Hacking Stress in Cortex Plus

[Edit 10-JAN-13: This is a rough draft of an article that’s in the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide (with some side notes). So, if you’re wondering what sort of cool stuff inside, here’s a sample!]

In Cortex Plus Drama, Stress is how your characters deal with setbacks and defeat. It hits them in the moment when they lose a contest, and it stays as lasting consequences until they get some stress relief. Stress is a key piece of your Lead as you play, since you want to gain Stress in order to get your Growth pool. And because people dealing with Stress are interesting.

(This article also applies to hacking conditions in Lady Blackbird and similar games — in fact, it was in hacking Lady Blackbird last year that I stumbled across this idea.)

The five original Stress Traits—Afraid, Angry, Exhausted, Injured, and Insecure—are perfect for a Drama about young adults finding their way in a world…and they happen to have superpowers. There are a lot of different forms of Stress your Drama game can take, and a few different ways you can change Stress in your game.

A Menu of Stress

Here are over thirty different Stress Traits. The meaning of most of these will be obvious. Some will make you stop and think. But it’s not for me to tell you what Angry or Delusional or Overconfident means. It’s for your Leads to tell us what they mean.

Afraid Angry Anxious Bitter
Blissed Clumsy Cold Controlling
Crippled Delusional Depressed Distracted
Embarrassed Exhausted Feral Hacked
Hateful Hungry Hysterical Injured
Insecure Intoxicated Isolated Overconfident
Quiet Rash Shaken Shell-Shocked
Sloppy Stubborn Suspicious Uncertain

This is far from exhaustive, but it’s a good start to get you thinking.

What’s in a name?

The names you use for your Stress Traits will have a huge impact on your game. Choosing them wisely makes the difference between a good Drama and a fantastic one.

In supernatural horror, it makes sense to have an Afraid Stress Trait. But the word “Afraid” doesn’t sound quite right for a game about mind-shattering knowledge and monsters made of tentacles and ichor. Terrified or Horrified has a much stronger ring to it. It that sort of game, saying you’re dealing with d10 Horrified feels like it has more weight than d10 Afraid, even if it seems like the exact same thing. Those sorts of words are more primal and are in keeping with the genre. Alternatively, using a word that allows for an added taste of competency under horror (for your “operatives against the supernatural” story), try Unnerved. That suggests a different way to play out how your Leads handle the Stress.

Anytime you can see a word your characters would use in the fiction, that’s a signal that it could be a good Stress Trait. In a paramilitary drama, Sloppy might be one you’re interested in adding, but the name sounds comical, downright goofy. If your Leads are meant to be sharp, strong individuals in extraordinary times, another word to use is Undisciplined. You can imagine how the characters in this story would talk, and they would throw that word around at and about each other

Sometimes you need a little extra oomph to set something apart as a Stress Trait. In many settings, Suspicious is fine. But in very conspiratorial Dramas, everyone already is (or had well better be). That would be like having Breathing as Stress. To kick that up a notch for those stories, use Paranoid.

Sometimes the word fits exactly right, but you need to still note down what it means because of your genre. That’s okay, too! Say you’re setting up a Drama set in Louisiana, where humans live in a turbulent peace with other creatures of the night. It would make sense for Leads to have Hungry. As long as everyone is on board with knowing that’s talking about people, not steak, you’re set.

Genre-specific Stress like Hacked might be better served in your game by using in-world slang. Pwned, Trojan'd, or R00t3d are along from our real world. What’s it called in yours?

Die Rating & Granularity

Most people playing Drama have a sense that d6 Afraid doesn’t feel like d12 Afraid. Sometimes, you’ll want to use different words for those different ratings. Do that by adding a little granularity to some of your Stress Traits.

To start with, pick an overall name for that Stress Trait, which you’ll use in rewriting any Distinctions or otherwise referring to it mechanically. Then come up with names for it for the d6, d8, d10, and d12 rating.

For a war drama game about paratroopers in WWII, you might want a bit more detail in Injured:

  • d6: Flesh Wound (Injured)
  • d8: Bleeding (Injured)
  • d10: Crippled (Injured)
  • d12: MEDIC! (Injured)

Or for our supernatural horror above, with “Horrified”:

  • d6: Unnerved (Horrified)
  • d8: Afraid (Horrified)
  • d10: Horrified (Horrified)
  • d12: Lost in Horror (Horrified)

It’s important to keep in mind that no matter what you call these, at no point does the name of a Stress Rating mean a Lead cannot act. The only time where a Lead cannot act significantly is after being Stressed Out. Your secret operative with d12 MEDIC! and d12 Lost in Horror can still fight the good fight and give it all for humanity.

If you do this, limit it to one or two Stress Traits rather than all five. That’s a lot of work for everyone to keep track of.

Changing Stress in your Game

Now that you have an idea of how to do different Stress, it’s really easy to change it. Once you’ve got all your Leads made, you have one last step. Come up with what five Stress Traits you’ll use (either the Gamemaster alone or as a group, though as a group is always better).

