In previous examinations of works adapted to gaming, Lost in Translation focused on just one original work being turned into a game. This time around, multiple original works are being adapted into just one game system, the Cortex and its successor, Cortex Plus.
The ideal works to adapt as tabletop role-playing games provide a larger setting, one where the original provides for a larger setting than what the main characters there experience. This is the case in three previous game adaptations examined, Star Trek, Star Wars, and 007, where players can take on similar roles as the main characters in both franchises. Even the Buffy RPG could delve into both past and future, allowing players to take up the mantle of the Slayer in a different time. At the same time, if players want, they can still take the roles of the existing characters. RPGs need to keep that flexibility and allow for new characters with similar capabilities as existing ones.
The Cortex system debuted in its early form with the Sovereign Stone Game System, which was based on Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Sovereign Stone novels. Since then, the Cortex system was refined and was used as the base for a number of licensed games published by Margaret Weis Productions – Serenity, based on the movie*; Battlestar Galactica, based on the rebooted series; Demon Hunters, based on videos by Dead Gentlemen Productions; and Supernatural, based on the CW TV series. A stand-alone version of the Cortex rules, the Cortex System Role Playing Game, came out in 2008, after Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Demon Hunters had been released.
The works adapted share some common features. Both Serenity and Battlestar Galactica are science fiction set far from Earth and have characters who spend much of their time in spaceships. Demon Hunters and Supernatural both deal with supernatural threats. All four original works have a devoted fan base, one that is likely to play RPGs. At the same time, each of the original works has its own tone. Serenity, the movie, was based around a government cover-up that affected one of the core characters. Battlestar Galactica showed the last of humanity escaping a relentless enemy intent on exterminating every last human. Demon Hunters is a comedy. Supernatural is the story of the Winchester brothers fighting against destiny, Hell, and Heaven.
Fortunately, game mechanics don’t always set the tone. While there are games where the mechanics were written to support the tone of the game, a more generic system can be adapted to the desired result. The Serenity RPG presents the game in terms of the players being the crew of their own small ship trying to make a living while staying true to themselves. Battlestar Galactica focused on survival in an environment that is inherently deadly, with the push to find the lost planet, Earth. Demon Hunters focused on comedy, with additional writing from Dead Gentlemen contributors and bonus orientation DVD. Supernatural placed the focus on the players being a small group of supernatural hunters that banded together. Each release added rules needed for the setting. Serenity and Battlestar Galactica had rules for starships, with Galactica having expanded rules for dogfighting in space. Demon Hunters added rules for creating demons and spending plot points to summon the Purple Ninja. Supernatural also had rules for creating the supernatural and exploiting their weaknesses.
What helped Cortex be flexible enough for the range of adapted works is its simplicity. The core mechanic involves using dice – the full range of regular polyhedrons – for attributes, skills, traits, and complications. Players roll the dice from appropriate attribute, skill, and, if any, trait against a difficulty number set by the GM, modified by dice from the character’s applicable complications, again, if any. Skill lists can be modified by setting; where Pilot would be a given for a Colonial Warrior to have in Battlestar Galactica, a group of hunters in Supernatural might just have the one character who can fly a small plane. Adding setting-specific rules, such as details about the Cylons, builds on top of the existing core rules, allowing for specialization.
Cortex worked well for settings that focused on action. However, not all settings focus on action. Gaming has seen a movement to expand towards a more narrative-driven focus, moving away from the hobby’s wargaming background. The intent is to tell stories, not chop down opponents. While Cortex might not have been able to take advantage, its successor, Cortex Plus, was developed to do just that.
Cortext Plus developed into three streams – Cortex Plus Drama, focusing on the relationships between characters; Cortext Plus Action, looked at what the characters did; and Cortex Plus Heroic, which combined the Drama and the Action. The core die mechanic remained but was heavily modified as needed. The game also added more details for characters, including character distinctions that could help or hinder depending on the circumstance. Traditional hit points fell by the wayside. Instead, characters could suffer from stress or complications imposed on them. If either got too high, the character would be forced out of the scene, either because of injuries, exhaustion, or escaping.
The first Cortex Plus game released was the Smallville Roleplaying Game, licensed from the Smallville TV series. The RPG used the Cortex Plus Drama system, reflecting how what the characters on the show were driven by their relationships with each other. Instead of rolling attribute and skill, players rolled value and relationship, adding in relevant resources and assets, and keeping the best two dice rolled. Players wouldn’t always be rolling against the GM; sometimes, two characters could work at cross purposes, coming into conflict. Character creation was a group effort; relationships between player and non-player characters were set up in the first session. The main drawback with the game was that a large number of players meant that the relationship map grew complex, It also meant that all the players had to show up for the first session, something not all groups can handle. That said, the system reflected the show; the values, replacing attributes, went to what motivated the characters. Clark Kent’s highest rated value, Justice, and lowest, Power, were true to his appearance on the show.
The first Cortex Plus Action game released was based on the TV series, Leverage, which was about a group of five con artists and thieves using their skills to help the average person who is being run over roughshod by the powerful and corrupt. Leverage used the same attributes that were in the Cortex games above, but instead of skills, characters had roles. The roles came directly from the TV series – Mastermind, Grifter, Hitter, Hacker, and Thief. Every character would have a key role, a minor role, and roles that would make things interesting for them. Each attribute and role had a die type assigned, which would be added to the player’s dice pool when it came time to raise the stakes. Characters also had distinction, which could work for or against them in the dice pool. For example, if Parker, the thief of the Leverage crew, needed to break into an office on the 34th floor of an office tower, she could decide to repel down the side of the building from the roof. To do this, Parker’s player would her Strength die, her Thief die, and could add her “Crazy” distinction and her “No – Really Crazy”, giving her four dice, though only the highest two would be added together. Parker’s player could decide that “Crazy” merited the usual d8 for the distinction, but then say that, because she’s going down facing the ground, “No – Really Crazy” would add just a d4 and provide a plot point.
The Leverage RPG added rules to reflect the show’s episode structure, which included flashbacks to show the characters setting up twists to defeat the Mark. The game allows for players to set up their own flashbacks, allowing them to get an advantage when needed. This allows the crew’s thief to place a convenient smartphone in a drawer where the crew’s hacker can grab it later without the players spending two hours of gaming working out all the contingencies before committing their heist. The Leverage RPG works to keep the story flowing; there’s no real need to spend hours on a plan when the players just need to work out a general idea of what they want to do.
The next Cortex Plus game out was also the first to use the Heroic approach. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game featured the characters from Marvel Comics and was the fourth licensed game based on the Marvel Universe. The game pulled in ideas from both Smallville and Leverage, adapted to reflect the needs of the new setting. Instead of Smallville‘s values and Leverage‘s attributes, Marvel Heroic used affiliations, or how well a character worked with others. There were three types of affiliation, each getting a different die type – Solo, for characters like Daredevil and Wolverine, who worked best on their own; Buddy, for characters like Spider-Man who often works with another hero; and Team, for the likes of Captain America and Cyclops, who work most often with a large group, such as the Avengers or the X-Men.
Marvel Heroic also uses the stress system from Smallville, again, modified. Instead of taking six different types of stress, Marvel Heroic characters only have three sources – physical, mental, and emotional. It is possible for Spider-Man to keep up his constant wisecracking to force an opponent to break down and give up, a result that the previous three Marvel-based games didn’t have a mechanic for. Skills were replaced by specialties, though their use is similar. The mechanics remain the same; a player builds a dice pool and takes the best two results and add them together.
The most recent game from Margaret Weis Productions was the Firefly RPG. The license for the Serenity RPG had expired, but the company had worked with Fox to get the license for the TV series*. The Firefly RPG uses Cortex Plus Action, modified from its first incarnation as the Leverage RPG and taking some ideas from Marvel Heroic. Firefly has attributes, but only three; Mental, Physical, and Social. The skill list is shorter than Serenity‘s, but are broader. The game introduced rules for spaceships, since the TV series was set on one. Players could not only create their characters but their own ship, turning the vessel from a stat block into something that the players and their characters could care about. The game also modified the distinctions. Instead of just giving a bonus die for the player’s dice pool, distinction had some extra mechanical bits that helped players distinguish their characters. The rule book also uses scenes from the TV series to illustrate how the mechanics work, giving players a way to follow the action.
With four licensed games using Cortex and another four using Cortex Plus, how did the adapting fare? At its core, Cortex is a simple, flexible system, in the same vein as the Cinematic Unisystem rules used by the Buffy RPG. This allowed the developers to tailor the mechanics to the adapted setting by changing skill lists and adding and removing talents and complications. It is possible for characters from one of the published games to be used in another; it would be odd to see a member of the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch on board the Rising Star, but less so if that same member met the Winchesters.
With Cortex Plus and its different streams, adapting the mechanics to the setting was a design goal. This means that characters from the different games wouldn’t interact as easily – Spider-Man has no relationship ties to anyone from Smallville, for example – but the games reflect the TV series they’re meant to portray. Smallville is a super-powered soap opera while Leverage is a series of heist mini-movies, and their games reflect those realities. The key is to choose the correct Cortex Plus stream to reflect the core of a work. So far, the developers have been able to do just that.
Speaking of the developers, Cam Banks, has licensed Cortex and Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. The end goal is to create a game, Cortex Prime, that takes in all the prior work mentioned above and produce not just the rules but settings that aren’t necessarily licensed works. His studio, Magic Vacuum Design Studio is running a Kickstarter, with stretch goals that will include a number of pre-made settings with the new game.
* The Serenity and Firefly licenses had an inherent problem – different studios held the licensing rights. Fox has the rights for Firefly, but Universal had the rights for Serenity. This split meant that information in one work could not appear in the licensed game of the other. Players, however, aren’t restricted and can pull in characters and ideas from both works, but any work needed to stat up something not covered by the game fell to the GM.
Marvel is riding high with the live action movie adaptations of its books. This wasn’t always the case. The first Marvel comic to be adapted for the big screen laid an egg. However, Marvel had a better record on television, with The Incredible Hulk lasting from 1977 to 1982. The success of Hulk brought the character into mainstream attention, with the series having an influence on the character’s movie entry in Marvel’s Avengers Initiative. That same success led to the first authorized Captain America movie*.
Captain America was a 1979 TV movie starring Reb Brown, known for his roles in Yor and Space Mutiny, as Steve Rogers. Steve is an former Marine turned drifter artist, hoping to travel along the California coast line in his van. He receives a telegram from Simon, played by Len Birman, who wants to talk to Steve about his father’s research. The Full Latent Ability Gain, or FLAG, is a serum that can maximize the human body’s potential. FLAG has a drawback; the serum causes cells to degenerate faster, leading to death. Steve declines the offer to test the FLAG serum on himself. and heads out.
Fate, however, brings him back. Steve finds his friend, Jeff Hayden, injured in his own home, attacked by a thug sent by Harley, played by Lance LeGault, on the orders of Brackett, played by Steve Forestt. Brackett wants a filmstrip** of Hayden’s work to use to complete a neutron bomb and wants Steve out of the way. Harley lures Steve with the knowledge of who killed Jeff. Steve shows up at the out of the way location at night, where Harley demands the filmstrip. In the ensuing chase, Steve is forced off the road and over a cliff on his motorcycle.
To save Steve`s life, he is given the FLAG serum while in ER. Unlike the previous test subjects, there is no cell rejection; the serum works. Steve’s healing accelerates under the influence of the serum, but he has no desire to find out what else FLAG has done for him. He doesn’t get to stay ignorant; Harley kidnaps him from the hotel, taking him to a meat plant. Steve breaks away from his captors and plays cat-and-mouse among the sides of beef. His newfound strength lets him take out Harley and his men, including through the use of a thrown slab of beef, the only object thrown in a fight in the movie.
Steve talks with Simon, who mentions the elder Roger’s nickname as a crusading lawyer, Captain America. Simon offers a job as a special agent, which Steve accepts. Simon arranges for extra equipment, updating Steve’s van, adding a new motorcycle with jet assist, and a bulletproof shield that can be thrown as a deadly weapon. While he tests out the new motorcycle, Brackett sends men to chase him down by helicopter. Thanks to the new motorcycle and FLAG-enhanced abilities, Steve manages to turn the tables.
Brackett is busy working on Hayden’s daughter Tina, using her to figure out where the filmstrip was hidden. He pieces together what Hayden meant when mentioning his wife with his final breaths and finds the filmstrip. Brackett takes Tina hostage and the filmstrip to his weapons expert, who can finish the neutron bomb with the information on the strip. The bomb gets loaded on to a truck and shipped out. However, Steve’s enhanced hearing picks up a clue on where Tina could be, leading to an oil refinery owned by Brackett.
Simon provides one last present to Steve, a costume to help hide his identity as Captain America. Cap heads to the refinery to rescue Tina and stop Brackett. He sneaks in but is spotted. The alarm sounds, but Steve’s enhanced abilities are no match for the guards. Tina is rescued, but the neutron bomb plot is revealed. With some research, the target is located. Steve and Simon fly off to stop Brackett.
A second made-for-TV movie, /Captain America II: Death Too Soon/, followed, with Reb Brown back as Cap and Christopher Lee as the terrorist, Miguel. Miguel holds a town in check with a virus that causes rapid aging. Unless paid or unless Cap can stop him, Miguel plans to gas a city and withhold the antidote, letting the city die of old age in hours.
The TV movies take liberties with Cap’s background. Captain America: The First Avenger shows the origins well, with Steve Rogers volunteering for a super soldier program and gaining super abilities as a result, and only being frozen after a fight against the Red Skull. In the comics, Cap is found by Namor, is thawed, and becomes one of the founders of the Avengers. That is a lot of backstory to fit into a two-hour TV movie, so the change to an former Marine makes some sense. Steve became an artist once thawed out, so that part is accurate. In 1972, thanks to the Watergate scandal, Steve gives up the role of Cap out of disgust with the government and becomes Nomad, a wandering hero. That storyline, though, only lasted a year. The change to California is explained by keeping costs down; the studio was based in the state.
In the Seventies, the main names when it comes to live-action superheroes were Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman, all characters with similar power sets – super strength and endurance, all easily portrayed with practical effects, camera angles, and sound effects. The cost of energy blasts in post could be prohibitive, as seen with the original Battlestar Galactica, but jumping higher than normal uses the simple camera trick of running the film of someone jumping down in reverse. A drifting hero working for the government covers all the TV series mentioned; it’s a concept audiences should be familiar with and works for Captain America.
Reb Brown, while not the best actor around, is earnest as Captain America and, just as important in a superhero series, has the physique needed. The earnestness helps when considering that Cap was often considered a Boy Scout in the comics of the time. The music by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter is very Seventies with brassy horns and doesn’t quite survive the passage of time. The concept, a hero working for a secret organization, is common, from the OSI in The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman to the Foundation for Law and Government in the later series, Knight Rider.
Captain America and its sequel are very much Seventies-era made-for-TV movies, suffering from budget limitations. They take liberties with Cap’s background, but keep close to the characterization of the time. The needs of gaining a television audience forced some changes. The movies are definitely curiosities, and make a valiant effort, but fall short as adaptations.
* The Turkish film 3 Dev Adam, released in 1973, featured Captain America fighting Spider-Man and was not authorized by Marvel.
** A filmstrip is a series of still photos placed on a strip of photographic film as a means of presentation, much like an early version of a PowerPoint presentation, often with an accompanying recording on cassette, vinyl, or reel-to-reel with signals to let the viewer know when to change the slide.
Marvel Comics had several big announcements since the last news round up. Let’s get to what’s being adapted and by whom.
Marvel and Sony come to a deal over Spider-Man.
Spider-Man is moving into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, joining the likes of the Avengers. Sony Pictures still has the rights to create movies with the character, but the deal should allow Marvel to use elements from the Spider-Man comics such as the Daily Bugle in its own releases. Marvel has shuffled its release schedule to bring the next Spider-Man movie out without competing with the Marvel Studios releases.
X-Men TV series in the works.
Fox has confirmed an X-Men TV series is in development, pending Marvel’s approval. Little of what the series would entail has been revealed.
Casting for AKA Jessica Jones announced.
David Tennant joins the cast as the villainous Zebediah Killgrave, also known as the Purple Man. Tennant joins Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones and Mike Colter as Luke Cage.
Who you gonna call?
Meet the new Ghostbusters for the gender-flipped remake. Melissa McCarthy has signed on while negotiations with Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon are ongoing.
Fushigi Yuugi gets stage treatment.
The manga and anime, Fushigi Yuugi is making the transition over to the stage. Fushigi Yuugi, which translates as Mysterious Play, follows the adventures of Miaka as she falls into another world filled with magic and danger.
Indiana Jones reboot may be in works.
Disney bought the rights to the Indiana Jones franchise and are looking at Chris Pratt as the eponymous hero. Pratt is going to be busy…
Chris Pratt in talks for The Magnificent Seven remake.
The remake of The Seven Samurai is being remade. Denzel Washington has already signed on for the remake.
Harper Lee releasing a follow up to To Kill a Mockingbird.
The sequel, Go Set a Watchman, features Scout Finch as an adult. The novel had been written during the 1950s, but was set aside on the advise of Lee’s editor at the time. The new novel will hit bookstores mid-July.
LEGO announces next licensed set, featuring Doctor Who.
Everything is more awesome in LEGOland as the Doctor and his companions join the massive LEGO line up. The project just left the judging phase, so it may take some time before the LEGO TARDIS hits the shelves. Also announced, a LEGO Wall-E set, with the submission made by one of the movie’s crew members.
Stargate reboot movie signs writers.
Roland Emmerich’s reboot/remake of the original Stargate movie has signed Nicholas Wright and James A. Woods as screenwriters. Emmerich will direct and co-produce, along with original co-writer Dean Devlin.
The Man from UNCLE trailer now out.
The first look at Guy Ritchie’s take on the TV series, The Man from UNCLE, is now out. The movie stars Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, originally played by Robert Vaughn and should be out in August. Armie Hammer is on board as Illya Kuryakin, previously played by David McCallum.