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:

I’ve been toying with the idea of a Ghost in the Shell-style campaign using Cortex.  Scattered throughout the core book and the Serenity material is much of what you might need to develop a setting similar to Shirow’s world.

First thing that is necessary is to have some kind of idea regarding cybernetics.  For systems like Cyberpunk and others in the cyberpunk genre, there is a tendency to get very detailed with the type of equipment that you’ve bolted onto yourself.  This isn’t really necessary:  most of the cybernetic enhancement can be covered by a few Traits, well described.  In essence, you have two things cybernetics would do, systems mechanics-wise:  increase your attributes, provide an existing trait, or provide skill emulation.

CYBERNETIC ENHANCEMENT (d2-d4):  You’ve have work done to improve your body’s natural characteristics — maybe it’s a kinesthetic monitoring system that enhances your inner ear, or sensory buffer that pushes data to the brain at a faster rate giving you a better Agility or Alertness; maybe it’s artificial eyes or ears that give better vision and hearing, adding to your Alertness; maybe its an adrenal boost that aids in your natural Strength; maybe it’s a drug shunt that adds to your Vitality or Willpower tests.  Whatever the system, it hacks the meat to push it to its limit.  You can take this multiple times, to give the boost across abilities.  Gives another die for tests involving that particular attribute.

METACORTEX (d2-d6):  This is a cybernetic uplink that conencts the user’s mind to the internet, or whatever you’re calling it in the campaign.  It doesn’t boost the intelligence of the user, per se, but instead gives a die bonus when doing an Intelligence based skill like Knowledge, Scientific Expertise, etc.  It allows you to find the data on the wb/net/cyberspace, and use it.  It doesn’t make you a surgeon, or an astronomer, or make you an expert in the paintings of Matisse, but you might be able to fake it.  It could also give the Enhanced Communications Trait at d6 (Because of the nature of the cyberpunk genre, I’d say just have this cost the equivalent of a d4 trait as an add-on.

Another Cybernetic Enhancement might give a Trait, instead — bionic legs might give a Fast on your Feet, but don’t offer much else in the way of enhancement; a Vehicle Interface would give you the Born Behind the Wheel Trait that is good for any vehicle; Eyes and Ears might provide Enhanced Senses; nanobots designed to strip toxins and disease from the body might provide a combination of Hearty Constitution and Fast Healing — or possibly Immune, depending on the nature of the cybernetics.

Cut down to the most basic levels, these are really the only Traits you need for the basic cybernetics.  To tailor them, you can take Complications specific to the technology.

Maybe your iBrain only works on the AT&T network, and as a result, you can’t always get a signal or fast throughput, you could take OUT OF NETWORK (d2-d6):  Depending on where you are, the GM might have you incur a die penalty, added to the difficulty of whatever Metacortex-based test you are rolling.  (“Dammit!  I’m only getting one bar — I’ll never get the recipe I need for this casserole in time!)

Maybe your strength benefit from cybernetics is specific to a single limb (“My right arm is the best prosthetics money can buy!”), and can only really be used for crushing or punching, but you can’t benchpress a ton if only your right arm from shoulder to hand is artificial.  Take the cost of the enhancement dow a die step, but note that it’s only go for such-and-such.

The real issue would be full body prosthesis — essentially, you would have to build the character as usual, but with the CONSTRUCTED Trait and NONHEALING Flaw — you require repairs after damage.  You might go so far as to have something like ROUTINE MAINTENANCE (d2-6):  If the character doesn’t receive routine service, their body is prone to breakdown or malfunction.  At d2, thy require service every six months, d4 monthly, d6weekly.  If they aren’t maintained, they must roll an EASY RESISTANCE for the first time period (for a d4, the first month), then +4/per period (AVERAGE for two months on a d4, HARD at three, etc…)  If the roll have failed, they have their die rating added to tasks as their system break down.  On a botch, they completely fail and cannot operate until repaired.

I think the tricker elements are the full body prostheses of GITS, where there’s enough of their biological bits and bobs left that they have to eat, but have to have mainenance, where they are resistance to disease, but the meat bits can still get sick.

Still ruminating on this…

For Battlestar Galactica and Serenity (and the other Cortex campaigns I might run), I’ve been using a stripped down “defense” system to speed play.  For players defending against multiple attacks, I have them roll once — either their Agility+Athletic (Dodge) [in hand-to-hand or melee they can use Agility+combat skill to block, parry, etc.] or the Agility straight if they don’t have the skill.  This test, if higher than the base difficulty to hit (say, Average for a bunch of mooks in a karate fight scene) — it’s the skill or attribute check they have to beat; if lower, it’s the 7 for an Average.  To emulate multiple attackers, I giver them a die step on their skill for each mook.

Example:  Martin “th Black Monk” Zhuong is fighting three guys from the Brotherhood of the White Chrysanthemum.  He has a Agility of d10 and a Unarmed combat (Karate) of d10.  The mooks are Agility d6+UC/Karate d6.  The three of them are wailing away at him in a circle and he has to do the Jet Li mutli-block schtick against them  it’s d6+d10 (+2 steps for the extra two guys) vs. Zhuong’s 2d10.  The GM rolls a 6 (they would have missed him even if he didn’t actively defend — most likely, their punches and kicks are getting in each other’s way — and Zhuong rolls a 19.  He easily beats them out, well enough that were this an actual test in a game I would let him have one attack roll at his normal stats, even if he had done multiple rolls.

