Turning over a new leaf: A villainous Cortex Prime playtest

It’s 2018, hurrah! A new year means a new year for roleplaying, and I’m looking forward to a few upcoming changes in my roleplaying calendar. First, all three regular campaigns that I’m in are reaching their climactic finales, which will be an exciting if bittersweet farewell to some characters. Second, I’m hoping to play some more one-shots, particularly in systems I’ve never tried before. Third, I’m putting my hand to game design a bit more—unusually, I’ve been inspired to dip my toe into OSR gaming, so we’ll see where that goes.

Most immediately, though, there are two things that are dominating my early 2018 roleplaying thoughts: GMing my first new campaigns after a relatively lackluster 2017 in that area, and the Cortex Prime playtest draft rules.

These two things go together pretty well, it turns out.

Mick Rory (Heatwave) in Legends of Tomorrow season 3 episode 2,
The gif that inspired it all.

Right now, I’m running a Cortex Prime game of supervillains, whisked out of the toxic environments that enabled their iniquity to fight a greater threat, given a chance to do something good for a change. Something like Legends of Tomorrow, Suicide Squad, or Guardians of the Galaxy (only the last of which I’ve actually watched, admittedly). Can they reform and become better people? Do they want to? Can they save the world? This is Set a Villain.

Since I last blogged about Cortex Prime, its Kickstarter was fully funded with all of its stretch goals reached, and several drafts of an SRD have been released for playtesting. I initially used v2.1 of the SRD (released on 19 September 2017), but I plan to update this to the latest versions as they come out. Currently, that’s v3.1, dated 1 January 2018. Happy New Year!

In this blog I’m giving a rundown of my new campaign, including the Cortex Prime variant rules we’re using. Note that while I’ve been writing detailed feedback on the game so far and sending it to the developers, I’m not going to copy it out here. Cortex Prime is still a work in progress, and (I hope) any feedback I’d write now would be irrelevant by the time the game is finalised and published. The most you’ll get here (for now) are some general opinions. Onward!

Recipe for success: Picking our rules variants

My first job in setting up my villains campaign was picking which rules we would use. Cortex Prime is pitched as “A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game”, and the playtest SRD presents numerous variant rules with which GMs can tweak the rules to suit their campaign.

Having played various Cortex Plus games before (mostly Smallville Roleplaying Game, which I’ve blogged about), I already had an idea of what rules I wanted. That’s lucky, because the process of selecting rules is not as straightforward as I feel it should be, mostly because of some confusing terminology and document structure. Michael Duxbury has turned the list of Cortex Prime variants from the draft into an actual menu on his blog, which I think is good (but I may be biased as I helped with it), and there’s talk of a similar thing in the published book, so hopefully these issues can be ironed out.

For Set a Villain, I wanted two things: some mechanical depiction of the characters’ personalities that can change over time, and a pulpy, evocative trait covering what the characters will do in the game. I therefore decided to use Values (including Value statements that can be challenged) and Roles.

But, this being a villain-focused game, they’re called Motives and M.O.s. (Thanks to Emily for that inspiration!)

The list of Motives had to work for both villains and reformed former villains, so in creating my list I did some research on universal basic emotions then added a villainous twist. The Motives are:

  • Anger (rage, hostility, vengeance, justice)
  • Gratification (pleasure, fun, excitement, greed, happiness)
  • Loathing (contempt, hatred, resentment, disgust, fear)
  • Melancholy (wistfulness, grief, sorrow, regret, guilt)
  • Pride (self-aggrandisement, superiority, hubris, envy, glory)
  • Sentiment (trust, loyalty, love, friendship, companionship)

The M.O.s were based on the sorts of villains and capers most common in superhero stories, particularly silver age ones. (They also roughly correspond to the original Roles in Leverage, but that’s largely coincidental.) They are:

  • Boisterousness (showing off, attracting attention, gloating, gaudy costumes)
  • Brilliance (evil genius, posing conundrums, designing weapons and traps, lab coats)
  • Brutishness (strength, raw power, fighting the hero hand-to-hand, exposed muscles)
  • Burglary (infiltration, stealth, knowing your exits, catsuits)
  • Business (making deals with people, finances, putting out a hit, pinstripes and ties)

There also needed to be a single trait to represent the villain’s theme. This is their Gimmick, which they can add to a dice pool for d8 whenever they do something connected with their theme. Using Batman villains as an example, the Scarecrow‘s Gimmick is fear, Mr Freeze‘s Gimmick is cold, and the Riddler‘s Gimmick is questions. They are easy to understand, and widely applicable.

In other respects I mostly used Prime‘s default rules suggestions, including using scenario histories as advancement. Because I’m not using Growth, I wanted an alternative long-term reward for challenging a Motive statement. For this I used hero dice, which, as well as being earned on a heroic success (as normal), are earned when a statement is challenged (at the rating of the challenged Motive). They’re still called hero dice, though, because they represent the potentially heroic potential of these villains (or former villains).

