#RPGThursday Retrospective -Cortex Worlds (Serenity, 2005; Battlestar Galactica, 2007; Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, 2008)

I spent 2007-2009 stationed overseas, and my access to gaming materials was limited. Upon my return stateside in 2009, I quickly searched the local game stores and found a game that changed my RPG life. The game was an RPG based on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series. Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (BSG) represents to my a major turning point in my RPG gaming history.

It’s in Color!

200px-bsg_rpg_cover
Courtesy Battlestarwiki

BSG was a very different game that I had seen in the past few years. First off, the Corebook was a hardcover that was lavishly illustrated with pictures from the TV series. It did not have the desktop publishing feel that I had become accustomed to in the past few years (see the 1990’s and my Second RPG Interregnum).

Cortex at the Core

BSG used the Cortex System (these days the BSG version is known as Cortex Classic). In Cortex, character attributes are not numbers, but a die type ranging from d4 to d12+d4. Skills were also described by die types, and each character also had Assets or Complications that also were rated by a die type. The core mechanic was a simple Skill Die + Attribute Die vs. a Difficulty number.

Assets and Complications were very interesting to me. BSG was the first time I really saw a mechanical impact of role playing characteristics of a player character. But the part that really excited me was Plot Points. Although I had played with Hero Points in James Bond 007 RPG, it was the Plot Points mechanic in BSG where I first started understanding a “game economy.” I also have to say that BSG has my second-favorite ever Combat Example (second only to James Bond 007 RPG) which replays a scene recognizable from the series.

The other very interesting part of BSG were vehicles. Unlike vehicles and spacecraft in the Traveller RPG games, BSG described vehicles in the same way characters were presented; attributes and traits. I actually embraced this approach because it was more “narrative” and fit with the Assets/Complications and Plot Points in supporting more narrative play.

Finding Serenity

So much did I like BSG that I went in search of another Cortex System game; Serenity. Published by Margret Weis in 2005, it was the 2005 Origins Awards Gamer’s Choice Best Role Playing Game of the Year Winner. I had missed this one but now caught up. Serenity uses a earlier (and slightly less refined) version of Cortex Classic but was similar enough that I caught on easily.

A Savage Exploration

Having caught the “attribute as dice” bug, in 2008 I picked up the then-new Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition. Described as “Fast! Furious! and Fun!” I quickly discovered that this rulebook was another set of rules sans setting. It also had a near-miniatures rules feel to it (see Figures and Battle Mats, p. 4). That said, I really was intrigued by:

  • Character attributes described by dice
  • Edges/Hinderances
  • Wild Cards and Extras (maybe the first time I recognized “Minion” rules)
  • Bennies (Game Economy)
  • Initiative using playing cards

The part that confused me was Arcane Backgrounds. I had a difficult time grasping this at first, and really didn’t understand what Arcane Background could do until seeing it used in a later setting book.

Discovering a New Narrative

The major impact BSG/Serenity and Savage Worlds had on my RPG gaming experience was the introduction of a more narrative style of play. The use of Assets/Complications or Edges/Hinderances along with the game economy tools of Plot Points/Bennies totally changed how I viewed playing RPGs. My games became less simulationist and more narrative. Now, I had seen (and played) some more narrative games (like James Bond 007 RPG or even Babylon Project) but I did not fully recognize what was happening. With Cortex System and Savage Worlds I recognized this change in gaming style and embraced it. It also helped that at this time I moved away from a preference for hard(ish) sci-fi settings and went to settings influenced by pulp (in no small part due to my discovery of the Wold Newton Universe through Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan Alive and The Other Log of Phileas Fog and Win Scott Eckert’s Myths for the Modern Age

The move to narrative also explains my next purchase.


Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game, Copyright (c) 2007 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. 

Serenity Role Playing Game, Copyright (C) 2005 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP.

Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, Copyright (C) 2008 Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Produced under license by Studio 2 Publishing, Inc.

RPG Thursday – It’s a Shiny Day Again

Courtesy MWP

Recent news from Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) tells of the return of an RPG based on Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly/Serenity TV series and movie.

A couple of thoughts come to mind here. First, from the subtitle of the press release, what does MWP mean when they say “Pick-Up-And-Play Games?” This line is repeated in the body text where MWP states, “MWP’s own crew of seasoned designers and creators of licensed role-playing games, stand ready to develop an all-new series of pick-up-and-play games and game supplements.” Second – and closely related to my first question – will this new RPG use the latest version of Cortex or an older or newer system?

