In case you missed it, the Kickstarter for the new Cortex Hacker’s Guide went live 48 hours ago. At time of writing this, they’d already got $10K pledged which is a fanatastic start for what might seem to be a fairly niche product. It’s a great kickstarter with heaps of levels to pledge at, and some great stretch goals. I’m really excited to be a part of it, not least because it’s my first official kickstarter. My own projects have so far used IndieGoGo and haven’t had a cool video to go with them. MWP’s video is great and I got a little shiver of excitement when Dave Chalker listed my contribution – mutant animals – as one of the sections.
It’s also fantastic to see this product come out, after nearly two years of waiting. Marvel Heroic Roleplay sort of got in the way, because hey, Marvel is a 200-pound gorilla of a licence (and one hell of a game). It’s always good when something you’re proud of finally gets to come out (assuming we get the next five grand). It’s also great how MWP have designed this particular KS. Us writers have all been paid our base rate, but anything the company makes beyond costs goes into paying us more. MWP already pays above average for a gaming company, because they are classy, professional people who are joy to work with, but passing on the return to writers takes that to a whole new level. One of the biggest problems with the RPG industry is the market won’t bear price rates that pay authors a fair rate for their work. Until, of course, crowdsourcing came along, allowing consumers to send money directly to those authors. Hopefully, more companies will follow MWP’s lead. We want that because good writers deserve good money, and they go elsewhere if they don’t get it. Letting them make more money on products keeps good designers writing good material for the games you love.
If that alone doesn’t convince you to back this project, let’s talk about the content.
You might not know what a Cortex is. Cortex was originally designed by Lester Smith and others for the first product from MWP, the long-forgotten Sovereign Stone fantasy RPG, then hammered into a full generic system by Jamie Chambers, after which it was used in such games as Serenity, Supernatural and Battlestar Galactica (all great games, btw). I’ve been a fan since the beginning of Cortex’s goals: it’s got a central rigidity like its design-cousin Savage Worlds, but, like Unisystem, is simpler and cleaner because it wasn’t designed to also support miniatures. As someone who finds most generic systems (eg GURPS, ORE, FATE) generally far too heavy, Cortex is right in the sweet spot for me.
Then something really awesome happened. Cam Banks, Josh Roby and Rob Donoghue (and others) came onto work for MWP and produced Smallville and Leverage. Both games started with the very “core” or Cortex, which is roll one die, rated from d4 to d12, for one “axis” (originally your attribute) and one die for a second axis (originally your skill) and add them, plus roll extra dice if you have them, but still just add the two highest. Both games then transformed that central idea by adding some very modern and indie approaches. In Smallville, they replaced the two axes entirely, replacing stat+skill with Emotion + Relationship, to build a completely different mindset. In Leverage, they got rid of hitpoint ideas and replaced it entirely with FATE-like Aspects and some other great ideas. These new interpretations were, as a whole, nicknamed Cortex Plus (or C+).
This wasn’t just great design, it was great modular design. There are at least two key aspects to game design – having numbers that work and make sense, and dressing the numbers up so they communicate the right information while making sense. So far, few games have really looked at breaking those two things down separately. I can only think of FUDGE/FATE as the exception. I’m good at dressing up the numbers but not always good at building the basics, so I was intrigued (not to mention incredibly impressed with both Smallville and Leverage as RPGs as a whole). The first thing I did after reviewing these two excellent games was email Cam Banks and demand to know when Cortex Plus was going OGL. He didn’t have an answer – yet. Instead, he got back in touch about the Hacker’s Guide.
The designers were well aware that with Cortex Plus, the genie was out of the bottle and there were suddenly a lot more you could do with the system, and that the two incarnations were not just great games but great ideas that inspired more tinkering. That rather than split them up into Cortex Plus Drama and Cortex Plus Action, the two could be cross-linked and combined and broken down and rebuilt, and that was in fact more interesting than taking a core system and hammering out a few appropriate Merits and Flaws for your favourite TV show. However good Serenity and Supernatural were, they could be made better by bending things around more, and applying these new ideas. I was already chafing at the bit to do this; I was not surprised to find I was not alone. One such interaction of the two came out soon after, as Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and very nice it is too.
But putting out a whole new game was an expensive idea. Instead, the idea was to bring all these ideas together in one place, in a shorter form. The Hacker’s Guide, on the surface, looks like a shotgun-blast sourcebook, adding new traits and merits to the Smallville and Leverage systems so you can play them in other settings. But it’s a lot more than that. We crossed the streams and relinked the wires, and in the process, teach you how to do that yourself. Some of that teaching is explicit and direct, some of it is implied by seeing our end results. Cortex is one of the most interesting systems around right now, and some incredible stuff has been done with it already, and we’re taking that even further. That’s exciting as hell and something I’m really proud to be a part of.
I knew the moment Cam asked what I wanted to do. My first RPG, the thing that made me love this hobby, was Erick Wujcik’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG. Nothing else I’ve ever seen has ever got right the part I loved so much about that game, which was being able to play almost any animal imaginable. Finding a way to do that – and keep the simplicity which is so important to Cortex – was a huge game design challenge, and I’m really proud of how it came out. It’s not TMNT, of course, (no use of copyright material should be implied!!) but inspired by that RPG and how it inspired me. TMNT holds a special place in my life, and Erick was a hero, and later, a mentor and a personal friend, so this is also my way of giving something back. That’s my personal connection; for you, the point is that if you liked TMNT, my response to it is here, and it a more passionate and dedicated response to that game and its goals you will not find anywhere else in the hobby.
So if you are interested in RPG design, both indie and trad, and where the two meet, if you’re interested in how to take a core idea and expand it and develop it across settings and genres, so as to learn how to do that yourself, whatever your core system of choice, then you should be excited about the Hacker’s Guide. And if you ever liked the TMNT rpg and really feel a need to play any reptile, bird or mammal you can name, then you should be very excited about my contribution. So go out and back it already. If only because I need the cash.