Thinking about Cortex Plus Action and Magic

Jack The Pumpkin King Avatar

In my free time, I’ve been playing around with the idea of translating Cortex Plus Action into other genres, and I have to say our motto that failure is interesting for the Firefly RPG made me think about how that would work for a dark fantasy or horror scenario. Of course, a Cortex Plus Fantasy system (and other fabulous hacks!) already exists, and that is available in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide. For me, this line of thought is an exercise to bend the confines of Action. Why am I using that as the base? I’ve been neck-deep in the Firefly RPG for months, and my brain tends to be inspired by what I’m working on more than what I read.

Picture a scene where you and your cabal are attempting to perform rituals on All Hallows’ Eve due to the thinning of the veil between worlds. Maybe this grand ritual is to protect an entire town from malevolent spirits. Maybe the spell will unravel the laws of reality and you want to transport the town to the underworld.

In my worlds/settings, whichever world that happens to be, magic always comes at a cost. With this in mind, I was pondering what would happen in a Cortex Plus Action scenario where witches and warlocks collected various elements, tossed them into a cauldron, and the spell-of-their-design would either succeed or fail.

Dice-wise, using Cortex Plus Action as the base, here’s how I envision this would break down. It’s pretty rough since I haven’t playtested this at all, but hopefully you get the gist of where I’m going with this in its very basic form.

Your basic rolls remain the same: Attribute + Skill. Your Distinctions would be Traits D8 that shape the type of witch/wizard you are, and the triggers help you accomplish your goal in that vein. (e.g. You might be an Adept who’s keen on Elemental Magic who’s also an Herbalist.) However, to perform a spell you’re required to use Assets that are part of your stated intent for your roll. Mugwort. Hellsbane. Eye of newt. Etc. The more in line your Distinctions are with your Assets thematically, the more you get to use those dice. For this reason, I’d likely create categories of Assets to use as a guide that may work with various Distinctions representing schools of magic. That’s not to say that creativity shouldn’t be rewarded, but if dice are to be rolled that make sense for the fiction, then I feel the fiction needs to be clearly outlined–and there are a lot of variables to magic systems in general.

When you roll dice to perform a spell, you’re rolling against the laws/fabric of reality. So the GM would pick scene Traits that reflect how challenging it would be to accomplish your task. The scale for difficulty would remain the same, with D12 being the toughest. In some cases, you may also be rolling dice against an opponent of an opposite alignment. Going back to the iconic forces of good vs. evil, for example, you could be rolling dice to shield your entire cabal with a magical defensive barrier while another warlock is trying to set the group on fire with a supernatural form of dragon’s breath. I’ve got a very rough idea that GMCs could be supernatural or biological in nature to flesh out the setting.

Assets are important in my supernatural scenario, and right now I’m thinking they would be assigned to the elements in your spell, with a variable rating. Signature Assets would also have a variable rating, and they align with your goals as well. In a game like this, Assets would cost variable amounts to encourage Asset creation. Two Plot Points might get you one rare D4 Asset, while One PP might get you two D12 commonly found Assets. Similarly, I am also playing around with the idea that some spells yield new Assets when you succeed by 5 or higher, or that you could trade in your variable Assets for a new Asset with a higher die type once per scene. Maybe it’s a 2:1 scenario all the way through. 2D12 Found for 1D10 Common; 2D10 Common/4D12 Found for 1D8 Average and so on.

I imagine Complications that result from your rolls would likely be negative effects from failed rituals when you incorporate those Assets, but might scale more scene-or-setting based when you’re taking other actions that don’t require the use of magic. If you were to roll all 1s, that roll would end in the transformation of the spellcaster to an entity like a poltergeist or some other monster. Hint: I’m really keen on this idea, and want to playtest this further.

Once you’re no longer human, the Distinctions you chose at the start would continue to impact your actions in this state, and would shape how you interact with the living. Though botches might be rare, I’m considering what might happen if the positive aspect of your Distinction was only rolled when you were human, and negatively when you weren’t. Again, you can see how freeform this line of thought is, and why playtesting to work out the kinks would be important.

