When I returned to gaming after a few years away from the hobby, I lost a little of the flexibility that I had previously possessed. My horizons opened slowly. It took me years to move away from d20 games, and even longer to transition from more traditional games to games that were more focused on narrative.
When Marvel Heroic Roleplaying first came out, I didn’t like it. It didn’t provide “absolutes.” It didn’t care how many tons Hulk could actually lift. How can this provide me with a proper comic book experience?
The irony is that my love for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying started to grow when I listened to actual play podcasts of the game, where the people playing didn’t seem to get it. The more I heard their confusion and objections, the more my mind started to say, “no, the game isn’t trying to model that, it’s trying to model THIS.”
Once that finally clicked, it became one of my favorite roleplaying games of all time. The rules existed to emulate the story structure of a comic book, not create the physics of a fictional world. Playing Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is what led me to open my mind enough to games like Fate and PbtA games. It was definitely a gateway drug.
Because of that, backing the Cortex Prime rules was an easy decision for me. Cortex Prime seeks to recreate the “building blocks” of various Cortex rulesets, from the original Cortex, to Marvel Heroic, Firefly, and Leverage. Let’s open up the toolbox and see what can be built.
This review is based on the Cortex Prime PDF. The PDF is 256 pages. This includes four separate sample character sheets from the settings included in the book, six pages of backer credits, a 10-page index, 8 pages of backer characters made using various rules, a credits page, and a table of contents.
When I mention that the index is 10 pages, I think it’s worth noting that the index is a full index, with partial definitions of terms and various sub-topics included, rather than an expanded table of contents.
The artwork and the colors are stunning. There are various art styles utilized for different examples, but the framing elements of the book do a good job of showing that multiple genres and styles can be accommodated within the context of the Cortex rules.
If a rule is referenced, you can assume there will be clarifying examples shown, and those examples leave few questions about how a process works.
Both the artwork and the layout of this book are a joy to look at. We live in an era of many attractive game products, and Cortex Prime still stands out as noteworthy.
Introduction and Prime Core
The introduction jumps straight in to describe the thesis of Cortex Prime. Unlike some other modern rulebooks that kind of skip explaining what roleplaying is, there is some emphasis placed on explaining the convention to new players. Not only does this one explain what is in the upcoming sections of the book, it also lays out the basics of resolution for the game.
At its heart, the game is about rolling a pool of dice and adding the two highest, and beating an opposing roll or difficulty number. Characters have traits that are rated as dice (d6, d8, d10, or d12), and if a trait applies, it is added to the die pool. What is really interesting about the examples is that everything revolves around a reporter doing her job, doing things like Talking her way into a location and staying up late to write her story in time for the deadline.
Prime Core goes into more detail about the individual aspects of resolution. It introduces the idea of stepping up dice in certain favorable situations, and stepping down dice in unfavorable circumstances. It also introduces hitches and botches, the rules that are triggered when a player rolls a 1, or multiple 1s, when rolling their die pool.
If I spelled out all of the optional rules in this section, we’d be here for a long time. Different implementations of Cortex might have you use a set difficulty number, a set number of dice rolled for opposition, or a growing pool of dice based on how many complications have come up in the story. Characters may gain plot points that allow them to pull in more traits or add more to their totals, or they may pick up Hero Dice, which can be added to their total after the roll has been made.
In many implementations of Cortex, a character’s ability to act in a scene is measured by complications they receive, which are represented by a die assigned to them when they fail to defend against opposition. When this die is stepped up beyond a d12, they can no longer act in the scene. Other rules use a more traditional stress track, or add multiple die ratings for physical, and mental stress dice.
Whenever an aspect of the rules is introduced, multiple optional rules that go with that aspect are also introduced. Taken just from this chapter, the sheer number of options can seem daunting, and it may be hard to decide what best goes with what kind of story, but the sample settings at the back of the book also help to illustrate what kind of story is produced with different options in play.
