My friendly neighborhood gaming group just completed a campaign using the Mortal Coil gaming system. Generally, we are a traditional group, but we’ve played storytelling games before and one game that used a bidding system similar to the one in Mortal Coil and we’ve always found them enjoyable. But Mortal Coil proved to be a much more entertaining than those we’ve tried before.
Though there is world building in Mortal Coil and a great deal of the world is decided by the GM and players, every campaign starts with a single core concept: there is magic in the world. The level of magic and how it works, however, is up to the players and GM to determine. Much as All Flesh Must Be Eaten allows people to play any sort of zombie game they might like by adjusting various “sliders” in the rules, Mortal Coil allows people to play any sort of magic game by adjusting things like magic level in the world and the power level of the characters. This can vary anywhere from a world where only a handful of people have magic and the things they can do are minor to a world where magic is everywhere and people can change the world using it and everything in between.
Our first session with Mortal Coil involved playing with these switches and collaboratively building the world that we would be playing in. With the prevalence of things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Dresden Files and Warehouse 13, it did not take us long to settle on a setting that had a hidden world of magic just underneath the world most people were involved with. Obviously, there was little magic in this world and our characters were not particularly powerful. Despite how relatively limited magic was in our campaign, the uses that we found for our magical abilities were still always entertaining.
For conflict resolution Mortal Coil uses a bidding system with poker chips. Each round each character has a set number of chips allocated to him based upon his experience level. Though the name is similar, this experience level is not like a character’s level in D&D. It is not a progression of the character from low and weak to high and powerful, rather, it is a level set in character creation that involves something of a trade off. More experienced characters have more action chips to use each round but fewer power chips that can be used to manipulate the world. Thus, more experienced characters have fewer wild cards that they can use to influence the story but are able to do more in action.
Action chips are then allocated to one of four faculties in order to attempt the task the character is trying to accomplish. These faculties are Force, Grace, Wit, Will and essentially correlate to physical strength, physical skill, mental skill and mental strength. Each round a character can try to perform as many as four tasks, one for each faculty assigning any portion of their action chips to one or more faculties. However, because they have only a limited number of tokens to spend, it quickly becomes apparent that focusing on an action or two each round is much more likely to bring success than trying to do an action for every faculty.
The faculty value is added to the chips bid for the base value of the action. Each character also has one or more aptitudes that have their own values that can be added to the bid. These aptitudes greatly resemble the aspects from any of the myriad games that are based on the Fate system. They are basically just descriptions of what the character is good at. These can be things as vague as “soldier” or as specific as something like “marksman.” One of the factors involved in using these aptitudes is that if one person opposing another person’s action has an aptitude that is more accurate to the task being attempted then it trumps the other person’s aptitude and it does not have an effect. For example, if one character has “soldier” and the other has “marksman” and they were both trying to shoot the same target, the one with the “marksman” aptitude would get to apply his aptitude and the one with “soldier” would not. Aptitudes can be used as many times as the player can find a way to use them in the game.
Players can also use another portion of the character called “passions” to increase the value of their bid on an action. Passions, as the name suggests, are things that the character feels strongly about. These can be anything that the character loves or hates or fears or is inspired by. They too, are somewhat like aspects and can be used to add their value to the action bid. The major mechanical difference between aptitudes and passions is that passions have a set number of uses. A character has five points to allocate to passions. This can be a single five point passion, five one point passions or any combination in between. The character gets as many passion tokens as he has passions and each time he uses a passion, he must sacrifice one of those tokens. The player also has to keep track of which passions he’s used. If a player uses the same passion twice in a session, that passion automatically increases by a point and he must reduce another passion by a point. Essentially, the game mechanically reinforces the character decisions that the player makes. The more that a character seems to care about one thing (as indicated by using his passion) the stronger it gets, but something else becomes less important to the character at the same time. Like aptitudes, passions can be used any time they can logically be called into play. A passion like “must protect animals” can be used any time a character is trying to help an animal, until his passion tokens run out and keeping in mind that each use after the first makes the passion stronger while weakening another passion.
