Cortex System Role Playing Game is the house system of Margaret Weis Productions. The system has been used in games such as Serenity and Supernatural. This version does not contain any setting and is considered to be just the system presented as a toolkit for a GM to use with any setting or genre. I do not have much experience with Cortex other than having read and tinkered a tiny bit with Serenity.
The Book Itself
My copy is a review copy in PDF format. The PDF is 165 pages including the cover, character sheets, and index. The interior is black and white and contains much less artwork than I am use to seeing in comparable RPG books. The cover is a sort of abstract color piece that looks to be two spheres with energy flowing between and around them. I am not sure if it’s a consistent problem with the product or if it’s an issue with Acrobat, but the text in my pdf seems to go from crisp and clear to bold and blotchy looking from page to page. It has been an annoyance when trying to read it on a large laptop screen; I can only imagine on a smaller one.
Introduction (Pages 5-6)
The Introduction goes into the mission statement of the Cortex core book. The mission is to allow you take make characters and develop a story with those characters in any genre or setting the GM and players should wish. If for some reason a rule seems to get in the way of understanding a character or telling a story, then as the book says, something is going wrong. The end of the Introduction is a table of contents for the rest of the book.
Chapter One: Game Basics (Pages 7-14)
Chapter one starts with the usual “What is a Role Playing Game?” section and goes into a quick summary of the basics of the rules for casual players. Cortex uses a die step mechanic for virtually everything in the game from stats to skills to traits. The die step ranges from d2 to d12 then after d12 it becomes d12+ and starts the progression again, i.e. d12+d2, d12+d4 etc…
Each character has 6 attributes which are Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower. Characters derive 4 attributes from the main ones: Life Points, Initiative, Endurance and Resistance. Looking at the attributes, I am reminded of Unisystem from Eden Studios; the stats so far seem very similar.
Characters will also have dice in skills and traits. Traits seem to be the usual feat like advantages called Assets and disadvantages and flaws called Complications. Finally, characters have Plot Points. Plot Points are considered to be the “currency of drama” and our used to affect the outcome of a dice roll or to exert some control over the story.
Next we see our first glimpse at how actions are done in Cortex. Most rolls are done with the die of an attribute rolled with the die of a skill and their totals added together. These rolls are either simple actions versus a static difficulty, a complex action spread across several turns, or an opposed action versus another character’s die roll. If all dice rolled are 1s then a Botch has occurred and if the difficulty is beaten by 7 or more than an Extraordinary Success has occurred.
The basics on combat are that characters go in order of initiative and can move and take one action each turn whether it is an attack, parry, dodge, or other action unless they are running. Damage is done in a few different forms: Basic, Stun, and Wound. Stun and Wound seem to be the main types with Basic damage causing both types at the same time. Stun damage leads to unconsciousness and Wound damage leads to death. Attacks use the appropriate attribute and skill versus a target’s defense which is a 3 if they are an easy unaware target, an Agility roll if in combat, but not using the action to defend, or an appropriate skill roll if using an action to defend. I like the Innate Defense’s Agility roll for normal defense, it makes the basic defense an active defense roll instead a static defense number.
Damage in cortex seems to be based more on how well you roll your hit, than an actual damage stat of a weapon. Weapon’s can still add to damage from a damage stat they have, but damage is primarily figured as how much you beat your difficulty by. For example if you have average strength and punch someone (damage die of d0) your damage would be by how much you beat the difficulty by. Again Basic damage is split between Stun and Wound. The chapter ends with a quick paragraph or two stating that players will receive advancement points for improving their characters; however, no rules are given yet on how to use them.
Chapter Two: Characters (Pages 15-23)
Chapter two is all about building the characters that players will use. There are three different levels characters can be made for: Novice, Veteran and Elite. Each of these levels gives a different amount of points for attributes, skills, and traits. There are also optional rules for combining all the points from all three areas into one big pool of points so that the players can have more freedom with where their points are allocated.
Cortex Attributes are based on a d6 being the human average and each level gives a different maximum: Novice is d12, Veteran is d12+d2, and Elites is d12+d4, though each can be improved through game play. Next is the derived attributes which are explained in a bit more detail than the basics chapter. I am still not sure how much Stun and Wound I can take; is each equal to the Life Point attribute? Hopefully this is cleared up later.
Traits are also rated like skills and attributes, which is to say they are rated by die types. Each die type is equal to its number of sides in points, so if a player takes a d6 complication it gives him 6 more points to spend. Starting characters must have at least one asset and one complication with no trait being higher than d12 and no more complications than 30 points worth.
