Between 2019 and 2022, Cortex Prime was a rising star in the larger tabletop RPG scene. It had a solid pedigree dating back over ten years, and it had gathered numerous awards over that period. Its primary steward through its existence, Cam Banks, is well known and respected in the industry. Then, in late 2022, it dropped off the radar despite its successful Dragon Prince tie-in game. So, what happened to Cortex Prime?
A Brief History of Cortex
Cortex Prime is the most recent evolution of the Cortex System, the former in-house system of Margaret Weis Productions. Its origin is convoluted; the company that created was also owned by Margaret Weis, and it was created specifically for the Sovereign Stones RPG, then brought over to the main company where it was further developed to support RPGs of popular TV programs. This initial version of Cortex was used for the Firefly game Serenity, a Battlestar Galactica interpretation, and for Supernatural. This early version won an Origin Award and critical praise for how it could replicate the dramatic points of the shows it was bringing to the tabletop. This early version is known as Classic Cortex.
In 2009, Cam Banks came on board to develop the Cortex System, and took it in a new, narrative driven direction when compared to its predecessor. The change paid off, and Cortex Plus would go on to become the most utilized edition of the game. With an established history of bringing TV properties into tabletop RPGs; Smallville, Leverage, and Firefly were adapted with Cortex Plus to generally positive reviews. It also saw use in its ur-role, and was used for converting a Weis novel series, Dragon Brigade, into a game. But its high point was as the core system for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, where it captured both Origin and ENNIE awards and was lauded for its ability to make mechanically similar characters feel distinctive. In 2016, Cortex Plus was on the vanguard of the community content movement, partnering with DriveThruRPG and beating the launch of the DM Guild. Many creators, armed with the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide, jumped on this opportunity and pushed Cortex Plus further.
However, times were changing. In 2016, Margaret Weis, then 68, elected to slim down her company’s activities to focus on her writing and movies, meaning tabletop RPGs were off the table. Cam Banks, already deeply experienced in the system, acquired the licence to further develop Cortex Classic and Cortex Plus with his new design studio, Magic Vacuum. What followed was a successful Kickstarter for a new edition of the system called Cortex Prime. Releases were slow but steady, and everything changed in 2019. Fandom purchased the Cortex System complete from Margaret Weis Productions, then hired Cam Banks to keep developing it. This was possible because the game had only been licenced to Magic Vacuum but wasn’t owned by them.
Under Fandom, Cortex saw its apex; the Cortex Prime Handbook was published, the game won the 2021 Silver ENNIE for Best rules and was nominated in multiple categories, and then it netted the Dragon Prince (adapted as Tales of Xadia) and Masters of the Universe properties for adaptation. Then it was prominently featured in the critically acclaimed Into the Motherlands actual play. But things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows. The community content program on DriveThruRPG was shuttered with promises of an in-house creator studio to replace it. Then the licence scandal hit.
The Long Fade to Black
Broadly speaking, it’s an accepted reality in the modern hobby that in order to maximize success, a game needs to have a creator friendly licence system in place. And that’s at the minimal level; a community content program with non-commercial and commercial levels is the norm at this point. And this is where things started coming apart for Cortex Prime. In late 2021, in a bizarre practice run of the OGL blow up in late 2022, Fandom released details on the long-promised community content program and the licences associated with it. The blow up was immediate and harsh. One part was poor wording that could open a door to harassing non-white and/or LGBTQIA+ creators or people with that content by getting their licences pulled. Then there was language around ownership of mechanics developed by creators. Fandom denied it, but the general feeling among many was that the company wanted free labour from its creators. Then there was the commercial issues.
The commercial licence was a mess and remained so, even after Fandom released a new set of licences. The main sticking point was that commercial creators were limited to either the in-house creator studio, their own independent websites, or smaller sites like itch.io. And specifically it prohibited commercial creators form using the largest and best known online distributor, DriveThruRPG. This was a bridge too far to cross, and many creators immediately backed away from the system.
