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Using Complication and Stress

Tips on applying complications

First, the standard Cortex caveat—a lot of what follows depends on the exact mix of mods used. This post assumes that you’re using relatively vanilla complication/stress mods. Also, from here on out, unless I expressly write “stress,” assume I mean either complications or stress.

Ordering Take Out

Any discussion of how to use or apply complications needs to ensure a clear understanding of what being “taken out” means. I’m using the exact definition that I used in my two posts on Contests—taken out means a character can no longer participate in the scene. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for varying levels of tone. However, even if you’re thinking of a game where taken out in some circumstances means the character may be dead, most of what follows will generally apply.

Narrative Truth

Cortex Prime supports the idea that complications are narratively true. But what does that mean? In simple terms, if you take a complication Blinded, you can’t see. As a result, you’re going to have difficulty performing tasks where it would be helpful to see (hence the die rating that goes in the opposing pool when it’s relevant) and may not be able to do some things at all. For those coming from Fate, you might see a parallel to aspects here. The most significant difference is that complications have a die rating, and once they’re stepped up beyond d12, you’re taken out.

This narrative truth can be a barrier depending on how absolute the complication is worded. For example, Out of Ammo would mean you can’t shoot a gun, even if the complication is rated at d6. One way to avoid this is to not make complication names so absolute. Low on Ammo or Sand in the Eyes gets the point across the same way. The advantage is you can leverage being taken out by the complication as running out of ammo or being completely blinded. At that point, you can cut to the next scene to deal with the aftermath.

This works well when using stress. Take a character in Tales of Xadia that encounters some giant, sticky spider webs. They could undoubtedly take Afraid stress from getting tangled in the webs—but they might not necessarily be completely stuck. Instead, as their stress gets stepped up, they become more entangled until they are taken out. They wake up at the beginning of the next scene totally bound up in the spider webs, facing a test or even a challenge to get free before the spider gets to them. Luckily, their stress will have stepped down to d10 (hey, it’s better than nothing).

Absolute Flexibility

Of course, there are times that a complication is absolute. Say one created from a spell that takes your voice or acid gets thrown in your eyes. It’s not a situation that can be reflected by a slow build-up of the complication.

You can actually wrap more than one narrative explanation into the complication in those cases. For example, you can’t shoot back if you’re Out of Ammo. As the complication gets stepped up, you suffer the consequences: taking fire, pinned down, flanked, etc. You can even rename the complication to reflect this new reality as that happens. You just have to follow the fiction and see where that leads you.

Generous Recovery

Another situation you might encounter is when a complication is exact. Maybe your Legs are Encased in Ice, but your arms are free. You obviously can’t move from that spot. In that case, it’s good to remember that complications can be recovered when appropriate and not necessarily only during bridge or similar scenes. If the character has the means—or a friend to help—the GM can offer a test to try to recover a complication.

Getting Testy

Finally, the fiction needs to be considered when wording a complication. In many cases, it will come from hitches or the effect die of a failed roll. I’ll likely use this phrase often, but tests are your workhorse. As a GM, you’re not going to just slap a complication on a character for springing a trap or have them get into a contest with it. You want to keep it simple and keep the cycle of Conversation About the Fiction > Apply Mechanics > Apply Outcomes > Continue the Conversation flowing. The fiction around a test can help with framing the complication.

Northern Pacific Railway turntable mishap in Auburn, 1941 cover image, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

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