Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cortex is Not a Savage Worlds Clone

Last year, I decided I would run a regular game that wasn't Savage Worlds in 2010. Sounds simple enough (why would an experienced GM need to make that kind of resolution?), but it is in fact a tough thing. You see, I've tried it before. I've read other games, run one-shots. But for multiple reasons, I've always fallen back to Savage Worlds--at least since 2005. One reason is my group, especially my wife, is really into Savage Worlds. The system's comfortable to us and Savage Worlds is really versatile. Also, with my busy life its tough to gain a familiarity with a system like the one I have with Savage Worlds. But for my sanity as a "system guy," I have to do it. So I publicly declared I would (see, I did it again--damn!).

On my search, I decided I wanted to look at modern games. I looked at White Wolf's World of Darkness and decided it was too much fluffy reading to find both the rules and the point of the game. I thought about adding the core rules in with Second Sight, but I got frustrated in trying to find the mechanics plainly explained--did I mention I was spoiled by Savage Worlds? I thought about going with something like Hunter, then I realized I'd be going through over 300 pages of Second Sight-like reading, plus a re-read of the World of Darkness corebook (200+ pages), and thought better of it. Don't get me wrong. I like White Wolf. I think their products are cool. But I just don't have the time and patience to act as a GM, at least the way I'd want to, with their rules. But Hunter did intrigue me, so I at least had a lead.

Enter the Supernatural RPG from Margaret Weis Productions--sort of. I should go back a bit. Last year at Origins I grabbed a copy of the Cortex rulebook--because I was intrigued that it came with a PDF download code--and promptly tossed it on my RPG shelf when I got home. I even downloaded the PDF and promptly tossed it on my RPG thumb drive (nearly eight gigs of gaming goodness). A couple weeks ago, I opened the book for what was basically the first time (I did open it that one time to get the PDF code, ya know). It seemed pretty interesting, but I wanted something all-in-one. Then, enter the Supernatural RPG--really.

Another aside: I should mention there's a special relationship between those who love the Cortex System (which powers Supernatural) and those who love Savage Worlds. The basic belief is that one copied the other. On the surface, I can see where this comes from, and since Savage Worlds came first, I get it. There are some similarities, too: Cortex uses die types for Attributes and Skills just like Savage Worlds. Savage Worlds has Edges and Hindrances, and Cortex has Assets and Complications (they even both use "minor" and "major" descriptors, at least for the negative Hindrances and Complications--at least in the Serenity iteration of Cortex). Savage Worlds has bennies; Cortex has Plot Points (a name that will initially confuse the hell out of a Savage--it did me, at least). When the Serenity RPG came out, I bought it immediately (sort of--it sold out so fast I ended up with a second printing). Then I flipped through it and saw the die types and major and minor Complications. Then I went to the Pinnacle forums and saw them compared. My group ended up running a Savage Firefly game in lieu of Serenity, and the Serenity book sat on my shelf.

I can't say whether there was any copying going on or not. I've been told they are just close because of their core mechanic. Cortex's came from Sovereign Stone, and Savage Worlds' came from the Great Rail Wars (and before that Deadlands). I have been told Cortex's designer, Jamie Chambers, was a Deadlands fan. But to be honest none of this matters. The pen and paper RPG business is too small and too incestuous to pretend it matters. What matters is the results--good game or no?

Back to Supernatural (for real, this time). I picked it up because I thought I was cheating. I could pretend I was using a new system, but it was so much like Savage Worlds (I'd heard), it would be nothing to learn it and run it. Also, Supernatural was a self-contained, monster hunting game of just 180 pages. To run Hunter, I'd be going through 500+ pages of material. If I wanted to explain the setting, I could just have my players watch the show--we have DVDs of Cute Boys Hunt Monsters (my wife's name for the show) in my house. So I read the intro and game basics chapters of Supernatural and skipped character creation in favor of the play rules--I was all set to start comparing them to Savage Worlds. What a surprise I would find.

First off, the Complications (and the Assets, for that matter) weren't using "minor" and "major" like Savage Worlds' Hindrances. They were using die types instead. And in many cases they'll be rolled. Huh? That's different. It's a full roll up system, rather than Savage Worlds' roll and keep. There are Life Points (a really cool hit point system) instead of the tiered Wound system. Combat rounds are three seconds, not six. And Cortex didn't get any mechanics from miniatures games like Savage Worlds (the minis thing is a sticking point for me--I generally don't like using them), so you can just skip minis if you please. The biggest difference I found is in the way bonuses and penalties are assigned. Savage Worlds has bonuses and penalties to roll results. Cortex adjusts the die type up and down in steps (which reminds me of a rules-light version of Earthdawn's Step mechanic). There's also adjustable difficulty numbers. So die steps are applied to character conditions, and difficulty levels are assigned to environmental conditions.

The bottom line is Cortex is very different than Savage Worlds. And I like it. I've settled on it for my non-Savage regular game this year. Is it better? I don't know. I haven't played it yet. I'm running Supernatural next month at SAGA's Tucson RPG Guild meeting. I'm not running Supernatural at home though. Why, you say?

I found out that the Cortex System has done a ton of evolving. Serenity could be called Cortex 1.0, Battlestar Galactica could be dubbed 2.0. Supernatural and the Cortex book could be referred to as 2.5. This came up when I joined the Cortex forums. I was then contacted by Cam Banks, current Guy In Charge of Cortex. Cam comped me a PDF of the Big Damn Heroes Handbook (thanks, Cam!). This book is an add-on to the Serenity RPG and brings that game's system up to 2.5 with optional rules. It also goes a bit further with some new, indie-inspired mechanics for Cortex. I put it to my Facebook and Twitter friends I was torn between Serenity and Supernatural. Between some comments there and discussions with my wife, I've decided to go with Serenity, but thanks to my buddy, Berin "Unclebear" Kinsman, I may end up introducing aspects of Supernatural into the 'Verse.

I'll post more on my experience with Cortex as it comes up.