Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime, Part III: Holding the Line and Coordinated Actions

For the previous part of this series, click here.

In this part of the series, I’m going offer two (sub)systems for handling particular types of combat situations; the first riffs off of the “Bloody Versus” while the second utilizes a nuanced form of “Narrative Combat.” Let’s get to it:

Timed Defensive Actions

“Mal: Zoe…are you here?
Zoe: Do the job, sir.
Mal: You hold. Hold till I’m back.”

Serenity, 2004

This system can be used for situations where the characters are fighting a defensive battle against waves of attackers while keeping mechanics streamlined compared to character-by-character combat.

The GM needs two things at the start of the engagement (which can be set in adventure prep). The first is the dice pool used to represent the attacking force. Create this as you would any opposition, starting with a pair of difficulty dice representing the base quality of the attackers and adding dice for a Distinction and other applicable Traits. If the size of the attacking force warrants it, consider using the Scale rules, but bear in mind genre as well as the close narrative—if you’re playing a game involving special operations forces in an 80’s-style action movie, they’re probably expected to absolutely wade through the enemy and Scale would not be appropriate.

The second preparatory item is a mechanism for tracking the enemy’s fighting ability or the amount of time the PCs must hold out before help arrives. Depending on your damage system, the enemy force may have a die step that is whittled down, may have a Stress or Trauma die that is stepped up, or may have a damage track. If the conflict is a matter of holding out for time, you can set up a track or a “clock” in the style of Powered by the Apocalypse games.

Variant: Random Timing: If you want to add additional drama (and stress to your players), you can take a cue from miniature wargaming and have the conflict last for a random number of turns. To do this, decide upon a definite number of turns the conflict will last (e.g. “at least 3”). After the predetermined amount of time has run, roll a die at the end of each turn to determine if the event that would end the conflict (air support or reinforcements arrive, another team manages to destroy the attackers’ path to the characters, etc.) occurs. Use whatever die size you’d like and start with a chance of occurrence you feel comfortable with given the difficulty of the engagement for the characters. For example, you could start with a D6 and the conflict ends on a result of 6. For each time this die is rolled and does not meet the threshold, reduce the threshold by one. In the example above (d6 vs. 6), if the conflict doesn’t end on the first post-turn roll, in the second turn you roll d6 vs. 5, and so on.

In each turn, each player character rolls the appropriate pool against the Opposition Pool. For each PC who fails, that PC takes stress, trauma or injury depending on the damage system you’re using and how deadly your game is overall (I’d personally not recommend immediately applying damage that takes significant time to heal unless your setting has ways to circumvent that—magic or tech—or this defensive action takes place as part of the climax of the story where the stakes need to be turned all the way up.)

Assign the PCs their own track that represents their ability to hold their position. For each failure against the Opposition, mark a box along the track. When the track is full, the PCs are overrun by the enemy.

Variant: King of the Hill: With a slight modification, this system can be used to simulate a “king of the hill” scenario where both sides of the conflict are attempting to take and hold the same location. In this case, build a track with a center point, and have the character’s net successes or failure move the track in their favor or against their favor. When the track has filled on one group’s side, they have managed to seize the terrain with a strong enough position that the other group may not immediately attempt to take it back. If you want to limit the amount of time the conflict can last, remove a box from either side of the track every so many rounds as attrition and exhaustion take their tolls. Of course, one side or the other may take injuries enough that they abandon the field, and that’s okay, too.

One potential issue with this system is that it does not necessarily spotlight the actions of any particular PC, but this is relatively easy to overcome. You can plan certain events between the collective rolls in certain turns and give a particular player a chance to address that particular event before it affects the overall situation.

As an example: say you’re running a modern military campaign with special forces operators holding their position until requested air support is able to decisively end the confrontation. Between the collective rolls representing the characters’ defensive actions, let’s say a tank rolls up and begins to train its main gun on the characters’ position. The player character with the anti-tank weapon gets to take a shot to eliminate the newcomer before it becomes a problem. If this character’s attack roll is successful, the tank is destroyed and does not factor into the opposition in the next collective test. If the attack fails, add another die to the opposition pool representing the need to take cover from tank shells in addition to the rest of the assault. Obviously, the specifics of such opportunities should be drawn from the various abilities and foci of the characters to give each a time to shine, if not in the same engagement then over the course of the adventure.

If the characters have time to prepare for a this kind of defensive action, allow them to create Assets or Resources (i.e. expendable assets) for the conflict. Instead of applying damage to a character who fails an opposition test, the opposition pool’s success die could be used to eliminate or step down an Asset or Resource. In this way, not only do these Assets and Resources provide some benefit to the characters’ rolls, but some additional “armor” to keep characters in fighting shape for future conflicts. Whether an Asset or Resource applies to all PCs’ rolls in a turn or to only some is a judgment call for the GM to make based on context.

Variant: Defend Actor: This system can also be used to simulate situations in which some of the PCs are providing cover and defense for others to complete a non-combat action. Perhaps one or more of the characters needs to complete an ancient ritual while the rest of the party defends from attacking orcs. In this case, rather than keeping a track for the timing of the defensive action, create a track for the number of successes needed for the necessary task to be completed. For each character addressing the non-combat task, a success checks one box on the track and a heroic success checks two. If multiple characters could reasonably be assigned to either defense or the non-combat action, modify the defensive opposition pool (in conversation with the characters so that they can collectively decide where they want to put everyone) based on the number of defenders. You can use scale to do this, but the addition or removal of a die will probably be best for most situations.

If the characters are overrun, they must retreat from their position without completing the appointed task. If the task is successful, it should have ending the onslaught as a narrative consequence (in addition to the story-moving effects).

Coordinated Actions

“Either you’re part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape.”

-Sam, Ronin, 1998

This system is suited for those perfectly choreographed operations that depend on everyone completing their individual tasks at the right time so that the entire operation goes off without a hitch. These are your Mission Impossible montage ops, your small-unit actions to waylay a traveling vehicle and extract a VIP before making a getaway, your high-intensity but short action scenes where everyone has a particular role to play.

I used to love RPG sessions (particularly in Shadowrun) where the players would sort through maps and security schedules, lists of equipment and mission objectives to come up with an elaborate plan. But two things would either happen: (1) the plan needed so much detail that one of the players got tired of it all and decided to kick down a door and start shooting, or (2) playing out the elaborate plan took us three more sessions and everyone got tired of it. These rules are designed to condense the planning to the most exciting parts and play it out with the kind of speed and intensity usually reserved for film.

And really, it’s just an adaptation of the Narrative Combat rules from the previous post, with an added cue from the “Engagement Roll” of Blades in the Dark.

Here’s how we do it: the player characters have their objective. They’ve gathered the necessary intel and the equipment necessary to achieve the objective (perhaps setting up Assets for their various rolls). Then, the PC team plans the op, assigning discrete actions to each PC, like so:

It’s a snatch and grab on a moving vehicle with a target guarded by professionals. PC #1 is the driver, both approach and getaway. Number 2 is the bag man, tasked with extracting the target. Numbers 3 and 4 are shooters to provide cover for the extraction. PC #5 is a hacker whose task is to change streetlights to the advantage of the group, to jam any communications from the target and bodyguards, and to wipe any surveillance footage from city cameras. So, each character’s actions might be described by the following:

  • PC 5 modifies the street lights to box the target vehicle in.
  • PC 1 drives at high speed to block the target vehicle from escape.
  • PC 5 jams communications.
  • PCs 3 and 4 engage the bodyguards, suppressing them or eliminating them as necessary.
  • PC 2 engages the target and pacifies him.
  • PC 2 puts restraints on the target and gets him into the PC vehicle.
  • PCs 3 and 4 make a fighting retreat to the vehicle and get inside.
  • PC 1 drives off at high speed and uses evasive driving to lose any tails.
  • PC 5 wipes security footage to ensure that the PCs aren’t followed by the authorities.

As with Narrative Combat, each individual PC’s various actions are given sequential difficulty thresholds, and then each player rolls against their opposition (I think the best way to do this is for the opposition pools to be created in dialogue with the players, but the opposition roll results to be withheld until the GM narrates the results).

If all players meet all thresholds, the operation goes off without a hitch—the PCs have nabbed their target and taken him to their hideout without anyone being able to identify or follow them.

If any of the players fail, however, there are consequences. If there are only some minor failures—perhaps Player 3 fails his final threshold to return to the vehicle, then you can assign a Complication or injury and the operation remains successful as a whole. If a major threshold is missed (say PC 2 fails to pacify the target), or if there are multiple missed thresholds, then we use the collective rolls in the style of Blades in the Dark’s “engagement roll.”

If you’re not familiar with that mechanic, the engagement roll is a single roll intended to move past the boring bits of a heist and straight onto the excitement, its result sets the narrative positioning of the players as we jump in media res into their action by establishing whether things are going very well, very poorly, or middling at the time play of the heist begins.

In our situation, there’s a bit more complexity for the GM as she’s interpreting separate roles to create a cohesive narrative position for the transition into another type of mechanic to continue the action—this may be turn-by-turn combat, another alternative combat, or some sort of contest or conflict to represent the characters’ escape after things go wrong.

In the example above, with PC 2 failing to subdue the target, the GM might determine that the situation is thus as play moves out of the narrative combat system and into the alternative format: The target, though groggy from a blow to the head, is escaping on foot through a crowd of innocent bystanders. PC 2 is giving chase. PC 3 and 4’s successes mean that at least none of the bodyguards are following after PC 2, but now the rest of the group needs to get out of the middle of the road, evade detection, re-establish communications with PC 2 and find a way to meet up before the local authorities or reinforcements find PC 2 and/or the target first. Had the other PCs missed significant thresholds as well, additional complications would be added to the narrative as we “zoom in” to the aftermath of the botched operation.

Unlike the “generic” Narrative Combat system from the last post, there’s no need to establish consequences for each threshold of each roll in this particular use of the mechanic. The GM can wait until seeing all the rolls to weave together the results, assigning consequences only where necessary.

This system can be used for all sorts of character actions that are planned and prepared in advance. In addition to examples above, generic heists, ambushes, coordinated cons and other exploits can use this alternative to turn-by-turn resolution.

Conclusion

Two more tools for the toolkit in the bag. I think that both ideas are flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate a wide variety of narrative needs. Still, I’ll be adding to this series as I think of additional systems to streamline various types of action sequences or combats.

Again, I can’t stress enough that these are tools to be used alongside the conventional methods for resolving combats and conflicts based on what best fits any particular situation and the play style of the table.

Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime, Part II: Bloody Versus and Narrative Combat

For the first post in this series, click here.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, we’re going to look at my adaptation of two systems borrowed from other writers: Luke Crane’s “Bloody Versus” from The Burning Wheel RPG and Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat,” appearing in Lowborn: an Independent Grim & Perilous Fanzine for Zweihander RPG’s first issue.

Both systems intend to use a single roll to determine the end result of a combat, though the Bloody Versus (by my read, at least) is more focused than One Roll Combat. Let’s take a look at some adaptations for Cortex Prime based on the two.

Bloody Versus

Like most aspects of The Burning Wheel RPG, the core combat system in that game is relatively complex. I’m personally also not a fan of the “scripting” system for close combat, the conceit of which ignores the fact that a fighter makes choices about actions in combat based on cues from the other fighter(s), and not completely blind. But that’s besides the point since we’re looking at Bloody Versus.

Bloody Versus distills combat into a single opposed roll between the fighters. At first blush, a player may complain that this gives too little control over the outcome of a fight, but I’m not sure that this isn’t just a variation of the gambler’s fallacy; whether the statistics are compressed into a single roll or several, they’re still statistics about likelihood of winning, and it’s arguable that any Assets or other things set up for a single-roll combat have greater value than in a turn-by-turn combat, so it may all be a wash. Again, this is just one tool for your toolbox, and it may or may not work to the satisfaction of your table. But I’d judge it based on its narrative usefulness and whether you’ve got players who really want the nitty-gritty details of combat rather than on comparative statistics.

Here’s the issue with a Cortex Prime Bloody Versus: how do you set the stakes? How do you determine if a fight is a lethal one or just a good, old-fashioned donnybrook that results only in bruised faces and egos? Partially, this depends on how you’re handling damage and injury in your game—if it’s a light-hearted game then scaling should look different than if you’re playing gritty dark fantasy.

It should also be noted that the basic rules for Conflict and being Taken Out in a scene are essentially a Bloody Versus (or maybe a Bloodless Versus) depending on circumstances. There’s nothing to say that you can’t just bounce between those rules and turn-by-turn combat. But I’d like to offer something a little more substantial—that doesn’t necessarily preclude the occasional use of the “core” Taken Out rules.

We’ll do that by a bidding system. If you’re using the “Stress/Trauma” system from the Cortex Prime Handbook or some variations I’d described in the series on making Cortex Prime gritty, you’ll need to first determine whether the conflict is a lethal or non-lethal one.

With that determined, we’ll turn to the “Risk” die. Each character chooses a step for their Risk die—this is added to their Pool, but also becomes the Stress/Trauma received if they are on the losing end of the conflict, giving characters some added agency even in a one-roll combat.

Bear in mind that the use of the “Risk” die inverts the normal scheme for Effect Dice—each character is essentially setting what the Effect Die against them will be if they fail, while the selection by the opposing character sets the same. This focuses player agency on the risk rather than looking for the best possible Effect Die after the roll. For me, this seems narratively appropriate, with the added bonus that you won’t spend time looking for Effect Dice after the fact.

As a consequence, though, you’ll need to decide whether the ability to spend a PP to add a second Effect Die is available. For my own games, I’d rule that this expenditure may be used against any “average” opponent but not a PC, an Elite fighter or a prominent NPC. It’s plot armor, yes, but in a relatively unobstrusive way. If you want to go all out, by all means—so long as your players are all in agreement.

It should be noted, also, that this system, as written (and barring the use of PP for additional Effect Dice as described above), does not allow for a character to be killed outright by a Bloody Versus test. If you want to step up the relative danger, you can rule that a character automatically receives a Plot Point if any 1’s are rolled, but that each 1 rolled steps up the Stress/Trauma received by 1 step. This, of course, adds additional risk and unpredictability a part of a Bloody Versus test. And it reflects reality—even the best of warriors can make a mistake that leads to his demise, even against a less-skilled opponent. This rule also means that the winner may take some damage from the test, even if victorious. As with the above, this also matches reality and deepens the risk (and therefore drama and meaning) of even a Bloody Versus roll. On the other hand, you’re playing a game where a death necessarily means a particular part of the story (probably a part of the story important to at least one person) also dies. If you’re using a damage track (as in my posts on making Cortex Plus grittier), you might actually get some additional protection here, depending on the length of the track compared to the “six steps to death” you get under the “Stress and Trauma” rules of the Cortex Prime Handbook. Don’t forget that your system for Armor may effect the overall balance as well.

The Group Bloody Versus

The rule above works well for one-on-one combat, but perhaps less so for larger-scale engagements. Let’s look at some ways we can scale up.

The easiest method is to pair PCs with combatant NPCs. This is cleanest, of course, with an even number of PCs and enemies, but you can also use Mob rules (if appropriate based on the enemies) to further condense the fight.

Bloody Groups

If a one-to-one match-up isn’t possible, then we need to get a little more creative. As I mentioned in my series on swordplay for writers and gamers, it’s really only practical for about three combatants to face a single opponent at once; add more people in and the likelihood that allies injure one another increases exponentially.  This does not mean that you can’t put a group of five enemies on one PC, but you should bear in mind that such an arrangement probably means that two of those enemies are hanging back until there’s an opening for them to switch out with one of their fellows.

To use this method (which I’m calling Bloody Groups): first, group fights as you would for one-on-one fights, assigning additional combatants to each PC as necessary and as matches the positioning of the characters. Then, select a primary actor for the group. To that character’s pool, add the highest dice from two of his allies pools. Roll this against the PC’s pool. From the PC’s perspective: (1) on a failure, the PC takes damage per Bloody Versus; (2) on a success, the primary opponent takes damage per Bloody Versus; (3) on a heroic success, the primary opponent and his two allies all take damage per Bloody Versus. Here’s the kicker: any opponent fighting a PC, whether the primary actor or his two allies, adds any injury/Complication die to the PC’s pool, as any injured party gets in the way of his fellows, and it’s likely that, if there are additional troops standing by, they’ll switch out to allow the uninjured to continue the fight. For ease (and additional realism), establish the injury level at which enemies flee or are no longer combat effective; once they reach this level of injury, remove them from the fight (or, if it’s that kind of game, potentially allow the PC’s the opportunity to kill the fleeing combatant as he attempts to withdraw).

Bloody Skirmish

We can zoom out even further, as necessary, keeping the core of the Bloody Versus system. For an all-out melee where we don’t necessarily need to track each exchange individually, we can use what I’m going to call the Bloody Skirmish system.

To begin, establish a base difficulty for the group opposing the characters—this should be based on the skill of the combatants, not their number. Add dice to the pool for group Distinctions, Assets or other Traits in play as you see fit. Add a Risk die to determine how aggressively the group fights. Lastly, if you’re using a track for damage rather than the Stress/Trauma system, determine the length of the track for this group and when the group suffers a Consequence die due to losses.

Each PC rolls a Bloody Versus against the single opposition pool, applying damage to the opposition as a group or to PCs individually.

If the group greatly outnumbers the PCs (and your genre and narrative fit with this approach), use the Scale rules (Cortex Prime Handbook, pp. 99-100). This should make players reconsider plunging headlong into overwhelming odds (but there’s no accounting for what certain players will do, never tell them the odds, damn the torpedoes and all that).

Narrative Combat

And now we come to my adaptation of Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat” system, which I’m going to call “Narrative Combat.”

Where Bloody Versus handles conflicts that are focused on the violence itself, the Narrative Combat system is better suited for quickly handling situations where combat is incidental (supplemental?) to the PC’s goals.

The system works like this: after the situation is defined and everyone understands who and what is in play, each player sets out a set of three to five actions (the GM should specify the exact number) that the player wants to accomplish. These actions must be in logical order and in the order in which the player wants to accomplish them. Players and GM should converse to clarify intent, methodology and likely effects for each action individually and as a whole.

Once there’s agreement on these points for a player and PC, the GM establishes difficulty thresholds, with the lowest threshold representing success in the first action, the second threshold set a certain distance from the first and representing success or failure in the second action, etc. As Rudin-Burgess is writing for a d100 system, these thresholds are linear and fixed; making for an easy port if you’re using Static Difficulty (Cortex Prime Handbook, p. 25). The first action might be at difficulty 8, the second at 10 and the third at 13 depending on the nature and difficulty of each action.

Alongside each threshold, the GM establishes a consequence for failure. This may be Stress or Trauma (or some other damage inflicted depending on your system), a Complication, an unintended consequence or change in the scene, etc.

Then the player rolls his assembled pool (again the GM and player should collaborate to determine the most applicable Traits to include in the pool based on the overall sweep of the actions declared). For each threshold met or exceeded, that declared action is successful. For each failed, the associated consequence is applied.

When all players have rolled, the combination of successes and failures is used by the GM to narrate the overall result of the conflict scene. It’s an efficient and creative system.

If you’re using opposition dice pools as per the usual in Cortex Prime, then some modification of Rudin-Burgess’ system is necessary over a simple scaling of difficulty thresholds. As this is true for the majority of my Cortex games, I’m doing the following for my Narrative Combat System:

We start with a base difficulty of two dice for the first action. If there are any other applicable Traits for the pool, those are added in. This initial pool is rolled and establishes the first difficulty threshold (per the usual of taking the two highest rolling results and adding them together). For each additional action, a die of an appropriate step is assigned; it’s result is added to the total from the initial roll, so three dice are totaled for the threshold of the second action, four are totaled for the third, etc.

For this to work, the opposition pool should stick to lower-stepped dice at each step: unless there’s significant justification for doing so, I’d stick mostly to d6s and the occasional d8. If this is feels too imprecise for you, add some techniques from Powered by the Apocalypse games: instead of modifying the difficulty itself to suit narrative positioning, scale the consequences to suit the difficulty (your GM “moves” as it were).

If you want to make things even more efficient, have all players roll against the same opposition pool. If their plans are more divergent, it may be more appropriate to use different opposition pools.

Conclusion

So, there you have it: a system (and variations on a theme) for condensed handling of conflicts in which violence is the focus and a system for conflicts in which violence is much more of a means to an end than an end in itself. You could, in theory, stop reading this series now and have two tools that could cover the vast majority of situations for your game (tweaked only slightly for genre and power level) without having to resort to man-to-man, turn-by-turn combat except where you want to.

But I hope you won’t stop here. In the next post, I’m going to provide some systems tailored to specific types of conflicts/combats, starting with a system for holding your ground against assault.

For the next post in the series, click here.

Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime Part I: The Rationale

Combat can be the most exciting—or the most excruciating—part of a gaming session. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae: checking particular rules (and exceptions), contemplating the potential results of every available action like you’re Deep Blue, clarifying who’s where, what conditions are in effect and what happened on previous actions.

