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Heroic Fantasy Cortex Plus

This is a Cortex Plus Heroic hack intended to be used within a Fantasy setting. This document provides information on the various ways in which it differs from Cortex Plus Heroic. Anything not explicitly mentioned as being disallowed or changed from Cortex Plus Heroic is assumed to be in use.

NOTE: There is a pretty comprehensive published Cortex Plus Fantasy Heroic hack in the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide which is supplemented further with some print on demand expansions, and it seems very playable. However it just didn't quite suit my needs, so I made my own. Much of that published material can be mined for ideas or adaptation to this hack however.

There is also a community created Sword & Sorcery Heroic Roleplaying Fantasy hack hosted on EdgeOfInfinity.com, provided by a contributer named Dain "DainXB" Lybarger that I found a little bit more to my tastes, and I started off by playing around with it before deciding to do my own thing.

Tier

Using this hack all player characters and non-player characters have a Tier trait ranked from a d4 to a d20. Tier is a very significant attribute, as it is always included in a character's dice pools.

Beyond that, chararacters made using this hack are built and progressed using an "Advances" model rather than via XP expenditures as is done in Cortex Plus Marvel Heroic. A character's starting Tier determines how many Advances the character starts with and going up in Tiers is a function of applying more Advances.

A character's Tier also sets limits on how high their other dice traits can be. A character cannot have any trait with a die rating more than one step above their Tier.

Tiers

Tier
Trait
Total Advances
Novice
d4
10
Competent
d6
25
Veteran
d8
40
Champion
d10
55
Legendary
d12
70
Mythic
d20
100

For instance a Competent character has a d6 Tier trait and can thus have Aptitude or Ability Set traits of d8 or lower, while a Veteran character has a d8 Tier trait and can have Aptitude or Ability Set traits of d10 or lower.

If a player prefers, they may save up enough Advances to reach the next Tier if they spend them in one lump sum. Using this option, a player may spend some or all of those Advances to raise Ability traits to one step above their new Tier. This option is often better for characters that prefer higher stepped dice over taking more SFX, new Ability traits, and Vocations.

Starting Tier

When starting a new campaign, the GM will decide what Tier they want to begin play at. This decision sets the Tier of the player characters, and determines how many Advances players have to build their characters with.

Once play starts it is possible for characters to gain and apply Advances at different rates, but starting characters are assumed to all start together at the same Tier.

When a character has applied enough Advances to match the starting Advances total of the next Tier, that character's Tier trait upgrades automatically to that die at no cost. Thus if a Competent character has spent 40 Advances they become a Veteran character and their Tier die steps up from a d6 to a d8 for free. This is the equivalent of "leveling up" and can give players a feeling of significant accomplishment, though it happens at a much slower rate than in level based systems.

A GM wanting to run a low-powered campaign or the D&D-esque "zero to hero" trope of underpowered "first level" characters would choose to set the Tier at Novice and characters would be built with 10 Advances, while a GM wanting to run a campaign where the heroes are more capable would choose a higher Tier such as Competent in which case characters would be built with 25 Advances, and so on.

Advancement

Advances are the mechanism used to make new characters, and also the mechanism for upgrading existing characters. Starting characters are given Advances at character creation to buy abilities with determined by their Tier. More Advances are awarded after character creation as rewards for playing, for surviving risks, and for pursuing and accomplishing character specific goals during play.

Unspent Advances can be used to buy new abilities and upgrades for a character whenever a GM allows them to be spent. Dependening on the GM's preferences this may be done at any time, or only during Transition Scenes, or only between sessions, or perhaps more seldomly.

The Advancement costs of Aptitudes, Vocations, and Abitilty Sets are given within this document in the relevant sections. To create or upgrade a new character just refer to the applicable sections to determine Advancement costs as you add new capabilities, until you run out of Advances.

Participation Reward

This hack awards each character one (1) Advance at the end of every full length session, unless a GM decides not to for some reason.

Doom Reward

Whenever the GM spends 2d12 from the Doom Pool to end a scene, every player character in that scene gains one (1) Advance.

Milestone Reward

Some Milestone Sets have Rewards that include one or more Advances.

GM Reward

A GM may at their discretion award one or more Advances as they see fit.

