Monday, June 29, 2020

Cosmic Cutthroats

Where to get it: drivethrurpg or Lulu

As a critic, my biggest challenge with reviewing Cosmic Cutthroats is that my overall opinion is "pretty decent." If I were the type to give out letter grades, I'd say "B+" (For comparison Changeling: the Lost is an A and GURPS is a C and Mage: the Ascension is a "see me after class.")

That is not intrinsically an issue. I could just write a post about the things I liked, drop in a few minor complaints, make a snide quip about tortured backronyms (this game uses the R.E.C.I.P.E. system and yes there's an explanation and no it doesn't illuminate anything). You know, my usual MO.

Where I run into trouble is that Cosmic Cutthroats is a product of a small team, you've probably never heard of them, and if my take is "this is an ordinary game" that's going to come across as either really condescending or really dismissive and neither of those is a very fair reaction. Cosmic Cutthroats is, in fact, an ordinary game, but it does ordinary pretty well.

You could convert this game to a point-buy d20 with basically no effort, but its 2d12 resolution system brings enough to the table to justify its existence. Its system for critical effects is elegant - a critical will trigger whenever you roll a match, with the specific value of the roll determining the strength of the critical effect. I've got some lingering mechanical questions, particularly in the resolution of some of the powers, but the only real issue lies with roll-over damage in the Injury system. When someone with one vigor point left in their Battered Injury state takes 5 points of damage, does that mean that they are Wounded, with full VP or Wounded with -4 VP? I couldn't find a clear answer to that. I personally think that ignoring roll-over and being restored to full VP is the better mechanic, but the book prides itself on being both mathematically precise and "cinematic," so it could go either way.

That's really the only negative thing I have to say about Cosmic Cutthroats. I don't love that your default skill ratings (prior to spending experience points) are based on averages or fractions of your attribute ratings, but that's something that should only come up at character creation or during between-session prep work. And, of course, like any point-buy system it's vulnerable to char-op shenanigans, but it's far from the clusterfuck that was Aberrant - it has only one character-creation currency and the prices are relatively rational, and unlike say GURPS, it doesn't ask you to dilute your characters' effectiveness by making every noun, adjective, and verb of the English language into its own separate trait.

But I don't want to damn with faint praise here. Cosmic Cutthroats has a few individual strengths as well.  For one, handles scale about as gracefully as possible without invoking a dedicated mechanical gimmick like Storypath's Scale modifier (and frankly, the jury is still out on that one for me, at least until I see how Aberrant and Demigod play out). Scaling effects seem to be based on solid exponential formulas, but the book is very generous about providing tables out to rank 60, so mathematical complexity is almost never going to be an issue. Also, it's got a pretty well-worked out effects-based power system that is probably vulnerable to exploitative min-maxing, but does seem to handle sci-fi tech, magic, and superpowers with reasonable efficiency.

Like I said - "pretty decent."

The setting of Cosmic Cutthroats is kitchen-sink gibberish, but the good kind of kitchen-sink gibberish. It's a game of multi-dimensional exploration as character hop from reality to reality doing player-character-type things, and while there are only a handful of signature worlds, there's also a whole section on randomly generating new realities that is impressively comprehensive. Fortunately, it's not just a backdrop for a generic rpg (though R.E.C.I.P.E. is strong enough as a generic system that it doesn't have any noticeable problems with the setting) - the cosmology is by itself is engaging enough that there's unique value in this specific world-hopping setting.

My favorite detail was the Damocletian Order. They scout the Ylem (primordial chaos) looking for Genesis Seeds, the nascent bundles of possibility that gods can encourage to grow into new realities. When they find one, they use divination magic, and if the Seed is destined to grow into a cthuloid monster or multiverse-conquering army, they scoop it up and stick it into The Vault of Worlds. And that's just a thing that exists in this setting - a giant magical bunker-world filled with 10,000 apocalypses waiting to happen and a dedicated order of warrior-monks whose mission it is to see that they don't.

The centerpiece of the setting is the Interdimensional Metropolis of Uru Ulan and basically it's Sigil by way of Eclipse Phase. The whole thing is total nonsense and I love it. The short version - an ancient Babylonian sorcerer traveled to an alternate Saturn in a universe that never developed humanoid life and built a mystic library in its rings. Over the centuries, the flotsam from a variety of interdimensional catastrophes just sort of accumulated around it and now it's a cluster of hollowed out asteroids connected by tubes and teleporatation gates and the districts range from the cyberpunk city of Third York to the elf-made forest of Ljusalfheim, but somehow it all kind of works. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but my tastes run to the eclectic, so I think it's great.

Ukss Contribution:This is going to be tough, because there are actually quite a lot of interesting setting details, but I don't want to tread into multi-world territory simply because that's easy mode for a project like Ukss. I think I'll go with the Cognizants. They're psionic brains-in-a-jar that run the setting's major criminal syndicate.

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