Rediscovering Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying

I’ve played a lot of games over the years. A LOT. As a podcaster and game designer, I felt it was my duty to play as many games as I could, and experiment with as many rules as I could in order to present the best content on the show and create the most unique mechanics for my games.

I’ve been gaming since 2007, when I decided to learn more about the 3.0 Dungeons & Dragons rules behind my favorite video game at the time, Neverwinter Nights. I didn’t know anything about it and went in search of the books and grabbed up the 3.5 Player’s Handbook. I read the book, tried to play some play-by-post games and failed miserably. It wasn’t until I moved to Las Vegas for work that I found a group and began the journey that changed me as a person. That is not hyperbole. My time and efforts as a player, GM and podcaster have made me an entirely different person than I would have been, otherwise. I am less shy, more outgoing and more sure of myself that I ever would have been without it.

One of the games that resonated with me and became a quick favorite was the Smallville RPG. At the time it came out, I was part of the reviewer program for DriveThruRPG. The Smallville RPG came across my email and, after hearing some good things about it, I grabbed it up and got to reading it. Its approach to gaming was completely different to anything else I had so far encountered and I LOVED it! It’s been several years so I can’t remember the exact journey I took to falling in love with the Smallville RPG and Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying, but suffice it to say that my affair with the game started hard and was full of passion for a long time.

As can happen, my enthusiasm for the game flagged after a time and I set it aside. I ran the game for my home gaming group and most of them were less than enthusiastic about it after a few sessions. I believe that was a big contributor to me setting the game aside. I carried the lessons the game taught me forward in my GMing career, but I didn’t pick it up again for a long time.

Some weeks ago, a random player on Gamersplane posted about having enjoyed the game in the past and wishing they could play it again. I joined in, sharing my past love of the game and after several people chimed in about how much they loved the game or how interesting it looked and shared their wish to try it, I somewhat reluctantly said that I’d run it.

It may have been one of the best gaming decisions I’ve made this year.

We just wrapped up our first episode and it was a blast. I set up the game in a city in an alternate reality to the world Smallville occurs in. Several weeks before, a disaster happened at a laboratory in the city which shattered the barriers between dimensions. This caused energy, as well as people, to bleed through, back and forth. Some people immediately gained super powers, while others lost them. Some people died and some alternate versions of deceased people were pulled into that world. It was a chaotic time.

We started the story some weeks after that event, just as things were mostly getting put back to normal. I decided that I would take an NPC all the Leads connected to, who was a young, powered person, and have them go missing. Through the investigation, they found that another person who recently gained powers, had mind-controlled their friendly NPC and was using them for ill. The Leads’ use of their Value and Relationship statements to drive their actions through the investigation was marvelous!

We blew through the episode very quickly because I wanted to make sure we got the chance to finish a complete story. Everyone had a blast. Some of the players are just getting a handle on the rules and the others are loving getting back into the game. It’s amazing.

As I’ve been running this game, I’ve been going back through the Smallville rule book and the Dramatic Roleplaying section of the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide. The rules are resonating with me hard, again. I see so much potential in the game. There are so many stories that can be told and told in the way that I love to tell them.

I love NPCs. I love dramatic situations. I love feelings and relationship pressures being a reason for a character’s actions. Dramatic Roleplaying has all of this, in spades.

I’m glad I took this opportunity to run Smallville. It has rekindled my love for drama and made me realize that a lot of my games could use more relationship drama in them. It’s one of the things I absolutely love about gaming. When I think back on my favorite experiences in gaming, there’s almost always relationship drama at their heart. D.P. Dave and his forbidden love with another werewolf. My machete-wielding Hunter and the rough times he had with his wife. My White Court vampire and how he seduced a Titan to try and save the world. I tend to forget characters that don’t have and experience those kinds of personal connections.

I have a lot of stories left to tell and lots of games left to run. Not all of them will be with Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying, but I’ll be thinking about injecting relationship drama into all of them, now. Even when it’s not the focus of the story, it personalizes the PCs experiences and makes the stakes more real.

I’ve also caught the game design bug again, but with Cortex Plus being in a bit of a limbo state, with Cortex Prime being Kickstarted and worked on, but not out yet, I don’t know what to do with my Dramatic Roleplaying game ideas.

I’ll figure it out, I’m sure. Until then, it’s time to get back to my Smallville game and figure out which relationship buttons I’m going to push for the next episode!