Starting Plot Points

This attribute indicates how many starting Plot Points a character has. This is not a cap or maximum; any number of additional Plot Points can be gained during play. Rather this attribute indicates how many Plot Points a character starts each play session with already available to spend.

Every player character automatically gets a attribute rating of 1 Plot Point at no cost. However, a character can raise their starting Plot Point attribute with Advances. Every additional level of starting Plot Points costs five (5) Advances each, making it a very costly upgrade rarely chosen at lower Tiers.

Starting Plot Points

Rating
Advances
1
0
2
5
3
10
4
15
5
20

Spending Plot Points

Before you roll, Plot Points may be spent to:

  • Add in an extra trait from a trait group
    • two Distinctions
    • two Aptitudes
    • two Ability Set traits
  • Activate some special effects (SFX) in an Ability Set.
  • Step up an Ability Set trait for one action, justifying actions at a higher level of capability.

After you roll, Plot Points may be spent to:

  • Add an extra die from your roll to your total.
  • Keep an extra effect die.
  • Activate an opportunity rolled by the GM.
  • Activate certain special effects (SFX) in an Ability Set.
  • Use an effect die from a reaction roll.
  • Change stress you’ve taken to another type.

Pushes

This hack does not use Pushes.

Stunts

This hack does not use Stunts.

Resources

Resources are not created during Transition Scenes using Plot Points as they are in Cortex Plus Heroic.

Instead Resources are a function of Vocations and are brought into play by invoking Exploits. This is described in more detail in the Vocations section.

Distinctions

Using this hack all player character and many non-player characters have three (3) Distinctions, which are pithy phrases that sum up what that character is all about or refer to their most interesting qualities. In addition to providing narrative fodder, when a player can explain why one of their character's Distinctions is relevant to one of their actions or reactions they get to add a d8 to their dice pool.

Similarly, if a player can explain why one of their character's Distinctions creates dramatic tension or complicates the emerging situation they can instead add a d4 to their dice pool and gain a Plot Point. This is one of the primary ways that a character will gain Plot Points during the course of play, so beyond the roleplaying advantages of choosing well there is also a mechanical benefit to interesting Distinctions that provide good story hooks.

The GM and other players can also request a character to take action or get involved with the story by offering a Plot Point and compelling a Distinction. To do this the person doing the compelling must explain why they think the character's Distinction is relevant to the situation. Assuming the explanation isn't shot down by table consensus, the compelled character's player can either accept the Plot Point and have their character take appropriate action or otherwise engage with the in-game situation, or they may pay a Plot Point to instead refuse the compel.

Stress

As in Cortex Plus Heroic, Stress represents the negative consequences of conflict. Stress is a trait with a die rating, and one of a character's current Stress dice may be added at no cost into the opposition’s dice pool when it would affect their ability to succeed.

This hack uses two Stress Tracks, one for Physical Stress and another for Mental Stress. They work exactly the same as in Cortex Plus Heroic; the only difference is that this hack does not use Emotional Stress.

Assets

Assets work basically as they normally do in Cortex Plus Heroic except that they don't go away after a single roll. Instead they last for a conflict or until removed exactly as complications do. This is done in the interests of symmetry and simplification.

Complications

Complications work exactly the same as in Cortex Plus Heroic, except that when a character uses a complication that is on themselves the complication is not stepped up afterwards.

Aptitudes

Using this hack, every player character and some non-player characters has five attributes referred to collectively as Aptitudes. All Aptitudes start at a d4 at no cost, but can be raised individually by applying Advances as indicated in the adjoining chart.

Characters can almost always add one of their Aptitudes to a dice pool, by justifying how a particular Aptitude applies to their situation. However, the GM has the perogative to veto a weak or nonexistent justification if they don't agree that a particular Aptitude is appropriate to a given situation or doesn't match up with what's currently happening in-game.

Aptitude Trait Costs

Upgrade
Advances
Trait: d4
0
Trait: d6
1
Trait: d8
2
Trait: d10
3
Trait: d12
4

Aptitude Descriptions

Violence: The ability to acheive one's goals with force, confrontation, inficting or avoiding harm, or brutality. This is applicable to physical conflict more or less by default, but also applies in other situations such as threats, intimidation, verbal abuse, or savage mental attacks.