Over the course of 2022, things got worse. Cortex Prime never fully recovered from the licencing scandal, and then hot on the heels of announcing the sale of D&D Beyond, Fandom announced the sale of Cortex Prime. The Masters of the Universe project was placed on hiatus as the game transitioned to ownership under the online and board game company, Dire Wolf Digital.
The Quiet Period
Through 2023, Cortex Prime has been near moribund. The Dragon Prince based Tales of Xadia content and project continues to some degree, but the core game itself? Borderline abandoned. Where you can find Tales of Xadia on the main site, Cortex Prime is hidden several pages away. The Fandom created licences have been, as far as I can tell, pulled. The nascent creator studio? No where to be seen. Kickstarter releases continue to flow out, but that doesn’t mean much to the people who didn’t support the game in 2017. The online presence has dropped off as well, with a handful of zine level projects and minimal chatter on social media. The only place I’ve been able to find that’s still fairly active for the system is the official discord server.
This is speculation, based on my observations of the situation as it unfolded between 2019 and now.
Generic games can’t exist without content. Looking at successful contemporary generic games like Savage Worlds, Cypher System, Genesys, and FATE, they all have one thing in common. They had supplementary material released for them, and they regularly released it until a critical mass of official and fan material was achieved allowing them to self-perpetuate. Cortex Prime has never seen that regular release of supplemental content. It had a single “spotlight” called Hammerhead, and that was about it if you weren’t a Kickstarter supporter. This badly limited what people thought they could do with the system and left them without official tools and materials to expand their games.
The feeling I got here is that someone in the chain of command thought Cortex Prime was operating at the level of D&D in terms of impact, footprint, and popularity. Meaning it was treated like it was a much bigger deal than it was. As a result they eschewed existing online distribution centres like DriveThruRPG. You wanted Cortex? You bought it from their website, that is you bought it if you ever encountered the website or actively sought it out. This one is straight forward, buying the game is more difficult than it needs to be.
Community Content Failure
Community Content is increasingly a component of successful games, and a program was a promised part of the Kickstarter. There was, for a short period, a DriveThruRPG program, but that ended. Then they announced the long-awaited Cortex Creator Studio was opening on their website. It was a disaster that ultimately failed to launch. The licence system was profoundly restrictive compared to what other games were offering, and commercial use required a separate application. The feedback was resoundingly negative, but ultimately, it was the prohibition of using DriveThruRPG, the largest online portal for RPG sales that likely drive away creators. Why? Because as cool as Cortex Prime was, it wasn’t big enough to be profitable for independent creators with those restrictions.
Zero Learning Curve
Cortex Prime is being passed from owner to owner, and there’s seemingly no lessons learned. It’s still largely unavailable, there’s still no creator studio, content is still limited, and even the licences are no longer available to see, making them effectively null and void. This is not a situation to be in.
Can Cortex Recover?
Maybe? The game itself is good. Really good. It’s a solid performer with strong capabilities in not just multiple genres, but also with different tones. The design quality is A+ and it’s got legs for all kinds of campaigns. It’s being strangled though, and that’s killing its ability to expand and attract new players and customers. Dire Wolf Digital hasn’t done much with it since the acquisition over a year ago, and you can’t get physical books outside of the USA. In fact, you can’t even find Cortex Prime on their website with the rest of the games unless you go to the Store page, then select the Games dropdown and then “RPG”.
Cortex Prime could succeed, in my opinion, with a comeback if they make some significant changes.
- Make it available more widely for sale.
- Make it possible for creators to make money creating with it.
- Build on the successes of the system.
- Make official content for it that’s for sale to the public.
On the sales front, there’s few places you can buy a physical copy of the game, especially if you’re outside the USA. It’s 2023. There’s more options. Making money from DriveThruRPG’s print-on-demand services for softcover books bundled with the pdf for like, $40 USD is more money in your pocket than not getting those sales because you only ship to the USA and only sell on your website. Keeping the game locked up behind multiple layers of website and only advertising Tales of Xadia isn’t going to drive sales or interest.