Now, here’s the tricky part: the Asset/Sig Asset rating. Right now, I’m leaning toward using D4s as rare, unstable, dangerous or poisonous items, whereas more common items come in at a D12. I realize that rating scale is counter-intuitive to how many die ratings normally work, but here’s my thought on this: when you add various elements to perform your spell, success should be easier when you use everyday, commonly found items. It’s only when you pick up and find the rare items that failure becomes interesting, and if you add the wrong element or the stars just aren’t right? Well, that’s when you have a greater chance of your proverbial luck turning sour.

Last but not least? I’d tweak the Lending a Die mechanic to encourage multiple spellcasters to try and pool together Assets and I’d also encourage group usage/creation/trading of available Assets as well. Signature Assets are, to me, something that you use as your lucky charm or part of your ritual that helps distinguish your character, and I rather like that those shouldn’t be shared at the same rating when they’re given to another player. A wand. A cauldron. An amulet. A phylactery. A familiar. Any resulting Complications from a lent die would be an area effect that would impact the whole cabal/coven/circle as opposed to multiplying Complications–with the exception of a botch. IF you are casting a master ritual AND you manage to muck it up so badly that all 1s are rolled? I think those townspeople might have to start running…

Anyway, with Halloween and my novel revisions on my mind this weekend (Can’t you tell I’m starting to hang art up on my walls…FINALLY?) I thought I’d throw out this off-the-cuff train of thought about using Cortex Plus Action in a dark fantasy game. I’m in the mood for magic. Don’t forget! For a finished, polished hack that uses Cortex Plus, be sure to check out the aforementioned Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide and get thee to rolling!

    Mood: Creative!
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: I’m chemicalized.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Um… I’d better get on that!
    In My Ears: Cat. Whining.
    Game Last Played: Age of Reckoning: Kingdoms of Amalur.
    Book Last Read: Re-reading His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman
    Movie Last Viewed: Lucy
    Latest Artistic Project: Um…
    Latest Fiction/Comic Release: Last Man Zombie Standing. See also: need to write more flipping comics and exercise my art skillz again. Feh.
    Latest Game Release: Mortal Remains
    What I’m Working On: Primarily tie-in games work, original comics, and novels.

Progress Report #6: Thar Be Dragons

I’m firing myself when it comes to these progress reports, but for the love of the stars…there’s a good reason why I’ve been fairly quiet on the writerly front.

While the Firefly RPG has been the primary focus for my day job, other projects I lovingly refer to as “zombies” have come back from the dead. Plus? Dragons or more aptly named: a multi-headed hydra who answers to the name Reality. Moving, hospitals, friends…my routine got buggered. Everyone’s doing well, just altered a bit as Lord Lardbottom is beginning to lose his sight (Do they make bifocals for cats?) and other human parts were tinkered with. (Thankfully, not mine as I am not a fan of hospitals in general, but will suck it up if I need to and am able to attend…with vigor.) Still, that doesn’t excuse my lack of bloggery, and I’m beginning to think it’s more valuable for me to write for you here, than Tweet or FB anecdotes. Hrmm…

And now we pause for a moment of discovery. I’m listening to Good Omens in the background for the first time, and ZOMG THERE’S QUEEN IN MY STORY ZOMG!!! A-hem. Yes, *huge* Queen fan. And I’m not sorry about it! Though I should say that singing Fat Bottomed Girls at the top of one’s lungs while driving will entertain shockingly bizarre looks from other drivers.

Annnnnd back to the task at hand. Routine? Yeah, that got shot to hell in some kind of bullet-tested handbasket. Potentially made out of glass, but not sure. So, I’m back to setting goals, to-do lists (it is squamous), and taking it one day at a time. Slow and steady wins the race. Don’t ya love turtles?

The good news about changes in life, the universe, and everything is that my theme song has shifted to the opening sequences for Rawhide. Oh, if ever…I am rollin’, rollin’, rollin’…


My work on roleplaying games since the last progress report which, if I remember correctly, was accessed via a TARDIS. Here’s a status update on where I’m at right now.

