So, what's up with Mortal Coil?

edited July 2008 in The Sandbox
It looks cool, i've read some reviews and the book itself is pretty.
a friend mentioned that someone was quoted as saying it was
"UNPLAYABLE" though i can't remember who and certainly not why.

now, it's clear that people are playing mortal coil; maybe
they're seeing something this other person wasn't or they're just filling
in some gap that was left in the text.

my question, then, is "is there anything else i need to know to play
this game besides what is included in the book?"

a secondary inquiry could be "what does unplayable mean?", but that is WAY
secondary; please don't run off with that.



  • I tried running Mortal Coil with two friends of mine and it didn't work for us. I don't think this is due to any flaw inherent in the game. I certainly don't think it is, in any way, "unplayable" but the mechanics of it didn't really work for us. I do think the rules system probably takes some getting used to. Maybe I'll come back to it someday, but in all honesty, the reason I decided to pick it up was because I was interested in it's take on group setting/theme creation and the idea of creating the rules for magic during play. And those ideas/rules are ones I may very wall pull out and bring into other games because those worked just fine. The best time we had with the game when we tried it was probably brainstorming the setting/situation and creating the theme document.
  • It's worked very well for some friends of mine. I'll see if I can get them to post here (Steve, post here).

  • Nathan's running a Mortal Coil-based game for a mixture of Boston / Western Mass folks. Generally, things have been going pretty well. Last session, we decided to drift the rules a bit because the blind bidding mechanic wasn't really clicking for us. All we've done, though, is basically use the same mechanics, but make it more about resource management, like a version of Nobilis where your resources regenerate after every scene. It was really only the "secretly assign a number of chips... and then reveal!" aspects that we found not quite gelling for this particular group, which wanted to be more open and have everything on the table. Also, we've cut back on the number of magic tokens and fanmail-style chips that are flying around, because our magic is pretty laid back and the group is comfortable enough that we don't really need flying fanmail to drive the excitement and creativity.

    I do remember Brennan saying that there were some parts of the original printing that could have used more explanation, just to be clearer, but I don't know if they were fixed in later printings or are available on the web anywhere.
  • Brennan did a series of explanatory posts on the forge once. I cannot find them right now, though.

    Brennan, if you read this: Please collect this into a PDF and make it available from your website (if you did already, please vindicate by posting a link).
  • Mortal Coil certainly is playable and I've really enjoyed the sessions we've played.

    The first time I played it was with Brennan (Flaming Taft) but we've played it several times subsequently (Twisted 50's, London School of Magic, Neanderthals - with no GM). There's quite a lot of useful stuff on the Forge in the Galileo Games forum.

    The creation of the theme document is a very important part of the game and it needs to be done in such a way that everyone is happy with what is included. This means that some people have to compromise their vision of where the game is coming from, and going to. If everyone is content to do this then, in my experience, the theme document really supports the creation of an engaging narrative.

    It's also quite surprising the extent to which passions, which only seem to have a minor influence in conflict resolution, actually drive character behaviour. As such some of the players should have passions that either conflict with each other, or with the passions of another player. Such conflicts also drive the narrative. The fact that passions change slowly during the game means that they don't get resolved so quickly that the narrative needs to go directly to high stakes resolution. Generally resolution is interesting enough that even low stakes create interesting outcomes.

    Some people find the resolution mechanic a bit clunky and whilst the text possibly doesn't explain all of it in the clearest terms it is certainly playable. One of the things we really liked was that whilst you might be resolving something rather straight forward like a fight, you can also introduce side bets as it were so that even if you lose the fight you might still impress the onlookers more.

    Flaming Taft remains one of my most enjoyable games ever.
  • Brennan's conflict examples were collected on the Random Average wiki, ummmm here:

    Look for the link "Conflict Examples." I also put together a FAQ with some of the stuff people have asked of Brennan on the forge forum.

    The game's entirely playable. I'm curious about the noblis-like hack above, and how that changes the order of resolution.
  • Jackson,

    We played through a brief session - mostly prep - quite recently. But you already know that.

    A very cool part of the game is that magic is introduced into the setting through a Theme Document. Magic always has a price, and may or may not have a mechanical-conflict-resolution-y effect when done.

    Characters are fun to create. They have some flags, known as Passions. My guy had Duty: Topple the Ursa Kingdom, Love: Win back Vermillion, the fox vizier of the Ursa Courts and one other one. There are four stats, which is a good number. Finally, you have some aptitudes, which are magical and non-magical abilities. My guy had Geomancer*, Strategist, Survivalist, Brother of the Flame* and Prestigious. The ones with asterixes are magical aptitudes.

    I felt like it was the perfect amount of crunch and detail for character creation in the game.

