Category Archives: Cortex

Ethical Cyberpunk

I have a profound love of Cyberpunk which is based, I think, on very selective vision. There are lots of pretty lame things about it (most notably that’s it’s basically the suburban white kid vision of urban decay and socio-politics) but for me the beating heart of megacorps, corruption, the divide between the haves and have nots and the disruptive influence of technology really grab me.

The specific chrome (as it were) of cyberblades and mirrorshades doesn’t really do much for me, and this is where I end up at a disconnect from a lot of RPG cyberpunk stuff, especially where it becomes an excuse to really get into extensive weapons catalogs. Now, don’t get me wrong – the D&D model with ninjas, hackers and machine guns is good fun, but it’s not why cyberpunk interests me.

That divide colors a lot of the RPG space surrounding cyberpunk. The reality is that a lot of cyberpunk ideas are feeling uncomfortably close to real life these days, and that’s uncomfortable. It is no great shock that the most successful cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun, is the most divorced from reality (through the introduction of magic) and historically the most tied to the D&D model of play.[1]

So I got to thinking about what I really would want in a cyberpunk game, because the answer is explicitly not long lists of guns and cyberware, or even extensive rules for virtual reality netrunning.[2] I was surprised to discover that the answer came very quickly, because it (and its source material) already exists in the form of Leverage. Setting aside the color bits, the structure (team of professionals, hard target, emphasis on smarts and planning over resources and overwhelming firepower) hits very close to the mark for what I would consider “ethical cyberpunk”.

Perhaps even more telling is what changes I feel would need to be made.

First, there is an obvious change to the color of things, so as to make it near future. This is largely just a function of changing clothes because the actual mechanics require almost no changes. Thieves, Hitters, Grifters and Masterinds are much as they have always been. It might look like Hackers would need to change, but the reality is that the Hacker role is timeless – changing the technology changes what it looks like, but not how it works.

Second, there would probably need to be some cyberware rules. I just accept this. But they’d be mechanically trivial to support, so this is more of an exercise in “What’s cool?” than anything else.

Third, there might be call for some resource rules, but only if it makes things more interesting. The default Leverage model skips this – the PCs have sufficient resources – but scarcity of supplies and the street finding a use for things are sufficiently key cyberpunk ideas that I’d want to reflect it. Most likely it would be part of scenario design rather than a real rule, so to speak. That is, an additional step for a job would be identifying the resources needed and acquiring them.[3]

This actually introduces an interesting complexity into play. Leverage basically starts from “you have made enough money to retire, so why stay in the game?” which allows skipping over a lot of RPG baggage in favor of purposeful action. If that is removed, a similar check would need to be put in place – in the case of cyberpunk, it would probably be “Here is how much money you could make if you quit this crap and got a day job. So why haven’t you done that?”

The fourth change isn’t a change at all, and revolves around the role of violence. There are already great games that use cyberpunk as an invitation for gunplay, but they do so with a kind of hand wavy thinking about the role of violence in society, the impact of the spread of weapons technology (and counter-technology). All of which is to say that I don’t think cyberpunk should not be violent, but rather, that the violence exists in a context, and context is critically important to the tone.

Leverage has already wrestled this particular bear. It is understandable why Elliot doesn’t use guns in the show – it’s a personal quirk – but why would every other Hitter do the same? Especially when the archetypical RPG badass has twin desert eagles (and katanas) under his trenchcoat. Leverage’s take on this is straightforward – guns escalate problems[4] and while they may be an option, they are very much an option of last recourse because the consequences are much more profound.

Cyberpunk won’t be exactly the same – there are place where the cheapness of life is the point – but that idea of actions (violence in particular) having consequences is part of what makes it cyberpunk for me.

The last change is not a mechanical one, but it’s probably the trickiest, and that has to do with the opposition. In Leverage, your target is a bad person, doing bad things, and taking them down is a positive step towards stopping (and maybe fixing) those bad things. In cyberpunk, the problems are systemic. There might be occasional corporate stooge who is worse than other corporate stooges, but its not like taking him down will drastically improve things. Even if you land a major blow, enough to hurt a corp, then it will just be other corps stepping in to fill.

In short, cyberpunk does not offer the same clear goals and victories that Leverage does, even if the activities are similar. This is dark, appropriately so, but it also demands that the players take a different view on their accomplishments and, perhaps, take a longer view on things. It raises the question of what the endgame is, which is a tough but essential question. Without that, incremental victories may not be enough to get by.

So, if it’s not obvious, I have a lot of love for this kind of game in my heart, and once the cortex plus licensing settles out, I may write a little bit more about the mechanical side of this, but it really doesn’t require much in the way of mechanics at all. It’s all in the clarity of the ideas.

