To be quite honest, I have quite the checkered history with Cortex. I was feeling rather ambivalent about Serenity and Battlestar Galactica for a number of reasons, but I was quite frankly absorbed into Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (and made a number of friends on forums, conventions, and comic shops because of it). Sadly, I was a bit unimpressed by what I personally felt to be a total mess with Firefly (long list of concerns ranging from explanations of mechanics and the struggle to get a copy in hand), and even though I enjoyed and adored Marvel Heroic, I felt it was lacking in some ways.
Because of all this, I thought I swore off new Cortex products.
That changed this summer.
An old friend from the Marvel Heroic forums was telling me about the Kickstarter for Cortex Prime. At first I was against backing it, until he told me two things.
First, Cam Banks had control over the license to Cortex and would be making a new game. He also added in a comment along the lines of “Cam’s good people” when explaining this. This friend hasn’t steered me wrong yet, so I’ll trust him.
Second, that one of the stretch goal settings was a custom setting written by said friend, and he was really hoping to make it official.
Not wanting to say no to a friend wanting to achieve a goal and being intrigued by the pitch on the Kickstarter page, I shelled out the money to get the core book and the System Reference Document (SRD) in print. Now that I’ve had draft of the SRD (in PDF form) for a few months, successfully ran my “Mystery Science Cortex” game at CharCon twice, and overall had time to tinker with the file with some of my old game groups and discuss the possibility of running it, I think I’m up for giving you the early taste of what Cortex will be bringing to us, even if the review will be much shorter than what I expect to give with the final product.
That, and Cam gave me the greenlight to share my thoughts on this early draft. That said, the obligatory note:
Writer’s Note: This is an early draft of an unreleased product. This is also only the SRD of a game and not the standard rulebook. The SRD will more than likely undergo changes between now and publication, and the final rulebook may be different from the SRD. There will be a follow-up review of this product once the final copies have been acquired.
Okay, ready? Ready.
Cortex Prime is the new iteration of the Cortex game mechanic, used to power games such as Smallville, Battlestar Galactica, Serenity, Firefly, Supernatural, Leverage, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. I’m sure I’m missing a few games somewhere, but these are the bigger-named (and arguably most popular) games on the list.
Cortex has undergone a number of changes over the years, including a branding change (Cortex to Cortex Plus and now to Cortex Prime) as well as some mechanical changes (most of which just add to the repertoire of the mechanic). Now, Cortex is no longer being produced by Margaret Weis Productions, but rather by the newly created Magic Vacuum Design Studio created by Cam Banks.
==What You Get==
As of mid-September, the current SRD weighs in at only 77 pages (much smaller than the Fudge SRD which is over 200 pages, but slightly larger than Fate Accelerated which is 50 pages).
Like most documents of this kind, it is light in in-character examples (often having a sentence or two explaination as an example for a sample character) and lacks artwork. It is also plain text with minor accents (colors, font types, etc), with tables often relying on line and indent breaks. I’m certain this will be cleaned up and much more presentable in the final draft, but I can’t say anything about what visuals will be added.
At this time, the SRD boils down the rules we’ve seen in Cortex over the years and offers a “core” set of rules, followed by a number of “Rules Variants” such as optional wound mechanics (like Hit Points), powers, and different approaches to skills.
==How It Works==
Cortex is one of those games that I think works well with index cards. When you play, you build a dice pool by pulling one relevant die from each section (One Attribute, One Skill, One Asset, etc), rolling them, and keeping the two dice of your choosing. Add these two dice up, choose one as your “Effect” die, and your done.
Success is determined by comparing your dice to the opposition, usually another character or the environment (usually GM discretion for that).
Effect dice come into play if you succeeded, as it determines how well you succeeded at the task. That die denotes the quality of the Asset you’ve acquired or the Complication you’ve dealt to your foe, whether it’s the AI you’re hacking against or the guy you’re trying to trip up and admit he put the hit on you.