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Being Inspired by American Gods

Story inspiration is everywhere. I love pulling story ideas from the things I see, the movies I watch, songs I listen to and books I read. The first iteration of the Shark Bone Podcast was all about pulling story inspiration from media and work-shopping it into something usable at the table.

I want to do more of that. This article is more of that.

I read a lot. It’s something I developed a love for early in life and has stuck with me all these years. Recently, I finished American Gods by Neil Gaiman and decided I was going to tear into it to look for story ideas. I’m not going to gear this completely towards GM’s, however. Story ideas are important for players, too. And there are plenty of seeds for both in this book.

I picked up this book because so many people around me recommended it over the years and said it was amazing. I’ll be honest and say that it wasn’t my favorite. I give the book a solid 6/10. The book is well written and the characters are absolutelyamazing, but the story meanders around so much that I was constantly losing the threads.

I read the version with the author’s preferred text, which is linked above. It was long. Because the story was so hard to follow, I almost put the book down a couple of times, but soldiered on because everyone said it was so great. I was sure that the story would pick up and that all the threads would be wrapped up neatly and I’d understand all the bits that were confusing. That didn’t happen. Even so, the characters are so well-written and realized. I wanted to see what would happen to them. I cared if they lived or died, if they reconciled, if they got what they were searching for. For that alone, I’m glad I finished it.

I want to begin digging for story ideas on the player’s side. With so many great characters who feel so alive, it’s not hard to find inspiration to make characters you play at the table better.

The first idea I grabbed was giving a character a useless hobby. On the whole, I think Shadow’s coin tricks are exactly that. It’s a small detail that he uses to draw attention to himself, for the most part. It also makes him different that any other characters that might find themselves in that situation. It will serve that purpose at the table, as well. Your borderline corrupt cop who likes making origami to pass the time is a lot different than any other borderline corrupt cop. Those useless hobbies are also a fun way for the GM to customize small bits of the story for the character. Bribing your way past a bouncer with a perfectly folded crane is much more flavorful than bribing them with $20.

Next, I want to talk about character goals. Goals are wonderful things for a character to have and I very much encourage you to come up with goals for your PC, even if the game you’re playing doesn’t specifically call for them. With that said, Shadow doesn’t have any specific goals throughout most of the book. He goes along with the story simply because he has nothing better to do. That takes him on a grand, multifaceted adventure and he meets tons of interesting people and has experiences he’d never have, otherwise. It made me think and reconsider my stance of “Always have a character goal”. It’s OK if your character doesn’t have a goal. But, if you choose not to have a goal, go with the flow and see where that takes you.

Towards the end of the book, though, Shadow does find a goal. He finds something he cares about, and when he does, he throws himself into it completely. He literally gives his life to accomplish the goal. Is your PC that driven with their goal? If they’re not, is there a goal that they might be that driven to accomplish? Maybe you should switch to that goal.

Finally, for the player’s side of things, the book made me think aboutcharacter relationships. It’s no secret that a character with ties to the world is more involved in the story and has more hooks hanging off of them for the GM to use. Those same relationships are also examples for the player to know how the character relates to the rest of the world. So, the character hates their mother. Does that affect how they respond to other mothers or motherly figures in the world? If they had a trusted mentor betray them, how does that affect relationships with other mentor figures? These relationships don’t have to be with living characters, either. As long as your PC has a memory of someone, you can use their relationship to that memory as a template for other relationships in the game world.

One more thing about relationships: your character’s perception of those relationships may not always be 100% true. As they say, reality is in the eye of the beholder. Just because your character has a tie to someone who is a great friend doesn’t mean the other character feels the same. They might simply tolerate the character or perhaps they feel more than friendship and await your PC’s proposal. Don’t be surprised or upset if the GM plays those characters different than your idea of them.

For the GM side of things, I pulled a couple situations and a story hook that you can use to make things interesting at the gaming table. The first situation is that the PCs are hired to work for someone who turns out to be much more connected/powerful than they thought. This is an easy, and fun, way of getting the group involved in something that is “above their pay grade”. Because their employer is so much more powerful and connected, they’ll be running in circles they’d never had access to, otherwise. The social expectations they encounter could be completely different than what they know. They may run the risk of serious consequences for the most minor of slights. Also, they’ll be able to network and make some very powerful friends that prove very useful as the story advances.

