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Reviews - Cortex
by Andy Vetromile

Cortex System coverCortex System Role Playing Game
Published by Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd.
Written by Jamie Chambers
Edited by Cam Banks
Art and graphics by Digger Hayes, Lindsay Archer, Michael Bielaczyc, Nick Kremenek, Ron Lemen
160 pages, b&w, perfect bound

Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, and Demon Hunters already got the Cortex treatment from Margaret Weis Productions, but for those gamers who have wanted to peel the role-playing system away from its primary sources and use it as the engine for their own game or campaign, their time is now. MWP has released The Cortex System Role Playing Game as an entity all its own, taking out setting-specific material in an attempt to achieve a more widely applicable process.

Cortex doesn't just use dice, it's based on them - specifically, rolls of d2, d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. Attributes, Skills, and Traits are all rated by these dice, and when building the persona all three are purchased with Advancement Points. To accomplish something in-game, the Attribute dice are combined with any in the appropriate Skill - so for example, a character who bought d6 Agility and d4 Athletics could try to jump between buildings by rolling d6 and d4 and adding the results. This is compared to a Difficulty Number set by the Game Master. Equal or beat the Difficulty, and success is yours; roll under this number and you fail, and if failure comes about because you rolled all 1s, it's a Botch and the GM is really going to let your character have it.

Traits are like any other facet of personality a player character enjoys; if they're good they're called Assets and if they're negative they're Complications. Assets may be improved senses or an added sense unavailable to a normal person, like X-ray vision. They could represent allies or equipment, or access to extra money. The more useful the Trait, the higher its cost in dice. Sometimes it's easy to determine how much something costs, as with, say, better eyesight. Buy d2 in that area and not only does the d2 get added to rolls to spot things, the GM may add it to appropriate Skill rolls. At his discretion you could end up with Intelligence + Reconaissance + Improved Senses, for example. If the Trait is not so easily quantified - how much hard cash does someone have if they spent d2 for a wealthy lifestyle? - the cost still reflects your relative investment in that advantage. And the GM may still find a use for the die associated with a Trait, like adding it to a social reaction when trying to impress your future father-in-law.

Each Trait purchased, though, may come with a Complication. These are drawbacks that hinder the adventurer during play, and they're rated the same way except they defray the cost of building the character. Perhaps he has enemies tracking him down, or a disease that threatens his health or even his life. The GM chooses whether to pair Traits up ("For every Asset you take you must also take an equivalent Complication") or just let the players decide whether they need to take Complications to help pay off Assets or other investments. The drawbacks are a major advantage in one way, though. They are the most common way for a hero to obtain Plot Points.

The Plot Thickens
Players spend Plot Points for a number of purposes, perhaps most often to add dice to a roll. If he doesn't fancy his PC's chances at a task or action, he may spend them to increase his total. For every point spent, he gets another d2 "result", so spending two achieves a d4 result and three nets him a d6 - but these are guaranteed to be maxed out. He doesn't roll these as extra dice, he simply adds the points to his total (d2 adds a straight 2 points to the total, d4 adds 4 points, etc.) He can choose to spend these after he makes the roll, but then they're only worth one point each.

Plot Points are so named because, while it may be less common, it's no less critical that participants can use them to insert suggestions into the ongoing narrative. Maybe the hero is stuck for a clue, so he spends a point and tells the GM, "Fortunately I know a PI who works in the neighborhood . . . he probably knows something about this gang I don't." The bigger a change someone asks for, the more Plot Points it costs him. The GM is always welcome to ignore the suggestion, but everyone is encouraged to work together in this fashion. Perhaps the adventurer expects too much; the GM might say no to the request, but he might also be willing to alter things a bit: "No PI in this part of town, but as you exit into the alley you see the same truck here that was at the store that was robbed." Alternatively, the GM can ask for more points for the change in plot, if what is being asked for upsets the storyline greatly. If the two cannot agree, the points are simply not spent.

