What I want in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic

cortex-plus-hackers-guide-coverLast week, it was announced that Cam Banks has licensed Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. Cam co-created the Cortex Plus system, and he was co- or lead designer on three out of the four main games published using that system, not to mention the driving force behind the excellent Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide. He knows Cortex Plus inside out and he can do wonderful things with it.

I’m looking forward to seeing what his new design studio Magic Vacuum comes out with! I’ve no doubt that soon there will be new versions of Cortex Plus Action (used for Leverage and Firefly) and Cortex Plus Heroic (used for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying), which will make many fans of the system happy.

But my favourite is Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying, which was spun out of the Smallville Roleplaying Game. It’s the only one of the three that gives me something I can’t currently get from any other RPG. I love it, but it has flaws. It could use a new edition.

Here’s what I would want to be updated, changed, clarified or kept in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying.

Three must-haves…

1. A new way of converting Growth into character advancement

Smallville is the best game I’ve ever played for encouraging characters to develop over the course of a campaign. This is largely down to the Growth system, by which players accumulate dice (a Growth pool) by challenging their personal relationships and deeply held beliefs, or when someone helps them get over their personal problems (stress). This Growth system is fantastic, and some version of it needs to be retained in a future edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying (which I’m going to call C+D from now on, because it’s shorter and I’m not made of typing).

Unfortunately, the way that Growth is turned into new or better traits is disappointing. Players roll their Growth pool against a fixed pair of dice that reflect the type of trait they want to increase and what die rating they are trying to step up to. If the player ties or succeeds, they get to step up the trait. If they fail, then they can only step up the trait by stepping back something else, a nil net movement. Essentially, it’s down to chance whether you improve at the end of a session or merely move numbers around the character sheet.

I understand why this rule exists, but I don’t like it. It disproportionately favours min-maxed traits more than others (if you don’t have at least one Value or Relationship at d12 to Challenge, you can never max out an Ability), it can be gamed, it doesn’t reflect the varying lengths of a gaming session, and it penalises less proactive players by making their characters less effective over the long term. And it’s frustrating to get to the end of a wonderfully dramatic session with a flush Growth pool, only to find that the luck is against you and that all your Growth is wasted.

I’ve blogged before about the distinction between character development and character advancement. They are connected but they aren’t the same. It might be better if Growth was decoupled from character advancement entirely, as I did in my Worthington Academy hack. Advancement was simplified to a die step per session, but Growth was still useful as a spendable resource.

Even if Growth still feeds directly into character advancement, there are ways to do that without resorting to chance (like a points system) and while keeping characters advancing at a similar rate (like a cap, or a combined pool). And I have faith that talented designers like Cam and his team could come up with something even better.

2. Cut down on GM bookkeeping

In the core rules of Smallville, all non-player characters are either Features or Extras. Features have a full character sheet of traits, exactly like player characters, whereas Extras are so minor that they have no stats and cannot take actions.

I’m not keen on this dichotomy, but for now I’m going to focus only on Features.

On the one hand, having Features that use the same mechanics as PCs means that player-GM interactions work exactly the same way as player-player interactions, and that’s a huge factor in the game’s favour. As a GM, I also love being able to foreshadow future developments through the Drive statements of my Features.

On the other hand, as I previously said in my blog on Minor Minor Features, the GM has a huge burden of bookkeeping in order to create and control all of the NPCs that populate the setting. It might not be so bad if these were static characters that never needed to change, but C+D is all about characters changing over time, and that includes NPCs too. If you consider that every single Feature needs as much bookkeeping as any given PC, and that there can easily be more NPCs than PCs in a game (especially for longer campaigns), it becomes clear that this isn’t really feasible. I’ve come close to burnout multiple times, and the only way I coped was by building my own spreadsheets with automated shortcuts for recording Stress, challenging Drives, etc. It worked, just about, but it was a stopgap solution to a problem that shouldn’t have existed.