Finesse: The ability to acheive one's goals with skill, subtlety, diplomacy, dexterity, or expertise. This is applicable whenever dealing with a situation using precision, panache, technique, or dexterity.

Smarts: The ability to acheive one's goals with intelligence, knowledge, or cleverness. This is applicable in any situation where special knowledge applies, as well as any situation where a character's cognitive abilities are relevant such as trickery, figuring things out, understanding implications, navigating complexity, or assimilating information.

Psyche: The ability to acheive one's goals with willpower, charisma, or strength of personality. This is applicable in social situations more or less by default, but also situations where a character's ego, grit, persona, or charm can change the outcome.

Awareness: The ability to acheive one's goals with vision, perceptiveness, empathy, alertness, or intuition. This is applicable in any situation where noticing things is helpful, but beyond that understanding the context in which the things perceived are relevant to each other, or forming instinctive conclusions without the need for conscious reasoning.

Vocations

Using this hack every player character and some non-player characters may have a kind of attribute referred to collectively as Vocations, which describe specific professions, backgrounds, fields of study, or specialized training that a character has learned via study and practice or been trained in.

A character has no Vocations by default and does not have to choose any, but can have up to a maximum of five (5) Vocations.

Every Vocation has four Ranks. Each Rank indicates a higher level of capability within a Vocation, and starting at Rank 2 each Rank also grants the character an Exploit for that Vocation which can be invoked once per session to gain significant benefits.

Vocations provide justification for doing things based upon their subject matter and a character's rank within that Vocation. If a roll is necessary in conjunction with a character doing something within one of their Vocations they will typically rely on their Tier plus a Distinction and an Aptitude, and any relevant Assets or Resources to create their dice pool. If a character happens to have one or more Ability traits that apply, then those can be added in as well.

But usually a character doing something within their Vocation is a narrative device, with no need for a roll. A blacksmith making horseshoes is generally not something that requires breaking out the polyhedrals.

Design Note: The general intent of Vocations is to allow players to better express their character concepts, allowing a character to be competent at the day to day things that their backstory and overall concept suggest or demand they should be good at. It is primarily a narrative mechanic, with a gamist function in the form of Exploits. It is not meant to be a simulationist mechanic.

Vocation Costs

Rank
Exploits
Benefit
Advances
1
0
Indicates that a character is able to exercise a Vocation at a basic level, as would be appropriate to an apprentice or a recent graduate of an academic or trade school.
1
2
1
Indicates greater ability with a Vocation, as would be appropriate to a professional, a journeyman, someone with some time on the job. In addition, a character at this Rank can invoke their Vocation once per session to give themselves or their allies an advantage if a player can explain how their Vocation applies to the situation.
2
3
2
Indicates mastery of a Vocation, appropriate to a person with long experience, or to a gifted prodigy. Additionally, a second free invoke of the Vocation per session is gained.
3
4
3
Indicates grand mastery of a Vocation, appropriate to the very best practitioners of that Vocation in the world. Additionally, a third and final per session invoke of the Vocation is gained. This is the highest Vocation Rank available; further depths of competence with a Vocation can be represented through Distinctions or within Ability Sets if desired.
4

Exploits

Of course, being skilled in something can sometimes provide significant benefits in certain situations. That's where Exploits come in. Exploits are special once-per-session effects that are "invoked" to grant characters powerful advantages.

As a character develops higher rank within a Vocation they get additional invocations, starting at zero (0) and capping at three (3) per Vocation. Exploits do not require a roll to take effect, and can be triggered whenever they are relevant. A player simply declares they are invoking an Exploit, checks an invocation of the Vocation off on their character sheet, and the Exploit's effect resolves.