We’ve all been there. The active player is taking minutes to determine his turn while everyone else is playing on their phone. The combat itself is necessarily a matter of slow attrition punctuated only rarely by decisive blows. Rinse and repeat, potentially for hours. I don’t want to say that the conventional style of RPG combat, with its sequential individual turns and actions for each character involved doesn’t work; it can result in exciting and enjoyable combats. But if we take the example of D&D in particular, as the originator and exemplar of this system, the smorgasbord of titles both amateur and professional available on DriveThruRPG.com to “make combat more exciting” indicates that there are many cases where the system doesn’t work as well as we’d like.

And this figures, given that D&D (and therefore RPGs in general) developed out of wargaming. The turn-by-turn system is an artifact of, and beholden to, the miniatures wargame.

Some Alternatives

There are a number of ways that games or homebrews have tried to address this, with varying degrees of success. Making a game deadlier necessarily condenses combat and makes clever tactics (and/or use of rules) even more important.

The Riddle of Steel is one of my favorite examples of this. Its visceral combat system attempts to closely model the actual mechanics demonstrated in the fight manuals of the medieval and Renaissance periods. It does so quite successfully. When I ran games in this system I was simultaneously a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA); I’d spend hours as a “Session -1” with wooden weapons showing those players who weren’t in ARMA with me what the techniques in TROS actually looked like. But the system is not without its faults, either: it had no significant guidance for an overall initiative system, leaving players to judgment calls for a number of situations commonly addressed in other games. To me, it’s a prime example that no RPG combat system can do everything, even if it does some things exceptionally well.

Knowing that, why do we expect a single system to effectively cover all combat situations equally well? The result, as with D&D, is that we have a combat system on top of which we add the occasional non-combat goal for flavor and variety. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we have systems, plural, each focused on different types of situation. Some combats are about injuring or killing the enemy, yes, but many resort to violence in service of a goal that is, ultimately separate from the injuries inflicted on the opposition. This is true even of military operations. As commonly as they are deployed simply to destroy the enemy, they are directed to capture and hold valuable locations, to destroy enemy resources, to drive the enemy from a particular area, to infiltrate an area to perform reconnaissance and surveillance—or to provide forward observation for targeting airborne or artillery-based weapons. In many of these cases, the enemy will be engaged only to the extent necessary to accomplish the mission, because simple attrition is not a great way to win a war (as the American Civil War and, especially, World War I demonstrated).

The Torchbearer RPG keeps this in mind, at least on an abstract level, where the various “intents” (such as Capture, Drive Off, Kill) in a conflict determine the character traits used for rolls.

“Powered by the Apocalypse” systems ultimately treat combat no differently from the rest of the rules, except that consequences and GM “moves” may more frequently cause Harm to the characters. There is no set initiative system, and each “combat test” remains more about the development of the narrative than a tactical mini-game. It leaves much flexibility for how the GM interprets player cleverness, creativity and innovation without needing rules to explicitly do this. On the other hand, for those who are more Gamer-oriented (if you subscribe to Ron Edwards GNS Theory) may find this less than satisfactory.

This Series

This series will present a set of systems for Cortex Prime for particular types of combats, not as an obviation of or replacement for the standard “man-to-man” general RPG combat approach, which has its appropriate uses, but to work together with that system based on the narrative needs of a particular game and the desires for depth of tactics for players.

Elsewhere on the blog, I’ve provided some rules for streamlined military/modern combat engagements. Those will not be repeated in this series, but could be added to the list of options provided here if so desired.

Some of these systems will be taken from the ideas and creations of other writers (and credit will be given where due) and adapted to Cortex Prime, but most of them will be my own creations.

But let us begin with some theory about the role and nature of combat in RPGs.

What is War For? What is it Made of?

Combat is an essential feature of most (but certainly not all) RPGs, whether or not they fall into the “traditional” camp. There are, I think, a few reasons that this is the case. Let’s look:

First, there is the simple fact that many people play roleplaying games because they are a way to experience adventure and danger in a safe way. Most people do not want to be punched in the face, much less risk their lives without extreme need. But they do want the thrill of such stakes, which is why video games, combat sports (whether martial arts, paintball and airsoft or competition shooting), action movies and combat in RPGs are popular.

Second, satisfying narrative requires conflict. Armed (or otherwise) violent confrontation is conflict in its barest sense; it necessarily poses questions to drive a story: Will the characters prevail? Will they survive?

Third, as Louis XIV had cast on his canons (albeit in Latin) and as Joe Abercrombie used as the title of one of his novels, violence is “the last argument of kings.” Or, if we’d rather resort to Heinlein, who has his Mr. Dubois the teacher of “moral” philosophy in Starship Troopers remark to a student who tells him the “violence doesn’t solve anything,”

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that….Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”

When two sides refuse to compromise, and a situation must be resolved, violence may sometimes be the only available course of action. I don’t think I enjoy that fact as much as Heinlein did, but I agree that it is sometimes an existential truth we must face. In the adventures of our heroes in particular, violence may be the logical (narrative) result when all other means fail.

Fourth, some gamers really enjoy the challenge of combat, of making tactical decisions and outmaneuvering the enemy. And that’s as good a reason as any.

By way of transition from what combat is for into what it should do, the astute GM should bear in mind that that means that combat should be actually challenging—otherwise you’re depriving your players of the satisfaction of victory. The good GM should be a student of war in all its forms (this does not require one to be a practitioner of war, which is perhaps another matter altogether, discussed on other portions of the blog). So, number one—combat is another type of puzzle, problem and challenge for the players to address, and one with stakes higher than many others they’ll face.

As Apocalypse games make plain, combat should drive the story forward. This does not mean that every combat need be decisive; a battle in which the two sides fight to a standstill and must withdraw heightens the conflict and must necessarily make the players question whether they are powerful enough to prevail by force and whether another approach might be preferred.

Combat, when done well and used well, at least, provides options for high drama. What will the character’s fight for? What won’t they fight for? What is significant enough to a character that she is willing to kill (or die) for it? The cliché that you truly learn who a person is by seeing them in a fight is true when it comes to crafted (even when collaborative) narrative—combat need not be just a matter of mechanics; it can become an opportunity for deep roleplaying.

As much, combat is a useful tool for pacing a Roleplaying Game. There is, of course, the old gaming adage that if things slow down too much, have the bad guys suddenly show up to kick things back into gear. But it goes far beyond that. There’s not room to go into the full details of this subject (which can easily be a blog series—or book—in its own right), but good narrative swings back and forth between high-intensity scenes and low intensity scenes. This gives the audience both excitement and pauses to reflect on what the occurrences of the “high points” mean for the narrative moving forward. Think about the Fellowship in Khazad-Dȗm—they flee from goblins and Gandalf confronts the Balrog in a high-intensity scene. The scene that follows the rest of the Fellowship’s escape slows down so that the characters can reflect on the loss of their erstwhile leader and what it means for their quest.

Here’s the issue, though: when combat slows to a crawl as you play out each second by second, it fails to provide the high-intensity sort of scene that it should. When a low-intensity scene follows, as it naturally should, the energy at the table remains low and everyone loses immersion and attention. This is fine if the players enjoy intricate combat for its own sake, but it’s been my experience that I only have one or two of the players in my group for whom the gaming or simulationist approaches to combat are a particular draw.

Conclusion

I think all of this gives us a rubric by which to judge the utility and value of some alternative combat systems. Any system that replaces turn-by-turn combat must: (1) make at least enough logical sense to be acceptable to gamers and simulationists, given the caveat that they must necessarily be more abstract than turn-by-turn systems, (2) following the first point, be at least somewhat satisfying to use, (3) move the story forward in a meaningful way, regardless of specific outcome, (4) allow for meaningful choices, which in turn allows for drama and character development, (5) have stakes high enough to match a “standard” combat system, sometimes softened to account for less control on the part of the players as to outcome, (6) must provide a useful tool for maintaining pacing.

The flexibility of the Cortex Prime system allows us to create a number of different approaches to combat, as you’ll see.

What’s Next?

In the first substantive post in the series, we’ll look at two general systems I’m adapting from other games: Luke Crane’s “Bloody Versus” from The Burning Wheel RPG and Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat,” a brilliant article written for the Zweihander roleplaying game and appearing in Lowborn: an Independent Grim & Perilous Fanzine for Zweihander RPG’s first issue.

After that, we’ll look at some systems for particular types of engagements created by yours truly.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Augmentation in Cortex Prime

The following is a system for handling (para)human augmentation, primarily for cyberpunk and other sci-fi settings, but adaptable to steampunk, fantasy settings or any other setting aspect involving implantation and supplementation of natural body systems to achieve spectacular effects.

While the base Cortex Prime Abilities or Powers systems could be skinned to cover the same material, this system attempts to unify this mechanical aspect of Cortex Prime under its own subsystem to both accentuate this component of setting and to provide for a more narratively cogent method of addressing (para)human augmentation.

Using Talents for Augmentation

Rather than using a Trait Set, as the mod below does, to represent Augmentations, you could simply create a list of Talent SFX, with each Talent representing a particular system. This might be the preferred system where augmentations are present in the setting but not a central feature (for instance, Star Wars has cybernetics, but they are typically background dressing).

Grit and Power Levels

At the simplest, these systems can be made a Trait set available to all characters, with a set number of dice to assign between specific traits. This works especially well with cyberpunk settings that have no mystical or magical aspects to balance against.

The relative power of each augmentation system can be adjusted narratively. For instance, does a d8 in Strength systems mean that a character can punch through concrete? Throw a car? Or simply that the character has a level of strength on par with world-class body-builders? Does a character with Cognition d8 have intellectual skills on par with natural geniuses (perhaps a more complex designation than once thought given developing neuroscience) or superhuman skills of calculation and analysis? Of course, the step of the system’s die can be factored in as well—dice at steps d10 or lower may be within the realm of natural human ability, while dice at d12 represent augmentation beyond natural human potential.

These narrative factors can be combined with mechanical effects to further define the relative power of available augmentations. If you are using rules like a Limited Dice Pool, you could have an Augmentation die not apply toward the limit—this will accentuate that augmentation really does allow someone to achieve beyond normal standards. If you’re also using a track for Stress and/or Trauma, you could also allow a player to voluntarily take a point of Stress or Trauma to add a third die (perhaps specifically the Augmentation die) to the result rather than spending a Plot Point to do so. For a middle road, allow the expenditure of a Stress/Trauma “point” to have the Augmentation die not count toward the Dice Pool Limit. I’d map this as an SFX that automatically applies to each System, much like the “Use a d4” mechanic for Distinctions.

