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.
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?
Way back in May 2017 I was somewhat serious into role playing games. I was buying up many rule sets including Traveller 5 (Far Future Enterprises), Genysys (Fantasy Flight Games), and The Clement Sector setting using the Cepheus Engine (Independence Games). At that time I eagerly backed the new Cortex Prime: Game Handbook by Cam Banks on Kickstarter.
Today is October 2020. The Game Handbook delivered to me this week. Basically three years behind schedule. What now?
You see, I like the Cortex System, even as it has gone through many iterations. I absolutely love Cortex Classic in the Serenity Role Playing Game and Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (btw, BSG has the second best Example of Play behind James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game by Victory Games). I even stuck with the system as it developed into Cortex Plus and its Cortex-Drama version (Smallville Roleplaying Game) and Cortex Heroic (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) before ending up in the most excellent Firefly Role-Playing Game.
But that was three years ago.
I’m not going to go into the stupidity of the Kickstarter campaign. Suffice it to say that I will never trust designer Cam Banks again. However, I will try to put my hatred for Cam Banks and the sour aftertaste of the campaign aside and look at the Game Handbook in a neutral manner.
…Aw, H-E-Double Toothpicks – Who am I kidding?
If there is one thing about the RPG industry I hate is that many companies have seemingly bought into the SJW narrative of the world. The fact they chose to do so doesn’t bother me; that’s their decision. But when you try to foist your ideology off on me I have a different reaction.
Take for example the Cortex Primer on pages 5 and 6 of the Game Handbook. It describes the Core of Cortex with three example situations. Mind you, this is the first example of what types of characters you can play with Cortex. These examples are supposed to fire your imagination and show you the endless possibilities of the system. So what are you? A Barbarian, Maybe a Bard? How about a Sorcerer? A small-time independent operator ‘out in the black?” The last of mankind escaping the robotic holocaust? Iron Man? Maybe a down-on-your-luck ex-rebel standing up to the ‘man?’
Nope, you’re a reporter. Re-port-er. And not even CNN or Fox.
In the first situation the reporter needs to finish a report by the morning. It’s an Easy task for a Seasoned Journalist. The scene ends with the reporter slamming the paper on their bosses’ desk. OK, I guess you can feel good playing it this way because in the Real WorldTM you’d get your butt handed to you, and rightly so.
The second situation is the reporter trying to get into a biker bar (aka ‘see the strong female character stand up to the misogynistic stereotypes‘) to meet a source. Of course she gets bounced into the mud but luckily she still meets her contact (Oh yes, all the heroes in the Cortex Prime Game Handbook are female; the lone male character is used to show what failure looks like in the rules).
The third scene is nail-biting. The now muddy reporter/college student must sneak into an office to get some files, which she acquires and escapes with. The scene ends there; no Woodward & Bernstein moment, just grab the files and escaping the office.
Wow, I am so motivated! Now I really want to play a CNN reporter on the campaign trail asking hard-hitting questions of the candidates (as you can tell, I really like fantasy settings).
Calming down for a moment, I’ll admit I like the Cortex System. I like the step dice mechanic and Plot Points. I like what happens when you roll a 1 (a hitch). I like how you can create Assets and Complications on the fly.
I just need to get through the rule book without choking on all the SJW goodness.
I HAVE NOT LOOKED AT MY RPG COLLECTION IN A VERY LONG TIME. This past weekend I visited DriveThruRPG for the first time in a very long while. I was a bit surprised to see theALIEN RPG Core Rulebook listed as the #1 bestseller.
Now, I really like the movies ALIEN and ALIENS but I am not so sure I want to plop down $24.99 for a pdf (although it is 392 pages!). Especially since I already own Hostile from Zozer Games.
So maybe Hostile is not as comprehensive as the ALIEN RPG Core Rulebook but does that make it less playable? In some ways I have soured on ‘comprehensive’ RPG settings – I feel so hemmed in by them. The worst is some ‘known’ setting like Star Wars – don’t get me started on canon!
Chris Kubasik in his wonderful blog called Classic Traveller: Out of the Box, has brought Traveller back to its beginnings, as a simple but flexible set of three ‘Little Black Books’ that can be used to create stories in the sci-fi setting of your own imagination.
