My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.


Thoughts on Marvel Heroic

Alongside my Monthly OneShots, I’ve recently finished playing in a mini-campaign of another Cortex Plus system, the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG. While I was fortunate enough to buy it while still in print it’s a system that has languished on my shelf for some time.

Unfortunately, with the campaign over, I feel like it may return to that position for some time as overall it just did not work for me.

First up was a personal issue – I prefer shades of grey in my games. Four colour heroics just don’t sit well with my style of play. Especially when trying to be a clean-cut hero such as Captain America. It’s something that I’ve struggled with during previous superhero games and it clearly remains something I need to work on.

As for the system, well something just failed to click. To a degree, it felt over-engineered, with too many moving parts. Rolls were typically built around a base of Affiliation + Distinction + Powerset + Speciality. That’s before considering any possible boosts or variations such as Sfx. Each of those had to be considered and actively chosen, there is no default combo so each action felt slow, though I will admit that they sped up as we became more familiar with the mechanics.

My other mechanical issue was one of focus. While I understand that the superhero genre is heavily combat orientated my non-combat options felt like they were lacking. Again, I appreciate that Captain America is pretty much the archetype for ‘super-soldier’ but it still put me off when I saw that my non-combat rolls were relatively limited.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-movie-hd-wallpaper-my-top-10-of-2014This isn’t to say that my thoughts on the system entirely negative, as there was a lot that I did enjoy. The doom pool was central to this, allowing the GM to bank dice for later use rather than having to create complications in the moment (ala Firefly). It’s definitely a mechanic that I’ll be including in my future Prime games, likely alongside the Firefly type complications for when I want to immediately challenge the party.

Second, was the ability to counter actions on a successful defence, allowing the heroes to inflict stress even when it wasn’t their turn. This really felt like it played to the genre and made the heroes feel special, as with enough plot points it is (theoretically) possible to take out a mob of low-level antagonists without even taking an action!

Finally the idea of switching out power-sets between adventures to highlight different facets of a character really appeals. Demon Hunters, which blends some Cortex concepts onto a backbone of Fate, does similar by allowing you to spend milestones to rewrite Aspects. Over the course of a campaign, I could see a character building up a repository of options to pick from. Want to focus on mysterious backstory this adventure? Simply swap in that aspect. Want to highlight your stealth? Add in the power-set you acquired during the recent downtime.

So overall, mixed thoughts. I won’t be rushing back to the system but on the other hand, I would like to play it again (or run it) to see if I can get a better feel for it.

Monthly OneShot Reflections: Firefly RPG

For the last few months I’ve been running monthly one shots at Sugar & Dice, one of the gaming cafes in Liverpool. I managed to post my Reflections on The Sprawl pretty quickly, while the first languished in my drafts folder. Until now.

I do the job…

From the outset, one of my prime motivations in establishing the Monthly OneShots was to promote settings and systems that weren’t D&D. I’ve always been pretty up-front the fact that I consider D&D to be, at best, an OK game. While 5th Edition has provided a massive boost to the hobby, in general, it frustrates me when I encounter groups playing nothing but D&D. Or worse, playing non-fantasy settings using quick reskins of the game.

That meant my first OneShot had to be something special. For that, I turned to what may be my all time favourite system in one of my favourite settings. Firefly, powered by Cortex Plus Action. For the adventure, Niska’s Race, my convention scenario that I have run close to a dozen times.

The setup for the adventure is simple, the infamous gangster Adelai Niska has hired the crew to recover one of his weapons shipments that had been impounded by the Alliance. The twist? It was so valuable to him that he had employed multiple crews, each competing to get to the cargo and earn his favour.


…and then I get paid.

