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Review of the Mortal Coil RPG

Mortal Coil

Original review by Benjamin Baugh

Part 1: The Review

I’m going to write this review in two parts. The first part covers my impressions and thoughts on the game Mortal Coil itself, and the second part (coming sometime soon) will cover Actual Play, and an analysis of how the game worked around the table, and a recap or reevaluation of my initial thoughts based on the play experience.

Overall Impression

Amazing, intriguing, a little scary, but screaming at my brain “Play me! Play me now!”

The Basic Rundown

Mortal Coil is what I would call a tool-kit game with a fairly specific focus. There is no setting for Mortal Coil, and in fact the lack of setting is a feature of this game. All Mortal Coil games in some way deal with Magic as a setting element, and with Passions as character elements and motivators, and after being painted initially in broad strokes, the specifics of the supernatural within the collaboratively-created setting are decided during actual play. Mortal Coil has one of the lowest GM burdens in terms of game-prep I have ever encountered.

To further separate Mortal Coil from the pack, it is diceless. In fact, it uses no random element generator at all, rather relying on the blind-bidding of resources (which can variable be committed, spent, or sacrificed- see below for the specifics). Blind bidding provides uncertainty, which in bad light, gives you about the same tension as random resolution.

Mortal Coil games are created collaboratively, and the GM has less “world creation” authority/responsibility than most other games. With no pre-gen setting to manage, the GM is free to push conflicts and the story- and it is the story that Mortal Coil’s rule-set is designed to facilitate.

To sum this summary- diceless, resource-based, collaborative, story driven/driving, and from-the-box-setting-free.

Layout, Utility, and Peektures

They layout and presentation of the game are clear and concise- all the info you need to play is easy to find, and at the end of each chapter the significant bits you need to remember in play are summed on a one or two page cheat-sheet. It’s a feature many games could really benefit from- stripping out all the descriptive stuff, and just giving you the basic rundown with bullet-points all in one place.

The art is excellent, and all by Jennifer Rodgers. The author clearly went for quality over quantity here, and the art consists of a large wrap-around piece for the front and back cover, and a full page plate for each chapter. Each of these pieces is evocative as hell, and a couple are disturbing on a visceral level. They do a great job setting the various moods and themes the game might be used to convey in play- supernatural horror, occult mystery, fantastic whimsy. A couple of them perhaps qualify the game for a ‘mature audiences only’ label as well, even though the text itself doesn’t touch adult themes directly.

The game looks good, is easy to read and navigate, and even has a comprehensive index.

The Bones- core concepts and conceits

How does this game do the things I talk about above? The collaborative aspect of the game can’t be discounted, as it figures into game-play so significantly. The game is written with the assumption that a group will follow the basic guidelines on getting the game started- everyone sits down first, and talks about the kind of game they want to run and play. Themes are discussed, and a Theme Document is created for the campaign which outlines the agreed-upon elements. Writing up the Theme Document declares that certain things exist in the setting- sorcerers, vampires, gods, faerie folk, magic objects, etc- but what they can actually do is left undefined. The Theme Document is the seed crystal around which the game will grow- it establishes certain parameters such as tone, setting, elements of the supernatural, and the general saturation of magic and weirdness into the setting, as well as some threats, villains, or challenges inherent in the setup. To a greater or lesser extent, all this stuff is decided upon by the group, but if the GM were to do some of the grunt work before hand, and present it, then the players could decide to just go along with his setup in a more traditional “GM creates the world, we play in it” mode.

The Theme Document serves to keep everyone on the same page (har- the comedy never stops), and provides a starting point for what the author terms the ‘Threshold of Credibility’- what kind of new facts and details are and are-not kosher to introduce in play.

The Meat- characters

Characters in Mortal Coil are defined by their Faculties (attributes), Aptitudes (skills/vocations/avocations), and by Passions (drives, loves, hates… the stuff good stories are made from). Faculties and Aptitudes rank from 1 to 5, and when they apply in a given situation, they are added together. To this number, resources can be applied to increase the active value in a conflict.