The Rule of Five

Stick with five Stress Traits. Too few and each one will come up too often. That’ll get boring. Too many and they won’t hit often enough to be interesting. Someone who is, for example, Afraid constantly is a one-note character. Someone who only gets Afraid once never shows us anything interesting about he or she deals with fear. You want Leads that are Afraid sometimes, so they can play that out in different ways at different times.

If you want to break this rule, know that you’ll change how Stress feels.

Reworking Distinctions

Once you have your Stress, look at the Distinctions people have taken. Many key off of increasing or decreasing Stress Traits, either their own or others’. If a Lead has a Distinction that applies to a Stress you aren’t using, work with the group to decide how to rewrite that Distinction (or maybe decide that Distinction doesn’t fit the Drama either).

Different Stress for Different Leads

Once you know how to tweak Stress Traits for your game, it doesn’t take much to realize you can tweak them for each Lead. This can put even more personality into your Leads. You’re already coming up with what they believe in, who matters to them, and the notable things they can do. To say how they’re vulnerable, how they deal with setbacks and defeats, adds even more story mojo to your game.

Your Box of Traits

When coming up with your campaign, you have two choices: Playing with the Big Toy Box or Focusing the Pain.

Playing with the Big Toy Box lets everyone pick from any Stress Traits.  This gives you all sorts of options to come up with interesting characters that you might not expect.

Focusing the Pain means narrow down the list of available Stress Traits down to between eight and twelve.  This allows you to craft a more consistent theme in your game, while still allowing room for flexibility.

Neither one’s better than the other; it’s all about what you and your game need.

Common Ground

Once you know what Stress Traits are available to the Leads, you can come up with each one’s when doing the finishing touches. You have some other choices you can make here: Free for All, Common Stress, and Heritage Stress.

Free for All is simple. From the list of available Stress Traits, pick five that feel right for that Lead, that would be fun to see that Lead have to deal with. This is great if you want a looser drama, where Leads come from many different backgrounds and have very different roles in the story. You might even consider changing these as you play, possibly one per Tag Scene.

Common Stress is a little more involved, as you have to come up with two or three Stress Traits that everyone in the campaign should have, leaving the remaining ones open for a Free for All.  This unification allows for a tighter story about characters that are similar. It’s a great way to explore how such characters still differ in that tight story space. In particular, a “humans versus supernatural menaces” or “military dramas” game will be will-served with a few common Stress Traits.

Heritage Stress is a variation on Common Stress, for specialized character types like different races or species, or characters with very different walks of life—whatever your Drama game decides are Heritages. A game with elves, dwarves, and humans might have all three with their own set of Common Stress Traits (and possibly even having some special Stress Traits the other races can’t take!). Likewise, a game where you have disciplined military or law enforcement personnel alongside untrained civilian scientists could be reflected in two different sets of Heritage Stress.

Stress In Action

Now that we know all sorts of ways to change Stress in our games, let’s take a look a few examples:

The Future Savior of Humanity

You’re a family like any other. You get up, go to school, get home, and fight against killer robots from the future. Your mother has been training you since birth to be a great leader of a future resistance, your “uncle” was sent back in time to aid you both, and your “cousin” a reprogrammed killer robot. Oh, and next week is show and tell!

  • All Robots From The Future have the same Stress Traits: Damaged, Hacked, Revealed. (The group decided that Robots should feel very similar and only have three Stress Traits.)
  • All Humans have Paranoid and any four other Stress Traits that Robots don’t have.

(Inspiration: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)

No One Knows We Save The World

Back when the Bureau of Unnatural Containment was first formed, the world was in chaos. Germany was marching across the earth with Powers Unknowable. It’s been years since their defeat, both temporal and supernatural, but their dark legacy lives on in secret. The Bureau was shut down a few years ago, but evil continues to discover and wield Nazi magitech. So you and your pistol continue the Bureau’s good work in secret, one kept even from your husband and children.

  • Everyone has: Distracted (specifically by the Lead’s home life), Exhausted, Horrified
  • Everyone choose two more from: Afraid, Delusional, Depressed, Injured, Intoxicated, Overconfident, Paranoid, Shaken, Sloppy

(Inspiration: Delta Green, a toned down B.P.R.D., various spy flicks and shows)

We Few, We Proud, We Brave Soldiers

Never before has something so grand been attempted by individual men and women. Taking Planet Haxith will be difficult without boots on the ground. Ion cannons will take out large dropships, but you three hundred will drop solo from high orbit in pods too small to be targeted, land, and make our beachhead. Our success depends entirely on you. Welcome to Fall Brigade.

  • Everyone has the same six Stress Traits in the game: Afraid, Blissed (due to the combat drugs), Hacked (their jumpsuits & other gear), Injured (using die ratings & granularity), Insecure, Tired.
  • The group couldn’t choose which one to drop to make five, so they’re trying all six to see what happens. They’ll see if one should go away after the third session. They had five until someone suggested Blissed and explained it.

(Inspiration: Starship Troopers meets Band of Brothers)

Predators Alongside Prey

Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and sorcerers, oh my! The world got a lot weirder a few years back when the vamps outed themselves and try to live among us, but life’s still more or less normal. At least, until that new guy came into town to reclaim his family’s lost estate. They say he’s trying to live “off the vein,” but I fear everything’s about to change.

