Will Cortex Prime light our darkest hour?

Optimus Prime displaying the Cortex logo matrix of leadership
It’s Optimus Cortex Prime, geddit?

The Kickstarter for Cortex Prime is currently live, and it’s doing rather well. It funded in 36 hours (I helped!), it has just passed its third stretch goal, and it still has 12 days to go.

Cortex Prime is the latest iteration of the Cortex roleplaying system and, more immediately, the successor system to Cortex Plus, which gave us games like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Leverage, Firefly and my favourite Smallville. (I’ve blogged about Smallville a lot. Have a look.)

This seems like a good time to talk about my feelings for the new game. In short, I’m looking forward to it. My last Cortex Plus game, the X-Men drama Worthington Academy, wrapped up last year. I had no intention of running another one, but just before the Kickstarter launched I was starting to get the itch for a new Cortex Plus Drama campaign, and so Cortex Prime showed up at just the right time.

But what do I think about what I’ve seen so far?

The rules

As a backer, I have access to the System Reference Document (SRD) for the Cortex Prime basic rules and, first things first, Cortex Prime basic is not everything I said I wanted from a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic in my blog post last year. There are good reasons for that, and certainly there is potential for more of my wants to be addressed when the full rules are finally released, but I think I should declare my bias on this up front.

Even aside from that, though, the rules are hardly going to transform the RPG hobby when they are rolled out. In fact, there is almost nothing in the SRD that would be new to people familiar with the various games published under the Cortex Plus umbrella.

And yet, despite that, there is a lot to like in the SRD.

The main change between Cortex Plus and Cortex Prime is the adoption of a consistent terminology. There’s no more confusion why Assets in Marvel Heroic are called Useful Details in Smallville, while Smallville‘s Assets include traits like Distinctions, none of which are exactly the same as Firefly‘s Signature Assets.

Building on this, Prime has also introduced a modular format for its mechanics. There is a single default set of rules, but this is broken into clearly separate sections that can be swapped out for variant mechanics to give the game a different feel. The default rules are closest to Cortex Plus Action, but there are variant sections in the SRD that let you incrementally switch it over to Dramatic or Heroic roleplaying, or a combination of any of them, or something in between.

This is incredibly powerful. I’d read all of the Cortex Plus games but I never felt like all were one, til now. At last I can see what people have been saying all along: that they really are the same game, with dials so you can tune your campaign to suit your needs.

This should also really help with the community content and hacking scene. After reading the Cortex Prime SRD I finally understand how blinkered I had been in some areas when making my Worthington Academy hack of Smallville. I never even considered replacing the Trouble pool (now known in Cortex Prime by its far superior name from Marvel Heroic, the Doom pool) for a mechanic like Complications, but I can now see both how easy it would have been, and how much a difference it might have made. I hope this leads to an explosion of community content, similar to the one I see in the Fate Core fandom with its officially licensed Fate Worlds.

Speaking of community content…

The other exciting thing in the Kickstarter is the inclusion of Prime Spotlight volumes at each of the stretch goals. Much like Evil Hat’s aforementioned Fate Worlds, these are genre and setting sourcebooks with information about game worlds and expanded rules. Three stretch goals have been hit to date, for a total of twelve different Spotlight settings, and two further stretch goals with another ten settings have been announced!

The funded volumes include:

  • Josh Roby’s Citizen Swords Against the Ogre King, which he describes as “Hamilton, with Orcs”. I’m sold.
  • Kira Magrann’s Stranger Towns, which is inspired by Twin Peaks, Eerie Indiana, Eureka, and Stranger Things. It is exactly the kind of setting I would have wanted if I was doing another Cortex Plus Dramatic campaign. I have high hopes for this one!
  • Jacob DC Ross’ Bone Raiders, which grabbed my attention by calling itself “a sword and planet setting inspired by Barsoom [and] Escaflowne“, then pressed its advantage by using the phrase “Giant mecha built around the skeletons of alien monsters piloted by desperate heroes”. Wow.

As for the as-yet-unfunded possibilities, volume four looks like one of the games is a combination of X-Men and Monsterhearts, and one of the games in volume five is clearly based on Harry Potter. I’d be pretty happy if they got funded too, just saying.

These are just a few of my favourites, but there are loads of other intriguing worlds on the list. What interests you the most?

I wish Cam Banks and everyone on the team good luck for the rest of the Kickstarter, and for Cortex Prime’s future success. My fingers are crossed for you. Don’t roll any spoilers now.

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