Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hacking Affiliatons in Cortex Plus Heroic

In which I discuss/think through the difficulties of hacking one specific part of Cortex Plus.

The Cortex Plus system is generally very hackable. The core concept of the game lies in building a dice pool by selecting appropriate items from various available traits, and the specific traits selected help define not just the action being taken but how it is being taken and, depending on the specific C+ system, why. The process of hacking the game for a specific genre or story involves switching out the available traits, or modifying them in a way to better fit your vision.

I don't think it is of particular value for me to go heavily into the details of that process in this post. Instead, I am going to focus on one handling a "core" trait in a game, as this is what is coming up recently.

One of the most important things for a Cortex Plus game to function is to have two traits that are guaranteed to be used for every roll. Since every roll consists of adding the two dice together for the result, you need to have at least two dice in your dice pool for that to work. Each version of the system uses something different here:
  • In the Action version of the game, they fall back on a more traditional system of character attributes and vague skill sets. For each action, you determine what statistic makes the most sense and what skill set applies best.
  • In the Drama version, they used Values and Relationships, deviating from a more grounded approach to action for the sake of defining why one is performing it instead of how. You select the Value that drives your character in performing the action and who you're performing it for (or against, in some case). As these have die values as well, this still fits easily into the paradigm.
  • In the more recent Firefly version, the Action concept is modified to be more clear and more hand-wavey at the same time. Instead of a specific list of statistics, you determine whether the action is Physical, Mental, or Social, and then select the available list of skills. Firefly also borrows the Distinctions from Drama, though they feel more standardized, and these also come into play almost uniformly.
Of course, I'm not worrying about Drama, Action , or Firefly. I'm playing Heroic, and it has its own quirks. The two traits that are always used are Affiliations and Distinctions. 

Distinctions are slightly different than in Drama and Firefly, in that they are a descriptive phrase about the character, much like an Aspect in Fate. Also available for the Distinction die are Scene or even Event Distinctions, which are descriptive phrases about the location/scene (Cramped Hallway, Tensions Running High), or for the entire story (Red Skies, Fear of the Superpowered). These can be accessed in place of or in addition to character Distinctions, making this trait generally reliable for a die in the pool.

Affiliations are guaranteed. They are Solo, Buddy, and Team, and are basically good for determining what situation your character shines in and where they are weaker. The purpose of this is a constant die, but with the easy ability for the GM to change it to something you're weaker at. If you have a high die in Team, your GM can occasionally drop you into a Solo situation where you're not as strong.

The reason I am pondering this now is that I'm going to be playing a Heroic game soon, but we only have two PCs. Logically, based on what we know of the game, we would both take Buddy d10, Solo d8, Team d6. The only way for the GM to force us into a Team situation is to add more NPCs on our side. In some cases this could work, but the way we play games leads me to think we'll generally be using Buddy all the time, with rare moments of Solo, and Team will almost never be used.

With this in mind, I've been looking for alternatives to Affiliations for the game. With how easy it is to switch things around, you'd think it would be easy to figure out something. If anything, you can plug in items from other versions of the game. As I'm discovering, it's not that easy.

In this excellent article, Rob Donoghue talks about removing Affiliations. One thing he mentions in the article that I have been using to guide my thinking is that this trait should be something that helps define the game itself. The Affiliations as listed in Heroic speak to how comic books work, with heroes constantly switching between Solo, Buddy, and Team situations. But what to replace that with?

I know that you might say "well, what's the game about? Maybe that can help guide you?" Well, yes and no. And this is where I get to the actual point of this article: why replacing this is hard.

Dropping in Values is easy enough, but it's incredibly abstract, and not all players are as keen to work with a stat that doesn't reflect a tangible concept. Standard stats are okay, but suffer from a less severe version of the issue with Physical/Mental/Social stats from Firefly, or the Steel/Guile/Lore stats from the Sword & Sorcery hack. That issue is that if a situation arises and the player can control what he will use to act in that situation, they will always try to choose what they're strongest at. If you're best with a hammer, everything becomes a nail. That should be avoided.

Some people have suggested ignoring this entirely and just using a static die, either just a d10 or starting at d6 and raising it as a representation of character experience. I'm not sold on that, though. I like the idea of choices to make describing the action feel more dynamic.

So what needs to fill the hole that Affiliations leaves should is something that either a) allows the player to choose something different each time, and somehow encourages this, or b) that the character and thus to a degree the player has no control over the selection of. The first is how Values tries to work, though I think it might end up in the same boat as the other player-controlled options, while the second is essentially what the current Affiliations option does.

I admit, I haven't come up with a particularly good option here. Thus far, all I have come up with is a very simplistic concept of Action, Reaction, and Preparation. The idea here is that all three will likely come up, and the player would inherently be switching between Action and Reaction in a combat situation. It ensures that you'll regularly be rolling different dice. But it's very simplistic, and I'm unsatisfied with it. I do like how the assignment of dice to them defines something about the character, though. In some ways, that definition works similarly to how a Mass Effect hack tried to handle this, by using Paragon/Renegade as the traits.

This post was not about me finding an answer, obviously, but more a basis of discussion about the process and the difficulties involved. I hope it was at least interesting to you.

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