In addition to Fate (both Core and Accelerated versions), Cortex Plus is another game system that I enjoy. There are similarities between the two, which is probably why I like them both. So, although the name of this blog won’t change, I’ve decided to branch out and start making fantasy monsters and characters for Cortex as well.
The first Cortex Plus game I played was Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. (Which is sadly out of print now.) I’m honestly not that big of a supers fan, but was really surprised when I first opened the MHRP book, as it was nothing at all like what I was expecting. I thought the game would be much more rules heavy, with levels and classes, long lists of action types, and detailed rules for movement, possibly even using a grid. Instead I found a much more “free form” game, where die sizes not only represented how powerful characters were in certain areas, but also how much they cared about certain things. Once I understood how the Cortex Plus Heroic Roleplaying system worked, I really liked it. The Leverage game introduced me to the Action Roleplaying variant, and the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide showed me the Dramatic Roleplaying version (as well as a generic version of Action Roleplaying). All three versions of Cortex Plus have similar base mechanics, but change things so that each is a better fit to tell heroic, action, or dramatic stories being told at the table.
The latest version of Cortex Plus is called Cortex Prime, headed up by Cam Banks, which had a kickstarter last year. This new version of the game brings all three versions of Cortex Plus (heroic, action, and dramatic) together into a unified system with lots of dials, switches, and variant rules to highlight different aspects of the stories you want to tell. (It’s totally possible to replicate the heroic, action, and dramatic versions of Cortex Plus with the optional variant rules found in Cortex Prime.)
Full disclosure, I was lucky enough to be part of the Cortex Prime kickstarter, writing a Spotlight, a setting for the game, as a stretch goal. I’ve written a paranormal romance setting about teenage witches called Spellcaught that uses many of the variant rules for dramatic roleplaying. It’s very much inspired by the Secret Circle book series by L.J. Smith.
Alright. After a very long introduction, let’s get to what you all came here to see: Dungeons & Dragons inspired fantasy content for the Cortex Prime game. I’ll start with a character, then use that as an example to explain the variant rules I’ve used. While I’m also going to explain a bit about how the system works, this will make much more sense if you’re familiar with Cortex Plus or Cortex Prime. Unfortunately, Cortex Prime isn’t available to the general public yet, but you should have access to the SRD (system reference document) if you backed the kickstarter, or if you support Cam Banks on his Patreon. The Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide is available on DriveThruRPG, and two versions of Cortex are very similar, and even backwards compatible. Onto the character!
Audacious Human Battlemage
- I Must Learn To Control My Magic
- Raised In The Thornwood War Camps
- The Blood Of Dragons Runs In My Veins
- Careful d4
- Clever d8
- Flashy d10
- Forceful d8
- Quick d6
- Sneaky d6
- Holy One d4
- Mage d10
- Scoundrel d6
- Warrior d8
Note: For both Approaches and Roles, a d10 may be split into either 2d8 or 3d6, and a d8 may be split into 2d6.
- Combat Casting (Mage) d6
- Flame Magic (Mage) d6
- Military Tactics (Warrior) d6
Note: Specialties may only be included in a dice pool when the listed Role die is also included, unless the player spends a plot point.
- Vials And Pouches Of Spell Components d8
- Burning Hands: Because I can hurl balls of magical fire, whenever I include Flashy in my dice pool and achieve a heroic success on an attack, I may attach a d6 On Fire! complication to my opponent or create a d8 On Fire! scene distinction instead of stepping up my effect die.
- Explosive Runes: Because I can scribe explosive runes on inanimate objects, whenever I attempt to overcome a physical obstacle by breaking it, I may step up my Forceful die. If I do, the GM adds a die to the Doom Pool equal to the size of my effect die.
- Flamecrafter: Because I can make fire do my bidding, while it is present I may add a d6 to my dice pool and step up my effect die by one whenever I create or step up a fire related asset.
Yup. That’s the Cortex Prime version of the first fantasy character I ever posted: the Audacious Human Battlemage. She looks different from her Fate Accelerated version, so lets go over those changes.
Distinctions are fairly straightforward, as they act somewhat like character aspects. If a player narrates how one of their character’s distinctions benefits them in the current situation, they add a d8 to their dice pool. Or, if they narrate how a distinction hinders their character, they gain a plot point and add a d4 to their dice pool. Plot points are rather similar to Fate points. Cortex Prime characters always have three distinctions.
Approaches and Roles are the meat of the character. In Cortex Prime, characters should always have at least two “dice buckets” to pull dice from. Whenever a character takes an action the player will add one die from the approach list and one die from the role list that best fit the action being taken. The six approaches are exactly the same as those in Fate Accelerated (Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky), and describe how a character is doing something.
Roles are sort of like jobs, or classes if you prefer. They’re collections of abilities, skills, training, and knowledge in a certain field. For these characters, I’ve gone with four roles that cover archetypical fantasy classes: holy one, mage, scoundrel and warrior. (These are the same four roles from “The Old School Job” by Philippe-Antoine Menard in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide.) The holy one role covers knowledge of religion, casting divinely empowered spells, and the swaying of crowds with sermons. Mage covers knowledge of lore and history, deciphering ancient languages, and, of course, casting arcane magic spells. Wizard-y stuff, if you will. Scoundrel covers sneaking, hiding, disarming traps, knowledge of poisons, use of thieves tools, and other “fantasy thief” actions. Warrior covers fighting with weapons, maintaining armor, knowledge of tactics, and other fighter-y type actions.
