I’ve been running a Star Trek game for my Saturday group for a few weeks, and finally we had a combat sequence.  I’ve been using Decipher Trek, which has got solid mechanics (particularly like the starship combat rules), but which is a bit dodgy in character combat.  Use of phasers is fairly good:  stun requires a test to see if you’re stunned, set it to “obliterate” and you make the guy disappear…but most PCs can walk away from a phaser shot that is described as burning a foot wide hole in a metal door with an “Ow!  That sucked…”

Hand to hand is equally bad.  It’s very obvious that the Decipher character designed were a bit kludged to try and fuse the d20ish aspects that came into the design with the elements of Last Unicorn Trek that worked well…unfortunately, your character winds up with ridiculous amounts of damage they can soak up.  this can be fix with a few simple adjustments, like knocking out one of the health levels, but I decided to do a port over to Cortex.  (Whether or not I use it is another matter!)

First I took a pass at doing up some species templates of Old Show/Movie period aliens.  (We’re running in a combo of the retcon universe of Abrams and the original universe…)  The templates are meant more as a guide for what traits the aliens often have and aren’t necessary to build a reasonable facsimile.

ANDORIAN:  Antennae: [d2] add to Perception tests; Redundant Circulation: Immunity to Cold [d4]

AXANARI:  Enhanced Senses [d4]; Radiation Resistance [d4]


BOLIANS:  Good Natured [d6]

CARDASSIAN:  Vesala [d4]: Works as contacts

DELTANS:  Allure [d4]: Pheromones; Credo, Oath of Celibacy [-d6]; Enhanced Communications, Empathy [d8]; Enhanced Senses, Empathy [d4]

GORN:  Inherent Armor [d4]: Impact & Cutting Damage; Inherent Weapons [d4]: Claws and Teeth, d4B; Dull Sense, Smell [-d4]

KLINGON:  Honor [-d4]; Tough [d8]


Brawler [d4]; 

Formidable Presence [d4]; 

High Pain Threshold [d4]; 

Out for Blood [-d8]

ORIONS [Female]:  

Allure [d4]; 

Immunity [d4]: Ultraviolet; 

Lustful [-d4]; 

Owned [-d8] if slave

ORIONS [Male]:  

Immunity [d4]: Ultraviolet; 

Tough [d4]


Enhanced Sense, Hearing [d2]; 

Discipline of D’Era [d4]: Add to willpower tests


Hearty Constitution [d4]; 

Poison Tolerance [d4]; 

Stubborn [-d4]


Enhanced Sense, Hearing [d2]; 

Enhanced Sense, Mind Meld [d6]: Must be able to touch target; 

Fast Healing [d6]: Must be able to trace meditate; 

Unemotional [-d4]: Against social tests


Enhanced movement, swimming [d6]; 

Enhanced sense, vision [d4]; 

Enhanced communication, luminal [d4]; 

Impaired communication [d8]: mute; 

Invertebrate [d6]: Adds to AGL tests, save on land, when it is a negative to movement tests


Curious [-d4]; 

Good Natured [d4]; 

Pacifist [-d4]; 

Parasitic Reproduction [-d4]


Complex Needs, Atmospheric [d8]; 

Enhanced Sense, Sight [d4]: Night Vision; 

Impaired Sense, Vision [-d4]: Light sensitive; 

Mathematician [d6]


Sometimes, we overlook the small things…  Recently, I came into possession of a Surefire E2D Defender Executive flashlight.  It’s a tactical flashlight with a 60+ lumen light (more if I put an LED lamp in it) and a combat bezel around the light and the activation button on the butt.  Adapters can let you hang it under your handgun (if you have a rail system like most polymer and Kimber combat handguns have, or on your rifle (same.)

The flashlight can be used as a self-defense weapon, striking with the striking bezel.  This adds a +1DC in the James Bond: 007 game (or gives a d2B in Cortex.)