With a scenario I’ve run multiple times and a system I know backwards I was confident that I could put on a good show. The players dived into the characters and while they were all new to the system picked it up pretty quickly. Overall, I was happy with how the game played out. The scenario is designed to be pretty open ended, with each of the competing crews offering different complications that the GM can throw at the party. Each and every time I have run the scenario the players have taken a different approach. I’ve had crews seduce the ranking Alliance officer for information, steal a gunship to break into the impound yard and even some turn on Niska by becoming Alliance informants. This crew was no different, inciting a full on riot just because they needed a distraction.

And then came the final twist, which caught them completely off guard (I won’t spoil it). That was when I knew the session had gone well. It was also when I decided the scenario had finally run its course. I knew it backwards and while no two games of it had ever played out the same, there was little left to surprise me.

Overall, I would class the session as a success. The players were great and reminded me why I enjoy GMing so much. I get a real buzz from running a good game, enough to lift my mood for days afterwards.

So Monthly OneShot number 1 – success.

RPGaDay 30th August

30th) What is an RPG genre-mashup you would most like to see?

So at this point I’m fairly certain that most mashups have already been tried or established so I’m not even going to try to come up with something original and instead go with one that I’d personally like to try – the fantasy heist.

Art from the patreon of JEShields

Now I know a lot of people that might say ‘oh but you could do that with D&D’ to which I’d respond ‘yes, but no.’ D&D, at its roots, is about fighting your way through a challenge to its eventual payoff. A fantasy heist on the other hand is all about avoiding the fight, about sneaking and conning your way in past the magical defences, the guards and the traps. If you end up in a fight then failure should be just around the corner. The idea behind this certainly isn’t original and I’d argue that it’s actually a trope of the fantasy genre so I don’t know if it really even counts as a genre mashup.

So how would I want to do it? As stated I don’t think D&D would be the best fit even though it’s what most people would gravitate towards. Blades in the Dark is big right now and from what I know about it would probably work well. Personally I’d use a game I already own – Leverage. The game is already designed around exactly the sort of play that I’m after, all it would need is some reskinning and introduction of magic (probably replacing the Hacker role with a Mage role). It’s an idea that I have been mulling over for some time, in part thanks to some stock images from JEShields art patreon. Right now it’s pretty low on my list of projects but my intention is to revisit it once Cortex Prime lands.

RPGaDay August 22nd

22nd) Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

cortexplusThis again mostly comes down to familiarity for me, so once again I’m going with Cortex. More specifically Cortex Classic or Cortex Plus Action (such as Firefly) which are the two variants I’ve personally run. For both of them I could pick up the game and presuming I had a setting inspiration have characters ready to run in a few minutes. Especially Cortex Classic where I’d even be comfortable with characters being generated in play using the old ‘assign your stat when you first roll it’ approach.

The other reason for picking Cortex is that I know I can comfortably run it for players unfamiliar with the system. I’ve done so a number of times for both friends and at conventions. Having that level of system mastery means I can focus more on the game in front of me without getting tangled up by the mechanics.

RPGaDay August 15th

15th) Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

Cortex in its various incarnations. It cortexwas the first system that I really grokked, not just in terms of how to play but in how the different aspects of the system clicked together. It helps that from a design standpoint it is relatively modular with elements that can be slotted in or out easily. I’m really looking forward to tinkering with Cam Banks’ new Prime version of the system when it comes out and hopefully will be able to put something interesting together with it.

As I’ve slowly started tinkering with game design it’s one of the systems that I keep coming back to and I’ve got notes for a few settings that I’d like to adapt to it. First and foremost would be one centered around stuffed toys and their adventures as they try to protect their sleeping owners. Nothing too original but something that could be fun. Second was the Powers campaign, think the TV series Heroes as a good example of where this was going. We tried a short campaign of it using Classic and a bodged together mechanic for the system (where you had to roll as close to the target number as possible). That didn’t get far due to issues with both the narrative and the mechanics but it’s one that I’ve always wanted to revisit and flesh out more.

Review: Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide

cortexplusThe 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.

Game Hacks

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.

Core Rules

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.

Other details

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