And by extension, cyberpunk may mean something totally different to you. So much so as to make you go “Leverage? Really?” and that’s totally cool. These things happen with made up words. But for me, this is the heart of what I’m looking for.

Also, Riggers turn out to be super prescient, as dumb as I thought they were in the early 90s.

  1. This is not Shadowrun’s fault. For all that it’s got huge helpings of shameless fan service, there is a genuine beating heart of genuine cyberpunk love at the heart of every edition. The old Corporate Datafiles sourcebook is probably my second favorite cyberpunk supplement, and it has almost no rules (first is, of course, I.C.E.’s magnificent Sprawlgangs and Megacorps which is transcendant). Hell, Shadowrun 4e ended up falling flat for me at the table, but I still love it for it’s handling of wireless networks and augmented reality. But the reality is that faster ninjas and bigger guns translate into sales, so the market will drive the focus of the line.  ↩
  2. I also have just enough of a technical background to prefer a little more genuine networking and UX design in my hacking. I’m not a stickler, but “computers are magic!” falls very flat for me. This doesn’t mean no virtual interfaces, but rather, it means asking what the virtual interface provides that makes it worthwhile, rather than just the 2020 version of van painting.  ↩
  3. aka “The Burn Notice Model”.  ↩
  4. Explicitly, they escalate problems in a way that is less fun to play.  ↩

Index Card Tactics

I was talking about this with Ryan Macklin last night and I had a moment of “huh, I should write this down” so here it is.

At Pax East, I ran a game of what can probably best be described as tabletop Final Fantasy Tactics.  Early in the con I had run a game of Cortex+ D&D that had gone well, but I’d been struck by a desire to hack it further, and the end result is something that you can still see the Cortex+ roots in, but is kind of its own beast.

One of the essential rules of this design was that everything could be done on index cards (or post-its), and the character “sheet” ended up being a set of cards, one for stats, one (eventually 2) for class, one for distinctions and one for equipment.

The stats were really the core of this, and they worked out very well, both accidentally and intentionally, and they were the result of trying to add in a few more mechanical and tactical hooks. I went with 4 stats and chose my preferred four that describe _how_ you do something rather than what you do. For the unfamiliar, they are Force (Strength, directness), Grace (Speed & dexterity), Wits (Thoughtfulness and intellect) and Resolve (Willpower and endurance).  In a narrative sense, you choose the stat that matches how you’re acting, so an attack might be forceful (Hammer the guy), Graceful (Dodge around), Witty (Study the opponent, then strike) or Resolute (Wait for an opening). It’s a nice, colorful set, but I wanted to jazz them up a little, which produced this:

The actual dice values are, I hope, fairly self explanatory.  When taking forceful action, this guy rolls a d6. Pretty simple.

Now, before I get into the details of this, let me provide a little data on how play worked for context.  Initiative was based on the Marvel model that Fred came up with, and on your go, you took an action and chose which stat you would use as part of the roll.   Once that happened, that was the mode you operated in until your next action, which was relevant for defense rolls, and which had tactical implications that I’ll explain in a minute.  The important thing is that you got locked into that mode.

Now, the other details: The black arrows represented advantage, so Force had an advantage over Grace, which had an advantage over Resolve and so on.  The mechanical upshot of this was simple – in a conflict, the stat with the advantage would step up one[1].  Thus, if this guy used Force against someone else using Grace, his D6 would be bumped up to a d8. This is not a huge bonus, but it offers an additional incentive to stat choice beyond “The best one”.

The other bit is that each stat has a specific mechanical effect, taken down in shorthand on the sheet, and they break down as follows:

Force: Any stress (damage) you inflict is stepped up by one
Wits: Any conditions (non-damage) you create are stepped up by one
Resolve: Step down a stress or condition die on you.
Grace: You may interrupt initiative to take action or refuse to accept to take your turn (unless the other part is also using grace and has a bigger die).[2]

So, that makes the choices pretty straightforward. But what about the GM? You definitely don’t want to keep track of all that. And so you don’t – these are PC rules. For enemies, life’s much simpler.

Since this was Final Fantasy Tactics inspired, most of the opposition was in the form of monsters, which were statted up pretty simply, like:

Just a few notes for a die pool, a special attack (If he used the earthshaker dice, he didn’t do damage, but imposed the wobbly condition) and a note that he was a force creature, which suggested what he was strong or weak against.[3] Simpler monsters didn’t have a stat at all, and boss monsters might have two that they can switch between.  Easy on the GM, but creates a broader landscape of choices (especially when there’s a range of enemy stats – do you want to use wits on the ogre knowing that there’s a RESOLVE Troll on the board?).

Anyway, there was more stuff with classes and gear, but I figured I’d start with the basics.

