Readers who’ve followed the blog for some time have likely picked up two things with regards to my favored approaches to roleplaying games. First, I prefer narratively-structured games, like Fate and Cortex Plus/Prime. Second, I like my settings gritty.
At first, these things may seem contradictory; both Fate and Cortex involve capable characters from the get-go with fairly high chances of success in their actions. They give players Fate or Plot Points to shift the narrative in their favor from time to time. I’m of the mind that this is a false dichotomy. To me, having low-powered characters with correspondingly-low chances of success is not gritty; it’s either frustrating or comical. This has been my experience with low-level characters in D&D and especially in the Warhammer (both Fantasy and 40K) percentile systems (especially when the GM thinks of unmodified roles as “easy” ones instead of following the rules guidelines that “easy” rolls should give bonuses–this is easy to forget in the thick of the game). To me, a gritty setting is one in which the characters are capable, but even skilled characters can get unlucky and suffer extreme consequences. It doesn’t happen often, but even an untrained peasant with a pitchfork can kill an armored knight when the chips fall just so. This is where, as with real life, skill alone is not always enough to prevail.
Philosophy of gaming (were that an established academic field!) aside, this post is going to be about adding some mechanical elements to Cortex Prime to increase the grittiness of the system. As one last note within this preamble, I want to point out that no mechanical changes are strictly necessary to run a gritty game of Cortex Prime–simply narrating the action to fit the feel of the game can accomplish this. But, for those who want to go further, to adapt Cortex Prime from a “generic” system to one that can be tailored to genre and tone, here we go.
In this post, we’ll talk about some ways to use the rules mods given in the Cortex Prime Handbook (sometimes with small changes) to adjust grittiness. In the next, I’ll offer some ideas that diverge more significantly from the mods contained in the Cortex Prime Handbook.
Being Taken Out
On my first readthrough of the rulebook, it struck me that the Stress and Trauma system suits a gritty setting best. Subsequent thought revealed that I may just be partial to that system because it feels a little more like “traditional” RPGs without going fully to the “Ablative Hit Points” mod. Reflection has led me to the thought that the basic rules for being taken out (spend a Plot Point to not be taken out of the scene) may be used to bring heightened tension to conflict that matches with a gritty feel. The key here is in addressing the consequence here suffered upon being taken out. For more cinematic games, the Consequence suffered for avoiding being taken out can be narratively (but not mechanically) lower–getting winded, winged by a bullet or otherwise put in a position that complicates things without being in real physical jeopardy. Conversely, these Consequences can be made more narratively significant without modifying the mechanics: if the character suffers a Consequence because of a gunshot, then the Consequence could be Sucking Chest Wound d10 or Gutshot d8. Even if no mechanics are altered, this will certainly put players on edge more than Flesh Wound d8. Of course, I’m not just going to suggest narrative changes here. My main point here is that, with regard to the base system for conflict, staying in the fight creates an additional pull on resources (in the form of Plot Points). Tough choices regarding resources is a core of mechanically-gritty systems–this naturally increases the dramatic and tactical strain on both characters and their players. Consider using the “core” system for being taken out with other rules systems to drive home risk and a need for resource conservation.
Stress and Trauma to Lethal and Non-lethal Damage
One alternative to the core system for being taken out of a conflict presented in Cortex Prime is the system for Stress and Trauma. Under that system, a character first takes Stress as a Complication to an attribute when losing a test in a confrontation. If the character has d12 Stress, this is converted into Trauma, which has the same mechanical complication as a Stress Complication but which is more slowly recovered. A character who takes “damage” that would push Trauma beyond d12 is removed from the game, probably because the character dies in the case of Physical Trauma (or is mortally wounded, put in a coma, etc.).
One simple shift in thinking here is to draw upon the World of Darkness/Storyteller damage system, thinking not in terms of Stress and Trauma but lethal and non-lethal damage. To be specific, replace Stress with Non-Lethal Damage and Trauma with Lethal Damage as with the original system, once Non-Lethal Damage is at d12, further Non-Lethal steps of damage are added to Lethal Damage. But where circumstances indicate the damage received would be life-threatening (the use of weapons, a fall from a height, fire, electricity, etc.), apply the damage to the Lethal Damage die, skipping over the Non-Lethal Damage die altogether. This would work well in systems where brawls (fisticuffs being treated as Non-Lethal Damage under the logic that punches and kicks can be deadly, but it usually takes more than, say, hitting someone with a hammer, to push from bruises to serious injury) are more common than deadly fights, or where the consequence of producing a weapon should be dramatically significant. This can easily be combined with the core Being Taken Out system to make conflict (especially physical conflict) an extremely serious event rather than a common and expected aspect of the game, suiting this especially to investigative or political genres.
