Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cortex and Unisystem

I have a few posts about Cortex coming up and I am actually putting them on hold to put this one up first.

Cortex is a system I have talked about off and on. I like it. It has some neat things going for it. I have described it before as the funky love child of Unisystem and Savage Worlds and that is still a fair comparison. Cortex though is closer in nature to Unisystem I think. Like Unisystem, Cortex is designed to be a universal core rules system. Like Unisystem it has some very cool licensed properties; Supernatural being my favorite, but I have to admit I like Demon Hunters too.

So. Why don't I like Cortex more? Well. For starters I am not a fan of its thin magic system. Or rather, it's overly thin magic system. I will discuss that in a later post, but mostly outside of magic and dealing with normal humans, Cortex and Unisystem are roughly equal. In fact there is a lot overlap between the games.

Attributes are roughly the same. Strength = Strength, Dexterity = Agility, Constitution = Vitality, Intelligence = Intelligence, Willpower = Willpower and Perception = Alertness. Even the ranges are roughly the same. 1 = d2, 2=d4, 3=d6, 4=d8, 5=d10 and 6=d12, with the proper human mins and maxs lining up. Cortex even assumes the human average to be about d6, similar to Unisystem's 3. With the point buy systems Cortex's Veteran is roughly equal then Experienced Heroes in many Unisystem games. Life points are calculated differently, so I would stick to the system used in each game rather than a full conversion.

Skills are likewise roughly equal. Cortex has more skills and offers skill specializations, something that might work very nice ported over to Unisystem as a bridge for the Cinematic to Classic gap. I like the Skill Specializations. Nice way for more powerful characters to spend their points. I like it quite a lot to be honest, so much that I would consider it for a Cinematic/Classic Unisystem hybrid. Have Cinematic skills up to a certain point (say maybe 3) and then anything after that (4 and up) have to be specializations.

Unisystem characters get Qualities and Drawbacks. Cortex characters get Traits and Complications; and they get a few of those. This is fine really when dealing with normal humans. In the core rules there are still a few to choose from and there are others in the other, licensed material cores. In this respect it is closer to Savage Worlds. All three games have some overlap here, but each has something here and there to offer the others. Demon Hunters and Supernatural can get a boost from the likes of Buffy, Angel and Ghosts of Albion, while Unisystem gamers can get a different feel for their games from Demon Hunters and Supernatural. Adding Battlestar Galactica to the mix extends this even more. Ghosts of Albion/Angel/Buffy, Supernatural and Demon Hunters all live under the same basic idea; the supernatural is real and you need to fight it, though they all differ in approach. Mixing the games up a bit would be perfect for that Urban Fantasy genre that is so popular these days, with a perfect balance of fluff and crunch and rules-lite cinematic fun. While conversions are easy, some would be harder to convert. For example, a Cortex Vampire costs d6, in Unisystem Vampires are 15 pts. Granted they are different sort of vampires. But something like a Slayer or Protector would cost quite a bit in Cortex, and for the current games they have not really appropriate. I'd have to go through all the Demon and Supernatural creation rules (in Angel and Ghosts respectively) to see if they would convert fine to Cortex.

Magic though is an issue. Not surprising (and really nothing against the other games) I like Unisystem's magic the best. But looking over Cortex's base system, there is a lot of room to improve on what they have, adapt something else or grow something new! The magic system in Ghosts would work fine more or less as is. I would need to create a "Spellcasting" skill, to represent basic understanding and then specialize it out into various forms; say Kabalistic, Solomonic, FamTrad Witchcraft to go one route or even Alteration, Necromancy, Illusion for another or even more basic, Arcane, Divine, Psionic. Lots of choices really. Just need to sit down pen to paper one day and do it. But this one sounds the best to me so far, though I have a lot of ideas.

Cortex has at least one thing going for it that I do like over Unisystem; the step-die mechanic. Not that I don't like Unisystem's 1d10 (or even my 2d6 variant), I do. But the die + die gives a nice set of probability curves over die + fixed numbers.

So now all that is left is to test my conversions. So what is a good choice? Well I need a good Unisystem character that could also exist in a Cortex world. Sounds like a great excuse for me pull out Vampire Tara! In my Unisystem games Tara and Willow are still alive and together, and in one adventure they came across a vampire version of Tara, from another reality. Well. Amber Benson played a vampire named Lenore in Supernatural. Sounds like a perfect choice. You can see her Unisystem stats here, You can use these stats for Vampire Tara or Vampire Lenore as you like.

