Cortex Plus versus Fate Core: Which is better?
It's an uncomfortable conversation to have. Generally, in the RPG community, people don't like to declare one RPG better than another; it's a safer and more diplomatic thing to say each game is better in certain situations (the exception, of course, is D&D. Nobody has a problem shitting all over any edition of D&D, and since it's the biggest RPG out there by a mile, it can take it). I myself don't like to do it as well; I've already written about how I believe tabletop games (RPGs in particular) can't be accurately reviewed because of the X factor every group brings to the table.
However, as I read the new Firefly RPG and see the Cortex Plus rules implemented in their latest incarnation, I am naturally drawing a lot of comparisons to Fate Core. Both games place a strong emphasis on story. Both games grant a lot of player agency. Both games have mechanics involving fate or "plot" points to grant players narrative control. Both games represent a modern evolution of RPG mechanics where both the dice influence the story, and the story influence the dice.
So the natural question that arises is: since both systems are so similar in function, which one is better? I hate to be a sensationalist hyping this debate, then coping out, but that's exactly what I'm going to do: both systems are fantastic, in different ways. Here are five ways that they differ:
1. Cortex Plus, as opposed to Fate Core, can offer a more nuanced gaming experience off the page. The subtle tweaks to the system, whether in the relationship mechanics found in Cortex Plus Dramatic, or the over-the-top superpowers of Cortex Plus Superheroic, can offer gamers a more specific type of game than the "here are the tools; have at it, son!" approach that Fate Core takes. Do note my emphasis on "off the page," though; Fate Core can, with the proper tweaking, emulate drama, cinematic action, or fantasy heroics just as well as (perhaps even better) than Cortex Plus. The latter, though, can do it with little or no tweaking.
2. Fate Core has an industry-leading, evolved approach to distribution, while Cortex Plus remains a fairly traditional, psuedo-antagonistic approach to its books. Almost every major Fate Core release is available on a "Pay What You Want" basis, allowing game groups to have free and immediate access to pdfs. This advantage seems small, but it is very important, espeically for me and my own mission of open gaming and bringing newcomers into the hobby. It's very easy to say "Hey, we're playing Fate Core next week, go to DriveThruRPG.com and download the books so you know what you're doing before we start" as opposed to "We're playing Cortex Plus next week. The pdf is on sale for $20 at DriveThru, or you can just wait till next week and I'll explain everything."
3. Cortex Plus has a more streamlined, comprehensive mechanic than Fate Core. Almost everything, from casting spells to hacking the Matrix, to rock-climbing resolves the exact same way in Cortex Plus. And because of the fluid nature of the mechanics...the way assets can be created on the spot and rolled by either party, for example...even though you're always rolling the same way, it always feels different. This is where that strong emphasis on story comes from within the Cortex system. Fate, on the other hand, revels in its modular approach to design where there can be several different ways to do anything, depending on the type of game the GM and his/her players want to have. You can ask ten gamers in the Fate Core community "Hey, how should I handle hacking the Matrix in my Fate Core game?" And you'll get ten completely different answers, from simple skill checks to actually simulating an abstract battle with the Matrix! This is, of course, not a bad thing...but like the aspects at the heart of its own system, it can be used both positively and negatively.
4. This is less of a big deal now than it was a year ago, but Cortex Plus has big licensing behind it. Fate has The Dresden Files which is a pretty big deal, but that game doesn't use Fate Core; it uses an older variation, still totally playable but not the bleeding-edge of the system. Cortex has the mighty Marvel universe behind it (no longer officially, but the RPG is still out there), and now, they've got one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises in history in Firefly. I've written before about the great power a franchise can bring to an RPG, and it can't be ignored.
5. Though Cortex may have the marketing, Fate Core has the more active fan community. This is probably due to Fate Core's having more dials to fiddle with than Cortex Plus (see number 3, above). In the barely-year since Fate Core has come out, it has since published its excellent Fate Worlds books that bring a lot of campaign and adventure fodder to the table, as well as the Fate Core Toolkit, essentially a "GM's guide" of suggested hacks, tweaks, and ideas for your game. And that's just the first-party stuff! Even the most casual search of Fate Core mods will uncover a hack out there for virtually every genre and franchise you could possibly think of (and quite a few you probably can't). Don't believe me? Here's a simple test...character sheets. The most basic and fundamental (and arugably important) piece of support material for a role-playing game. Fate Core has hundreds of them, fan-made and customized for every setting. Cortex Plus, on the other hand, doesn't even include one in their corebook (and don't give me that "Cortex character sheets have to be customized for the game so no generic can exist" BS; Fate is just as, if not moreso, customizable, yet it manages to have at least a basic sheet that can be built on).
6. Related to point 2 about modern distribution models, Fate Core has a clear, attractive, easy-to-read layout and design, ideal for digital media. The design is consistent throughout all of its products, making the game great to read and easy to understand. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Fate Core, in my mind, is the industry standard for modern RPG layout. Although the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide has a similarly approachable design, its latest game, Firefly, is a fairly "old-school" layout, similar to older, print RPGs (complete with photo stills from the show, which I found a little tacky, especially contrasted to the excellent artwork found in other parts of the book). This is espeically baffling considering the PDF came out so much earlier than the print book. This is a minor point, and understandable within the context of Firefly (I'm sure every Firefly fan will buy the physical book as soon as it's available, for collector's purposes if nothing else), but nevertheless, I think that book could have been laid out in a more readable, modern way.
So, there you have it. Here I'll drop the Unnecessary but Still Somehow Necessary Because Internet disclaimer: both games are awesome. No game group can go wrong with either. I'll probably run a lot of both. Enjoy!
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