One of the bits I particularly liked about Mindjammer, the RPG, as well as Atomic Robo was the way they built organizations up (factions in the latter.) As Firefly is a Cortexified version of Fate, or a Fatified version of Cortex — take your pick — I thought it might be fun to introduce this in the Big Damn Game.

Pretty much any kind of organization can be represented — from an army unit to a military organization, from the local PTA to a company to a government. Like characters, they have the three attributes, but these have slightly different connotations:

PHYSCIAL: This is the extent of the manpower,  physical holdings, or presence of a company. An organization with a local/less than planetary presence is a d4, a planetary presence is d6, presence in one of the star systems of the ‘Verse d8, multiple systems d10, and ‘Verse-wide d12. Blue Sun, for instance, has a Verse-wide reach for its products, but does not appear to be present on every world and moon of the ‘Verse, so it would be a d10 (or a d8, if the GM decides that the company has offices and factories only in a select few worlds of each sun.) The Alliance is just about everywhere in the Black, so it runs a d12.

MENTAL: This represents the brainpower of the organization, and  is the ability to gather economic (or other) data, utilize that for its advantage, to create new product or do other forms of research. The average government of a moon is lucky if it can muster a d6, but the Alliance has a d10 and is striving for d12.

SOCIAL: This is the public relations wing, the reputation of the organization and represents the extent of its reach in society. While Blue Sun might barely make a d10 for their physical locations and manpower, they are a definite d12 Social for their near ubiquitous impact on product and culture, from food to entertainment, to medicine. Likewise, the Alliance is very powerful, but the impact of the War has not yet been overcome and many worlds still look to avoid dealing with the Alliance or actively oppose their operations. That puts them at a d10.

A character working with these groups could, for a plot point, exchange their attribute for the attribute of the organization when dealing with a situation, or to create an appropriate asset. Near some men to help you open that Kuzko Shop-Mart on Regina? A plot point and you’ve got yourself a posse of SHOPHANDS d6 ready to help you establish franchises all over that backwater dirtball! You’ll be home on Ariel in just a few weeks, at this rate! Need a bunch of men with guns to catch those fugitives you’ve been hunting? Good thing you’re working for Maximum Impact Security Services — MISS has offices all over this system and a quick call on the Cortex got you HIRED GUNS d6. Yahoo.

Problem is, if you’re working for these groups, they expect results will be shiny. Screw it up, and your use of their assets can cause a Complication for the company — that Kuzko setup went swimmingly and now you have a presence in the few towns worth a squint…and possibly just raised Kuzko’s footprint in the Border worlds, raising them from a d6 to d8 Physical. Sounds like someone’s getting a promotion!

Shame that hunt for those fugitives went pear-shaped. Might not have been so bad, save for the very public use of MISS mercs in town. Did you really have to take down a schoolhouse? MISS is bracing for the WHERE’S THE OVERSIGHT? d6 complication you got slapped on them. Great work, greenhorn; we wish you luck in your future endeavors…’course, we’ve also slagged your name from here to Blue Sun, so good luck finding legitimate gunwork.

If an organization is hit for more than a d12 complication, it’s “taken out” — if this was a physical operation, like a military operation, this means the unit is either destroyed, or routed and no longer a threat. If a mental one, the research might have wound up a dead end, or bad management led to a hemorrhage of talent. A social event that took out a company so badly damages their credibility as to impair their operations. The organization steps that die down. If they go under d4, the organization is destroyed.

Organizations also have skills — the GM should decide with are appropriate for the organization. They should also have some kind of MISSION STATEMENT distinction (Kuzko’s “Best prices on the border”, for instance…) and two others that are appropriate like Blue Sun’s “Biggest Corporation in the Verse” or the Alliance’s “We’re from the government….” they can use.

An example of an organization might be Kuzko Shop-Mart…

Kuzko Shop-Mart

Mission Statement: Best Prices on the Border d8

Distinctions: Terrible but Cheap Labor Practices d8, Largest Logistics Network in the ‘Verse d8

Attributes — Physical d8, Mental d8, Social d8

Sills: Influence d8, Labor d6, Survive d6

Kuzko started as a purveyor to the Independent movement, but toward the end of the conflict quickly shifted to a commercial focus to avoid any repercussions from the War. Their large Border network of suppliers and buyers allowed them to swiftly gain a foothold in several major markets, and the perception of their having been Independent allowed them to build a loyal customer base. The company is know for having the best prices, for always hiring, and for being a royal pain to work for, with lackluster pay and an aggressive cost containment strategy.

So there’s a quick hash-up of rules for organizations in Firefly. Feel free to comment or make suggestions for how to make them better.