Vampire Tara
Agi d10 Str d12 Vit d10 Ale d12 Int d6 Wil d10

Init d10 + d6 LP 20
Endurance d10 + d10

Traits Allure d4, Amorous d4, Sharp Senses d6

Skills Athletics d6/Acrobatics d10, Drive d6/Horses d8, Influence d4, Knowledge d6/Occultism d12, Melee Weapons d6, Perception d6, Science d2, Unarmed Combat d6

Comparing these stats to those of "Kate" in the Supernatural Corebook I am fairly pleased. Conversions seem to work out very nice.

So, given this, maybe I should run a Vampire Willow and Tara game using Cortex. I think it could be really fun and work. Play a couple of vampires on the run various hunters, sort of the opposite of most Unisystem fare, but not quite World of Darkness.


Tim Knight said...

My prejudices against Cortex are far less thoughtful, I simply find it an ugly system where Cinematic Unisystem (for me) is elegant.

Not, of course,that I play either at the moment or are even likely to in the near future...

James said...

Vampire Willow was hot. Ok, non-vampire Willow was hot, too.

Chuck said...

If only Cortex had a more robust magic system. Righ now, I just feel too lazy to do it on my own.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I agree, I like Cinematic Unisystem the best of course. But I do like Cortex.

Chuck: I am writing a new magic system now, I hope to have something soon!

Havard: said...

Three of my favorite systems! Cortex is the only one of the three I havent played yet, though I have BSG and Serenity on my shelf (as well as Sovereign Stone if it counts). I tend to use Savage Worlds most of the time these days.

~HANZO~ said...

I used to run Savage worlds a lot. (two campaigns to legendary) With a lot of one shots. The die step progression with two different die types always felt wonky to me in SW. Its one reason I have never given Cortex a chance.

Tim you were the one that turned me on to unisystem popping in on the true20 and SW boards rambling on about how great unisystem is. Now I own every book.

I guess that is my other reason for not checking out cortex. I really don't need two systems for the same style of game. but that is a personal choice and doesn't reflect on any other system.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

HANZO, you bring up a very good point. If you have 2, or even just 1 of these games, why do you need the others?

I guess in my case I have Unisystem, Cortex and True20, I almost don't need Savage Worlds.

Oz said...

Cortex's lack of a good magic system is a bit of a downer. I'm using it for a Serenity campaign, but I'm chewing on a steampunky-urban fantasy setting (think Charles de Lint and the recent Sherlock Holmes movie), but having to make a magic system from scratch is holding me back (okay, being too lazy to make one from scratch).

~HANZO~ said...

Tim, I think maybe that is just my line of thinking. Most my systems fill a nich. I rarely keep two systems around that do the same job.

(Edit to last post: I ran 3 campaigns to legendary with SW. My group fell out of love with the system after the last campaign. But for some time I was a total SW fan boy.)

Is Cortex roll and keep more like SW. Or do you add the two die types together?

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Cortex is more like Unisystem. Roll and add together. Which gives it an inch up of SW in my book.

~HANZO~ said...

Like I said, the reason I never really looked too much at Cortex is at first glance it looked enough like SW I really was not interested.

But from what you have posted so far about it im curious now. What about combat? The stutus being shaken really was not to my players taste. How is cortex different. or is it?

Unknown said...

Talking about this conversion, weapon damage conversions and such. What is your take on that? I'm about to run a "All Flesh Must be Eaten" and wanted to run it in the Cortex system.

Ronnie_ASA said...

And this is where 27 years of gaming experience come to the fore. I like Unisystem, especially the Cinematic version, as it does keep the game down to minimum crunch. D20 and true20 seem pretty good as well although D20 has a lot of crunch to it which for me slows the game down. Now I'm not against complexity per se, heck I've played Nephilim and that game was pretty nuts mechanics wise.

Cortex I've only seen with regards to two items, leverage and Serenity, neither of which at this time I've played but it seems simple enough (or at least as simple as the old D6 system that West End games used (my first thought as I was reading the Serenity rulebook was how it reminded me of D6 Star Wars in terms of its mechanics). It seems a simple enough system but the proof is in the playing so I'll reserve judgement.

For my money, the two games that I've played and owned that have the best mechanics are Kult, which really does do absolutely everything with only 1D20, and my favourite system of all, Castle Falkenstein, a game with a rules system that I and other players have truly called elegant.