Gaming Thrusday: Cortex Complications

As I noted a little while back, our group has delved into the Cortex Prime ruleset for our current campaign.  I’d tried out Cortex a bit in Firefly, but this is my first deep foray into the system and thus far I’m really liking it.  There’s a lot to it that does a good job of facilitating a narrative-heavy style of play, with each character having plenty of latitude to accomplish things in their own way which helps make them feel distinct, interesting, and open for lots of RP.  Good stuff!  And that the first “complete” Cortex Prime RPG has just been released (as opposed to the Cortex Prime rulebook which is a giant toolbox) in the form of Tales of Xadia there’s plenty more chances for people to try out the system, and I’m excited for its spread.

However, there is one aspect of the system that threw us a bit for a loop:  Generally, building a larger pool* is desirable as, obviously, makes it more likely to get a high result and thus achieve success.  Perhaps counterintuitively though, that same larger pool also means more chances to roll a hitch and therefore more chances for a complication.  Thus, the better your chances equally better is your chance to have something detrimental come out of it.  This seemed both weird (in that counterintuitive sense) as well as punishing, and we bumped on it for a while.  However!  In yet another one of those “walking through the house” epiphanies, I got what I was missing to see it in a much more useful light:

  1. Rolling a hitch always removes the die from your pool. However, AND THIS IS THE BIG THING, it is up to the GM whether to ‘activate’ it as a complication, or not.  Not every hitch HAS to be activated into a complication.
  2. IF the GM activates, you get a PP. This is important as it is one of the primary ways to enable and ensure the meta-currency economy.
  3. So if you do get the complication you also get something to help you get out of it if you need to… and if you don’t, excellent! You get to save that meta currency for extra awesomeness later.
  4. In addition, if the GM creates a complication based on the hitch, then, in general, that complication should LAST NO MORE THAN THE SCENE. It mucks things up in the moment, but it isn’t “sticky.” They are a narrative setback that are a niggle only for the moment.  (Lingering and sticky effects should mostly be the result of a failed test or contest or go to the stress track if using that mod.)
  5. (As an aside, if there is a case where it might be good to include a complication as something that lingers, then it can act like a clock, filling up until it triggers something. For example, a hitch on a test to infiltrate a facility could begin a complication called “Compound Alerted”, which might increase the base difficulty of future tests, and if the complication is stepped up above a d12 then compound goes onto lockdown.)
  6. It is also good to remember that complications don’t necessarily apply on every test going forward, only on tests where the complication would apply or have an impact. This can entice players to find alternate and creative ways to work around the complication, leading to more drama and dramatic action.
  7. Overall, the intention behind this mechanic might be to “balance” large pools somewhat. In other words, if you can build up a big pool the increased chance of hitches helps keep it in check and keeps things narratively interesting.
  8. I think a good hitch activation rate might be between 1/3 to 1/2 of the time. This allows for the narrative drama without it becoming a frustration for the player or, worse, feeling feel like punishment for when your character is really good at something (ie, when you have a tonne of dice in your pool).  It also alleviates the GM from having to continually come up with interesting complications.
  9. (For clock-like hitches it might be OK to activate them more often…)
  10. It’s also worth thinking about when to step up an existing complication, and when to create a new one. Roughly, I think stepping up only once per scene (which keeps it from potentially becoming overwhelming) is a good baseline before activating a new complication.

As an additional bit, and I don’t know if it’s explicit in the Cortex Prime rules or not, but I would allow the players the choice of whether to include an opponent’s complications or stress dice in their pool or not.  If they are forced to, and they hitch on that die, then once again it can elicit frustration and annoyance.  Alternately, or in conjunction, as a GM I’d have a light touch on activating complications that arise from including an opponent’s complication or stress dice in the player pool.

With all of the above in mind now this quirk of the system sticks less in my craw.  It becomes an opportunity for something, and like so much else at the table it is an opening for conversation.  What would be cool here?   What would make for the “best” story?  What’s dramatically appropriate?  Out of that will come whether or not to create a complication and, if so, what complication to create, all in service of the action and drama and story.


* Briefly, if you’re not familiar with the system, the base mechanic is to build a pool of dice (of differing sizes depending on what’s going into the pool), roll, and keep two to determine your total.  Any die that rolls a 1 is not only removed from the pool but, crucially, allows the GM to create a complication for the character.  These complications come with their own die rating and actively hinder the character.

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