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?

“Fluff,” Lore and Mechanics

“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee, [fluff]!”

I absolutely hate the word “fluff” as it is applied to gaming worlds. If I understand correctly, the term was first used by wargamers to discuss the information given about the world in which their chosen wargame takes place (for me, it was first used in “Warhammer 40k fluff.” The word is, of course, derisive, with the connotation that “fluff” is not necessary, but only a nice addition to have. I understand why some wargamers might have coined and still use the term if they only carry about the actual game they’re playing itself (they want to know which options make for the best Tyranid warriors but don’t give a fig about Tyranid biology, for instance), and the word makes this plainly evident.

Even in the wargaming realm, though, I think the word does a disservice. Maybe I’m just not as competitive a wargamer as others (or maybe I think I’m not until I sit down to a game and take it overly seriously!), but the narrative of an unfolding combat is just as or more interesting than all of the rules themselves. Games overly based on the army you bring and the synergies between unit selections quickly bore me over games where on-the-field decision making and use of resources takes center stage. I want to know a reason the forces are fighting for me to be interested in outcomes more than winning and losing. I think that’s a more fun approach, too, as you can celebrate the sudden reversals in fortune for your opponent with them instead of lamenting as “unfair” every time the dice turn against you.

As a curious aside, I find in interesting that some fictitious settings get “lore” or a “legendarium” while others have only “fluff.” I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies, but I’d love to locate the line. It’s not simply that games have fluff and speculative fiction has “lore”–the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age worlds are often spoken of in terms of “lore” and not “fluff.” Maybe some of this is just a matter of how seriously a particular person takes a particular settings; almost certainly some of it is a matter of semiotic fluidity and carelessness with words.

But I do think it matters. Over the past fifty years, roleplaying games (and games based on fantasy and speculative fiction in general) have increased both in popular appeal and in the seriousness with which the writing of gamebooks and the playing of the game are taken as artistic and literary pursuits. Academia is studying and writing about roleplaying games more and more, and I think that’s an amazing thing; there may be more to learn about how humans examine and work through their own existence in the roleplaying game than in the solitary virtuoso’s classic novel.

When it comes to roleplaying games, I absolutely detest the word, “fluff.” I like a good set of mechanics for a game and I have a great interest in analyzing, modifying and creating RPG mechanics, as some of the posts on this blog demonstrate. I don’t want to fall into the trap of proclaiming the “one true way of roleplaying,” so take my opinions for just that: opinions. But I believe that the setting in which a roleplaying game takes place is not only just as (or more important than) the hard-coded rules, but that the setting and lore surrounding the game are part of the rules.

Those of you who read my RPG-related posts with some frequency know that I gravitate toward narratively-focused games, and especially Fate. But my posts on character-building for Shadowrun are probably the most-read posts on the entire site, so I’m not averse to rules-heavy games either. Still, the games I favor tend to explicitly incorporate setting as mechanics. Fate uses Aspects as a mechanism for those things that are narratively important to affect the dice resolutions, Cortex Plus and Prime do the same thing in a slightly different way. These rules are both focused on providing flexible mechanical systems to handle those points of narrative where randomness and insecurity of outcome is beneficial to the game, while keeping the narrative at the forefront. There are not rules for every case, nor do these rules get too bogged down in exceptions, combos, etc., leaving both Fate and Cortex as RPG toolkits for those gamemasters who like to tinker with and personalize their rules without having to start from scratch.

Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse take a different, maybe even more direct, approach to setting as mechanics. They call this narrative or fictional “positioning,” and they don’t need hardcoded rules to do it. The premise is simple–when deciding how successful and effective an action is, we look at the context of the action to make the determination rather than resorting to a “margin of success” or other explicit rules. In a gunfight with a knife and you’ve out-rolled the opponent? Maybe you’re able to get a good slash on the opponent and disarm him. Had you been using a gun of your own, maybe the result would have been a John Wick-style headshot, since you’d have had a much better fictional possession relative to your opponent.

Both systems can use the “hardness” of a GM response, cost of success or degree of success or how many pieces of a clock are filled in for a more specific tracking system.

But neither of these system is necessary to use the “setting and situation as rules” approach. In fact, I think it’s fair to argue that all games to this to a greater or lesser extent. Even Dungeons and Dragons, where you might have a discrete dice roll for damage or to determine whether a condition is suffered, many tests (especially skill tests) are wide open to interpretation of result by the GM. Genre, setting and situation can be drawn upon to determine results in such cases.

