I looked through the games on my shelf, and thought about the games that had appealed past and present, and I think I have to go with Margaret Weis Productions. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for most of the Cortex Plus lines, I’ve been using Cortex classic since Serenity came out, then locked in on the Battlestar Galactica/Supernatural/Cortex Core version once it was released. It’s easily my favorite set of mechanics. Funnily, even though I don’t particularly like most versions of Cortex Plus — from the odious Smallville to the meh Leverage, I am somewhat fond of Firefly and think it would handle both Star Wars and Star Trek better than it does the ‘Verse.

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.

One thing I noted in the Battlestar Galactica campaign we’ve been running is that the system doesn’t quite allow for the toaster splashing antics of Starbuck and Apollo, nor are the toasters as deadly as they could be. One reason for that is the Cortex Classic mechanic for damage in a fight. As mentioned in the Discussions on Damage post from today, the idea for these possible house rules catalyzed out of a Facebook group post that caught my attention. So without further ado:

Suggestion 1: Tying the damage die to success. You need a 7 to hit the target and get a 12. That’s 5 points basic damage plus the d8W for your rifle (or viper.) At this point, anything under 5…is a 5. That means when you roll the d8W, you get between 5 and 8 as a result, so a 3 stun and 7-10 wound. This makes you a ton more effective against the toasters…and vice versa.

Suggestion 2: A static damage number that is tagged to the basic damage. As per the last example — you’ve done 3 stun and 2 wound basic damage. Now your rifle does 8 wound. This seems a lot more dangerous, and isn’t the one I would recommend.

Suggestion 3: This is one I suggest separate from the above ideas, and is one I use in my Cortex games: characters always roll an Endurance (Vitality+Willpower) versus damage taken. If they succeed, no penalty is rendered; if they fail, they are stunned for the number of rounds they missed by. This can be bought out with a plot point, or if they have Cool under Fire or some such asset. If they are hit with an extraordinary success and the character misses the roll, they suffer the effects as per the normal rules (pg 94 in the Cortex core book.)

Suggestion 4: This has also been one I’ve used in our campaigns — an extraordinary success on an injury leads to some kind of lasting effect — a broken arm, or the like — that gives the character a temporary Chronic Injury complication equal to the wound, round down. So say you take 9 wound and 3 stun, but live…you have a d8 Chronic Injury, Broken Whatever that takes that many weeks of game time to heal.

As usual, feel free to completely ignore any or all of this.

One of the things that I’ve always liked about the old James Bond RPG rules set, and to a lesser extent Cortex, is that the quality of the success translates into how well damage is rendered on an opponent. In the JB:007 game, the quality result is checked against the damage class of the weapon and there’s the damage done. In Cortex, the quality of the result gives you basic damage — 1/2 in stun and 1/2 in wound, but then there’s the additional roll of the weapon’s damage — this can give anything from a disappointing 1 up to the max of the die in wound.

It’s the one issue in Cortex’s combat mechanics that has always bugged me. Bang! I do 3S and 3W on my .45 pistol with a d6W and….oh. One. The second bit of random chance just seems to fly against the point of the basic damage based on quality. Granted, an extraordinary success lends the attacker certain benefits if the target doesn’t make their endurance test (or in the case of mooks, I just call it an incapacitate.)

I have two suggestions to improve the way combat is handled in Cortex:

1) Weapons and damage — In the case of damage, I suggest the player be allowed to  “take the average” — if a pistol has a d6W (and most do), the weapon normally does three. With an extraordinary success, it does the max for the die, in this example six. (Ex. Ted (d6 Agility+d4 Guns with a result of 10) shoots Steve (dodging with a d6 Agility and d6 Athletics with a disappointing 7 result.) He does 1 stun from basic damage, and 4 wound. Had he gotten an extraordinary (say, Steve only got a 3), it would have been 4 stun, 9 wound.

This should speed combat and reduce some of the chance of combat. I would still allow them to roll damage if they were feeling lucky, but it might be a good option for the GM running a big, complex fight to cut down on rolling and paperwork.

