Gaming Thursday – Cortex of FATE

As mentioned last week, I’ve been digging through the Cortex Prime ruleset.  We’ve been using it in a narrative-forward campaign that was originally conceived and played in the FATE ruleset.  So far it’s been going well, and I’ve discovered a few things that I prefer within Cortex.  For starters, nearly every test in Cortex involves/includes one of the character’s Distinction in the pool, whereas in FATE a character’s Aspects (essentially the same as a Distinction) only come into play if you spend a Fate Point.  While the latter might be more dramatically highlighting, outside of those Point spends there’s less to distinguish one character’s skill or approach or flavour from another.  By including a Distinction with every test, however, a character’s flair and flavour is likewise included and reinforced.  Another neat bit is how, by leveraging Cortex’s unusual die mechanics, there are several slick ways that can be used to resolve different kinds challenges or encounters or situations.  There’s a streamlined way to run obstacles or swarms or large-scale events, a way to craft interesting one-on-one contests, and another that allows for tracked action/reaction encounters.  Each unique yet still tied to the same mechanics, and each of them are evocative and allow for plenty of player creativity that highlights a character’s schtick and personality.  Lastly (for this post), there are slightly more reminders and perhaps incentive to invoke against yourself and therefore keep the meta currency economy flowing.*

Even with all the neat stuff in Cortex, however, there are some features of FATE that I do find missing within the base Cortex Prime ruleset, especially around the larger and more impactful narrative-altering use of Aspects and Fate Point spends.  Hmmm… why not take those ideas/concepts and incorporate them into the Cortex experience?

And lo, the Cortex of FATE mod was born!

To be clear, this is not an attempt to model or reproduce FATE within Cortex Prime – even using this mod the game still plays and feels like Cortex.  Instead, the additions are intended to enhance the narrative oomph of a campaign, primarily by adding additional uses for Distinctions and Plot Points and by porting over Approaches as a new Prime Set.  All in all, the goal is to entice greater storytelling opportunities.

We’ve been playtesting these mods in our Broken Lands campaign and thus far they’ve been working great.  If this piques your interest check it out, and I hope they help fuel wondrous and engaging stories for all those around your table.

* To be complete here, let me mention that I find there are also some downsides with the interesting dice mechanics.  Beyond the one I already spoke of last week, the principal issue is that in building a pool mechanic that both a) uses so many different die types as well as b) adding only two of them together to determine the result, it becomes quite difficult to get a grasp of the probabilities and outcomes.  This can be especially acute for the GM to set difficulties; if the base is 2d8 difficulty, how much harder does it make it if you add a d6 to the mix?  Or for players, is it better to go with a pool of 1d6|2d8|1d10, or a pool of 1d6|4d8?  With the d10, the former certainly allows for potentially greater success, both in a higher total as well as in choice of effect die, but will the latter, with its higher number of dice, equate to a higher average roll and thus higher chance of at least marginal success?  It gets worse when you realize that both the GM and the Player is rolling each time, with no static target numbers, and each with pools of dice that might be different each time… it will take a while to get a feel for “power levels”.

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.

Wonder Wednesday

There’s something about these AI-generated pieces of art that are quite neat…. certainly not photorealistic by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly images that do indeed stretch the imagination.  They’re very much like abstract concept art, which I think is perfect to use for tabletop RPG games to set a mood, feel, tone, or theme.  They’re evocative and let the player’s imaginations run free, which can be even stronger than a full polished piece.  Plus, they don’t tie you or the players to something so specific it creates an inadvertent straight jacket.

Check out more examples at this forum thread here, or try it out yourself!  (Click on “Start Creating” at the upper right to do it on the website.)  wombo.art

Gaming Thursday: Broken Lands

My gaming group and I are getting ready to return to the Broken Lands, a campaign some of us had started many years ago that unfortunately ended soon thereafter as the main GM and another player had drop out.  Back then we ran the campaign in FATE, but this time I’m shifting us to using Cortex Prime with some hacks to bring a few more FATE-like elements into the game.

