Cortex Prime: A Review.

Like many other games before and after it, Cortex is adaptable to almost any genre. A GM can put together a fantasy game under this system as easily as a sci-fi game with some effort. Some mods added in and a lot of writing on the part of the GM might be necessary for some genres. Eyeballing it and coming up with SFX and descriptions on the fly might be a tad challenging unless one has a very good grasp of how the system works.

A brief history of the game.

Many of us were introduced to Cortex RPG and Cortex Hacker’s Guide back when Margaret Weis Productions was still publishing it. Cortex has been the base system for Battlestar Galactica, Serenity (Firefly,) Leverage and the Marvel RPG (One of four incarnations of the game. It was very short lived.) Weis announced her retirement and Cam Banks ran with the company under his own label for a brief time. A few years after that, Fandom landed Cam Banks and the rights to Cortex and are now putting out Cortex Prime.

A more detailed version of the history can be found here.

Cortex Logo.

The Cortex Prime website.

Solid mechanics on which any setting can rest.

Cortex Dice Symbol Chart.

Cortex players build pools with various combinations of Traits, Gear, and situations. Cortex dice range from d4 all the way to d12s. Pools are formed with the various dice and the top two are added together and compared to a number rolled by the GM. Players of other games might recognize some of the mechanics such as the GM rolled Opposition/difficulty checks, assets, complications, and Plot Points. These aren’t new mechanics in the industry necessarily, but Banks does a nice job presenting them in Cortex.

One thing some of my players have pointed out about games that use dice pools is more dice = more 1’s. Ones are a Hitch in Cortex, meaning there’s a complication. All ones means you’ve botched. That’s bad.

Statistically there’s also an issue I’ve discovered that bigger dice don’t always help. You can still roll a 1 on a d12. Yet that’s a very strong trait in Cortex. Suddenly my world class weightlifter falls on his face like a toddler holding a bowling ball? What?!?

Yes, the odds of rolling something higher than a one is better with a larger die and hopefully most GM’s are smart enough to adjudicate situations where common sense is in order. Pools of dice added together are slightly stronger. Even then, the potential statistical spreads in this game are potentially mind-boggling. Pray the GM doesn’t have particularly hot dice on any given day or it’s gonna get painful.

One quick fix to the system involves a mod. These are basically house rules or hacks on the system. They’re a group’s or a GM’s way to change something they think might be off about the system. (Like the uphill battle against the law of averages.)

This is a multi-genre capable game.

Like many other games before and after it, Cortex is adaptable to almost any genre. A GM can put together a fantasy game under this system as easily as a sci-fi game with some effort. Some mods added in and a lot of writing on the part of the GM might be necessary for some genres. Eyeballing it and coming up with SFX and descriptions on the fly might be a tad challenging unless one has a very good grasp of how the system works.

I’ll also add in that like a multitude of other RPGs past and present, I feel like this game is not well built for modern combat situations (guns) as well as I’d like. Most games designed by primarily fantasy gamers aren’t. As long as you’re not going for meaty, realistic, modern combat scenes, Cortex has you covered. Some settings will require a lot more front-loading of effects and SFX than others, however.

The Cortex Prime book does an excellent job of laying out three settings and fodder for coming up with endless more. “Pick three and add Cortex” is an excellent strategy for coming up with a new setting if the GM doesn’t already have one in mind. I think if I didn’t already have plans in mind, I’d be tempted to tinker a bit with their examples.

Lots of work up front for the GM.

A Cortex Game Moderator (GM) has to put in some work up front. Yes, the system is modular. It adapts well to most campaign settings with some tweaking. The kicker is- someone has to take the time to do the tweaking.

Having a campaign setting all ready to rock and just needing some baseline rules is great for Cortex. Porting a world in from another game where you like the setting and and maybe don’t care for the rules works great for Cortex. If you have lots of time on your hands and want to build the setting and integrate a new rules system like I do, then Cortex is your game. Brace for lots of work.

The GM has to set up character sheets from the ground up. Then stat up all of the weapons, gear, vehicles, SFX (Re: Magic, psionics, superpowers, toon antics or whatever.) Then some text to at least describe the BBEG, major NPC’s, locations, complications, obstacles, plot stuff, politics, equipment prices, and so on.

My point with all of this is not to disrespect the system, but rather to point out the fact that there are major components of the system left intentionally blank for the GM to fill in. Again, a Romantic, Spy, Action setting is going to have a bit more going on than a Comedy, Low Magic, Fantasy setting. Cortex Prime may be considered less a game system and more of a game design system.

Photo by Kampus Production on

It’s all fun and games until lawyers get involved.

No, I don’t mean rules lawyers. I mean actual lawyers. One would imagine a system aimed at game designers would have a fairly simple, easily accessible and flexible Open Game License, right? That’d be great. We’d all love that, I’m sure.

This article from 2019 casts a pretty dark shadow on the whole thing. The community was in uproar over the first take on a community license. Having read some of it, I see why people were upset. However, Fandom and the community seem to have calmed down and a more recent article explains the new take on the license.

I know a lot of us in the TTRPG community don’t like the idea of having our intellectual property yanked out from under us. That goes for both ends of the spectrum- game companies don’t want someone to run with their IP and take credit for work they didn’t put in. It might lead some would-be TTRPG developers to run with another system and overlook Cortex.

It’s also fair to point out that almost all of the controversy is tied to commercial use of Cortex Prime. If someone wants to run a game at home and has no plans to sell anything, then there are no issues. The problem comes in when game designers attempt to sell derivative works based on Cortex. Fandom is trying to protect their mechanics, copyrighted art, specific setting info, etc. Everyday, free use of Cortex, even on little blogs like mine, is fine under pretty much any license.

Overall, I give Cortex Prime 3 out of 5 stars, mostly because of the front end loading and licensing controversy. It’s a great buy depending one what one wants to do with it. Your mileage may vary.

I became interested in this system again thanks to WrightWerx.

I know one company that is rolling with Cortex Prime. Mecha Vs Kaiju! 202X I’m glad to see MvK getting a fresh coat of paint. Jonathan Wright mentioned he was switching to Cortex Prime for the newest rendition of Mecha Vs Kaiju (One of my favorite settings ever!) I always get excited when any new material comes out for MvK.

The old version of MvK was based on FATE Core/Condensed by Evil Hat Productions. I love FATE, and I’m a little sad to see MvK go from it. I think Evil Hat is riding an all time high in their corner of the industry with Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and this might have been just as good a time to run with a Revised Edition of MvK. (Just my opinion, though.) But, I like Cortex in terms of mechanics, so it should be good times.

Until tomorrow, game on. Thank you for being here. I appreciate you!

Author: Jeff Craigmile

I'm a tabletop role-playing game writer and designer from Des Moines, Iowa always looking for more work. I'm the father of four boys and human to three cats.

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