Next in creating a character is deciding his skills. In cortex any skill rated from d2-d6 is considered a General skill and is a broad understanding of the area. Once a skill is at d8 or higher the player must choose a specialty in the field for the skill. As stated before skill rolls is the appropriate attribute plus the right skill; however, if the character does not have the skill he rolls only the appropriate attribute die.
The last of the section is on Plot Points, which the characters start with 6 and can hold a maximum of 12 at any given time, and development of the character. Character Development covers both understanding your character through his stats and traits and the rules on advancing your character through advancement points earned through play. Advancements points average to around 1-4 per session and each area; attribute, trait, and skill costs a certain amount of APs to increase 16, 14, and 6 respectively.
Chapter Three: Traits and Skills (Pages 24-54)
Chapter three goes into the write-ups for each trait and skill in the game. The list leads me to feel that Traits are closer to Savage Worlds and Unisystem in feel than feats from d20 games. Certain traits are also marked with a symbol to state that they may be a bit too fantastical for a realistic setting. At the end of the traits section are several examples of what Cortex calls “Bundles.” Bundles are collections of traits that represent a sort of template that can be used for a type of character. The examples include such things as Robots, Elves, and Vampires. It is a neat way to create races or class like templates for a setting without really limiting a player’s choices.
The skill list is surprisingly short at 22 skills. Usually toolkit, universal games have a ridiculously long list of skills, and after the exhaustive trait list I expected a rather large one for the skills as well. The game is under the assumption that you will create skills to fill in gaps for your own setting. This works fine for me because the 22 skills set as the base cover most aspects and anything created would need to be setting specific anyways.
Chapter Four: Gear (Pages 55-84)
The gear chapter is a rather large section of the book. It does not have a base system of money, instead it relies upon the GM to set the economics of their setting and decide players’ wealth on their own. It does give guidance in this area, but it also means that the GM is stuck putting a price on everything himself. There are lists of normal gear, weapons, armor, vehicles, robots, and magic items. There are also rules for higher and lower quality gear and improving or building your own gear. The gear chapter covers a lot of equipment. It has a lot of stuff in it; however, I really wish there was some measure of cost. Even a rating of 1-10 or such that could be modified based on setting or something equivalent would have been nice. I don’t care for the make it up idea here.
Chapter Five: Rules (Pages 85-102)
I am beginning to dislike how the rules have been split up. The basics chapter seemed unneeded and then the character chapter gave a little bit more; I really hope this chapter puts it all together as the rules are starting to feel thrown across the book.
The chapter starts by going into more detail about complex actions. In a complex action the difficulty is called a Threshold and is the same as a difficulty except instead of needing to be beaten immediately it can be beaten with accumulative dice rolls over time. The rules go into instances where the player may take steps backward instead of advancing towards the threshold, and rules for changing circumstances are also given. Also other characters may give assistance to the main user.
Next the chapter repeats the Plot Point rules, which I am not certain state anything new, other than more detail into how they can be used and examples of how complications should work in actual play. Again it just seems as if the information for the rules is spread out needlessly.
Next the combat rules are revisited. Optional rules for initiative are given and we see a new rule that allows characters to take multiple actions in a turn. Each multiple action gains an accumulative -1 die step penalty. More detailed rules for movement appear next and then rules for aiming, called shots, grappling, cover, improvised weapons, and other combat maneuvers. Rules for how armor works show themselves; I could not find them in the gear section where all the armor was listed. Armor simply subtracts from the damage taken. Also Damage is finally explained well enough for me to figure how much one has. Your Life Point total seems to be the number used for rolling for unconsciousness with stun damage and death for Wound damage. With as much stuff has talked about damage from before, I wish this had been explained better in the previous “Basics” section.
The chapter finishes out with rules for odd types of damage such as radiation or poison, recovery rules, and vehicle combat/chase rules. I will say that the rules seem to cover most aspects I could ever want in a game. I, personally, wish they had put all the rules together instead of separating them. The basics chapter doesn’t cover everything I would have deemed basic and ends up just making all the relative information spread across the book.
Chapter Six: Window Dressing (Pages 103-115)
The Window Dressing chapter seems to cover all the odd powers and meta-physics that could appear in a setting. It starts with rules for basic magic known as Channeling Magic. Channeling magic uses the rules of a complex action, which is to say they have the previously mentioned Thresholds instead of difficulties. Magic users are required to have a certain trait to use a spell, such as Spellcaster or Divination Adept. Each spell is used by rolling a certain Attribute plus the trait required to use it. Each turn a caster uses magic he accumulates a point of stun damage. There is a small list of sample spells, a lot less than I would have liked to have seen.