I’m going to call a spade a spade, here, and simply sum this up: we have a collection of rules that actually allows Cortex to make sense for new and old players alike.
Bare with me here, because this might take a bit to explain.
My issues with most Cortex games was simple: each game was built around a specific premise or theme, and it didn’t seem like the rules really transferred well from one to the other. Each game also had different ways to teach you how to play, whether it was general word choices (due to settings) or even in-game examples.
For the longest time, Cortex just felt inaccessible to me, as it felt like the more I read, the more confusing the system got due to new mechanics being built and bolted on, and the general feeling of shoehorning a mechanic into a specific setting.
In fact, once I found a setting with rules that made sense, the others became even harder for me to grok and tinker with, making each individual Cortex book I possessed (in print or PDF) a one-off title that I couldn’t use elsewhere without a lot of time with reverse engineering.
The Cortex Prime SRD doesn’t feel that way to me. The rules make sense, the examples work, and the jargon is easy to grasp because it’s all setting neutral.
In its current incarnation, the Cortex Prime SRD offers all of the rules that are now considered standard rules (Distinctions with Triggers, Signature Assets, Skill Lists, Complications as Injuries, etc) and does so within the first half of the book. These rules are all easily relayed and are not convoluted in the least, which greatly alleviated my concern about the rules being odd, tough to use, or impossible to adapt.
At this time, the Variant rules fill in the other half of the book. While I would prefer if they were within their respective sections (as sidebars for small rules, or a sidebar with a brief note and a page number for full rules), I have to say that the variant rules, as written, help make Cortex make even more sense and helps rules I didn’t understand before fall into place.
The Variant Rules cover everything from alternative injury mechanics (Stress/Trauma, Life Points, etc), Skill alternative such as Role or Specialties, Powers, Talents, and alternative progression mechanic in the form of XP. Each of these appears in a Cortex game of the past, and having them shown here as optional parts of a machine made it much easier to work with when running it.
It’s hard to go into a review of these rules without going into every detail, so I will say this: the SRD is truly a toolbox for Cortex, and as such, it does the task rather well.
As a rulebook and guide to playing Cortex, it is rules heavy…but there are a few notes that a GM can pull and keep for future consideration, such as how to let the game move forward after failure or ideas to modify already existing rules.
One of the major pitfalls I faced with many Cortex games was the progression mechanic, whether it being too odd, too slow, or some combination thereof. In Cortex Prime, we are given all of the older methods (such as Milestones and XP) while also being given a basic core mechanic: each “Session” is banked, and upgrades cost between 1-4 sessions. Done; no convoluted math, no multi-tier tables or multipliers, just a simple “X sessions for Thing.” I love that, honestly, and am looking forward to using that in a Cortex game or other games I’d consider running.
There’s not too much necessary bad about this SRD, but there are places in which I hope it improves.
I am ignoring my usual commentary on appearances due to this being an early-release document, but this is a place that an SRD can utterly fail if not designed correctly. My major issue with most SRDs consist of bad formatting and walls of text without anything to break it, so I am hoping to bump this into the “good” category after it is finalized.
As previously mentioned, the Variant Rules are in the back of the book instead of being near the rule they are a variant of. While a part of me likes the idea of optional rules being sequestered into one place, it does make flipping through the book that much harder if you are working with said variants. It also removes some of the credibility of these rules, as some rules lawyers (every table had at least one) will claim it’s not a core rule.
As an example, I ran a game of this at CharCon using a number of optional rules, including Powers, Roles, and Simple Attributes. The SRD I had at the time kept these rules closer to their original ruling, so if I needed a note on Roles, I just opened to Skills. Now, if I were to run the game again, I’d have to locate it in the back portion of the book and find it between Affiliations and Multi-level Specialties. This one thankfully makes sense and is in an area of short rules, but if this were a campaign, I’d have to flip through multiple pages of alternative progression rules to find the one progression rule I needed.