MWP previously produced the Serenity RPG. This was the first game to use their Cortex System (named after the Cortex in Firefly/Serenity and now known as Cortex Classic). As an early effort, the game had much further development done through later releases, especially items like the Big Damn Heroes Handbook which was as much a Cortex System update as a sourcebook. It also apparently had a limited license – MWP was able to use only the movie.

Later MWP RPG games took Cortex through several upgrades and outright system changes. Changes to the point that the early versions of Cortex are almost not recognizable when placed next to the later versions, now known as Cortex Plus. Cortex started out as a dice pool mechanic that also used Plot Points to create a cinematic effect. As Cortex developed over the years, it has become much more narrative in approach. To see what I mean take a look at the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Example of Play from the MWP website. The battle scene presented uses no figures, no map, but only pools of dice and some sticky notes yet it moves along rapidly in a good representation of an action-packed comic book superhero confrontation. This is much different than Cortex Classic. Look at this Example of Play taken from the Battlestar Galactica Quickstart Guide which certainly captures the cinematic aspects of the source material but in a much different, more recognizable (classic RPG?) way.

Karl “Helo” Agathon (played in this example by Sean) has been trapped on Cylon-occupied Caprica for weeks with his co-pilot, Sharon “Boomer” Valerii. They have fled one hiding place after another and have recently discovered a shelter beneath a restaurant. They are planning to rest and re-supply. Helo has ventured upstairs to make a hot breakfast, while Boomer catches some extra sleep.

GM: Helo, you find that the perishable food has all spoiled. You do discover plenty of canned and boxed food in the pantry, including oatmeal and toaster pastries.

Sean: The pastries should be fine. I heat them up in the toaster and look for a couple of clean plates.

GM: While you’re scrounging around the cupboards, you hear a loud crash and the sound of broken glass coming from up front, near the door.

Sean: Frak! I look for someplace where I can hide and see what’s going on.

GM: Okay, roll your Alertness + Covert. Sean rolls the dice for a total of 11. The GM rolls Alertness + Perception for the Cylon Centurion who is entering the front door. The Cylon gets an 8.

GM: You are pressed up against the wall. From here, you can see tall shadows moving in through the door. You hear heavy footsteps.

Sean: I pull out my pistol, trying to stay as quiet and stealthy as possible. Any way I can get a better view from my vantage point?

GM: You look around and see a stainless steel dishwarmer off to one side. In its reflection you can make at two Cylon Centurions. They slowly walk around the room.

Sean: I remain quiet and perfectly still in my hiding place. Maybe they’ll go away.

GM: They continue to look around the room, but something’s up. The Centurion closest to you readies its arm-mounted rifle, though neither of them are looking your way. The Game Master rolls again for the Cylon’s chance to spot Helo, and again the Centurion fails.

GM: You smell something baking.

Sean: Uh oh. Is breakfast still toasting?

GM: Yes, and it looks ready to pop up.

Sean: How far away is the toaster?

GM: Do you mean the Cylon, or—

Sean: The one holding my breakfast!

GM: It’s about fifteen feet away. The first Cylon Centurion is only a few feet away, partially separated from you by a frosted glass wall.

Sean: I make sure the safety is off of my gun.

GM: Sure enough, the pastries pop up, and the sound alerts the Cylons. Both Centurions spin toward the source of the sound. At the same moment, Sharon walks through the door from the stairs.They turn away from you, focus on her.

Sean: I fire at the closest toaster—er, Cylon! I yell for Sharon to run!

GM: Since the Cylons were not aware of you, you have the Initiative and can go ahead and roll the attack: Agility + Guns. Sean rolls, scoring a 17. Shouting a short phrase does not count as an action in combat.

Sean: Good roll! Did I hit? The GM determines that the Cylon was standing still, facing Sharon. As an Easy target, the Cylon’s defense was 3. He calculates base damage as 14. He also adds 3 more points for the weapon damage of the pistol—a total of 17!

GM: Your armor-piercing rounds hit. The first shell tears through the back of the Cylon’s head, and the second goes through its torso. The Centurion looks as if it’s about to drop. Now we have to take a look at Initiative. The GM checks everyone’s Initiative ratings. The surviving Cylon Centurion goes first, then Sharon, then Helo. Checking the Cylon’s game information, the GM rolls an attack on Helo. The result is a 9.

GM: The remaining Cylon shoves its way past its comrade and begins firing at you in a wide arc. Sharon stumbles to get out of the line of fire. Are you going to be attacking this turn or defending?

Sean: These things have automatic weapons. I’m dodging, and I’m going to dive for cover when my action comes up.