There is a basic set of Exploits that all Vocations offer, as follows:

Standard Exploits

  • Exploit: Activate an Opportunity: if you are able to justify how your Vocation allows you to leverage an opportunity, you may invoke an Exploit to do so instead of spending a Plot Point.
  • Exploit: Create a Resource: a Resource is a temporary d6 trait that represents a professional contact, a piece of equipment, or some kind of useful knowledge related to your Vocation. Unless removed, the Resource lasts until the end of the next scene, which means you can use it more than once. Write down [Name of the Resource]: d6; you may add it as an additional die whenever the Resource is relevant to an action or reaction. How long it may take to create a particular Resource, and whether it can be done as part of an Action Scene or must be done in a Transition Scene is left to common sense and GM's discretion.
  • Exploit: Affect Complications: if there is a complication that your Vocation pertains to, you can step it down or remove it from play by describing how your expertise allows you to overcome the complication. If the complication is a d6 or less eliminate it, if it is d8 or higher step it down. Alternately, if you can justify how your Vocation applies, you may create a d6 complication and put it into play, or step up an existing complication.

Additionally, each Vocation description details special Exploits that the Vocation grants. Refer to individual Vocation write ups for specific options.

Vocation List

A set of Vocations are available in the Vocations document.

The following are examples from that list, demonstrating some Vocation specific exploits.

Alchemist

The Alchemist Vocation allows the following special Exploits:

  • Exploit: Create Alchemical Resources such as magical potions at a d8, with a wide variety of effects (GM's discretion applies); these Resources can also be given to other characters to use.
  • Exploit: You can identify a foreign substance or poison with a whiff or a glance, at least well enough to know if it is safe or not.
  • Exploit: Ignore a Physical Stress or Trauma result caused by poison or other toxins.

And the Rider Vocation allows the following additional Exploits beyond the standard options:

Rider

The Rider Vocation allows the following special Exploits:

  • Exploit: You can assess the health and market value of a mount with a cursory examination.
  • Exploit: You may step up or double Finesse for purposes of handling a mount.
  • Exploit: You can calm a panicked or bucking mount sufficiently for them to settle and take your direction.

Signature Exploits

A character can also have one or more Signature Exploits, which are special tricks or techniques that they have developed within a Vocation. For instance, perhaps a character with the Archer Vocation has developed a trick shot Exploit that allows them to sever a rope, or ricochet a shot around a corner.

Signature Exploit Costs

Upgrade
Advances
Signature Exploit
1

Like every other Exploit, using a Signature Exploit expends an invocation of the applicable Vocation.

Each Signature Exploit costs one Advance to add to a character's capabilities. There is no maximum limit on the number of Signature Exploits a character may have; the very limited number of invocations per session acts as a throttle on the impact of Exploits in general. GM's discretion applies to the definition of all Signature Exploits.

Setting Specific Vocations

While many Vocations such as blacksmith and farmer are broadly applicable to conceivably any setting, others such as sorcerer or obermancer, are particular to a more narrowly defined idea or organization that exists in a specific setting. For best results, some custom Vocations should be added on to model ideas found in a given campaign setting.

It should also generally be allowed for a player, with GM approval, to extend the available list with a custom Vocation if some specific idea is important to a character's concept

Ability Sets

In this hack Power Sets are called Ability Sets. Other than this name change they are basically the same as defined in Cortex Plus Heroic.

Ability Sets are containers for Ability traits (aka Powers in Cortex Plus Heroic), SFX, and Limits.

Each trait die costs a number of Advances depending upon its step. Each SFX in an Ability Set costs two (2) Advances. Each Limit in an Ability Set reduces the cost of the Ability Set by one (1) Advance, but not to less than zero (0).

Every player character starts with one empty Ability Set at no cost which they can then spend Advances to add Ability traits, SFX, or Limits to.

Ability Set Costs

Upgrade
Advances
Trait: d6
1
Trait: d8
2
Trait: d10
3
Trait: d12
4
SFX
2
Limit
-1
Additional Ability Set
cumulative +1

Most player characters have two Ability Sets, but some have only one and others have more than two. There is no maximum number of Ability Sets a character might have, but unlocking each additional Ability Set costs a cumulative +1 Advance.

For instance, a second Ability Set costs 1 Advance to unlock, a third Ability Set costs 2 additional Advances to unlock, a fourth Ability Set costs 3 additional Advances to unlock, a fifth Ability set costs 4 additional Advances to unlock, and so on. Thus a character with five Ability Sets has spent a total of ten (10) Advances just on unlocking Ability Sets.

Because of this premium, there is an incentive to make character concepts work in as few Ability Sets as is practical. On the other hand a character can potentially add a die from each Ability Set to a dice pool, increasing their odds of success and potential for a better effect die. Finding a balance between these two considerations is left to each player to decide for themselves on a character by character basis.

