What’s on my shelf 2: Cortex

Collection of RPG books using the Cortex system including Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Leverage, Smallville, Firefly, Marvel Heroic and Cortex Prime

Following on from the overview post of what’s on the shelves of my new bookcase I want to focus in on a few individual groups of books. First up – Cortex RPG.

While Torg may have been the system that got me into tabletop RPGs it was Cortex that became the first I picked up independently, without being introduced to it by somebody else. The game that drew me in was the original Serenity system. As a massive fan of the show (which is unfortunately tainted by the actions of Joss Whedon) I picked it up as soon as I was aware of its existence and with the giddy excitement of being a brand new GM proceeded to run an absolute clusterfuck of a session. We had PCs turning on one another, half drunk players falling asleep (we were playing during a uni society overnight event following a club night) and a ‘quick’ combat that stretched into multiple hours.

Somehow that failed to put me off GMing and after gaining a little more experience we returned to the system to play the most cursed campaign I’ve ever run. Thankfully the curse here was scheduling rather than the game. Every session we did manage was great, they were just few and far between. The more we played the more I fell in love with the mechanics and naturally, being a collector, I picked up subsequent releases. One of those was Demon Hunters, a game which I have talked about at length on this blog.

As the system progressed from Classic to Plus I continued to pick up the books, focusing on the core rulebooks rather than supplements. Of the core rulebooks the only one I’m missing is Supernatural. I’m really excited about the new Prime edition and the opportunities it offers and have vague ideas of putting together a game using it. Right now I’m waiting to see what the rules for the Creators Workshop look like but if all goes to plan at least one game in my Dyson Eclipse setting will make use of the system. As far as the future of the line goes I’ve no plans to pick up the currently announced games, primarily as I’ve never been big on fantasy settings. I have mixed feelings about the focus on the digital platform, but what I’ve seen so far looks promising and it’ll be interesting to see if they can finally fulfil the potential of digital approaches.

I’m not sure I can fully articulate why the system resonates with me so much. That it was the first game I found on my own is certainly a part of it but I think the interlocking of traditional and narrative approaches is also a significant factor. It achieves a lot of what I enjoy about Fate but in a way that is slightly more intuitive and feels less meta. It’s also remarkably easy to teach, people latch onto the ‘when this applies grab the associated die’ and as a result I’ve run it repeatedly at numerous conventions.

Combining it all together I expect Cortex, in one form or another, is going to be one of those forever systems for me and I’m glad to see that it’s in good hands going forward.

#RPGaDay2019 25th August: ‘Calamity’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 25: Calamity

My first attempt at GMing was an absolute calamity. We were playing the Serenity RPG and so many things went wrong, in part because I tried it as part of an overnight GUGathon event and we didn’t start until close to midnight. Some players were drunk, others fell asleep during character creation. When we finally did get to playing one character pulled a gun on the rest of the group when they discovered that they had all been scammed and sold the same deeds to the spaceship. The spaceship that I’d included as a way to bring the group together, not start a fight!

Not surprisingly that session was canned and when we restarted the campaign a few months later it was with new characters and without a few of the original players. While we had fun the campaign was cursed and we played only half a dozen sessions over a two year period. It did have one of my favourite sessions though, with the crew getting high from fungal spores that had contaminated their cargo and having to stop one PC from opening the airlock because he wanted to step outside and clear his head!

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.

My #RPGStruck4

The latest gaming tag to do the rounds on Twitter is that of #RPGStruck4, where people post up images for 4 games that define them, my own post for it was this:

and while most people have been posting without explanation I wanted to briefly dig into why these four games are personally significant.

  1. Torg – Long after it had gone out of print this was my introduction to tabletop gaming. I’d LARPed before, I’d participated in freeform play by posts but had never rolled dice or filled in a traditional character sheet. As an introduction to ttRPGs I couldn’t have asked for more. I was hooked and before long was itching to run my own game, largely thanks to how well Snap, our amazing GM, had run that first campaign.
  2. Serenity – My first foray into GMing was… disastrous. A massive Firefly fan I’d eagerly picked up the game on its release and dived into learning the system which was very different from what I’d experienced up to that point. I’d prepped heavily, with a focus squarely on all the wrong things and the first session was a catalogue of errors. Somehow it didn’t put me off running games and Cortex quickly cemented itself into one of my go to systems, which neatly leads me on to…
  3. Demon Hunters – As is evidenced by the plethora of posts about it you could say I’m a bit of a fan. While I knew of The Gamers it was the original Demon Hunters that made me a true fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions. It’s my go to light hearted setting, perfect for both one off sessions between campaigns as well as campaigns themselves. The setting can handle over the top chaotic slapstick as or serious urban fantasy (I tend to drift toward the former) and the writing is just as fun, to the extent that it’s almost as good to read as it is run. The second edition builds on the first with a new system, refreshed lore and brand new comic book look based on the short lived webcomic. Oh and a few adventures by yours truly.
  4. Legend of the Five Rings – When it comes to games with hefty reputations few can compete with the world of Rokugan and it’s samurai society. The setting clearly defines not only the role of PCs within that society but sets out clear expectations for their behaviour and consequences for going against those very expectations. Framed by the tenets of Bushido and an honourable ideal it’s a world where doing the right thing almost always has consequences, in stark contrast to the kill, loot, profit style espoused by many D&D games. It’s not only a world that I love returning to but once that has influenced my wider thinking on the positioning of PCs within wider settings and idea of lasting consequences.

