Bronze Rulz!–Bronze-Plated Crafting, Cortex Style

TL;DR: After trying to hack Fate for crafting and nearly breaking it, I re-evaluated my expectations, and jumped off the Fate hacking ship onto the Cortex lifeboat, with a sketch of a crafting mod, and if you don’t care for my geeky reasons, you can jump right to it.

Quite a while ago, I cobbled together a Bronze Rule-based crafting “hack” for Fate (here and here) as game prep for then-Fate Queer Clockpunk Fantasy (QCF). Since then, the QCF campaign moved to Cortex—which has its own Bronze Rule. While crafting was not the motivation for the system swap, it benefited significantly.

Due to Fate’s action economy particulars, engineers and tinkerers—the stars of the QCF cast—could not engage in bronze-rule crafting without serious risks of breaking the game. Cortex’s action economy is more robust, and clockpunk antics could finally take the center stage—between Queerness and Fantasy.

The Cortex toolkit offers a variety of mechanical paths to high-power crafting, and the post’s first part is about finding the right flavor (with some comparisons with Fate). The second has mechanics, and if you’re in it for the Cortex stuff, you can jump right to it.

A final caveat: I kept most of the Fate stuff for a separate post, but if you’re in it for Fate, you can read the first part, jump to the conclusion, peruse it, and decide if you need to backtrack for clarifications.

Dice-rolling and Bronze-plating

My Fate crafting hack was intended to make crafting a high-stake endeavor and give crafted gear narrative heft in service of a cast dominated by engineers and tinkerers. I’ll make no claim that it’s the best general approach because it isn’t. It’s specific.

Some fateful decisions

Paraphrasing (not quoting) Rob Hanz, hacking Fate often caters to preferences other rulesets would satisfy better. Ironically, I thought I was following Rob’s advice but I wasn’t. Fortunately, I know when I’m wrong, and fortunately, too, did not have to look too far from Fate. But, before we get there, let’s talk about preferences.

First, we wanted to turn high-stake crafting into quasi-boss fights with Fate’s Challenges and Contests. We did it, at a cost: fast-paced dice-rolling—while veering to dice-less play. We’d have multiple 3- or 4-hour sessions with one or two rolls, then some high-stake crafting with twice as many rolls in minutes. Nothing game-breaking, but uneven pacing, for sure.

Next, tinkering Challenges and Contests focused on Bronze-Rule NPCs. Unfortunately, bronze-ruled NPCs on the PCs’ side severely disrupt Fate’s action economy. That’s a known issue—not even Bronze Rule-specific—that I failed to properly consider until Rob Hanz rubbed my face in it. The two known solutions are breaking the rules for Big Bads and *cough-cough* using the Bronze Rule sparingly (see The Fine Prints). 

An Equilibrium selection

Our motivation for system diaspora was that Cortex’s dice-rolling mechanics support storytelling differently than Fate’s (see here). Somewhat unexpectedly—but, in retrospect, predictably—Cortex’s storytelling support reversed our dice-rolling preferences. This solved (or, more accurately, dissolved) our pacing problem.

Next, Cortex’s “Bronze Rule” is no threat to its action economy: as Cortex Prime’s head designer Cam Banks puts it, “it’s just how Cortex works” (for the rest of his 100-word history lesson, see that post). The icing on the cake: Cortex can handle high-stake crafting as boss-fighting simpliciter, not “quasi-” ones. So, another pacing and gameplay benefit.

Assuming an n-player coordination game with n agents sharing our gameplay preferences and our ruleset options, there are three equilibria: Fate without a hack, but without the extra crafting; Fate with crafting, and rule-breaking for Big Bads; and: vanilla Cortex. I may be mistaken, but vanilla Cortex looks like the payoff-dominant option. Or maybe the risk dominant option? Whatever, the rational choice.

A Blueprint for Crafting

If you skipped the first part, the crafting system I’m after is geared (I love a terrible pun) towards gameplay that would let engineer and tinkerer PCs engage in the gamut of TTRPGs’ adventures through their craft. Ideally, that should include solving puzzles, fighting “bosses,” going on quests, engaging in negotiations, etc. That’s a lot of stuff to reskin into crafting challenges. So, let’s start small and humble.

The Shortlist

Somewhat arbitrarily, let’s start with a short wishlist of crafting- and engineering activities PCs could engage in. On the top of my head—but with subsequent validation from a QCF player who worked as a production engineer—I’ll go with a shortlist of four.

  • Workbench Tinkering: Home-depot level stuff, plumbing, etc. The absolutely minimal crafting “system” for Cortex. If you don’t want to make crafting a big thing, you could quit reading after that.
  • Research & Development: Crafting “Power Assets”—Assets with multiple Traits—where the difficulty increases with stuff added (capturing “feeping creaturism“).
  • Production/Assembly: Copying tried-and-true designs, working from blueprints, completing projects that become easier as they near completion, optimizing stuff.
  • Reverse Engineering: Getting a Production/Assembly design or a blueprint out of existing stuff, without going through R&D.

There’s no way I’m going to cover all that today in detail, but let’s sketch them one by one.

Workbench Crafting

Cortex’ three resolution systems—testscontests, and action-based resolution (resp. herehere, and here, behind a paywall; free summary of tests here and contests here)—all use the roll-and-keep method with the general rule as follows: 

(R&K) Assemble a dice pool of n dice, then: (1) roll the n dice, discard all 1s; (2) keep and add their display value: that’s your total; and: (3) keep m’ and note the side rating(s): that’s your effect(s).