OUTWORLD is a short and simple setting, inspired by the movies Alien, Aliens, Outland and Silent Running (amongst others) and it uses only the tools and rules of Traveller Books 1, 2 and 3 to help build a rough facsimile of those movies. The setting is entirely original, and not connected to the settings of Ridley Scott’s Alien or Blade Runner movies, but it is inspired by his films, by the others in my list above and by later movies (the Alien sequels for a start). It is not connected to my game HOSTILE, either.
In the spirit of Chris Kubasik’s Traveller blog, let’s stick to the rules as written if we can, and keep our game setting small, manageable and bursting with adventure opportunities.
I picked up my Little Black Books of Traveller over 40 years ago. I always enjoyed the wonder those three books opened up. I am ashamed to say it, but it took me 40 years to realize that I do not love Classic Traveller or the modern Cepheus Engine incarnation as much as Original Traveller – Traveller Books 1-3 ‘without a setting.’
Original Traveller describes my style of Traveller best. I don’t ignore the Third Imperium setting but I like making my own using elements from the LBBs. Form here on out I am going to use Original Traveller to describe this style of Traveller RPG play – a setting that is ‘small, manageable, and bursting with adventure opportunities.’
Writing this blog made me remember I pledged on Kickstarter for Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game by Can Banks. The campaign took my money in May 2017 with delivery originally scheduled for April 2018. Here we are, nearly a complete two years and 55 updates later and the STILL NO PRODUCT! In the meantime, Cam up and moved his family to New Zealand (I’m ‘sure’ none of the $84K in this Kickstarter was used, eh?) and the project has taken a much different turn by joining Fandom (see the press announcement here). At some point lat year I tried to reach out to Cam and cancel my pledge for a refund. Unsurprisingly, I heard nothing back and never got a refund. So forgive me if I have also soured on ‘big’ RPG publishers – to say I am disappointed with the likes of Mr. Banks is an understatement.
Feature image courtesy Zozer Games via DriveThruRPG
Long ago, that is, in May 2017, I pledged on Kickstarter my support to Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game. The estimated delivery date was April…2018. In the past year I have mostly forgotten about my pledge. In fact, I have mostly forgotten about RPGs in general as my hobby gaming has focused mostly on wargames and then family boardgames. However, the most recent update (March 2019) has stirred my imagination.
I readily admit I am not the usual RPG player. I tend to focus almost exclusively on science-fiction roleplaying and avoid fantasy like plague. I have dabbled a bit in modern RPGs and steampunk or similar settings but true sci-fi is where my heart is.
Over the years, I have also come to pay much more attention to game mechanics; in some ways mechanics wins out over settings for me. Thus, as I skimmed through the draft CORTEX PRIME GAME HANDBOOK I was reminded why I like the core mechanic used in CORTEX PRIME. For every test or contest, you assemble your dice pool and roll against the opposition pool. You choose which two dice will be your total while a third die is the effect die. Rolling a 1 is a spoiler; too many spoilers become a botch!
Like Genesysor Star Wars Roleplaying Game, winning a test or contest allows you to narrate the outcome. This narrative control is very important to me; I don’t want the GM to be the only one talking.
Deep inside, I am asking myself why I am anxious. After all, I have the very similar (and heavily narrative) Genesys, right? It was a bit of a disappointment, yes? At heart, I really enjoy the (somewhat unnarrative) Cepheus Engine RPGand especially The Clement Sector setting. Do I really expect CORTEX PRIME to be different?
Maybe. Hopefully I will find out for sure. This year.
In my gaming pantheon, I clearly play wargames first, other boardgames second, and role playing games (RPGs) a distant third. Spending-wise, I have bought very few RPG products since April. In the past month I came close to buying two new RPGs but didn’t. Along the way I learned a valuable lesson taught to me by no other than the Godfather of RPGs, Gary Gygax. Gary reminded me that RPGs are inherently a personal creation; if a product is “not quite right” there are tools available to “do it my way.”