A new edition of C+D really needs to take some of the pressure off GMs, either by reducing the amount of bookkeeping that’s needed or by making it more straightforward (or both). In the Minor Minor Features blog post, I made a radical suggestion for defining insignificant NPCs using only three dice and no statements, but that can’t be applied consistently as it would take away too much of what makes the game special. Still, some change or simplification is needed to make the game more accessible, especially to GMs who have less experience than I do (with GMing or with spreadsheets).

Tying into the previous point, I’m still not sure on is how Growth and advancement works for Features. I assume that they can challenge Drives just like players, but they certainly don’t get tag scenes to increase their traits. Should they advance over the course of a campaign? In my Worthington Academy game, after switching to a die-step-per-session model of advancement, I set student NPCs at the same level as players but adult NPCs about 15 die steps higher, and the PCs caught up with the adults as the campaign went along. This is one situation in which PCs and NPCs used different mechanics, and a new edition of C+D would need to make it very clear when that’s appropriate and when it isn’t.

3. Speed up the resolution mechanic

The main resolution mechanic in C+D is the Contest, which involves two parties building pools of polyhedral dice from their traits and using them to make escalating rolls against each other in turns until one of them can’t beat the last total. Players influence the roll in various ways, e.g. by spending plot points or resources, and there are other rules that interact with it too. In fact, pretty much the whole game revolves around this mechanic.

There’s a lot to recommend about Contests. Building dice pools from traits puts a lot of emotional weight behind every roll. The back-and-forth rolling simulates the flow of a debate or argument. And the constant escalation makes serious dramatic conflict more exciting while keeping more low-key conversations shorter and more manageable.

Unfortunately, Contests aren’t quick. Building dice pools takes time, especially with a lot of traits. The back-and-forth rolling makes roleplaying disjointed. And the more players you have, the more pronounced this effect will be.

In my 6-player Worthington Academy game, we repeatedly had sessions that took several hours of real-world time, but less than half an hour of narrative time, purely because Contests were deep, convoluted, and slow. Ultimately, I hacked the game to make it run faster, removing some traits and redefining others. It worked better, but a faster version of the whole game would be best of all.

…some new ideas to consider…

4. Consider a default setting without superpowers

It’s certain that a new version of C+D wouldn’t use the Smallville IP. Maybe they could go with a license based on DC’s ongoing shows like Arrow, Flash, or Supergirl, which fill the same niche as Smallville and air on the same network, but I think this would be a great opportunity to use a default setting that doesn’t have superpowers.

This would let the designers create a core version of the game without Abilities as a separate type of trait. Abilities were designed to allow super-powered characters while keeping characters balanced, and this was successful, but they also added several layers of complexity to the rules. Any given Ability has an associated die rating (d4 to d12), an Effect, a Descriptor, one or more Limits, and one or more Special Effects. On top of that, there are Heritage Distinctions that add even more layers. For an idea, just have a look at my Plot Points reference list and see how many times Abilities come up compared to any other type of trait.

Anything that can make C+D a smoother experience would be great, and reducing the number of types of traits would help. In this regard, Abilities are an obvious choice to remove, as the game would already work fine without them, and they represent things that don’t exist in the real world (although I realise that the Hacker’s Guide redefined Abilities more generally than just “superpowers”).

That can of course be included as an optional extra in certain settings, but then there are other things about Abilities that I would like to change, like making Limits relevant solely at the discretion of the player (earn a Plot Point by shutting it down) and making an explicit connection between Effects and Special Effects (Special Effects let you use an Effect that your Ability doesn’t have).

Still, people like superpowers, so maybe this idea won’t… wait for it… fly.

5. Separate triggers from Distinctions

On the subject of making things more streamlined by cutting stuff out of the game, how about severing the connection between Distinction traits and their triggers, which give players benefits in exchange for drawbacks in certain circumstances? Triggers encourage players to roleplay in accordance with their character’s personality, give them some control over the narrative, and make things more dramatic by trading game currency for narrative complications.

Distinction triggers are great (although they could do with being renamed, seriously) because they give players some very clear and unambiguous ways they can take the spotlight. The problem is, again, that there are too many of them, so players often can’t remember all of the triggers that are available. What’s more, some players will have more than others depending on how many Distinctions they took. That’s because characters get triggers automatically when they have Distinctions at d4, d8 and d12, for a maximum of three per Distinction.