Since Aptitudes are made up custom for each character, it raises the question “why not make them as broad as possible?” This is answered with some clever advice on picking Aptitudes, and with a rule which grants the character with the more specific Aptitude a bonus when in a conflict against a character with a more broad aptitude. “Duelist” trumps “Warrior” for example, if the conflict is a formal duel.

You have a certain number of points for each of these things (save Passions, which always total 5) based on the starting ability you pick. I assume, like everything else about the game, that choice of starting ability is to a certain extent limited by the Theme Document, and the consensus of the other players, but there are balancing factors built into playing “more powerful” character- you get fewer of the precious precious Power Tokens.

After you get your character’s basic stats, you figure the Token totals- tokens are the resources you use to do thing, change the game world, add facts and details, and improve your character. You have four types of Tokens:

Action Tokens- used to do things and win conflicts by adding to Faculty + Aptitude totals. Whenever you want your character to participate in a meaningful conflict or try something where the outcome is in doubt, you need to commit at least 1 Action token.

Passion Token- used to call upon Passions for further mechanical whammy.

Power Tokens- the big daddy tokens in the game. They can be used for all kinds of things, and are awarded in play.

Magic Tokens- you gets these based on how much magic the group wants in the game. You use them for activating established magical effects, and sacrifice them to add more magical facts to the setting (and to the Theme Document). Magic tokens are a player resource, and don’t map to anything like character power or ability.

That’s pretty much it for characters. The character sheet is mostly a worksheet for keeping track of tokens- especially Action tokens, which are usually committed temporarily to one (or all) of the four Faculty categories- Force, Grace, Wits, or Will.

The Blood- conflict resolution

The basic core mechanic is this- declare Stakes, declare method, add stats, add bid, then the big reveal. The difference in your total and the other guy’s total gives you a degree of success or failure, which can sometimes cause your character lasting harm.

A fair number of pages are dedicated to conflicts- something like 25% of the whole book- which breaks down how conflicts are declared and resolved. How multiple simultaneous actions are handled. And how conflicts involving multiple characters who might even be working to cross-purposes are managed. The Conflicts chapter covered all the big questions and circumstances I could think of which make unified conflict resolution mechanics sometimes sort of dodgy. I thought on my initial read, “OK, but what if I’m trying to break down the door while fighting off zombies, and my friend is freaking out and screaming insane abuse at me because he just found out I was sleeping with his wife who we’re both trying to rescue?” Bam- page 58.

But how does conflict actually work? Let me run with my example above.

My character is a misanthropic cripple who’s also a brilliant diagnostic physician (guess what I’ve been watching?), and the other PC is a young doctor assigned to help my character in his researches of a weird epidemic threatening the city. This happens, that happens, and it turns out the epidemic turns people into zombies. Run for your lives.

Dr. Jerry Domicile

Faculties Force 2 Grace 2 Will 3 Wits 4

Aptitudes Diagnostic physician 4 Snarky Bastard 3 Detective 2

Passions Love 2 (people as puzzles) Hate 2 (people as people) Love 1 (Sharon)

Pools Action 7 Passion 3 Power 2 Magic 5

Before I run with the resolution example, a quick lowdown on how tokens work is in order. Tokens can be used in one of three ways (and not all token types can be used in all thee ways).

Commit: You assign tokens from your pool which remain tied up until the conflict is resolved. Action tokens are most commonly committed.

Spend: You spend tokens from your pool, which return when your character has had time to rest and recover, or when some other event or time elapses (between sessions, for example). Action and Magic tokens are commonly spent.

Sacrifice: Permanently expend a token- generally done to make a permanent change to your character or the setting. Magic and Power tokens are most often sacrificed. Sometimes, Action tokens can be burned, but this represents some kind of permanent injury or setback for the character.

Set Stakes: Domicile wants to get through the door to rescue Sharon and escape the zombies. Tom- Sharon’s husband- is furious with Domicile for having the affair with his wife. His player decides to engage Domicile in a conflict with these stakes “Berate the misanthropic bastard, and make him apologize in the heat of the moment”. The GM sets the intent for the Zombies- grab and bite (and ideally, eat alive) Domicile and Tom.