Additionally, the intense light of the E2D can be used to momentarily stun an attack by flashing it in their eyes.  This requires the target to be at ranges of less than 10 feet, and a Fire Combat test with a base EF5.  A quality result of 4 (average), means the target is semi-blinded for the combat round, with a -1EF to his/her actions; a QR3 gives a -2EF to actions, a QR2 means they are -2EF this round and -1EF next round, and a QR 1 that they are incapable of action in the current round and at a -2EF for the next combat round.  (Yes, it really is that bloody bright when shone in your eyes in darkness or low-light conditions.)

Cortex rules for using the light as a blinding weapon:  The character makes an AGL+ Athletics or Guns test.  Success adds the number of points the roll was made by to the target’s actions for the combat round.  Extraordinary success means the target has half that modifier against them the following round.

I got one of the early Eclipse Phase RPG books from Catalyst when a friend of mine snagged one at last year’s GenCon.  I like much of the setting, although I think they throw a little too much at the wall with the aliens and Pandora Gates (think Stargates and your mostly there.)  The one thing that I didn’t like:  the system, especially the hugely clumsy character generation system.

Also, I found EP mechanics didn’t mesh well with the “you are your mind” theme of transhumanism.  You build a character in toto, and while you have the opportunity to reskin with another physical body, it never seemed to capture the idea of the physical body as a tool.  So I thought about porting it over into Cortex.

Some initial thoughts:  when building a character, the starting level of novice, veteran, or elite gives you points to build the “original” you, the one starting the game.  Once built, you can assume that the skills and the psychological traits and complications will stay the same unless the GM has some reason to tweak them, but the attributes might be something that can be toyed with as the character changes skins.

One way to handle changes in the characters “morph”, or physical body might be to allow them to rearrange their attributes when they change bodies.  Maybe the character needs a combat shell, but the only thing available is an older mining mecha turned combat walker.  It’s got the physical stats you need, but the processor is sub-par, lowering (for the time you’re in it) your alertness and intelligence.

If the character needs to buy/rent something upscale, they can either use whatever monetary /trade system your setting has, or they can throw plot points into it “buying” the higher traits for the length of their time in the body.  (Say, they are normally a d6s across the board physically, but they need a high end acrobatic humanoid body for some mission — they want an AGL d10, and VIT of d8…they throw 6 plot points to get the body rented for the time being.)

One idea for the mental attributes might be that while an new skin might have higher attributes, the character is unused to having the processing power or sensor acuity and they need time to ramp up to use it (if they don’t feel like throwing plot points at it.)  Allow them to test their attribute over time to see if they can learn to use the excess brainpower.

The toughest part of the EP and other transhuman settings is the disembodied — the sentient program, “ghost”, or whatever you call it.  Building a super-intellect AI at character creation is a bit harder.  You could 1) For balance the 48 points you have for a veteran character, for instance, could be cut in half to 24 (averaging a d8 for those mental attributes.)  The other 24 points could go into traits — maybe buying backups  or other benefits you would expect an AI to have.  2) You could allow them to buy their mental attributes a level lower (novice at 42 points) and allow the excess 6 pts to go to traits or skills (I like this, personally.)  The get a super intellect that can be stepped down when put into a body, as above.

Another option I’ve toyed with:  temporarily trading skills and (mental) traits for new ones.  You are a high-end cybershell with a top notch brain, but you need to copy yourself for an operation to a radiation-hardened vacuum-environment mecha on Europa.  To save bandwidth and memory costs on the transfer (or to the point, get the boffo physical stats you need), you trade a few of your skills and traits for the physical attributes and traits you need.  Essentially, you sent a stripped down version of your persona to the new body, since it’s to be temporary.

This is, admittedly, just a quick bit of spitballin’ to work out how you could work with the ideas from EP for changing character forms and mind-states, but it might be enough for some clever person out there to create rules for a transhuman setting.