1 – “Step up” is shorthand for “Increase die size by one” so stepping up a d6 turns it into a d8. “Step down” is just the reverse

2 – This worked startlingly well.

3 – In the future I might consider making this hidden information for the video-gamey reason of offering an avenue (SCAN) to finding this out. But that might also be too much work.  

Heroic Adventuring

I ran a game last night on relatively little prep. I was using Dave Chalker’s Marvel Heroic RPG-D&D 4e hack, and I threw together some notes to create the adventure as quickly as I could and threw them up on google plus, just because they’re a nice showcase of how I think (NARCISSIST). However, fate conspired – the children would not go to sleep, and we went to bed much later than planned, which meant I needed to abbreviate things. At which point I then discovered that while we were waiting, one of my players had read the notes anyway. So much for that.

So, I used two guys with swords. Strapped to the altar of something best unnamed, brought there by the gods’ demand, wheedling and pushes, and the assassins have found them. As ever, it worked like a charm, and I’m being asked to run more of it tonight, so that’ nice.

It was also very informative to me as I ran the hack, both for Cortex+ hacks in general and the 4e hack in specific. For reference, we had a human ranger, human rogue and half-orc cleric. A lot of the system went really well, but there were definitely some bumps. Breaking it down:

  • First off, in general, the heart of the MHRPG system is basically bucket based. You get a set of buckets (affiliation, powers etc) and you get to build your pool by taking a die from each bucket (assuming it applies). On some level, creating a hack is as simple as coming up with your own set of 3-5 buckets and filling them in. Buckets may have their own rules (the distinction bucket works differently than the powers bucket), so when you add a pool, it’s also the place to hang more or fewer rules.

  • Physically, I represented each bucket with an index card, so players picked a card for race, a card for class, and so on. This worked well for chargen, but also had a neat effect in play – the players started using them to physically build their pools, putting the die on the card as they used it. If there was no die on a card, it was a cue to check that card for a contribution to the pool. Once there was a die on every card, they could pick them up and roll them. Ended up working with assets too, since they just grabbed them physically and put the die on them.

  • The cards worked so well, that I may design a game based solely on that hook sometime.

  • I added an extra bucket for Gear. It had weapons, armor and focus items. The base die value for weapons and armor was based off the weapon and durability ratings of the character. Thus, the rogue (weapons d8, no durability) had Daggers d8 and Leather Armor d6. The Cleric (Weapons d8, Durability d8, divinity d8) had Spear d8, Chainmail d8 and Holy Symbol d8. I was prepared to make things magical by effectively adding powers or extra dice (fiery d6, etc) to them but I ended up skimming over that in play. Curiously, I’d really put this in to help the fighter classes have an area to stand out (fighter gets a step up in weapon or armor, and Paladin’s get an armor bump) but ended up with fewer of them on the table.

  • I did not bring enough d8s. I need to buy a TON more.

  • Part of the reason I needed so many is that the pools really gravitated that way. The game was colorful and novel enough that I don’t think it really got in the way, but there was a lot of sameness to the final dice pools.

  • I changed up the area attack rules to curtail them a little bit. Basically, to make an area attack (assuming you can – powers, PP and stuff play in), you remove a die from your attack pool, and ad a number of targets based on the step-size of the die (so d6 gets you +2, d8 +3 and so on). Any hit that you don’t have a damage die for is a d6. Classes with area attack abilities got a bonus die that they could spend without reducing their pool (so, the ranger could add a d4 to his pool for multi attack purposes, meaning he could attack 2 targets all the time). It worked ok, but the interaction with d4 is a little weird, so I’d probably change it so it starts at d6 (d6 for +1, d8 for +2 and so on) and not allow d4s to be spent in this fashion.

  • I also ended up taking a more conservative approach to Plot Points that made them much more tightly tied to opportunities. This was a genre shift, and while I’m not sure I’m 100% happy with it, it had some very nice properties in play that I think I need to explore a bit further. Distinctions still paid out as normal, but the trick was in the rolls. Basically, Opportunities were the central point of everything – an opportunity was a chance to spend a PP *or* to earn one. If you did not use an opportunity (that is, spend a PP or use an ability) then it earned you a PP. Net result was fewer PPs, but when PP’s were spent, they were more concretely tied to the action. One mixed result is that the results of the dice ended up standing a lot more often than the do in Marvel – not sure that’s good or bad, just different.

  • One thing I’d tweak with this is probably end up going a little bit closer to Leverage and it’s use of d4s for a variety of effects. More opportunities is probably desirable, and may be a better way to address the fact that limits end up working a lot less well outside of the super-hero context.

  • But that said, making opportunities a little more front and center provided a really nice area to hook in mechanics. The Rogue, for example, got tweaked, so it could use an opportunity for a damage step up (no PP Cost). Didn’t come up all the time, but the one time an assassin handed the rogue two opportunities and turned that d8 hit into a d12 hit went very badly indeed.