I initially pledged to support at the Ship’s Boat-level which is $20 for the pdf version. I then downloaded the free Quickstart pdf and took a look. I am no hard-core The Expanse fan but I generally like the universe. I initially missed the books and became acquainted with the setting through the TV series. After looking at the Quickstart I mulled it over for a few days and then cancelled my pledge.
First, the Quickstarter did not appeal to me; indeed, it actually turned me off. My initial negative reaction was to the artwork. I think my expectations are biased from the TV series and the artwork in the Quickstarter just feels too different. More importantly, it is not what I see as evocative of the setting. It almost seems too cartoonish to me whereas I imagine The Expanse though a more hard sci-fi lens.
Looking at the Quickstarter pdf, I weighed my pledge and thought about what I was getting. I decided that I actually already have a version of The Expanse RPG. I actually have two of them, both from Zozer Games, and both using a system I am comfortable with (Cepheus Engine):
Orbital: 2100 – “Realistic spacecraft, using reaction drives and rotating hab modules for gravity. Orbital is set in our own Solar System and has a real hard-science feel to it.”
HOSTILE– “A gritty near future setting inspired by those late-70s and early 80’s movies like Alien, Bladerunner and Outland.”
There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion. (Emphasis mine)
In my mind, I already own The Expanse RPG. My version uses a core mechanic that I feel is evocative of the setting (Cepheus Engine). I have the sourcebooks in the form of several TV seasons and multiple books and short stories. I don’t need somebody else’s vision that doesn’t strike me as evocative of the stories or setting.
Tachyon Squadron is a Fate Core supplement that blends space opera and military sci-fi. It’s Evil Hat’s take on popular stories about interstellar battles, like the ones that have ships with wings named after letters and the one where robots chase the human race through space. If you’re interested in deep space dogfights, friendly—well, usually—rivalries with fellow pilots, and playing scrappy underdogs with the deck stacked against you, this game is for you.
The project funded with 1,401 backers pledging $25,295 against a $7,500 goal. Like The Expanse RPG Kickstarter, Evil Hat was very generous and offers a free download Quickstarter version. It is pretty much as I expected as Evil Hat has previously sold a smaller, similar setting found in Fate Worlds Volume One: Worlds on Fire. In Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie the PCs are pilots aboard a giant War Zeppelin taking on “a horde of WWI mechanical monstrosities.” For Tachyon Squadron I actually was more interested in Stretch Goal 7:
STRETCH GOAL 7 (UNLOCKS AT $26,000): The Battle of Britain: At $26,000, we’ll start work on The Battle of Britain, a 5,000 word electronic supplement that applies Tachyon Squadron’s dogfighting rules to a WWII squadron of Spitfire pilots defending Britain. This supplement will include plane stats and mechanics to help you take to the skies with the Allied forces.
Alas, this stretch goal didn’t unlock. My potential Pilot-in-Training pledge of $12 would not have made a big difference.
What really turned me off about Tachyon Squadron was the over-the-top SJW proselytizing. It is so in-your-face I think it overwhelms the game setting. Even if I am able to put the SJW part aside I see the the game offering me little new. The major rule of difference, dogfighting, is likely not far from that found in Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie which I already own. Much like The Expanse, I have a Battlestar Galactica RPG in the form of the officially licensed Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis Productions, 2007). This game uses the CORTEX Classic system which I generally like (indeed, I am still awaiting my CORTEX Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game Kickstarter to deliver – only 3 months overdue…so far). If I want to do Battlestar Galactica using Fate Core I already own all the setting and rules material; why should I invest more money into a near-version that alleges to be ruleset but comes across more like a SJW propaganda tract?
Genesys is a role playing system designed for flexibility and adaptability, specifically tooled to work with any setting imaginable. The Genesys Core Rulebook not only contains an overview of the rules and how the innovative narrative dice system works, but everything a GM and players need to run adventures in five completely different settings. Everything from equipment to adversaries, character abilities to an overview of narrative tropes, all is provided in the core rulebook for Genesys. With a system so adaptable and expansive you can explore every popular roleplaying genre, from classic fantasy style campaigns, to modern day detective thrillers, and even to a far off sci-fi future, Genesys doesn’t fit into any one genre of roleplaying, and instead invites players to craft their own stories with unparalleled freedom.