One of the few complaints that we had when we tested Firefly against Serenity was the monolithic quality of the attributes — Physical, Mental, and Social. We felt that this didn’t allow the characters to be unique enough in some ways. So here’s my “fix” for the attributes in Firefly…use the attributes from Serenity.

When making a character, use Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower, and build the character for 48 points — that gives you the same d6, d8, and d10 (x2) dispersion of Firefly. You can use these more varied attributes to customize your characters even more. Some maybe your character is very strong, but can’t walk through an empty room without tripping. In Firefly, you might have chosen a d8 to balance these traits, or gone with d10 to model the big bruiser you wanted to build. With this you can give the character a d6 Agility and d10 strength.

What about Social? Here the old attribute would be Willpower.

Otherwise, you roll the same way as you do with unadulterated Firefly.

While I was putting together my review on Things Don’t Go Smooth — the new(ish) sourcebook for the Firefly RPG, I found myself starting to think about elements of game design over the years, and how they sought to achieve fairness, or player agency, or certain narrative focus. A bit of history —

When RPGs first evolved out of war games, there wasn’t much focus on stats and what they meant outside of how many spells you could have, how hard you hit in combat. The players might be stupid or super-intelligent, but ultimately, they knew what you did, and the player had to figure out the problems that were presented to them, and the dungeon master had a definite antagonistic role — both as the NPCs and creatures you encountered, but also in their design of the adventures you took on (which usually wound up with the party exploring high-improbable “dungeons” — from underground cities to cave structures that borrowed heavily from Moria in The Lord of the Rings. You were looking to outwit the DM — that was the fun of it — to figure out the riddles or traps, beat the monsters to steal their treasure. The DM was “the bad guy”, but in many ways, he was also “god” in the game — less a referee and more the capricious force you were playing against. In many ways, it was a more traditional competitive game experience. Did you “beat” the DM or not?

In the case of fairness, most DMs and players of the early games looked to randomizers to keep the action “fair.” Roll that d20 and let the universe decide if you succeed or fail. Did your character get killed? Maybe the DM sent something truly awful that would be near impossible to beat, but ultimately, a few good rolls could see you win the day. A bad DM might use his position as the referee to rule by fiat — declaring outcomes, rather than facilitating them. (See the movie Zero Charisma for an excellent rendition of this sort of DM.) This notion that you take your lumps, no matter what, because you made your decisions and the dice are impartial, is very popular with the older “grognard” (old soldier — very telling.) These guys usually like rules for any situation they could encounter…especially in combat, hence why D&D, GURPS, and other rules sets from this period normally have a combat chapter that dwarfs the rest of the chapters on mechanics.

This style of game design is very good for the beginning player and GM. There’s rules, you implement them, and adjudicate as prescribed by the rules. People good at finding the loopholes and using them to their advantage (the much maligned “rules lawyer”) do very well in these kinds of mechanics.

Quickly, however, role playing games started evolving away from the combat simulation-focus and DM-as-antagonist position of early Dungeons & Dragons (although D&D or variations on the game have remained, easily, the most accessible and popular of RPGs for the reasons evinced in the last paragraph.) To try and give the players more say over the stories told, and their characters more uniqueness, the statistics of the characters became more important, hence the shift to mechanics that usually had some form of die roll+skill level. Also, these games took a position that game master (GM) and player have a more collaborative relationship. The GM might still be creating the adventures and looking for ways to challenge the players, but the idea of the TPK (Total Party Kill) tended to be something that happened because the dice screwed you or you made dramatically bad decisions. One way to avoid this was the mechanic of the “hero point” from James Bond: 007 — a game that differed sharply from Top Secret (essentially D&D retooled for the modern spy genre) in the design philosophy that the players should succeed most of the time. It was cinematically appropriate, and in some ways, more fun.

Another idea for  making the rules serve a story was the elimination of randomness. Diceless systems, the first being (and I could be wrong here) Amber, focused on the relations of the characters as more important than the stats and fighting. In competitions between characters, the person with the higher stat won. Early World of Darkness settings from White Wolf tended to work this way, especially in the LARP community, where ties between characters of equal ability were settled with a quick round of rock/paper/scissors. The point was to increase player agency by having your actions (in character) be more important than GM (or in the case of WoD, “Storyteller”) fiat. For these systems, the “fun” is in having the characters interact, and having those interactions drive the story.