Also back then I, no surprise, made a character sheet for our game.  This time around we’ll likely be keeping most of our records in our shared OneNote instead, especially since we’ll be mostly remotely gaming… But, do you think THAT would keep my completely non-obsessive and totally healthy character sheet design mania at bay?

Of course not!  What fun would that be?  And so:

I’d probably tweak it some more, but given the uncertainty as to how much use it would actually get, this is probably a good place to leave it for the moment.

(As an aside, I am a bit enamoured with Cortex Prime right now, there’s a bunch of nifty aspects to it, and it is one heck of a wide and extensive toolbox.   I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out at the table.)

Gaming Thursday: The Troubleshooters Aurora Casefiles

The Troubleshooters RPG is a game based on the action, adventure, and mystery genre of Franco-Belgian graphic novels (aka bandes dessinées), especially those of Tintin and Spirou & Fantasio.  Now, if you’re like me, just that tagline is enough to excite you!  And if it does, you’ll be equally excited to know that the game is now out for all.  It’s a definite beaut, well put together with art and layout that do a great job to evoke the genre.  Even better, so do its rules, with the core system being solid enough and with some nice mechanical nods that provide support towards playing and creating those types of stories we love.

Having backed the Kickstarter, I received the PDF a few months ago and have greatly enjoyed diving into it.  And while I have no major issues with the base system, I immediately began wondering how it might play using the Aurora RPG Engine.

I think you can see where this is going…

Enter: The Aurora Casefiles!  A conversion that aims to bring the advantages of both Aurora’s dice mechanics as well as its narrative tools to the world of the Troubleshooters.   This is not attempting to design the game from the ground up; rather it strictly keeps as much of the core Troubleshooters rules and all its nifty subsystems (such as dice flipping, karma, dice challenges, duels, story points, and more) intact.  It’s the best of both worlds!

Snag your copy here (and the Aurora Engine document if you haven’t already), pack your camera, bring along your favourite white dog, a few companions, and let the adventure begin…

(Note that this conversion document only contains the bits that are necessary to modify the base Troubleshooters core rules to use the resolution mechanics of the Aurora Engine.  As such, you will need a copy of the core Troubleshooters RPG, which you can get direct from Helmgast here or also from modiphius.net)

Gaming Thursday: Wanderhome

I got a chance to play Wanderhome recently and wow, it was a complete delight.  It does take some getting used to, if coming in and approaching it like a typical game or RPG.  I’m going to say something that might start out sounding like a denigration or trying to be edgy, but know that’s not at all where I’m headed.  It’s just that Wanderhome might best not to be called a game.  It is much closer to a semi-guided shared collaborative storytelling experience.  It is very rules light, there is no need for dice, and there’s very little in the way of defining a proper path or success.  Going in with the view of trying to work it like a traditional RPG is going to inspire little but confusion and perhaps frustration.

But that is its beauty.  Because it totally works inside the much broader and even philosophical view of “a game”.  The game here is to create a most engaging and amazing narrative.  The story is the thing, and the richness, wonder, excitement, coolness, and involvement is the game.

To that end, having played Mouse Guard was a good primer for us, for in some ways Wanderhome is akin to an extended player turn from Mouse Guard.  There is no GM (though one of the players can take on that role, either for a part of or for the whole session) and almost all is created on the fly, including the world and any challenges along the way (though more on this latter bit in a bit).  There is a structure that guides and prompts you to help generate all that, but again the joy of the game comes from taking those simple keyword starting points and spinning them out in interesting ways.

For our own game, as we journeyed we wove together the prompts to imagine a town surrounded by tall cliffs on the edge of a lake.  A large waterfall dominated the town, as did the giant waterwheels that harnessed the falling water, the crankshafts disappearing it into a large workshop where it powered giant looms.  A legend in the town spoke of a ghost story involving never-ending tapestry, a fable that tied into the waterfall itself which, from a certain point of view, was like a never-ending tapestry, always being woven from the cliff face to the lake below.  It was autumn, and while the area had colourful leaves and warm drinks, our prompts asked us why didn’t it have long shadows?  Because of the mists, the hovering fine films that diffused and rendered light into ambient omnidirectionality, with the cliffs turning day into sudden night as the sun slipped behind them (which also prevented any sun angles that could generate long shadows).  From just that the town was already appearing to us as quite a magical place.  It was very pastoral and fable like, and I would definitively call this a pastoral game in the best possible way, something the wonderful art does wonders to evoke.