  • Firefly RPG – The print edition of the Firefly RPG corebook is now available at a friendly local game store near you. Shiny!
  • Echoes of War: Thrillin’ Heroics – We surprised fans with a print compilation of our first four Echoes of War Episodes, including “Friend in Low Places”, and the Serenity Crew. We sold out at GenCon!
  • Echoes of War: Bucking the Tiger – A digital version of this Episode went live in the month of May as promised!
  • Things Don’t Go Smooth – This book is currently in layout and is slated for a Q4 release. I have a blog post you can read about on the MWP website. Get the lowdown on Things Don’t Go Smooth.
  • Hunter the Vigil: Mortal Remains – This book went live in May. I wrote and designed the interstitial fiction for this supplement; I also edited this book.
  • Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide – I wrote an essay geared for Cortex Classic fans interested in tweaking their sheets for a more cinematic style.
  • Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters – I wrote an essay about worldbuilding by the seat of your pants. Sounds about right, eh? This was released in July.
  • World of Darkness: Dark Eras – Wrote the Hunter: the Vigil supplement for this book for 1690s Colonial America. Threw everything and the kitchen sink into this supplement! It is jam-packed with story.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn RPG – I contributed to the Skaa supplement for this game and Logan Bonner is my developer. It’s still on the schedule; I hope to give you an update on this in the coming months.
  • Vampire the Masquerade: Red List – Working on it! We’re expanding the outline and dumping more into this supplement. Hang in there!
  • Vampire the Masquerade: Ghouls – I’m writing the fiction for this book, which will be edited by my developer. I’m also editing the main text.
  • …and more Firefly and soon-to-be-announced fun!



I am working on three original scripts, one of which I have a publisher for. I pitched to a few publishers and individual writers but haven’t heard anything back. (Yes, I’ve been depressed about the lack of responses.) Instead of waiting and pitching another five years to get a standalone comic published, I’ve decided to move ahead with a pair of scripts. From there, we’ll see. I’m in the project set up phase right now. More to come after some ink is dry! But yes, this is all on spec.


Project set up for a pair of novels I need to finish by the end of the year. A light has opened for my Violet War novel, a possibility I cling to–and it’s rejuvenated me. Short fiction is on hold and I’m putting off revisions for a Lovecraftian novella in favor of my novels. Both are on spec.

My schedule will shift at the tail end of October, but I’m not waiting any longer to start working on these projects. Like Queen Bavmorda oh how I want the darkness to come so I can hibernate in my writer’s tower a touch, but the key word for me right now is finding a work-life balance that’ll support writing my own original work while I get these comics and novels done.

That’s all for now cats and kittens… Hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of “What Monica’s been up to!” and I’ll see you in a new blog post. I’ve got a Cortex Plus Halloween hack I’m mulling over and other hilarity of a funner (artistic) variety.

Because funner is totally a word. Funotally.


[New Release] Echoes of War: Thrillin’ Heroics

Echoes of War Thrillin' Heroics

Howdy Browncoats!

I’m very happy to announce that we will have a new Firefly RPG release coming off press this coming Friday, August 8th, and available for you to order today. Printed copies will be available at Gen Con and then hitting retailers everywhere shortly thereafter. Order from us or your Friendly Local Game Store today and receive the PDF from us for free … TODAY. Just want the PDF? No problem. It’s available now on It’s called Echoes of War: Thrillin’ Heroics and I’m here to tell you all about it!

If you’ve been following our Firefly RPG releases, you might be familiar with our Echoes of War line of individual adventures. To date, we’ve released several individual titles in digital beginning with the Wedding Planners Cortex Classic bundle last summer and ending with Bucking the Tiger this past Spring.

Today, we’re thrilled to announce that we’re releasing our first collection of these Episodes. Echoes of War: Thrillin’ Heroics combines a rundown of our Cortex Plus rules, the first four Episodes, and the Serenity Crew into a shiny new tome. For quality assurance purposes, we did take a gander at the rules that were previously provided, and made a few tweaks to our earlier Episodes.