    The parts that line up with others' assumptions about "unplayable":

    The examples are really unhelpful, according to Daniel. They use a running example through the book (vampires) which didn't really clue us into what good prices were for active magical abilities, or what the scope of certain things were, etc. Examples were typically too similar to show the system's diversity and not focused enough to answer our questions.

    More notably, the resolution mechanics aren't interesting to us. It's a blind resource bid, where you both state intents, then secretly allocate points to different actions, and then REVEAL! I found that it was non-intuitive, actions and defenses didn't match up, and it was contrived and took away from play significantly. I would have much preferred a "declare action, pick stat. Then, declare defense, pick stat. Then, allocate points" and have it all be open and sequential and good like that.

    Does this help?

    Also, any game which lets me make Debin Stodge, Badger Geomancer and Arrogant Oldie.... has to have potential. It's just that the text could be cleaned up, and the core mechanic could be gutted and replaced. Otherwise, nifty.
  • Posted By: DoyceI'm curious about the noblis-like hack above, and how that changes the order of resolution.
    Honestly, it's still developing as we play with it, as frequently happens with drifted house rules. Basically, the tokens become a limit on how many resource points you can allocate within a given scene, refreshing between scenes. The GM sets a difficulty or an NPC character allocates points, and you have to decide if it's worth it to allocate enough points to beat them. Invoking Passions or Magic can be used to give yourself a higher number of resource points than you normally have, but it has to be applicable to the situation.

    The way this works out, in most scenes, you can find a way to allocate enough points to succeed in a single challenge without too much difficulty, especially if you have relevant passions, but in more complex scenes like fights or extended arguments or maneuvering, you have to be more careful about where and when you allocate your resources. If you win an early stage of the conflict you may end up losing later stages, assuming the conflict continues. That kind of thing.
  • thanks everyone.

    this has very much bolstered my belief in the game and now i also know whom
    to look to for help if the need arises!

    i'll admit that bidding is one of my least favorite mechanics, but having stuff develop in play
    is one of my faves... guess that's not so much a mechanic; anyway, i'll check it out.

  • It isn't really a bidding mechanic, more resource allocation.
  • GB,

    The part that got me was the blind part. It's blind resource allocation, where you divide points between offensive and defensive stuff. Almost like a gambit.
  • If you're concerned over the blind allocation, you can also do it in the open. Each side spends a token until everyone passes once.

    We've done it like that for the use of power tokens, but not the full resolution. I think it would work pretty well though.
  • Hi Jackson,

    I'm going to disagree with the folks who have posted so far. The book as printed is obtuse. I think folks that have played with Brennan, or learned from people who have played with Brennan, or make the same assumptions as Brennan get the game. I don't. None of my friends get the game. Each time we play it we make something different out of the rules. There's also a problem with authority as the game talks about a concept called the threshold of credibility that's butts against other things like the rules based system. For instance which idea trumps the other one. Also the conflict resolution system is incredibly murky and frustrating typically needing in game discussion to try to make sense of it.

    The rules based construction of the Universe is golden. Having used that and hand-waved the impenetrable conflict resolution system I've run games and gotten applause at the end, but I've decided the frustration and ambiguity aren't worth the reward. I wonder if Brennan had an editor, because looking at his new game, so far it seems much more comprehensible. I'd buy Mortal Coil again if he tackled it with a good editor.
  • Posted By: Clyde L. RhoerThe rules based construction of the Universe is golden. Having used that and hand-waved the impenetrable conflict resolution system I've run games and gotten applause at the end, but I've decided the frustration and ambiguity aren't worth the reward.
    Yeah... I kinda feel the same way. One of the things that really confused us was how it talks about the system both in terms of resolving individual tasks but also talks about having people state intents and set stakes and stuff like that. i don't know that it uses those kinds of terms in the book,b but i got both of those feelings from it simultaneously. We also had weird issues with defending against things, especially exactly how it worked if you wanted to bring in a defense later when you hadn't originally committed tokens to defense. Granted, we didn't fight with the resolution system more than about a session and a half, but it just plain wasn't working well for any of us.
    Again, I believe the system is probably totally useable and playable, I just don't think it's described very clearly.
    Also, I'm just not entirely sure how I feel about token-based resolution systems yet.
    The nice thing about the stuff in the book like the setting/magic creation is that they are ideas that could port easily into other games. I haven't really done so yet, but I'm definitely keeping it in the back of my mind.
  • Yeah.

    I think it would work to gut the resolution system and just have Faculty + Aptitude + d6. I don't think that resource allocation is meaningful to the premise of the game in most cases.
  • I tried using the system in a small campaign, we used it about four or five times before giving up (and we had tested it in a one-shot game before hand, so half of us were familiar with the rules). I didn't work and we all ended up very frustrated and very annoyed.

    The cool thing for us were the Magic Facts, and we had an awesome lot of them, and they cool. We had a kewl setting (sort of Hellblazer with bunch of little known historical but authentic heresies) - and we had interesting characters with both conflicts towards each other and the setting.

