The Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide by Margaret Weiss Productions is, as the title suggests, a book all about hacking and tweaking the Cortex Plus system. The book collects together a series of essays written by both the Cortex Plus creators and fans and published following a successful Kickstarter project. It is available now through DriveThruRPG. As a big fan of the Cortex system and of hacking games in general this wasn’t a product that I wanted to miss out on so I got in early on the Kickstarter for both PDF and print copies of the book, though as seems to be the case with RPGs on Kickstarter the print copy has been delayed and has yet to be delivered. The Hackers Guide breaks is comprised on three main sections, Mechanics and Structure, Game Hacks (further divided into History and Fantasy, Modern Life, and Science Fiction and the Future) and Core Rules.
Mechanics and Structure
The first section of the Guide serves to introduce the concepts underlying Cortex Plus and it’s Action, Drama and Heroic variants then expands into the various ways of hacking the system. If you’re new to Cortex Plus or hacking systems in general then this is perhaps the most important section of the book, as it not only introduces the basic mechanics of the system but explains logic behind them in a setting neutral manner, aiding you in choosing which of the system variants will be right for your game. Following on are chapters on hacking stress and timed actions, a system for generating random features on the fly and finally chapters focused on learning the Drama variant of the game (which is the most complicated due to it’s use of the pathways map).
Overall this is the section of the Guide that I found most useful and I’d have liked to have seen it comprise a great proportion of the overall page count than it does. The Hacking Stress chapter was of particular value in prompting the would be hacker to think about the logic behind a change and highlights the fact that often simply picking the right name for a stress (for example a spy game might have a stress called paranoid) is often more appropriate than trying to introduce a new related mechanic.
Moving on from the overview and general hacking are the three Game Hack sections, which provide a range of example games that can be achieved through hacking the system. The hacks presented are, in my opinion, a mixed bag. Some provide a good example of innovative ways to use Cortex Plus but a few come across more as ‘here’s how you can run my home game’ without any explanation of why a certain mechanic has been altered. In addition the examples presented are overviews, with a limited amount of space devoted to each none can go into extensive detail and the majority spend a large portion of that space detailing the composition of characters in the given setting. After the first few examples this does feel a tad repetitive. My recommendation to anybody looking to use this section of the book is to view it in one of two ways. First, if one of the examples closely fits the game you wish to run then use the material presented here as a very loose foundation, that will need to be shored up by details of your choosing. Second, if none seem to fit what you want to do, use these as very loose examples of what you will need to think about for the start of your game before making more extensive use of the core rules presented section of the Guide.
The final section of the Guide is something fans of Cortex Plus have been waiting for since Leverage was first published, generic setting neutral rules for the three variants which can be used as the building blocks for your own game. These cover pretty much everything that you could need for running Cortex Plus and include all of the material that you’d typically find in the rules and GM sections of a typical rule book. About the only thing that is absent is an extensive list of generic talents / abilities / pathways etc however, examples are provided for each in addition to notes on how to make your own. It’s worth noting here that the Heroic variant presented is Fantasy Heroic and thus not completely generic though the use of a limited setting does mean that there are more details provided for this variant than for Action or Drama.
Before I finish this review I want to just cover the non written aspects of the Guide. As you’d hope from a company with the experience that MWP has the book is professionally laid out, visually clear and easy to follow with each of the sections and chapters clearly defined along the edge of each page. The PDF version is well bookmarked, down to the level of subsections within each chapter and unlike some gaming PDFs I’ve look at recently the addition of notes or highlights haven’t been locked; given the aim of the Guide I expect it’ll be something that I highlight and annotate extensively. Visually perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the artwork, which appears to have been sourced primarily through stock photos and is used rather sparingly throughout the Guide.
Overall the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide is definitely something that I’m glad I backed and that I’ll make use of personally. The Guide is aimed squarely at those that who want to tinker with the system and is, therefore, of limited wider appeal. I’d recommend it to those already familiar with the Cortex Plus system, if you’re new to the game however I’d suggest picking up one of the main rulebooks first before purchasing the Guide.
Overall score for a general gamer: 3/5
For the tinkering GM: 4/5