Here’s what you get in Echoes of War: Thrillin’ Heroics:

  • Basic Rules: Get a condensed overview of the Cortex Plus rules—perfect for first-timers who want to give our system a try!
  • Serenity Crew: Background and rules for the main cast, 12 archetypes, and basic rules for your boat.
  • Wedding Planners: Written by Margaret Weis, this Episode first appeared in the GenCon 2013 Exclusive. Transport Liliana Fairchild to a boat called the Rim’s Dream. Easy enough, right?
  • Shooting Fish: Written by Andrew Peregrine, this Episode first appeared in the GenCon 2013 Exclusive. Get your heartstrings tugged when you try to save an orphanage from a lowdown good-for-nothin’ varmint in a boat race.
  • Friends in Low Places: Written by Monica Valentinelli (that’s me!), you’ll be revisiting Serenity Valley, meeting up with good ole Monty, and turn every which way to uncover a terrible plot.
  • Freedom Flyer: Written by Nicole Wakelin, you’ll be flying high…er…low under the radar when you conduct some thrillin’ heroics to help out Maggie Miller, a mechanic who’s down on her luck.
  • Serenity Schematic: We’ve had so many compliments on Ben Mund’s illustration of the Serenity ship, we decided to include it here for new fans, too!

Excited yet? I didn’t tell you the best part. This collection will be the first Echoes of War release we’re offering in print. The books are being shipped to us as we speak and, with a little luck and few Complications, we’ll have copies available for sale at Gen Con 2014, too.

The print edition of Echoes of War: Thrillin’ Heroics is now available for you to purchase direct from us, through your Friendly Local Game Store, or wherever you buy roleplaying games. As always, we’re excited to honor the MWP PDF guarantee. So if you’re itchin’ to get your hands on a full color, softcover copy of this book? You’ll get the PDF for free today by ordering here or from your Friendly Local Game Store and dropping Margaret Weis Productions a line.

If that ain’t shiny, then I don’t know what is. S-s-s-s-s-surprise! And thanks for being awesome. See you at GenCon!

Originally Posted on

A Fond Farewell to Studio Ghibli


Working on getting ready for GenCon 2014, where we’ll be presenting the Firefly RPG corebook in print. I’m also wrapping up some other gaming supplements that have been sitting on the back burner, and am getting ready to dive into a new (yet announced) edition of an RPG in September. Been scrambling, really, to get caught up after our move and make sure I answer questions as fast as I possibly can. The Firefly RPG fans are reaching out to us every which when they can, and myself and our team have been hitting the forums, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc. and while everybody has been great? I’m ready for some time off from the web, in part because the news has been incredibly depressing lately and it’s hard NOT to see it, even when you’re logging in to answer a few questions.

I suppose any art-related news I share will likely sound anti-climatic given today’s current events, but it does depress me that Studio Ghibli is putting an end to new film production on so, so many levels. I watch a lot of anime, along the lines of Death Note and Ghost in the Shell, and fell in love with Studio Ghibli’s films some time ago, beginning with the first film I saw of theirs, Princess Mononoke. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with Far East myths and legends and really love the growth of characters in these films. It’s sometimes hard for Western audiences to grasp, but often the antagonist (like Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke) isn’t a flat “villain” in the sense that the audience clearly knows/wants this character to get what’s coming to her/him. X-Men’s Magneto is a good Western example; in some cases he’s clearly rendered as “the” character to bring down. In others, you sympathize and even want him to survive. Not to get too off-topic, but in strange writerly facts I’m obsessed with martial arts films(1), too. I also have a kodama on my netbook and more collectibles than I care to admit. *fist bump*

Totoro Screencap

Though they do have films in their catalog that are more eastern, like the fairy tale Spirited Away and From Up On Poppy Hill, the company has also adapted books to animation, like the amazing Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Ghibli’s attention to artistic details, which employ traditional animation visuals, has turned me into a huge fan.(3) What this news means for the future of 2D animation I’m not really sure, but I do hope that 2D animation won’t be totally replaced by 3D modeling. What can I say? 3D modeling and digital animation has greatly improved over the years, but I’m in love with brushstrokes and line art. I much prefer to see the artistry than a sterile, perfect rendering. Art is my religion.

soot sprites

Studio Ghibli, in my mind, is the reason why more people here in the states have become familiar with anime in general. I can only imagine the studio’s impact and popularity in Japan and how this news is being received fans over there–maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to travel and visit the Studio Ghibli Museum. Regardless, the films are all exemplary(3) in my mind and I’m sure I’ll enjoy them for years to come. Just very, very sad that there won’t be anymore.

