Often I see a conflation in Cortex between taking a complication or stress and the fictional consequences of a roll. While the two are related, it’s not a 1:1 relationship.
First A Review
So we’re on the same page, we’ll review a few salient points regarding stakes and complications/stress.
- Rolls (more specifically contests, but this can apply to tests) are either “low stakes” or “high stakes”.
- With high stakes rolls if the PC fails the roll, they are taken out unless they pay a plot point to take a complication.
- With low-stakes rolls if the PC fails the roll, they take a complication. No plot point.
- When you are using the stress mod only, there are no “high stakes”. Failures that could have a consequence result in stress.
- Complications can be anything that works against the PC, such as situational or environmental effects or other mishaps.
The Complication Train
In many “trad” games wounds, hit points, or damage are part of a train ride toward a cliff of character death. They are something to be avoided or, depending on the game, have the brakes applied as much as possible.
In Cortex, this is not really so. Instead, complications are part of a core game loop of things getting more difficult, then mitigating or pushing through the resulting consequences and changing course before going off the cliff. Granted, it doesn’t always have to be this way. But, it’s how I’ve come to see it and what works best for me.
Complications Are Only One Part
Complications are meant to be unpleasant and create tension, but they are only the mechanical expression of the outcome. There’s still the fiction, which stands apart from the complication or stress.
I’ve found it handy to think of these things in terms of Forged in the Dark’s position even if I’m not applying it the same way in Cortex. The game loops are very similar; you’re just trading complications or stress dice for resisting and taking stress. Is the PC’s fictional position desperate? The fictional consequence will be more severe if they fail the roll than if it was just risky. I often factor this in when assigning difficulty dice if I’m using them.
The result is that even if the complication or stress from failure is relatively low, the PC may wind up in a worse fictional position. For example, if they make a desperate charge toward an enemy pillbox and fail the roll, they find themselves pinned down even if the complication or stress is only d6. Regardless, the PC needs to find a new approach to accomplish their goal or prevent their position from getting worse. They may try to use the cover to create an asset or get rid of the pinned-down complication by falling back. Or they may push on even though if they fail again, the fictional consequence may be worse (i.e., greater difficulty). As they do so, they may find complications or stress getting worse due to hitches or further failed rolls.
Looking at the fictional outcome this way is convenient when using stress. With complications, the GM has the freedom to customize them to reflect the fictional outcome. This isn’t as easy with stress. It’s sometimes hard to square stress taken with the fictional situation. Considering the character’s fictional position as part of the outcome lets you treat stress as the PC’s reaction to that outcome instead of a literal reflection of it. Did the failure make them hesitate and become Unsure? Did they fall short because they were Injured or Exhausted? It helps to have stress traits that reflect emotional or mental states since they are always a good fallback for times when another stress type doesn’t seem applicable (and to provide an out for always just assigning Wounded stress or whatever).
Set the Outcomes Beforehand
Finally, another practice I’ve cribbed from Forged in the Dark games: let the players know what the outcomes will be. While the roll introduces a variable to that outcome, especially once hitches and opportunities are factored in, that’s just a matter of degree. Don’t pull the rug out from under them by turning a successful roll into a fictional failure or turning a fictional failure into a complete catastrophe they weren’t expecting before committing to the action.