Ordering the Conflict: Breaking down the door and forcing the apology don’t seem to interfere with each other, so which “goes off” first isn’t especially relevant here. Breaking the door in is pretty clearly Force, and berating Domicile is clearly Wits. Avoiding zombies is Grace, and resisting the social attack is clearly Will. Since each action in a round must use a different Faculty, this conflict demands the commitment of at least 1 Action token for Domicile (to Force to break down the door) and from Tom (to Wits to berate Domicile). If desired, additional tokens can be allocated to improve these actions, or the defensive actions these characters are taking with the other Faculties. In this example, since the stakes are so high, both spend pretty heavily.

Domicile’s player commits 3 Action to his Force, 2 to his Will, and 1 to his Grace, for totals of Force 4, Grace 3, Wits N/A, Will+Snarky bastard 8. Further, he spends a Passion token to add his Love for Sharon passion to his Force, brining it to 5, and he spends another Passion token to add his Hate of People to his Will when resisting Tom’s efforts to make him sorry for his actions. Comparing these totals to the resistance, he beats Tom’s efforts by 2 points, the Door’s resistance by 1, but fails to defend against the Zombies completely, and misses it by 2. Both his defense against Tom’s emotional attacks and his attempt to force the door are Successful, while his attempts to evade the zombies is only a Near Success- the GM describes the two doctors flinging themselves through the door, and slamming it in the zombies’ faces and only then does Domicile realize he’s been bitten on the arm. Based on the degree of the failure, this qualifies as a “Scratch” and means Domicile’s player must spend an Action token which can only be recovered with medical attention. Good thing they are in a hospital, eh?

This seems a logical way to end this conflict- all the stakes have been resolved. If things had been ambiguous, then another round of conflict might have been needed, and to reallocate committed Action tokens would have required one be spent to account for fatigue. The others, however, come un-allocated and return to Domicile’s pool.

Now that Dr. Jerry Domicile has been bitten, it seems a good time to use a Magic token to expand on the existing Facts related to Zombies on the Theme Document.

Domicile’s character sacrifices a magic token and creates this fact (which everyone agrees is fine), “Broad spectrum antibiotics will cure zombie infection” but because this is a magical fact, someone else around the table gets to describe a Price- a drawback or exception to the new Fact. Tom’s player chuckles, and says, “But only if you get the injections within the first hour of infection.” Everyone is cool with this, and it goes down on the Theme Document.

Now, this example implies a certain competitiveness between Tom’s player and Domicile’s player, but this isn’t the only mode this system works in, and it certainly need not come down to ‘player vs player’. I just thought it made for a good example of multiple things going on at once, token commitment and spending, and resolution. A note on Passions- these things are effing cool.

Passions always total 5, right? Well if you use a passion twice in the same conflict, you permanently increase its value by 1. This means, you have to suck a point out of another passion to bump it up. Further, you have passion tokens equal to your number of passions (their values is irrelevant). So, a Passion of 5 means you have only 1 passion token, while 5 passion at 1 mean you have 5 tokens. Getting obsessed (all your points flushing into a single passion) increases the kick you get from that passion, but reduces the number of times you can use it. If everyone is cool with it, and it makes sense as part of the story, you can change your passions around a bit as well. If you’re acting in opposition to one of your own passions, the GM may require you commit an extra Action token to it, just to get over your natural resistance to taking such an action. If Domicile had to make nicey-nice with hospital admissions about something, he might take this ping because of his hate for most people.

Bringing it all to life

The GM has a different role in Mortal Coil than in most games- he facilitates play, uses his own pools of tokens to add details to the setting or provide opposition to the PC’s. The role is generally closer to that of a player in terms of overall power over the setting. With the extremely low prep involved in this game, it strikes me that if you and your group all agree on the kind of game you want, you can be up and running in about half an hour after you introduce the mechanics. There is almost none of that residual ‘GM vs Player’ vibe in Mortal Coil.