Review: Firefly RPG GenCon Exclusive

FIREFLYRPGThe Firefly RPG is an upcoming game from Margaret Weis Productions, with the GenCon Exclusive preview released during GenCon 2013. The full game is due to be released in early 2014 and utilises the Cortex Plus Action system.

Before I launch fully into this review I want to make clear the answer to a common question about the Firefly RPG, namely

Haven’t MWP already made this game?

The answer to which is yes, and also no. MWP’s first RPG release was indeed the Serenity RPG which introduced the original Cortex system. So what’s different? Two things things. First the new game is licensed with Fox as opposed to Universal and will therefore focus upon the events of the show rather than the movie.  Woo, legal nonsense! The second difference is the system, the original Cortex system was a relatively traditional game, with attributes, skills, wound tracks etc. The new game utilises Cortex Plus, a much more narrative driven game heavily inspired by FATE with both players and GM being able to introduce narrative aspects with intrinsically defined mechanical benefits. The GenCon Exclusive is a preview of the new game, a preview that comes in at over 250 pages and includes the core system, rules for character gen and not one but two introductory adventures.

System

The Cortex Plus Action variant utilised by the Firefly RPG was originally released as part of the Leverage game and it would have been easy for MWP to simply lift the system entirely without tweaking it to suit the new setting. They’ve clearly learned from the original Cortex games however, which were criticised to an extent for being simple reskinning of the original Serenity game. The system in the Preview shifts the Action variant slightly more towards a traditional game style through the inclusion of both attributes and skills but retains the Cortex Plus distinctions mechanic, which work to both help and hinder the PCs. As a Cortex Plus game many of the mechanics revolve around the creation of assets and complications so it’s good to see that the Preview covers these in detail with numerous examples throughout the book and a discussion in the GM section on keeping complications interesting.

One of the most interesting tweaks to the system is the inclusion of the Big Damn Hero mechanic. Essentially this mechanic is designed to get around the issue of characters over succeeding on little actions by letting players bank die to boost rolls when it’s actually time to shine. Given the way in which the show was about running into constant problems then coming through when the pressure was really on it’s an interesting mechanic that certainly helps to maintain the feel of the show. It’s tweaks such as this that emphasise how much work has already gone into the system and the full game promises to go further including full rules for creating your own ships (a basic outline is included in the Preview).

Character creation

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Preview was the inclusion of a chapter that details how to create your own characters for use in the game. As a preview of the game I expected to be supplied with character sheets just for the crew (which are included) but with the character creation rules present you could easily run an entire campaign without picking up the core rulebook when it comes out, though I expect the full game will include additional options for use during creation. Finally if creating your own characters wasn’t enough the Preview rounds it out with a collection of character archetypes that can easily be filled out on the fly during play. With a little work these archetypes could easily be used for one shots, short campaigns or convention games where the players want to jump right into the action but also want to customise their character a little.

firefly_class_ship

The Adventures

I’ve yet to run the two adventures so I don’t want to comment on them too much. Like the rest of the material in the Preview they are well written and clearly designed to emulate the flow of episodes from the show, with interesting plots and fairly detailed NPCs. These two adventures form the basis for what MWP are calling the Echoes of War line, a series of independent adventures that all tie back to the Unification War. Given the likely size of the Firefly license, especially in light of MWP losing the Marvel license it will be interesting to see how Echoes of War proceeds with future releases and whether we begin to see an overarching plot emerge from the line.