What if, instead, characters had a fixed number of triggers, keeping the numbers manageable and meaning everyone has the same number? Players could choose their triggers from a list, with some triggers having certain Distinctions as prerequisites. You could even have some triggers that aren’t associated with Distinctions at all, but rather defined by the setting or genre (as I discussed in my previous blog post on free-standing triggers).

This could have neat synergy with other parts of the rules. Gaining new triggers could be a method of character advancement. Maybe Special Effects could be included in the same fixed number of triggers when Abilities are included. It would probably also make a character sheet easier to design as well, just saying.

6. More variety on the Pathways map

I love the Pathways map from C+D’s character creation. I praised it in some of my earliest posts on this blog (part 1 and part 2), I recently wrote a Pathways chart for X-Men characters, and I think it’s one of the best ways of producing an interesting supporting cast for any RPG game. I just want more of it!

The Pathways map is a part of character creation in which players draw symbols to represent their own characters (squares), other characters (circles), or locations (diamonds). They they join the symbols up with arrows that show how these things are connected. The map is constructed step-by-step with players following instructions on the relevant Pathways chart, and produces a network of interactions and relationships that lay groundwork for the campaign to be played.

I’d like some more, and more varied, examples of Pathways charts. The Hacker’s Guide gives guidelines for making a Pathways chart, and it has several examples of C+D campaign seeds and settings, but it doesn’t have many examples of Pathways charts, which is a shame. I’d love a new edition of C+D to include charts of different types (different lengths, breadths, styles perhaps) to inspire players to create their own.

I’d also like it if at least some of the new Pathways charts let you add things other than characters or locations to the map. Significant objects? Beliefs or ideas? Vehicles? Factions? Common or transferable superpowers (if such things exist in the setting)?

We’ve only just begun to tap the potential of this tool. Let’s tap more in the next edition!

…and a couple of things that are perfect the way they are!

7. Relationships

Setting the core traits of the game as the characters’ Relationships with each other and with their supporting cast was a piece of brilliance. It wasn’t the first time that relationships had been given a mechanical weight, but it may have been the first time that the whole game was built around those relationships.

Relationships have a die rating, meaning they can be rolled like any other trait, and they have statements. Statements reflect something that the character feels at the present time about the Relationship, but the statements can and should be transitory. Sometimes they will reflect what’s happening between the two characters, and sometimes they will be way off, and when that happens players can challenge their Relationship.

Challenging lets you use a Relationship even when the statement doesn’t reflect the current situation. It’s the main way that die ratings of Relationships go up and down, the main way that statements are rewritten when they become obsolete, and the main way that characters earn Growth. It’s a vital part of the game.

When a character challenges a Relationship, they gain a significant short-term boost (three dice to roll instead of one), followed by a slight cost in the medium term (the die rating is stepped back), then some Growth in the long term and a chance to rewrite the statement to make it more relevant to the new circumstances. This is mix of costs and benefits over different lengths of time is finely balanced to encourage drama and character development, and to facilitate roleplaying.

I like Values too, which work in the same way, but they aren’t as important as Relationships. You could replace Values with something else (like Ambitions in a game of greed and backstabbery, or Factions in a game of politics and ideology, or Virtues and Vices, or Emotions, or numerous other things), or you could take them out entirely, and the game would continue largely without problems. But if you try to mess wtih Relationships, then honestly it’s just not Cortex Plus Dramatic anymore.

8. The reason you reach for the dice

I’ve mentioned Contests already as the main resolution mechanic, but the most fascinating thing about them is when they happen.

In C+D, a Contest is initiated when two characters want each other to do something. Specifically, they want the other character to do something voluntarily. It doesn’t matter whether that thing is “change your wicked ways”, “tell me that secret”, “love me”, “stop bugging me about that thing you want me to do”, or “get punched in the face”. As far as the game is concerned, they are all one.

