Mortal Coil Review

A few days ago I got to demo Mortal Coil, an indie game written by Brennan Taylor and illustrated throughout by Jennifer Rodgers. It is published by Galileo Games and is available through IPR.

Mortal Coil uses a simple token-based mechanic through which players and the GM manipulate the game world and their characers’ actions using Action, Power, Magic and Passion Tokens.

What is most interesting about Mortal Coil, however, is that the game begins with the group creating the setting from scratch. The only set rule about setting that Mortal Coil insists upon is that magic always has a price (and I suppose, implicity, that there is magic to begin with).

When I ran the game at the local game store, I broke the session to two Acts. Act One involved introducing the system, creating the setting, creating characters, and answering questions about rules and whatnot. Then there would be a thirty-minute or so break, during which I would come up with a sessions’ worth of material, followed by Act Two. Act Two would begin with the first scene and conflicts and go onward from there.

The setting-creation system functions according to consensus, and the result is what is called the Theme Document. The Theme Document contains all of the “facts” of the game the group has described thus far – it is everything agreed to about the game.

Later on, during play, you can actually add facts to the game, or modify existing facts, but you can’t contradict a fact once it is written down.

This system of creating the Theme Document went much smoother than I had expected. Listening in, one of the owners of the store was intrigued, and dropped what he was doing to join the game. People built off of each others’ ideas, and there were almost no situations where something got a flat “no”.

Starting with a general Tone you move to Setting, defining the where and when and what of the game. Next you discuss what form the Supernatural will take in the game, followed by deciding the Magic Level (which determines some rules things like how many Magic Tokens you start with or how much it costs to replenish them). Finally, there is the Situation which brings the player-characters together, and some Villains are fleshed out. At this point, you can also go back and modify earlier parts of the Document if new ideas have come out.

A huge amount of stuff came out of this for the group I was working with (and for this process, the GM has no more power/say than any other player). Here’s a bit of what we came up with for this game:

Tone: desperate, epic, hopeful, head-harvesting monsters (not really a “tone” but we liked it), oases

Setting: a group of displaced people from an advanced and utopian civilization arrive in a new world. For shorthand (since it was a one-off game) we called the civilization Atlantis and imagined it as somewhat similar, using what we called “mage-punk” magical technology to accomplish its goals, whereas teh new world would be teeming with overabundant life…and head-harvesting monsters of course.

The Supernatural: we decided that magic was classified by color, and had a cool discussion over what each color we chose – red, orange, yellow, green blue, purple – meant in the game.

Magic Level: we chose Moderate (I didn’t have enough Tokens handy for “high”, and “low” didn’t make sense because we wanted magic to be as common as technology might be elsewhere)

Situation: the capacity to percieve and manipulate Purple magic is dying out of our civilization, and we need to return with genetic material so we can redevelop the recessive gene that enables this. We have been sent to this teeming continent becuase readings show that a great deal of Purple magic is availble there. We have been sent because we are misfits in our civilization, and because our brushes with Purple magic (which involved death, soul, and art, among other things) made us potentially sensitive. Essentially, Purple magic is taboo in our culture, but still necessary to have a continuing capacity for magic at all.

Villains: our own civilization and its secret machinations, other outcasts from our civilization that were here first, huge and dangerous plants and animals from this continent, head-harvesting monsters.

The game was awesome once we hit Act Two. One thing that Mortal Coil allows is the use of Power Tokens to take over GMing temporarily. I added to this the power to frame a new scene, so that any player can spend a Power Token to frame the next scene. This led to honestly amazing situations, at least for me. I like that in Mortal Coil the GM is limited – s/he has more Power Tokens than any one player, but the players can exert a huge amount of influence over what happens.

One thing that was unclear about the game was how exactly the GM spends her Power Tokens. I ended up spending them to frame scenes when the players didn’t and to add complications to scenes as they came up – though I wasn’t perfectly consistent with this because I was unclear on how it was indended to work.

Players and the GM are also able to spend Magic Tokens to change the way magic works in the setting. The person sitting to your left, however, has the power to define the cost of the change – remember, all magic has a price.

I don’t want to drag this review out. Overall, I’d say that if you want a diceless, fast-resolution system that is heavy on narrative and improvisation, then Mortal Coil is an excellent choice.

I give the system 4 out of 5 stars – I loved it, but one or two things in the rules are unclear, and we found the conflict system had a little difficulty dealing with multiple simultaneous conflicts. Nothing we couldn’t work around and still have a huge amount of fun, though, and I recommend it with a clear conscience.

7 thoughts on “Mortal Coil Review

  1. I second the recommendation!

    Doug – you've been inconsistent in your naming of tokens in this review. Toward the middle you refer to action tokens as being able to “set scenes” when I think you mean power tokens.


  2. Thanks for the review, Doug! I am going to be linking to this one from my blog and web site.

    It sounds like your group came up with a really cool setting. I always love to see what people come up with.


  3. Hey, my pleasure playing the game and reviewing it. I'm running the game again for the next two sessions with my home group, and they're pretty psyched about it.

    And thanks for linking to my humble website! I imagine it's always cool and surprising to see what people produce when they're let loose creating their own setting. That's definitely the part of Mortal Coil that the players were talking the most about after the game was over.


  4. I did find it in fact, and printed out the FAQ and a couple of other things to use when I ran the game at the store. Now that I've run it once, its even more interesting to see what others have done with the system, since I have a better idea of what's going on when this game is run.


  5. Brennan,

    It's a great game you've come up with here, and the book and art are beautiful and creepy to boot.

    Have you had any experience running long-term campaigns with it? My one concern is that it may not be crunchy enough as a system to bear up under the strain of a long campaign. I'd love to hear what you think.


  6. Aric,

    I haven't run anything really long-term with it, but I do plan on trying a longer story arc next month. I think it would work, but you might need to adjust the power token/experience ratios a bit to make it work long-form. I went for a quicker advancement cycle in the base rules which might start to break down over time (characters might get too powerful too quickly).


    Glad all that stuff was useful!


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