That’s bananas: Creating our villain protagonists

Having settled in the rules variants we’d use for the game, each player needed to choose the following stats to create their villain character:

  • A Gimmick
  • Dice ratings for 6 Motives
  • Dice ratings for 5 M.O.s
  • 3 Distinctions
  • 3 points of specialties and/or significant assets (reduced from 5 to accommodate the Gimmick d8)
  • 2 SFX (over and above the standard SFX for each Distinction)
  • Trait statements for 6 Motives

As well as these, though, I wanted players to make connections between their characters. Inspired by the bar scene from Suicide Squad, I decided I was going to dust off my drinking game character creation. Here are the rules:

Everyone takes turns. On your turn, say “I have never [done action]”. Anyone can (metaphorically) drink in response to the statement. The character of anyone who drinks did the stated action.

If nobody drinks in response to your “I have never” statement, you must explain why you chose that particular statement: Your character knows someone who did, used to know someone who did, or is looking for someone who did.

Whenever only one player is drinking, that player must give a detailed account (perhaps in character) of why they are drinking, i.e. explain the context and circumstances of how, when and why their character did the thing.

In our character generation session, we went through everything except for some SFX and some statements, which have either been filled in since character creation or will be filled in during play.

The Gimmick was the most important step for establishing the tone of the game. One player decided early on that he wanted to be the Muffin Man (whose interests include putting the hero in a jam, icing the police, and needing dough), and another that he would be an orangutan scientist whose Gimmick is bananas. It quickly became clear that all of the characters were going to have food-related Gimmicks, and that the campaign would involve these villains being brought together to form the new generation of Fearsome Foodies.

The villain PCs are:

  • The Muffin Man
  • Dr Cavendish
  • Baroness von Breakfast
  • The Chef

First courses

Since character creation, we’ve played two sessions of the game. The first session was a relatively short one to introduce to the campaign world and lay groundwork for future sessions. The second session was a sudden (player-driven) left turn into an alternate dimension. (This section is quite long and mostly recap. Skip to the next section if you’re not interested.)

The characters woke up together in a dormitory room, having been abducted from their regular lives. Escaping into an adjoining kitchen, they discovered that their abductor was Sprinkles, teenage sidekick of the superhero Knickerbocker Glory, and that they were aboard Hell’s Kitchen, an interdimensional vehicle that was the base and vehicle of the Fearsome Foodies.

Sprinkles revealed that he was the last survivor of the previous Fearsome Foodies after the rest of the superhero team had been wiped out by Famine (the alien-plant-robot who was the Foodies’ arch-enemy and wants to despoil all of Earth’s food) when it escaped from the Cooler (Hell’s Kitchen’s walk-in-freezer-slash-cryogenic-prison). The kidnapping was an attempt to recruit these food-themed villains as a new generation of Foodies.

The villains immediately distrusted Sprinkles and attempted to subdue him, but he defended himself with his sprinkles gun and directed their attention to a more immediate problem: unless they could work together to stabilise it, Hell’s Kitchen was about to crash in the space between dimensions. Hell’s Kitchen is piloted by cooking meals in the kitchen (also the bridge of the vehicle), but Sprinkles’ attempts to do this on his own were in danger of ending in disaster. The Chef, a former professional restaurateur before turning to crime, leapt into action and organised Sprinkles and the other villains, barking orders and smartly directing the operation, fighting fires, setting timers, and getting everything back under control.

However, Muffin Man secretly used the opportunity to hijack the Kitchen, directing it to the Muffin dimension (representation of the Platonic ideal of muffin-hood). Hell’s Kitchen safely came to rest on a gigantic chocolate chip, in the middle of a yellow-brown cakey plain desert, surrounded by a crescent of blueberry foothills, while a red, oven-filament sun rotated across the sky.

Much of the Kitchen’s store of ingredients had been depleted (with the last remaining bananas being eaten by Dr Cavendish). By flipping through the Recipe Book (the Kitchen’s list of the meals required to access its destinations), the Chef determined that their best shot of getting back to Earth would be to cook a simple trifle. They had some ingredients already, but needed some custard (or eggs to make custard) and some sponge cake, both of which would hopefully be available in the dimension of Muffin.

Outside the craft, Baroness von Breakfast took command, commanding the group to set up a base camp in the vicinity of the Kitchen to excavate the necessary cake. This was relatively easy work, but they were soon attacked by gigantic ant creatures who burst up out of the cakey ground. In a spectacular fight scene, they defeated most of the ants and forced others to retreat, with two of the retreating ants defeated by an arriving party of Pooka-Lookras, diminutive orange-skinned, green-haired, and white-eyebrowed people who roam the dimensions of sweet foodstuffs (and who are totally unique, and not based on any pre-existing characters, ahem).

