Cortex+ comparisons

One of the things I have noticed with Cortex plus is how different people hack it different ways from the base forms. Smallville was hacked to anything dramatic. Leverage was hacked to anything team based. Marvel was hacked to anything action (or just anything). People tend to hack from what they know best, what they read last or just their preference but not neccesarily what might be best. In fact I have seen hackers slated because they used Leverage to do something other than Heists, and marvel do something other than comic book action. I don’t see these as problems. Cortex+ is a design language. There are differences between the 3 games (4 with dragon brigade), but they all work in similar ways, and hence can each be hacked to pretty much whatever you want. I’ve Mass Effect in both Leverage and MHR. I prefer my MHR hack, because it was easier and quicker to write, but my leverage hack worked fine.

Enough waffling, what I want to look at is the similarities and differences between the 3(4) games.


  • Use of plot-points
  • Roll a pool, take best 2.
  • Damage results in stress which is a die type
  • Dice from d4 to d12
  • Roll against dice – so non-fixed difficulties
  • Rolling a 1 generates complications

Wow, is that it! That’s the core of Cortex plus.


For this I’ll split up the games into their sections.

Character Creation

Smallville uses pathways, Leverage has standard creation, MHR is random or totally free-form. Most Marvel hacks put constraints on CC.

The Dice pool and characters

Leverage = Attribute + Role + d8 for distinction + Speciality + Assets against an opposed roll or a rolled difficulty

Smallville = Value + Relationship + Distinction/s (powers) + Assets against an opposed roll or the Trouble pool.

Marvel = Affiliation + d8 for Distinction + Powers + Speciality + Assets against an opposed roll or the Doom pool.

Very little in common. Distinction means the same thing in Leverage and Marvel (aspects from Fate) but is both powers, skills and personality traits in Smallville. Smallville and Marvel have opposed rolls or a pool, Leverage has random difficulties. Assets are created in Leverage and Marvel, they are part of your character background in Smallville.


Smallville and Leverage actions work by “raising the stakes”. Rolls are opposed until one side cannot beat the other. Marvel has a more standard Attack/Defend type initiative based action sequence.


Rolling a 1 always generates complications. But in Smallville and Marvel these mean dice in the pool and in Leverage this means a future complication. Also rolling 1s as GM means plotpoints in marvel, but removing dice from the pool in smallville.


Marvel uses XP based on milestones. Smallville uses stress to improve characters. Leverage use the adventures completed.

Other mechanics

In Smallville you can work against your own values or relationships to give extra dice and help grow your characters ()

In Leverage The flashback works to wrap up a plan like in the TV series.

Marvel is pretty standard – nothing weird going on.

What does this mean?

IF you want to write a hack or conversion, Cortex is perfect. You can basically take bits from the different games and it should work fine. Take what you need, drop what you don’t want.

When I used Leverage for Mass effect it was because I liked the roles lay out. However I was just using the rules as a tool to play that setting, and didn’t touch the talents, Heist rules or Flashback. I did use the Plot creation stuff. For my marvel Hack I had set powers based on classes and races, more specialities, actual equipment and altered affiliations. But the rest played like marvel. Likewise the Eclipse Phase hack should play like marvel but affiliations have gone, and it uses attributes similar to Leverage. I’ve not really hacked smallville – but having world creation based on a pathways system would be great.

If Cortex+ is a design language, it’s a pretty modular one. Roll on the Hacker’s Guide.

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