This means that there is remarkable consistency in the rules, even when the nature of the conflict varies. Heated discussions can be more engaging than a fight scene, and that’s great because heated discussions are often more engaging than fight scenes on TV as well.

However, even though a Contest is initiated when two characters want each other to do something, winning the dice roll doesn’t mean that one of those characters has to do the thing. Characters only do what their opponent wants if the player chooses to do so. They can always stubbornly refuse and take some stress, confident in the knowledge that nobody can make them do anything they don’t want to.

This philosophy of protecting the characters’ and players’ agency is baked into the whole game, and although agency is treated as important by many modern roleplaying games, very few go as far with the concept as Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying. And, in my view, that’s also worth protecting.

6 thoughts on “What I want in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic

  1. mpduxbury November 30, 2016 / 1:27 pm

    Idea: Growth as nicer counterpart to the Doom pool. (Do they have a Doom pool in C+d? They do in C+h.) Assign an XP cost for all the things you can level up over time, and at the end of the session, roll all the dice that people got them as Growth and add them ALL together: that’s how much XP the party has. By default, the XP gets divided evenly between all PCs with the remainder discarded, but with unanimous approval from the group some players can take the remainder, or even an unequal share of the total.

    Sub-Idea: a version of Primetime Adventure’s spotlight allotment wherein some players are entitled to a bigger or smaller share of the XP on a session-by-session basis.


  2. mpduxbury November 30, 2016 / 1:28 pm

    So if you want an unpowered version of C+d, what non-superpowered game do you have in mind? We could design it together 😛


  3. Stephen Morffew October 12, 2018 / 1:38 pm

    With the announcement that Google+ will be closing, I’m copying over some of the comments that people have made there about my blog posts.

    Benjamin Davis:
    It may take me a little bit to have time to dig into this, but I’m keen to.

    Stephen Morffew:
    I look forward to it, +Benjamin Davis. You always have good feedback. Some of the points may seem familiar to you, since it’s collecting ideas from previous blog posts, but I’m curious to see if you agree with my top picks.

    Cam Banks:
    Thanks for the notes, +Stephen Morffew !

    Eric Sheldahl:
    I really, really, really want to play this game someday. I ran a Pathways session a while ago, but we never followed up with an actual game. Pity, too, since we ended up with a magic-wielding Heiress, an Anarchist, and a spy from Mars. It was hard to create relationships between them, but man, it would have been interesting.

    Stephen Morffew:
    You’re welcome, +Cam Banks​! I hope they’re useful. If they are, I’d be happy to discuss more sometime. I have high hopes.

    +Eric Sheldahl​, I definitely recommend trying it if you can. What setting were you using?

    Eric Sheldahl:
    +Stephen Morffew A homebrew. The premise was that a Magical realm had just collided with one very much like ours, fusing the two and creating all kinds of cultural conflict. We had corporations trying to copyright spellbooks and stuff like that, as well as a long-term invasion from Mars (which had been long ago colonized by sorcerers) in the works. I don’t know how it would have worked, exactly, but I knew that it would have been something special.

    The main issue that keeps us from playing is spare time. We’re all college students, and really the only way to game around here is to put off homework. Not really an option for people who want good grades…

    Cam Banks:
    Stay in school!

    Benjamin Davis:
    And that was how we found out that Cam had really been Mr T. in disguise all along.

    Benjamin Davis:
    1. 100% yes. I’ve experimented with a couple of things:
    A- If you fail the Growth roll, you keep your dice
    B- Flattening advancement (in my campaign, to a step per episode, but that’s easily adjusted). The things that give Growth instead give Drama Dice, which are like Big Damn Hero/Flourish Dice, but can also be spent as Plot Points, and carry over from session to session.

    2. Yes, yes, yes

    3. Meh. As long as you have sufficient story weight behind each roll, how long each roll takes to assemble isn’t a worry to me.

    4. Boo, default settings. 😛
    That said, I’m all in favour of some worked example settings that don’t use Abilities.

    5. * Shrug *
    I’m not convinced about the idea of a fixed number of triggers*, but I can see it working well to have buying them being a thing that doesn’t come automatically with die ratings but instead costs die steps.

