#RPGaDay Day Eleven: Toolkit Systems

Slooowly catching up, as Day Eleven of #RPGaDay asks: which ‘dead game’ would you like to see reborn?

Right now we’re seeing new editions of all kinds of old favourites that many thought were dead in the water: 7th Sea, Unknown Armies, Rifts, the 30th anniversary edition of the Star Wars RPG. So nothing is beyond the realms of possibility – with a supposed Cyberpunk computer game coming out at some point, will we see the next chapter in the classic tabletop RPG? My pick for this is one I’ve already mentioned during this run of #RPGaDay: In Nomine. In Nomine was originally In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas, a French game about angels, demons and everything in between, adapted and translated by Steve Jackson Games first using its own system and then for GURPs (I have not read the GURPS version). In Nomine’s system is…definitely something. Considering its era, it isn’t actually that terrible, but it’s unnecessarily complicated.

What I’d love to see is a Cortex Plus hack for In Nomine. The pieces are all there, and Cortex Plus is a perfect system to create something with a bit more crunch than other toolkits but a Story Game sensibility (which I think is vitally important for running something like In Nomine). Cortex Plus gives design space for a game that needs to allow for powerful angels and demons, rebels to both realms and humans who are touched by the divine and infernal. In Nomine tried to deal with the different demands on the game by including different levels of character creation, and Cortex Plus is the kind of system that can handle that.

Toolkit Systems

In a piece of serendipitous timing, Fantasy Flight just announced their generic system Genesys at GenCon, taking the polarising Edge of Empire Narrative Dice System back to basics for customisation for other settings. So I decided to talk about toolkit systems, i.e. those that provide you with a base system that can be hacked and tweaked for different campaigns. Oh boy, I just love toolkits: Fate, Cortex Plus, True20, all that good stuff. Apparently GURPs as well, but I know very little about GURPs except that it’s hella oldschool, they adapted everything under the sun for it, and the crowd watching the GenCon Genesys announcement seemed to be under the impression that any toolkit system is automatically just GURPs but less good. So, like, if you enjoy GURPs, imagine I talked about that here too. But I’m not going to. This is by no means an exhaustive exploration – there are plenty of other ‘generic’ systems that could be argued to be toolkits these days (Unbound, GUMSHOE if you put together all of the different lines, Savage Worlds, Cypher System, etc.) but I’m going to focus on the three I know the most about, and also three that really explore that toolkit design ethic well.

True20 is a largely-forgotten Green Ronin hack of D20 that was overtaken by the movement of mainstream systems and the more recent AGE system. However, it was pretty awesome when it came out. A streamlined version of D20, the system used by 3E and 3.5 D&D but opened up to other developers via the Open Gaming License (OGL). Premiering in Blue Rose First Edition in 2005, True20 provided a clean little system that could easily have the fantasy elements taken out. It was adapted across various books for science fiction of various kinds, anime mecha games, horror, swashbuckling space opera (mmm, Lux Aeternum, which I have talked about before at length), martial arts time-hopping action and urban fantasy. It had The big innovation (that AGE has continued) was that instead of individual character classes, it defined characters into three types: warrior, adept (magic-users) and expert (skills-based). I am such a huge fan of this – it’s some elegant design. Within those three types, there are infinite possibilities across different settings, and you could multiclass between them or take skills from any class, if you wanted to play a magic-using warrior or a martial artist rogue. I was sad to see that Blue Rose Second Edition has left True20 behind in favour of AGE, but even I must admit that it was probably time. AGE is kind of like the next step on from True20, and handles the transition well – I didn’t count it as a separate toolkit game because there’s some clear genetics shared between the two. Still, it was a landmark and still holds up with a bit of tweaking. Classic and still loved ❤

Fate, though, you guys! Fate is just so cool. It’s so adaptable with a good solid set of mechanics underlying a surface that can change with the whims of the players and GM without breaking. I love it. This latest edition has been adapted for countless different settings (including one where everyone is a magic cat) with ease, and you can run nearly anything without needing to hack about with the system that much. Whatever you wanted to do with the system has probably already been done or almost-done somewhere else in a fairly respectable way. This would be top of my list on accessibility – I never get tired of linking to the Fate SRD, where you can find Fate Core, Fate Accelerated (the most rules-light version there it), and mechanics from (at time of writing) 7 distinct published settings. This is a perfect example of a toolkit game that lets you mess around but never takes off the training wheels till you’re ready. You can play and tweak as you go without ever really completely screwing it up, or you can dive in deeper and get your hands in the guts of the system, understand how bits of it affect other bits and then make some changes to see what happens. Based on simple principles, highly resilient, deliciously customisable.

Cortex Plus has had many surges over the years but somehow never made the waves I would hope for such an innovative system. While Cortex Plus was forged through different settings (in a similar way to GUMSHOE or Cypher) rather than made fresh as a toolkit system, it has managed to lead in genre-emulation that also responds well to a solid underlying system. While Powered by the Apocalypse is an excellent game for genre emulation, the base system is fundamentally not generic. OK, sure, you can hack it around and turn it from an action game to emotionally-driven stories about angsty monsters or teen superheroes, but it is very difficult to do well. Cortex Plus suffers much less from this issue, because its system is divided into elements in a similar way to Fate. However, where Fate identifies its elements and shows you how to tweak one at a time, Cortex Plus puts the pieces in front of you and shows you how to make something new. Neither way is necessarily better, but Cortex Plus balances having slightly more complexity to the pre-game planning of a campaign with a bigger payoff when it comes to customisation. While the Kickstarter for Cam Banks’ Cortex Plus Prime finished only fairly recently, the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide has been out for some time, and the games that helped the creators at Magic Vacuum Studio refine their ideas (while working on licensed properties at Margaret Weis Productions) such as Leverage, Smallville, Firefly and Marvel Heroic Roleplay are far from recent. The Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide shows a very basic system and then streams the different ways it can be embellished through Cortex Drama, Action and Heroic, each of them focusing on a different kind of game. Cortex Plus covers everything from Monsterhearts-style feels to high heroic action, with a vast array of customisation options from the variants from licensed lines. I would say that Cortex is the game that requires the most set-up for a campaign, but with a little thought and tinkering, also allows you to create a robust system that is also uniquely suited to what you’re trying to do. Well worth the brain-power, in my opinion!


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