Cortex/Apocalypse–Cortex Got Moves

TL;DR: This post turns Apocalypse World’s moves into a Cortex Prime gameplay trick to make dice-rolling even more narrative, and if you don’t care for the reasons, you can jump right to it.

Apocalypse World (AW) and Cortex Prime (CP) share more similarities than meet the naked eye. It’s a leitmotiv of this blog. I usually leave differences out though: I work around them if I’m looking for commonalities and cross-pollination. But today, I won’t because I’m zeroing in on the heart of AW (and the “Powered by the Apocalypse” school of design): moves.

Moves have pros and cons, but that’s a matter of preference and I don’t put mine on a pedestal. Still, this post caters to particular playstyle preferences—I’m just not saying they’re anything special. So, if you don’t like AW gameplay, do yourself a favor, and quit reading.

If you’re still here: there’s a full conversion of AW to CP in the background of this post, but it leaves most of its details out. I cover specific goals briefly, as they inform a CP build design. If you skip that, you’ll miss out on reasons, but the rest is reasonably self-contained, so you can jump right to it.

Cortex, by Way of an Apocalypse

A couple years back, I played an Apocalypse World mini-campaign with an experienced MC and a newbie player. A while later, both jumped the Cortex bandwagon in games I run, and I fancied leveraging the experience. We used to roll moves often back then, so CP’s dice-rolling frequency was not a major issue. But when to roll and how to build a pool were minor ones. So I reminisced and came back with a Cortex hack.

Apocalypse Roll-Play

Picture a small town in rural Argentina or Brasil—we were never too specific—in the early 1990s, after a socio-economic collapse and a psychic maelstrom. Here’s the pitch.

Somewhere in town, there’s an old-timer who owns a VHS and a tv set, locked in a room with a fucking padlock. He spends his days pumping iron—man, he’s huge, must be juicing like crazy—but on occasion, if you catch him at the end of his biceps routine and drop jingle in his callused palm, he’ll open the room for you. He’ll even pull a comfy chair and bring you a beer if he feels generous. Then, you’ll get to watch what’s still watchable of the only videotape he owns.

The Predator. 

It’s been played so many times that most of it is just a blur with audio. Nobody really cares, anyway, most folks just stay for the first five minutes or so, until they can hear: “Dillon, you son of a bitch!—and if your biceps are big enough, the old-timer will let you play the scene out with him. If they ain’t, tough luck, it’s just Schwarzie’s voice.

But let’s be honest: with a line like that, who cares about the view?

“Dillon, you son of a bitch!” (Game pitch)

Also in town, two guys operate the best drug den around, offering sex and cage fights as side attractions: Ice-T (a Maestro D’, Fig. 1a) and T-Rey (a Gunlugger, Ice-T’s muscle, Fig. 1b). They decide to upgrade their booze game, but the crew of the best booze-serving dive in town doesn’t fuck around. They find a booze supplier, take over the competition hostile-like—and in so doing, discover the wolves of the maelstrom’s pawprints.

Then, life happened—leukemia, COVID-19, that kind of shit—and we never met the wolves, but the experience remained: a first foray into narrative TTRPGs with move-heavy roleplay (and thus, roll-play).

  • The MC loved hitting PCs’ and MC’s move triggers as fiction generators because that’s how GURPS (the MC’s background) uses them—if you have no idea what I’m alluding to, GURPS has moves.
  • Ice-T’s player loved hitting Maestro D’s move triggers on his own: he leaned into the PC’s stereotype and could not have enough of 7-9 complications and 6- “prepare for the worse.”
  • T-Rey’s player (me) loved hitting Gunlugger’s move triggers for sheer badassness—although I tended to play T-Rey with flair, and in retrospect, should have made him a Battlebabe.

Cortexifying the Apocalypse

A couple years later, my erstwhile Apocalypse World MC joined the Queer Clockpunk Fantasy game, and Ice-T’s player jumped the VTT bandwagon for a Cortex Prime game, and there were good reasons to revisit our AW-style gameplay in both cases.