    *And I do agree that the name could do with a change; I feel like Abilities would be a good option, if that weren’t taken. But then, it’s only taken because they called them “abilities” in the Smallville TV show, so.

    6. All sounds good. There was some more expansion in the Watchtower Report, but there could still be plenty more.
    On your specific ideas:
    -Objects: Cool!
    -Beliefs or ideas: That seems like it should be covered in Values
    -Vehicles: How is that different from Gear?
    -Factions: Already sorted with Cliques
    -Common or transferable superpowers: How is that a Relationship?

    7. Yep!

    8. Yep!

    Thanks for sharing the great ideas, dude!

    Cam Banks:
    One variation I might consider: Growth dice that fail get passed to other players.

    Benjamin Davis:
    That’s an interesting notion. Would they roll over to the next episode, or does it make the order you do Tag Scenes much more important?

    Cam Banks:
    Probably the former, but perhaps only to those you had a tag scene with.

    Stephen Morffew:
    +Benjamin Davis, thank you for the feedback! I knew it would be worth waiting for!

    1. Yeah, I knew you’d tried out some different methods. I also tried the option when you get to keep your Growth dice on a fail, but the one that worked best for my particular group was turning Growth into something like Resources that could be spent to help out on rolls. Very popular, especially in our finale episode the other week. I went into quite some detail on that idea in previous blog posts, which you may remember since you commented on them (but others reading this post might not have seen).

    6. “-Objects: Cool!” – Thanks!

    “-Beliefs or ideas: That seems like it should be covered in Values” – Yes, possibly, although Values don’t currently appear on the Pathways map.

    “-Vehicles: How is that different from Gear?” – Not necessarily different, but again, Gear doesn’t appear on the Pathways map. Here I’m thinking something where vehicles are a central part of the show/setting. Like the Impala in Supernatural, or mecha like Gundams, or the TARDIS, or whatever.

    “-Factions: Already sorted with Cliques” – Yes, true, although later in the post I briefly suggest using Factions as a replacement for Values. This might work in that situation.

    “-Common or transferable superpowers: How is that a Relationship?” – It’s not a relationship. I’m saying that the way players might get superpowers in a certain setting would be by adding it to the Pathways map and then drawing arrows to it. But this only works if the superpowers are either common or transferrable, so that multiple people can connect to them.

    Stephen Morffew:
    +Cam Banks, that sounds like an interesting twist on Growth, but I’m not sure how it would solve the problems I’ve found with it as it exists. I can see it would help with some of my issues (penalising less active players, for instance), but others not so much. Maybe I’d just have to see it in action.

    Brandon Perkins:
    +Stephen Morffew What if you used Distinction in the fashion they are in Firefly? I sound like a broken record, but that form of distinction really appeals to me.

    Cam Banks:
    It’s also very very likely that some parts of any one of the Cortex Plus games won’t align with your GM style or player prefs. That’s okay, but I do need to consider whether a fix is for a specific group, or for the game. Know what I mean?

    Benjamin Davis:
    Ah, I see what you mean, +Stephen.
    Hmm, thinking about that makes my brain fizz with using something Pathways-like to map out what Values will be in your game.

    Stephen Morffew:
    +Brandon Perkins, I’m less familiar with the Firefly style of Distinction, but I don’t have a problem with it. It would need some sort of rejigging the character creation process, which I’m ambivalent about.

    +Cam Banks, I know what you mean. It’s one of the reasons why I tried to avoid suggesting solutions for the first 3 issues in the actual blog post, just highlighting my concerns. It reminds me of this quote by Gaiman: “when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

    +Benjamin Davis, I know right!?

    Brandon Perkins:
    +Stephen Morffew In Firefly, you get three Distinctions. Each of these three distinction give you 3 tag skills (things you are better at, so step up) and have three triggers. The first trigger lets you use the Distinction when it helps you at a d8, and when it makes your life interesting at a d4 and you earn a plot point. The other two triggers give you special dice tricks or story devices tied to the Distinction.


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