I really appreciate that the example actions used a reporter researching and writing a story. I have seen several games point out that they aren’t just about combat, and then proceed to use multiple combat examples, and the fact that this example is at the very beginning of the book sets a nice tone.
This section takes a deeper dive into the game rules that specifically contribute to creating player characters. This explains rules elements like Affiliations, Attributes, Distinctions, Powers, Abilities, Relationships, Resources, Skills, and Values. Not every game will use all those options. There is a section talking about Core Sets that forms the basis of every character, usually making sure there are at least three dice ratings to potentially add to a dice pool before other add-ons.
Some player options may occupy similar space, but do fundamentally different things. For example, Affiliations usually show if the character is better working alone, with a partner, or with a group. Relationships are similar, but they represent if the character is acting with or concerning a person for which they have a rated relationship. Powers and abilities add dice to pools in a similar manner, but Powers are more open-ended, and Abilities have more proscribed rules based on the ability.
In addition to what dice get added to pools, this section touches on a few other character facing rules, like SFX and limits. SFX modifies how the rules work in certain circumstances (sometimes being more or less effective depending on the context), and limits usually create a way to exclude the ability to use a dice rated attribute for a while to gain some kind of resource.
This section also addresses Pathways, a formalized way of measuring attachment to characters and other elements of the setting, as well as advancement and growth rules, showing how a character can change over time and what this entails.
Prime Scenes and Prime Sessions
This section details how the game flows in play. When a character takes their action, it is referred to as a beat. There is no set time for how long a beat lasts, it is the amount of time it takes to accomplish the specific thing the character is trying to do with their die pool.
Scenes are defined as opening scenes, action scenes, bridge scenes, exploration scenes, flashback scenes, and tag scenes. Opening scenes are used to establish where the session starts. Tag scenes are a way for characters to “wrap up” what they are doing and check on the advancement rules that are used to see if character growth has happened. Action scenes are scenes where multiple beats are happening to multiple characters, and bridge scenes are essentially “downtime.” Exploration scenes are like bridge scenes, but serve to condense moving from point A to point B.
There are rules presented for different ways to structure a conflict scene. The default is Dramatic Order, meaning that one character has their beat, and then passes the turn to someone else, until everyone participating has acted. There are also some rules for how to adjudicate a more traditional initiative order.
The concept of scale is also introduced. Scale usually means that an element in the scene is operating on a significantly different level, and instead of adding two dice for their total, they add three.
Timed tests are introduced and defined, and throwdowns (interpersonal combat) are examined in more depth. This transitions us to the next session, which includes GM facing rules and advice.
Beyond explaining general advice on pacing, session length, and prep, this section also details how to build GMCs, or Game Moderator Characters. These characters include:
- Major GMCs
- Minor GMCs
- Location GMCs
Different GMCs will have different levels of details. No GMCs need to be built the same way as player characters, but major GMCs, for example, will have a similar level of detail. Some only exist as a die rating in case there is a contested roll, and some are versions of other GMC categories with a twist. For example, Factions/Orgs are Mobs with scale.
This section goes into more detail about how you may want to plug in all those tools from the previous section to emulate a genre. This discusses matters like how grounded the setting feels, what the themes of the genre are, and how those stories usually progress.
There is a section detailing about 16 different genres, as well as a technique for blending three genres to create a setting. Some examples follow, usually based on previous Cortex games, with the serial numbers filed off. For example:
- Science Fiction + Western + Swashbucklers (Firefly)
- Horror + Road Movie + Comedy (Supernatural)
- Superheroes + Romance + High School (Smallville)
- Military + Science Fiction + Religious (Battlestar Galactica)
In addition to these examples and genre advice, this section also presents three distinct settings that can be used. In addition to providing the settings, we also see that the character sheets that add various optional elements can look significantly different between settings. The settings introduced here are:
- Eidolon Alpha (Greek setting with JRPG elements)
- Hammerheads (High tech disaster relief in the near future)
- Trace 2.0 (Special first responders/police unit rebuilding a city)
These provide a nice mix of genre and timeframe, from a setting based on the ancient past with magical elements, to a modern setting dealing with essentially modern problems, to a near-future setting that addresses real problems that we are already seeing.
