I’ve been lucky enough to know Cam Banks for about six years, now. In fact, the first time I met Cam, I interviewed him about the then-brand-new Leverage RPG. I had no idea what I was doing, but he was kind enough to talk to me. Fast-forward to now and Cam is Kickstarting a brand-new, all-inclusive version of Cortex, the system that underpins Leverage, the Marvel Heroic RPG, Smallville, and more. I had a chance to send Cam some questions about Cortex Prime, so sit back, relax, and enjoy!
Tracy Barnett: What motivated you to take on a project like Cortex Prime?
Cam Banks: When I was approached by Margaret Weis Productions with an offer to license the rights to publish Cortex from them, there had already been plans underway to put out a new and updated version of Cortex Plus in the form of Dramatic Roleplaying, Heroic Roleplaying, and Action Roleplaying. Although those never eventuated, the idea was a good one. But I felt it was time to abandon those labels and just embrace the fact that Cortex is and always has been a modular rules set that just gets expressed in different ways depending on what game you build out of it. In order to make that work, and to make it possible for third-party designers to make content for it, I knew I had to bring all of the various sub-games together and under one singular title.
TB: What do you hope to accomplish with Cortex Prime that wasn’t accomplished in previous Cortex projects?
CB: I want to not only make it much easier to customize your game how you like, and publish your own games based on the rules, but also to present something more consistent and more lasting than the half-dozen or so Cortex licensed games that had already come out. I didn’t want to lose the chance to publish something just because a license had run out, either.
TB: Say more about that, if you would. I’m not sure most folks know the complexities that go into working with a major license, and that’s what Cortex Plus traditionally was used for. Do you have a standout experience you can dive into a little bit for us?
CB: Most people don’t know how complicated a major license can be when it comes to managing the timelines of production and clearing everything with the licensors. It’s one thing to announce that you have the license to make an RPG based on an extremely popular media universe, but quite another to execute an ambitious release schedule that launches not only the core rules but a lineup of adventures and sourcebooks all in the space of a year. Schedules inflate as more people get involved, and as the realities of passing books back and forth for approvals, fitting your books into the schedules of printers at some of the busiest times of the year, and keeping the momentum going in the marketing and distribution of the books you already have.
It’s a lot of work to design and produce an RPG book, and so much more to make it a licensed game on top of that. So I’d like to avoid as much of that as I can with the core rules of Cortex Prime and just make it an evergreen product that doesn’t have to be renewed with a movie studio or television network.
TB: How are your previous game design efforts informing this one?
CB: Updating and revising games is one of the main things I do at Atlas Games, and hacking games to create new ones has been part of my design style since I was very young. I still remember hacking Red Box D&D to make a GI Joe game, a TRON game, and a bunch of others. I did that when I was still in the New Zealand equivalent of middle school.
TB: What’s one of your favorite hacks that you’ve ever done?
CB: One of my favorite hacks as a kid was redesigning the Pacesetter game Star Ace from the ground up to tell stories in the Shadowfire and Enigma Force universe. Those were awesome Commodore-64 games from Beyond Software back in the Eighties that I loved, and so I designed the whole game, illustrations and red and blue and green inked text, in a school maths book. That was how we always did it. To this day I love quad math exercise books because they’re just asking to be filled up with a hand-made DIY RPG.
TB: This is one of your first non-licensed design projects in a while. How has that transition been for you?
CB: Honestly it’s been very freeing, but I’ve also been developing non-licensed RPGs at Atlas for the past couple years, so it’s not as different as all that. In this case I have total freedom to do whatever I want, which is perhaps the biggest difference.
TB: What’s been the most fun/interesting thing you’ve done with that freedom?
CB: One of the things this freedom gives me is the ability to take bigger risks, try all-new things, and work with people I haven’t worked with before. I am really looking forward to the Prime Spotlight designers, for example. It’s a really talented group, and choosing artists to go with their work is also going to be a lot of fun.
TB: What’s your “ideal” Cortex Prime game session or campaign? What do you want to run or play in Prime the most?
CB: If I’m honest, probably action-adventure games with epic stakes and some form of investment in a base, a headquarters, or a small settlement. I’m really glad to see so many cool settings being unlocked via the Kickstarter because there’s going to be something in there for everyone. I think of the settings I’m designing for the Game Handbook, EIDOLON ALPHA (which is Greek-style fantasy but with Final Fantasy summoner super heroes) and HAMMERHEADS (which is basically Thunderbirds only a larger organization, focused on rescue and disaster management scenarios) are the two I’m looking forward to playtesting the most.
TB: This is like asking you to pick favorite children, but what are a couple of stretch goals you want to highlight? Things you’re just super-stoked to see getting made.
CB: I’d tell you about some of my favorite Prime Spotlight settings, but honestly I don’t want to have to pick just a couple. It’s probably more true to say that I’m looking forward to settings that nobody’s seen before in Cortex Prime – Joseph Blomquist’s Cosa Nostra, for example, or Brie Sheldon’s utopia-in-peril Solarpunk. And of course all of them are original and diverse and not just a retread of something older, which I think makes the lineup seem fresh.
Thanks to Cam for taking the time to answer questions for the readers here. The Cortex Prime Kickstarter has blown past its initial goal, and is well on the way to unlocking a bunch more of its stretch goals. (Full disclosure: if the campaign goes high enough, I have a stretch goal planned, as well).
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