    But the conflict system didn't work. It was confusing, and there were som major power-differences between players, whose characters were immortal ans those, who played veterans or newbies. The powerlevels were simply screwed, and the token-resource allocation always ended in the players being able to count before the conflict as to who would win what in intra-party conflicts. So even though I was sold, when I read the rulebook and I absolutely love the idea of the magical facts, the game failed when played.

    I haven't studied the Forge forum closely as how to play the game, but I would prefer a rulessystem that does not require all the reading on the net. So we ended up transferring the campaign to the TSoY and played on. This time things worked.
  • Posted By: fnord3125Also, I'm just not entirely sure how I feel about token-based resolution systems yet.
    I would recommend trying a few other resource distribution resolution systems before you decide the concept as a whole doesn't work for you. There are several of them out there that are surprisingly different from each other: Nobilis, Marvel Universe, Active Exploits, etc.
  • I agree with most of the comments on the thread (even some of the negative ones). Definitely check out the wiki that Doyce linked to above, the extended play examples there help a lot.

    The rules do work, and many people have played the game successfully without my input. However, for a significant percentage of people, they are incomprehensible. I did not have an editor on this game, and it definitely shows.

    For world-building, though, I think Mortal Coil can't be beat.
  • Hey Brennan,

    Have you given up on fixing the text of the game? I see from your blog that you're planning on making two games a year, is it possible you could fix this in one of those slots? I firmly believe this game would be really successful (more successful?) if the text of the book were clear. It's really disappointing as I can see the potential of the game, but having to discuss whether people have referred to supplemental material, and the inability to access just the book for clarifications is too awkward. Perhaps you don't feel the money is there for it. This will be the last time I bug you about the game.
  • Clyde,

    Your comments about the game were very helpful, and I do plan on revising it some time. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about your input!
  • edited July 2008
    Posted By: Jonathan WaltonI would recommend trying a few other resource distribution resolution systems before you decide the concept as a whole doesn't work for you. There are several of them out there that are surprisingly different from each other: Nobilis, Marvel Universe, Active Exploits, etc.
    Oh totally. I know there are. Just like there are tremendous variations in systems that use dice. I don't know much about the others, but I plan on picking up Nobilis if Eos actually does a new version of it. I missed out on the Hogshead one. :(
  • edited July 2008
    When I read the book, I felt that there were pieces missing as written. However, pretty much all the questions I had were answered here:
  • What I do like about MC resolution is the way you can bring several stakes into one single resolution so although you may force the spirit to reveal the secret whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon, you are also likely to inherit a passion to kill its bearer. It's very tidy and drives the story. I seem to be in a minority in this regard but our group didn't seem to have any problems.

    Although I did play MC with Brennan the first time, we didn't do anything fancy regarding resolution. As I recall it was all about a single attack and defense, but mostly just one stack on each side. The fancy stuff came later after I read the book (and I still find it easier than Mountain Witch which makes Steve cry. YMMV).
  • I am one of those people who finds the conflict rules fairly opaque/not-useful, but loves the system for building Magic. The Passions are also strong, and I feel like those two elements are really the core of the game. I might try the rules as-written (as-best-understood) a few more times but ultimately I think just hacking Magic/Passions onto another system (the Solar System being my current best candidate) is going to be more satisfying. It's not just that the system is hard to understand; it's that I don't see what it brings to the table. The blind bidding seems impractical in terms of actual play -- especially given that you are blindly bidding on one to four possible actions. Do you declare what these actions are before bidding, or after? After doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but the rules don't seem to talk about it. Maybe everybody else is declaring their actions before the bidding? I'll have to try that next time, though the Nobilis hack also sounds pretty strong.
  • When I play MC with Brennan, it looks like this:

  • Posted By: Brennan TaylorI agree with most of the comments on the thread (even some of the negative ones). Definitely check out the wiki that Doyce linked to above, the extended play examples there help a lot.

    The rules do work, and many people have played the game successfully without my input. However, for a significant percentage of people, they are incomprehensible. I did not have an editor on this game, and it definitely shows.

    For world-building, though, I think Mortal Coil can't be beat.
    That's what I'm going through right now, Brennan. I'm a universe/world-builder at heart, so I was very excited based on the feedback I'd heard on that part of MC.

    I'm excited to get in there, but am a little apprehensive about the resolution. But I think this thread and the links will definitely help. My thanks, all.
  • edited July 2008
    I wrote a long post about this yesterday, but it was eaten when the forum decided I wasn't logged in when I hit post, so... shorter this time.

    Here's the thing with Mortal Coil's conflict system: it was written after the stakes-setting kool-aid got into the water supply and infected everyone. Now, I don't mean to imply that I don't think Setting Stakes in a system works -- I think there are systems where it does work, and works really well.