For creators, they need a modern licencing system, not one from 1998. People want to create in the system but were deterred by the previous attempts at community content and remain deterred by the no information approach Dire Wolf Digital is taking. Again, it’s 2023, there’s options. They could re-release the SRD, make a logo pack and offer it with an ORC Licence for the truly independent, and set up a DriveThruRPG based community content program with more resources available to creators who work in that ecosystem. This serves the purposes of creating an online footprint, offering creators a chance to make money with their material, and increasing revenue. Hell, they could just clone the SWAG program by Pinnacle Entertainment Group and be set. The point here is that it’s time to unclench the grip on the game to truly see it flourish.
The system is successful. It’s not a multi-award winning game across its multiple editions for no reason. And there’s lots of IP out there that it could thrive with. Cortex has always been a system that thrives on bringing the screen to the tabletop, and with Dragon Prince staring down its final two seasons, that gravy train is going to end sooner rather than later. There’s a lot of anime and animated series that Cortex would bring to glorious life. There’s so many sci-fi shows, like Foundation, Invasion, and Silo. Cortex has a strong comic book background, and there’s shows like Invincible that have no game, and then there’s the entire lack of a DC Comics RPG. Cortex needs to run to succeed, and this is a field where it’s got almost no real competition as far as systems go.
Content drives generic RPG success. At the very minimum, it needs an updated Hacker’s Guide. Then it needs setting guides. Fantasy. Science Fiction. Urban Fantasy. Spy. Creation kits. All that good stuff, all available in physical and electronic form. All helping feed the creativity of the gamers at home, which turns and feeds the game’s footprint, generates interest, and feeds into the loop of community content. Network Externalities work, we’ve seen it work with D&D. The system just needs to be set up and then nurtured to get it going. And that’s what content like this does.
The best parallel for the situation that Cortex Prime is in is this: it’s replicating the errors and missteps of Palladium Books. Not all of them, but enough to draw a strong comparison. Both have developed a strong if small fanbase, enough to keep the lights on. This is good because it keeps the game somewhat in circulation, but is bad because it gives a false sense of security to the company. Both have a popular main game that sells; Rifts is still somehow going on and Tales of Xadia gets all the love from Dire Wolf Digital. And both are adhering to business practices that allow for maximum retention of ownership. On the surface, this seems fine; why shouldn’t they control their product? But the problem is that it’s not 1998 any more and this death grip is killing the ability of the fandom to grow and for the game to make money. The major differences in the situation being that Cortex Prime is actually a viable game in the modern hobby’s landscape, and Cam Banks is not Kevin Siembeida. The game is good. Its fans? Good too. What it needs is a modern approach to interacting with the hobby and creators that will set it up for greater success.
I want Cortex Prime to succeed. I bought the book during the brief period it was available for sale in Canada. I used the download code in it to get the pdf copy. I listened to every episode of Into the Motherlands and loved how it complimented the story and worked with the players and GM to facilitate things. And I know that DTRPG isn’t the panacea to this. Nor is the ORC Licence, or Creative Commons. I think the solution is for the decision makers involved to change how they’re treating the game. I love Cortex, but it’s not big enough or known enough to survive as it is. It’s not D&D. It’s not even Pathfinder or Savage Worlds. And I’m confident that Dire Wolf Digital will sell it shortly after the Dragon Prince series ends because it can’t grow its core audience outside that single property in a meaningful way.
To succeed though, to become the game engine that it could be, requires a conventional approach, not an independent one. I would love it if it had the footprint and support network to say “Hey, we’re going to do everything in house. What?!” But that’s not where it is. It’s not where it’s ever been. As it stands, it’s not likely to be where it ever is. I hope that the situation changes. But all we can do now is watch.