Taking GENESYSand combining it with Gary Gygax’s Dying Earth GM approach, I can likely make a version of The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica – or any other setting I chose to explore – for myself.
The most important RPG lesson I learned this month is that I don’t need Kickstarter to make an RPG for me that “isn’t quite right”; I just need good books and a good ruleset.
I have said before that 2017 was the year of the wargame for me as I rediscovered by wargaming roots. But that is not to say I have forgotten the roleplaying game part of my gaming expereince. In 2017, I still managed to get some make a few RPG purchases and get in a few plays.
Gypsy Knights Games continues to support their awesome The Clement Sectorsetting. In addition to their great Wendy’s Naval-series which lays out the fleet of various subsectors, this year also focused on pirates and uplifts or alterants. All three introduce true grey-areas into the setting morality and can be used to play anything from a campy to dark setting. I like this; GKG has given me many tools to make the setting I want.
In early December, Zozer Games released their new rules/setting called Hostile for Cepheus Engine. This “Gritty Sci-Fi RPG” draws heavily from popular franchises like Alienor movies like Outland. The setting is right in my wheelhouse and it certainly deserves its own deeper dive in the near future (no pun intended).
I know my RPG tastes are not mainstream; I am not a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition fan nor have I dug deeper into the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. In 2017, as wargames and family boardgames grew in popularity in the RockyMountainNavy house, something else in my gaming world had to give. I have given up a lot of RPG experiences, but by keeping to a simple rules system with wonderful setting support I still find a way to keep my RPG gaming going.
Traditionally, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer for the RockyMountainNavy family. That is until we moved to the East Coast. Now school for the RMN Boys goes until mid-June. However, I still want to use this occasion to look back on my geek hobby year-to-date.
According to my BGG profile, I played 10 games in January, four in February, four more in March, none in April, and only two in May. For a year that I wanted to play more I certainly have dropped off! Summer may change as I have several new games inbound. Arriving tomorrow is Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific 1942 (Academy Games, 2016). I also may be getting closer to my Kickstarter delivery of Squadron Strike: Traveller(Ad Astra Games, ??) which after many delays (unwarranted and unacceptable in my opinion) finally opened the BackerKit this week. I also pledged for Worthington Publishing’s Mars Wars – but it cancelled. This month I pledged to support Compass Games’ new Richard Borg title Command & Colors: Tricorne – The American Revolution. To be honest, I am buying this title as much for myself as for the RMN Boys – which is both a blessing and a curse. I am certainly blessed in that I have boys who love gaming, but cursed in that they are not a hard grognard like their old man. The titles also reflect a change in my gaming interests as I struggle with the closure of many FLGS and the movement of my purchasing online or (shudder) to Kickstarter. I also have several games on P500 at GMT Games and hope to see that production schedule move forward this year.
I started off at Christmas with a good collection of books that I am whittling down at a much slower pace than I wish. This is not because I have ignored them; on the contrary, I am probably reading more than I did last year – just not reading off my list! Science fiction books have taken up much of my reading time. I have found myself lost in rereading the Charles E. Gannon’s Caine Riordan series from Baen Books. I also turned to Kickstarter again for content, this time in the form of Cirsova 2017 (Issues 5&6) and its short stories.
I didn’t get time to build much but the RMN boys got many kits completed. We even found a YouTube channel that we love, Andy’s Hobby Headquarters. He not only shows great models, but the boys are studying his techniques for better building.
I also have to do the Dad-thing and boast a bit about my youngest RMN Boy. This past quarter he was studying World War II and had a project to complete. The project supposed the student had found items in the attic from grandparents accumulated during World War II. The student had to put together a scrapbook of a newspaper article relating a battle (writing assignment), a letter from a soldier/sailor to home describing another battle (writing assignment), a letter from home describing the home front (writing assignment), a letter from the mayor to a local boys club thanking them for supporting the war effort (another writing assignment), notes from Grandmother about key personalities (short biographies), and a propaganda poster (art assignment). We had fun doing this project as together the youngest RMN boy and I prowled my shelves for sources, watched movies and documentaries online, and even pulled out a few games to better visualize the battles. A very proud moment for this father as the New Media and my book and game collection came together to teach a young man history.