Drama dice are a variant advancement and reward mechanic in Cortex Prime, designed by Benj Davis originally as a hack for Smallville RPG. They combine elements from the existing Cortex Prime mods of growth and hero dice and, as the name suggests, they are intended mainly for dramatic games where relationships drive the plot and feelings change over time.
I’ve been aware of Benj’s rules for drama dice for a while (he mentioned them in the comments when I posted my own Smallville hack, for instance), but most recently he explained them in a thread at the Cortex System Roleplaying Google+ community (where there have been a ton of great conversations lately about Cortex stuff, check it out). With Benj’s latest explanation, I had a few realisations:
- These rules are great, and I hadn’t really understood how they worked before. It helped this time that I had done something similar with hero dice in my recent villain-themed Cortex Prime game, so now I can see just how good they are.
- Benj has explained the rules several times, for several people, in several different places, but there has never been a single place where they are all set out that people can just link to. Given that I have a blog, I offered to put the rules here and he agreed!
- Now that Cortex Prime playtest is just about over, and the publication of the actual game handbook is imminent, it seemed like an ideal time to update the terminology and present drama dice as a mod for Cortex Prime for maximum accessibility.
So, without further ado, how could you incorporate drama dice into your own dramatic Cortex Prime campaigns?
How does the mod fit?
Some mods in Cortex Prime stand alone, and can slot into any Prime ruleset without trouble. Other mods have prerequisites: other mods that need to be in play before they become relevant or open for use.
Drama dice are one of those mods that have prerequisites: specifically trait statements and relationships as a prime trait.
Trait statements that can be challenged are one of the main ways of generating drama dice (just as they are one of the main ways of generating growth in the Cortex Prime SRD). Unlike the growth mod, however, the drama dice mod also assumes that one of your prime traits will be relationships, and specifically that the trait set is open-ended. Being open-ended means that neither the number of different traits in the set nor the number of die steps across these traits is fixed, so they can be increased indefinitely over the course of the game. (Open-ended is the default for relationships. Trait sets that are typically not open-ended include values, attributes, and distinctions.)
Beyond those prerequisites, there are other mods that can integrate with drama dice in a useful way. As previously mentioned, Benj’s campaign in which he uses drama dice is a hack of Smallville RPG (with some ideas from DramaSystem, the engine used in Hillfolk), so the mods most appropriate for using drama dice are likely to be the ones that most closely resemble the original version of Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying (e.g. values with trait statements, stress, resources, powers, power sets, and a doom pool with no plot point bank).
As in Smallville, the main reason for dice to hit the table in a game using drama dice is because two major characters are engaged in an escalating contest. Usually this will be between two player characters, but sometimes it’ll be between a player character and a GMC. Benj has borrowed a few ideas from DramaSystem (the engine used in Hillfolk) to formalise how such contests start, and it uses 3 stages. However, for most Cortex Prime games, I’d recommend skipping stage 1 and starting at stage 2:
- One character, Alex, petitions a second character, Bobbie, for an emotional payoff. Then, one of the following:
- Bobbie grants the petition (provides emotional payoff) and Bobbie gains a plot point (from Alex if they have one); or
- Bobbies denies the petition (withholds emotional payoff) and Alex gains a plot point (from Bobbie if they have one). Alternatively, Alex can refuse to accept the denial, returning the plot point and moving to stage 2.
- Alex makes their petition (for emotional payoff from Bobbie) a big deal. Then, one of the following:
- Bobbie grants the petition (provides emotional payoff) and Bobbie gains a drama die (from Alex if they have one, a d6 if they don’t); or
- Bobbies denies the petition (withholds emotional payoff) and Alex gains a drama die (from Bobbie if they have one, a d6 if they don’t). Alternatively, Alex can refuse to accept the denial, returning the drama die and moving to stage 3.
- Alex initiates an escalating conflict with Bobbie, rolling a dice pool to set the first difficulty. Then, Bobbie and Alex take it in turns to do the following procedure:
- The active character chooses whether to give in and grant the emotional payoff. Note that both sides now want an emotional payoff from the other (even if, in Bobbie’s case, it is just for Alex to accept their choice and drop the petition). Even if this happens, no plot points or drama dice are transferred at this stage.
- If the active character does not give in, they roll their dice pool attempting to beat the difficulty set by the previous active character.
- If they beat the difficulty, their result becomes the difficulty for the next player, return to start of the procedure.