As delightful as this world building is, it also serves a purpose, which is to provide a driving backdrop to your story.  I use this slightly contradictory word choice deliberately, as Wanderhome is a game that is not centered around external challenges.  Rather, it is a game/story about internal challenges.  It is about who the characters are and what they are dealing with; it is about their metaphysical journeys; it is about what the players learn about the characters and, through that, what the characters learn about themselves.

Which is actually quite cleverly indicated in its name:  Wanderhome, or Wander Home.  In some way, and in their own particular way, all the characters are either away from their home or not yet home or feel a loss of home (or lost).   And through this journey, the question is (and it is an explicit question at the start of a session that you, as a player, ask quietly to yourself in-character) “where is home for me?”  And maybe the character will find it this session.  Or they won’t, and their journey will continue.  But finding home, and that peace and solace and completeness and comfort and clarity, is what the story is about.

And through that lens/intent is where the driving backdrop comes into play.  How will your character interact with the world?  What will the world ask of your character?  What obstacles or opportunities will arise, and how will you respond?  How do you interact with your fellow travelers (the other characters)?  Sometimes the challenges will arise from the world – a missing object, a house in need of repair, the weather bearing down on you.  But even in those situations, the prime bit is not so much the resolution, but again what it tells us about the characters, and how they react and change as a part of it.  Any physical challenges are a vehicle to delve into the internal challenges, which in turn can beget more internal challenges.  Not that the world need intervene; the internal challenges can engage with the environment or its denizens (called Kith in the game) as a backdrop catalyst to highlight and conceive and draw forth the internal challenges.  All in service of the rich story being woven.

Likewise in service of that story is the “resolution system” of Wanderhome.  Wonderfully tuned for effect, it has but one metric:  a token.  If you have a token, you can spend it to solve a material challenge, or even more powerfully to ease someone’s pain, to keep someone safe, to offer a chance to deeply connect, or to reveal something about the world or someone.  You’ll notice that the traditional RPG-type challenge is resolved handily by spending a token – once again it is but a vehicle for the inner story and journey of your character, and the rest of the tokens are similar, either creating an opening for you or to craft something about the place and hence enhance the story.  Even better is how you gain tokens, for they likewise all work to support the feel of the game and the story being generated.  Many are character-driven, such as giving away something you hold dear, or speaking your true feelings on a subject, but others are wonderfully tranquil, such as allowing you to marvel at beauty, and either create it or else ask the table to describe it.  You can even just pause for a moment to get some rest.  That it.  Just like that, to gain a token.  It fits the mood of the game perfectly.

There’s plenty more to love here, including a lovely calendar and defined seasons that are an important part of the narrative, along with regular festivals.  The game can be played light and serene, or it can delve into more serious issues of trauma and recovery (with solid tools and advice for ensuring everyone at the table is onboard and up for it).  And while the various prompts are meant to be picked from, they’re very much set up to be rolled if you choose, as we did, allowing the randomness to further engage our imaginations.

As you can tell we thoroughly enjoyed playing Wanderhome, and I heartily recommend it.  It’s a delicious chance to switch from the usual RPG modes and craft a deep, rich, and moving story while savouring the scenery along the journey.

You can buy the game in PDF here, or pre-order the hardcover here.

Gaming Sunday

Here’s a Kickstarter project that’s wrapping up in a few days that might pique your interest as it did mine! It’s an SF/near future/science-fantasy game that takes place in a non-colonial Americas! Led by first-nations designers, it promises to be a nifty new take and world to explore:

Check it out! I’m very excited for the project. They’re real close to closing in on 1M and it’d be rad to see them make it over that mark!