Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pobody's Nerfect

I have been heaping tons of praise onto the Cortex Plus system over the past several blog entries. Today, to help balance things out, I am going to offer a criticism. Here it is: The Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide was a terrible idea. Okay, maybe "terrible" is a strong word. But this is the internet, so go hard or go home, right? Anyways, yeah; I think the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide is a mess, and quite possibly one of the weirdest RPG products I've ever seen.

I'll start by admitting that all of this might be my own problem. You see, I bought The Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide cold, with zero experience in any of the games it is derived from. I bought it with the understanding that generic versions of all three games existed in the guide, and that the guide was essentially a core RPG rulebook with some extra essays and hacking ideas thrown in. So I have approached this guide the way a role-playing gamer would approach a new role-playing game. I understand this was not Margaret Weis Productions (MWPs) intention. But why not? Could they not have it both ways? Would it have been so hard to make a role-playing game that is both a commentary on hacking a favorite system AND an actual, playable system? Pelgrane Press did it with 13th Age. Evil Hat did it with Fate Core. I'm frustrated because I love Cortex Plus more than either of those games, yet the book...dear God, that book...

On the surface, the guide seems innocous enough. People like to hack Cortex Plus games, so why not take collected advice about hacking from notable game designers and put it into a book, right? Well, in my not-so-humble opinion, the better approach would have been to make a generic, genre-less system out of Cortex Plus and ship that as a book (they did kinda-sorta do that, which I get to next paragraph). Take Fate Core, for example. People loved to hack Spirit of the Century, so what did Evil Hat do? They took the core system, took it apart and put it back together again, streamlined and revised it, then presented it in a crisp, clean book. MWP could have done that, but instead, they published this bizarre collection of essays about people doing it on their own, rather than just giving us a generic version of the system to begin with.

There are three system reference documents (SRDs) within the Hacker's Guide that offer generic equivalents of Cortex Plus' Action, Dramatic, and Superheroic systems. But these are, indeed, SRDs. They read very dry, they assume full comfort and familiarity with the game they've been pulled from, and all the important concepts are front-loaded into the first few pages, hitting a newcomer to the system such as myself like a double-barreled shotgun. Using these SRDs as standalone role-playing games is like jumping into a collectible card game with just booster packs; sure, it's doable, but if you're new, why not just start at the start? 

Building off of that, "starting from the start", a Cortex Plus vet would probably say to pick up one of the Cortex Plus games...Smallville, or Leverage, or Marvel Superheroic (and, more recently, Firefly)...and become familiar with those first before jumping into the Hacker's Guide. The problem with that is, you've got guys like me who weren't terribly interested in any of those three franchises, but did want to know what the system was all about. Now that I've clawed my way through the book and love the system so much, I did go back and grab those three RPGs, but why make this book so unnecessarily exclusive? Again, why not just present the three core systems as complete standalone games, like Fate Core or even World of Darkness? Instead, we've got this book with these SRDs added in, literally an afterthought to the essays (I heard that the SRDs being added to the book was a Kickstarter unlock, so the original plan for the book didn't even have a game in it!) with some ideas for hacks kinda sprinkled in.

So if you're interested in getting into Cortex Plus (and you should be, because it's awesome), don't do what I did and run right to the Hacker's Guide. This book is a meta-game supplement to other Cortex Plus games, not a standalone book, no matter what anyone else tells you. Start with any of the four Cortex Plus RPGs first and read them. Then, and only then, go back and grab the Hacker's Guide. 

I'll end this post with the normal slew of disclaimers: 

-I'm nobody special.  I don't publish or design RPGs; I just play them. I get very little traffic to this blog and I don't work especially hard to increase the circulation. MWP is not going to lose money from my words (especially because all my words basically boil down to "buy the other Cortex Plus games before the Hacker's Guide," so theoretically I'm helping MWP make money, but I digress);

-I love Cortex Plus. If that wasn't clear from the three or four positive blog posts about the game, here it is, again.

-I have nothing but respect and admiration for all of the talent and hard-work that went into, and continue to go into, Cortex Plus and Margaret Weis Productions. I offer these thoughts as constructive criticism, a critique, not a condemnation. If I come off as petty or outspoken in this post, I'm sincerely sorry. 

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