I haven’t had a chance to play either of the newest games from Margaret Weis Productions, though I have and have read both of the new rulebooks. Additionally, they’re different enough that each will likely deserve its own review. However, I’d like to briefly talk about the system in general.
What Has Gone Before
As I mentioned in the Cinematic Unisystem reviews, Margaret Weis Production has, in the past few years, become the RPG publisher most involved in producing licensed games. They’ve put out games for Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, Smallville, and Leverage. Each uses an evolving variant of their in-house system, Cortex.
My initial impression of the Cortex system was not favorable. The system used a stepped dice system similar to Earthdawn: bonuses to a roll increased the size of the dice used (or added more dice), and there were no flat adds of any kind in the system. Since players would often be limited to two dice (one for attribute, one for skill) until they had very high trait totals, the results of any given roll could be very swingy. In the Serenity game I played, the pilot, who had a very high piloting score, managed to dramatically fail nearly every important piloting roll: his 2d12 was in no way prevented from rolling 1-2 on both dice.
Additionally, getting such a high pair of dice almost encouraged min-maxing in chargen, as the character creation system had a huge problem with the Current Level conundrum. Raising a d10 to a d12 in chargen cost as much as buying a new skill at d2, but was something like 6 times as expensive to raise with exp. The initially-interesting-seeming practice of requiring a skill specialty above a d6 made this even more of a problem (e.g., once you raised Guns to d6, you’d have to begin raising Pistols, Shotguns, Rifles, etc. as independent skills that started at d6 with no discount for other specialties).
The Current Incarnation
While I haven’t played any of them yet, the newest variants of the system, dubbed Cortex Plus, seem to fix most of my concerns with the system. Currently, this system is available in Smallville and Leverage. Both of these games included design work by respected indie designers, and the level of experimentation they show makes this obvious. Both games have become designer systems specifically engineered to reflect the style of the shows rather than toolkit systems with setting-specific flavor. While I normally prefer toolkit systems to designer ones, I can see the utility in designing a system precisely to capture the feel of an IP.
Regardless of its designer vs. toolkit nature, the first fix that I really like about the Cortex Plus system is the idea that you will often roll three or more dice, but only keep the best two in most cases (some special abilities allow you to keep more dice for certain rolls). My intuition is that this should drastically reduce the swinginess of the system, resulting in characters with better dice consistently getting good rolls. Additionally, both systems feature the idea of adding Complications to the story for any dice that roll 1. Thus, even if the dice roll exceptionally low, the story is at least made more interesting by the result (and, in Smallville, the GM is expected to reward the player with a plot point for each complication added). Finally, more special abilities and other options (like the aforementioned plot points) exist to recover from failing important rolls than did in previous versions of the system.
The character creation system is, additionally, much improved by the simple expedient of making the cost of increasing a die’s size flat: going from d4 to d6 is valued the same by the system as going from d10 to d12. Both games include mechanisms to prevent min-maxed characters, but an increasing cost to raise each level with exp is not one of them (neither system really uses exp or even advancement per se, but the core assumption of the system is for increases to be equally valued across the board).
On the whole, I’m expecting to enjoy playing both systems whenever I finally have time in my gaming schedule for them. I have to give massive kudos to Margaret Weis Productions for avoiding the trap of putting out an initial system and then only incrementally improving it, as most publishers do. MWP has not been afraid to hire talented designers and let them go nuts innovating within a loose framework of the system to do what is best for the property in question, and the results show. Hopefully, both Smallville and Leverage sell very well, and we’ll continue to see ever-evolving systems out of Cortex.