The second situation that I thought would be fun is that of a shadow war. I thought this aspect of the book was rather fun, even if I didn’t see it get a lot of treatment. The fact that the war was being fought in the shadows and behind the scenes meant that the public saw very little of it. All the rumors and bodies left in its wake meant that the general public knew something was off, but had no idea what was going on. I think this would be a great situation for the PCs to be in, especially if they are working for some powerful patron. Perhaps the group needs to go clean up a battle site to recover some artifact or dispose of bodies the authorities would find strange. This situation is very Men In Black.

The last thing I pulled from this book is a story hook. A god has died and you must resurrect them. There are so many situations that could surround this hook. Why does the god need to be brought back? What happens if they’re brought back wrong? Who’s going to step into their place if they’re not brought back? What’s going wrong with the world now that the god is not there to do their job? To make this situation even more serious, I would add a timer of some sort. Perhaps they only have until the next sunrise. Or maybe the god’s child will be born in not more than two weeks and if the god is still dead at that time, the child will inherit their power. It could even be tied to decomposition of the god’s body. Once the heart can no longer be awoken, the god cannot be raised.

This book is full of really fun ideas. These are just a few of the ones I liked in particular. I hope they inspire you and your games.

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Episode 335 – Alien Gifts #5

In this episode, Vincent has a close call with the cops.

The music for this episode is The Darkside by Audiobinger.

The forums are now at sharkbonepodcast.com/forum.

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Episode 334 – Alien Gifts #4

In this episode, Vincent receives a vision of the horrors to come and then battles a Korthun Kaos.

The music for this episode is The Darkside by Audiobinger.

The forums are now at sharkbonepodcast.com/forum.

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Episode 333 – Alien Gifts #3

In this episode, Vincent and Amon continue their flight from the Korthun Hunter and are forced to face off against it.

The music for this episode is The Darkside by Audiobinger.

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Episode 332 – Alien Gifts #2

In this episode of my solo played Cypher System superhero RPG, Vincent learns something about his mentor and faces a new danger.

The music for this episode is The Darkside by Audiobinger.

This episode is also available on YouTube!

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Episode 331 – Alien Gifts #1

As an experiment, I ran a solo session of the Cypher System RPG tonight and recorded it as an actual play podcast. I had fun doing it, though I feel a little self conscious about it. I’ve never done anything quite like this. I did have a lot of fun playing, recording and editing it and I do hope you enjoy listening to it.

Music for this episode is The Darkside by Audiobinger.

This audio podcast is also available on YouTube!

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Episode 330 – Age of Rebellion Character Creation

It was Saturday evening and my plans to hang out with friends fell through. I had nothing to do. So, I poured myself some tequila, cracked open my brand new rule book of Star Wars Age of Rebellion Roleplaying Game and turned on the mic.

I think I’ll have to re-make the character because I’m pretty sure I did the math wrong in my head when I was spending the character creation XP. However, it was fun. Enjoy!

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Episode 329 – Mistborn Adventure Game Review

A couple months ago, I was contacted about the opportunity to try out and review the Mistborn Adventure Game. I didn’t know anything about it at the time, but I agreed out of curiosity and this is the result.

Spoiler: I really dig it. Give the episode a listen to find out why and what’s so special about it! Then, check out the game over on DriveThruRPG.com.

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The State & Future of The ‘Bone

It has been close to nine months since I stopped making regular podcast content. I don’t regret stopping. I do regret tying so much of my own self-worth and identity into the podcast that I created.

It’s been an interesting road to walk, these past few months. I’ve relaxed. I’ve gamed. I’ve gamed some more. I’ve gamed a lot, and, I’ve gotten super busy with family activities. If I hadn’t retired the podcast when I did, I likely would have retired it a few months afterwards due to how busy I got.

Even though life has kept me busy, I’ve made time for gaming. While walking this nine month road, I tried my hand at setting creation, posting the articles here on the site. I tried writing up actual plays based on my home game. I tried my hand at creating YouTube videos, both with my son and by myself. I designed a system and play-tested it with my home group. I ran a full 11 level Shadow of the Demon Lord game! I indulged in the hobby that I love so much.

Playing, planning and running games is what I love and it’s what drew me into podcasting in the first place. Being able to do it as much as I have has been wonderful. But, I don’t feel complete when that’s all I’m doing. Close to it, I suppose, but not complete.

I enjoy creating content for other gamers and I haven’t found a good outlet for that, for me, yet. I’m still experimenting and searching for what to do next. I love creating stories, so perhaps I’ll try writing an adventure.

Thank you all for the wild ride that was the Shark Bone Podcast! I hope you’ll walk the road to the future with me, with all its twists and turns and road signs that seem to lead all places and nowhere all at once.

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