These options may work especially well in settings where human augmentation is an important aspect of genre—such as cyberpunk or certain science-fiction. As a more specific example, this might work especially well in a setting like Eclipse Phase, where characters can “resleeve” into different bodies and you want to accentuate the importance of body selection.

The System Itself

The system itself is relatively simple. Rather than seemingly infinitesimally granular selections of particular upgrades and augments, this mod looks at the sum total, classifying the Traits in the Augmentation category as “systems” that represent the overall effect of upgrades. The systems I would recommend using are: Athletics, Charisma, Cognition, Perception, Reflex, Resilience, Stealth.

Whether you use the categories I’ve designated or substitute your own, you should give a general description of the system that explains what sorts of capabilities a person with that System has as a guide to when the die from the System might apply (or when possession of the system grants narrative “permissions” that may not be reflected in mechanics but in the sorts of things the character can do.

Specialized systems providing more discrete and specialized functions can be mapped as SFX. You may consider giving characters a certain number of SFX for free at each dice step or provide that certain SFX are automatically gained at certain dice steps.

If you’re using other Traits that have SFX, or if you’re using Talents, you’ll want to carefully consider whether your choices will lead to “SFX bloat” that will complicate gameplay inordinately over the value they provide. Additionally, you’ll want to think about just how much you want to accentuate Augmentations versus other Trait sets.

If you choose not to use SFX, then you might provide short narrative descriptions of the kinds of capabilities a System has at each die step.

I’ve provided sample write-ups and SFX for my Systems below. Given the length of the article (and constraints on my time), I’ve only included a few sample SFX in each System. When I am able, I’ll supplement those SFX in a subsequent post.

Systems Descriptions

Athletics: Athletics Augs enhance the strength, flexibility and endurance of a character (but not their reaction times, which are enhanced by Reflex Systems). These are the most-commonly thought-of augs for the average person, because they are at once those most obvious in action and those with the most directly frightening consequences.

  • Oh Yeah!: Spend a PP to smash through a wall, even if made of brick or stone.
  • Optimized Cardiovascular System: Spend 1PP to step up or double any Endurance Augs when taking an action. If the action fails, shutdown Athletics Augs. Recover by activating an opportunity in a Bridge scene.
  • Hyper-oxygenated Blood: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for fatigue from physical exertion must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Charisma: Charisma Augs enhance a person’s social capabilities through a number of means. This may include pheromones or other chemical signals, analytical systems providing feedback on observed body language, voice modification for a more mellifluous sound, etc.

  • Empathic Analysis: When including Charisma Augs in a social Reaction, double or step up Charisma Augs. Pay 1 PP to do both.
  • Mood Stabilizer: Spend 1PP to ignore penalties from social or mental Stress or Trauma, or Complications, for a Test.
  • Halo Effect: Spend 1 PP to step up or double Charisma Augs on a test to persuade others. If the action fails, shut down Charisma Augs and recover by activating an Opportunity in a Bridge scene.

Cognition: This System covers augmentations that enhance the computing or analytical power of the human brain. Subsystems tend to enhance object identification, pattern analysis, sensory interpretation, creativity and intellect: human methodologies for competing with the power of artificial intelligence (whether or not that means “sentient and conscious” artificial intelligence or the complicated computing algorithms already in use today).

  • Multitasking: Split Cognition Augs into two dice at one step down or into three dice at two steps down.
  • Flow State: Step up or double Cognition Augs for one action, then step back to two dice at one step down. Recover by activating an Opportunity during a Bridge scene.
  • Probability Analyzer: Spend 1 PP to add Cognition Augs (or step up by one if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Efficiency Optimizer: Use two or more Systems dice in a single dice pool, reduce each System die for one step for each Systems die added beyond the first.
  • Overclock: Step up or double Cognition Augs for a scene, or spend 1PP to do both. While active, take Mental stress equal to the step up the second-highest-rolling die.

Perception: This System represents augmentations that heighten or expand the sensory perceptions of the individual—the ability to see in other parts of the light spectrum, to filter certain sounds and focus on others, or even the addition of senses that (para)humans don’t normally have—a snake’s heat-sensing pits or a bat’s sonar.

Depending upon the nature of the System, a character with a Perception die may have an image link that can display a sort of Heads-Up Display (HUD), along with video, text and images, directly into the view of the character. They may also have the ability to record photos or videos.

  • Digital Zoom: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for distance from the visual must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Resolution: In a pool containing Perception Augs, replace two dice of equal steps with one die of +1 step.
  • Flash Suppression: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for blinding lights must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Spectrum Targeting: Add a d6 to your dice pool for an attack against an opponent at near range you cannot see and step back your highest die by one step.
  • Threat Identification: Spend 1PP to add Perception Augs to your pool (or step up by 1 if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Multispectrum Vision: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for poor visibility must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Reflex: Reflex augs reduce reaction times through increased sensory-processing speed, reduced muscle-response times, and added speed and power for transmissions through the nervous system.

  • Enhanced Fine Motor Control: Spend 1PP to ignore Complication dice applicable to a test involving dexterity.
  • Reaction Enhancement: Step up or double Reflex Augs for a test involving Initiative. Spend 1 PP to do both.
  • Synaptic Acceleration: If a pool includes Reflex Augs, you may replace two dice of an equal size with one die one step higher.

Resilience: Where Athletics Augs cover enhancements to physical endurance, Resilience Augs models systems intended to protect the body from harm, whether from toxins, disease, environmental hazards, or direct physical injury.

  • Subdermal Nanoweave: Your Resilience Aug die (or its equivalent step depending on your damage system) functions as armor against physical attacks.
  • Toxin Filters: In a test to resist toxins, whether airborne, injected, consumed, or otherwise, double or step up Resilience Augs. Spend 1 PP to do both.

Stealth: Stealth systems conceal the user from detection or from identification. This may range from lubrication of joints and the strengthening of muscles and tendons to allow for quieter movement to complex augmentations that allow the user to change the color of their skin, the length of their hair and the shape of their facial features, with various specialized components to provide various kinds of stealth.

Because of the wide variety of possible stealth functions, use of SFX or a solid description of capabilities at various dice steps is essential for this System. For example, if not using SFX: at d6, the System’s focus should be on the avoidance of detection by the senses. At d8, this expands into defenses against sensor detection and perhaps “active camouflage.” At d10, shaping of physical features and appearance becomes possible.

  • Active Camouflage: Spend 1PP to double Stealth Augs against an attempt to detect you visually or by light-spectrum-based sensors.
  • Impersonation Protocols: Step up double Stealth Augs for one scene to mimic a person for whom you have detail information about appearance, physical attributes, habits, vital signs and behaviors. Then, step down Stealth Augs by 1 step. Recover after a scene in which you do not use Stealth Augs.

The Limits of Ascension

You may want to put Limits on these Systems, either to reinforce how Augmentations work in your setting or as a sort of mechanical balance against the SFX (especially if some or all are free) attached to various systems.

Some RPGs separate out different types of augmentation—genetic engineering from cyberware or organic augmentations, for instance. If that is the case in your setting, you may want to use different Limits to represent the specific nature of the augmentations that comprise a particular System. For additional complexity, you could restrict certain SFX to certain classes of augmentation, ruling that a character must choose one Limit when first selecting that System and that, if the character wants to add an SFX that has a Limit related to a different class of augmentation, the character must have both applicable Limits added to the System. So for instance, if a character started with a “wetware”-based System, they would have the corresponding Limit. If that character’s player wanted to add a “cyberware”-based SFX, the Limit related to cyberware would have to be added to the System as well.

For a simpler approach, you could simply assign set Limits to each System, potentially using one or more Limits to offset the automatically-granted SFX associated with the System.

Digression 1
Again, the more complexity you put in this system, the more you need to think about whether the benefit of the added complexity is really worth it. As a concrete example, I started a Cortex Plus/Prime conversion for Shadowrun some time back on this blog (to which I’ll likely return). To capture the feel of Shadowrun, at least the way I’ve approached it, adds a good deal of complexity to the Cortex Prime system, taking it somewhat away from what it was intended to be. Does it end up as complex as Shadowrun? No, but it is substantially more complex than Cortex Prime, and, at that point, it may be worth thinking about whether this is the right system for a conversion, or whether so much of the complexity needs be converted into your Cortex version. With Shadowrun in particular, there already exists a simplified version of the ruleset (called Shadowrun Anarchy) that may fit the bill for you. For me, that system swung the pendulum far too far and ended up with a system that feels inadequate to account for enough complexity to capture the feel of the Shadowrun setting in a streamlined manner.

Digression 2
As best I can tell, in reality, it looks like, by the time human augmentation because truly available, augments will combine both biological and technological aspects of design into a unified whole, making the sorts of distinctions Shadowrun cares about in its treatment of Augmentation a mostly moot point. Of course, there’s a good argument that humans will resort to wearable devices for augmentation rather than surgical intervention (except in the case of prosthetics, injury or lack of natural function, of course), but that’s not quite as fun to imagine, is it? If that suits, though, this mod could be adapted to different Signature Assets to represent that reality.

With those (admittedly characteristic) digressions taken care of, here are some discussions of potential Limits to use with this mod.

Essence
Since I’ve already opened the Shadowrun can of worms, let’s start here. There are a few ways to handle Essence as a Limit. The simplest is to add the highest System die to the opposition pool of someone trying to use beneficial magic on the augmented character. For a harsher scenario, add each Augmentation die, or, like Dehumanization below, create a single Complication die based on the steps of the System dice.

Dehumanization
If you want to incorporate the idea of lost humanity as well (something I’m personally not a fan of in RPG treatments of augmentation—lookin’ at you Cyberpunk and Shadowrun), then use one of the following: (1) When the first System die reaches d10, the character gains a permanent Complication die at d6 that is added to social tests. For each additional System at D10 or increase to a d12, step up the Complication die. If the Complication die exceeds d12, the character becomes a cyberzombie. Adjust the die step at which the Complication comes into play or is stepped up to suit; or (2) Simply add any System die at d12 to the opposition on social tests.

Hackable
A few options here:

  • A character with this Limit may have Stress or Trauma to both physical and mental tracks caused by hacking attack;
  • Hacking may be used against this character to create Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through the use of hacking. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • If you have a specific Stress/Trauma track for Augmentations or being hacked, you could tie steps down or shutdown of Systems dice to that; or
  • Some combination of the above.

Complex Biology
Add the highest System die to the opposition against tests to recover or heal from damage through medical intervention.

