Cortex-U–Threats 101: A Practical Introduction

TL;DR: Apocalypse World’s Threat and Cortex Prime GMCs have a lot in common, and there are benefits to getting them even closer, which this lesson spells out, inaugurating Cortex U’s GM track.

Apocalypse World’s Threats translate traditional NPCs and generalize them to groups, locations, and natural (or unnatural) disasters, giving to all impulses and moves to simplify game prep and in-game improvisation.

Cortex Prime Game Master Characters (GMCs) translate traditional NPCs (Minor & Major) and generalize them to Mobs, Bosses, Factions & Orgs, and have Crisis Pools for natural (or unnatural) disasters, giving to all dice-rated traits to simplify game prep and in-game improvisation.

Cortex Prime can turn GMCs into Threats by adding explicit impulses and moves—I’ve sketched a translation scheme once—and capturing their “narrative triggers.” Accordingly, this lesson covers how to prep and use Apocalypse World-style Threats in Cortex Prime and inaugurates our GM Track.

I’ll start with the conversion of impulses and moves, discuss the in-game Threat introduction, throw some exercises in for good measure, and wrap up. All the analysis works in the background, but there’s a Q&A at the end. If anything I wrote above bugs you, you can check it first. Otherwise, you can proceed.

Lecture Notes #1: Defining Threats

AW is a system coming with built-in constraints on the setting the players will evolve in. Among these constraints are the available player characters (PCs), specified by the playbooks; the actions PCs can take given by the moves; and the challenges PCs may encounter, given by the Threats. For each Threat, the Mistress of Ceremony gets to choose (Fig 1):

  • a kind (once) among seven options: Warlords, Grotesques, Afflictions, Brutes, Landscapes, Terrains, and Vehicles (AW 2E, p. 108);
  • a sub-kind (once), among six options, each with a different impulse—often, “to [verb]” or “to [verb] and [verb]”—for each kind; and:
  • a move (whenever) either mechanical—“push [move],” and a PC rolls move—or narrative—the MC narrates the move when the opportunity arises, for instance when a PC rolls a 6- with a “prepare for the worst” result.

The description and cast are self-explanatory. The stakes, “a question or two about the fate of the threat” (AW:115); the mini-map, relating the Threat to the PCs and other Threats; and the countdown clock, “a reminder […] that your threats have impulse [to act] and to respond coherently to others’” (AW:117), are beyond this introduction.

Next, consider a Grotesque, who, given an opportunity, can attack someone from behind or otherwise by stealth (Fig. 1b). The attack may succeed automatically or the MC may “put it in the player’s hands,” an MC move (AW 2E:87). This requires a custom move, and I made one for Monk, a grotesque pain addict with the seek pain impulse (AW 2E:115), in this post (Fig. 1c).

You can easily obtain an AW-style Threat in Cortex Prime by giving the impulse a dice rating, and if necessary, useful, or fun, give the move a die rating or an SFX. I did that for Monk (Fig. 1d), which generalizes. This does not necessarily work to translate AW Threats, though (see #3: Exercise 1).

You can interpret the impulse-move as a mental list of “if… then…” conditions, where the if-part is a trigger for a move if the circumstances match the GMC’s impulse, and the then-part is the description of an action. This notion may be formalized, assuming adequate prime sets (see #3, Exercise 2).

Lecture Notes #2: Introducing Threats

Keeping a mental list of if-then puts you in the right frame of mind to use Threats: you are on the lookout for circumstances that warrant Threats’ introduction based on their impulses. But you may want to go one step beyond and mechanize the introduction of Threats.

Threat introduction in AW is often a response to the PCs’ actions, partially mechanized with the notion of MC’s hard moves, played when a PC’s roll results that ask them to “prepare for the worst.” Cortex Prime can emulate hard moves with a Doom Pool, as follows.

  • If the GM buys a hitch and:
    • [die]-[Threat] is around;
    • the circumstances would trigger [die]-[Threat]’s impulse; and:
    • the hitched die rating is the same as [die];
  • Then the GM can introduce [die]-[Threat] instead of adding the die to the Doom Pool.

If you are not using a Doom Pool, you can use the “GM SFX” below.

Hard move (SFX): Spend 1 PP to buy a player’s hitch and introduce a Minor Threat with a single trait a the hitched die’s rating.

hard move is functionally equivalent to a Doom Pool if-then trigger-buy but also works without the Doom Pool. If you don’t want to keep a “GM character file,” with GM SFXs, you can use a hard move as a Scene Distinction SFX, to introduce a GMC in a given scene. 

Lecture Notes #3: Practice

Threats may be straightforwardly defined if they clearly fit one of the Cortex Prime categories—Mobs, Bosses, Factions & Orgs, and Crisis Pools. Others require more imagination. The exercise below will flex and then stretch your imagination muscle.