  • Initiative system is still solid gold.

  • Doom Pool ends up being an interesting balancing mechanism. If you find you’ve slightly over-powered the opposition (as I did) you can offset it by not spending from the pool. Handy.

  • [EDIT] Just remembered. We had two fights – I did nto make much use of scene elements int he first one, but did in the second, and the players (not experienced Cortex players) absolutely gravitated towards them with no real urging on my part. One more argument to maybe dip a little more into the Leverage bag.

Still some room for fiddling, but I feel like I’ve got a lot of good data to work with here. There will be more heroic swordplay in the future.

Don’t Take The Affiliation, Even Though It’s Awesome

Affiliations are one of the neat ideas in the Marvel Heroic RPG. They touch upon what I had to say about normal the other day because they are (arguably) the central part of any roll you make in Marvel. That is to say, you could conceivably make a roll where none of your powers, distinctions and such apply, but you simply could not make a roll without using affiliation.

For the unfamiliar, affiliation is basically a measure of the character’s interaction with others, measure in three values. One is for actin on your own, one for working with a partner, and one for working with a group. When you take an action, you use the value appropriate to the situation.

Now, this is a great mechanic for a bunch of different reasons.

First, it’s a nice shorthand for more sophisticated social mechanics (as one might find in, say, Smallville). It has a social component, and it tells you something important about the character (for example, Wolverine is really good at going solo, while Captain America is a stronger team player) without really bogging things down.

Second, it’s concrete enough to have a little bit of a tactical feel to it. Which die you use depends heavily on the fiction, and you can usually choose your actions to play to your strength, but not always. The GM can push things towards a tension point, or certain fiction effects (like, say, a speedball special) might depend on making the less-optimal choice. But, for all that, it’s reasonably painless – less-optimal is still not _bad_ (which is an important trick t remember for lightweight tactical engagement).

Third, it really _feels_ appropriate to a comic book. It speaks to solo titles and super-teams and heroic team ups, which are really the meat and drink of super heroic comics.

So here’s the catch. like all Cortex+ games, Marvel is crazily hackable, and the first thing people end up bumping their nose against in a Marvel hack is how to bring Affiliation into their game. After all, it’s very clearly an awesome mechanic, so converting it is an important step, right?

Well…no. not so much. See, all the reasons that Affiliation works so well in Marvel are reasons you don’t want it in your game. It represents something specific to comics which is probably not present in your game. That is to say, most fiction has a certain central dynamic, which is sticks to for the duration. Comics are distinctive in how often that dynamic changes, and how the roles of heroes change. If you can’t say the same of your game, then you don’t want it.

Instead, you wan to take it out and put it on the shelf, then thoughtfully regard the hole that it left behind. It’s an important hole. As I said before, it’s the foundational element of building a roll, the thing that comes up EVERY TIME you roll the dice. But at the same time, it’s not necessarily the obvious thing – consider that for Marvel, that would probably be powers. From the perspective of supers, that seems far more foundational. The rub is that powers are varied and complex – your foundational die needs to speak to the game more than the action of the game.

Now, there’s an easy solution. Just throw in some stats – Mind, Body, Spirit maybe – and you’ve got a completely functional replacement. But if you do that, you’re actively passing up a chance to say something about your game, so don’t fall back on that unless you absolutely have to.

Anyway, just something to think about.

Normal (d6)

I cheat a bit when I run Leverage and its variants. According to the rules, when the GM spends a PP to create something, it’s created at d6. I’m less kind, and when I create things, they’re d8s, and for all intents and purposes, I have an infinite budget of d6s that I can use for anything, anytime.

At first blush, that make seem unbalanced and abusive, and I’ll concede it’s a little mean, but the reality is that it reflects a specific piece of perspective I have about Cortex+, that is to say, what I consider normal to be.

To my mind, in the language of Cortex+, d6 is effectively the die that means “normal”. It’s the die I pick up to fill gaps when nothing else really applies. If there’s a security guard who matters solely because the players eyes have fallen upon him, he’s a Security Guard d6. If he matters enough for me to spend some points on, then he should be exceptional (or terrible) and interesting, which merits different dice.

It’s also no coincidence that this is the midpoint between the two die values for a distinction. D6 is what D4 is worse than and D8 is better than. Obvious on the face of it, but it underscores why I take D6 as the baseline. If nothing else interesting is going on, just grab a d6.