A further question to be answered if using this system is how to apply the Complications of Non-lethal and Lethal damage. Do you apply both dice to the opposition test, only the higher of the two, or use some other method to determine effect on rolls?
For an additional complexity, you can allow appropriate armor to convert Lethal damage into Non-Lethal damage based on the armor’s step/rating. This gives characters some added protection without armor having the ability to completely nullify the effects of an injury.
As the Dungeon Master’s Guide attempts to do in D&D, making things feel gritter may be a matter of increasing recovery times. As the various implementations of extended rest rules in D&D indicate, however, extending recovery times fails if it is the sole method of making a game “gritty.” If injured characters can still meaningfully participate in the style of game being played as they recover, then extended recovery rules may work well. If they only make it necessary to “fast forward” for weeks or months as characters recover, this doesn’t really provide you with any benefit.
If it fits–say one of the features of your particular game is that the characters’ situation gradually worsens until they manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at the very last moment (which, if you believe the gaming philosophy espoused by John Wick in his Play Dirty books–controversies about his behavior as a person and RPG developer aside–is what players really want), then you might be served by extending recovery times. Unless truly necessary, though, it’s probably best to continue keeping recovery abstract without adding too many additional recovery rules. Consider having Stress (or its equivalent) recover between each session and Trauma (again, or its equivalent) recover between adventures. This provides dramatic increase in the tolls taken on characters as a story progresses without bogging things down. Combine with a Doom or Crisis Pool mechanic and you end up with a serious spiral of stakes.
To my mind, as a matter of game design, the best place for extended (or “realistic”) recovery times is in settings where some form of “miraculous” healing exists to circumvent normal recovery times, whether magical or technological. This bears in mind the realism of injuries while allowing characters to return to full status in a more player-satisfactory time frame. The only time the rule really matters, then, is when the players do not have access to such super-healing, allowing for an occasional point of higher stakes and drama if used sparingly.
“Ablative Hit Points” and the Condition Monitor
Above, I mentioned drawing inspiration from the WoD/Storyteller system for rethinking Stress and Trauma. Here, I’ll make reference to Shadowrun‘s “Condition Monitor” as a way for modifying the “Ablative Hit Points” system given in Cortex Prime.
Shadowrun calculates damage in “boxes” inflicted on a character’s “Condition Monitor.” A character has two Condition Monitors, really–one for “Stun” damage and one for “Lethal” damage. Each track typically has ten boxes, but this may be modified by a characters attributes, cyberware and other traits. As with Stress and Trauma in Cortex, “Stun” spills into Trauma when the Stun track is full. Where the Condition Monitor approach provides inspiration for Cortex is that it spaces out the mechanical penalties suffered for injury along the track (in more recent editions, cyberware or other factors can modify exactly where on the tracks these penalties are situated).
We can add a similar idea to Ablative Hit Points, assigning Consequence Dice to various segments of the Ablative Hit Points total. If you start with 10 “Hit Points,” perhaps a d6 Consequence is suffered when your remaining total reaches 7 Hit Points. This combines the “pacing” mechanic of Hit Points with more discrete and immediate effects. As with Shadowrun, and the Lethal/Non-Lethal damage system above, you could maintain two tracks, with excess “Stun” or non-lethal damage spilling into the Lethal category as it does in Shadowrun. If you use two tracks, you again need to decide whether penalties from the two tracks stack (or if only the Lethal track has penalties at all, which might allow a middle-ground between the cinematic and realistic).
To combine ideas from Shadowrun and World of Darkness, you could use a single track for both Non-Lethal and Lethal damage. To do this, Non-Lethal and Lethal damage are notated differently on the track (WoD used “/” and “X” to fill boxes). If the track is full and additional Non-Lethal damage is received, any Non-Lethal damage marked on the track is converted to Lethal damage before any points “overflow” into the condition that occurs (whatever that may be) when damage is received beyond a full track.
The number of Hit Points a character has is an important consideration. Thinking in terms of Dice Steps to numbers (see Rob Donoghue’s post on Evil Hat Games) mapping onto a 1-5 system (as in Fate), if you’re using an Effect Die, a maximum of 5 Hit Points of damage may be done with a single attack, perhaps one or two more if you use heroic successes for stepping up. The major consideration here is whether you want the possibility that a (player) character can be killed in one attack (depending on what having 0 Hit Points means). Additional considerations include how much damage can characters suffer overall and what is the hit point recovery rate.
If you want the additional mechanics, or a shift more toward the “traditional” RPG feel, you can add damage values for weapons (which should be a factor in determining the length of your damage tracks). Likewise, you can have armor prevent damage altogether, convert lethal damage to non-lethal damage, or some combination thereof. This shifts away from the core philosophy of Cortex Prime by moving toward a stricter accounting for gear and equipment, but if such a move suits your game, why worry about that at all?