Exercise 1: Translating Threats

Below are seven randomly picked Threats from AW’s categories (by my daughter, rolling a D6). How would you translate them into Cortex Prime GMCs? Give as much or as few details as you want, and don’t forget that you can use Crisis Pools and SFXs
(a) Warlord: Alpha wolf (impulse: to hunt and dominate)
(b) Grotesque: Disease vector (impulse: craves contact, intimate and/or anonymous)
(c) Affliction: Sacrifice (impulse: to leave people bereft)
(d) Brutes: Cult (impulse: to victimize & incorporate people)
(e) Landscape: Furnace (impulse: to consume things)
(f) Terrain: Shifting ground (impulse: to cost someone their bearing)
(g) Vehicle: Wild [your choice of vehicle type] (impulse: to defy danger)

Exercise 2 is best as a buddy/team activity and assumes that you’re done with Exercise 1. It should give you a bit of practice with mental Threat gymnastics with hypotheticals.

Exercise 2: Threats Hypotheticals

The two Prime Sets from @Rhineman’ Cortex game The Adept are as follows:
Approaches: Flair (style & panache), Focus (carefully planned execution), Force (brute strength, no subtlety), Guile (stealth and deceit), Haste (quick and dextrous movement), and Wits (complex problem-solving).
Moves: Assess, Defend, Engage, Influence, Support, and Unleash.
With or without looking at Apocalypse World’s Threat moves, Buddy up, and ask your partner for circumstances, then imagine one if-then for one of (a)-(g) in Exercise 1, of the form:
If [circumstances specified by your Buddy] would hold then [Threat} would [Move] with [Approach].
Then switch roles: give them a situation and ask them for an if-then. Continue until each of you has come up with at least one if-then for each of the Threats, or until you decide to quit and go play for real.

Despite its formulation, Exercise 3 is less about balance per se as it is about being aware of trade-offs when making rule determinations, or house rules. In fact, the exercise is about reflecting upon Cortex’s flexibility in how you adjust its dials—not about finding optimal solutions. The compromise of Part II is just that: a compromise, not an optimized solution.

Exercise 3: Threat Introduction Conditions

Part I: Consider the hard move GM SFX, and find arguments:
(Pro) “Hard Move (SFX) is balanced”: find (at least) one mechanic in CPGH that is the same as hard move.
(Contra) “Hard Move (SFX) is not balanced”: find a mechanic in CPGH suggesting that hard move is “too” hard.

Part II: Propose a compromise solution based on the arguments (Pro) and (Contra).

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: Manage your Threats!

Threats-introduction moves in AW are necessary: since the MC does not roll dice, some of her actions can succeed by fiat, and triggers for hard moves are part of checks and balances. Cortex Prime does not need checks and balances, so why introduce them? Well, anticipating possible GM moves can (or could) make is an incredible tension-builder.

Do players see a GM adding decahedra in a Doom Pool? They prepare their response for the GM splitting the party. A pair of dodecahedra? Any scene can now end without warning. Threats add to the collection of little Damocles swords the GM can hang over the PCs’ heads without being too arbitrary.

They can also keep the world together, at least narratively, because they would act with their own impulses, moves, and agendas if the PCs did not interfere. That will be the topic for future lessons.

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

Q1: Apocalypse World and Cortex Prime are really different games, why compare them?
Well, if the argument about Threats and GMCs extending NPCs, in the same way, is not enough, what about Cam Banks himself: “D. Vincent Baker has an excellent turn of phrase: “Play to find out what happens.” This is a good mantra for Cortex Prime and reminds us that the game is collaborative and full of discovery.” (CPGH:120) Threats and Threat maps are essential to “play[ing] to find out what happens,” so Cortexifying threats is just following in Cam Banks’ footsteps. Next question?

Q2: Okay, but AW’s Mistress of Ceremony never rolls the dice and CP is all about dice pools, what about that?
Well, if the argument about Threats and GMC extending NPCs, in the same way, is not enough, what about D. Vincent Baker himself: “A lot of Apocalypse World’s design comes directly from […] Storming the Wizard’s Tower [that] used opposed d6 pools: […] Apocalypse World doesn’t use opposed die pools [because] we kept working on Storming the Wizard’s Tower for a while after we started work on Apocalypse World, and I wanted to keep them separate in my head.” So, here: it’s an accident of the system (#6), not something essential. Next question?

Q3: Why are stakes, maps, and countdown clocks beyond the scope of this introduction?
First, because I say so, I’m the instructor, and you could trust me to pick the topics. But, hey, critical thinking, I get it. So, here are my reasons. Informal stakes (questions you scribble), an informal map (a doodle), and an informal countdown (a mental list of “if… then…” where the “if…” are specific trigger events) are scheming with Threats, and that’s beyond this introduction. Formal stake, maps, and countdowns would be ad hoc scheming Cortex mods for an AW port. That’s beyond this introduction, and possibly for the Design track, not the GM track.

Q4: Did you forget that Threats are not necessarily hostile?
No. I intentionally left that implicit. Threats are potentially hostile, so a Threat introduced by the Doom Pool or hard move can act as an ally (e.g., lend a die to the PCs) just as easily as an opponent. If you use it as a Scene Distinction SFX, you might want to rename it accordingly. Still, a PC Plot Point buy may make sense even for hostile GMCs—say to lure them into the open. But that’s an advanced topic.

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