Just about anything that contributes to play of the game or a sense of fun can net somebody Plot Points. Getting the group to laugh or coming up with a terrific idea are both ways to gain points, but so is good role playing. In fact, the best avenue for grabbing up more points is when one's Complications come into play. If a PC takes the Complication "Rival" and that enemy tracks him down and starts taking shots at him from a nearby rooftop, he gets Plot Points (if he survives). It need not be that dramatic, though: debating whether to enter a bar is a pivotal moment for an alcoholic character, and facing a cave has the same effect (and potential reward) for a claustrophobe. Since they're the currency of a lot of the game's activities, Plot Points are supposed to be spent and returned in a zippy fashion. The object is to keep the action moving, so happy-go-lucky PCs who throw them out there should aim to be entertaining, and the GM is supposed to reciprocate by passing them out easily to show there's a reward for good play.

Fighting It Out
The combat system takes this into account as well, and it tries to generate a freewheeling experience. Rather than get into a numbers game, it uses wide parameters. Most attacks are contested actions - the attacker's combat Skill total versus the defender's defense, with the difference being expressed as damage. Damage can be Wounds, Stun, or both, depending on whether the victim is a target of a Taser, a bullet, or a regular fistfight. Wounds are more serious, but too much Stun can turn lethal as well. A character's Life Point total is a derived Attribute; taking Stun equal to this number knocks someone out cold, whereas Wounds at that level could mean death.

There are nuances added to this, but for the most part things are kept dirt-simple. For example, ranged weapons have their statistics, and the further someone is from his target, incrementally, the tougher it is to hit, but the system eschews a lot of mapping and measuring. Fast and loose is the name of the game. Heroes can zero in on little targets - the classic "shoot the gun from an opponent's hand" - but that's about as granular as the process becomes. Even with rules for cover or moving targets, most things are measured broadly, in Steps. A Step translates as a +/-2, depending whether it's a bonus or a penalty against someone's roll to hit.

. . . And the Rest
The book offers some spells for a potential magic system, a cast of characters and animals to serve as standard enemies and obstacles, and some Bundles (packages of thematically linked Assets and Complications). Magic is more of a "suggestion" than any real system - in fact, it feels a bit like someone is trying to create something more complex just so it seems like there is a system. It's part of a chapter that shows how to interpret game mechanics through the lens of a particular campaign setting, like cyberpunk. That section also shows an incongruous set of guidelines on how to role-play a trial (a really intriguing set of rules, but it belongs elsewhere). There are also three brief overviews of some possible campaign settings. One is a Colonial world where magic has begun to creep in; another is a CSI-inspired crime procedural; and the third is a space-borne game of fighting off both a sinking imperial government and an invading alien species. Two of these seem designed to gauge potential interest in licensed works (they're based on worlds from professional associates of the company and/or design team), but for all that they're not bad settings.

Odds and Ends
The book has a conversational style, and makes liberal use of inside jokes (most of which are a genre-fan's playground). It's utterly intuitive, and there's no point worrying about the numbers . . . indeed, you're given very few numbers about which to obsess. The use of the term Step in Skill checks and combat is a little off-putting, but this is mostly because they trouble themselves to discuss how Difficulty numbers and Steps have become intertwined during the system's history (and the difference between a so-called "Difficulty" and a "Threshold" is thinly defined). The index has errors, but then the entire book would have benefited from another pass under the editor's eye. The character sheet is numbered and the text of the main body is numbered accordingly, but you're not told that - it's a relationship one is left to notice for oneself. Occasionally you come across something that seems like it could have been combined and simplified - for example, there's an entry for the Enhanced Communication Trait, but also one for Animal Empathy, which amounts to a subset of the former. Thorough coverage, or an oversight in execution?

The Cortex system has had plenty of time to gestate, and in that time it's stayed more or less the same simple methodology it's always been. While other books in the series add their own spins on certain systems (not least combat), fans of complexity or depth might be disappointed. It's one of the fastest systems to pick up, however, and a stranger won't spend any real time learning it unless he's never flipped through an RPG before. It's that easy. Buyers get a code that takes them to a .pdf version of the game, so looking things up becomes even easier (and gets around any holes in the index). The Cortex System Role Playing Game doesn't make the best use of its page count in several small ways, but in the big way - the one that matters most - it presents a straightforward process that can bring role players together and have them fighting the good fight in minutes.


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