Ability Traits

Ability sets may include one or more Ability traits that represent some of a character's more notable abilities. The most important consideration for Ability traits is that they allow a character to justify doing things that most people simply can't do. Often, no roll is necessary to narrate how a character's abilities allow them to do colorful things that enrich the story.

But sometimes success or failure matters, and when that is the case an action or reaction roll is typically called for. Whenever a character takes an action or reaction, they may include up to one (1) Ability trait from each of their active Ability sets in their dice pool if their player can describe how the trait might help them succeed.

By spending one (1) Plot Point per additional Ability trait a character can also include more than one Ability trait from the same set. Some SFX allow an additional Ability trait from the same set to be included in dice pools without having to spend a Plot Point per as well.

Whether it seems justified to add a particular Ability trait to a given dice pool is mostly up to the player, but the GM and / or other players may push back if a particular Ability trait added to a particular dice pool just doesn't make sense or strains plausability too much.

Ability Traits List

The Ability traits document details all of the Ability traits available and describes what they allow a character to do.

A GM might decide to not include all of the available Ability traits in a particular campaign. It is also possible that there might be some custom Ability traits available that represent an setting-specific concept. It is also possible that a character might be allowed to have a custom Ability trait. Check with the GM to find out which Ability traits are available for player characters when making a character.

Example Ability Set

The Well Equipped Ability Set provide below is an example with five (5) Advances worth of abilities within it.

Two d8's and one SFX costs 6 Advances, one Limit reduces that cost by -1 Advance, for a final cost of 5 Advances.

This Ability Set can be further upgraded over time by applying more Advances to it.

For instance, upgrading Armor from a d8 to a d10 would cost one (1) more Advance. Adding Ranged: d8 would cost two (2) Advances. Adding another SFX would cost two (2) more Advances.

Well Equipped

Melee: d8
Armor: d8

SFX: Shield: On a successful reaction against a physical attack, you may step up Armor or Melee for your next action or reaction.

Limit: Gear: Shutdown any Well Equipped Ability trait or SFX and gain one (1) Plot Point. Take an action versus the doom pool to recover each Ability trait or SFX shutdown in this way.

Ability Set Advances Point Cost: 5

Milestones

As is standard for Cortex Plus Heroic, each player character should have two (2) Milestone Sets that define specific Goals a character may pursue or accomplish during the course of play to gain some Reward. However rather than the 1XP, 3XP, 10XP model of Cortex Plus Heroic, this hack uses a templated reward model. To make a Milestone Set, three Goals are chosen from the options described in the Milestone Set Template below, and for each Goal the desired Reward(s) are selected.

Note that a given Milestone Set might take three "easy" Goals, or three "very difficult" Goals, or any combination desired. Additionally after completing a "very difficult" Goal a player can choose to take the same Milestone Set again if they like if they don't want to take a new one.

[MILESTONE NAME]

[OPTIONAL DESCRIPTION]

Goal
Reward
[select three (3) goals from among the following options]

The first time in a session when you [DO SOMETHING RELATIVELY EASY]

  • [select one (1) of the following when defining the Milestone Set]
    • +1 PP
    • regain a Exploit
    • clear a Stress Track
    • step down a Trauma

The first time in a session when you [DO SOMETHING RELATIVELY HARD]

  • [select one (1) of the following when defining the Milestone Set]
    • Gain one (1) Advance
    • [select two (2) of the following when defining the Milestone Set]
      • +1 PP
      • regain a Exploit
      • clear a Stress Track
      • step down a Trauma
      • remove the highest die from the doom pool
      • gain a d6 Asset for the remainder of the scene

The first time ever when you [DO SOMETHING VERY DIFFICULT]

  • Gain one (1) Advance
  • [select one (1) of the following when defining the Milestone Set]
    • Gain one (1) Advance
    • [select two (2) of the following when defining the Milestone Set]
      • +1 PP
      • regain a Exploit
      • clear a Stress Track
      • step down a Trauma
      • remove the highest die from the doom pool
      • gain a d6 Asset for the remainder of the scene
  • Retire this Milestone Set and choose another one

Example Milestone Sets

The following are a couple of example Milestone Sets made using the the Milestone Set Template.