EMP Vulnerability
This could likewise be modeled several ways:

  • EMP devices that affect this character can apply Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through exposure to electromagnetic interference. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • When exposed to electromagnetic interference, shut down this System to gain 1 PP;
  • Some combination of the above.

Conscious Activation
As written.

Glitchy/Prototype/Bleeding Edge
Convert the System die to a Complication for a roll to gain 1 PP.

Systems Stress

You may want to consider giving characters a Systems Stress Track, particularly if using rules for Stress/Trauma Tracks like those I mentioned in my series on adding grit to Cortex Prime. If you do, a few additional options may open up to you. For one, you get a way to track the condition of Systems, whether they’re affected by overuse, by hacking, by electromagnetic interference, or some other factor. If the Systems Stress Track is filled, you lose access to Systems dice. You can set up Complication/Condition dice for various stages along the Track and/or step down all Systems dice at various points along the Track, depending on the effects you want to achieve. As an additional benefit, you can allow characters to “push” their augmentations, activating associated SFX, by adding a point of Stress to the Systems Stress Track in lieu of paying a PP. In such a case, you can allow a PP to be spent as usual, or, if you want a “push your luck” sort of system with augmentations, you can require Systems Stress to be used to activate augmentation SFX. If you choose this path, you’ll have to determine how Systems Stress is recovered.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a system for handling (para)human augmentation in the Cortex System without resorting to the Powers/Abilities given in the core game. I’ve tried to include enough options in my write-up to let you fine-tune this system to suit your particular setting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, see the additional SFX you add to your lists, and generally hear about how the system works out for you if you use it!

Back to the Mud: Putting some Grit in Cortex Prime, Part II: General Difficulties

In Part I of this series, I offered some methods for modifying the core rules options in the Cortex Prime Handbook for damage and injuries to get a grittier feel. In this follow-up, I’m going to talk about some hacks for difficulty in general, because “grit” is about far more than death and dying.

As I mentioned before, Cortex Prime favors generally capable characters from the get-go and that I believe that making characters inept is the wrong way to add grit to mechanics. So we’re not going to change characters; we’re going to look at some alternative approaches to assembling pools, calculating results, and determining effects.

As a note of acknowledgment, the ideas about limiting the dice pool and the use of “Forced Dice” came from a friend of mine during a conversation we were having about adapting Cortex Prime to serve as a ruleset for my Avar Narn setting. If he gives permission, I’ll update this article to give him credit by name.

No Effect Dice, Expanded
The Cortex Prime Handbook offers a mod that removes Effect Dice from the mechanics. Unfortunately, the mod as described gives no replacement method for full degrees of effect, simply replacing all Effect Dice (where they would be used) with a d6, stepped up for a heroic success. There are plenty of games that offer varied degrees of success based on a single roll, and we could also point back to Rob Donoghue’s note about five steps stacking with the five die sizes of Cortex Prime to fill in the gap.

Rather than dividing results into “normal” successes and “heroic” successes, we can simply establish four or five sections for a granular map to convert a roll total to an Effect Die where it’s useful or necessary to do so. If you want to skip d4 Effect Dice, then you’ll have four success categories, five if you include them. I think there’s a good argument to be made for starting with d6 as the “basic” success level for mechanical ease of use, as d4’s are only supposed to be used once and then removed. On the other hand, including more d4s in dice pools increases the likelihood of Complications and Opportunities (and may further reinforce the gritty nature of a system when basic results provide only fleeting advantages).

An additional benefit for mapping mechanics to grit is that higher Effect Dice are reached less often, but this can cut both ways. It might turn many conflicts into more attrition-based slogs than the faster-moving action of the core system. A statistical analysis of the core rules for Effect Dice against the “Degree of Success” conversion described herein would need to account for many variables–average pool sizes, relative frequency of the various dice types being in pools, etc. I have neither the training nor inclination to perform such analysis for my own end systems in Cortex, much less those you might formulate for your own games. There may need to be some trial and error here.

If you’re using one of the “Damage Track” mods from Part I of this series, you can address some of this with the length of the damage track. If using weapons that add to damage inflicted, you can further tune whether weapon selection or skill rolls are most important in determining the damage of an attack. Of course, if you’re willing to make things another step of fiddly, you could have particular weapons set the thresholds between Effect Dice results (or damage inflicted) for an interesting combination of weapon and skill as factor in end result.

Personally, I’d likely skip the d4 result, starting a “basic” result at the equivalent to a d6 Effect Die, with the step of the die increased according to the following degrees: “beating” the other roll by 1 or 2 is a d6 equivalent, by 3 or 4 is a d8 equivalent, by 5 or 6 is a d10 equivalent, and by 7+ is a d12 equivalent. If you don’t mind more complexity (and more “average” results on the whole), you could increase the range of each successive step (i.e. 1 or 2 would be d6, 3-5 would be d8, 6-9 would be d10, and 10+ would be d12).

In the core rules for Conflict (or the Action-Based Resolution mod), the advantage goes to the acting character, because the reacting character must beat the acting character’s result to be successful. Many “gritty” roleplaying systems (or at least RPG systems attempting to fall into the amorphous category of “gritty”), have ties go to the defender. It’s worth considering whether to use that approach or to keep the core Cortex approach that the acting character has the advantage. I don’t think there’s a right answer here, but because this ruling applies when things are down to the wire, I expect your players will recognize the difference, even if only intuitively.

Another effect of this system is that certain “dice tricks” available with the use of Plot Points or SFX collapse into one another. For instance, the ability the add a third die to your total would now both increase your chance of success and your degree of success (whereas, under the normal rules, adding a third die to your total would make that die unavailable to be used as an Effect Die).

Limited Dice Pools
Under the core Cortex Prime rules, a character may add one die to their pool from each applicable Trait category (with some additional judgment necessary for Signature Assets and similar Traits, where having a rating within that general Trait category does not mean that it will be universally applicable). But what if they can’t? What if a character can only use a maximum of four dice in a dice pool, even if there are five Traits that might contribute a die? If this only applies to characters (players or NPCs) but not opposition rolls from other sources, this allows a great deal more fine tuning of difficulties (again, with the complexity of statistics for the Cortex Prime system, the exact steps of granularity added by such a measure is not exactly known, but we can generally surmise the difference between adding an additional d10 versus adding 2d6 to the pool–assuming we’re still only talking about using the two highest-rolling dice for the result).

To best jibe with the way the Cortex Prime system works, dice that fall outside of the character’s innate Traits should not apply to the limit–essentially, an Asset (other than a Signature Asset), an opposing character’s Complication or Condition, etc.–don’t count.

This idea also creates a new space for Traits, SFX, or Plot Point expenditures that break the rule. The ability to spend a Plot Point to add a die to the pool over the normal limit of dice should, of course, be added. Certain Trait sets, if they apply, may not count toward the dice limit for the pool–this is a great way to put added emphasis on a particular Trait set–accentuating Signature Assets, Powers, or Abilities, for instance. For a more limited version of the preceding, consider an SFX with a non-Plot-Point cost as permission to add the die to the pool regardless of the limit. I’ll be working on a post with an approach to modeling human augmentation in Cortex Prime in the near future; it will include some examples of employing these ideas for breaking the Limited Pool Rule.

This mod, I believe, also adds additional power to having higher-stepped dice in a rating. Not only does a d12 increase the total result you might reach, but it brings up the average result as well–something that you can do by adding multiple dice of a lower step when there is no limit on the pool.

“Forced Dice”
This mod works only with the Limited Pool mod above, and it’s something that I’m still wrapping my head around, so it will likely be expanded in a future post. For now, I’m just going to mention it. The idea, in general, is to create situations in which a character must accept a d4 in their (limited) dice pool. Part of determining the ultimate usefulness of this approach is finding a reason to use this method rather than the normal methods for adding disadvantages and negative conditions to the opposing pool.

Where I’m currently thinking through using this idea is where certain conditions precedent must be satisfied to undertake a particular action at full effectiveness–a character can still take the action without having first (or simultaneously) satisfied those conditions, but they must accept a “Forced Die,” a d4 added to the pool that counts toward their Pool Limit, to do so. This could be employed for taking simultaneous actions during conflict (the “multiple-action” penalty used in other games) if relevant to the way you track initiative and your action economy. It may also be used to accentuate certain conditions from the “run-of-the-mill” conditions represented by Complications.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m working on a full set of mods for Cortex Prime to run games set in Avar Narn. I’m sure there will be additional posts on this subject and others related to that ruleset on the blog soon (with the referenced post about human augmentations first among them).

Back to the Mud: Putting some Grit in Cortex Prime, Part I: Damage and Injury

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.

Recovery Times
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?

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part VII: Initiation, Metamagic, Magical Traditions, Mentor Spirits

While I’m on a roll, so to speak, another piece of the Shadowrun “puzzle” for my Cortex Prime hack. This time: initiation and metamagic, magical traditions and mentor spirits.

A General Note
In many ways, this rules hack makes the Cortex system more complex than it is intended to be, but I believe that this is required to capture as much of the nuance of the Shadowrun setting as possible. Additionally, it may be that I am pushing core Cortex ideas (SFX and Assets in particular) to or past their limits–this will be evaluated (and rules ultimately rejected or revised) when I get to playtest the completed material. In the meantime, most of the complication is in character design rather than in gameplay, and it’s my expectation and intent that this ruleset remain magnitudes less complex than the actual Shadowrun rules.

When all of the posts in this series are completed (meaning that I’ve completed the ruleset as a whole), I’ll post a PDF containing all of the rules to the blog so that readers can use, playtest and comment on the hack to help me improve it.

Initiation
Initiation is the process of being awakened to the higher mysteries of magic–to the extent that they do not remain forever mysterious. It is a strange hybrid of study and the revelation of truths which may only be experienced, never told. With initiation into the greater magical cosmos comes increased power in everyday spell-slinging.

The simple way to handle Initiation is to use it as a Signature Asset as described below:

Signature Asset: Initiation: By paying an Edge Point (see the Limit below), the character may add the Initiation die to a dice pool to resolve a magical task, even if a different Signature Asset is already in the pool (this is what differentiates Initiation from other Signature Assets and balances against the Ordeal requirement below).

Limit: Edge Point: Adding the Initiation die to a roll requires the expenditure of an Edge Point.

Limit: SFX: Initiation may only be used in ways permitted by metamagical SFX purchased by the character.

Limit: Ordeal: The initiate must complete an Ordeal (see below) for each step of the Intiation die to acquire that step. (One Ordeal per new step, not one Ordeal per step of new die).

Depending upon the type of game you’re running, you may or may not want to allow the purchase of the Initiation Signature Asset at Character Creation.

