Tales of Xadia and the Limits of Canon

We played four sessions of Tales of Xadia over the past couple months. Tales is the first complete and self-contained game to come out of Cortex Prime, the third generation of the Cortex ruleset by Cam Banks. My personal experience with long-form Cortex play was a rough start with Serenity way back in the day, and Firefly when Cortex came back out in revised form. I’ve played a bunch of Cortex stuff through the years as one offs – Marvel Heroic, Smallville, Leverage – but Tales was my first hands-on experience with Prime.

I’m not a close follower of Cortex games. Not sure why not! I like Cortex better than any edition of Fate, probably its closest relative. It handles PvP conflicts quite well, always a good thing because so much good tension can emerge between conflicting PCs. And the little dice game you play as you work out rolls is genuinely a fun time.

I think my hesitation is because everything that comes out for Cortex is attached to an existing license: Firefly and Marvel and Smallville and Leverage! Turns out I’m frequently allergic to license-based games. (Timely: check out Jahmal Brown’s Kickstarter for Lifted, a Cortex-based supers game completely detached from a licensed setting!)

Not that I won’t play them. We ran Modiphius’ 2d20 Dune and liked it okay (it cribbed ideas from Cortex but left out its economy, so Dune ultimately fell flat for us). I’ve played a ton of Mouse Guard and Burning Empires, although you wouldn’t be blamed for not thinking of those as licenses (they’re both based on obscure-ish comics). But given the choice, I almost always pick games that aren’t based on existing properties.

Tales of Xadia is based on The Dragon Prince, an animated series on Netflix. It’s good! I like The Dragon Prince, but I haven’t consumed every scrap of lore or really spent any time imagining what play might be like in Xadia, the show’s setting. But the show is well executed, has lots of Avatar: the Last Airbender vibes, great inter-character tensions and a visually appealing setting.

Cortex 101

Every Cortex game consists of a subset of rules from the Cortex toolbox, all of which work with any other part. As a toolbox, Cortex is smart as hell and firmly in trindie territory. Most of the rulesets don’t bother with modeling physics (a la Hero or, to a lesser degree, GURPS), but rather model thematic ideas and how they interact. If you already think about games this way, Cortex is awfully fun to fiddle with. But if you need your game to be a physics model, you’re going to be disappointed.

The Cortex transaction is straightforward: you build a pool of dice out of your various character bits, roll and add together the best two. Or the two dice that beat the other side’s best roll (usually either the GM rolls a pair of dice sized to represent the difficulty of a task, or another player starts shit and they roll to set the starting difficulty of a longer contest). Then there are some tricks you can do with plot points to buy more dice, or more effects. Big margins of success get you some game effects, and the biggest die size of the dice you didn’t use to succeed at a task becomes an “effect die” that may let you do stuff as well. It’s modestly elaborate, with several levers you can pull each time you roll (plot point spends, special abilities that trigger, and so on).

As a game-game, Cortex’s dice and point manipulation is fun even though all that manipulation doesn’t “look” like anything in the fiction as you do it. It’s the internal player feeling of pushing their luck and weighing their options, combined with how the fiction shakes out after the roll, that makes the game engaging.

A Closer Look at Tales of Xadia

System-wise, the Cortex ingredients in Tales are:

  • Attributes: a typical traddy spread of character descriptions, like agility and awareness.
  • Values: five different ethical categories you use in combination with Attributes. You have to decide what’s motivating your character for any given role, possibly guided by or contradicting a “value statement” that each Value has. You can also stake out goals you want to achieve, constrained by your Values – low-ranked Values limit how “important” a goal you can set attached to it, prompting you to take bigger goals for your higher-ranked Values. I dig this bit quite a lot.
  • Distinctions and SFX: stuff that models your upbringing and vocation. “SFX” in Cortex-speak are neat little rule exceptions or dice tricks.
  • Assets: something or someone that helps you in the moment. This is also where spells show up, although the way they’re treated in the game is super open-ended.
  • Specializations: three “skills,” more or less, more narrowly defined than your vocation distinction.
  • Stress Tracks: there are five hit point tracks (more or less) that give your opposition dice to roll, and can evolve into Trauma, a permanent(ish) source of Stress dice. The characters are wreathed in a ton of plot immunity mostly via the Stress/Trauma system.

There are some interesting bits missing from what experienced Cortex folks might think of as core, as well as a couple original inventions that don’t appear in the Cortex Game Handbook (the overarching source document from which all Cortex Prime games are based).

The most notable missing bit is Complications: normally when the players roll 1s, the GM gives them Plot Points (PPs) and introduces a new play factor, with a die rank attached to it and the possibility that clever players might turn those complications back against the GM. This is also how you might model an injury: broken leg (d10) means every time your broken leg might impact your ability to do something, the GM gets to roll another d10 in their pool.

That doesn’t happen in Tales of Xadia. Generally the only mechanical result of conflicts in Tales comes in the form of Stress: the character is now afraid, or corrupted by dark magic, or, yes, injured. I think it plays out mechanically similarly but it keeps outcomes focused on a narrow range of characters’ internal states. External complications might show up in the course of a Challenge, though, in which some very large goal “hits back” against a PC when it’s the goal’s turn.

The big innovation over the basic Cortex Prime toolbox is Catalysts, ie boss-type NPCs that are important to the scenario. There are some interesting emergent properties of the Catalyst rules. Most notably, there are always at least two Catalysts, typically headed toward, or in, conflict with each other but neutral to the PCs. This aims scenario design toward the PCs being interlopers into other folks’ problems in the course of their travels, interacting with one Catalyst or the other to work out their problems, or bring the Catalyst(s) more in line with what the PCs need. The game focuses heavily on social interactions because of the requirement that “Tales” (ie scenarios) have these characters.