Serving the narrative and giving more control to the players was the design philosopy behind Fudge, its more evolved descendent Fate, and Fate’s cousin Cortex + (Firefly uses this last rules set.) In these games, giving narrative control to the players is central, and it is enshrined in the mechanics of the games. Players can create aspects or assets or complications (whatever they’re called in the game or the situation) as an outcome of a test, and invoke these to improve their control of the scenario or other characters through that targets’ aspects or weaknesses.

Thus endeth the history lesson. Let’s talk about the design intent and reality. When creating a game, the first goal should be to make something that when played is fun. You can have other intents — sharing narrative control, de-emphasizing combat, trying to make gaming more “inclusive.” The philosophy of the mechanics should be to make the game fun (and in my bias, that also means simple to use.) Keep in mind there is “no right way to play” a game; it’s a function of player (and this includes the GM) preferences when playing, but the goal is the same for nearly all players — to have fun.

A central dialogue in game design these days concerns player agency and how best to give or contain it. It is nearly always cited in opposition to GM fiat. The notion of the “sandbox”, where players direct where the story goes vs. the “railroad” — where the GM attempts to lead players through a tightly scripted story where the players’ characters are more puppets to make things happen. (Think any character in the Star Wars prequels….Obi Wan does stupid thing #3 because event A has to happen.)

Giving the players control over the mechanical factors of a scene using Aspects or through their narration of what they do — essential to the diceless approach — allow them to manipulate the events and outcomes. In Fate and Cortex+ this is systemized in that the actor in a scene declares the optimal outcome of the scene. “I slip in to the master villain’s fortress, taking out the guards without raising the alarm. I will invoke the “Moonless night” aspect, my “Expert with a Knife” asset…”

I question I have is the necessity to have this mechanized. Do I need to invoke “moonless night”, or should the GM have taken into account it’s dark and I’m wearing basic black sans pearls to give me a bonus. Which is easier and faster? The end product — maybe you got a +2 to your die roll, to use Fate as an example — is the same, but I would suggest the latter example is easier. In a diceless system, the hero might have a better stealth and the bad guys’ perception rating — he’s going to succeed, so why bother slowing the action with a die roll. As in a movie, unless the action is heightened by fighting the major henchman to get to the Big Bad, you should just go through the mooks like Captain America does in the ship scene at the beginning of Captain America 2: The Winter Solider. (A similar idea resides in the Ubiquity “take the average” mechanic — if the average number of successes you should get is better than the difficulty, just roll on.) Player agency, ultimately, is the most powerful element of RPGs in that the characters have to act or react for anything to happen. As the grognards might say, “The story develops from what you do.”

One mistake I think designers make when attempting to maximize player agency is misunderstanding the role of a game master. The GM is a facilitator — to use an educational term. They aren’t there to tell you a story, but to help you keep it on course. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is a good axion here. Having the players decide every aspect of the narrative leads to  1) a natural erosion of story or setting cohesion — what you might liken to having too many writers on a television show leads to a series jumping the shark, and 2) less “fairness” in that, while everyone supposedly has an input on events — as with the aspects idea of Fate and its ilk — particularly clever or charismatic players will naturally bend the story in the directions they want. While that can create some level of enjoyment and surprise, having someone rewrite the direction of an adventure that was obviously going in another can be less than satisfying. Case in point — the movie Event Horizon, which seems to have been cobbled together from two different scripts. The first half is a solid sci-fi thriller with some supernatural suspense aspects; the second half is a muddled slasher flick that feels like it was adapted from a Hellraiser reject script then slapped on the back half. Can you kit bash them together? Sure…but it doesn’t really work well.

Which brings us to GM fiat. How much control should the game master have over an adventure? It is unlikely that your players want to sit and listen to you do an audio book of your latest novel, while they periodically roll bones to allegedly “do something”, but leaving your players to wander about Night City while waiting for something to catch their attention is also not a particularly productive way to spend a few hours of your gaming time. Can it be fun? Sure, but is it fun for everyone at the table, or are some bored with yet another barfight to fill time? Can the gamemaster having strong, but not total (or even most,) narrative control create a cohesive game universe than is consistent (a central element to verisimilitude) and which doesn’t favor one player (not a character, one of which might naturally be “the lead”, but the player) over another. In a mystery or other suspense setting, having one guy that knows the secret can be much more rewarding when the surprise is unveiled than having another player say “You know what would be cool..?”

The idea that a stronger GM presence can make a game more fair is probably controversial to some in the gaming community. I suspect people with this viewpoint have had a bad experience or two with the old-fashioned DM-as-antagonist game master, and those who have their entire campaign plotted out with the players on rails.