Kodama Screen Cap

(1) As my memory is shot, I don’t really remember titles or *gasp* names unless I write them down immediately before or after. See also: this is the reason why I am surrounded by notebooks. Tsui Hark is one director I follow, though.

(2) Note that I opted for a screencap from Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro in this post.

(3) Ayup. Fan art may be in my future.

UPDATE: A reader on Google+ shared this new article with me. Seems there might be more to the story here. Studio Ghibli Is Not Dead Yet

    Mood: Wait. It’s Monday, again? WTF’ery is this?
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: There is not enough chemically-induced lifts created in the history of mankind to get me through to today.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Well, I unloaded more boxes. You know, because unpacking is work.
    In My Ears: That shocked sound you make when you realize you left the air conditioning on all night.
    Game Last Played: Age of Reckoning: Kingdoms of Amalur.
    Book Last Read: Re-reading His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman
    Movie Last Viewed: Spirited Away
    Latest Artistic Project: Making gifts.
    Latest Fiction/Comic Release: Last Man Zombie Standing. See also: need to write more flipping comics and exercise my art skillz again. Feh.
    Latest Game Release: Mortal Remains
    What I’m Working On: Primarily tie-in games work, original comics, short stories, and novels.

So About That T-Shirt

Gromit Reading Avatar

You know how it goes. You think you’ve got a MASSIVE BRAIN with THOUSANDS OF NEURONS and you’re going to IMPRESS EVERYONE with your AWESOME BLOG POST and your BRAIN POWAH! Nada. Giant brains are meh and so 1890s…and this makes me die a little. Well, a lot but so it goes.

I posted a selfie (this was a feat in and of itself, as I suck at taking selfies and almost always get an elbow all twisted or squinchy face) and got lots of compliments on earrings, T-shirt, and smile. Yes, I have teeth and shockingly–not pointy! Hair is non-existent as I have a bad hair day at least six times a week. It’s a sentient being that has a mind of its own–at least it’s not vampiric. Because vampiric hair would be very messy. GAH. Have vampires on the brain again. Must stop now while I’m a head. *You may groan now.*

Here it is:

Bad Hair New Glasses

To give credit where credit is due<---muy importante---the T-shirt is from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, of which I am a PROUD supporter. Spotted the awesome T on Twitter (I believe it was a photo opp with the illustrious Neil Gaiman) and was pointed to the store. Ergo? One of these is now in my possession. I wore it to the grocery store and people smiled back at me. Kind of freaked me out. See also: Things You Should Know About Introverts numbers 2, 5, and 8. That day, anyway.


The enamel earrings I made from a shaggy chainmaille kit by Unkamen Supplies. (They also have an Etsy store). Chainmaille, as it turns out, is the one type of jewelry making that my feline overlords will not mess with and it’s fairly therapeutic in a non-habit forming way. Well, provided I can bend the loops right anyway. They F-bomb with e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Bastards.

That’s it for today’s edition of Life in the Writer’s Lanes, otherwise known as Mundania. Peace out.

    Mood: Caffeine… CAFFEINE…
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: Caffeine… I needs it. I wants it. My presshusssss…
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: There were stairs. I did them.
    In My Ears: That shocked sound you make when you realize you left the air conditioning on all night.
    Game Last Played: Age of Reckoning: Kingdoms of Amalur. Hot on the heels of these crazy-ass beasty looking things with crystals coming out of their backs.
    Book Last Read: Re-reading His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman
    Movie Last Viewed: Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
    Latest Artistic Project: Been touching up things around the house. Does that count? And technically, you’re looking at it. No not the post, the earrings I mean.
    Latest Fiction/Comic Release: Last Man Zombie Standing. See also: need to write more flipping comics and exercise my art skillz again. Feh.
    Latest Game Release: Mortal Remains
    What I’m Working On: Primarily tie-in games work, original comics, short stories, and novels.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.


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