I was enthralled by the dark and muddy images that reminded me of Warhammer 40K artwork. Combine this darker tone with a middle eastern style, not well represented in western culture, and the art begins to breathe mystery. A mystery that is well rewarded when we dive into the setting, I might add. It’s clear to me that art design was a critical piece of the puzzle, and as we’ve stated, it had to pull players into this exotic world. Even going the extra steps to include art that depicts traditional middle eastern garb. By making the art design a priority, the world of Coriolis comes to life in-front of you, enticing you to learn more.
While the art sets up the feel and themes of Coriolis, it’s the world building that really delivers on those untold promises. Using a standard science fiction trope at this point, humans have discovered ancient alien technology that act like portals or worm holes to other galaxies. Upon venturing through the first array, humans colonized what they would call the First Horizon. As the title of the book indicates, our players will be exploring the Third Horizon. However, after a long war with the other human colonies, the peoples of the Third Horizon destroyed their portal array, therefore cutting themselves off from both the First and Second Horizons. Now alone among the 36 planets that make up the Third Horizon, a number of factions have formed a council on Coriolis Space Station that acts as a governing body. That being said, exploration is the name of the game, however, Coriolis provides a few interesting mysteries that can be uncovered at the table. I won’t spoil any major plot threads, but I will tease that the humans of the Third Horizon may not be as alone as they think. Almost like a cosmic karma, the game sets up the idea of an evil energy that the denizens refer to as “The Dark Beyond the Stars”. With the odds stack against them and no connection to home, the people of Coriolis often turn to their Gods for help. Known as “the Icons” these beings, may or may not exist, but the tangible affects of faith, plays a central role in the game. Using middle eastern mythologies, the Icons, as well as the Dark Beyond the Stars, are seamlessly woven into the games mechanics. Making the setting intrinsic to the rule-set.
Coriolis runs on a d6 dice pool system that will be familiar to players of Shadowrun or Tales from the Loop RPGs. (Check out our Shadowrun Dice Pool Article Here) How it works is each character has four key attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Wit, and Empathy. These attributes can range from a numerical score of between 1-5. The character then has a number of general or advanced skills depending on their class. For example, a player attempting to take evasive maneuvers while flying will roll a number of d6 equal to their Dexterity + Pilot skill. So, if a character has a 3 in Dexterity and a 2 for their Pilot skill, then that player will roll 5d6 to see if they succeed… or get blown to bits in the vast emptiness of the void (I told you, hard science fiction). In order to pass a skill check, the player needs to roll at least one (6) on the d6. If you roll a total of three (6’s), than that’s considered a critical success and comes with additional advantages. Obviously, there can be condition modifiers that either add or subtract dice from your dice pool, but at its core, that’s the system. Pretty straight forward, though it gets a little more complicated when making attacks verses someones defense, but you get the idea. Now, since I used the example of piloting a spaceship, it’s properly important to mention that Coriolis comes with fully fleshed out ship combat. Using a rule system similar to Starfinder, where each character controls a certain aspect of the ship during combat. From piloting, gunning, to system repair, everyone will have a part to play. Though, there is one other mechanic the plays on the themes setup by Coriolis, and that’s the idea of Praying to the Icons. Using faith/belief the character can choose to perform this action in order to re-roll as many dice as they want during a skill check. However, in doing so, they also give the GM a Darkness Point. The book outlines a number of ways that the GM can utilize these Darkness Points to enhance the enemies, and acts as a cosmic karma system. This rule-set allows the players to perform great acts of heroism, while trading off potential future bad luck. This adds a nice back-and-forth dynamic between the players and GM. Using a rules light system that is strongly rooted in the mystery presented by the art and setting, Coriolis is a wonderfully designed tabletop RPG.
Honestly, Coriolis offers so much more that I could talk about. Whole sections on ships, weapons, bionics, and even latent physic abilities that introduces a low level of magic to the setting. Bios on different worlds, as well as, a full chapter on Coriolis the Space Station, which could be a setting unto itself! What I’m saying is this book is packed with content, and once you start reading, it’s hard to put down. So, if you are looking for a hard edge science fiction game full of mystery and a dash of cosmic horror, well.. I think Coriolis is the game for you.
As always, we want to know what you think! Have you checked out Coriolis yet? Have you played a game in this setting? Let us know in the comments below!
Also, while your here, check out more science fiction content with one of our many Starfinder articles!