Cortex-U–Dice Pool Stories 101: A Practical Introduction

TL;DR: “Roleplay, not roll play” is a thing, but not in Cortex Prime. Dice-based roleplaying is a skill though, with a learning curve, and those Cortex-U lecture notes should flatten it somewhat.

Some folks oppose “roleplay” and “roll-play.” With systems that don’t collapse play toward the conversation, rolling the dice may force players to interact with increasingly deeper layers of rules. Not ideal for “roleplay” as playing a role, or being “in character.” I get it. I’m not stupid.

But I am stubborn. The “roleplay, not roll-play” thingamajig is not an argument. At best, it’s in good faith, but it’s still thinking-in-a-box or putting personal preferences on a pedestal. There’s nothing wrong with that, but dice-rolling is the wrong tree to bark at. At worst, it’s bullshit (in the technical sense).

I’ve half-baked that point once. Since then, I’ve gathered enough material for an introduction on how to roleplay with the dice in Cortex Prime. Yup, boldface plus highlight, I know. But I could have used italics, too. Also, this inaugurates the Cortex U Player Track.

I’ll start with an example, generalize, and wrap up with a short practice section. All the theory works in the background. There’s a Q&A at the end: if any of what I wrote above bugs you, you can check it first. Otherwise, you can proceed.

Lecture Notes #1: the importance of player skills

Consider the example in Fig. 1 (unpacked here). The player who wrote it is in the same situation as the fictional interlocutor of Q3 in the Q&A section: they don’t like to roll dice much but stick with the game because they like the company. Also, they’re a born storyteller. So, they adapted their skillset to Cortex.

Fig. 1. High-skill dice story.

For comparison, Fig. 2a is my PC in a Sumerian high-fan game, unhappy with a flight of imps (freshly summoned by another PC), yet making the best of the situation, boosting the imps’ clue-gathering as they negotiate with their summoner. In boldface are the distinction, move, power, and approach used (resp.; 1st, 2nd, and 4th were prime sets). Fig. 2b shows roll and results: a success with 8-sided asset I forgot to name and bookkeep, an and stepped-up stress the GM bookkept (2c).

So, I did a hack job at feeding back rolls into the chat and in the bookkeeping (players were responsible for asset management in the game), but the GM eventually caught up and gave Ibbi-Shahan maybe not bang for, but some change on, his magic buck (2d).

Lecture Notes #2: When RP Counts

Here’s a different example, from a more experienced GM and player. The game is an adult entertainment play-by-post game about furries. Don’t worry; everything is SFW—but Lecture Notes #3 if you’re triggered by mildly-suggestive language. There’s a particular point to this particular example, but it requires a bit of a built-up, so bear with me. First, the slideshow, Fig. 3.

So, the slideshow is a 3-round contest. I don’t particularly trust the accessibility functions to pick my alternate text, so there’s a transcript below. I find it more elaborate than my Ibbi-Shahan monologue, but I’ll let you judge. The pool (3b) shows the strategizing: a contest is an escalation, so it’s okay to “start low” and build metacurrency.

Walking alongside the vixen, Rory could hardly restrain her corrupt hero appetites (Hinder), maintaining her defenses while she’d rather have tussled right there and then with the furry witch, and summoning her willpower—not her strongest suit—to resist the temptations her own mind presented her.

Unfortunately for Rory’s player, the GM really packed the witch’s pool (3c, transcript below). I would have objected to adding a challenging difficulty to a fully-fledged GMC—what looks like a full docket of prime sets and a power and signature asset, I’d wager—but not my game, not my rules. Notice the touch of meta-irony at the end, and the bonus RP in the dice-bot feed (3d).

The witch just kept talking casually. Her body language, her subtle expressions, her Mesmerizing presence were a different story though. Her Personality was a Manipulative one, challenging Rory to keep her head straight while they went. That was the Tricky thing about Enchantments. You often didn’t know they were being cast on you until it was already too late to resist.

I would have objected to the Doom-Pool-boosted GM’s total—the official PP-equivalent is a 6-sided die, minimum—but Rory’s player roleplayed the defeat graciously (3e, transcript below).

Mesmerized, Rory made a feeble attempt at resisting the witch’s spell.
Sure, it’s a spell. It’s not just me… 

The player’s mechanical choice is unusual but plays the odds: instead of giving in for one plot point, they rolled with Hinder, hoping for a hitch, and potentially two plot points (the GM told me they always buy hitches). Also, appreciate the meta “it’s just me” matching the Hinder.

And now, for what I’ve been holding on to. ERP (Erotic Role Playing), is all about playing a role. So, if roll-play were hurting roleplay, this game would not even exist. Unlike Paul (Fig. 1), these guys genuinely have fun making strategic decisions about their dice. It does not impair their roleplay—even the NSFW stuff they did not share.

Even as a Cortex aficionado, I was skeptical when first hearing about Cortex-based ERP. These guys’ gameplay changed my mind and confirmed that “dice pool stories” are viable in roleplay-rich environments. I incorporated quite a lot of their parallel discovery in the games I GM.

Lecture Notes #3: Practice

The original version of dice pool stories was tailored for asynchronous PbP (Fig. 1 and here). The second was a partial normalization of the Queer Clockpunk Fantasy campaign addressing a communication hurdle presented in this post. I took a page from the ERP guys to make dice pool stories a thing (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. A Vote of confidence.