A few notes on this:
(1) I think that this is part of what OSR gamers are looking for–greater acknowledgment of setting and situation for resolution rather than specific rules for every action authorizing what can and cannot be done. There’s an opportunity cost for writing rules for specific actions, one most evident in feats and abilities for characters, I think. If there’s a “Great Leap” ability that allows for a jump attack, there’s, at the very least, an implication that characters without this ability can never make (Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy-style) badass jumping attacks.
(2) Also with reference to D&D, the opposite situation–when mechanics are treated as the physics of the setting, even when that doesn’t make rational sense–occurs. I think that this is part of what drives me away from the D&D system as a whole (among other things). I think of Jake Norwood, writing in the preface of his awesome game The Riddle of Steel, when he states that part of the impetus for creating his game was a D&D experience where his character stood on the edge of a cliff, a horde of orcs rushing towards him, and he realized he’d take less damage jumping off the cliff than fighting the orcs. It’s okay to say, “if your character does this, he will die”–even if the rules say otherwise. Unless you’re trying to play a goofy slapstick game (power to you if that’s how you roll), everyone at the table should understand that logic trumps rules when they’re in conflict. A good example, I think, was how the Serenity RPG handled being thrown into space without protection. The rules state (in paraphrase): “The character dies. If you really need to, roll all the dice on the table and apply that much damage.” Note that I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for a game to have a mechanism for resolving falling damage, only that that mechanism should give way to the fiat of death (perhaps modified by whatever “barely escape from death” points the system has) when it is logically appropriate.
(3) No rules system can cover all situations, nor can it possibly account for all of the minute variables that might factor into a resolution roll, so by necessity we resort to using setting and situation (as our form of internal consistency and logic) to structure resolution rolls in the first place. Is this a one-die penalty for difficulty or two?

And, of course, the lore of a setting tells us what types of things are likely to happen in that setting, what things are extremely unlikely, and how actions or events are likely to play out. You can, and sometimes should, homebrew and modify rules to reflect those realities, but the truth is that you don’t necessarily need to if the setting itself provides the North Star in guiding the structure and interpretation of rolls.

For all of these reasons, I’d argue that setting is a much a part of mechanics (or at least should be considered such) as everything that falls within the “rules” section of the books. When that’s the case, there’s no such thing as “fluff,” there’s only information about the setting that helps us understand how to position the mechanics we use when playing in that setting.

Professions in Medieval and Early-Modern RPGs

As I continue to work on rules for the Fate RPG (continuing my Pirates/Age of Sail setting rules and the Fate Control Panel and Fate rules for Avar Narn), I find myself more and more drawn to the design idea of using “professions” over “skills” in late-medieval and early-modern roleplaying games (the most common historical analogues of fantasy settings).

I’m not the first to think of this concept. While not actually used in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by using “Professions” instead of “Classes” to group skills and abilities, that system made initial steps in this direction. More recent games–13th Age, Barbarians of Lemuria and Shadow of the Demon Lord, for example–have wholeheartedly adopted such an approach. Even the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has nodded in that direction with its “Backgrounds,” though it still retains discrete skills.

I’m going to make a few arguments as to why I think this approach is better than using more discrete and granular “skills”:

(1) Flexibility and Creativity
One of the things I don’t like about a discrete skill list is the way it causes players to think. Skills cause players to think that their characters can only act in ways specifically described by the skills on their list. In my mind, this is a microcosm of the idea of language shaping cognition–players tend to assume that the skill list represents something about how the game is “supposed” to be played and–especially for less-experienced players–tend to think that they’re “breaking the rules” or somehow trying to pull something if they can’t directly articulate the skill they’re using for their action.

This is counter to the “fiction-first” approach to gaming. I want my players to put themselves in the character’s shoes in the circumstances at hand and, without reference to their character sheet (except as a reminder of the sorts of things the character is good at, I suppose) tell me what they’re trying to do. Then, we can go to the rules and figure out some mechanics. In other words, skills push players toward “mechanics-first” thinking.

To be fair, this complaint goes beyond “narrative” or “fiction-first” gamers. I’m not a member of the OSR community by any means, but I am given to understand that one of the factors driving the OSR is the feeling that early editions of D&D, with their attribute bonuses without skills, allowed for more creative action by players. But that only further makes the point.

A list of professions gives players the information they need (“what are my character’s experiences and strengths?”) without pushing to very granular modes of action (“I can Deceive my way out of this, or I can Jump over the rooftop to get away, or I try to Hide, but I don’t have any other applicable skills”). A player who says, “Okay, my character has been a Courtier and a Soldier, how might he try to get out of this situation?” puts the fiction first and removes barriers to the player’s creativity in selections of actions.

I personally think that this really opens up in Fate if you use the combination of Approaches with Professions (in place of Skills) as laid out in the Fate Codex, Volume 3, Issue 2 (Merging FAE and Fate Core). What’s the difference between a Flashy Courtier and a Sneaky Courtier? Drama, that’s what!

(2) Professions Build Character History
Saying that a character has the “Stealth” skill doesn’t say nearly as much about the character as the character having the “Thief” or “Scoundrel” profession. The skill does beg many of the same questions, but the profession evokes them much more fully and makes us think about a phase or era in the character’s life rather than a simple explanation for how the character acquired a specific skill.