  • My erstwhile MC is neuroatypical: when trait selection is not obvious, their brain tries to visualize all possible combinations of all possible traits’ interpretations to pick a dice pool most compatible with the context. That’s a very large search space and a slow-as-fuck brute-force algorithm. Also a sure-fire recipe for not enjoying the game.
  • Ice-T’s player wanted a gonzo game where he’d play a version of himself: he bought into Cortex’s success-with-complication hook, line, and sinker, so Cortex it would be. But he’s the closest to a real-life Battlebabe and intended to play one “by the playbook.” So there needed to be a playbook he could play by.

Beyond that, I had an ulterior motive: convince my former MC to reboot “Dillon, you son of a bitch!” game in Cortex Prime. So, reasons to build moves for both PC and GM-MC into Cortex. GM-MC moves are quite involved, so that’s for another day (but there’s a sample one here). But PC moves? Easy as pie.

Cortex Got Moves

If you missed the first part, here’s the TL;DR: I have anecdotal reasons to port Apocalypse World’s moves into Cortex, as pre-defined yet flexible dice pools blueprints. I’ll give two illustrations: from-the-ground-up and off of an existing build.

Moves (I): From the Ground Up

A key component of AW is the moves’ narrative triggers. The “Dillon, you son of a bitch!” reboot doubles down on the idea with:

  • AW’s original moves’ as narrative triggers to assemble dice pools; and:
  • dice-pool write-up embeds in the moves’ narrative descriptions. 

The hack uses Distinctions, Affiliations (Solo, Leader, Support, Partner), and the original AW Attributes: Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp, and Weird. I’ll illustrate embeds with Attributes and basic moves—Affiliations are only constrained in Battle moves (peripheral), and they’re a can of worms I don’t care to open just yet.

  1. “You’re coming in on [Attribute] = assemble a dice pool with [Attribute].
  2. “You’re coming in on [Attribute]-er = assemble a dice pool with [Attribute], and step up or double your [Attribute].
  3. “You’re coming in on [Attribute], and then some = assemble a dice pool with [Attribute], add a D6, and step up your effect.
  4. “You crushed it = the difficulty was beaten by 5 or more (Heroic success).

The slideshow below displays the Battlebabe’s “playbook” character file recto (2a) and verso (2b) from the best character file creator ever and zooms in on the short write-ups for the basic moves (2c) and the Battlebabe Moves (2d)—double trait are one-time options for character creation: a 10-side Attribute (resp.: Affiliation) costs a 4-side (6-side) one. (At writing’s time, still a WIP; hit The Dirty Window‘s game’s channel for updates.)

Dangerous & Sexy (2d) mixes hack-specific jargon—come in on, crush it, small fry (minor GMC), and big fucking deal (major GMC)—with standard Cortex terminology (test) and in-game stuff such as Frozen and Target on Your Back (complications on opponent and player, resp.). There’s a point. Below is the long-form that mentions the effect explicitly.

Dangerous & SexyCome in on hot into a charged situation with a test against the first sucker making eye contact with you. If you succeed, ask the MC if they’re small fry or a big fucking deal. If the former, they’re as good as taken out until you say they ain’t anymore; if the latter, they’re Frozen stiff until they fight it or snap out of it. If you’ve crushed it, you can forfeit your effect step-up to try and do it again with another sucker. If you fail, tough luck: there’s a Target on Your Back.)

And now, for the point. If, in the middle of a game, a bunch of skinheads barges into the soup kitchen where Yonas “Silverback” the Battlebabe works, and Yonas’ player is, “Hey, I’m going dangerous & sexy on their ass!“—I could ask them:

  1. Are you being dangerous-dangerous (Distinction 1), looking for trouble (Distinction 2), or just showing off (Distinction 3)?
  2. You want all eyes on you (Solo), show who’s boss (Leader), buddy up (Partner), or back someone’s play (Support)?”