Ultimately, all of these positions I’ve laid out show some preference for how to get at the fun of playing a role playing game. Should the players spitball together a plot like they did playing on the playground? It’s a natural way of playing, and feels “fair” when there are rules to contain the actions of the players. Can a game with an oppositional game master who sets up challenges and leaves you to handle them as you will be fun? Do you need dice and rolling to slow down the action? Do you need to mechanize every aspect of play, or can the mechanic themselves be part of the fun?

Somehow, I’d missed that Margaret Weis Productions were kicking out Firefly supplements at an amazing rate this year. I picked up the corebook about a year ago, and our gaming group did an A/B tet between Firefly and the older Cortex Serenity game to see how they compared. Later, I played in a pickup game with one of the designers of the game, just to see how it ran with someone who really knew the system. Follow the links to see the original review of the game and other observations.

Knowing there was an opportunity to spend money I didn’t have to, I ordered up Things Don’t Go Smooth and Smugglers’ Guide to the Rim for the game. I should be receiving hardcopies soon, but USPS is apparently in full-blown FUBAR mode this holiday season, so they got bounced back. However, MWP provides buyers of the book with a free .pdf of the game, and while the Smugglers’ Guide is not out, TDGS was. This review is going to concern itself with the e-book version of the supplement.

First off, the book is essentially a sourcebook for GMs — the first three chapters are a catalogue of new bad guy NPCs and their organizations, henchmen, and hideouts or ships. There’s a chapter on new ships and distinctions for the same, and a chapter specifically on running the game, and fleshing out towns and cities. There are two adventures that I haven’t read through (I don’t tend to run canned adventures), and an appendix of the new rules and distinctions. The book weighs in at 238 pages, and two pages of character/ship sheets.

The writing is solid, and the editing — which used to be a weak spot in early MWP productions — has caught most, if not all, errors.  The art design and layout is similar to that of the corebook: it’s full-color, pretty, and uses almost no “game art” — that middling quality stuff gamers expect — in favor of screen caps from the show, CGI art, and photos of characters in setting-appropriate garb. The pdf is well-designed, with heavy linking from the table of contents, and hyperlinks on key terms throughout the book. This is one of the big strengths of MWP e-books; they are excellent for use on a tablet or laptop, if that’s how you access your books in play.

The collection of NPCs are good. They are well-designed and fleshed out, as are their support networks. There’s a nice choice, from corporate spies, to crime bosses, to privateers and pirates. There’s a section on using Reavers effectively. The new ships are good, but the artwork does not alway match the description of the vessel — if you’re going to do ship art, make it match the vessel on the page.

The Scheming and Narrating chapter is particularly good for helping new and inexperienced GMs, especially in dealing with the use of assets or complications. In play, one of the issues I’ve seen with Firefly is that the complications can become a bit overwhelming for newcomers. You are encouraged to make them…a lot of them, and tracking and using them was one of the consistent complaints I saw in various play sessions. Unlike Fate, where you often have to spend a Fate Point (plot points in Cortex and Cortex +), Firefly lets you use any one that makes sense in play. This can give you Shadowrun-esque dice pools, but more to the point often “systematizes” elements of play that might be better handled in narration.

Case in point: There’s some great stuff on using the setting to create appropriate complications — like “The Building is on Fire d6” which could definitely be used to help or hurt you, or “Dark and Spooky d6”, which could be used to help a stealth roll or create mental stress from fear or unease. But there was an example that immediately highlighted the issue with just making complications or assets for everything — “Calling for Help d8”. The characters a trapped and calling for help…wouldn’t this be assumed to be the case? Do you need to systematize “Walking in a Straight Line d6”? Without having to use plot points to invoke these complications, as you might in Fate, requires the GM to really sit on the players when they get out of hand. However, that is against the stated goal of Fate like systems, which seek to have the players have more narrative control.

For all these observations, Things Don’t Go Smooth is an excellent, and well-made sourcebook to help GMs bootstrap their campaigns, or fill them out without having to do all the heavy lifting. I suspect, if I run a campaign, i will be using several of the bad guys and their organizations. The GM guidance is good for those who aren’t accustomed to running a game, but will be mostly weak tea for the experienced one. The adventures looked lie they would be good for pickup or convention games, and probably could be mined for material for a self-created campaign.

The physical book is a softcover, but judging from the pdf will be a handsome thing. It’s retailing for $35 (with free pdf download if you buy on the MWP site or from a “preferred retailer.”), and Drive Thru has the ebook for $13. So is it worth it? If you are playing the game, absolutely to either format. If you’re playing occasionally or just need to snag a few things from the book, electronic version might be better

Style: 5 out of 5 — it’s a gorgeous sourcebook, much better production values than necessary for a splatbook. Substance: 5 out of 5 — I was surprised I gave it this, but there’s a whole acre of bad guys and groups to choose from, new distinctions for players and ships, and some good GM advice. It’s a buy.