Next are Meta-Talents. This talent allows the character to make one or more of his skills a Meta-Talented skill. This not only gives him a bonus to the roll, but allows the player and GM to come up with fantastical trappings that fuel the skill. This idea is coupled with Meta-Talent Stunts which allow characters to do some extremely remarkable feats (the trappings seem mostly up to GM fiat) such as seen in some Dungeons and Dragons powers or Exalted Charms. The Meta section is finished off with Meta-Gear, which sticks to the idea of GM “fiat”-ed gear with remarkable trappings.
Next are the rules for cybernetics. Cybernetics are handled through a trait for the actual enhancement and then normal traits applied based on what equipment is on the character. Some examples are a Cybernetic Eye gives the Enhanced Senses asset or Dermal Plating gives Inherent Armor. There is also a list of complications that can be taken because of cybernetics such as Addiction (needing injections) and Dead Inside (losing touch with their humanity.) The charts and guidelines for what assets and complications are available and what cybernetic device they simulate having is well done and leaves lots of room for setting changes or additions.
Next are Psi abilities. The listed way of handling Psi abilities is to make each type of psionic a separate asset with the die steps being a measure of the capabilities of the power. Telepathy, teleportation and ESP are the given examples. Psychic characters take stun damage equal to the traits die step each time they use it. There are also optional rules for using a psychic point pool and for psychic combat on the astral plane.
The chapter finishes with one of the more interesting sections of the whole book, rules for court cases and credibility. Trials consist of three phases: Pretrial, Jury Selection, and Courtroom. Each phase has rules for a player using their Investigation, Procedural and Persuasive skills to influence the outcome of the trial. One the more neat aspects are the technicalities that could show up in trial such as surprise witnesses and Dirty Tricks. With as slim as some areas of the chapter were, it is a surprise to see such a well done and complex subsystem in the chapter.
Chapter Seven: Building Worlds and Telling Tales (Pages 116-130)
Chapter seven is the basic GM’s advice chapter. It covers how to set the mood for games, how to handle players, and quick stat blocks for NPCs. It covers setting the pace of games and some of the basic ideas behind certain genres and styles of play. A nice chapter, but for the experienced gamer it does not bring anything new to the table.
Chapter Eight: Example Campaigns (Pages 131-147)
In chapter eight there are small descriptions of a few settings that could be used with Cortex. The first is Star of the Guardians which is based on novels by Margaret Weis. My only experience with this setting is having played a few sessions of the card game several years ago. It seems to be a classic space opera or space fantasy setting. It uses psionics and religious magic along side high technology.
The second setting is called Trace and is created by Cam Banks. Trace is a setting based on shows like Law & Order and CSI. Aha! I now see why there was such a detailed subsystem for court room trials. I am not certain how I feel about this setting. One gets so used to fantasy and science fiction that I can honestly say I never thought to role play in a setting based entirely on courtroom drama. It’s a whole new area for me to think on.
The last setting is Arcady based on novels by Michael Williams. Arcady at a glance reminds me of Solomon Kane. It is a sort of weird swashbuckling, gunpowder, musketeer-type setting with the edges of reality starting to fray. It comes across as Sword and Sorcery in the pre-modern real world.
Chapter Nine: Allies and Adversaries (Pages 148-157)
This Chapter is the bestiary for the game. It contains not only write-ups for animals and monsters, but also basic NPC stats for various personalities the characters may run across. I find that it lists quite a good selection of stat blocks for use.
Extras and Index (Pages 158-163)
The book finishes out with two different character sheets, one which is portrait and the other landscape in layout. After that is a one page index; I did not use the index to know how well it covers the book.
Cortex fits remarkably well into the group of “lite” toolkit rpg. It reminds me of a combination of Savage Worlds and Unisystem. It offers the tools to run any kind of setting, but does not give all the details and trappings relying on the GM and players to fill in the gaps not necessary in the rulebook.
Style is getting a 3, The book reminds me a lot of the Tri-stat dX core book; black and white, two column layout. The major difference is some art is in Cortex book. There is the font problem as I stated at the beginning of the review. And the separation of the rules is odd and makes the information needlessly spread out across the book.
Substance gets a 4. It is a well done toolkit RPG in the same vain as Unisystem and Savage Worlds and would work remarkably well for any homebrew with a GM who likes to tinker with the trappings and details.