Distinctions are a “special” trait set. While distinctions don’t carry any more weight mechanically than other sets, to me they’re kind of the “glue” that holds different trait sets together. Nearly every Cortex game will have them as a prime set. They’re the “core” of your character: who they are, where they came from, and what they’re like.
They’re Like Aspects, But Not
I feel like distinctions have Rob Donoghue’s fingerprints on them. I don’t think Rob was like, “I’m gonna stick aspects in everything!” but the parallel between Fate aspects and distinctions is pretty strong. Like aspects, distinctions can supply narrative permissions and provide a way for players to generate plot points. There are fundamental differences, though. Distinctions have a die rating the same as any trait, making them another die in the player’s pool, so they’re not as central mechanically. Also, the obligatory Hinder SFX on distinctions is a very player-facing mechanic. While you can self-invoke in Fate, usually, the GM will do it more often. You also have to pay a Fate Point to refuse a compel by default. In Cortex, the GM can suggest Hindering a distinction, but the player is free to ignore it. Finally, hitches are Cortex’s “darn my luck” element versus it coming from self-invokes in Fate.
Laying the Foundation
For most Cortex builds, deciding on distinctions will be one of the first things you do. “Off the shelf” distinctions will work for nearly any game - three distinctions, Hinder SFX on each automatically. Even the typical setup of Ancestry/Heritage, Profession/Background, Quirk/Personality suits a wide range of games. On the other hand, if you want to change a Cortex games’s tone and focus, branching out on what the distinctions represent will go a long way. For example, my Cortex Confab entry (kind of a game jam on the Cortex Discord) The Light and the Storm uses:
- Concept. A phrase that sums up your character. Who they are, what they do.
- Strength. What the character is good at
- Past. Something important or impactful from the character’s past.
Distinctions shouldn’t overlap a large amount, yet at the same time provide an opportunity for at least one to apply to any roll a PC might make (given that they are prime traits). You can have more than three distinctions, although too many runs the risk of the distinctions being very narrowly defined and some not being used as often as others.
Distinctions also serve as “helpers” for other trait sets. Things about a character that don’t fall under another trait can easily fit into a distinction. For example, there are no attributes in The Light and the Storm. It would be part of a distinction if you want your character to be fast, strong, or some other “innate” characteristic.
Predefined or Not?
There are several different things to consider when deciding to have only a defined set of distinctions to choose from:
- What do the distinctions represent?
- What is the nature of the game?
- Can players come up with their own too?
Some reasons to have predefined distinctions are if the setting has well-defined choices (ancestry or professions, for example). Also, some players have trouble coming up with free-form distinctions. There is the overhead of writing all of those distinctions out - so if there are a lot of possibilities it may be easier to provide a few examples, but otherwise let the players define them. Even without having long lists of potential options, just having a Mad Libs style template (similar to Genesys or even Fate) can help players who might otherwise get stuck.
Tales of Xadia makes excellent use of providing lists of words to combine into distinctions in this manner. The technique works well because it gives some consistency and themes to the distinctions and helps incorporate setting elements. Players are also free to come up with their own, so long as they follow a couple basic rules (largely having to do with mage characters).
The most common way to connect distinctions to other traits (aside from SFX) is with highlight traits. Remember that both highlight traits for a distinction don’t necessarily have to be from the same trait set. They can even be signature assets, abilities, power traits, or resources. Highlight traits can also unlock traits only available to that distinction.
Other knobs you can turn even with even vanilla distinctions are how the SFX are set up. It’s usually best to have SFX only on one trait set, so you probably won’t have SFX on distinctions if you’re using Powers or Abilities. Granted, you could have them on both - it’s just more to keep track of.
The standard setup is to have three SFX per distinction, with five of them unlocked (the three Hinder SFX and then two that the player chooses). Another pattern is having a set number of SFX per distinction, each working roughly the same way on each distinction. It could be the same SFX applying to the entire distinction trait set or just the same SFX on each distinction. SFX like these will usually reference the distinction in some way. _“When [thing that you do] aligns with [distinction]…get [this effect].” _Hammerheads is an excellent example of this. You could also have the SFX on the distinction trait set as a whole instead of attached to individual distinctions. This can work well if you’re using Talents or have Powers or Abilities with various individual SFX.
The Light and the Storm, for example, has two SFX on each distinction (in addition to Hinder) that generally follow this pattern:
- Spend a plot point to step up a trait and add a die to a doom pool
- Add your stress to your pool when something creates a problem, and add that to the doom pool after.
Of course, it’s possible to remove distinctions entirely. Some people don’t like them, probably the same ones who want to use Life Points or the Add All the Dice mods. Some considerations have to be made when doing this. Foremost is what trait set Hinder applies to - if you’re keeping Hinder at all. Having a player-facing, guaranteed way of generating plot points is a fundamental part of Cortex’s design. Removing it is going to change the plot point economy. Also, since the “glue” holding the trait sets together is missing, dice pools won’t have the added color from distinctions. Using the Trait Statements as distinctions mod and how SFX are set up (using Talents is a good choice) may alleviate that.