The answers and the move write-up give the dice pool and rules to apply. Even better, if the context rules out options—nobody is making a play, or there’s no one to boss around or buddy up with—I can ask (1) and then, “Sure, knock yourself out, all eyes are on you“: all the dice-play occurs parallel to the conversation, and the 4th wall never breaks.

Moves (II): From existing

“Dillon, you son of a bitch!” leans heavily on collapsing-towards-the-conversation, with situations constraining dice pools in that build, more than how PCs approach them, for fast-paced gameplay. Still, more drama-oriented builds, such as the Distinctions-Values-[X] prime sets, as in the recently published Tales of Xadia (with X=Attributes) can benefit from “moves.” I don’t play it, so I’ll use my Queer Clockpunk Fantasy instead (with X=Actions, fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Smaerte, a gender-swapped tough guy based on Munroe Hutchens.

Distinction-Value builds focus on the PC personality and motives. Subsequently, any given situation may be compatible with multiple combinations of motives. Smaerte (Fig. 3) is intentionally stereotypical: a gender-swapped “tough guy” with Values modeled after Munroe Hutchens (from Undisputed; the Generosity is for how he negotiates his fee):

  • her Distinctions are vague and thus broadly applicable, 
  • her Value statements broaden the interpretation of the values.

In an ambiguous situation, brute-forcing a selection would require up to eighteen combinations, and we’re not even talking about SFXs. And before you go, “who does that?” please remember my erstwhile AW MC and that autistic folks play Cortex, too.

Assuming: (a) that a Cortex character sheet is a love letter to the GM; and: (2) that the GM is a fan of the PCs, there should be recurring circumstances with straightforward choices for Smaerte. For instance, sometimes, Smaerte’s a badass protecting her teammates. Consider the write-up below.

When Smaerte is taking one for the team, she’s laughing in the heat of battle and readying herself to generously move between her friends and harm’s way, take one thousand cuts and be the toughest bitch in town, even [fight/endure] if need be, until her friends reach safety.

Dice pool: 5d8 (The Last Laugh, Generosity, 2xMove from Heat of Battle, “One Thousand Cuts?”); possibly 1-2d10 (Fight/Endure), 1dX (Toughest bitch in town, Harmed or Tired)
Cost: 1/2/3 Plot Points (adding one or two extra Actions, or Harmed/Tired stress, or any combination thereof).

Then again, at other times, Smaerte will just be picking fights to show who’s boss because she’s tough, proud, and wants to earn the bragging rights oh! so bad.

When Smaerte wants to earn the bragging rights in a duel oh! so bad, she’s showing off her blade-master training, fighting to dominate her opposition—and does not care much for flesh wounds.

Dice Pool: 2d10, 4d8, 1d6 (with no harm); 3d10, 4d8, 1d6 or 2d10, 5d8, 1d6 if Harmed.
Cost: 2 PP (SFX and a second Value), possibly getting one back from Drinkin’, Dicin’, Whorin’,…

And there we go, two custom moves for Smaerte that her player (that would be me) could add to their sheet somehow. If the GM (who might that be?) plays ball, I could say, “Shit, I’m taking one for the team” in a given context, or: “Nine Hells, I’m tearing another one to that guy, and I want the bragging rights oh! so bad.” Again, no 4th wall break and an instant dice pool story.

Wrapping up: Make Your Moves

Beyond porting one more stuff from Apocalypse World into Cortex Prime, converting moves was in furtherance of a twofold goal: to provide a cognitive management tool for neuroatypical folks and double down on the leaning-into-the-stereotype gameplay devices for everybody. 

Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to convert folks from AW to CP. I did not go for a let’s-try-Cortex-out-and-see-if-it’s-for-us-instead of AW, but a let’s-try-Cortex-out-and-see-if-it’s-for-us-too. And it worked: my “Dillon, you son of a bitch!” MC took the bait and will try out Cortex Prime on the GM side.

So, expect more AW-based learn-to-play-Cortex-Prime tools shortly. But that will be all for today, folks.

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