BASIC INVENTION RULES, Part 2 (Creating New Stuff):

Sometimes, your character just wants to build new stuff.  Maybe their battlestar needs new fighters you have to build from scratch.  Maybe you have to build a giant robot for nefarious purposes.  Maybe your character wants to invent the aether flyer…

Here’s some ideas on how to do that.

1) There are two stages to invention: design and construction.  Design is a simple test – a one-off roll against Mechanical Engineering/Create New Device, with the difficulty giving the base time.  An Easy test (building a a spring-loaded arm holster) would be a matter of minutes.  An Average (redesigning a motor or an existing piece of technology) might take a few hours.  A Hard task (redesigning an existing piece of tech to be better [50% more range, accuracy, a +1 step to a single attribute] ) would take a day or more.  Formidable tests (designing a new device with similarities to existing ones – like a simple wind-up mechanical man based on clockwork) would take days to a week.  Heroic tests (like designing a new vehicle type) would take a month.  Incredible tests (designing a new piece of technology requiring a new understanding of chemistry, physics, etc.) would take a base time of 6 months or more…

In the case of building something requiring a new kind of understanding of science itself – say the creation of an aether flyer in Victorian times or warp drive in a near future game, I would suggest a Complex test for the design phase – requiring a Science Expertise (Specialty) of Formidable or more, followed by the Create New Device test.

2) Construction: with the design phase is done and now it’s time to build your machine.  An extraordinary success in the design phase will give you a +2 die step to your skill tests at this stage of the game.  A failure of design does not mean a failure of the machine, but rather gives a -2 die step to the skill when building the device.  A botch in design means the thing won’t work; you have to go back to the drawing board…

First you need to know, is it a simple device or a complex one with multiple systems/elements?  The spring-loaded holster requires a leather greave with a sliding metal arm(s) and a spring assembly with some trigger mechanism – a trigger around the thumb or a catch sensitive to the movement of the arm.  Each piece, however, is relatively simple…a single Mechanical Engineering/Create Device test should be sufficient.

For more complex gadgets like weapons, an extended test might be required.  The difficulty should be based on whether the device is a knock-off of something already around (say a new revolver in the Victorian era), a new design (a semi-automatic in the Victorian era or a gauss weapon in modern times), something truly radical (a ray gun in the 1930s.)

A knock-off should be an Easy extended task, a new design that is not terribly radical an Average, a innovative design Hard, a completely new gadget Formidable with similar time schemes to the design phase, but with each test taking that amount of time.

Sample tests:

Fabricating a new firearm: Craft (Metalworking) Average x2, Mechanical Engineering/Create New Device x2, possibly Guns/Gunsmithing.

Creating a new weapons (ray gun): Craft (Metalworking), Technical Engineering (Electronics), Mechanical Engineering/Create New Device.

Creating a smoke bomb marble: Science Expert/Chemistry, Craft/Glass Blowing, Mechanical Engineering/Create New Device

Creating a starlight vision system: Craft/Optics x2, Mechanical Engineering/Create New Device, possibly Technical Engineering/Electronics.

Building a pre-fab house: Craft/Carpentry x2, Mechanical Engineering/Construction x1, Mechanical Engineering/Plumbing x1.

For vehicles, there are some rules in Serenity that can be modified for use.  Figure out what the Attributes of the vehicle are (you can look at examples of vehicles in the core Cortex book), their skills, traits and flaws, etc.  Add the dice for the attributes, skills, speed (where applicable) and traits together to get the basic complexity of the device.  Failures in the design phase here get added (add the number of points the target for design was missed by.  I like the idea of turning this into flaws.)

2-12: Very Low Complexity.  Costs are x0.4 a similar device/vehicle.  Test difficulty – Easy.
13-20: Low Complexity.  Cost is x0.6 a similar device/vehicle.  Test Difficulty – Average
21-26: Average Complexity.  Test Difficulty – Hard
27-42: High Complexity.  Cost: 1.6 a similar device/vehicle.  Test Difficult – Formidable
43-48: Very High Complexity.  Cost: x2.4 a similar device/vehicle.  Test Difficulty – Heroic.
49+: Extreme Complexity.  Cost: x4 a similar device/vehicle.  Test Difficulty – Incredible or more.