In song, the Pooka-Lookras demanded that the party surrender and accidentally revealed the existence of their custard hoard. They were soundly berated by the Baroness for their impudence, and convinced to lead the villains to their boss. Passing through a short tunnel in Muffin’s strange geometry, they arrived at a mining operation on a white tundra covered in icing sugar. The Pookas were drilling for elemental custard deep within Muffin, having previously tapped out the once-plentiful wells on nearby dimensions such as Donut.

The villains (and Sprinkles) were brought to the Pookas’ Overseer (a Pooka-Lookra with a huge green beard and tall hair, wearing a white eyepath), who quickly demanded that the rest of his team stop singing and get back to work. Unswayed by the Baroness’ claim that the villains were members of the Fearsome Foodies (who previously had good relations with the Pooka-Lookras), the Overseer nevertheless recognised the Muffin Man from a statue carved into the stalk of the enormous glacé cherry at the top of the tall mountain of icing. When he showed them there (mostly to satisfy his own curiosity about the resemblance), Muffin Man knocked him out with a muffin sleep grenade, then carved his own name into the statue to assert control over the whole dimension.

Hatching a plot to escape and take the custard they needed, Dr Cavendish disguised himself as the Overseer (using his Master of Disguise distinction, despite being—very obviously to the other villains—an orangutan in a green wig, eyepatch and overalls). They successfully talked their way past the suspicious Pookas, even convincing the Pookas to regularly lay tribute in front of the Muffin Man’s statue.

While most of the villains escaped back to Hell’s Kitchen, the Muffin Man doubled back to the statue, intending to kill the Overseer so that he couldn’t prevent the regular tribute; Sprinkles followed to prevent this. However, when they got there they found that Muffin itself was under attack by a Cutting, an autonomous flying plant-robot sent by Famine to absorb the essence of food through its roots. To prevent all muffins on Earth being rendered inedible (like hemlock), Muffin Man attacked the Cutting, damaging it and forcing it to retreat but not before the statue of the Muffin Man was knocked down and fell off the mountain, out of sight. The ruckus also woke up the now-groggy Overseer, who offered to lead Muffin Man and Sprinkles through a short-cut so that they could catch up with the Cutting and destroy it.

Back at Hell’s Kitchen, the other villains were fully intending to cook the trifle, return to Earth and leave Muffin Man and the Sprinkles behind, until they found that the Kitchen refused to grant them entry. Realising that they couldn’t go home without Sprinkles, they set out to find them.

Muffin Man, Sprinkles and the Overseer caught up with the Cutting in a dense jungle of chocolate flakes, where the gooey dark chocolate ground sucked at their feet. Muffin Man attempted to subdue the Cutting by leaping on top of it, but he was thrown clear and injured. Suddenly, the other villains arrived riding one of the gigantic ants from earlier, which Baroness von Breakfast had captured and tamed. With a flick of the ant’s abdomen, the Chef was hurled towards the Cutting in a cyclone of sharp kitchen utensils.

The Cutting defeated, the villains collected their companions and left, vowing never to return to such a silly place.

Postprandial reflections

These early sessions have been a learning experience for all involved. This is a new style of Cortex for me and several other players, and one player has never been in any Cortex game before. Even the players more familiar to this style of play are using a system that still has some kinks in it to be worked out (some of which are addressed in the latest SRD, and others hopefully will be in due time). We’ll all need a bit more practice before we’re comfortable with it.

The first session especially was shaky. In my eagerness to introduce players to the mechanics, I called for some rolls for which I should instead have made rulings (e.g. searching the room) or asked them to pay a Plot Point (e.g. whipping up some improvised weapons).

Nevertheless, over the course of two sessions we’ve covered most of the important mechanics:

  • building dice pools,
  • basic actions,
  • contested actions,
  • timed actions (albeit I got this one a little wrong),
  • creating assets with actions,
  • creating assets by spending Plot Points,
  • adding dice to the result by spending Plot Points,
  • avoiding being taken out of fights by spending Plot Points and taking complications,
  • earning Plot Points by rolling spoilers and taking complications,
  • earning Plot Points by using d4 Distinctions,
  • rolling for initiative and popcorn initiative (moving from the first to the second at the end of the first round),
  • major and minor GMCs and GMC mobs,
  • challenging Motives,
  • heroic successes,
  • spending hero dice,
  • using SFX,
  • adding to the scenario history, and
  • spending scenarios for character advancement (by making an asset a signature asset).

Phew! That’s a lot (and I may have missed some too). Some of these things we only did once, but that’s probably the hardest time. The more we play, the faster and smoother the game experience should be (fingers crossed). Of course, the rules are going to change (hopefully becoming tighter) as they are refined and new SRDs are released, but we will deal with that as it happens.

All in all, it was a pun-filled taster of what’s to come.

Header image is Mick Rory (aka Heat Wave) in Legends of Tomorrow season 3 episode 2, “Freakshow”. Gif from littlehobbit13 on tumblr.com

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