Layout and art

As you’d hope from a company such as MWP the overall layout and presentation is generally of a high quality. There are, however, a couple of issues. First is the artwork. The majority consists of stills from the show which works extremely well; the rest of the art isn’t as good. The individual sketches included in the adventures are an extremely mixed bag while the artwork for the character archetypes simply isn’t at the level I’d expect from a license of this size. The second issue I have is with the extensive use of blue backgrounds to highlight sidebars and character sheets. Not only does it clash with the pale cream colour used throughout the rest of the book but it makes printing the characters and character archetypes all but impossible unless you’re willing to spend a small fortune on ink.

Wrap-up

As a Preview of the upcoming Firefly RPG the GenCon Exclusive goes above and beyond what I’d expected, presenting pretty much a full system as opposed to what could have easily been a simple quick start guide. If you’re a Browncoat and a gamer then you’ll be happy to know that the legacy of the series appears to be in good hands and personally I’m excited about what is to come from MWP. About my only issue relates to some of the layout and artwork decisions but overall these are minor aspects.

Score: 5/5

June RPG Blog Carnival: Favourite NPCs

Arcane Game Lore hosts this months RPG blog carnival and asks “Who’s your favourite NPC?”, a question which can be applied to both GMs and players. This isn’t a particularly easy question for me to answer, not because I have too many to chose from but because the majority of my games tend to focus heavily on intra-party issues, with few NPCs that get enough scene time to make a significant impact. Truth be told my NPCs are one of the biggest areas of my GM style I’d like to improve upon, but that’s a post for another time. So after some thinking I’ve come up with two favourites, who made the cut for very different reasons.

The first comes from my first Serenity campaign, which was the first campaign where I’d applied a very freeform (but not quite sandbox) approach focused purely on the goals of the PC characters as opposed to a save the world big issue type of campaign with clear aims and objectives. While the scheduling of the game was cursed (and we never did get as far into it as I’d have liked) it stands as one of my favourite campaigns as when it did run everything just slotted into place, including Alex C, a record producer at Blue Nova Records. For the most part Alex was an over the top, flamboyant character who used buzz words and three letter acronyms like they were going out of fashion. The thing is, it was all an act, something which only showed during a few occasional moments with Xoxi, one of the PCs and Alliance intelligence officer who was working at Blue Nova undercover while she dealt with some particularly nasty psychological trauma.

We never got far enough into the game for much to be made of Alex and his background but he did manage enough screen time for the hidden side of him to show and demonstrate he was more than first appearances would suggest. One of the plot threads I had started hinting at was some internal turmoil occurring within Alliance intelligence, triggered as a response to the events of Serenity (the movie). If we’d have continued then Alex would have been central to that, either by turning up dead somehow or by seeking the assistance of the PCs in evading / foiling particular events. Maybe, if I ever run another Serenity game, he’ll show up again though I suspect that may be a while away.

My second favourite NPC is a character I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous posts, as he went on to become a PC and one of the pregen characters for my Nationals Demon Hunters game. Doyl LevettYup, Doyl Levett, caffeinomancer extraordinaire. Doyl started off life as an NPC in my very first Demon Hunters game, with the chapter not only finding him lost in the middle of the Warehouse but with a group of ROUS close behind him. While not a member of the Brotherhood at that time his basic character was already there, a coffee mage (though he didn’t know it) who had stumbled into the Warehouse by accident. From there it was simple to convert him into a full PC when I finally managed to play in a game of Demon Hunters and he quickly turned into one of my all time favourite PCs to play, with the added bonus that it lets me drink copious amounts of coffee and claim that I’m just acting in character.

On the difference between the Firefly RPG and the Serenity RPG

As I might have alluded to after the initial announcement I’ll probably be ordering the new Firefly RPG as soon as it is released. While details are still lacking Geek Native has managed to talk to Monica Valentinelli, a writer and brand manager on the project. While she doesn’t provide much new info it hints at the directions they’re taking with the licence and suggests that as with the existing Cortex Plus systems they’re working to tie the system and setting together as much as possible. The full interview can be found over on Geek Native.

MWP (re)secures the Firefly License

firefly

So, Margaret Weis Productions have just announced that they’ve secured the Firefly RPG license from Fox, a move that I certainly didn’t expect though probably should have given the recent announcement of a Firefly board game by Gale Force Nine. MWP produced the original Serenity RPG (under licence from Universal while this time the license is with Fox) which first introduced the Cortex system (which I talked about recently). While it is possible that they will re-release the game I suspect we’ll instead get a brand new one, built upon the Cortex Plus system that powers Smallville, Leverage and Marvel Heroic. Given how much I love both Firefly and Cortex the game is moving directly to my want list even though they’ve yet to even announce a schedule for the release. Expect a review once it’s in my hands.

The press release can be found here: http://www.margaretweis.com/images/stories/bonus_content/FIREFLY_MWP_PR.pdf