Example: Dex – a mechanic in 1936 –  wants to build a jet pack for his Jackie, an axiatrix he works for.  The design phase sees him learning rocketry (a new science) – Hard Science/Physical.  He rolls his d12 Intellect and d6 Science and gets a 12 (success!) He designs the pack’s attributes: AGL d2 STR d4   VIT d2   ALE d0   INT d0 WIL d4.  Speed 3.  There are no skills, but he has given it a Flaw of Complex Needs d2 for the special fuel it uses.  Total: 17 – low complexity.  Normally, this would be a Hard d12 INT and d10 Mechanical Engineering/Create New Devices test, but it’s a brand new technology, so the GM raises the design difficulty to Formidable.  Dex rolls and scores a 22!  Extraordinary success!

Now he has to get to the construction phase.  This is an extended test.  With the extra success, he gets a +2 skill step to the tests.  The design phase is past and the complexity gives a difficulty of HARD.  Dex needs to get a total of 55 in his tests.  Each test takes a day.  He rolls his Craft of d10 (that’s with the +2 skill step) and Agility of d6 and fails with a 4, but the next test is a success of 11.  The formation of the metal casings took two days and he has a total of 11 (the failure didn’t count toward the total points.)  Mechanical Engineering/Plumbing to run the pipes for fuel, the storage tanks, etc. and Dex rolls his INT d12 and Mech Engineering d6 (now a d10 with the success step) and gets a 13.  Success and the total is now 24.  Mechanical Engineering/Create New Devices (he has a temporary d12+d2 from his design success) tests sees an 11, 7, and 18.  It’s been 7 days since he laid pencil to paper and he’s at 52 points.  The GM decirdes to have him test an INT+Craft/ Leatherworking (d12+d10) to create special trousers to ablate heat and flame from the pack.  Dex rolls an 22.  He’s done at 8 days and the GM decides the work on the flight outfit is flame proof, and that a quickly cobbled together helmet and jacket gives Jackie a 2W armor for combat or in the event of a crash.

A conversation on the Cortex boards got me thinking about a rules set missing from the Cortex books: Invention.  This can be especially handy in a Pulp or Victorian sci-fi setting where superscience is the norm, but also can be reflected in settings like Battlestar Galactica – where the crew built a new fighter from scratch.

So here’s my first pass at a set of Invention rules.  They are necessarily fast and loose, but should work to provide some kind of framework for the Cortex GM…

BASIC INVENTION RULES, Part 1 (Modifying Stuff):

First, figure out what the character is trying to do.  Is it a simple modification?  One that would be a simple test, like adding night sights to a firearm that allows for it (like Glock and most other new firearms) – that should be a straightforward Mechanical Engineer (Customize) test as Easy with a base time of 30 minutes.  Or does it require real work?  If the gunsmith had to work with an old Colt 1911 with fixed sights, they have to shave the old sights, drill and tap the slide for the new sights…that’s work.  And an extended test of Average and 6 hours base time per test.

Second, what skill(s) are needed?  Mechanical Engineering (Customize) works well for most gear situations, but for complex tests, there might be others needed.  The example above with the 1911 would require a Craft (Metalworking) test to modify the slide, followed by a final Mechanical Engineering (Customize) to set the sights properly.

Here are some examples of modifications and the skills that might be needed:

Increase Speed of a Vehicle: Mechanical Engineering (Customize) to change exhaust on a motorcycle or drop in a supercharger or turbocharger on a car, another test or maybe a Tech Engineering (Programming) to remap the fuel injection and other sensors issues.

Increase the accuracy or range of a gun: 50% increase in range or a +1 die step to skill check requires a Mechanical Engineering (Customize) or Guns (Gunsmithing) EASY to add a scope or lasersight.  To swap out a barrel or do action modifications for reliability or accuracy would be a AVERAGE test.