(Mechanically this also comes in handy when the GM needs to build a small pool. Even if that security guard is a d8, if he’s making a roll tangential to any other resource I have in play, it’s easier to just add in a d6 to fill out your hand, so to speak)

There’s an interesting shift that comes from this, because you stop seeing the world as being built up from zero and more in terms of how it deviates from the norm. It spares you of the obligation to fill in details prematurely. If an NPC is introduced and you don’t know anything about him, just use two or three d6s when appropriate until you hit upon the ways in which the character is noteworthy.

This is in some ways a nod back to Over The Edge, where the baseline for any action was 2d6, and you could always fall back to that, but your specific strengths and weaknesses could change that. Having that baseline allowed for much simpler character sheets because it removed the need to note everything, only demanding that which deviated from the norm (and which was, one hoped, therefor interesting). You can see it in other systems too, though it is sometimes more muddled.

This idea bounces around various Cortex+ implementations, but it’s precise meaning and role depends on the system. I’ve noted how it impacts my Leverge play, but it’s perhaps even more interesting in Marvel, where the d6 is the placeholder die. Mechanical effects that need a die that’s ok use it (like area attacks) dip into it, but for anything interesting, it gets passed by. Ever wondered why there’s not a d6 option for specialties? Easy answer: BECAUSE YOU’RE COOLER THAN THAT. I admit, I do dip into d6s for Marvel, but when I do, it’s almost always a sign of something mundane – as with Leverage, it’s suitable for something that doesn’t grab, but which needs mechanical representation.

There’s an obvious question here: if d6’s are that dull, why bother rolling them? Never make a boring roll, right?

Well, that’s the interesting and subtle trick of the d6. It’s true, it’s not too potent, but every now and again you get boxcars and a surprise. It’s important to remember this because normal does not need to mean boring. Rather, it’s the baseline by which players can judge themselves. A too-easy success (as many mook rules provide) provide surface awesome but can ultimately feel hollow because anyone can overcome it. D6s have just the right amount of challenge to make your bigger dice feel rewarding and just enough threat to make you wonder if it’s _really_ worth trading that d8 for a d4.

The Right Tool For the Job

A passing comment on twitter got me thinking about a White Collar hack for Leverage. It’s doable, but chewing on it lead to me hurting my teeth on a familiar nut, one which also is worrying me a little bit in the context of the system I’ve been developing.

I’m going to use Cortex+ to illustrate this issue, but it is far from the only game where it’s an issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s an issue with many games, but it’s most evident in games which support very flexible labels for dice pools (such as cliche’s in Risus, descriptors in over the Edge, term in PDQ and Assets & Complications in Cortex+).

The problem is this: the systems have no real support for the idea of the right tool for the job.

What does that mean? In fiction (and in life) one of the best ways to solve a problem is to find the right tool for the job. If you need to drive a screw, you get a screwdriver. If you need to drive off Frankenstein’s monster, you get a torch. In many cases, the real skill in an activity comes in knowing how to choose the right tools, then applying them properly.

Games poorly support this. There may be a threshold of applicability (that is, “Can I use this die in this roll?”) but beyond that, all dice are created equal. If I need to make perfect croissants, it’s more important to have a skilled baker than a good kitchen, but if I have “Kitchen d8” and “Baker d8” then they’re equally valuable.

Now, not to say this doesn’t work at all. A lot of narrative logic is perfectly fine determining what the best tool for the job was after things have been resolved. And some of this gets subsumed in the creation of dice – if you have a d8 Kitchen, there is presumably some reason why that kitchen matters, so it’s no big deal, right?


Ok, so it makes me a little crazy for two reasons, one selfish and one a little more well thought out.

For the selfish one, I really like problem-solving. Figuring out the right tool for the job is like solving a puzzle, and in fact it’s basically the mechanic that many games (like text adventures) use for resolution. You _can’t_ solve the problem unless you use the right tool.

I don’t actually want anything that restrictive, but I really like the idea of finding a clever application of a tool and being rewarded for it. Similarly, I like the idea of rewarding greater planning, though to knowledge within the game. Taken to a crunchy level, it’s a similar desire to one that desires that tactics be rewarded in a conflict.

Anyway, that’s my personal fun, but it’s not the only issue.

The other issue is one of player choice. When dice (or bonuses or the like) are fungible – that is, can be used interchangeably – it becomes very hard to introduce situations where the player is forced to make a hard choice with mechanical consequences.

Consider, for example, the offer of help from a mob boss. It comes with certain strings attached, which would normally be enough to reject it outright, but the task is really hard and really important. Do you take his help?

Well, if his help is an extra d10, you probably don’t. Mechanically, there are other ways for you to get that d10 (or near enough) that the price is almost certainly not worth it.

Now, this is admittedly an area where Cortex+ (and Leverage in particular) is a problematic example because it’s built on a foundation of competence. With success as the norm, you’ll be hard pressed to ever really _need_ a particular bonus so badly that you’d be willing to eat bitter for it. However, my own design has a similar success-based focus, so it’s perhaps doubly informative.