What Do You Doooo?

There’s a lot to like about how Tales of Xadia plays out, but the setting left me cold. For one, there is no premise to the game other than “having adventures in Xadia.” It’s very much A Fantasy Game™ in that regard, quite generic despite all the nice art they use from the show. I had a hard time dredging up the setting’s essential tensions and themes: humans and elves distrust each other, human society relies on the deeply unpleasant consequences of capitalism Dark Magic, there’s a dangerous borderland separating the human and elf halves of the continent, and there are five human kingdoms that mostly get along with each other except when they don’t.

There’s a lot of material in Tales that I had no idea how to use: lengthy chapters about the dragons of the show, lists of magical creatures, little rumors attached to each of the elven tribes and human kingdoms, and a weirdly comprehensive discussion of the game’s metaphysics that have literally no bearing at all on how the game plays out. But no guidance as to what a typical scenario might entail beyond the sample scenario in the book, or what themes the game is designed to hit (other than dealing with other folks’ problems in the course of your travels). It was a good IKEA catalog of material, but incomplete instructions.

In our game, we contrived reasons for three disconnected characters (a hard-bitten Katolian explorer, a Durenian farmboy with a Dark Magic gift, and a homesick elven mage) to be searching for the lost ruins of Elarion, birthplace of humanity and the origin of Dark Magic, hidden somewhere in The Border. Pretty straightforward quest-type stuff, complicated by two Catalysts with very different plans of their own for Elarion. Every session was fun, the showdown at Elarion was pretty good (and a bit frustrating: the game doesn’t handle PC team-vs-boss conflicts very well), and after we were done I just didn’t feel inspired to cook up more reasons for these three characters to continue their journeys.

I was left with the feeling that “be a huge fan of The Dragon Prince” is the expected prep. Despite having watched the available seasons some time ago, I’m not a huge fan of the show and don’t feel inspired by the setting when it’s not centered on the show’s plot. Xadia as a playable setting faces the same challenges of character-driven IPs like Star Wars (ep IV era): if you’re not Luke, what’s motivating you? Star Wars now has literally thousands of hours and millions of words that answer this question, and Xadia doesn’t.

Deciding to play a bunch of humans simplifies the question, because now the elves can be outsider opposition and kingdom politics become more straightforward. And vice versa. What the game invites you to do, because look at these marvelous rules, is to mix it up with human and elf characters together, as of course we did. But to do that you need a real strong premise. The TV show provides one. Tales of Xadia does not.

Next up for me is digging deeper into Magpie’s treatment of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra in their PbtA game Avatar Legends. At first glance it looks more flexible and more tightly constructed around the practicalities of answering the oldest and arguably only question in RPGs: “what do you doooo?”

Playing With Canon

So how do you make the most of games that are set in pre-existing settings or properties? Depends on the game of course. Some properties are just better suited to open-ended invention and play: Star Wars is a billion-dollar industry now built around open-ended(ish) invention, and the setting is purposefully designed with lots of affordances and more canonical material than any human could consume in a lifetime. Dune is trickier, but I think Modiphius did a sharp job of creating a game where the machinations of your made-up House are always going to be interesting, despite the galaxy-spanning implications of a weirdo Space Messiah.

Some settings, I think, come with clearer baked-in story premises than others. Dune is about political ambition and space feudalism (although it really should be more about anti-colonialism in this day and age: I would play a “Fremen wreck the Empire’s shit, a theme and variations” game all day and night). Star Wars isn’t really “about” much other than the ever-present threat to personal freedom from fascists and the perpetual fallout of that (robust black markets cropping up in the face of oppression, leading crime both organized and freelance to thrive, bam, now you’re playing Edge of the Empire).

Some properties are defined by their premise, and not canonical setting material. The Terminator, for example, has an open-ended premise and not much setting: if the future wants you dead, can you fight back and make something better? Really the only “setting” in The Terminator is the ever-present threat of a malevolent AI arising in the future and inevitably deciding to rid itself of humanity. The Marvel games I’ve played reward, but don’t demand, deep fidelity to established canon – and happily, comics are notorious for tossing canon out the window at regular intervals via multiverses or relaunches or whatever. The only canon is that you have license to toss out the canon.

And of course there’s Call of Cthulhu, the most globally successful property-based game of all time, and it’s a mix of premise (what if the universe just didn’t care, and was inhabited by incomprehensible beings that humans are stupid enough to think they can bargain with?) and setting (ie the various critters and gods and whatnot). There’s a little physical setting as well, stuff like the Dreamlands and the weird alien complex buried in Antarctica. But it’s the compelling premise that keeps the Mythos games rolling, more than yet one more game of battling the Mi-Go or whatever.

Many settings (like Xadia) rely on the enthusiasm of its fandom to find its way: if you’re not a G.I. Joe fan, what is a session of the new G.I. Joe RPG “like?” What’s the premise beyond beating on Cobra baddies? Maybe that’s enough, the attraction of creating and recreating familiar thrills. Is there enough hook to A Song of Ice and Fire to make it something other than A Grimdark Fantasy Game if you’re not super into the books/show? Is the Peacekeeper government and mix of wacky muppet-alien species enough to make a Farscape game go? I’m a fan of the last couple, and even then I’m not sure I’d be eager to just keep reiterating the things I already love about them. High-fiving each other through familiar territory feels like a squandered opportunity to invent something new and personal.

Given a rich canonical setting or a gripping canonical premise, I’ll take the premise every time. But not all games are for everyone. Is it unfair to expect that a license-based game appeal to non-fans of the license? Oh totally. But I would also propose that any game needs to provide clear guidance and procedures for what you’re about to spend hours playing. Or trying to.

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