- If they fail to beat the difficulty, neither side grants an emotional payoff and the active player suffers stress, complication, or being taken out (according to the ruleset being used in the campaign).
How can I earn a drama die?
Drama dice are earned through the petitioning process (see previous section) and in the same ways as growth dice in the Cortex Prime SRD, as follows:
- Say Yes. When you grant a big deal petition (stage 2 in the Petitioning section, above), you get a drama die (from the petitioner, if they have any, a d6 if they don’t).
- Accept a Rejection. When someone denies your big deal petition (stage 2 in the Petitioning section, above) and you accept that without escalating to a contest, you get a drama die (from the person you petitioned, if they have any, a d6 if they don’t).
- Challenge a Trait Statement. When you challenge a statement attached to one of your traits, not only do you get to roll three dice for it instead of one and then step back the die rating (in line with the standard rules from the trait statement mod), you also immediately get a drama die of the rating of your challenged trait (before it was stepped back).
- Get Help. When you successfully recover from stress or a complication with another character’s help, you turn that stress or complication into a drama die of the same size. (However, as I mentioned in a recent Google+ thread, I really think this should instead be Give Help, and reward people who help others recover stress, instead of rewarding the person recovering.)
What can I do with a drama die?
Drama dice are used as part of the petitioning process (albeit without player input) and in the same way as hero dice in the Cortex Prime SRD, as follows:
- Say No. When you choose to deny a big deal petition (stage 2 in the Petitioning section, above), you may have to spend a drama die if the petitioner accepts the denial.
- Make your Petition a Big Deal. When you choose to make a big deal petition (stage 2 in the Petitioning section, above), you may have to spend a drama die if the person you petition grants it.
- Get a Plot Point. If you’re out of plot points, you can spend a drama die as if it were a plot point. (Cortex Prime has rules for what you can do with plot points, but see also my complete plot point reference list for Smallville RPG.)
- Add to Your Dice Pool. Before you make a roll, you can spend a drama die to include it in your dice pool.
- Add to Your Result. After you’ve rolled, you can spend a drama die and a plot point to roll the drama die and add its value directly to your result.
- Gain an SFX. If using a ruleset that includes SFX, you can spend a drama die of any rating to permanently add an extra SFX to one of your traits that supports it (e.g. a distinction, power, power set, or talent).
Tag Scenes; or, How do I get better at stuff?
As in Cortex Prime‘s growth mod, advancement with drama dice works through tag scenes that (usually) take place at the end of a scenario. How’s how they work:
- Discard all your remaining plot points. When using drama dice, plot points are ephemeral. Once the scenario’s over, they’re gone. If you want something that lasts, you want drama dice.
- Merge pairs of drama dice. Starting from the smallest die rating and proceeding to the largest, pair off drama dice of the same rating and replace each pair with a single die of the next size up. 2 drama dice at d8 will be merged to 1 drama die at d10, etc. This is partly a disincentive to hang onto them forever, partly to make it more likely that they’ll all fit in your box.
- Examine any challenged relationships. For each, either:
- Rewrite: Change your statement to something that reflects your new feelings, and step up the relationship to its previous die rating; or
- Double down: Keep your statement, leave that relationship at its reduced die rating to represent your wavering conviction in your previous opinion, but also step up another trait from an open-ended trait set (either another relationship or a trait from any set without fixed die ratings, e.g. skills, signature assets, resources, powers, power sets). You can step up other traits as many times as you challenged the relationship since the last tag scene, but you cannot raise another trait to a size bigger than the relationship’s original die rating before being challenged.
- Examine any other challenged traits, if relevant to your ruleset (values, attributes, etc. may have trait statements). For each, either:
- Rewrite: Change your statement to something that reflects your new feelings, and step up the trait to its previous die rating; or
- Double down: Keep your statement, leave that trait at its reduced die rating to represent your wavering conviction in your previous opinion, but also step up a different trait within the same trait set as the challenged trait.
- Reprioritise. Optionally, step back any trait from an open-ended trait set in order to step up any other trait from an open-ended trait set. However, you cannot step back a trait that has already been stepped up, or vice versa.
- Step up any relationship. Increase the die rating of the character about whom your feelings have most intensified. This is also where extra raw power comes in. It filters in through relationships before it gets anywhere else.
In addition, if using the stress mod, then tag scenes usually count as “a rest period, downtime, or transition”, meaning that all of your stress dice are stepped back by one.