CORTEX System Role Playing Game [Review]

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The CORTEX System Role Playing Game is a set of generic rules first seen in the Serenity RPG, and since used in the Battlestar Galactica and Demon Hunter RPGs, and the recently released Supernatural RPG. It comes complete, bar the dice, and is designed to handle most genres short of the more fantastic – so no high fantasy, no superheroes, and no ultra-tech. What it can do is fantasy with magic, science fiction with psionics and cyberware, and more modern set and near future set games, all with a gritty edge. The book also includes some decent GM advice, three sample settings, and even an index.

There are numerous sets of generic rules for roleplaying currently available and the difference between each one comes down to the level of detail it provides, the lightness of its rules, and the feel of the game. The CORTEX System Role Playing Game compares well with any of its competitors, sitting at the low end of the detail spectrum, its rules being moderately light, and possessing a feel that is grittier and grainier than other light generic rules. The core rules are slightly let down by their window dressing – more pick and play elements could have been included to get a game set in a specific genre going faster, and the sample settings do undersell themselves. Nevertheless, the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is a good package for the GM who wants a light, gritty rules set with which to create his own games.

The system is relatively straightforward. Attributes, skills, and traits – assets and complications (or advantages and disadvantages), for characters, monsters, and vehicles are measured by dice type: two, four, six, eight, ten, and twelve-sided dice, with a rating of d6 being considered as average. Just a single die type measures Attributes – Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower – as well as Traits, Assets and Complications, such as “Rank and Privilege” and “Traumatic Flashbacks”. Skills work slightly differently. Above a rating of d6, all skills must have a specialty. So a character can have a skill in Drive of d2, d4, or d6, but beyond that he needs to specialize in Bus, Car, Truck, or something similar, in which he would have a rating of d8 or more. This would be expressed as Drive d6, Truck d8 and the character could easily buy specialties beyond that.

To do anything, a character rolls against a target difficulty – three for easy, seven for average, right up to 31 for impossible. Any result of seven or more above this target is counted as an extraordinary success. Skill checks involve both an attribute and the skill, but the attribute will vary depending upon circumstances. For example, to successfully strike a target a character would roll his Agility and his Unarmed Combat d6, Tae Kwon Do d10, but to analyze and assess his opponent’s skill, he would roll his Intelligence and his Unarmed Combat d6, Tae Kwon Do d10. Rolls involving attributes either mean rolling it twice – for example, when making a strength check to force open a door – or two different attributes.

A character also receives Plot Points, used to modify his skill rolls, to reduce damage suffered, and to manipulate the game in small ways in his favor. He earns them not just for good roleplaying and achieving goals, but also for bringing his Complications into play.

Character creation uses a standard point buy method. A player is given points to spend on his character’s attributes, skills, and traits, the amount varying according to how experienced or how heroic the GM wants his player characters to be. The book also includes bundles that a player can buy, packages of attributes, skills, and traits representing racial or experience backgrounds, such as (UFO) Abductee or Elf. There are only a few such sample Bundles, and while it is easy enough to create more, it would have been nice to have a few more, perhaps categorized by genre so that a GM and his players could just pick and play.

The system is well supported with solid rules for handling combat and vehicles – anything from a minivan to a scout starship – and a decent equipment list that includes robots and androids (with rules to play both). The GM is given advice on creating and running games, with attention paid to the genres supported elsewhere in the book – crime, fantasy, and galactic fantasy.

Part of the problem with the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is that it draws strong comparison with Savage Worlds, primarily because the mechanics of both look vaguely similar and cater to similar markets. There are plenty of differences and similarities though. Both are quick games, but CORTEX is more straightforward in play when compared with the slightly more complex Savage Worlds and its use of cards. CORTEX is a grittier, grainier game than the pulpier, more heroic in feel Savage Worlds. and lastly CORTEX gives the GM and player alike something less proscriptive to work with in terms of its mechanics and character advancement when compared to the tight framework of Savage Worlds. The other advantage Savage Worlds has is that gives access to a wide range of settings (and it handles miniatures skirmish games better, but CORTEX was not written with that in mind), but CORTEX is a better toolkit in terms of mechanics for the GM to create his own setting or game. That said, the similarities are enough that you could run a Savage Worlds setting with relatively little difficulty using the CORTEX system.

The other problem that the CORTEX System Role Playing Game has is in its choice of window dressings and sample settings. The primary window dressing elements provided are magic, cybernetics, and psionics, each including just about enough samples to show the reader how they work and then leave you really wanting more. The other piece of window dressing is a set of mechanics describing how the U.S. court procedure works, which seems an odd choice that only makes sense when you discover that one of the three sample settings is a cop show.

The first of the three sample settings is “Star of the Guardians”, a Star Wars-like space opera based on the books by Margaret Weis (whose company, Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. publishes this book), in which the Guardians, members of the genetically bred Blood Royal who are trained to use the Bloodsword energy weapons and other technology, feud over the fate of the galactic Republic and the safety of the heir to the monarchy that the Republic overthrew. The second is “Trace”, a contemporary police procedural inspired by the C.S.I. and Law & Order franchises that suggests that the players take multiple roles, from investigative to support to technical, and play troupe style. The third of the settings is “Arcady”, based in a southern gothic novel by Michael Williams about a family and their house, both of which are capable of slipping through the Borders into a dream-like world.

Of the three, “Star of the Guardians” and “Arcady” suffer from a lack of information and if the reader is not familiar with nor a fan of the books that they are based on, the likelihood is that the reader is not going to be grabbed by either. “Trace” has the advantage of familiarity – how many of us have not seen a police procedural? It also benefits from the fact that the CORTEX system is designed to handle exactly this kind of genre, the rules being an easy match, whereas in the other settings, the GM only receives sample window dressings to use with them.

Physically, the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is neatly laid out, lightly illustrated (with the silhouettes actually being better than some of the artwork), and clearly written. Its coverage of the possible genres is perhaps a little too cursory, but these rules are not really aimed at the inexperienced GM.

So the question is, do I like the CORTEX System Role Playing Game? The answer is, yes I do. I would probably turn to Savage Worlds for its settings – too many good ones to mention here – but the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is there for when I want something with a slightly harder edge.

I want more!

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