Quick Cortex Prime hack: Spies and monster hunters in Cold City

Cold City coverMy gaming group just wrapped up a Cold City campaign. It was fun, and we liked the setting, but afterwards the other players and I were unanimous in our dislike of the game’s system. There were some good bits, but too many bad bits getting in the way. For example, stats increase when you succeed and decrease when you fail, and if they decrease too far (which can happen on the turn of a single roll, especially if you were a min-maxer like me) that leads to a downward spiral and then it’s almost impossible for your character to become competent again.

Another player suggested that you could play a campaign with the same setting in another game like The Dystopian Universe Roleplaying Game (a Fate game). He was probably right, but I’ve never played that game, so I’m going to hack Cold City for Cortex Prime instead. Enjoy!

What is Cold City?

Cold City is, according to its tagline, a “game of hidden agendas, trust and monster hunting”, set in Berlin in the 1950s, at the start of the Cold War.

Player characters are members of a monster hunting, paranormal investigating international agency called the RPA, short for Reserve Police Agency (the name is intended to be as bland as possible for extra cover). Each member of the agency is a representative of one of the occupying nations of Berlin (Britain, France, USA, USSR), or a native German, and they are required to work together despite growing international tension to locate and recover examples of Twisted Technology, which are super science Nazi experiments left over from World War 2.

The tagline’s reference to trust and hidden agendas isn’t just colloquial either: each PC has a Trust stat with each other PC (which will initially be based on their stereotypical views of the nations those PCs represent) and two Hidden Agendas (one from their nation, and one that’s more personal) to drive drama and conflict between team members. Both Trust and Hidden Agendas provide mechanical bonuses when they become relevant. Trust can be changed regularly (players get the choice at the end of each scene), but while increasing Trust is better for you when you’re working with your allies, if they ever betray you they will add your Trust in them to their roll for free, so there’s a balancing act.

Those are the most relevant things for this hack, but I’ll also mention the three types of Twisted Technology that RPA teams will encounter: the Alternatives (people transformed by twisted experiments), the Incursors (entities from other worlds or dimensions), and the Dead (which is basically what it sounds like).

How do you adapt Cortex Prime for a Cold City game?

Here is a quick list of the rules mods I’d use for a Cold City hack, using the latest draft of the Cortex Prime Game Handbook from January 2019 (released to Kickstarter backers):

  • Characters have the following trait sets: attributes, trust, hidden agendas, distinctions, and stress. Of these, only attributes are expected to be used in every roll, but one of each of the others (except stress, which follows the normal rules for stress) can be used for free if they are applicable.
  • The attributes are Action, Influence and Reason (which are just the Cold City labels for the standard Cortex Prime attributes of Physical, Social, Mental).
  • Trust is based on relationships, but the rating of the die is explicitly how much you trust the person referred to.
    • If you are relying on someone, use your trust rating with them; if you are betraying someone, use their trust rating with you. Always use the trait if it’s appropriate in this way, even if it’s a d4.
    • A trust rating can be stepped up or down at the end of any scene you have shared with another character covered by the trust trait.
    • All characters initially have the following trust traits: American, British, French, German, Soviet. Trust with specific individuals can be earned later, through challenging (next).
  • Trust traits have trait statements and can be challenged for triple dice. Once challenged, rather than being stepped back, the trust trait is shut down until the end of the session. At the end of the session, re-activate the challenged trust and either 1) re-write the trait statement to reflect your new understanding of the individual or nation, or 2) if the trust was for a nation, you can choose to restore the original trait statement but create a new trust trait (plus statement) for the individual who caused you to challenge it, showing that you no longer consider them to be a typical member of their nation.
  • Characters have two hidden agendas, one for their nation (they are assumed to be working secretly on behalf of their government) and one that is personal to them. These are essentially freeform statements-as-traits, and they can be challenged if a character acts contrary to one of their agendas. At the end of the session, challenged agendas can be re-written, but keep in mind that national agendas are set externally and can’t be changed on the whim of the individual.
  • One of a character’s three distinctions must be the nation (Britain, France, Germany, USA, USSR) to which the character belongs. The distinction is relevant whenever the stereotypical traits of that nation (actual or perceived) could help or hinder the character (granting d8 or d4 respectively). The other two distinctions are freeform. The stereotypical traits of the nation are as in the Cold City rulebook (where it also explicitly states they are largely incorrect):
    • American: brash, loud, over paid, over sexed, over here, uncouth, assertive, cocky, confident
    • British: reserved, stiff upper lipped, always takes a break for tea, eccentric, sport obsessed (especially cricket and football), superior
    • French: cowardly, alcoholic, fond of good food and wine, rude, snobbish, amorous and romantic
    • German: hard working, humourless, efficient, bureaucratic, rude, orderly, precide and, given recent events, more than a little warlike
    • Soviet: stoic, alcoholic, fiercely loyal to the Motherland, a firm believer in Communism, robotic, irreligious, melancholy
  • Stress is used instead of complications to track injury and other negative effects. The three types of stress are Action, Influence and Reason (attached to the character’s attributes), and the shaken and stricken rules are in play.
  • Players can’t add multiple dice from a single trait set, even by spending plot points. Other standard uses of plot points are unchanged.
  • The GM uses a doom pool.
  • For character advancement, you can use session histories, but I’m actually tempted to try out Rob Donoghue’s achievements levelling system. This would grant xp for interacting with the game’s mechanics, e.g. by rolling specific attributes, using trust, betraying someone’s trust (using their trust against them), challenging trust or a hidden agenda, creating a new trust trait for an individual, recovering stress (your own or someone else’s), using a national distinction at a d8 or at a d4. The available achievements (of which there would be around 3) would be randomly determined, perhaps on a stack of index cards, each time they need to be drawn. To ensure that nobody gets stuck with an achievement they don’t want, remaining achiements can be discarded and replaced at any time, but players earn more xp for completing all three from a set (1 xp for the first, 2 xp for the second, 3 xp for the third, for example). I haven’t particularly thought about how these xp are spent, although they may only apply to attributes and temporary assets.