Barring particular circumstances like special effects (SFX, Talents, etc.), metacurrency spending (Plot Points, Hero Dice, etc.), the typical parameter values are n=3, m=2 and m’=1

(R&K) is all you need for basic crafting: apply (R&K) against a GM-rolled difficulty, and if successful, test-create an m’-rated Asset—or max_size(m’)-rated, if m’>1 (rules, examples, and limitations here, behind a paywall; free summary here, first bullet point). 

If you come from a Cortex background, you saw clear through my obfuscation by parameters, but don’t worry, that’s it for Captain Obvious stuff. If you come from a Fate background, note: no action type needed. In fact, tests work as Attacks, Defenses, Overcome and Create an Advantage, all wrapped in one, depending on context (yes, that’s also a source for the Overcome* idea).

Research & Development

Warning: At the time of writing, the R&D mod is undergoing a test run. Still, I have enough of a “stable beta” to confidently prefix features I believe will survive with a *, while the other may disappear.

  • *Frame: Spend 1 Plot Point (or equivalent) create a “frame” (chassis, whatnot) -Asset to which other traits will be attached. This guarantees that R&D always yields “some” prototype.
  • *Traits: Each Trait is test-created (as per Workbench Crafting), with base difficulty depending on desired Trait type; some existing Traits may add to the difficulty pool to represent feature creep.
  • Complexity/Scale: some die rating(s) representing [something-something-it’s-hard]; could increase the m-average or the absolute value |m| of parameter m for the difficulty (both options currently being tested).
  • *Completion: Optional 1 Plot Point (or equivalent) spending to extend the (completed) Asset to the rest of the session.

That’s far from complete, but should suffice for Cortex-savvy folks to design their own mod, and that’s good enough. I’ll return to it in a future post with data from the test run.

Production & Assembly and Reverse Engineering

I’ll be even sketchier for those last two because although they’re barely first approximation, they are co-opting existing mechanics.

  • Production/Assembly: Most likely, some version of ToX’s Challenges (free access): the task becomes easier over time, as dice are eliminated from the challenge pool. [April 2, 2022 Edit, Suggested by Official Cortex Discord server user @Rhinemann: Challenges are “too active” an opposition for crafting, Crisis Pools are better.]
  • Reverse Engineering: Most likely, some Boss (paywalled) with ad hoc Trait; possibly, tests or contest to reveal the Traits, as with NPC/GMC Trait discovery (in this post).

And, sorry, that’s all I got for now. But there’s some reverse engineering going on in the campaign, so there will be more about that soon.

The Fine Prints

Balancing the Bronze Rule (I): Fate. There’s only so much to do with bronze-rule crafting in Fate without breaking the game because Create an Advantage (CaA) and teamwork can dramatically shift the odds in the players’ favor. As Rob Hanz pointed to me, it’s acknowledged in the ruleset, and the recommended (albeit optional) solution is: to break the rules for Big Bads. Now, bronze-plating crafted gear with Skills and Stunts may sound cool, but if you allow skill rolls, it’s either GM-led NPC-on-NPC action (and who’d want that?) or PCs getting extra actions through NPCs proxies. Either way, it’s worsening the already existing odd-stacking issue and makes rule-breaking less of an option and more of a necessity. If, on the other hand, you don’t allow bronze-plated gear to roll skills, you might just not bronze-rule it at all: vanilla CaA and Aspects with pre-loaded invokes are beneficial enough already. So, the easiest way to balance the Bronze Rule for crafted stuff is not to use it. Now, there’s a partial, Cortex-inspired solution, so let’s get to that. 

Balancing the Bronze Rule (II): Cortex. Cortex’s “bronze rule” predates Fate’s and is just how Cortex’s characterizes stuff through dice-rated Traits, by default. It has none of Fate’s issues with high-powered crafting because crafted gear’s Trait ratings are dice pool builders for the geared-up PC. By (R&K), this only affects the dice pool’s m-average. Now, a player may spend metacurrency to increase m or m’, so having more dice in a pool is potentially beneficial, odds-wise. But even with PCs geared up to the gills and players hoarding metacurrency, there’s still no need for rule-breaking. Limiting crafted gear Traits to substitute character Traits is enough—the way Cortex-based Firefly lets a PC substitute a skill with a ship’s Trait, when relevant. That’s doable in Fate, too (the partial solution foreshadowed earlier). However, there’s still a risk of running afoul of the skill pyramid and causing niche protection issues. It’s not as game-breaking as action-economy disruption, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Wrapping Up: Everything Fate Can Do?

Crafting-wise, the Fate-Cortex comparison may look like the Frank Butler-Annie Oakley duet, with Cortex as Annie. However, it only holds expecting narrative support from mechanics, and that’s not how Fate works. Worse, excess bronze-plating on PCs’ gear risk worsening existing issues—that, to be fair, already have known corrections, especially for Big Bad’s survivability.

Fate bronze-rule crafting would still have legs, provided some balancing (as sketched in The Fine Prints) and perhaps some action economy rebalances that Fate needs anyway. It’s more a matter of best practice than “hacking,” but I’ve neglected the topic, and will address it in a future post. Still, here’s a spoiler: Fate’s vanilla Overcome action deserves some love.

Bronze-plating is useful in any setting to model high-end equipment. It’s doable in Fate—see here for a generic approach, or here for cyberpunk (adaptable to other high-tech). It’s easier in Cortex. But Cortex can also inspire some workarounds for Fate. And that fits the metaphor: after all, Annie made Franck a better person.

And that will be all for today, folks.

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