As mentioned previously, there are also fate chips. Fate chips basically represent wild cards. They can be used in the place of any other type of chip in the game. Thus, they can either simply add one to an aptitude when used, or if a player is out of passion chips, can be spent as a passion chip. Fate chips can also be used to define features of the world. For instance, a player could spend a fate chip to say that fairies can only enter our world through fairy rings or that there is a Buy Low Megamart in town.
Finally, there are Power Chips. These chips represent the magical power of a character. Characters are given a number of power chips dependant on the experience level of the character and the level of magic in the world. Since our characters were in a relatively low magic world, they received only four or five power chips. It takes one power chip to define a specific power based on a character’s aptitude. For instance, a character with the “dragon” aptitude could spend a power point to define that he could breath fire. That player could then play another power chip during any later scene to utilize his fire breathing ability. Normally, it costs one chip to define a power and another to use it the first time, but given how few power chips we had, we housed this rule this and allowed the same chip that defined a power to utilize it. In addition to the chips spent to utilize powers, each power also has an in-character cost. For instance, utilizing the above example, the fire breathing dragon might also belch out so much smoke that it impedes his vision and gives him a -2 to his grace rolls. If it sounds like you have to double pay to use a power, it feels like it, too. We rarely used our powers in the game because we were hoarding our few power tokens for as long as possible and we knew that our characters were going to have to pay a cost in the world for them, too. While this might have been a factor of the level of magic in our game, it makes me wonder if even high magic games really feature a lot of magic when players know that for every spell they cast they’re going to have to take a penalty.
Once everyone’s chips are on the table, as it were, both sides in a conflict display their results. Everything in Mortal Coil is based from the player’s perspective, so whether the player is throwing a punch or dodging a punch, the results stem from how successful they are as measured by the value of their chips compared against the value of the GM’s chips. In the above two examples, a player whose result exceeded the GM’s by five or six would either knock his opponent out or totally avoid the blow and set himself up for a counter strike. A tie would mean that he got in or took a weak blow while losing by five or six would mean that he was either knocked out or left himself vulnerable to counter attack. Having all successes and failures taking place only from the player’s perspective greatly simplifies things as every action the player takes either has a definitive counter that can be measured and compared or does not have one in which case the player is simply wildly successful or fails miserably. This latter occurrence happens fairly often. Given that everything happens at once, it is quite easy to declare an action that the GM is not expecting and has no counter for or to be blindsided by a clever move from the GM.
Like most story telling games, the system works immensely well when the conflict is limited to one player facing one opponent. It essentially becomes a matter of coming up with creative uses for faculties, passions and aptitudes and a simple comparison of results. Unfortunately, it quickly breaks down when multiple parties get involved. Anytime one of the GM’s NPC’s was facing two characters, his chance of victory was negligible. Even if one of the characters was only assisting the other one, that advantage was enough to overwhelm the NPC. If two characters were each accosting the NPC at the same time, then it was impossible for him to protect himself. When it came time for the big final battle and our characters were facing numerous foes, the GM was wise enough to group most of the thugs into chunks and to operate those chunks as though they were a single NPC. This allowed us to negotiate the final conflict as a four on four battle with each player facing off against a group of goons or one of their leaders instead of a complete free-for-all.
In the final analysis, Mortal Coil is a really entertaining game. With the capacity to adjust the level of magic between different campaigns and the ability to dial in exactly the sort of game the group wants to play, it can be used for just about any game that features magic. With only a little adjustment, it could be used for Avatar the Last Airbender or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Harry Potter. The bidding system lets both players and GM’s describe their actions with few limitations and helps to remove some of the randomness that can be so frustrating in a game. Perhaps the only downside to the game is that the system breaks down when multiple antagonists face each other. Still, anyone looking for a good story game that features magic would be well served in giving Mortal Coil a try.