#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/

#RPG Thursday – Past it’s Prime? Cortex Prime Game Handbook (@CortexRPG, 2020)

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.

Sigh….