Further, overlap between professions actually allows for character diversity. A character with the Scout profession and a character with the Scoundrel profession probably both know how to be stealthy, but they learned to do so under different circumstances and for different purposes.

If we take the ideas in the two proceeding paragraphs and apply them to character creation, we should quickly see that this pushes us into asking questions about the character and not the skills during character generation. The player isn’t choosing whether the character has the “stealth” skill so much as thinking about how the character acquired it and the other circumstances of the character’s life around that acquisition. In other words, the player is making decisions about the character to get the skills, rather than selecting the skills and then retroactively justifying them.

I think that professions support taking this even farther with character creation systems that offer greater narrative potential than simply point-buy or array-assignment systems.  Simple systems certainly have their place–character creation in Barbarians of Lemuria is exceptionally friendly and simple.

In my opinion, a profession system begs for a “lifepath” system in character creation, allowing us to build the character by moving through his or her personal history. I’ll probably talk more about lifepaths in another post later on.

(3) Professions Are Reflective of Early-Modern Cultural Rigidity
Historically speaking, even as the changes that would lead to more social mobility were taking place, Western Europeans thought of their societies as easily compartmentalized under the “Great Chain of Being”: by the circumstances of their birth, a person was positioned by God where he or she was supposed to be. A peasant seeking to become a lord rebelled not only against society but against God.

A character’s choice of profession implies something about her social status–even in the modified (and often whitewashed) settings our fantasy games often take place in. I wrote in a previous post about leaning into the medieval mindset for fantasy writing and gaming; this is a design mechanism for doing so, I think. A character who has the Courtier, Soldier and Scoundrel professions occupies a different social status than one who has the Tradesman, Scout and Farmer professions, or even one who has the Soldier, Scoundrel and Traveler professions.

One of the areas where this makes the biggest difference, I think, is in social skills. A player who has the Persuade skill (perhaps rightfully) assumes that his character is persuasive to all people at all times. That’s rarely the case in real-world experience. If that character has a high rating in the Courtier profession but no skill in the Farmer or Merchant professions, the character is likely persuasive in the rhetorical speech and etiquette of the nobility, but might well be laughed at when trying to apply Cicero to an earthier and more practical sort of folk. That difference creates verisimilitude and depth to the setting (and probably helps remind players that, no, their character cannot just persuade the guard to give him his armor and weapons simply because he has a certain number of points in Persuade).

If you don’t want to add on additional systems to your game to accentuate the importance of (and difference between) levels of social status, the use of professions by itself will go a long way.

(4) Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic
I’m thinking that I should write a separate post entirely about handling knowledge skills in roleplaying games, but for now, I want to point out another benefit of using professions over skills. In Tudor England, about 8% of women and 24% of men could read and write well enough to sign their own name unassisted–provided I’m remembering my statistics correctly. Regardless of the actual numbers, literacy was on the rise but far from universal.

Some roleplaying games seek to capture this, requiring character resources to be dedicated to the ability to read and write if the player wants her character to have that ability. That’s good for immersion in the setting, but it creates other design problems in balancing the cost of that ability versus others (and balancing against our modern prejudice against those who are unable to read and write). When using professions, you can kill two birds with one stone: characters who have put points into certain professions (or a certain number of points into certain professions) are assumed to be able to read and write; those who have not are assumed not to be able to.

This helps sidestep the need to justify the ability (though the GM should find ways to accommodate players with believable backgrounds that break our assumptions and stereotypes) by corresponding the ability with those we would (logically and historically) expect to have it (say those with the Scholar or Priest professions).

The same goes for scientific and mathematics skills. Greek, Roman and Islamic scholars (and other ancient peoples in cultures from around the world) had advanced understandings of geometry, astronomy and other mathematics even before the late-medieval or early-modern periods in Europe. Under the Tudors, “tally sticks” allowed some record-keeping even for those with a relatively basic ability to conduct mathematic operations and perhaps no ability to read and write. Differentiating the likely arithmetical abilities of different characters becomes much easier when we have some idea of their background, experience and training rather than a list of skills on a page.

(5) Professions Evoke Setting
Your list of available professions tells players about the world they’ll be playing in. A world with Duelist(s) and Pirate(s) is very different from one with Knight(s) and Monk(s) (or Pirate(s) and Ninja(s?)).

(6) Built-in Contacts
If using a system like Fate, with its “Contacts” skill, then the use of Professions gives you both specificity and breadth that (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, n’est pas?) increases immersion, because the professions can be used to generate contacts of the type of people someone with experience in the given field is likely to know.

In Fate, this can be supplemented by allowing the invocation of Aspects to allow the introduction of contacts a character may know aside from the channels of his place in the world at large.

Conclusion
As usual, I’ve rambled on a bit more than I originally intended to do. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to think about converting skills into professions in the next campaign you run, regardless of system.