It works for viper combat in BSG — Skidmark is being harried by three raiders that have her bracketed and locked up.  She is trying to fly them into her wingman’s line of fire, but has to dodge their shots.  Skidmakr is a solid pilot at d8 Agility and d10 Pilot/Viper.  The raiders are combat experienced Cylons with an Agility of d12, and due to experience, a Pilot of d4.  They roll a d12+d8 (for the extra two) vs. Skidmark’s d8+d10…Cylons roll 8, Skidmark 7: one of the raiders tags her viper for 1S+d8 for the cannon damage — a 6 — 1S, 6W.  Skidmark’s Mk VII takes 2W, after the armor.  they’ve stitched her ship, but “it’s nothing she can’t handle…”

MANPADS are man-portable, surface-to-air anti-aircraft weapons.  In theBattlestar Galactica RPG, they give stats for the SMI92 “Flying Needle” — essentially the Stinger missile.  The weapon has a maximum range of roughly 15,000′  (about 3.5 miles), and damage of d8W, vehicle-scale.

Similar weapons like the Milan and the Starstrike use laser guidance, instead of optical sighting, and their rockets fly at about Mach 3.  The Starstrike uses a trio of “needles”, each made of tungsten and carrying roughly a 3 lb. warhead.  The Starstrike would have a vehicle-scale damage of d10W (and for Serenity a spacecraft scale of d0W.)

Basically, from a mechanics point of view, shields in Star Trek work like armor — it soaks some of the incoming damage.  The shields degrade as more damage comes in, eventually failing.

Shields in Cortex Trek have two ratings:  wound and stun.  The Constitution-class starship for my retcon game (much closer to the original show ship) has a rating of 3W, 3S.  An attack from a Klingon D-7 might take a shot at Enterprise. The Klingons are firing at medium range, needing an average (7) to hit.  The gunner is an NPC so the GM rolls the ship’s ALE of d8 and a Heavy Weapons of d4: they get a 9.  Big E is hit with 2 basic damage, which is split into 1W, 1S.  Both are soaked by the shields.  They roll the damage on their disruptors: and roll a 2.  Another 2W hit the shields, but do not get through.  However, the shields lose a point of effectiveness.  This starts with Stun, then moves to Wound.

Here’s where the operations players can be of assistance.  While the tactical officer is shooting, the operations (navigator usually in TOS) tests to try and keep the shields fro losing effectiveness.  They roll their Tech/Shields as if doing a wound recovery test, in this case against a 5 (and average test.)  Say the character has an INT d8 and a Tech of d6.  [S]he rolls a 10.  The shield strength fluctuates, but remains 100%.   Had he rolled under a 7, the shield rating would be reduced to 3W, 2S.

If a shot breaches the shields, the ship tests for the reliability of the shields (VIT+WIL).  Say the next shot, the Klingons get really lucky:  they roll a 12.  That’s 12-7: 5 points of basic damage (2W, 3S), and roll a 6 on the damage.  8W, 3S total.  5W gets through and Enterprise takes a hell of a shot.  The shields are checked for their reliability by the engineering officer, command officer, or if neither of these positions is a player character, they GM.  (Engineering and command officers, however, can blow plot points on the test.)  The total hit of 11 requires a 19 to succeed.  They roll the VIT+WIL of the ship — a 5 in this case.  The shields are now at 3W, 2S.

Big E can take 18 points of damage.  She has 5 hit the hull.  That damage can effect the ship’s systems.  Do a series of reliability tests for the following attributes:  Agility+Willpower for the ships’s maneuvering thrusters vs. Average (for the 5W), Alertness+Willpower for the sensors, Intelligence+Willpower for the computers, VIT+WIL for systems like transporters, warp drive, weapons.  A failure lowers the die rating a step (a botch drops it to d0.)

Example:  Enterprise takes 5W.  AGL+WIL is a 7 — no damage to maneuverability,  VIT+WIL is a 4 — there’s a problem with life support and the Vitality is reduced to d8 until it can be repaired, and so on…  For systems, a VIT+WIL for engines that fails might mean the warp drive is offline, the same for transporters.  For weapons, it might mean a die step penalty for damage as a result of power loss, damaged emitters, etc.

This is where the engineers come in.  Mr. Scott, super-engineer, has an INT of d10, Mechanics/Repair of d10, and a Talented Engineer of d6.  He has a few things to attend to — he could try to repair the shields, the life support, or another system (one per combat turn.)  This is a bypass or jury rig, since a real repair takes time.  He rolls against the damage as a wound recovery (if the damage is STUN, it’s a straight test at Average.  This assumes it’s blown breakers, and the like.)  The system gains back a die step until the action sequence is over, or the system suffers another failure — in which case the jury rig fails and the original die step penalty is restored, along with the new damage.

An engineer can stage a second wind at anytime, recovering any stun damage and restoring a system of his choice.

Alternately, the GM might want to randomly damage systems when the ship is hit. For that, here’s a quick random systems damage “chart”: