What I want in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic

cortex-plus-hackers-guide-coverLast week, it was announced that Cam Banks has licensed Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. Cam co-created the Cortex Plus system, and he was co- or lead designer on three out of the four main games published using that system, not to mention the driving force behind the excellent Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide. He knows Cortex Plus inside out and he can do wonderful things with it.

I’m looking forward to seeing what his new design studio Magic Vacuum comes out with! I’ve no doubt that soon there will be new versions of Cortex Plus Action (used for Leverage and Firefly) and Cortex Plus Heroic (used for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying), which will make many fans of the system happy.

But my favourite is Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying, which was spun out of the Smallville Roleplaying Game. It’s the only one of the three that gives me something I can’t currently get from any other RPG. I love it, but it has flaws. It could use a new edition.

Here’s what I would want to be updated, changed, clarified or kept in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying.

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To Me, My X-Men: Mutant Pathways for Smallville RPG

The Heart, the Leader, the Rebel, the Specialist, and the Hammer (for example).
Edit of an image by Matthew Humphreys

One of the best parts of the Smallville RPG is its character creation system, Pathways. Pathways is a lot of fun, and it lets players collaborate to produce an entangled web of characters for the game to come.

Players do Pathways by following the instructions on the Pathways Chart. The chart is an incredible piece of roleplaying design. You start at the top, and each row is a stage of the character’s life journey. At each stage, players choose options for their character, and those options list Traits that go on the character sheet.

The Pathways Chart in the Smallville Core Rulebook is specific enough to its source material that it can be used to produce the cast for a game modelled on the TV show Smallville (as shown in the rulebook’s example), and it is also generic enough that it can be used to create a cast for any similar Superpowered Teen Soap Opera.

Sometimes, however, the default Pathways Chart is not the right tool for the game you want to run. If the gaming group has an idea for a campaign that isn’t Smallville, but is more specific than a generic Superpowered Teen Soap Opera, going through the default Pathways Chart may be too long or too confusing, especially if the players haven’t played Smallville before. That was the case for my Worthington Academy game (in which the player characters are alternate versions of the X-Men in a British, Hogwarts-style boarding school).

Here, I present an X-Men-themed Pathways Chart that anyone can use for their own games. It should hopefully facilitate a game based on that setting, and provide a shallower learning curve for new players. Enjoy! Let me know what you think!

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Character advancement vs Character development

Anakin Skywalker's journey to become Darth Vader: Fear, Anger, Hate, Suffering.
Character advancement and character development sometimes go hand in hand… but character development isn’t always a joyful experience for the character itself

One of the great joys of playing roleplaying games, especially playing a single character through a long campaign, is in seeing your character grow and change. In traditional high fantasy games, it’s fun to rise from humble beginnings to be an important and powerful figure in the campaign world.

However, it’s relatively rare in roleplaying games to see the sort of deep, personal character transformation that you might see in books, TV shows or films. That’s because the sort of growth and change encouraged by traditional roleplaying games is different from the growth and change that most popular media is built on.

Character advancement is not the same thing as character development.

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My fan mail to Primetime Adventures

Primetime Adventures (2nd edition) cover, via RPGGeek.comPrimetime Aventures is a game by Matt Wilson, billed as a game of television drama. It focuses on the dramatic lives and personal issues of a group of characters as if they were the ensemble cast of a TV show. Pretty much any sort of TV show works.

Dramatic roleplaying games are exactly my cup of tea, so I’d heard about Primetime Adventures and I had been looking forward to giving it a try. At the most recent meeting of my monthly RPG Book and Brunch Club, I finally got my chance. So what did I think of it?

I love this game. It’s not just a cup of tea. It’s afternoon tea at the Ritz. The game knows what it is designed to do, what kind of play it is supposed to facilitate and encourage, and it accomplishes that expertly. More importantly, playing it was a lot of fun.

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My (red) kryptonite: Mind control in Smallville RPG

Clark Kent (Tom Welling) with red kryptonite eyes, from Smallville via Wikia

Mind control is a staple of genre fiction. It appears in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It’s used an awful lot in superhero stories. As such, it’s hard to avoid in any roleplaying game that tries to emulate any of these genres.

But mind control is rooted in the idea of removing someone’s agency, and playing a character without any agency is just not very fun. Ask anyone who has had their D&D character under the influence of Dominate Person for round after round after round…

Smallville RPG includes mind control, at least in part because it was based on a TV show that was chock full of mind control and other forms of mental alteration. Given Smallville RPG’s commitment to the concept that no player can ever dictate another character’s choices, mind control could have been a fascinating addition to the game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s either so weak that it can be ignored, rendering it meaningless, or it’s so overpowered that it violates the game’s core principle of protecting player agency.

In short, mind control in Smallville blows harder than Clark Kent’s super breath.

In this blog, I will describe various ways that we could hack Smallville to make mind control work better, taking inspiration from some other roleplaying games. The different strategies are not mutually exclusive, and two or more could be combined in the same game. Maybe even all of them together.

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Gamechanging: An overdue follow-up to my Worthington Academy hack for Smallville RPG

Illyana Rasputina's demon form from New Mutants #71Back in July, I posted about a hack of the Smallville RPG that I was going to use for my British high school X-Men campaign. There’s more details in this original post, but here’s a quick recap of the major changes:

  • Values are gone entirely;
  • Extras and Locations as Resources are gone, and specific existing Resources have been converted to Relationships;
  • Abilities are now dice pools separate from the main traits, and more similar in mechanics to Resources;
  • Growth is now used like an Ability, and entirely separate from character advancement;
  • Useful Details are cheaper;
  • Stress is inflicted via an MHR-style Effect die rather than a separate roll;
  • Giving In is free.

I’ve now played two sessions with the new rules, and while there were some expected teething issues, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

As hoped, building dice pools is now a lot faster, which makes the whole game faster. It’s also a lot easier for people to engage with it after being away from the rules for a while (and that’s important because sessions are very infrequent).

Nobody has complained about missing Values, which was my biggest concern. However, there have been some side effects, and in this blog I explain how I have tweaked the rules further as a result of playing.

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Worthington Academy: Hacking Smallville RPG with adamantium claws

I am running a Smallville campaign using canon X-Men characters in a Hogwarts-style British boarding school. There are six players, based on Magma, Magik, Colossus, Rogue, Mastermind and (the incredibly obscure) Campbell Saint-Ange. It’s a fun game, but Smallville does not scale well. With six players, all of the problems with Smallville become much more obvious, such as:

  • the slow resolution mechanic leads to very little happening in the story;
  • player and non-player characters both require complex book-keeping by the GM (Watchtower);
  • Abilities are either useless or game-breakingly powerful;
  • Ability and Heritage Limits are confusing;
  • Resources aren’t interesting unless they are shared by several players, but become strictly less useful when they are shared; and
  • spending Growth for character advancement is messy, has a risk of failure, and leads to power gaps between the more active and more passive players.

At the request of some of my players, I have hacked the game almost to pieces in order to get things working better. The rest of this blog sets out the changes I have made. They aren’t changes that I would necessarily make to Smallville games in general, but they are necessary so that our specific six-player X-Men game can continue.

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