So my plans to develop a turbo-accelerated version of my accelerated character creation for Smallville have taken a back seat. After the last post, I had an opportunity to review the latest beta for Cortex Prime, and that’s where my heads at now. I might return to it, but at the moment it feels more rewarding to be seeing the future, than designing content for a game that went out of print four and a half years ago.
As I’ve just been invited to play in a Prime campaign, and am contemplating how to translate my 1-v-1 Smallville game across, I’m having plenty of opportunities to mess around with the modular playstyle, and consider what this game does really well. Mostly I’ve been comparing to Fate, my favourite game system ever, and my go-to game when I need to adapt a setting to a generic system.
I know some people think of these games as dissimilar (usually people who like one game and dislike the other), but I am always struck by the similarities. They’re both generic systems designed to be modular, for easy adaptation to specific settings. They both use metacurrency to model the ebbs and flows of dramatic rhythm, and to empower players (and GMs) to have a strong say in when their characters will succeed and when they will fail. They both use consistent methods of resolution, that mechanically handle anything the players attempt with a limited menu of action options, without distinguishing between “genres” of activity (combat, social etc). And they’re both centred around competent, dramatic, proactive characters, often positioned within some kind of collaborative world generation.
When I love Fate as much as I do, it’s easy to be cynical about Cortex Prime – that it “doesn’t do anything Fate doesn’t do”. But no system runs EVERY game, and the best systems purposefully narrow their focus. Even Fate and Prime, which embrace a diversity of settings, are made up of design decisions which reflect different elements of fiction, and so distinguish themselves from one another.
So here’s a hypothesis I’m playing around with:
Fate is a movie franchise. Cortex is a tv show.
I don’t think either game handles a particular genre better, or a particular tone (with one possible exception below). But I do think there’s a distinction in… scale, I guess, or perhaps in storytelling rhythm. This isn’t intended to be criticism of either game – I like both movies and TV! – but I can see how it is interpreted as such. In a time where production of high quality television drama is enjoying a golden age, it’s telling that the default term to describe TV with impressive production standards is “cinematic”.
Let me try and break this down.
Fate characters are narrow in focus. Cortex characters are wide in focus.
Or, in layman’s terms, Cortex character sheets have more stuff on them.
A Fate character’s capabilities are defined by their skills. (Or approaches. Whatever.) It’s a very immediate illustration of what a Fate character can do well, and what they cannot. There are also aspects, which are important, but only if someone spends fate points to MAKE them important. And there are stunts, which are circumstantially useful.
There’s no single trait that confers that much power in Cortex. Most rolls involve the use of at least two or three traits. Marvel, the Plus game I don’t like, has you putting together four or five of them. If you want to know what a character is good at, you have to read the whole sheet. You can’t look at a character sheet and say “Your high concept is “Mercenary Bruiser”, your top skills are Fight and Physique, I think I can guess what the rest looks like” like you can in a Fate game.
More content means more granularity. It means you can make small changes over time, tweaking a trait’s rating here and there, to represent gradual growth episode-to-episode. And it means you can have a lot of little bits on the sheet that represent minor, often irrelevant specialties, that only come up one-episode-in-three.
You can’t do that in a Fate game. Stepping up a skill is serious business. Stepping up an approach, assuming there’s only six of them, is even bigger. And a refresh increase changes the entire scope of play. More typically, if you want to add a niche specialty to a Fate character, you have to swap it in for the session, and swap something else off. The result is a character that might not seem as deep as a Cortex equivalent on the surface, but has more than sufficient content to satisfy a shorter runtime. And when that runtime expires, it transforms into something new. Whilst Cortex is prioritising slow growth and continuity.
So: Gil Grissom knows a lot about bugs, it’s sporadically relevant, rarely in a way that dictates the entire course of an episode. Sounds like a specialty for a forensics skill. That’s a Cortex character.
Tony Stark stars in the first Iron Man movie, and the next film he swaps in (and then out) an aspect for his alcoholism in Iron Man 2, because it’s the one movie where it will be relevant. That’s a Fate character.
Fate action sequences are more climactic and play out in more expensive environments. Cortex action sequences are more restrained and inconclusive.
One thing Fate does that Cortex doesn’t is the INDEX CARD HURRICANE. You write game aspects, NPC aspects, line up create advantage actions… and you start every scene by dropping a situation aspect or three, and drawing out zones to represent the combat area.
You don’t bother doing all that unless you’re setting your fight scene somewhere really awesome.
Cortex doesn’t need any of that, because action remains tightly focussed on the characters. The background isn’t relevant until someone starts spending Plot Points to make it so. It doesn’t really matter if the fight plays out in a boring or familiar environment. Smallville does have Locations as resources that can be mechanically advantageous, but that’s designed to mirror the programme’s budget-dictated-habit of using the same sets over and over again.
Also Fate has rules for CONFLICTS – combat scenes, typically – which dictate initiative order and track stress and introduce another bunch of special rules that are distinct from regular play. Cortex doesn’t usually present combat as a special kind of scene (except in Marvel), and just keeps using the same ruleset as other scenes. There’s a pretty clean split between the Cortex games where combat isn’t very important, and the games which track stress just like Fate does. In the former, combat is resolved much faster than Fate, and seldom used as the dramatic finale; in the latter, taking out named foes is exceptionally difficult, and is as likely to be interrupted by Doom-pool expenditure as total victory. The result is that Cortex combat is much less conclusive – often because it’s not really the focus of play.
So, Spike and Buffy can fight each other repeatedly in Buffy Season 2, but Spike always manages to get away. Those are Cortex combats.
Almost every Marvel Cinematic Universe entry has a new villain, and almost every MCU movie ends with the hero killing them in a battle somewhere ludicrous. Those are Fate combats. (Yes, that was my second Marvel-as-Fate example. Yes, I appreciate the irony.)
Fate is more consistent. Cortex is more unpredictable.
Fate uses Fudge dice to deliver a fairly predictable spread of results. There’s only so bad that a dice roll can get. And even if you get the worst result – a minus four – it’s only one fate point to give it a re-roll. There aren’t that many surprises, and in fact, the ebb and flow of fate points gives players enormous power to decide which rolls they pass, at the cost of compel-induced setbacks earlier or later.
Cortex’s probability curve is all over the place. Even the worst characters can ace it now and again, and vice versa. It’s sometimes a bit frustrating, especially for games like Leverage which present hyper-competence, to have your Hitter walk into the first fight of the job and completely fluff it. But it also keeps the narrative wilder, more feral, and occasionally side-splittingly funny. This is the one aspect in which I think Cortex and Fate distinguish themselves in tone – Cortex tends to be a bit fluffy, and a bit light-hearted, if only because it’s too random to take that seriously. A lightness of touch is certainly prevalent in all the media that Cortex Plus adapted.
I’m stretching my TV-to-film analogy pretty thin here. But we’ve all watched nonsense, filler episodes of long-running programmes, the kind you might expect to play out from a bizarre string of good or bad luck, the kind that would never be adapted to cinema.
So that’s the theory. I’m not sure what the conclusion is. Possibly that if you are running a roleplaying game set in the universe of a film or TV show, consider Fate or Cortex Prime respectively. Or possibly I’m just saying that I like both of these games for different reasons. What do people think?