Alter rifle from semi to full-auto: Average Mechanical Engineering (Customize) or an Average Craft (Metalworking) to modify the sear, and an Easy Mech. Engineering (Customize to install.)

Increase magazine capacity on a gun: Craft (Metalworking) Average to build a new magazine design.

Increase range of vehicle: 50% increase is an Average Mechanical Engineering (Customize) that might involve a Tech Engineering (Programming) for the fuel map.

Adding weaponry to a vehicle: Just bolting a mount for a gun to the roof of your Toyota truck (a la the Somali “technicals”) is an Easy Mechanical Engineering (Customize).  Hiding 1.5″ free flight missiles in under the fog lamps of your 1986 Aston Martin V8 is another matter – there’s the mount for the missiles, the aiming systems (if any), and the electrics for the launchers, as well as blast protection for the motor.  That’s an extended test with a Hard Mech. Eng./Customize to design it, another to make the mechanical modifications, a third or Tech Engineering/Customize to set up the computer for target control and the windscreen HUD and radio knobs for aiming…

Third, how difficult is the modification?  If it’s something that just swaps out, bolts on, or otherwise is plug and play – EASY.  If minimal modifications need to be made, AVERAGE.  If it requires a redesign or fashioning of parts, HARD+.  If it requires design and manufacture of parts, as well as modifications to the original parts, FORMIDABLE+

Fourth, how long will it take?  Base times for simple tasks should never be more than 6 hours.  For extended tasks, the base time for an Easy task should be minutes; Average an hour to 4 hours; Hard 6 hours to a day; Formidable should be a day to a week; Heroic should be a week; Impossible and higher a month base time.  (For example: Designing and building the 1969 Ferrari Daytona – from paper to release was a matter of less than three months…)

It the inventor has a staff – the stereotypical single strange assistant (Igor), for instance –  they should receive a +1 die step to their skill.  For multiple assistants, add +2 skill step to the skill.

Ever since I started running the Serenity RPG, I’ve been using the following rule for actions in action turn/combat round/whatever you want to call it.

Each extra action above the first comes with a -1 die step to the attribute. Say you have a d8 Agility. If you changed a magazine on a gun, then want pop off a shot in that turn, you can.  But the shot is a d6+skill.  Say you double tapped, the second shot?  d4+skill.  While doing that you were snagging your rucksack and wanted to get up.  Roll either an Agility or Strength and Athletics (if you had a Strength of d8, you would roll a d4+Athletics, as opposed to a d2+Athletics for an Agility.)

The limitation:  once one of your attributes is at d0 — you can do nothing, including take any kind of passive defense or passive perception tests (you tunnel vision on your tasks.)  We find it works out to roughly 3-5 actions a person could take in 6 seconds, each increasingly harder.  I’ve found that most players will leave themselves a d2 or d4 for wiggle room, should they need to defend against attack or notice something important.

I hate the new advancement system they unveiled in Battlestar Galactica and in the core Cortex book.  I much prefer the Serenity RPG way of advancement — for skills, you need the number of advancement points for the die you are going up to, and I don’t allow the players to horde points to jump levels (say they horde 10APs in the hopes to buy a d6 in something straight to a d10.)  For attributes, it’s the die you’re going to x4.

However, I also like using die ratings for the traits and complications, as was introduced in BSG.  So the conundrum, how to buy traits and complications up or down respectively?  In the Serenity RPG, it’s 20AP to buy down from a major to a minor; 10AP to clear a minor.  Assuming that a minor is equal to a complication of d4, that means 2AP per die step to buy up a trait or buy down a complication.  (ex.  You want to take Friends in Low Places from d4 to d6…12AP; if you want to take some angermanagement courses for that Chip on Your Shoulder of d4, 8AP gets you to d2.)

Recap:  Skills: AP=dice shifted to, 2APxtrait die going to/ 2APxcomplication level you are at to die shift down, 4APxdie going to for attributes.