Metamagic
Metamagic represents the “superpowers” of magical ability. It is best represented as SFX for the Initiation Asset. I recommend allowing one SFX to be chosen for each die step of the Initiation die and allowing additional SFX to be purchased as normal. Here are the metamagical examples I’ve come up with:

Centering: Add your Initiation Die to a dice pool for a magical task that includes the Drain limit and step up the Effect Die assigned to Drain by one step.

Fixation: Add your Initiation Die to the dice pool to create an alchemical asset. The asset lasts for the entire session rather than the next scene.

Masking: Add your Initiation Die to the dice pool opposing an assensing test on you. You may force the opponent to reroll a single die in his pool.

Quickening: When you cast a spell to create an asset, you may pay an Edge Point for that asset to remain for the remainder of the Session without having to dedicate any resources to maintaining the asset.

Anchoring: You may cast a spell and anchor it to an astral construct overlaying a place or object. Make note of the dice pool’s result and the effect die, and define a triggering event for the spell. The spell remains dormant until triggered or until the end of the session.

Apotropaic Magic: When you assign your Magic die to defend a character from Magic, you may also add your Initiation Die. If the defense test result exceeds the caster’s test result by at least five points, the caster suffers the effect of the spell at the Effect Die chosen from his dice pool.

Geomancy: You may manipulate background mana and nearby mana lines to create Assets or Complications (adding your Initiation Die to the test) that apply to all magic tasks made during that scene and which can only be dispelled by another initiate with the Geomancy metamagic.

Necromancy: You may use ritual magic (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain information from dead bodies, blood, and the residual mana in dead things.

Psychometry: You may assense objects (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain information about the history of the object and/or its past owners.

Divination: You may use ritual magic (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain glimpses of the future. You may ask the GM to answer one question for each step of the Effect Die from a successful task. Answers should be reasonably vague and subject to interpretation.

Channeling: Add your Initiation Die to the pool and gain a reroll on one die for rolls to invoke spirits (see Shadowrun rules; this requires an invoking magical tradition).

Exorcism: Add you Initiation Die to the pool and gain a reroll on one die for roles to banish spirits.

Cleansing: Add your Initiation Die to tasks to cleanse the astral pollution of a place, and step up your Effect Die by one step.

Sensing: Add your Initiation Die to astral perception tasks and step up your Effect Die by one step.

Notes on Metamagic
Those familiar with the Shadowrun setting will note that I haven’t included all of the metamagics described in the Shadowrun books. This is either because I feel that a particular metamagic doesn’t work well under Cortex rules or that one metamagic SFX described above covers multiple metamagics in the core Shadowrun rules (for example, Masking covers both Flexible Signature and Masking).

Ordeals
A character must complete an ordeal each time he or she raises her Initiation Die. Ordeals may be selected from the following, which I have placed into groups based on their general type.

Task Ordeals
Task Ordeals require the magician to complete a…task. The task may be roleplayed through, but it may be negotiated and described by the Gamemaster and the Player without playing through all aspects of the task. Regardless of which method is selected, the GM and Player should agree to change one of the Character’s Aspects based on how the experience affected the Character. Task Ordeals include metamagical quests, asceticism (which includes living as a Hermit as the ordeal) and the accomplishment of special deeds.

Limit Ordeals
As the name implies, these Ordeals involve taking on an additional Limit to the Initiation Asset. This includes both geas and oath Ordeals. Define the geas or oath and create a Shutdown Limit for the Initiation Die that occurs when the geas or oath is violated and that persists until the character can complete a recovery action involving atonement for the infraction.

Creation Ordeals
A creation Ordeal involves the completion of scholarly or artistic work. There must be a handmade original (or originals), each of which constitutes a material link to the creator (treat as an Asset for a possessor to take magical action against the creator or a permission for remote magic). This also creates a Limit on the Initiation Die: if the originals are all destroyed, step down the Initiation Die until new originals may be created.

Sacrifice Ordeals
Sacrifice Ordeals involve intentional maiming in pursuit of magical power. The character must take on a new d4 (or step up) Complication representing lasting physical injury that cannot be healed.

Familiar Ordeals
TBD.

Magical Traditions
A magic-using character will be required to take an Aspect declaring the type of magic-user that the character is and the tradition that the character follows (hermeticism, shamanism, Christian theurgy, Buddhist magic, chaos magic, Kabbalism, etc.). Quite simply, this definition should be used to determine what kind of spirits the character can summon (by reference to the Shadowrun material, and assuming that the character’s magic-using type may summon spirits), but it can also be used to add some mechanical nuance. For each tradition, choose two Approaches. For one, step up the Aspect die when the character uses that Approach. For the other, step down the Aspect die when the character uses the Approach.For instance, a hermetic character might apply their Aspect as an Advantage to rolls using the Deliberate Approach, but as a Consequence to rolls using the Dynamic Approach, whereas shamans might do the opposite. You can use the Shadowrun material to come up with patterns of use for the other traditions.

Mentor Spirits
Mentor spirits should be considered Signature Assets with the following nuances:
Core SFX: Spend an Edge Point to add the Mentor Spirit die to a magical task.
Defined SFX: Create an SFX for the Asset based on the bonuses provided by the spirit under the normal Shadowrun rules. See the Cortex “Core SFX” for this.
Behavior SFX: Gain an Edge Point by behaving in a (reckless or non-beneficial) way in line with the personality of the Mentor Spirit.
Core Limit: Shutdown the Mentor Spirit Asset to gain an Edge Point. The character must spend time communing with the Mentor Spirit to reactivate the Asset.

 

 

 

Cortex Plus/Prime Small Unit Combat, Part II: Streamlined Engagement Rules for Firefights

These rules are intended to streamline combat engagements that occur outside of CQB ranges (see the separate CQB rules for quickly handling those types of fights). While designed with modern combat in mind, the rules should prove easily useful with near-future and sci-fi based combat as well, though I have my doubts about using them for historical or fantasy combat without some extensive modification.

The rules seek to streamline combat in several ways. First, they group units of “normal” enemy combatants (those we might call “mooks” and which the Cortex Prime book calls “mobs”) into groups while keeping more important enemies separate. Second, they abstract combat to avoid becoming mired in the details of how many feet a combatant can move in a single turn or worrying about specific facing.

Note that these rules have been created under some genre expectations. Particularly, that the characters are especially potent combatants, able to cut through normal soldiers like a hot knife through butter and tough to kill. The tone of the rules creates a high-action sort of vibe rather than a terribly realistic one, though the “grit” factor may be modified by the number and types of opposition encountered at once, as well as the advantages and tactics used by enemy combatants. If deadlier and more realistic mid-range engagements are desired, I recommend using normal 1 to 1 combat rules. The CQB rules given separately should work well with either this approach or the standard one.

Where these rules seem incomplete, refer to the CQB rules to fill in the gaps. If you still have questions or want to share the results of playtesting, let me know so I can address any issues and make these rules better for you!

Differences From CQB Rules
If you’ve read my CQB combat rules, which are designed to be used in conjunction with these rules, you’ll notice some differences. In many ways, these rules “zoom out” from the CQB rules, adding (a little bit of) complexity and nuance. Where the CQB rules group both the Player Characters and their NPC opponents, these rules only group opponents and allow the characters to act individually.

A Note About Cortex Prime
The Cortex Prime rules include instructions for creating and using “mobs” and “ganging up”. The squad-based rules in both this and the previous CQB rules are essentially an expansion of this idea with slightly more granularity.

Initiative
To keep things simple, initiative will pass back and forth between the players and the GM with one activation per character or unit until one side has run out of activations, at which point any remaining activations may be used if available to any other participating group. On the players’ turn, they may choose which character activates, but no character can activate more than once in a turn. Likewise, the GM may activate the characters and units under his control in any order, but none may activate more than once in a turn.

Which side has the initiative should be decided by the situation—typically the attacking force will act first. When there is a meeting engagement (neither side was expecting the other), an attempted ambush, or other unusual situation, each side should nominate a character (or unit) to roll for their side—the roll will be Approach+Analysis+Tactics Specialization (if any)+Assets, Circumstances, Etc.(if using the set-up described in the CQB Rules; otherwise modify as necessary), with the winner choosing which side goes first.

Zones
Zones and Distance: The combat space should be separated out into zones. Zones will be used to calculate range penalties, so use this idea as a general guideline for how zones are placed. Generally speaking, firing at combatants in one’s own Zone takes place at CQB range, those enemies in adjacent zones are at mid-range, and those more than one zone away are at Long Range. Of course, narrative trumps hard-and-fast rules, so adjust as necessary.

Distance Penalties: When firing at targets at mid-range, add a d8 to the target’s dice pool. Add a d10 for targets at long range.

Cover and Concealment: The use of cover and/or concealment is important under these rules. As such, each zone should be given a “Cover Rating.” The Cover Rating represents the highest effect die that can be used (or rather, the cap if a higher die is assigned to the effect die on a roll) when creating an advantage (usually called “In Cover.”). The zone’s Cover Rating is an abstraction of the distance between pieces of cover, the size of cover, the general density of cover, and whether the zone’s cover is actually cover (something that will stop bullets) or is generally concealment (something that makes it harder to aim at a target but that does not stop projectiles fired at the target).

Cover Penalties: It is assumed that all combatants are using cover. However, the best use of cover requires skill and understanding. Add the lesser of a character’s Direct Action rating (or a unit’s lowest quality rating) or the assigned Cover Rating to pools to resist attacks.

Flanking: “Flanking” any enemy is maneuvering so as to be able to attack the enemy from the side. In small-unit firefights such as those depicted by these rules, “flanking” means achieving a position of attack from which the target does not gain the benefit of cover. An actor (individual or unit), may take an action to flank an enemy; treat this as an attack on the Cover Advantage that persists until either the target or the attacker moves.

Movement Between Zones: Handle movement by determining how many actions it would take to move from one zone to another. No need for specific measurements.

Basic Enemy Combatants
Quality Rating: The Quality Rating, expressed as a die, represents the general effectiveness of a troop type, a combination of skill and training, morale, equipment and command structure.

Grouping Combatants: Basic combatants should be put in groups of one to five; the grouped combatants act as a single entity using the Quality Rating of each combatant in the group to constitute the dice pool used for any action (in line with the “mobs” rule in Cortex Prime).