2) Always roll Endurance when taking a hit. Sometimes, you get hit and while it doesn’t do any real physical damage, it knocks the snot out of you. I like to have the players test against Endurance equal to an injury they sustain in combat. They took 2 stun, 2 wound? Beat a 4, otherwise be stunned for a number of rounds equal to how much to missed. On an extraordinary success, stick to the rules on pg. 94 of the Cortex core book — wounds start d2 Bleeding per turn of strenuous activity or 10 minutes otherwise; stun and you’re knocked out; basic damage, you’ve taken some kind of debilitating injury.

As always, feel free to completely ignore these suggestions.

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.

(Or “the John Maclane” rule…)

I’ve been a shooter for a long time, in civilian, military, and other capacities. One thing that most RPGs don’t model well, more for game balance than anything else, is multiple shots from a handgun. This rule is presented for those GMs that want their Cortex-based game to have a more modern, gun-fu sort of flavor to it.

Much like burst fire, rapid fire lets the character blast off multiple rounds with a single die test. But whereas a burst fire/automatic weapon doesn’t require the character to pull the trigger multiple times, a semi-automatic or revolver does. When using RAPID FIRE, the character trades a skill step for a damage step — this represents multiple rounds fired at a single target. Additionally, any other actions taken that round — like, say, during rapid fire on a second target, suffer from the usual multiple actions step down from whatever number of steps were used on the initial attack.

Example: SGT Snuffy of the Metro Dade County Police is up against a pair of baddies who are heavily armed. He’s gotten initiative and doesn’t want to get stredded with their MP5 sub-guns. He pops off three rounds from his Bren Ten in rapid succession against the first target. The 10mm has a d6W damage (he’s using substandard ammo), so he wants to crank his damage +2 steps. He has a d10 Agility, so he rolls his agility as a d6 plus his excellent pistol skill of d8. He gets lucky and maxes the roll for 16. He now rolls a d10W for damage on the guy. Still worried about the next bad guy, he turns his attention to him and rapid fires again — he can only do a single step, since his second action starts with a d4 — so he rolls a d2+d8 on the next guy and gets lucky, just hitting, and rolls a d8W damage.

Had he chosen to roll for cover after the first rapid fire, he would have rolled a d4 agility plus his athletics

This should give you the appropriate magazine-draining action that has been the norm in action movies since the ’80s.


I’ve been toying with a Ghost in the Shell style campaign for some time, now. It’s an interesting universe, especially the TV show, and I thought it might work well for my group. (One of the players is desperate to play a Tachikoma…I told him that I might, if this comes to fruition, let him play all the Tackikomas in the squad. It’ll annoy the hell out of one of the other players because he can do the cutesy voice.)

First consideration: which mechanics to use? I quickly threw out OGL d20 — I hate the mechanics and the class-based character rules. Savage Worlds was a possibility, but there’s certain aspects of the mechanics I just don’t like. Ubiquity just didn’t have the feel I wanted, so I turned to Cortex…but which one: Cortex Classic or the FATEified Cortex Plus? I won’t touch Smallville with a ten-foot pole; it’s a hot damned mess.Leverage had some things to recommend it here — the more fast and loose skill sets, the discriptor abilities, and the fact the characters wind up being uber-competent.

In the end I decided for Cortex Classic (a shock to any regular reader, I know…) Character creation is fairly straightforward, using the house rules that allow for the swapping of creation points between Attributes, SKills, and Traits/Complications — as with first generation Serenity rules. I do use the 2nd Edition (or Battlestar Galactica) trait rules, where they are ranked as a die, rather than the more confusing die step. No fixed experience costs for stuff, as per BSG and afterward — I use a hybrid experience based on the Serenity rules: skills cost XPs equal to the die you’re buying (raising a skill from d6 to a speciality d8, for instance, costs eight), attributes 4x the die you’re seeking (raising to a d8 Strength from d6 would cost 24 points), and Traits get raised at 2x the die/Complications are bought down at the cost of the current Complication die (lowering a combat paralysis flaw from d4 to d2 would cost 4XP. this makes buying off major complications hard — as it should be, but you can get that mild phobia under control in a few adventures.)