  • Vampires have: Hungry, Injured
  • Werewolves have: Feral, Injured
  • Ghosts have: Bound, Incorporeal. (They intentionally don’t have Injured.)
  • Sorcerers have: Exhausted or Overconfident, Injured
  • Normal humans must take: Crippled (They’re much more delicate that everyone else), Enthralled.
  • Of the remaining three Stress Traits, the group says “get your emo on!” Choose from: Afraid, Angry, Cold, Depressed, Insecure, Shaken

(Inspiration: True Blood, Anne Rice-type stuff, World of Darkness)

The Mysterious Case Files

There have been thirteen instances of reality deviation in Manhattan in the last month alone. Naturally, this is a cause for concern. The local authorities can’t handle this. This is a case for you, the Luxmas Group. You have the expertise and resources to handle this before we have another Incursion. And Ms. Cranston…we have evidence that suggests your deceased husband is behind all this.

  • Everyone has: Distracted (specifically about something from their past), Stumped (in an investigative Drama, this is a fun Stress)
  • FBI-trained characters have: Restrained (meaning dealing with bureaucratic red tape)
  • Scientist characters have: Obsessed (the Luxmas Group tends to recruit a certain sort of gifted individual)
  • The remaining one to three Stress Traits are open.

(Inspiration: Lie to Me meets Fringe)

– Ryan


11 Responses to Hacking Stress in Cortex Plus

  1. Fascinating stuff here, Ryan. Enjoyed reading this immensely, and the examples really put a nice bow on it. Gave me a crazy idea that I’ll have to ruminate on.

  2. Colin says:

    Ryan, I think there’s an interesting dichotomy between traits that are easy to play (Enraged, Tired, Dead) and traits that are easy to work into description (Dripping Blood, Haunted, Incorporeal). It’s possible that a given player, or game, wants to focus more on traits that feed players-as-actors, or on traits that feed players-as-authors.

    Just a thing that has been under my skin since I first played Mouse Guard. I was surprised to discover that I got more play out of “Tired” (which seemed weak) than “Wounded” (which seemed bold).

  3. jenskot says:

    Ryan wrote: “Different Stress for Different Leads

    Once you know how to tweak Stress Traits for your game, it doesn’t take much to realize you can tweak them for each Lead. This can put even more personality into your Leads. You’re already coming up with what they believe in, who matters to them, and the notable things they can do. To say how they’re vulnerable, how they deal with setbacks and defeats, adds even more story mojo to your game.”

    I LOVE this.

  4. Denys M. says:

    This is great. Thank you for posting!

  5. Brian I says:

    Great article – I love design notes, and good rules, and this was tasty. Too bad the actual book won’t have plenty on designer insights like this. That would be a value-add.

    Perhaps a publisher might make note. ;)

  6. Xavier says:

    I’m loving this, but I’m curious – what happens if you let the player choose their stress traits, they don’t choose something along the lines of injured and then decide to do something which would obviously injure them?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Damn good question!

      (I’m going to say some stuff here that I know you-Xavier know but to be clear to the you-general-blog-audience.)

      The key to understanding how Smallville/Cortex Plus Drama works on this end is to know that Stress doesn’t remove agency from your character. Being Afraid doesn’t mean I can’t do things I fear, and being Injured doesn’t mean I can’t do things because of my injury. What it does mean is that in the situations where my stresses come up, you have more oomph to keep me from doing what I want with dice. (And you can’t kill me, so what does that mean for this physical conflict?)

      Secondly, Smallville has no linked idea of cause & effect. When I do something to you that causes Stress, we then figure out what stress trait to mark. Sometimes it migh be obvious — like if I hit you with Superstrength, you’re injured. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You could be Afraid due to what happened, or Exhausted, or any of the others. That doesn’t mean you aren’t injured in the fiction; you still totally are. But Stress is about what lasting thing is going to be an issue for future struggles.

      “Yes, you injure me. What really happens?” By taking Injured off, you’re suggesting that physical conflicts involving that Lead shouldn’t be straightforward. There should be subtext to it, because that subtext will be expressed in the result.

      So, by saying “Injured” is off the table, we’re saying “In subseqeuent conflicts, we don’t want to see X’s being injured to be involved. We’re more interested in these other things.” Similarly, we’re saying “When dealing with stress relief, we don’t want ‘getting bandaged up’ scenes, we want something else.”

      Does that help? Your question is also making me thing about inverting the idea of Leads choosing their own Stress: have other folks at the table choose instead. (Player groups will vary, yadda yadda.) In any case, talking about the implications of removing something like Injured is worth discussing at the table, because if your game is going to have a lot of stand-up fights, that’ll be something to take into account.

      – Ryan

  7. JDCorley says:

    I have to think about this a while. Good post.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Thanks! I may have a follow-up, based on stuff mentioned in this post. I’ve been pondering this in relation to a Mechwarrior game, where sometimes you’re in a mech and sometimes you’re not.

      – Ryan