Monday, 17 February 2014


I have been a fan of Cortex Plus games for a few years now, mostly because Cam Banks is such a nice fellow that he made me take another look (after having a bad experience with the SERENITY game a few years ago). LEVERAGE ended up being the engine which powered our COLD CITY game, after some early growing pains, and we've been stealing tricks from SMALLVILLE for years (although I've never actually gotten to run it as written, more's the pity). I've also written my own hack of the game to run GHOSTBUSTERS with, and enjoyed a nice amount of success with it.

Unfortunately, although it seemed to get a lot of forum love, the Cortex Plus MARVEL HEROIC ROLEPLAYING game wasn't around for very long. I think that boiled down to problems with the owners of the license not caring much about the RPG market because the money was only a drop in the bucket. It's too bad, because I think the game had a lot of things going for it. It seemed to me that a revision was needed to sand off the rough edges, but that you had a promising foundation there.

Note: Margaret Weis Productions did fund a successful Kickstarter for the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide and a standalone version of the rules (if I understand correctly) called simply Heroic Roleplaying. I haven't read those books, and they may indeed address some of what I'll be talking about here. 

There was much I liked on initially reading the rules for the game, which were presented in a stylish and colourful way -- MWP has always had pretty books, and the Marvel stuff had piles of good artwork. Firstly, they made the excellent choice to abandon the pretense of realistic detail and went for a system that provided broad benchmarks to model a wide range of abilities. The difference between gradations of ability is a die type -- so  Captain America has Enhanced Strength d8, while The Thing has Godlike Strength d12. There's no hand-wringing about the messy details of who can lift the most weight. This is a good thing.

The game keeps the idea of Distinctions from other C+ iterations -- these work sort of like Aspects in Fate, providing a d8 when they're advantageous, or a d4 when they're a problem. This is an elegant way to add some personality to a character.

The game also makes a point of including Affiliations on the character sheet, which basically defines whether the hero works best as a solo act (Wolverine), as part of a team (Captain America), or with a buddy (Iron Fist). This is evocative of the medium's storytelling conventions, so it makes sense, and it also lets players mix up their approach to an adventure -- otherwise, why would Wolverine ever sneak away from the X-Men to Do What He Does Best (And What He Does Best Ain't Pretty)?

Each character also has Powers (naturally), Specialties (a grab bag of skills), and what the game calls Milestones -- kind of a newfangled way of modelling Experience Points. I've got some issues with these things, but I'll come back to that next time.

So the basic mechanism of play is to form a dice pool which includes a die from Affiliations, one from Distinctions, one from each set of Powers (most characters have two), and one from your Specialties. So that's an average of five dice in your set, and you can add more dice based on Power Stunts (cool stuff you're doing with your powers) and Assets (stuff in the scene, such as a Lamp Post d8 you're using to clobber the bad guys with).

Here's where it gets interesting. In typical Cortex Plus fashion, you choose two rolled dice to add together for your total, and another die as your "effect". So if you rolled six dice and got 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, you could either choose to add the 8 and the 11 together for a total of 19, then use your next best die type (let's say it was a d6) as Stress inflicted on the bad guy; you could also add the 6 and the 8 together for an attack total of 14, and keep that sweet 11 (which would have to have been rolled on a d12) as an effect die. So there's some strategy involved, which is cool. And as always, it's just plain fun to roll a big pile of dice. We love our dice.

So far so good. Tomorrow, I'll talk about where the game gets a little cumbersome and clunky, and where I think it's gone right off the tracks in terms of supporting anything like actual roleplaying. (Sure, this was never going to be a HTHD game like Grey Ranks, but there are limits...)

To be continued...

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