There are existing cybernetics rules in the core Cortex book that with a bit of tweaking mirror the cyberbrains and other tech from GitS…cyberbrains automatically give an Enhanced Communication trait, as well as a benefit to finding information. I’m stuck between whether this should be an Intelligence die step or a die bonus (example: a D Class Cyberbrain is a d4 Trait and gives Enhanced Communications d4 — wifi access with a d4 reliability and a d4 Knowledge or Expertise skill so long as they are online [or a 2 step on intelligence, haven’t decided].) These skills are essentially “book knowledge” and wouldn’t aid someone in, say, doing surgery. You might know what to look for, but you’re not going to be skilled with the scalpel…you could research karate techniques, but you don’t have the training and muscle memory to use it effectively.

Full body cyborgs would most likely have to be done as packages, especially the bad ass combat models with hidden weapons, etc. I had considered building them more as vehicles with full stat packages to mirror their being tougher, faster, etc…but then tough about the show and the portrayal of the cyborgs — bullets tear them up pretty effectively; even Kusanagi wears armor (when she’s not appealing to fanboys and otaku by being skimpily dressed.) So they’re human-scaled — just stronger, faster, etc.

Weapons and vehicles are have fairly similar real-life analogues and are easy enough to put together. Here’s my first pas at a Tachikoma:

AGL d6, STR d12, VIT d 10, ALE d6, INT d6, WIL d4 (pre-sentience) d6 (post-sentience)

TRAITS: Personality Backup d4 (mind state can be retrieved up to last back up); Thermoptic Camouflage d8

FLAWS: Curiosity d4, Duty d10

SKILLS: Athletics d4, Heavy Weapons d6, Perception d6, Tech Engineering d4

WEAPONRY: 2 7.62mm machineguns in their “arms”, 1 nose-mounted 50mm grenade launcher (or 12.7mm gatling gun.)

My next issue: do I run the game in Japan, with the characters as part of Section 9, or do I set it in another locale on the planet? I can see the first option being appealing, but I suspect the characters from the show would start creeping into the plotlines too often.

Right now, I’m leaning toward setting it either in Rio de Janerio or Sao Paolo, Brazil — an up and coming world power, with loads of black market issues, crime, etc. etc. The other option was to set it in a more futuristic India. Right now, I’m leaning toward Brazil, with a lead in adventure that would take them to Japan — I’m thinking they stumble onto a think tank smuggling ring and have to trace it back to Japan with Section 9’s aid. confiscated Tachikomas would wind up in their ESWAT (or whatever I call it) division.

That was the last point: Are they cops/military like the GitS characters, or maybe criminals..? I’m leaning toward the former.

A quick perusal of this blog will quickly show that I’m a fan of the original Cortex system. While I liked the original Serentiy rules, I think the move from traits and complications from die shifts to actual dice ratings was a good idea. Since then, I’ve thought this one of the more elegant and flexible RPG mechanics I’ve seen. It has a few flaws for things like superheroes, but that’s not insurmountable.

The latest set of rules, “Cortex Plus”, was created for the Leverage and Smallville games and imported a lot of ideas from FATE to Cortex. Again, a perusal of the blog will show I’m not a fan of this move…however, I had thought that elements could be brought in to make the GMs job easier.

One place this shines is in the idea of “extras” — the bit players in the game from the gal running the grociery store you have a throw down in to the bad guys’ mooks. Mooks rules are particularly useful in settings like pulp games, Star Wars for stormtroopers, etc., or even for espionage games where you have to storm the volcano base and go through a $#!tsotrm of baddies to get to the real altercation with the privileged henchman and master villain.

Here’s an idea for how to create mooks/extras in your Cortex Classic (using cane sugar, not that corn syrup crap!) using some of the ideas from Cortex Plus (just 1 calorie…not Cortex enough):

Extras are given a general competence rating on how “bad ass” they are, from d4 to d12. It’s assumed there aren’t going to be extras with a d2, because beating up on an infant is uncool. d10 and higher should be reserved for big animals — lions, tigers, and bears or the like. The average bad guy should be d6. the slightly better than average bad guy, computer jockey you’ve hired, etc. d8. They then get a skill/descriptor die. This could be something like “Brick Shithouse” for that massive knuckle-dragger the bad guy has brought in to get you to sell your place to him — Say he has a d10 in Brick Shithouse. This is not overly competent on most things [d6], but when it comes to asskicking his descriptor counts it’s d6+d10. If he’s “Martial Arts Expert” — you can expect that his descriptor counts for Unarmed Combat and Melee Combat, and maybe covert (if he’s a ninja!)