In Eidolon Alpha, characters are bonded to powerful creatures that they can summon, and they represent the interests of those beings, against various rivalries and hatreds that exist between various powerful planar beings. Summoning the eidolons can be a dangerous proposition, because they operate on a higher scale and operate beyond mortal constraints.
Hammerheads is a game where characters react to disasters and climate emergencies in high tech vehicles. The gameplay is balanced between saving lives and containing threats, and maintaining a personal life between emergencies.
Trace 2.0 is about a special unit of civil servants trying to rebuild a city rocked by massive hits to its infrastructure, boosting neighborhoods up, while challenging corruption.
There are elements of Trace 2.0 that I wish landed better. The original Cortex rules contained the Trace setting, so it makes sense to revisit. However, in the modern context, some elements don’t feel quite right to me. While it acknowledges that there is corruption in institutions like the police, there is also an emphasis placed on “fixing neighborhoods” and on weeding out corruption, as if the institutions are fine in and of themselves, and just need more honest participants.
My favorite of these settings is Hammerheads. I love the idea of action scenes that aren’t necessarily combat. Using high tech vehicles to challenge forest fires or floods, and having the ability to save lives, really appeals to me, and I like the additional thread of managing personal relationships between missions. I like how this showcases that action doesn’t mean combat.
Prime Lists is a deeper dive into rules elements mentioned elsewhere in the book, giving more detailed descriptions and quantified rules. There are lists of powers, abilities, milestones (an optional advancement technique), a section on building vehicles in the rules, and example characters submitted by backers.
The biggest difference between powers and abilities is that abilities tend to have more defined rules on how they can be used. Powers are usually broader descriptors, while abilities have specific lists of effects that can be triggered by spending plot points. Think of it as the difference between how superpowers look in a blockbuster movie, versus a weekly TV show.
Milestones are a set of advancement rules originally introduced in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. They effectively describe a story arc that the character might participate in, with XP triggers in three sizes, 1, 3, and 10. The 1 XP triggers are usually used for genre touchstones, the 3 XP triggers are usually significant nods towards the story arc being pursued, and the 10 XP triggers represent resolving the story arc. This section provides many fantasy-based story arcs, as well as the XP cost of various advancements.
One of the things that I enjoy about the backer submitted characters is that they are built using the internal logic of the genre that the character inhabits, which means they give you more examples of what you may or may not want to use when creating a setting that is similar to the ones inhabited by the character.
Step Up or Double This book is a joy to look at, and that makes it a joy to learn from.
This book is a joy to look at, and that makes it a joy to learn from. There are so many ideas about how to emphasize different aspects of story pacing, you want to use the building blocks and see what comes from it. If you have ever wanted a roleplaying game that could handle a dramatic argument or an action scene that has tension but not combat, these rules show you how you can do that.
All the options are clearly presented and explained, but there are a lot of options, and for some gamers, especially those new to Cortex games, that may still be overwhelming to start. There are aspects of the Trace 2.0 setting that feel like they miss some cogent points, especially in the current news cycle. Heroic cops fixing a neighborhood and assuming the system is only broken because of corruption falls flat for me.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
The game is both an amazing toolbox, and a solid example of how to express the rules that are being described. This book is a great resource if only to see how game rules can be presented, and how a book can be formatted for maximum effect.
The biggest downside I can cite is that most of the Cortex games will likely showcase the specific options that they use natively, meaning that if you aren’t as interested in building your own setting or using the ones in this book, you may be less interested in obtaining a deep dive into the philosophy of the game engine. That said, if you ever think you might want to tweak an existing implementation of Cortex, this book is going to not only provide options, but also discussion on what those options might do when used in your game.
Do you like game rules that serve as a toolbox for multiple games? What have been some of your favorite rules systems that allow for customization? How likely are you to tinker with an existing game system when you are provided with “official unofficial” rules to do so? We would love to hear from you below!