Specialists: Specialists are, as the name suggests, specially trained soldiers with specific capabilities. In game terms, Specialists count as SFX for a group of combatants, giving the group options for the expenditure of Edge Points to undertake special tasks or modify normal tasks undertaken by the group. The expenditure of an Edge Point is required to use Specialist. A group of combatants may have a number of Specialists equal to the number of troops it contains. Examples of Specialists:

Flamethrower: The acting unit must be in the same Zone as the target. The GM spends an Edge Point when the unit attacks to declare that the Flamethrower specialist is deploying the flamethrower. If the attack causes damage, the target takes an On Fire condition equal to the effect die of the attack. At the end of each turn in which the affected character has not extinguished the condition, the character takes damage according to the effect die of the condition. An affected character may attempt to put the fire out in the same manner as overcoming any other situational condition placed upon him.

Grenadier: When the unit attacks, the GM spends one or more Edge Points to declare that the Grenadier is using his or her equipment. For each Edge Point spent, the GM may do one of the following: (1) add another die equal to the Quality Rating of the Grenadier to the attack pool or (2) add another target (in the same zone as any other target) to the attack. Separate Effect Dice must be assigned to each target.

Medic: At any time, the GM may spend an Edge Point to declare that the Medic is activating to resuscitate a fallen combatant. The difficulty of the test to resuscitate a combatant is equal to 3d8; if the Medic succeeds with an Effect Die equal to or exceeding the Quality Die of the fallen combatant, that combatant is returned to his or her unit. Note that this action does not use the unit’s turn.

Drone Operator: Drones come in many forms, from remotely-operated turrets to flying surveillance or explosive-delivery devices. When the GM spends an Edge Point to activate the Drone Operator’s Specialty, she may choose one of the following:

Turret: add a new, standalone combatant with a pool of 3d6 to the fight. The turret may only take the attack or suppressing fire actions, acts separately from the unit that created it, and resists attacks at its dice pool.

Surveillance Drone: While this drone is operational, remove the Drone Operator’s die from the unit dice pool. The drone resists damage with a pool of 3d6. It may move one zone per turn and no target in that zone benefits from advantages representing concealment or cover while the drone is present in the drone.

Because the Drone Operator has limited resources in the field, the cost of deploying a drone (in Edge Points) doubles with each successive drone (1, 2, 4, etc.).

Marksman: When a unit containing a Marksman attacks and the GM uses an Edge Point, the target does not get to add his Armor Asset (if any) to the pool opposing the attack.

Machine Gunner: The GM may spend one or more Edge Points to place a Suppressed condition (disadvantage) equal to the Specialist’s Quality Die on one target for each Edge Point spent. Remove the Specialist’s Quality Die from the unit’s dice pool for as long as the condition remains in effect.

Note about Specialists: If you want to add some complexity and variation to your basic troops, you might consider giving them a separate Specialist die for various Specialists, using that die instead of the Specialist’s Quality Die in pools using the Specialist.

Attack and Defense:

The attack dice pool is formed as with any conflict under Cortex Prime rules—attacking characters will add an Approach, the Direct Action Role, and any Specializations, Assets, or Advantages to the pool, while the defenders will add their approach, Direct Action Role, Cover, Range and any Specializations, Assets, or Advantages. Units will use the dice pool formed from their combined Quality Dice.

When attacking a unit, the attacker may assign more than one Effect Die to take out multiple members of the unit in one attack, but only one Effect Die that would cause injury but not take a member of the unit out of action may be assigned.

Ex. The player-character member of a special operations team has gotten the drop on a fireteam of enemy grunts. The player character wins the conflict test and has d8 and 2d6 left over which might be assigned as Effect Dice. The grunts are well-trained, with a Quality Die of d8. The attacked may put one enemy combatant out of action with the D8 and may assign the d6 as an injury to a member of the unit (which counts as a Consequence/Disadvantage; see the CQB Rules). The attacked cannot also assign the second d6 because there is already an injury assigned to the unit.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part VI: Magic, Foci and Alchemy

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve worked on this series. Yes, my writing work is unpredictable and jumps from topic to topic. The curse of the creative “free spirit” with too many interests, I guess (though I’m usually quick to say that “be interested in everything” was the best advice I ever got). All of that aside, I’m getting back to working on some Cortex hacks of various types to flex my RPG mechanics muscles again. I hope you find the work useful.

Foci
Foci are a big deal in Shadowrun, in many ways the magician’s equivalent of the street samurai packing the Panther Assault Cannon. Modeling them in Cortex is, on the one hand, relatively simple–each Focus is a Signature Asset. On the other hand, Shadowrun uses multiple types of foci and there are some specific attributes of foci in the world of Shadowrun that ought to be mechanically addressed as well.

The creation of foci is best handled in the same way as the acquisition of any Signature Asset: the player pays the requisite cost and a narrative explanation of how the Asset was acquired is given. There’s no need to go through complex creation rules.

Attributes of All Foci:

Limit: A focus may only be used by a character with the magical ability and the ability to take the specific types of actions to which the focus applies.

Limit: Binding: Until a character pays the cost to add a focus as a Signature Asset (whether at character creation or through advancement), a Focus is not bound to the character and cannot be used.

Limit: Active/Inactive: Foci must be powered by magic to be useful. When not powered, foci are inactive and can essentially be ignored altogether. When active, the following rules are in effect. Activation and the rules described below should be considered Limits on a Focus asset..

Astral Beacon: an active focus gives off a lot of astral energy, allowing others with the astral perception/astral projection abilities a benefit in finding, analyzing and targeting a magician with an active focus. When using astral perception to find or to gather information about a target with an active focus, add the focus to the actor’s dice pool as an advantage. A magician using Psychometry or other spells and abilities to analyze the astral signature of a place after the fact may, if the GM determines that the rating of the focus, its past use and the time elapsed since the use is reasonable under the circumstances, be added to the acting magician’s dice pool as an advantage.

Link: Because a focus must be bound to its user, it provides both a material link to the owner regardless of activity and a method for targeting its owner astrally when active. A magician in physical possession of another magician’s focus, or astrally viewing an active focus, may add that die to a dice pool to create an advantage for the purposes of targeting the focus’ owner with magic.

Specific Foci:

Alchemical Foci:
 Alchemical foci add their Rating to Alchemy tests.

Disenchanting Foci: These add to tests to disenchant artifacts, foci and other magical objects.

Spell Foci:
A spell focus adds its rating to Sorcery actions that match the category of spell and type of action to which the focus is attuned.
Limit: Category: A spell focus must describe one of the five categories of spells (Combat, Detection, Illusion, Healing and Manipulation) and may only be applied to Sorcery tests involving the category to which it is attuned.
Limit: Task: A spell focus must also describe one of the following magical tasks: Counterspelling, Ritual Spellcasting, Spellcasting. The focus may only be applied to Sorcery tests involving that task.

Sustaining Foci:
A sustaining focus allows a Magician to sustain a spell effect equal to or below its Rating without the Magician actively maintaining the spell. The spell may be cast at any time and “saved” into the focus to be used whenever the focus is activated.
Limit: Power: To add the stored spell effect to a dice pool, the focus must be activated and the Magician must pay an Edge point to use the effect for that Scene.
Limit: Counterspelling: Counterspelling may be used to reduce or obviate the spell effect maintained by the sustaining focus. To restore the functionality of a effect that has been partially or fully dispelled, the magician must cast the spell to be maintained anew.

Spirit Foci:
A spirit focus adds its rating to Conjuration tests of the task and category of spirit to which the focus is attuned.
Limit: Category: The focus must have a specific type of spirit (fire elemental, spirit of man, etc.) to which it is attuned. It may only be used for interactions with that type of spirit.
Limit: Task: The focus must be attuned to one of the following tasks: Summoning, Banishing, or Binding and may only be used for that type of task.

Weapon Focus:
A weapon focus adds its Rating to close combat tests in the physical or astral planes and allows its user to damage creatures and spirits normally immune to physical damage.

Alchemy:
Alchemy allows a character to store a spell for a one-time use later. This is simply handled: The character makes a test to cast the spell, but using Alchemy instead of Sorcery. The character resolves the test, including Drain, and pays one Edge to store the effect for later (the player should describe the form the alchemical device takes for narrative purposes).

Activation of the alchemical spell may require a test. If the alchemical device stores an attack effect, its rating should be added to an appropriate attack pool for close combat or a thrown weapon.

A spell that causes damage has an instant use. A spell that creates some other effect lasts for a Scene or until dispelled.

EDIT: You might be wondering why some of the classic foci (the Power Focus, for one) has no description here. Those foci that I haven’t listed are temporarily left out until I find a way to include them that satisfies me. As it stands, the Power Focus is just too powerful to add in–without the insane detail of creation cost inherent to the actual Shadowrun rules, I need to find some mechanisms within Cortex Prime that would allow some modicum of balance compared to the other, far more limited, foci.

Cortex Prime: Small Unit Combat Rules, Part I

Small Unit Combat for Cortex Prime

This article is a work-in-progress subsystem for Cortex Prime games. I’ve formulated these ideas while working on my Shadowrun Cortex Prime hack, but this system in particular would have usefulness in any modern or futuristic game where small force-on-force tactical engagements are a key part of the game.

These rules will be updated after playtesting. If you have suggestions, leave a comment!

System Assumptions

The below has not been tailored for the Shadowrun ruleset yet, but is formulated for an international espionage/military thriller game I’ll be running for some friends. I’m using a “simplified” (compared to the Shadowrun work) Cortex Prime that starts similar to the Leverage system in Cortex Plus with some of the Shadowrun ideas previously-described incorporated. Trait Sets are Approach, Aspects, Role (rather than Skills, which Shadowrun will use), Specializations, and Signature Assets.

Approaches are: Covert, Expedient, Dynamic, Cunning, Deliberate, Daring.
Roles are: HUMINT, SIGINT, Tradecraft, Direct Action and Analysis.
Relevant Specializations: Direct Action: CQB and Marksmanship; Analysis: Tactics 

This system is using a Physical Stress and Physical Trauma track to account for injury.

What is Small Unit Combat?

When I use the term “Small Unit Combat” in this post and for these rules, I mean localized tactical engagements at the fireteam level, where there are only a handful of combatants on either side. Specifically, these rules were designed with close-quarters battle (breaching, room-clearing and short distance engagements) in mind. Further revisions and additions will be necessary to use these rules on a larger scale or to employ them reliably outside of CQB scenarios.

In CQB situations with trained combatants (we’ll assume that the player characters at least fit that bill), individual operators work cooperatively and closely in fireteams. The fireteam executes its maneuvers, attacks and actions as a cohesive unit, with each person in the unit having pre-assigned and well-drilled responsibilities during each maneuver or action undertaken by the team. For instance, as the team navigates, it does so in a predefined formation, with each fireteam member having not only a designated spot within that formation, but also a designated “field of fire,” an angle or scope of the battlefield around the team in which that member is responsible for engaging targets.