Specialties and signature assets are, respectively, narrow areas of expertise within a role and physical items that benefit a character in certain situations. As with just about everything in Cortex Prime, if the player can explain how something on their character sheet is relevant to the current situation, they get to add that thing’s die to their dice pool. But you can generally only add a single die from each category, or “dice bucket”, to your roll.
Stunts are similar to the stunts in Fate Accelerated. They’re little rule modifications that kick in under certain circumstances and help define and differentiate characters from one another. Cortex Prime doesn’t have action types as Fate does, but how a player decides to use the effect die from their roll sort of establishes different action types. Using your effect die to create or step up a useful asset is sort of like Create an Advantage; using your effect die to remove or step down an asset or complication that’s hindering your character is like Overcome an Obstacle; and forcing an opponent to either take your effect die as a complication or be taken out of the scene is an attack. Including a specific die in your dice pool is similar to using a specific approach in Fate Accelerated, and heroic successes (beating the difficulty by 5 or more) are pretty close to success with style. With those as rough guidelines, I’m going to try and keep a character’s stunts as similar as possible between the two systems.
Lastly, the doom pool. The doom pool is a collection of dice that the GM uses to set the difficulty of tasks attempted by characters when they’re not being opposed by an NPC, as well as a GMing resource. Whenever a player rolls a 1 on any of their dice, the GM can give that player a plot point to add that die to the doom pool. The GM can then spend dice from the doom pool for various effects, such as adding more dice to an NPC’s dice pool, creating assets, complications, and scene distinctions, separating the characters, or even ending the scene. It’s a fantastic pacing mechanic and I absolutely love it. Part of the reason I like it so much is that I don’t really like setting the difficulty of PC attempted tasks, as I don’t trust myself to be fair. It’s a lot of pressure to get it right, and I’d rather just avoid all that. With the doom pool, there are clearly defined mechanical game effects that increase the doom pool, and there are clearly delineated effects I, as GM, can spend those dice on. I vastly prefer running Cortex Plus/Prime games with this variant rule.
As a bonus, let’s stat up a ghoul and a ghast so people can see what Cortex Prime monsters might look like. Again, they were the first Monday Monsters I posted to this blog. Cortex Prime divides NPCs into three categories: Major, Minor, and Extras. Major NPCs are the important characters that PCs will be interacting with fairly often, are created with the same elements as player characters, and are further divided into Light, Medium, and Heavy power levels. Minor NPCs are less important characters, but are still going to interact with PCs in a meaningful way. Extras are faceless, nameless mooks, similar to filler enemies from the Fate Adversary Toolkit.
Ghouls could be either Minor or Extra NPCs, depending on how the GM wanted to handle them. As Minor NPCs they’d be more dangerous, giving the players a fairly decent challenge. As Extras, they’d be a horde of ravening undead that the characters could mow through to look awesome. I’ll do both versions so show the difference. Ghasts are meant to be beefier, so I figure it should be a Minor NPC.
Ghoul (Minor NPC Version):
Ghoul (Extra Version):
- Medium Diseased Undead d6
Ghast (Minor NPC):
- Medium Diseased Undead d8
- Grave Dirt Encrusted Claws d6
- Unnaturally Agile d8
- Nauseating Charnel Stench d6
- Paralyzing Touch: Because I can paralyze foes with a touch, I add a d6 to my dice pool and step up my effect die by one when inflicting or stepping up a Paralyzed complication on a target.
Note: Both the Minor NPC and Extra versions of the ghoul have the Paralysing Touch stunt as well. It seemed a bit silly to put it up there two more times.
That’s pretty much it. Minor NPCs in Cortex Prime have at least three trait dice that don’t need to follow the same categories as PCs (though they can). Extras are even simpler; just a single appropriately named trait die. Both versions of ghouls can use the Paralyzing Touch stunt, but as an Extra will still only be rolling 2d6, it probably won’t be very effective. Which is why you should probably group Extras, and even the Minor versions of ghouls together into mobs. Just add an additional d6 to the Medium Diseased Undead trait for each additional ghoul in the mob, up to about six or so, and give them the following stunt:
- Mob Cohesion: Because I am a mob of creatures, I act as a single unit, and opponents may target my Medium Diseased Undead trait with attacks (each trait die counts as a separate target for area effect SFX). Each attack that would create a d6 or higher complication or effect die removes one of my trait dice instead. When my last Medium Diseased Undead trait die is gone, I am taken out.
So a mob of five ghouls would have the trait Medium Diseased Undead 5d6. All of those dice are included in the dice pool (along with any other relevant traits) making mobs fairly dangerous. At least until the PCs start targeting the mob trait dice with attacks, and begin whittling them away.
Well, I’ll wrap things up there as this post has grown to over 2000 words. Going forward, I’m going to try and post two or three Cortex Prime monsters or adventurers every Friday. Once I’ve caught up with the Fate Accelerated versions, that will slow down to a single monster and adventurer per week – the same ones for that week’s Monday Monster and Wednesday Warrior posts.
The character and monster illustrations are the free paper minis made by Printable Heroes. The free versions are backless, but if you back the Patreon at just $1 a month you get minis with backs. For $2 a month you get access to “reskins”, and for $3 a month you get multiple color options. That’s a fantastic deal.