If we were to have an easier way to navigate this, like the aforementioned sidebar approach (such as giving a blurb on each variant rule and a page number for details) or having the optional rules after the core rules (which, I will admit, may be a bit convoluted at times), that would absolutely make my life easier.
Another note on the variants: none of the progression mechanics are built with them in mind. To be specific: if I wanted to run a powers-based game, in which characters can expand their capabilities over time (nascent psychics, for example), none of the progression mechanics have costs listed for such a thing. Sure, there’s comments about swapping power sets or other changes/advances after play begins, but there’s nothing set in stone about how.
Powers aren’t the only variant rule that suffers here, so I am really hoping that this gets expanded on in the final version.
==How It Played==
Running Cortex Prime via the SRD at CharCon wasn’t my first Cortex run at a convention (I’ve used Marvel Heroic for an anime crossover and Firefly for a Power/Rangers game), so I came prepared with dice and pre-generated answers.
I also decided to use the basic Cortex mechanic as a part of the game progression. Each character sheet was covered with index cards, covering the character’s Distinctions, Attributes, Skills (I used Roles), Powers, and Signature Assets, so the players had no clue what they were getting.
Said characters were inspired by multiple sources, including comic books, anime, and video games. Specifically, we had the Soldier (think Captain America), the Cyborg (inspired by Ghost in the Shell cyborgs), the Psychic (River Tam meets Rion from Galerians), the Gun-nut, the Medic (pulled a page from Overwatch and Team Fortress), and the Engineer (with plenty of references). They were part of a military team that just finished a mission and were en-route home.
When the game started, the player characters awoke out of cryo stasis and had a bit of amnesia. I gave them their Distinctions to start, and let them move on their own. As the game progressed (namely, escape from this room, a combat scene, navigating the ship, and a mini-event they turned into combat), I revealed another part of their character sheet, giving them more dice to add to their pool with each “encounter.” The game ended with a final showdown between the “parasite” that was infesting their ship and the entire party.
The players at each of the tables agreed that this approach was solid to help teach the game, as they weren’t overburdened by all of the workings of the mechanics and character sheet. Additionally, the players loved that any time they had a rules question, I either had a direct answer or could hand them the printout of the SRD I had at the time (the one prior to September’s update) and point out the section with the rules (and the rules variant being used).
While they had a great time with it, they did struggle with building their dice pools once the full sheet was available to them, leaving me to wonder if there is a better way to teach this. Even with lending out the SRD to a few players that are usuals at my tables, they commented that Cortex may be a bit challenging for them due to the way dice pools are built with multiple dice, but that seems to be a general problem with the core mechanic and certain types of people (hey, it’s why we have games other than D&D, after all!).
I’m hoping that having ways to clarify the rules a bit better, a flexible character sheet, or even a template to print out just sections of a sheet (to better denote where dice can come from) might help in the long run.
All said and done, the two groups had a blast playing the game and at least one player voiced interest in GMing it with his local group. I shared the links that were available about the game and hope they will get some mileage out of it all when the game is released.
A graded verdict isn’t something I should be giving this, but it’s hard not to give it the early rating of four buns and the hope that it lives up to this (or goes beyond).
This is honestly a solid framework for Cortex, and further reminds me why this is usually in my “Top 3 Games to Run on Short Notice” (the other two being Dresden Files/Fate and FFG’s Star Wars). I expect the finished product to be just as good or even better (especially with the organization/layout), and the actual rulebook meeting the same standards. I’m hoping Cam doesn’t let us down.
At this time, Cortex Prime is not available for pre-order, but thanks to the successful Kickstarter (and some news in the available comments section), we should be seeing a “flurry of activity” as we round out the year. Cam has assured us that we should be seeing pre-order options available via BackerKit in the near future, so keep an eye out for news from him on Twitter, his Patreon page, or the Cortex Prime Kickstarter page!
Want to see more posts like this from The NPC? Consider backing me on Patreon!