We’ve finally had a chance to finish our A/B test of Firefly and Serenity. The original idea was to run the exact same adventure and characters one after the other and do a comparison for those who might be interested, as well as to assess which rules set might be preferred by the group.

The mission (game seed idea, kids!): The characters get hired by Zeo Genomics, a biotech company out of Silverhold to do a bit of corporate espionage — steal a bunch of newtech bio-engingeered organ replacements from Advanced Humanics on Ariel, and get them to Silverhold. Through a bit of sci-fi technobabble, it’s not feasible to transport them in a cooler for the 10 day trip or so; they are going to be bootlegging these organs in a donor body (ala War Stories). The characters played were a former Alliance colonel and his sergeant, and a hacker. The doctor and pilot characters that were also made were later played as secondaries after the first two of the characters were incapacitated.

There was a bit of negotiating with the sponsor, then getting the team together on Ariel. Much of this happens in the “blackout zones” — areas where war damage or simple urban decay has sections of cities or whole towns off the grid. (Think Detroit…) There is a healthy underground movement(s) in the area, and the characters get the team together, including a med student in his last year of residency and up to his ass in drug and gambling debt.

They planned the raid on the hospital/research center, execute it with some issues of guards discovering them and a car chase involving a Tachikoma-like smart tank, followed by betrayal by the man that was supposed to get his guts scooped out ratting them out. Big firefight in the back-alley hospital they were to do the operation, massive destruction, then a desperate attempt to get out of the zone.

We wound up cutting the adventure in half and running the first half in Serenity (Classic Cortex), and the second half in Cortex+ Firefly. Afterward, we sent about half an hour or so comparing notes and dissecting the experience. Much of the talk centered on certain aspects that are common to Fate and similar products (of which Firefly bears close resemblance.)

K was the one most on the fence over which system he preferred. Our familiarity with old Cortex was, he thought, a major reason to find in favor of the older mechanics; we’re used to them. He found the dice pool mechanics fun — and I think this is one of the major draws to Cortex+ is the dice pool with multiple types (as compared to Fate’s -/0/+ d6s.) It’s fun to throw the bones. He also thought the ability to pick up assets and complications on the fly was enjoyable, and describing them was part of the fun. (During our big fight, we had things like Hemmed In d6, and Burning Building d10, and Stun Grenades Suck d6. The characters used skills test to have Defensible Position d6, and hero points to have Explosives d8, and the like…)

M found the basic mechanics were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of things you could do with plot points, and the subsequent increase in complexity due to assets and complications to be an impediment to play. The flexibility that these mechanics give Cortex+ is, to his mind, both a draw and a bug. However, he liked the ability to chose to take a d4 distinction and gain a plot point vs. rolling a d8 to be an excellent way to keep the points flowing back and forth. However, he found the larger dice pools made the mechanic of the GM buying fumbles or botches with plot points to defeat the purpose of big dice pools.

“You roll five dice and get a big success, but then you have to count one or two 1s and got through the buying complications thing…”

He thought that the character design with the generalized attributes and everyone having at least d4 skill was more applicable to small groups, where having overlap between skill sets compensates for characters that are highly specialized, but thought in larger groups, this would dilute the utility of a single character.

His big complaint was that complications and assets quick cancel each other out, or stack to lead to a “death spiral” where characters are injured or so hampered by complications that they are finally crushed under the weight of them and can do nothing. Yes, you could choose to concede a scene or get “taken out”, but that seems not to be the natural impulse of players I’ve encountered.

J found the simpler rules of Serenity to be easier to manage for the player, and the asset/complications of the older system, along with the wider array of attributes allowed for a much more tailored and nuanced character. He did like the speed with which the plot points were gained and spend (something echoed by M) and found it less awkward than some of the free from rules of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Being a mathematician, he was looking at the utility of the assets and complications, and how they play out. Rolling five or six dice to choose two or three, he pointed out, did not create great statistical variation, and M — based on this — wondered if the bookkeeping required to track all the various complications and assets gave a better return than just rolling fewer dice and letting the GM set difficulties based on the scenario.

Some of these thoughts mirrored mine. I find the number of assets and complications that can get added to a scene ned to be limited. I chose to step up complications, rather than create new ones for the sake of easier bookkeeping. There’s a certain draw to having a metric for what’s happening in a scene (oh, this is a d6 hazard! cool!) but I found it sometimes made me feel I had to take the complication into account, even when the story felt like it should be flowing a different way. The let the chips fall type GMs would think this is the way it should play, but sometimes, there’s a movement to a scene that tells you where it should go. That’s the difference, I suppose, between a referee and a storyteller-style GM.

I also found that tracking the fails and botches from 1s to get annoying. If you are rolling enough dice, it’s bound to happen, and if your rolled spectacularly well, it seems unfair to slap a complication or bank one against the players. I do like rolling a bunch of dice, and think that — in moderation — the asset/complications of Fate/Cortex+ can be a cool addition to a game, but I get the feeling that this mechanic (especially when the players are setting the asset or complication) is more appropriate to beginner GMs or those gamers who like a more collaborative experience.

Frankly, I think too many cooks spoil the soup. Case in point, nearly every Hollywood movie or collaborative book series with a bunch of writers sucks. The more there are, the worse it is.

So, in the end, what was the verdict? K thought the game had potential and wanted to try it again, but grudgingly leaned toward Serenity (with the asset/complications rules from Battlestar Galactica [or Cortex 1.1]) over Firefly. My position was similar — I really want to like the game, and I think if we limit some of the use of the moving parts it will flow better — but i lean toward Classic Cortex, as well. M was in the old Cortex box from the jump, and while he liked select things Firefly was doing, he thought these could be effectively ported over to Serenity. J was also in the old Cortex docket. Unanimous, Serenity (caveat, with the 1.1 version asset/complications rules) wins over Firefly.

That said, the game has got good mechanics and would do well mated to the right setting. My mind immediately jumps to Star Trek, where all the characters are ludicrously cross-trained (“Quick, counsellor, drive this big f#$%ing spaceship!”) and the Firefly skills system of everyone gets at least a d4 models that well…but I’m less convinced that works well for the ‘Verse. The book is also beautiful and has a wealth of show information that might help a GM, and is worth it for that.