When the team breaches a room to engage the targets within, these roles take extra significance and are determined by the tactical approach decided upon by the team leader. If the team leader determines that entry will be made through a locked door, then the team’s roles might look like this: one person is designated as the breacher—the person responsible for eliminating the door as an obstacle (this might be done by the use of a breaching shotgun to blow the door of the hinges, a breach charge to explode the door inward, or by hand tools like a sledgehammer or battering ram); a second person standing by with a flashbang or explosive weapon to surprise and soften the targets in the room; and the rest of the team who will move into the room immediately after the detonation of the device deployed by the second person (the first of whom is usually referred to as the “point man”. As each assaulting team member moves in, he must make a decision about how to turn and which angles of the room to engage. The team will have painstakingly drilled beforehand on the individual process of room clearing, the priority of target engagement and the positions within the room in which each assaulter will conclude the assault (if all goes well). But as the first assaulter enters the room, she must determine which side of the room she will engage; those who follow cue their own engagement strategies off of the person in front of them. This allows for a combination of well-drilled maneuvers and extemporizing to address the realities of actual contact with the enemy.

Numerous examples of these techniques can be found on the internet, movies and TV. An understanding of the techniques and tactics of close-quarters battle will greatly assist in the use of these rules in a way that creates exciting and fast-paced combat encounters that may be resolved in a matter of minutes.

Fireteams as Characters

These rules assume that the number of player characters involved in the game are roughly the size of a fireteam or breaching unit—typically four to five people, but we’ll assume 3-6 to be accommodating. If there are more PCs than that, they should likely be divided into two (or more) fireteams for the purposes of the combat. Enemy fireteams should be of comparable size.

Like the Fate Fractal, this system models fireteams as characters to “zoom out” from individual actors slightly, simplifying and speeding up combat without depersonalizing it for the players (hopefully). The rules for determining the Trait Sets for fireteams are given below.

Traits for Fireteams

NPC Fireteams: The core of NPC fireteam dice pools are composed of one die for each combatant in the fireteam. The die type correlates with the combat effectiveness of each combatant (later on, I’ll refer to each member’s added die as their “Quality Die”). A combatant with no training and no experience likely uses a d4, while a combatant with training but no real combat experience probably uses a d6. A combat veteran would typically add a d8 to the pool, an elite operator a d10 and a top-ten-in-the-world type combatant a d12. This however, is just a suggestion—you can adapt these rules to skew more to the “hardcore” realistic side or to the more cinematic side by the weight given to combatant skill and experience in dice selection.[1]

I’m going to suggest that NPC fireteams be given no more than six combatants—use multiple fireteams to handle additional combatants. I will likely, in the future, develop some additional systems to address other specific combat scenarios—holding out against overwhelming assault forces, for instance.

Player Fireteams: A player fireteam’s dice pool is composed of the team’s Tactics Die and its Operator Dice.

The first die in the Fireteam’s Pool is their Tactics Die. The Tactics Die is equal to the Tactics specialization die of the fireteam’s designated leader.

Operator Dice: Trained operators in a CQB fireteam communicate primarily about when to take action, not how to take action—each member of the team is expected to know his role and be able to function effectively without getting in the way of his teammates. Each teammate in the fireteam contributes his Direct Action die to the dice pool. If a character’s CQB specialization is higher than his Direct Action skill, he may use that die instead. If the character has the CQB specialization but it is lower than the Direct Action skill, the character may step up his Direct Action die by one (the usual maximum of d12 still applies) when operating in a fireteam.

Other Fireteam Factors

Injury: The highest Stress or Trauma die for any fireteam member who is injured but not out of the conflict is added to the opposing dice pool, per normal combat rules.

Technology and Equipment: If a fireteam is using vastly superior technology to its opponents, give the fireteam an Asset that represents the scale of the difference. For instance, a special ops team operating at night with thermal and/or late-gen night-vision goggles and top-tier weaponry after cutting off a building’s power and facing opponents armed with only improvised melee weapons might get a d12, whereas a fireteam with standard military technology of the most developed nations fighting against a fireteam using outdated but functional firearms and tech might enjoy a d6 bonus. No specific guidelines are given for this die so that it is adaptable to particular situations—but this means consistency in its use is paramount.

Other Assets: As with any Conflict under Cortex rules, a fireteam with time to prepare may create Assets to assist impending combat. This uses the normal rules for Asset creation and must also make narrative sense. These Assets should typically represent good planning and preparation for a maneuver (Covering Fire, Multiple Breach Points, Overwatch) or bringing special equipment to bear (Breaching Charges and Flashbangs). It may be assumed that a fireteam equipped with particular equipment will be using it per standard operating procedures even when Assets are not in play, so Assets should represent especially-effective applications of those tools and equipment.

Combat Effects

The most common goal of an engagement is to stop the enemy, whether by pacifying them, driving them off, or inflicting sufficient injury that they can no longer fight back. In general, fireteam combat operates like combat between individuals (with Effect Dice as damage), but the following changes are necessary to bring the system into greater focus.

Inflicting Harm-the Characters

When a fireteam containing one or more PCs takes damage, we need to know which operator has taken the specific hit. Doing this is relatively simple. Each member of the fireteam is assigned the numbers 1-12, for simplicity sake, you may just assign the numbers arbitrarily, making sure to assign a number to each member of the fireteam before assigning additional numbers to any other member of the fireteam. The numbers should be as evenly distributed as possible, i.e. in a fireteam of four each member should have three numbers assigned. If the numbers don’t divide evenly, or for greater realism even when they do, start with those characters taking the most exposed roles in the team (first in, rear guard, etc.) in assigning numbers.

When an Effect Die is selected, apply it to the character corresponding to the number shown on the die. Each injury die assigned to a character in the fireteam is added to enemy fireteam dice pools.

Given the lethal nature of close-quarters battle (and the benefit of not dealing with armor rules in a complex manner), injuries inflicted by successful enemy/opposition rolls will be counted as Trauma, whereas injuries applied as Complications (see below) will be counted as Stress.

Inflicting Harm—NPCs

Most NPCs in fireteams will be nameless combatants. Therefore, it is not as important to keep specific track of injuries for individual members of a fireteam. To remove an NPC from combat, an Effect Die equal to their Quality Die. For each Effect Die equal to or greater than a combatant’s Quality Die, an NPC combatant is removed from action. If the fireteam has members of mixed Quality Dice, I recommend removing the lower-quality combatants first. Note that this simplified damage system is not based necessarily on killing enemy combatants, but rather, rendering them combat ineffective. That could certainly mean that they have been killed, but it could also mean that they have fled, surrendered, been too injured to continue fighting or that some other circumstance has intervened to prevent them from fighting further—this is intentionally left to narrative freedom.

If the Effect Die assigned against an NPC fireteam is less than the lowest Quality Die in the group, apply that die as a Complication to the NPC fireteam. When a subsequent Effect Die is applied to the fireteam, if the steps of the second Effect Die added to the Complication Die would meet or exceed one of the Quality Dice in the group, remove both a Quality Die for the eliminated combatant and the Complication die. Each Effect Die assigned may injure or eliminate only one enemy combatant at a time—dice steps over the threshold to eliminate a combatant are lost.[2]

A Side Note About PC Injuries

As these rules are currently written, multiple PC injuries will quickly put a PC fireteam in extreme danger. Playtesting will be necessary to make sure that this works in practice (the alternatives I have in mind are to apply either an “average” of the current injury dice or simply the highest injury die in effect as the bonus die to the enemy fireteams). The rationale for the current system is to make combat difficult for characters and to make them focus on good preparation and execution to avoid stumbling into massacres. After playing with these rules some, I may change to one of the alternatives. If you happen to try out these rules for yourself, your input and criticisms are appreciated.

Extra Effect Dice

In some of my previous posts on the in-progress Cortex Shadowrun design, I’ve introduced the idea of applying multiple Effect Dice from a single roll (although I’m sure I’m not the first person either to think of or to implement this or something similar).

One of the goals of this system is to provide a simplified combat system for larger-scale combats (as a supplement to individual-based combat, which may be more dramatically appropriate in certain cases). As such, a limit to only taking out one enemy at a time doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—it artificially slows the pace of combat.

So, I’m going to allow the use of multiple Effect Dice on a successful roll. My current thought (before playtesting) is to allow an additional Effect Die to be applied for each three full points the successful party’s roll beats the opposition’s roll. I also intend to allow a Plot point to be paid to allow one additional Effect Die to the result. Both options assume that an Effect Die is available to be used.

Complications

When Complications are invoked against the PCs in this CQB ruleset, the easiest application is to apply the Complication as Stress to one of the characters—representing that character taking a hit stopped by body armor (but painful, scary and distracting nonetheless), being lightly injured in a hand-to-hand scuffle, or suffering an environmental injury while maneuvering.

One complicating factor here is the determination of which character should suffer the Complication. For this, I’m going to implement what I’m tentatively calling “the Hotseat.” In brief, a different player rolls the team’s dice pool each turn; the character belonging to the rolling player is “in the Hotseat” for that turn and is the one who suffers the (personal) effects of the Complication if one is taken (although, for purposes of the team’s rolls, the entire team will suffer the effects of the Complication Die as it’s added to enemy fireteams’ rolls).

Conclusion and Moving Forward

This system is, as mentioned, currently theoretical and without playtesting. I’ll post about my experiences playtesting it and make modifications to it based upon those experiences.

Additionally, it is not yet complete. Here are a few things I’m already thinking I’d like to add:

-Rules for Sniper Teams
-More guidance for objectives that are not simply combative (we’ll start, I think, with some of the classic video-gamey objectives—bomb disarmament, hostage rescue, etc.)

I’d love to hear from you guys—criticisms, alternative rules or approaches, or things you’d like to see added as well!

 

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[1] It should be noted here that by “hardcore,” I do not mean incredibly mechanically detailed or overly concerned with the minutiae of combat—whether a .45-caliber submachinegun is a better weapon in a particular situation than a short-barreled assault rifle, for instance. Instead, I mean the feel of the combat and thus the game. Is this a game where every combat action carries a serious risk of death or where the player characters are expected to steamroll standard infantry like an 80’s action movie? The nuances of combat are many and, while they make excellent details for the narration of firearms combat, typically only to stall progress and make a fight boring when it should be exciting if incorporated into the mechanics of the system employed.

[2] Of course, you can change this rule and count surplus dice steps against subsequent combatants for a more cinematic game.