Advancement and reward are handled through Power Tokens, which can be spent in the short term to bolster other actions (including being spent after the Reveal to give someone a little extra oomph), buy back sacrificed Magic tokens, create non-magical setting elements, and such. A pile of Power tokens is placed in the center of the table, and players can be nominated by other players for coolness to receive them, and then a show of hands determines if the action is worthy. This is one of the few elements of the game I’m a little iffy on, but see below for why.

The GM is advised to look to the characters’ Passions as his guide when creating conflict, scenes, and starting stories- Passions serve as hooks and motivators. Stories tied to a characters Passions are immediately relevant, and answer the question, “OK, but what do we actually do?

A bit more on magic and the supernatural, because I want to be sure to convey how cool this is, and how much I’m looking forward to trying it out in play. If you have an Aptitude with some kind of implied supernatural element- “Occult Scholar” or “Vampire” or “Giant She-Mantis”- then you ‘activate’ it by spending a Magic token. Spent tokens return between sessions (or perhaps with special circumstances), and magical acts (if not obvious in their effects) might give a bonus to certain conflicts. Creating magical elements of the setting are always paired with a Price, and someone else always determines the price (though discussion and brainstorming is encouraged). You can buy the right to do this with Power tokens too, if you want to put your tokens on the line to see that your vision becomes part of the setting.

For example, the player of the character with the “Giant She-Mantis” immediately wants to establish that creatures such as she can create illusory mental projections which make them seem like attractive human women. He-Mantises generally project an image like a mousy nervous accountant, but She-Mantises go for the dangerous curves and fem-fatal heels. Another player pipes up though, and adds “But people in altered states of consciousness can see the She-Mantis’s true shape” and this is agreeable. Further, the GM decides some mechanics to back this Fact up, and he goes for a Conflict Trigger- those who might be attracted to the She-Mantis in her human form must enter a conflict to avoid succumbing to her lusty presence, and gain a 1 point Love passion for her. If they then see her in her mantis form, this passion changes to a 1 point Fear passion towards her.

As play progresses, the mythology and metaphysics of the setting are established and can be used down the road. If you liked the character dynamics and magic of a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer more than the action elements of the show, then Mortal Coil might be a good place to look for mechanics.

Concerns, Questions, and Typos

I only noticed one or two typos- nothing that I might have just as easily glossed right over. Further, after reading the rules closely, I didn’t really have any questions about how the mechanics are intended to work, what the goals of the design are, and what the game would be good for, and what it wouldn’t be all that good for.

I had only a couple of practical concerns. As GM, I’d had for a player to become alienated or feel “his guy” was taken away by the way Price is established. If you want to be able to shoot lightning bolts, and someone pipes up and says, “But you suffer as much pain as you inflict” then it doesn’t really jive with your black-eyed-extra-veiny-witchy-vengance thing. Making sure nobody feels hosed is something the GM (and the group as a whole) needs to remain vigilant about. On a similar note, the way Power tokens are assigned by consensus seems like it would really favor outgoing, spotlight-grabbing, or funny players and might leave the more thoughtful or hesitant players lagging far behind. Much of this would be dependent on group dynamic, of course, and encouraging players to riff up lots of cool things certainly isn’t a bad thing. It would just go on my list of things to keep an eye on when I run it.

If you like X, then Y might be for you… Mortal Coil would seem to be an ideal game for those who are already comfortable with breaking down traditional GM and Player roles, and reassigning some of the responsibilities a bit. If you like Dogs in the Vineyard, Trollbabe, Sorcerer, or Polaris then it might hit your joy button. If you like modern occult games like Mage, Unknown Armies, d20M’s Unearthed Arcana, Kult, the Whispering Vault, then the way the system lets you explore such setting through the creative process might ring your bell. If you’re a system monkey and you like innovative weird mechanics, then it could flip your fun-switch. If you dig the Hellbalzer comics, the novels of Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, then… well you see where I’m going.

Final Thoughts

Mortal Coil is a very good game, and one which suits my improvisational GM style well. I can see players turning out a steady stream of surprising and unexpected things, and that’s a good thing by my reckoning. This game is cool, and I want to run it, and I’d do so without changing anything. And that’s almost a first for me.

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