Level One Wonk: Cortex Prime

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we look at a potential Indie RPG hit in the making: Cortex Prime!

Right now, what was at one point the “indie RPG” movement has exploded. Three elements have encouraged this: first, a number of inventive designs have brought the hobby to new places compared to even a decade ago. Second, there is a strong return to open licensing agreements after Wizards turned their back on the OGL in 2008. And finally, Kickstarter has enabled creators to reach out to an audience before needing to commit to expensive print runs (or even hiring for art and editing). Two systems of mechanics have exploded in popularity due to all three of these reasons: Fate, and Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). And now, re-entering the ring with similar adaptability and story focus is a potential third contender: Cortex Prime.

Cortex Prime is the brainchild of Cam Banks, who originally devised the Cortex Plus system as the foundation for a number of well-received games, including Leverage, Firefly, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Though there was a Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide released, there has never been a formalized universal version of Cortex Plus. Until now. The rights to the Cortex Plus system are back in the author’s hands, so Banks and his Magic Vacuum Design Studio are running a Kickstarter to bring Cortex Prime to life. I’ve backed this project and taken a look at the system reference document (SRD), and really like what I see. Pulling together mechanics used in all of the previous Cortex Plus games, I think Cortex Prime has the potential to blow up like Fate Core did.

At its most basic, Cortex Prime is a “roll-and-keep” system. This means you have a dice pool, but your result comes from keeping the two highest dice in the pool. The advantage of a roll-and-keep system is that you can keep on adding and expanding dice to get progressively better results, but your target numbers will always be between 1 and 24 (the largest die used in the game is a d12). There are also cool mechanics that use the “wasted dice”. What makes Cortex Prime innovative, though, is not the roll-and-keep system. It’s cool, but it’s been around for awhile (Legend of the Five Rings used a similar mechanic back in 1995). What makes Cortex Prime innovative is the sheer adaptability of this system. In Cortex Prime you’ll typically roll between three and five dice, including one for an attribute, one for a skill, and then several others for circumstances, appropriate gear, or spending plot points (a meta-currency you earn for triggering complications and can spend on abilities and for extra dice). What an attribute or a skill is depends on which variant of Cortex Prime you want to use. Want three basic attributes? In the book. Want six like in D&D? That’s in there too. Want to use Approaches instead of skills, like in Fate Accelerated? Yup, that’s an option. Want to write a list of sixty skills that each have three specialties? I won’t claim it’s a good idea…but yeah, Cortex Prime can do that too. The variants provided in the SRD already hint at what made the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide so great; because the core rules only require you to roll more than two dice and the type of dice represent power or competence, you can mix it up incredibly easily.

The SRD also details some of the subsystems that made games based on Cortex Plus feel unique and fun. One of my favorites is the ‘doom pool’, which was introduced to me when I played in a game of Marvel Heroic a few years ago. While Cortex Prime’s default rules give the GM options for introducing complications when players roll ones on their dice, in Marvel Heroic you instead added to the Doom Pool. The Doom Pool has three main functions. First, it’s the dice pool for any unopposed roll in the game: as the tension ramps up, things get more complicated. Second, it’s a pool of dice that the GM can add to opposition rolls to make things more challenging. And third, and most interesting, if the GM ever manages to get two d12s in the Doom Pool, it gives them the ‘nuclear option’: The GM can immediately end a scene, either to force a cliffhanger or to make things go the opponent’s way. It’s a great tension mechanic, and it has the beneficial side effect of making your players use their plot points and use ‘triggers’ (in-game effects that include voluntary complications) to get more. When the alternative to using your meta-currency is giving narrative control to the GM, you use that meta-currency.

It’s hard to go into a lot more detail about Cortex Prime. The SRD is currently the only rules document available to backers, and while it gives a good crash course in how the game works it’s a bare-bones version of what will eventually be a much more involved sourcebook. The Kickstarter campaign is going well, currently inching towards doubling its funding goal. Along the way there are two unmet stretch goals (and three similar ones which have already been achieved), which both add new settings to supplement the two main game books. In addition to everything being planned by Cam Banks and Magic Vacuum, one of the big elements of the campaign is the Cortex Creator Studio, which aims to make it as easy as possible to use Cortex Prime to create gaming content. This brings all three elements of the indie RPG explosion into the Cortex Prime wheelhouse, and the results could be very exciting indeed. As far as my interest in the game is concerned, I’ve already voted with my wallet. Whether or not any of you end up backing Cortex Prime, I think it’s worthwhile to take a look. Expect to see more Cortex Prime products in the future; even in early stages it looks like a winner.

The Cortex Prime Kickstarter is open to pledges until May 29th. Other Cortex products like the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide are available at DriveThruRPG.

4 thoughts on “Level One Wonk: Cortex Prime”

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