Cortex Rant: What’s the Cortex Magic System Like?

A common question among Cortex newbies is “how does the magic system work in Cortex?”  It’s a reasonable question coming from a context where most games have a spell list or a clever way of spending mana points or whatever.

But Cortex, of course, doesn’t have any of that.  There is no magic system packaged in the Cortex Prime Handbook.  No spell list, no mana budget, et cetera.  This might seem like a huge oversight.  Everybody loves magic, why not include it?

There are many potential and valid answers to that question, but because this is a rant, I’m going to go hard with the most excessive answer, and it’s this: 

Cortex doesn’t have a magic system because all of Cortex is magic.

Most games lean hard into “realistic” simulation-heavy mechanics for their core rules (or participate in an ever-evolving mass delusion of what is and is not realistic, but that’s another rant).  Point being, the magic rules of those games often step outside of the nitty-gritty realism simulator and allow the magic user to get a little flexible with reality: conjure stuff out of nowhere (fireball!), make connections between disparate things (stepping through mirrors), reveal that something that looks innocuous (short birch wand) is in fact a powerful tool (pew pew more fireballs!).

And all of those things?  They’re how Cortex already works.  You can conjure up that crowbar out of nowhere by spending a plot point.  You can make connections between that stampeding rhinoceros you’re facing down and your childhood on a South Dakota ranch where your family bred horses.  The dice might reveal that your innocuous d4 in the skill you never trained in rolled the 4 that you used in your total to beat the difficulty.

And what that means is that Cortex doesn’t need a separate system for magic, because the core mechanics already operate on magical thinking—or in other words, on narrative principles.

You can build a typical mage character simply by giving them a distinction like Mage.  (You’ll get more mileage out of Fire Mage or Initiate of the Arcane Mysterium, but that’s also another rant).  Then they can use the basic Cortex mechanics to do magic stuff, just like the character with the Thief distinction uses the basic mechanics to do thief stuff.

• Your mage can spend a plot point to conjure fireballs for chucking at enemies.

• Your mage can roll a dice pool to sorcerously connect two distant mirrors and step through them.

• Your mage can wield a Fireball Wand, either as a signature asset or as a regular asset they found/stole/made/whatever.

The magic rules are the core rules.

I suspect some readers may balk at the magic mirror example and worry about scope of power and that sort of thing.  That’s a valid concern!  But consider if you’d allow the tank character to plow through a wall to escape the scene.  Or if the thief character might leave a scene by shooting a grapple line up to the skylight.  Or any number of other examples.  Any character can make a “Get Out Of Here” roll; the mage just does so with magical flair.

And of course there’s nothing that says you can’t make an elaborate magic system for your Cortex game (I say as I look over at the other window where the Keystone Grimoire WIP sits glaring at me).  The thing to remember is that, rather than having to start at the ground floor, Cortex provides you with tons of tools already baked into the game.

So let’s make some magic!

So tell me: what kind of magic do you want in your game?

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