Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide and Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying

As you might know, ChattyDM and I (along with brain-in-a-jar Cam Banks) have launched a Kickstarter for the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide, a project that means a lot to both of us. Not only are Phil and I the lead developers on the book, it was also some of our first forays into the world of professional game design a few years ago, and we’re helping to guide it finally coming out.

In the past few days we hit our first stretch goal, to make the book snazzier. This is obviously a pretty important goal, which is why we wanted to put it right after the initial goal. However, the next goal coming up is one we’re also very excited about, and also pretty ambitious. It involves a game that really took off after appearing here, and this is a way to get it out there as a fully published game. Below is a slightly modified version of the update we sent to the Kickstarter that I thought would prove interesting for Critical Hits readers as well.

Genesis of Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying

As you might know, Phil and I have been D&D fans for decades. Here On Critical Hits, we’ve spent a lot of time writing about, musing about, and generally playing with D&D and games like it.

Phil took his love of D&D and mashed it up with Leverage, replacing the roles with classes and creating a heist-like dungeon crawling action game, which very often turned out to be something exciting and just a bit silly. From developing it further for the original submission period of the Hacker’s Guide, the article ballooned from one piece to two (adding in GMing advice and tools in the process) and again to four (to add in random tables like the ones from Leverage, but for the Dungeon setting and section devoted to combat.)  The full results of this you’ll see in the Hacker’s Guide, and we plan to preview some soon.

Fast forward past the release of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. After becoming the developer on the Annihilation series of books, I began to tinker with cosmic characters. Skrulls, Kree, Shi’ar and more. Eventually I hit upon the idea of separating the alien species into their own power set, possibly to be combined with a profession power set (like Soldier or Privateer) to represent a multitude of cosmic characters.

I pocketed this idea, and, shortly thereafter, was scheduled to run a demo of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying at Labyrinth, my Friendly Local Game Store, alongside Rob Donoghue, one of the lead designers on Marvel. While chatting about our games, he said it would be fun to make a fantasy version of the game, where race and class were both power sets. I said I had already been working on something similar for Annihilation. Thus, the two came together.

From Idea to Cards

I quickly tossed together a prototype of the power sets in Illustrator, and blogged about it. This was a rough “as it came out of my brain, path of least resistance” prototype, but it clearly had traction, given the response it received and continues to receive to this day.

At PAX East in 2012, I brought my prototype to use, and got to experience both sides of the screen; Rob ran it with me as a player, and I ran it for Cam, Phil, and a few other folks. There were rough edges, but playtesting there and afterward confirmed that the Heroic Roleplaying engine could make some darn fun fantasy adventures.

I’ve since played it several more times, including with some classic D&D adventures, and made tweaks and improvements that further move it from MHRP and into its own. Other people have run it too: Rob ran with it, as did TheMainEvent who convinced his epic-level Pathfinder group to convert, as well as a few other scattered groups who contacted me.

Making the Game Into Print

There’s still some work to be done to turn it into a playable game (and it will still require some knowledge of MHRP to play), but overall, the concept is solid. After some discussions with the folks at MWP, there wasn’t going to be an easy path to publish the book on its own; the Hacker’s Guide presents the perfect opportunity.

At the first basic level stretch goal, we’ll make the game in 32 pages. We’ll explain the basics of how to play, which will include some basics of how to hack Cortex Plus Heroic, to go along with the basics of Action and Drama. It’ll have a sample of classes and races to build your hero from, as well as the other pieces important to the Heroic game (distinctions, specialties, and milestones). We’ll include some options for alternatives to race and class as power sets. We’ll include GM tools, like how the Doom Pool can create a dungeon for you. We’ll include a few sample monsters, and a very rough conversion guide to take monsters from your existing fantasy game.

If we hit the goal after that, expect more of everything: more races and classes, more magic items, more GM tools and tricks, and plenty more monsters. Maybe even a full sample adventure. Plenty to kick off your own FHRP campaign. No matter what, you’ll find that the tools included with The Dungeon Job elsewhere in the book will provide more options.

Phil and I are excited to bring this book to fruition, turning a spark of an idea and some parallel design thinking into a real game alongside all the other Cortex Plus hacks. But, as we’re so fond of saying, we can only do it with your support.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. […] my breath, hoping it will crash through the next stretch goal, unlocking the expanded version of the Fantasy […]