This also speaks to why the interpretive solution (GM handing out bonuses to reflect this stuff) can be unsatisfying. The problem is that bonuses are – generally speaking – just as generic and easy to get as anything else.

Fate Nerds: This problem comes up with aspects a lot too, with aspects that are appropriate to the character but not the situation (or vice versa). Having your father’s sword as an aspect is a great all-purpose bonus-generator when you get in swordfights, but if used that way, it offers no distinction between using it on a random thug and using it on your father’s killer.

And, argh, I think that may be it. That split between “appropriate to the character” and “Appropriate to the situation” is the heart of the problem. The vast majority of game mechanics are appropriate to the character and some are appropriate to the situation, but there is almost no recognition of the synergy between the two.

And thinking about it, I can see why. It’s a bookeeping challenge. The only really practical way to mechanize it is to do things in paired elements, one on the actor and one on the target. When you see this sort of thing in action (Such as attacks with a fire keyword and a creature with a fire vulnerability) it’s effective, but it hinges on a lot of extra data. Could you really have a game where the bonuses are based on the interaction between two elements rather than their inherent nature?

I dunno. This one has actually thrown me for a loop – I feel like I started picking at a thread and an entire sweater has come apart in my hands. I feel like I’ve got a better grasp on the problem no, but am no closer to a solution.

Some Random Cortex Hacks

I’ve been randomly hacking things in my head for Cortex plus and it’s produced a few usable widgets that I figured I’d share.

Cracking Dice – This is a pretty simple concept, but it struck me as something that might streamline any dice distribution system, especially in the case of something open ended, like super powers. The idea is simple: any die may be “cracked” into two dice of on step lower, so a D12 might become 2d10, which in turn might become 1d10 and 2d8, or 1d10, 1d8 and 2d6. It’s a good way to get width out of height.

Now, applying this mechanically has a few possibilities. I wouldn’t suggest applying it to actual rolls, though I suppose you could do it. What I was specifically thinking was that you could just hand someone a d12 and let them use that “budget” to buy powers. If they just want Invulnerability d12″ then that’s fine, or they could crack it and get “Superstrength d10, Invulnerability d10” and so on (Obviously, this implies an entire powers system but that’s another discussion.) It could even support the spontaneous purchase of new powers if deemed necessary, by cracking dice in play.

Five Step – So, the simple fact is that Cortex plus maps very tidily to a 5 step system (d4/d6/d8/d10/d12 and 1,2,3,4 and 5 respectively). This is noteworthy because there area lot of five step systems out there, most notably the various World of Darkness games. Certainly there would need to be a little tweaking on the powers (# of successes could be calculated by the number of winning sets you can built, frex) but I’d be really curious to see about running something like Mage as a straight up conversion (well, maybe not Mage. Dave Chalker already has a fantastic Mage hack for leverage. But you get the idea).

Best Friends – Carl Rigney had the most brilliant idea which I am taking and runningn with. Basically, you can take the Best Friends character creation system and apply it to Cortex+.

For the unfamiliar, best Friends has a wonderful chargen mechanic based around a core set of stats like strong, tough, smart and so on. The list isn’t important, and I change it to suit. What’s important is that in chargen you go through the list of stats and say who you hate because they’r better than you. That is, you have a list like “I hate Lisa because she’s stronger than me. I hate Tina because she’s richer than me” and so on. Everyone’s stat is the number of people who hate them.

As noted previously, it’s easy to turn small number numerical steps into dice, so that Cortex+ conversion is easy. But what intrigues me most is that _other_ thing I like to hybridize with Best Friends: Amber. It calls for a slight change in stats (Including “Because dad likes him better”) but that’s easy. But better yet, If you do this for the core stats and something else for the roles, then stats can be done _secretly_ and kept obscured. That is to say, Players write down their hates in secret, and the GM uses that to hand out stats. No one knows who is really the best, and Cortex+ very naturally supports “faking down” your high stats if you want to – just use a smaller die. Simple as that.

Anyway, this is what rattles in my head when I don’t have a good audiobook. Figured I’d share.

Active Stats and Leverage

One other interesting thing that came out of the Leverage game at PAX-east was a discussion of stats. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s worth noting that Leverage has some very normal stats (Strength, Agility and whatnot) but no “social” stat. This may seem a bit odd in the context of a game with such a strong social component, but it’s something the book tackles head on. See, it’s not that there’s no charisma equivalent, it’s that EVERYTHING is a charisma equivalent.

To illustrate that, let me point to the very specific case in the game that Logan Bonner‘s magnificent Grifter made more than a few rolls of “Strength + Grifter”. At first blush, that seems like a nonsensical combination, but that’s only the case if you think very literally. Instead, in this case, Strength also represented a kind of approach. The Grifter was coming across forcefully, relying on strength of personality (natch) to carry things through, so strength was the appropriate stat. If he’d been talking fast, it might have been Agility.

Using stats this way – to reflect HOW you do things, rather than what you do – is an idea I’ve grown more and more fond of with time, and I recently heard Cam Banks use the term “Active Stats” to describe them in conversation, and it’s stuck with me. It puts a lot more of play in the player’s hands, and that’s always a good thing.

Now, this is not always easy. Leverage’s stats are intentionally backwards compatible with previous Cortex products, if only to make things more familiar to old fans. This means the mapping of stats in this way is not always intuitive, and it’s a big reason why I tend to re-tune the stat list when I do a new hack. Interpreting active stats from an existing list is always going to be harder than starting from scratch.

This is why I was delighted to get a mail from Logan Bonner proposing the (awesomely named) FAQ hack for Leverage. While he didn’t call it such, he basically proposed a trio of active stats: Forceful, Analytical and Quick. He explicitly excluded an endurance-equivalent as out of genre (and he was right to do so) but in doing so he did a couple of things. First, he proposed a very workable hack – one I could totally get behind – but second he provided some independent confirmation of a suspicion of mine regarding the 4 core active building blocks.

See, my default active 4 are Force, Grace, Insight and Resolve, and the map directly to Force, Quickness, Analytical and the unused fourth. That pleased me because Logan’s a pretty sharp guy, and if we both hit on this same pattern, it suggests it may have some backbone.

Anyway, I mention this now for all you folks looking to hack Leverage and thinking about stats. I would absolutely encourage you to pursue an active stat model since I think you’ll find it a lot more rewarding in play, and I’d be very curious to hear if other people have active stat models of their own that differ from this 4 pointed structure.

A Tip for Masterminds

I only managed to run one game of Leverage at PAX, and despite my degraded health, I think it went decently well. I’ve found I like paying a lot of attention to what the group takes as their secondary role, since it often tells you a lot about what the group is really like. In this case, we had a lot of Hitter, with the non-violent Thief in the leadership role. The mastermind was the political guy, a former lawyer, and he did a great job with it, and at the same time underscored something that I’ve been doing to help out Masterminds.

See, a generic Mastermind is a little bit rough to really engage in play. It’s so open ended that unless you have a player who likes to scheme purely for the sake of scheming, the Mastermind can be left at something of a loose end. He can do things, certainly, but they’re not necessarily things that will distinguish him from the rest of the crew. Worse, the fact that he could do almost anything introduces a degree of option-induced paralysis.

To this end, I’ve started treating the Mastermind as something of a specialist – the Mastermind picks some arena of expertise, and within that, I just treat his knowledge as absolute. Nate Ford, for example, knows insurance in and out, which extends to things being insured. Other Masterminds might know taxes, high finance, the law or some other professional pursuits. Specialties might also be more abstract, like “being the guy who knows everyone” or the like – so long as the idea is very clear, then its probably workable.

This ends up making very little mechanical difference. Leverage characters are already awesome, and putting a a bit of spin on the awesome doesn’t actually shake up the table much. But what it does do is give the table a much stronger sense of what the Mastermind’s role is and how he contributes to the team. For the Mastermind’s player, it imposes fruitful limitations. Because the Mastermind has a clear strength, when in doubt, he knows he can play to it. It gives a lens to look at problems through, and that can be utterly invaluable. For the GM, it also makes it a lot clearer when Mastermind is the right thing to be rolled. Lastly, it has the thematic effect of giving the Mastermind a stronger connection to “the real world”, and given the source material, I think that’s pretty cool.

It’s a small thing, and like most good Leverage tricks it’s a bit of a con, but I put it out there for others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

The Sacred Cow Job

I pulled together a gone on pretty short notice today, with no real sense of what I was going to do with it. I ended up pulling up something together pretty much whole cloth, and it ended up weird but pretty cool.

Premise was a city of gods, where one god (the Lamplighter) had forcibly assumed prominence and taxing the prayers of other gods (prayers and offerings take a physical form), so the players are champions of various bound gods, hijacking prayers and doing dramatic things in the names of their patrons.

System-wise, I started from a Leverage template (predictably). For stats, I used the amber set of _how_ you do things (Force, Wits, Grace or Resolve) and for roles, I followed the model I used for Supernatural and focus on what you use to do it (Sword, Tool, Knowledge, Tongue or Self). Rounded it out with three distinctions. The weirdness came with the patron deity who gave each character the “Gift Of…” – some power reflective of a domain. The examples below will make it clearer. Players also had the option of adding extra gifts by acquiring additional obligations to other gods. Mechanically, that took the form of an additional distinction chosen by the GM. If I’d had a little more time I might have made it more involved (such as calling for specific behaviors) but this worked out well enough.