Assume mooks have a 12 Life Points, but that when they take 6 points they’ve either unconscious or stunned enough they’re not a problem (unless the scene calls for it.) A mook like Brick Shithouse would have 16…because he’s built like a brick shithouse.

A few examples:

Fearsome Housecat: d4 for anything except being fearsome — then it’s 2d4 for intimidation and unarmed combat.

Fat Hacker Kid: d4 for anything but Hacking and Comic Book/Sci-fi Knowledge tests, then it’s d4+d10

Late-Night Security Guard: d6 and for perception tests 2d6.

Grizzly Bear: d12 plus d8 in killing your @$$.

Stormtrooper Nazi or the Star Wars kind: d6 and d6 in combat or chase related skills.

SPECTRE volcano base guards: d6 and d6 in combat and not much else.


Want to run Lovercraftian horror using the Cortex RPG system? Or any horror campaign for that matter?

Central to the Chthulu games is SANITY…usually, if your character doesn’t get snuffed, they go mad. It’s not my cup of tea, personally; I rather like the possibility of success in a game, but CoC always felt like the point was to go mad in an inventive way.

So I propose the addition of another secondary attribute — you guessed it: Sanity! Like Life Points, Sanity measures your resistance to the horrific, tentacled menaces you might meet in a 1920s Spanish seaside town, or could be used for zombie post-apocalyptic games, or what have you. Sanity = Intelligence+Willpower.

COURAGE in the face of these horrors is tested using Willpower+Discipline/Morale vs. either a target number based on the nasty in question, the number of them, or the situation — I’m suck on a spaceship months from help and a acid-bleeding monster is killing my crew! I’d call that a Formidable difficulty, but your mileage may vary… Failure of a courage test results in Sanity damage…it is the equivalent of Stun in Life Points: past 1/2 damage to your Sanity and you’re so gripped with fear you lose the capacity for rational thought and receive a -2 die step to your attributes until you have time to heal (psychically.) Once below your Sanity rating, you have gone starkers and will require psychological treatment to hope to recover. Any damage after that has the chance of simply killing you out of fear: you roll your ENDURANCE vs. the damage: a success and you’re alive.

Recovering Sanity: Up to your Sanity in damage, you can conceivably recover on your own. You will roll a Sanity test once away from the monstrous occurrence causing you psychic pain vs. damage as with ordinary healing rules. Success and you start recovering a Sanity point per day (extraordinary success and it’s per hour.) If you surpass your Sanity, you can attempt to recover yourself, but the time frame is a month/point recovered. Psychological treatment can aid in the process.

The slippery slope: each time your Sanity dips below the full rating, you lose a point of Sanity. This can be mitigated by buying up your Intelligence or Willpower stat. Once your Sanity rating has been reduced below half it’s rating, you must take a Complication — a physical tick that afflicts you, a phobia, the Unstable complication…something to show you’re not quite right anymore. If reduced permanently to 0, you are irrevocably insane. At this point the character is unplayable.

CORRUPTION — Lovecraft was something of a Luddite, who saw scientific exploration as frightening and ultimately destructive. Knowledge of the occult is an analogy for science in Lovecraft’s Mythos: the more you know, the more corrupted by it you become.

A character that takes Knowledge/Occult is well kitted out to fight the evils from beyond this dimension…but the knowledge of that infests them with evil — they are not quite as sane, not quite as good as they once might have been. The die rating of the Knowledge can be applied to the difficulty of Courage or Resistance (to their foul lures) tests when facing the evils awaiting you.

Alternately, the GM could require that “real” occult knowledge be bought as a Trait (Uncommon Knowledge) with a Corruption complication that is equal to the knowledge and that corruption counts toward the difficulty of Courage or Resistance tests in the face of whatever they’re investigating.

The repair rules for vehicles and ships in the Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPGs uses the same idea as healing wounds for a character — appropriate, in some ways, as vessels are treated as characters by the rules. However, not all vehicles are equal…a motorcycle might have 8 life points, as opposed to a car with 12 or 14…a 5W crash seriously impedes the operation of the bike; the car has some pretty nasty body work and maybe some mechanical repairs necessary, but it’ll still get you to Dubuque, if you need.

More important is the ratio of damage to structure, I think, and to more accurately reflect this, here’s my take on Repair: