Cortex Plus and the Role of Dice Assembling

Cortex Plus is pure elegance in its simplicity, and is currently my go-to when I start thinking about game tinkering. Naturally, I got some heavy duty time in when I was on the Leverage team, but I honestly didn’t get the full awesome of the system until after playing Smallville, playing Leverage with other people, hacking my own variants for Aethertide, my Mage: the Ascension-using-Cortex Plus homebrew, and talking with friends about other Cortex Plus hacks (including some which will be in the upcoming Cortex Plus Hackers Guide[1]).

The magic that I’ve found in playing Cortex Plus — well, part of the magic, and the part I want to talk about — is how an action is formed. When you want to do something in a Cortex Plus game, and I’ll use Smallville & Leverage as examples, you assemble dice by explaining what you’re doing.

Smallville’s decisions are emo. When you do something like, say, saving your best friend’s bride to be from Dr. Freezoman at their wedding where you’re both best man and best superhero, you’re making these decisions

  • Value: I’m doing this because “I believe in the power of Love
  • Relationships: I’m doing this for my best friend, Phil
  • Power: Oh, and I’m doing this with my Power of Lightning, for I’m Lighting Rod Johnson, super-powered porn star.

I’m force to verbalize what might have been internal — either internal and aware or internal and unaware. I say “Love, because, dude, he’s fucking up my friend’s marriage, so that’s a d10,” “My best friend Phil, who I’m seriously jealous of, but can’t show it. That’s a d8.” and “LIGHTNING, YO! d10.” I justify not just to the GM or table, but to myself in a conscious way, what I’m doing. That’s power.

(Now, in this case I would probably challenge my relationship with Phil, because maybe I’m not as jealous of him as I once was, which is another point of decision in Smallville. Mojo there, too, but not worth unpacking in this post. You should just play it and find out.)

Smallville makes me articulate motivations even more than means. I could choose something else, like:

  • Value: I’m doing this because “Villains need to be brought to Justice. Lethal Justice.” (d8)
  • Relationships: I’m doing this to my archnemesis, Dr. Freezoman. (d12)
  • Power: Still doing it with my Power of Lightning, because I’m a badass. (still a d10)

We see the same thing, my character shooting Dr. Freezoman with my lightning…rod. But we uncover more about who this person I’m playing is. And that’s mojo. Granted, with different dice, there are different little bits of tactical decision making going on, but that allows for context to either try to work in something unexpected for better dice (and have to justify it to keep that die) or to pick something weaker because it’s interesting.

If Smallville is “gut-punching emo porn,” Leverage is “competence porn.” What it asks me to describe is different. Let’s say I’m trying to get access to a secure vault. I’m all sexy cool thief-y spy person. Here’s what Leverage asks of me:

  • Attribute: I’m doing this with my Vitality (d8)
  • Role: I’m using my Grifter role (d10)
  • Distinction: My “silver tonguehelps me (d8)

I’m describing how I’m endlessly talking my way to the vault by boring the guard to the point where he lets me in because he’s tired of hearing me talk and I seem trustworthy. Leverage is all about how I’m doing something, with a minor twist. Let’s see another way to look at it, if I’m trying to sneak in through the air ducts.

  • Attribute: I’m doing this with my Agility (d10)
  • Role: I’m using my Thief role (d8)
  • Distinction: My “the walls are closing inhinders me (d4, and a Plot Point for later)

Again, I’m describing what I’m doing, how I’m being competent. Leverage has a place, though, were I can also describe how elements of my character can get in my way — a choice I have with distinctions, as they aren’t set at a specific die rating. They either help for a d8, or hinders for a d4 and a Plot Point to use later. So I describe how I’ve being a badass, and if I have any sort of internal adversity tripping me up.

Same die system, radically different language being generated. That’s why I love hacking Cortex Plus — the die assembling part of the game is about describing what’s important to that game. The elements your characters can grab for dice are about what the game is interested in, which could be about how people feel, or how awesome they are, or their history (as in Lenny’s Highlander hack he’s tinkering with, where you assemble from Values, Bonds and Memories), or whatever.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m not entirely happy with how I’m doing it with Aethertide. And I’ll be revising it soon.

You can see another take on this idea in Wushu — a game that causes you to describe fight scenes essentially as beats, with each beat giving a d6 to your roll (to a maximum of 6):

  • I jump out of the way of the shuriken flying toward me (1 die),
  • grab the fire hyrdant (1 die),
  • throw it at a mook (1 die),
  • jump off the railing (1 die),
  • duck and roll to pick up my katana (1 die),
  • and do a flying kick at the Big Bad (1 die).

I should now that I haven’t yet played Wushu. I wasn’t really interested in it until I started looking more deeply at Cortex Plus, because it didn’t seem to differentiate the characters[2], but I see how the beat descriptions force me to put more on the table than I might have if it wasn’t demanded of me. Maybe because I would feel it over-indulgent to describe that much if it wasn’t necessary for optimal awesome. Maybe because I wouldn’t think of all that because there’s other stuff going on in my head and those questions aren’t asked of me.

But of course I want all the dice I can get. I’m a fucking gamer playing an action-y game. Naturally I’m going to come up with that content. So Wushu does that well, and (again, from what I’ve seen and heard, not yet experiences) it takes the idea of grabbing dice to create an action sequence pretty damned well.


In short: having the mechanism of picking up dice cause decisions in and of themselves, and cause language to flow, is bad ass. More games should do that.

– Ryan

[1] My article in there is, in a sense, a whitepaper on how language choices affect setting. I’m looking forward to that coming out.

[2] Which is a thing I used to call “socialized awesome” — whenever everyone is equally and identically awesome, no one is.


3 Responses to Cortex Plus and the Role of Dice Assembling

  1. Leonard Balsera says:

    Yeah, it’s a little ridiculous how easy it is to put together the basics of a Cortex hack, if you know what you want the dice to say about the characters.

    So, like, I’m also working a Star Trek hack, which uses Smallville’s Values, but Leverage’s Roles. You succeed because you believe in X and are trained in Y. Integrity and competence, which is, like, Trek 101.

    In my Star Wars hack, there are Verbs (Fight, Escape, Hack, Pilot, Find Out, and Talk), and then a broad host of other traits that mostly work like Qualities from PDQ with some tweaks. You can take whatever’s relevant for your pool.

    So the message there is, you succeed because you’re willing to take action and you’re colorful. Which is, perhaps, a cynical commentary on the source material, but there it is.

  2. Ok, so I read your next post before reading this one. I don’t know if the following post flowed from this one or not, but it seems to me that this dice-assembly has bearing on the tactile feel you’re wanting for Mythender.

    Maybe I’m drawing connections where there are none…

  3. JDCorley says:

    Another great thing that I’ve discovered about Smallville is that in order to create a character you have to be able to write six things about what they believe. (One for each Value in the game.)

    This flat guarantees interesting characters with many facets. It actually is not that emulative of TV because it actually guarantees characters way more interesting and well-rounded than most TV characters. It beats the source material, that’s for sure.