Monday, August 16, 2010

Cortex, Part 1

I think it is high time I devoted some photons to Cortex.  In truth I already have with these posts: (a little)

I am going to talk about Cortex, or I guess what could now be described as "Classic Cortex".  The Cortex in Smallville and Leverage is something called "Cortex Plus".  There are more differences between Classic and Plus than there are between Classic Unisystem and Cinematic Unisystem or even between D&D 3.0 and 3.5. Enough that I want to detail them as separate systems.

Cortex has a generic book (pictured above) which is the core of the Cortex System. There are many licensed products that Margaret Weis Productions makes.  These include Supernatural, Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Demon Hunters. Smallville and Leverage use the new Cortex Plus system.

So what is Cortex?  Other than a system that seems to be doing a lot of TV shows?  Well I have described Cortex in the past as the love child of Unisystem and Savage Worlds.  The system is closer in feel to Unisystem and is a step-die system like Savage Worlds.

So unlike other reviews I want to hit some very specific things with Cortex.  These might sound a tad negative, but they are not really. I am just focusing on a few things here.  I do want to spend some time still talking about why I like this system.

Magic -  I have gone on about how Cortex needs a better magic system, and it does, but to be fair none of the licenses the Cortex currently has does anything near the magic you see in Buffy or Ghosts of Albion.  Supernatural and Demon Hunters, while they do have magic, are also not at that level.   I have toyed around with converting the magic system from Ghosts and even using the one from Witch Girls Adventures. While these are passable, I really think something new and excited is needed here.  For starters I would take what I learned for Ghosts and keep it simple.  I'd also want to split magic up into different types of magic.  Say like "Earth Magic" and "Diabolic", not just the descriptors I used in Ghosts, but separate "Skills", this would control the power levels some and keep things at that "human" power level that Cortex works well at.

What Book Do I Buy? - Interesting thing about Cortex.  I have never watched any of the shows they have games for.  BSG was good, but I lost interest.  Never watched Firefly (and no plans to start really).  I watched Supernatural and I loved it, but could never find the time in my days to watch the episodes I had recorded.  Same with Smallville and Leverage.  So I can't judge the books on how well they emulate their respective universes.  My gut feeling is that Supernatural is really, really damn close and so is Smallville.  But say you are new to Cortex, what should you buy?  Well...I guess I would start with, what show are you wanting to emulate?  I knew nothing of "Demon Hunters" till I signed up for it one Gen Con.  Cam Banks ran it and it was a blast!  The background is bit more silly that I normally take my modern/horror, but there is no reason at all you could not play it straight.  Supernatural is one of my favorite games presently as well.  It is a great game if you want to play normal human versus things that go bump in the night kind of game.  Actually, Supernatural is a GREAT game if you loved Chill.  If you want to play in outer space, well they have two games for that too.
Smallville, and from what I can tell Leverage, are different.  These games are for interpersonal relationships and drama, regardless of background.  Sure Clark can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but how is going to do if Lois starts filtering with him?  Some people don't like this kind of game, but personally (as a gamer and a designer) I find it fascinating! But I am getting ahead of myself...

Why do I need this if I have this? And this is a good question to ask.  Why would I play Cortex if I have Unisystem or Savage Worlds or True 20 or GURPS?   I think the answer here is people will play it because of the licenses.  This certainly worked great for  Buffy and Unisystem and it seems to working great for Cortex so far.  I think to get them to the next step is to have more products out for the "generic" rules that can be used with any book they sell.  Cortex Plus expands this and the system itself now becomes something of an interest above and beyond the license itself.  So say you are like me and you have Buffy, Chill, Ghosts of Albion, World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu and Ghostbusters; what does Supernatural give you?  Well I guess that depends.  If you are a fan of the show then you have that.  The book is one of the nicest looking RPGs I have seen in a long time. Beyond that Supernatural is about normal people.  Characters in Ghosts of Albion are not normal.  Same is true for Buffy, CoC and World of Darkness.  Chill, like I mentioned, comes the closest, but Chill is a very old system now and there are parts that are showing that age.  Supernatural + the Cortex Core Rules gives you plenty on doing a "hunter" game or even a "survivor" game.

Why I Like Cortex
I will be honest, I like Cortex.  The math geek in me loves the step die progression and the fact that you have die + die/dice to get to a success.  While my love for Unisystem know no bounds, the d10 + numbers is a bit of flat outcome. I have talked about my fondness for Supernatural already and even in re-reads I still think it holds on well.  Here is how I feel about Cortex in general.
- The system is easy to learn.  Look, I have done my tenure with tables, insane formulas and dozens of subsystems.  I don't have to do that anymore.  If game wants my attention then it needs to be simple or have a good reason for the complexity.
- The game is improving. You can track Cortex's development through it's licensed games.  Yes there were some issues with earlier games, but now I feel they have a good handle on what they want to do and how to do it.
- Cortex has some great looking books.  I know that is not the end all be all, but a lot of work, care and effort goes into producing these books.  Supernatural and Smallville in particular are two of the best looking games I have seen in a while.  Minor quibble, not enough pictures of Lenore and Zatana respectively.
- Most importantly I feel it is a system that can do more than it currently has.  The core book is presented in a very "tool box" way and I'd like to try to build something with that.

I will do some Unisystem/Cortex conversions next and talk about magic and what Cortex Plus adds to the mix.


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