#RPG Thursday – Reappraising the Cortex Prime Game Handbook (@CortexRPG, 2020)

LAST week I was harsh upon the arrival of the long-delayed Kickstarter campaign for Cortex Prime Game Handbook. After waiting nearly three years for the book to deliver I opened it up to a SJW dreamscape. In an effort to be fair an impartial, I set the book aside for a few days then picked it up again, this time carefully trying to avoid the obvious SJW pitfalls and look at the GAME. In the late 20-teens my RPG reading covered many games as I become something of a “system freak” and tried to study the core mechanics of different roleplaying games. Here I tried to do the same for Cortex Prime. What I found in the Cortex Prime Game Handbook is a very robust toolkit and many “systems” crammed together.

New New is Actually the Old Old

Cortex Prime is the latest iteration of the Cortex System. My first exposure was in the late 20-oughts when I picked up the Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis, 2007). This version of Cortex, later called Cortex Classic also was used in the Serenity Role Playing Game (Maragret Weis, 2005). The system kept developing into Cortex Plus which came in several flavors; from relationships-based Smallville Roleplaying Game (Margret Weis, 2010) to the superhero heroic Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (Margaret Weis, 2012) to the evolved and highly narrative Firefly Role-Playing Game (Margaret Weis, 2014). The evolution of Cortex took the system from a somewhat traditional dice-pool RPG to a highly narrative RPG system.

Here’s a little secret; Cortex Prime is nothing new. If you want to know what flavor Cortex Prime is maybe the best answer is “all of the above.” That’s because the Cortex Prime Game Handbook is a toolkit that can me used to make ANY of the previous versions of Cortex, or a new version that used modules of previous work. It does this by directing you to Prime Sets, which are different combinations of the six trait sets. As the Handbook points out, for a Grim Fantasy setting maybe use Distinctions +Attributes + Skills to describe your characters. Or for a Superheroes setting try Distinctions +Affiliations + Powers. The core mechanic is always available, but the Handbook provides many Mods which can be used to tune the rules to better match the setting you want.

Ready, Set, Build

Although Cortex Prime Game Handbook has three sample settings included, they are not very fleshed out and used more so as examples of the different design combinations available in the tooklit. The toolkit here is very powerful and can create almost any setting.

Which is the strength and weakness of Cortex Prime. Strength because the system is very versatile and can literally create any setting or genre of roleplaying your group may want. A weakness because to do so will require a very good GM with vision and aptitude to build the setting. Both of which I personally lack.

Set Your RPG

As I look over my collection, I actually see that Cortex Prime is but the latest RPG set-builder to enter my collection. I have several to choose from with different approaches to rules complexity (“crunch”), realism (“simulationist”) or narrative play. The question as always, is “Do I have time to make this happen?” Or do I just default and buy a ready-made setting?

Well, we’ll see.


Feature image courtesy https://fyxtrpg.com/rpg-meme-gallery/

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