Revealed Emotionality: Three rules to let your feelings radiate

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!)

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Applied Emotionality: A new trait set for Cortex Prime

The emotions from Inside Out
The emotions from Inside Out. Clockwise from top: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Anger.

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!

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Drama Dice: An advancement mod for Cortex Prime (with Benj Davis)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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?

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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!

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32: A Step into RPGs Retrospective

Turtles, vanish... by Fatboy73 on DeviantArt
The piece of TMNT fanart I liked most but didn’t use in my TMNT RPG blog series.

This month is the 32nd since I started this blog. It is also, by a weird coincidence, the month of my 32nd birthday. I realised this too late to turn RPGaDay into “31 posts in month 31 while 31”, but nevertheless I’m feeling a bit reflective.

Here is a look back at some of my most popular blog posts, the top 11 posts on the blog based on average views per month (vpm) since publication.

There are a lot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in this list. You’ve been warned.

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RPGaDay 2017, Day 22: Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

RPGaDay 2017 infographic

RPGaDay is an annual celebration of tabletop roleplaying. This is the first year I’ve tried to do it.

Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

The RPGs that are easiest for me to run are the ones in which the players do all the hard work, particularly in being proactive and developing conflicts between each other instead of waiting for me to provide a problem for them to solve. For example, Smallville is a dramatically driven game in which, during a session, I could often sit back and just watch things unfold. The problem with Smallville, however, is that there was so much preparation needed at the start of the campaign (preparing NPCs and so on), and so much bookkeeping needed between sessions. That’s a significant barrier to me running it again.

Psi*Run is a game that also takes a lot of player input throughout and, being designed mostly for one-off sessions, has no prep work or bookkeeping to speak of. On balance, I think Psi*Run is the easiest RPG to run, although I wouldn’t be comfortable using it for a campaign.

RPGaDay 2017, Day 7: What was your most impactful RPG session?

RPGaDay 2017 infographic

RPGaDay is an annual celebration of tabletop roleplaying. This is the first year I’ve tried to do it.

What was your most impactful RPG session?

That’s a tough question. I’m really not sure. I’ve had a few campaign sessions that were meaningful to me, or to the group, or had long-term influence over the campaign. I could name a dozen incidents just from my various Unknown Armies campaigns, for instance, but I talked about them on Day 4.

Instead I’m going to go with one of the most cathartic sessions of the X-Men-themed Smallville campaign that I ran, the one set in a Hogwarts-style British boarding school where the students and teachers are all based on reinterpretations of canon X-Men characters.

Jason (PC, student, based on Mastermind) has just been freed of some empathic mind control that stopped him from feeling anger. Rather than lash out, the release in tension makes him super relaxed. His illusion powers go out of control, and he turns the entire school into a tropical beach at night. What’s more, the illusion has a mental component, so that everyone feels a-ok with being on a beach and stops worrying about anything.

Rogue (PC, student, based on Rogue), who is troubled for several reasons that I won’t go into, is finally able to reconnect with both her mother Erin (NPC, headmistress, based on Magneto) and her childhood friend/crush Piotr (PC, student, based on Colossus). Piotr’s sister Illyana (PC, student, based on Magik) was able to be around other students in a non-confrontational atmosphere for the first time since she disappeared into a dream dimension, aged 5 years in a day, and became part demonic. Alas, Illyana’s newfound peace did not last, as an accident made her display her demonic features and terrify the other students, making her teleport away all the way to Russia.

That’s just giving an impression of the main character arcs in the session. I’m honestly not even scratching the surface of what happened, or the context behind it. Smallville is a weird, cool game.