    The problem is, it was introduced in Trollbabe which, being a Ron Edward's creation, doesn't really fucking explain what it's doing in ways most people will understand or figure out until it suddenly becomes head-slappingly obvious to the general population, five years later. It *works* - people know that, but (a) they don't really know -why- it works, and (b) they think they do, and they get it wrong. Spione may be the evolution of Ron's game delivery to a point where that will happen less, but Trollbabe isn't - Sorcerer suffer(ed/s) from the same thing.

    So like about a year ago (edit: two years ago) there was a backlash of feedback about these Stakes Setting games where people were just doing it wrong in play, and it usually came down to the fact that the reason they were doing it wrong was because the method was explained poorly or not at all in the game itself, people (both designer and player) sort of guessed at what was intended, and - again - got it wrong. The Roach and PTA were mentioned in that thread I linked for introducing Stakes Setting "ambiguously", but the list of games that (IMO) cocked up Setting Stakes in their game by not explaining it, or by including it when it Was. Not. Necessary. was... pretty long.*

    Mortal Coil did that last thing: put in Setting Stakes when such a thing isn't actually necessary and -- I suspect -- really isn't being used by even the game designer.

    Why? Well, it's a Conflict Resolution system, right? And those need Setting Stakes, Right?

    Well, no. And also, no. It's doesn't need Setting Stakes, cuz it's not Conflict Resolution.

    Here we go: Mortal Coil: First session questions

    The conflicts are CONFLICT resolution, but individual rounds of action are TASK resolution aimed at resolving the conflict. This hybrid part can mix things up sometimes. Keep in mind the overarching conflict goal as each player takes individual actions to achieve it.
    Umm. Yeah. That's not Conflict Resolution. That's Task Resolution, with a goal in mind for the end-state of affairs after all the Tasks are resolved. Like... oh, I dunno. DnD. In a Wicked Age.

    In other words. I would submit that the system is actually good old familiar Task Resolution that, due to the development environment in which it grew up, thinks (and tells people) it's Conflict Resolution, and that is where most of the player-disconnect comes from. I'd even bet that if you watched Brennan run the game, that's what you'd see, but it's so natural to him that it hasn't processed.

    And I don't really think there's anything WRONG with MC as a Task Resolution system. I *like* Task Resolution systems. I think they're sometimes more intuitive for most players (new or old) than Conflict Resolution -- that's been my experience, anyway. Once I figured out what IAWA was doing, for example, it was like a weight off my shoulders, not having to worry about Stakes.

    MC came out at a time when Conflict Resolution and Setting Stakes was simply How It Was Done -- so much so that people would sit down at a Sorcerer game with Ron and get to a fight and say "okay, so what are the Stakes?" and Ron would say "Stakes? This guy is going to fucking shoot you. Do something!" So... that's how the game was written, but how it's written isn't really how it's played... at least, not (usually) successfully.

    End Conclusion: you strip out the CR stuff from the text and run it as a straight TR, maybe with some other-game jujitsu bolted on to handle post-resolution negotiations -- or fiddle with the system a LOT to make it an actual CR system, which is something else entirely. When the game is working really well for a group of players, I think one or the other of these two things is what is happening at the table, probably unconsciously.

    Brennan or another experienced MC gm can feel free to call bullshit on this assessment.

    ( * - A couple folks dodged that bullet (DitV, to name one) by basically reinventing or reintroducing the concept, whole-cloth, in their game text.)
  • Adding a tangent:

    That thread about Stake Setting that I linked to is, in two-year hindsight, FASCINATING.

    Today, people know and understand that not every game that comes out of the indie community has to have Stakes setting. Polaris. IAWA. Sorcerer. Okay, right?

    Read that thread: people are using Polaris as an example of Stakes Setting that works in play, and the author posts and says "no, Polaris is not that", and people reply with "well, no, there is no actual Setting of Stakes, but it's still a good example of how to make Stakes Setting work."

    Seriously... seriously... what. the. fuck. was it, at that time, about that method, that made it into the Only Indie Mechanic?

  • Call out:

    would someone like to write a quick article for the Codex of this site on the subject of Stakes Setting?

    there isn't one, and for me to figure out WTF that would be hella handy.

    and a continued thanks for everyone's insight into the issues surrounding MC.
  • Hey! You liked to my thread on the Forge. That thread probably demonstrates most of the confusions I was having with MC better than I did here, actually... since that was written when it was happening. I had forgotten how many confusions it all actually caused with me.
    Still, I thought it was going to work out. I think it could even work okay with me, but it wasn't totally clicking and my friends (one in particular) had a HUGE problem with it. We probably could have worked around it or tweaked it a little to better suit our purposes, but in the end we just decided to move on to something else. I do, after all, still have a massive stack of games I haven't run/played yet.
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