The traits we use in roleplaying games frame a lot about how the game works and how characters fit into it. Three years ago, Fred Hicks encapsulated this (in an excellent blog post on Fate Accelerated Edition) by saying that the traits in the game pose a question that is answered when you pick which trait to use. In Fate Accelerated, for example, the traits are Approaches and the question is “How are you doing that?”. When you pick the Approach to use for a given action, the question is answered: Quickly, Carefully, Forcefully, Cleverly, Flashily or Sneakily.
I’d been thinking about something similar before Fred’s blog, and I’ve been thinking about it on-and-off ever since. It’s come to the forefront of my mind again recently because of Cortex Prime. Cortex Prime is a modular game system, so players (and especially GMs) need to have a solid understanding of what the traits in their games mean and why they’re there. (Cortex Prime is also why I’m using ‘traits’ as a generic term for rated stats that you pick when you need to roll or resolve something.)
I now believe that, contrary to what Fred wrote in his blog post, traits don’t pose a question for players to answer: they pose two questions, which players answer at different times. As well as the in-the-moment questions when players pick the trait they’ll use, there’s another question, posed even earlier, when the players establish the ratings of the traits on their character sheets.
In this blog, I’ll look at what these two questions are and what they mean, then give example questions for the main trait types in use today (and some new ones!). Hopefully this will be useful for GMs working out how to make their Cortex Prime campaign, as well as game designers more broadly. Let’s get to it!
A friend of mine recently told me that he is getting tired of the sorts of roleplaying games that he most often plays in, and he’s thinking of moving instead to more freeform and improvisational games. I respect the decision of course, but it’s a shame because it means I might never get to play in a game with him again.
I can’t do freeform roleplay. I need rules and structures and hooks and mechanics to help me carve out a space for myself in the conversation, which I am otherwise pretty bad at.
I especially love rules that allow and encourage me to to express the thoughts and feelings of my characters at the table. I find it one of the hardest parts of roleplaying and don’t do it spontaneously. When there are no opportunities for this in a game, it therefore often doesn’t happen. And if something doesn’t happen at the table, then it isn’t canon in the game, so the characters I play tend to be somewhat 2-dimensional. This is either intentional (I bypass the whole issue by playing transparently straightforward characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves) or unintentional (characters that are fascinating in the confines of my head become far less interesting when I’m playing them).
So in this blog I’m going to talk about three examples of very simple rules from games I’ve played that I have found to be a huge help in letting me express myself and my characters. Any one of them could be easily lifted out of their games and used for campaigns under other systems, too. Check them out, and let me know if there’s any I missed! (And don’t forget to check out my last blog post, if you haven’t already, about using emotions as actual traits that you can roll in a game!)
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I recently ran a playtest campaign of the draft rules for Cortex Prime. I provided feedback on the system to Cam Banks, and my group updated to the latest version of the SRD several times in the campaign, but the campaign is now over and Cortex Prime‘s Game Handbook is close to publication. I was delighted to see so much of my group’s feedback addressed in subsequent versions of the rules, but that’s not all I have to say on the matter!
Cortex Prime, being modular by design, is customised for each campaign that uses it, and a quirk in my campaign’s rules reference has given me an idea for a brand new mod for the community’s toolkit: the emotions trait set!
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?