Milestones

Meatshield

Tougher than your allies, you deliberately put yourself into harms way to protect them. Despite this, you are still sometimes the last one to fall.

Goal
Reward

The first time in a session when you follow an ally into a conflict that you counseled against.

clear a Stress Track

The first time in a session when you are in a physical conflict with 2+ allies and you are the only one of your group who is not stressed out.

gain one (1) Advance

The first time in a session when you take a hit meant for an ally that results in you taking Physical trauma.

+1 PP, step down a Trauma

Vengeance Seeker

You seek vengeance against a specific individual. You will not rest until you have tracked down your nemesis and taken your vengeance upon them.

Goal
Reward

The first time in a session when you discover a new clue or detail that will help you in your quest for vengeance.

+1 PP

The first time in a session when you stress out a minion or ally of your nemesis.

clear both Stress Tracks

When you finally get vengeance upon your chosen enemy.

gain two (2) Advances, then retire this Milestone Set and choose another one

Addendum: Species / Race / Culture

This hack supports making a character's species, race, or culture a significant part of their write up, but also supports not caring about such things, on a character by character basis. If one player wants to emphasize their character's species or race mechanically, they can do that. If a different player wants to focus on other things for their character, they can do that as well.

At a high level, there are three choices available to a character to model a species or race.

  • Descriptive Only: a character's species or race can just be a descriptive, cosmetic detail about the character with no mechanical representation.
  • Distinction: a character's species or race can be incorporated into one or more Distinctions, such as "Dwarf" or more narratively as something like "Dwarven Axe-master". Whenever it seems appropriate that a species or race related Distinction is relevant, add a Distinction die to the dice pool as normal. As simple as that, the character's species or race has a mechanical benefit.
  • Ability Set: a character's species or race could be defined with a species or race specific Ability Set with one or more Ability Traits and / or SFX and / or Limits. This requires an investment of Advances, but elevates species or race to be a significant facet of the character for those who prefer this approach.

Addendum: Profession / Class / Career

The idea of a character class or profession is not a first level concern in this hack. Obviously characters can spend their Advances to model a given role such as "Fighter" or "Wizard" through a combination of Aptitudes, Vocations, and Distinctions.

However, it is also ok to define Ability Sets around archetypal concepts for those who prefer that approach; thus a character could take an Ability Set such as "Cleric" or "Ranger" modeling classes made popular by standard class and level based games, or an Ability Set such as "Ratcatcher" or "Trollkiller" to model careers from various editions of a game based upon a popular IP owned by a litigious UK based company, and so on.

Addendum: Magic Systems / Spellcasters

Generally speaking spellcasting is abstracted into Ability Sets by taking traits such as Mystic Blasts, Sorcery, and so on. This can be further expanded upon by setting specific Vocations that define particular magic systems, restrictions, advantages, and so forth.

Addendum: Magic / Special Items

Magic items can be represented in a variety of ways, depending on how significant an item is supposed to be to the emerging story and a given character's capabilities.

  • Resource or Asset: a magic item can be represented in simple terms by a Resource or Asset as nothing more than a label and a d6 or d8. This sort of magic item doesn't stick around very long, but this can be more than enough for things like scrolls, potions, and the like.
  • SFX: sometimes it is sufficient for a character to model a lesser magic item as a SFX within one of their existing Ability Sets, if its thematically appropriate and the purpose of the magic item is to augment something the character is already oriented towards. For instance an Elf might take a SFX: Cloak of Elvenkind ability in their existing Elf Ability Set.
  • Ability Set: magic items that stick around, particularly if they are complicated or have a lot of functions, can be represented as an Ability Set. The main downside of this approach is that if characters find magic item as loot that they would like to keep, a given character may not have enough Advances to add the Ability Set to their sheet.
  • Narrative: a GM might allow a "magic item" to enter play narratively and not worry about Advances or exact stats yet, and just see where the story goes. If the item takes root into the story, mechanical considerations can follow on as seems best. That sword found in the lich's trove? Maybe its magical; maybe it does unusual things...if the players are interested they'll pursue the matter and the nature of the thing will emerge as the story evolves.