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.



I’ve got an e-copy of the Firefly RPG from Margaret Weiss Productions, and next week I’m planning to run a one-shot with the system. After that, we’re going to run the same adventure and characters in the old Serenity rules (with a slight modification — we’re using what I’ll call Cortex 1.1, using the Assets and Complications rules from Battlestar Galactica and Supernatural.)

However, I can give an initial report on the character creation for both systems, having put together six pre-gens for the one-shot.

1) Speed of character creation: I’ve been using Cortex 1.1 for six years of so for various games, so I’ve reached the point I can slap together a pretty nuanced character in about 10 minutes, tops. After getting used to how the writers laid out the character creation in the Firefly corebook, I was able to put together a reasonable version of the Cortex 1.1 characters in about the same time. It’d give the slight edge to the Cortex+ version here.

2) Closeness to concept: One of the reasons classic Cortex has become my favorite system is the ability to really craft a characters mechanics to match the concept. There’s six attributes — the physical: agility, strength, vitality; and the mental: alertness, intelligence, and willpower. Assets and complications give a die to the character or the GM, respectively, when they come into play. Usually, if I bring a complication into play, the player gets a plot point. Skills and their specializations are well-defined. These all are defined from d2 (weak!) to as high as 2d12 — but usually you will be between d4 and d12.

Firefly‘s Cortex+ has three attributes: physical, mental, and social and the characters get to assign a d6, d8, or d10 to the attributes. You can even them out to d8s across the boards, if you like. Assets and complications are replaced by the Fate-inspired Distinctions. You get three at d8, and  may add up to two triggers (ex., a Veteran of the Unification War distinction might allow you Fightin’ Type or War Stories with certain mechanical benefits.) All characters have the same skill list and at least a d4 in all of them. Each of the distinctions gives you a linked skill that you gain a die step.

For instance: Colonel Atticus Wynn is a veteran of the Alliance military who has fallen on hard times. He crossed the wrong politician or military figure during the war and has found himself unable to capitalize on his service. In the Serenity rules, he’s got the Branded, Deadly Enemy, and Things Don’t Go Smooth complications, with Fightin’ Type, Friends in High Places, Natural Leader, Military Rank, and Tough as Nails for assets. He’s well defined.

In the Cortex+ version, I had to really work to balance the distinctions in a way that emulated the complications and assets. I created one called Mercenary Leader based on Ship Captain. He has a Lead from the Front trigger that allows him to spend plot points on his subordinates. He’s a Veteran of the Unification War with the War Stories trigger allowing him to step up assets or complications from the war. He’s got Smooth Talker, as well, since he was build in Cortex 1.1 with good influence and social skills. The three distinctions left him with good Fight and Shoot skills, and lesser Influence, Knowledge, Move, and Survival skills that were improved with the nine points given to tweak the skills. He added two specializations and took two d8 Signature Assets — a stealth suit and an Alliance assault rifle.

The difference between the character builds was subtle in this character. I had to create distinctions or signature assets to get close to the classic Cortex build on a few characters, but overall I was able to get close to a match, mechanically, for the characters. A few of the character templates were close enough to tweak and make them work — there’s quite a few of these templates to use to get yourself into play quickly. However, there’s a lack of detail to the Cortex+ assets, it can be hard to get distinctions to model the detail of the asset/complications, and the specializations are a bit free-form. If the players want the character design to help them play the character, I lean slightly toward classic Cortex for the ability to tailor a character in detail.

So for speed of character creation, there’s almost no difference in how quick you can put together a character (unless you choose to tweak a template — then Firefly is the clear winner here.) As to creating a detailed character, classic Cortex does a better job, but not by much.

Looks like either the money-grubbers at Disney pulled the license for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game from Margaret Weis Productions without warning, or MWP couldn’t make the reup on the license work out since they couldn’t move enough product (I’m guessing it was a combination — they couldn’t pay for a more expensive license and Disney just pulled the license, complete with a cease and desist for selling product they were authorized to sell, although now you have until April 30 to snag all the material at Drive Thru RPG.) MWP is trying to make amends by crediting pre-orders 150% the cost of the books they aren’t going to be getting; I think that’s a stand up move.

It’s a sad day as, while I’ve not been a fan of the Cortex Plus direction the company took, Marvel was a superb game the mechanics of which really captured the flavor of a comic like none of the other, in my opinion. On the up side, MWP has an upcoming Firefly RPG. Let’s hope they can keep the license.