And that’s it. A fairly straightforward hack, but one I think would work for a cool campaign in a cool setting. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Quick Cortex Prime hack: Spies and monster hunters in Cold City

  1. Benj January 20, 2019 / 8:20 pm

    I thought that achievements thing sounded familiar. Turns out I’d commented on the article, so it should! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stephen Morffew January 20, 2019 / 8:26 pm

      Haha! Oh yeah, there you are! I’ve had it bookmarked for a while until I could find somewhere I could use it.


  2. mpduxbury January 21, 2019 / 3:54 pm

    Great little hack. It retains a lot of what I really liked about the game, whilst definitely removing some of its problematic bits, like the intensity of the snowball mechanic (and this from someone who didn’t hate the original Cold City). Is there an Optional Rule that allows characters to generate Assets as a side-effect from successful rolls? That would be a nice way to implement Cold City’s “doing well grounds you better” mechanic – Cortex’s default Complication mechanic already handles the downside of this perfectly.

    If I was writing the hack, I’d do it like this:

    • Rename Action/Reason/Influence to Physical/Mental/Social and never look back. Fewer arguments about can-I-use-Reason-to-reason, what’s used to resist Influence, what’s used for Perception, etc. (Incidentally, Physical/Mental/Social are my least favourite trait set in any iteration of Cortex ever, but they have a place here – a solid baseline, de-prioritised in favour of Trust and other spy nonsense.)
    • Reimagining Trust as exploring the division between national stereotypes and individuals is very interesting, but the easiest adaptation (and therefore the most attractive option for lazy hackers like me) is just to use Relationships with Trait Statements as-is. When betraying, you still use your Relationship rating, but you use the other character’s Relationship rating AS WELL. This essentially means that their Relationship with you counts as Stress, which appeals a lot to me conceptually.
    • Exactly what you did with Distinctions.
    • Can’t remember what shaken and stricken means but Stress all looks good too.
    • Hidden Agendas are… tricky. My first instinct is to represent these as Milestones, which would be the first time I’ve ever recommended using something from Marvel, but would be the best way to make sure that characters are tapping them as frequently as possible (which Cold City encourages you to do – to keep party conflict going, I suppose). It’s also close enough to Keys from Tales of the Wild Blue Yonder (turn when pursuing, break when abandoning) as to highlight the drama of big defection moments, which is awesome. That said, if you’re not modelling this as a Trait, it doesn’t leave much for characters to use in their roll… hmm. I dunno, the “double your pool” roll in Cold City was always weird, the bonus it provided so massive that it incentivised players to pull some pretty extravagant bullshit… but maybe there is a way for it to work as both a Trait AND a Milestone??
    • We didn’t use Tool bonuses much in our campaign, but I think you want to fit Signature Assets in…somewhere. Because twisted technology is a big part of the setting, and spy gadgets are a big part of the genre.

    Or at least, that’s how I’d look at doing PCs. There are probably some interesting conversations to be had about how to do NPCs and Core Rules too. And as far as generic-systems-to-stick-a-setting-on go, I think Cortex is a good one for Cold City. Fate is too empowering for something so mean, Savage Worlds too crunchy for something so dramatic, and Gumshoe too team-focused for something so treacherous. Cortex works pretty well already.


    • Benj January 21, 2019 / 9:19 pm

      From memory, the Shaken and Stricken rules are
      – you take Stress against a given attribute
      – if you’re using that attribute and the Stress against it is larger than your attribute die, you only get to add a single die as your total
      – if you’ve got two Stress ratings higher than their attributes, you’re out


    • Stephen Morffew January 22, 2019 / 3:27 pm

      Thanks for the comments, Michael. Some responses:

      From my skim of the latest draft of the Game Handbook, I think the ability to create assets with a successful roll is now a default, not a mod, so I didn’t think it was worth calling out as its own thing. But yes, that option should be in a Cold City game somewhere.

      If you treat Trust just as basic Relationships, then a high-valued rating could indicate a strong dislike or distrust, which doesn’t really work if you might sometimes use someone else’s trait, hence my own hacks.

      You Hidden Agenda ideas are fine, but I took the easiest option, and thus most attractive for lazy hackers like me 🙂

      Tools can be signature assets or maybe just temporary assets that hang around for a session or so. Easy enough to add.

      Benj is right about the shaken and stricken rules.


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