I always found the Reavers of the Firefly universe intriguing until the movie ruined it. Oh, look, space zombies… Or maybe “space Crazies” would be more appropriate. I understand the movie was an attempt to wrap as many plotlines from the far-too-early-axed television series, but making the Reavers simple a science experiment gone bad was…lazy.

Worse, it too away the agency of a group that had been built up to be a terrifying, almost existential, terror for space travelers in the ‘Verse, the equivalent of trolls under the bridge.

One of the things that made them so interesting was shown in the episode Bushwhacked. Here, the reavers had killed the crew of a transport, yet left one of the crew alive…why? The man is suffering from traumatic bonding, and starts to see himself as one of those that had tortured and killed his crew. But what if it were more than that..? What if, periodically, they leave people alive to see if they will come find them? What if they recruit..?

What if this was a culture, instead of simply space zombies?

These are people who can pilot ships, navigate, operate tactically, who lay traps…not the behavior of animalistic nutballs. Instead of drug-addled space crazies, what if you have a culture of people that have taken body modification, anarchic tendencies, and counterculture ghettoization to a point where they simple don’t quite fit as “human” anymore? We are talking about a period, post war, where there would be a lot of disaffected and damaged folks looking for…something. What about those kids that want to rebel, or are damaged from their childhood — the sort that fled to the likes of Charles Manson and every other low-rent messiah? They don’t just torture their victims; they do it to themselves! They recruit from their victims, like the character in Bushwhacked, but they also have people out there collecting the vulnerable, the young and stupid, the disaffected war veterans, or the power-mad that cannot succeed in the political systems in place.

They prey on ships, but where do they get that flight data to intercept? Space is big; you’d miss your prey without intelligence. What if some of these folks look and act “normal” (’til they ask you, Hannibal Lector-like, to dinner) and work jobs that allow them to find prey or to recruit. you could be friends with one and never know that the erudite fellow you have drinks with after work would torture, rape, and eat you, were you on a spaceship in the black.

Maybe, like other subcultures, it is fragmented and tribal — they fight each other, as much as “the man.” What if you got that one charismatic leader that pulled the disparate crews together?

This version of the reavers could be more than a campfire ghost story, but a much more dangerous and driven group that doesn’t just seek to terrorize for terror’s sake, but might look to eat its prey — in this case civilization — from the inside, as well as out.


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.

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.



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.

I’ve added a new “spacecraft construction” file that combines some of the rules from Serenity and Battlestar Galactica from which you could craft vessels for established properties like Star Trek or Babylon 5. It’s not set up for a GM or player to get into a lot of crunch — the fuel, cargo, and other aspects that were gone into in the Serenity RPG are stripped out and the weapons systems simplified to make converting other settings to Cortex easy. If you wanted to do a more Traveler-esque game, you might want to use these with the Serenity rules to give yourself a bit more realism.

Here’s an idea that I used for a one-shot recently. It is, essentially, the movie Deep Rising tweaked for the Firefly universe. (It’s what I call a terrible-but-fun movie; have a look.)

The players are one of two groups — either the ship crew of a smallish freighter like White Lightning from the supplement Six-Shooters & Spaceships, or a group of mercenaries that have been hired to rob then destroy a fancy new passenger liner. If they are the freighter crew, they don’t know the actual score — they’ve been hired on a “if the cash is there, we do not care” basis, simply running the gun bunnies to point X in the Black and back. The mercs know the full score but are leaving the transpo guys in the dark for OPSEC.

The crew is hired one of the border moons or planets — whatever is easiest for your campaign. For a one-shot, you could have the action start on Persephone with Badger fronting the deal, or on Beaumonde with Mingo and Fanty. They’ve got a hard run out to a location in space that is a bit off the shipping lanes, but still reasonable. If they snoop about the cargo, they’ll find the gear the mercs brought with them includes 4 200 lb. (d6W) anti-ship (spacecraft scale) missiles with a launcher rig that can be mag-locked to the hull. What do they need with artillery?

A few minutes out from being able to find the liner, they should encounter some kind of debris — a lifeboat or shuttle — that they’ll hit before they eventually find the liner. Or if they have the usual cheap boat with bad maintenance, just hit them with some kind of failure. For whatever reason, they need safe harbor on the liner and won’t be able to run for it right off.

For the liner,  you could use El Dorado from the core rules or the passenger liner from SS&S; the bigger, the better — adrift and apparently on emergency power. The mercenaries knew this would be the case — they have an inside man (the owner of the thing) aboard who sabotaged her. The plan was simple: the ship suffers a catastrophic failure and after the passengers are offloaded, the valuables are pilfered, the ship destroyed, and the massive insurance claim filed. (The ship is so expensive, they’re running at a loss, even with a full-manifest.)

When they go aboard, however, there’s no one to be found. There’s indications of a hell of a fight — blood, bullet holes, but no bodies. They have to hit the vault, the engineering section’s machine shop to get what they need to fix their ship. Split ’em up. Lose a few NPCs who can disappear with some blood-curdling scream on radio. Eventually, they’ll have to find the bodies of the crew and passengers (maybe some still alive to make it more terrible) in a hold. There’s also something else, something worse — REAVERS!

There should be a lot of them, and it should turn into a run & gun, cat & mouse game to get back to their ship and get the hell out of there. Once they are off the liner, they’ll have to run for it, because the reaver ship that dropped the boarding party is coming back.

Tweak as you need to make it work for your game — change the scale of the opposition or the liner to suit your purposes — but it should be a good horror/action adventure for you to run.

(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.


Margaret Weis dropped word today that they have the rights to do another Serenity RPG — but not…this time they’ve got the rights to Firefly, as well. It will be “based on Cortex” — which I hope to hell means a revised version of the original cortex and not the Cortex Plus they’ve been putting out. It’s a damned good set of rules, and it deserves to live long and prosperous like.

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: