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.