The poll in Fig. 4 came with comments scattered elsewhere on the server that I’ll streamline into a numbered list: dice pool story (DPS) is a mini-story of a couple of sentences that:

  1. declare a PC’s intent for an upcoming roll (test or a contest);
  2. list PCs’ traits going into a pool (with SFXs modifying it in brackets)
  3. provide minimal context for the traits’ selection.

While (1)-(3) are fairly obvious from examples of #2, (2) assumes that traits have been chosen already without indicating how to choose them. So it’s as applicable as the Gerasimov Doctrine or Beau’s Investment Advice™.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround: the following exercises will help you develop trait-selection skills.

Exercise 1: Distinctions

Assume a Cortex Prime PC (from any build) and a situation. Consider the Distinction set {D1, D2, D3} and ask yourself: Which is most appropriate to the context of the situation…
(a) … between D1 and D2?
(b) … between D1 and D3?
(c) … between D2 and D3?
Then, order D1, D2, and D3 from least to most appropriate. If there is a tie, choose at random. Finally, ask yourself: Is this Distinction helpful? If it is, select it. Else Hinder it.

This exercise was proposed by Cortex-U Serious-Sounding-Title-Pending Lynn Jones and intentionally worded such that you’d Hinder often: if a trait is applicable but neutral, you’d Hinder it because it isn’t helpful. The next exercise is more complex and can be very tiresome with large sets, but it will prompt a few useful questions.

Exercise 2: Any Prime Set

Assume a Cortex Prime PC (from any build) and a situation. Consider a Prime Set {T1, …, Tn} and eliminate any Ti that does not fit. Then pick two T, T’ at random and ask:
Q) Which is better suited for the situation, T or T’?
If T is better than T’, eliminate T’; if T’ is better than T, eliminate T; if they are equally suited, keep one and set the other aside, pick some T”, and ask (Q) with the one you kept and T”. If you keep T”, eliminate the one you set aside (because if T” is better than the one you kept, it’s also better than the one you set aside). Otherwise, set it aside, and continue until you’re tired of that shit and pick a trait.

ASK FOR HELP sends you to Cortex U’s #x01-exercise-channel on The Dirty Window Discord server and grants you temporary membership. Read the pinned post on the channel for instructions on how to ask questions and don’t hesitate to ping @CU Staff.

Wrapping Up: Cortex Roll-play is a skill, learn it!

The Cortex Prime Game Handbook (CPGH) does not teach dice-based storytelling skills explicitly: it assumes folks will pick them up by themselves. Still, there’s enough material in the book to learn how to do it. Think about it: I picked it up and formalized it in my first hack, the ERP guys developed it on their own for *ahem* roleplay, and I’m sure similar habits develop spontaneously in all sorts of Cortex games.

Still, some folks, who keep thinking in the roleplay-not-roll-play box and play Cortex for whatever reason (see Q&A, Q3), may fail to pick up the skill. For them, playing Cortex can become a frustrating experience. Hopefully, these lecture notes will have helped them.

And that will be all for today’s lesson. Class dismissed, folks.

Q1:You said that “roleplay, not roll-play” is not an argument. What if I think it is? And a good one, to boot?
Well, it’s not even a sentence. So, at best, it’s a shorthand for the conclusion of a longer argument. Let’s assume the conclusion is: “rolling the dice too often distracts from playing one’s character.” It’s too vague without specifying a system, so we need to pick one. If we pick D&D, Pathfinder, GURPS, or Fate, there’s an argument to that conclusion. Not if it’s Apocalypse World or Cortex Prime. So, if you had a system in mind, and if it were one for which the conclusion holds, I’d say: “you’re correct.” Otherwise, I’d say: “you’re not.”

Q2:You said that “roleplay, not roll-play” is bullshit. Why?
I said: “at worst.” Then, the usual reason for bullshit applies: it’s a misrepresentation of intentions with an ulterior motive. Folks who hate D&D will bitch about rolling dice to bring their pet peeve in conversation. Folks who want you to play their favorite system with fewer dice-rolling than yours will do something similar. That’s “bullshit” in the technical sense.

Q3: What if I just don’t like dice rolls?
That’s a tricky one. Ideally, you shouldn’t play Cortex Prime—there are plenty of TTRPGs without dice rolls—but playing any TTRPG is a “social choice.” If you’re compromising personal preferences to stick with a group that plays Cortex Prime, because you like them enough to put up with the system, the lecture notes and exercises may help you make the best of your circumstances. Otherwise, you should try to convince them to play another game.

Q4: What about “roleplay” as in-character player-to-player interaction?
Good point. Also: one not addressed in these lecture notes. It’s an advanced topic and an issue for any system where mechanics have conversation triggers. The best way to address it would be to compare Cortex Prime with Apocalypse World. Here’s a short version: AW’s Mistress of Ceremony should interrupt P2P interaction on a possible trigger for, say, seduce or manipulate or read a person, if only to let players reformulate and avoid a roll. The MC may choose not to do it, but it’s a “social choice” compromise. Cortex Prime has way more potential triggers than AW, but the Game Moderator also has more leeway to ignore them. In both cases, ignoring triggers compromises emergent gameplay, to the benefit of the flow of conversation. Which is beyond this introduction.

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