GM: Roll Agility + Dodge.

Sean: I’m spending two Plot Points on my dodge action! Sean rolls the Attribute and Skill dice, and adds a d4 for the Plot Points. All together, he rolls an 11.

GM: You barely dive out of the way as bullets tear the room to shreds. You duck behind the bar, even as light fixtures and other debris fall down on you from the ceiling.

(For the record, I do think that MWP has some of the best Examples of Play since old Victory Games and their James Bond 007 game. Go to this link and read the two-column example of play starting on page 12 of the pdf which has a classic set of scenes from Goldfinger and an in-game version side-by-side.)

I for one welcome the narrative approach to gaming. I dare say that narrative RPG play is gaining popularity and will get a huge shot-in-the-arm when Fantasy Flight Games releases the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook in the second quarter of 2013. This narrative surge is in stark contrast to what Wizards of the Coast (WotC) appears to be trying to do by releasing Dungeons & Dragon classics. Although I have no personal interest in DnD 5e, it will be interesting to see just how many narrative elements WotC does – or does not – bring into their new edition.

RPG Thursday – Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game

Courtesy MWP

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has received great honors this year, winning the 2012 Gold Ennie for Best Rules and 2012 Silver Ennies for Product of the Year and Best Game. The game, from Margaret Weis Productions, is the latest implementation/evolution/application of the Cortex Plus system that I first became acquainted with in MWP’s Smallville RPG.

My first impressions are framed by the Ennie awards. Since it won the Best Rules and was the Runner-up for Best Game and Product I have high expectations.

Rules – I have to admit the presentation of the rules is very good. I especially like how the rules are cross-referenced in the text and margins. If you look at my Smallville comments above, you see that I was having a hard time wrapping my head around several game concepts. I have used the Cortex system since Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPG’s and it has certainly evolved over time (better to say “changed significantly”). This is by far the best explanation of the Cortex Plus system I have yet to read, in part because of the numerous helpful graphics and gameplay examples used. However, I feel the Datafile Creation rules are incomplete. Indeed, they come across as more guidelines than rules. In one case – Assigning Specialties – the book directs the player to “compare your hero to those heroes and villains known throughout the  Marvel Universe….” This is an example of being too closely linked to your license; makes being a Marvel fanboy a near-necessity to play. I don’t think this is really MWP’s intention but it comes across as such.

Product of the Year – My product is the Basic Game, which includes the Operations Manual and the Mini-Event “Breakout.” The Operations Manual weighs in at 126 pages (page OM00 is unmarked) and as I already stated is lavishly illustrated and assisted by helpful graphics and play examples. The blank Datafile, Glossary, and Index are here but numbered as part of the Breakout Mini-Event. The Mini-Event is definitely geared towards learning the game. It is 97 pages long and composed of two Acts (the second Act is optional) and has 23 Hero Datafiles and 48 Villains/Minor Characters/NPCs. This large selection is very helpful in designing your own character. It is also provides insight, especially comparing Black Widow the Hero (Natasha, BR58) with Black Widow the Villain (Yelona Belova, BR32). Overall, this does well as a stand-alone product. Minus the dice, of course. But for $19.99 retail this compares very favorably with the 2012 Ennie Gold Winner for Best Game, Savage Worlds Deluxewhich is also a rulebook sans dice.

Best Game – I have not compared all the 2012 Ennie nominees so I cannot judge if this is really the game of the year. What I will say it that this game is not a hack-and-slash supers game, but much more narrative in approach. To get the maximum enjoyment out of the game will demand a high level of player involvement as it is the players and not the Watcher that creates most of the action. The rules also require more than a passing acquaintance to understand and get the most out of. Regardless of the genre, this game is probably best with seasoned RPG players and not players just starting RPGs or kids.

RPG Thursday – Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide

Courtesy Green Ronin

Creating a setting guide or a campaign guide based on an established property is surely a formidable challenge for any RPG company. For many years I have looked at Maragret Weis Productions as the standard bearer for the RPG industry, especially their Serenity and Battlestar Galactica product lines and even Smallville. More recently I have delved into Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and gained a new respect for that company. I especially like the new Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition because, well, its relatively spoiler free!

From the Introduction:

“Specifically, the game focuses on the last year before the start of A Game of Thrones. As a result, no details about the plots and fates of the various characters are revealed, and each house and individual is presented as they are at the opening of the novels.” (p. 4)

I really appreciate the effort Green Ronin is making to avoid railroading characters into actions and settings. The real challenge will not be the setting, but players who have read the books or watched the series and use that meta-game knowledge.