One change I ended up making was something I’d misremembered as a Leverage rule, but which ended up working out really well in practice. After dice are rolled, if the players need a reroll, they can get it, but only if they find some way to change their die pool, such as introducing a new asset or using another distinction. This has the interesting effect of rewarding keeping a few dice in reserve, and can also end up forcing a player to hurt himself with a distinction out of necessity..

This ended up with some seriously messed up characters. I’m going to transcribe their sheets here because I actually think the gifts are kind of mechanically interesting, and might be useful fodder for anyone looking to supernatural up their Leverage variant.

Warren, Agent of Visha
Force: d10
Wits: d8
Grace: d6
Resolve: d4
Sword: d10
Word: d8
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d6
Self: d4

To Owe is to Understand
It Is Only Temporary
Everyone Pays Their Debts
Everything Must Burn (Master Charr)
Always Give A Sucker An Even Break (Alerian Empress)

Gift of Fleeting Wealth
* When gaining benefits from Distinctions, roll d10 rather than d8
* When you roll a 1, generate 2 complications
* When creating an asset, it starts at d8, but there’s almost certainly a catch to it.

Gift of Fire (From Master Charr)
* Immune to Fire
* Spend a plot point to self immolate. For the duration of the scene, if an enemy wins a physical conflict where they’ve engaged hand-to-hand, they take d4 fire damage. Plus, looks awesome.

Gift of Redemption (From the Alerian Empress)
* Take on an injury from another player.
* Spend a plot point to turn any of your dice into d4s. Each die so transformed increases damage done by one step.

Mary, Agent of Efficiency
Force: d12
Wits: d6
Grace: d4
Resolve: d6

Sword: D12
Word: d6
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d4
Self: d6

Promises First
How Hard Can It Be
99% Inspiration
Unnecessary Casualties (From the Executioner)

Gift of Improvisation
* Spend a plot point to duplicate another player’s ability. May require another plot point expenditure if the power in question requires it.

Gift of Delivery (From the Executioner)
* Perfect timing: Show up in any scene when you feel like it.
* Non shall halt the messenger: Spend a PP to dramatically open any door

Orvik, Agent of Fenris the Flayed
Force: d6
Wits: d4
Grace: d8
Resolve: d10

Sword: d8
Word: d4
Tool: d10
Knowledge: d6
Self: d8

It Doesn’t Hurt Yet
The God Guides My Lash
Repulsive (The Patchwork Man)
Hungy (Gulb, God of Gluttony)

Gift of Pain
* When you inflict Hurt, also inflict d4 Upset
* Your hurt threshold is d12
* Spend a PP to add your Hurt value to all rolls for the scene.

Gift of Beggars (From The Patchwork Man)
* Pathetic: When enemies have multiple opponents and have no pressing need to go after you, you’re always targeted last.
* Melt into a Crowd: Spend a PP to vanish into any crowd

Gift of Meat (From Gulb, God of Gluttony)
* Smell of Blood. Always aware of living beings around you, even if you can’t see them
* Rending Teeth: Spend a PP to make an attack using Self rather than Sword. On a hit, +1 step of damage, and you recover one step of hurt.

Beryl, Agent of the Down One
Force: d10
Wits: d4
Grace: d4
Resolve: d10

Sword: d10
Word: d6
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d4
Self: d8

Giant Hammer
Drunk (Gift of Tipsel)

Gift of Gravity
* Fall Safely from any height
* Spend a plot point to drastically reduce or increase your weight. If it’s relevant to the action at hand, you may keep an extra die.

Gift of Drink (Gift of Tipsel)
* You are always confused d4 but you never take further confused damage unless it’s self inflicted by drinking.
* You can Add your confused level to any roll, thus reducing it by one step (minimum d4). If you spend a PP, that extra die is kept.

Konur Tagg, Agent of Mardaug The Thunderer
Force: d10
Wits: d4
Grace: d6
Resolve: d8

Sword: d10
Word: d6
Tool: d6
Knowledge: d4
Self: d10

If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Loudly
I Must Not Have Hit It Hard Enough
I Can’t Talk Around Women
Can’t Ignore Tears (Gift of Kaela, Mardaug’s consort)

Gift of Thunder
* You can be heard anywhere and have no problem hearing in the noisiest of environments
* Spend 1PP when making an attack. Minimum damage is d8, and inflicts d4 confused while making a lot of noise.

Gift of The Tender Heart
* You have armor d4 vs Upset
* Inflict -1 step damage less Upset damage
* Spend 1pp to remove Upset damage from an ally, and roll and keep that die.