Cortex Plus finds a new home with designer Cam Banks

November 1, 2016 – Margaret Weis Productions has announced that Magic Vacuum Design Studio — Cortex Plus designer Cam Banks’ new RPG design house — will take over the design, development, and publishing of all Cortex Plus and Cortex Classic roleplaying games from here on out!

Read on and find out the sordid tale that has lead to what appears to be a new and brighter future for Cortex Plus!

Margaret Weis Productions logo with the new Magic Vacuum logo

Margaret Weis Productions logo with the new Magic Vacuum logo!

Good & Bad

Normally, isn’t huge into publishing industry news, but since we’ve published a few Cortex Plus supplements under the DriveThruRPG Community License, we have a vested interest in this news. Perhaps just as importantly, as you’ll soon see, we were part of a little smidgeon of the drama that surrounded some events before this announcement, and we’d like to clear the air a bit.

Why’s this good news?

I won’t get into the whole history of Cortex Plus or MWP, but the recent history is somewhat sparse: a sudden, sort-of-stealth-release of a Firefly RPG mega-adventure (Ghosts in the Black) by industry favorite Robin Laws back in June, the much more widely announced Cortex Creator Studio (the “Community License” that allows folks like me to create new Cortex Plus hacks), and then radio silence. It’s not like they weren’t pumping out stuff before that — Leverage got some compilation releases of formerly digital-only material, Firefly got pretty regular love — but when you consider that MWP announced and then buried ideas for a Kickstarter that would bring all new core rulebooks for non-licensed, “generic” versions of Action Roleplaying and Heroic Roleplaying, and then made some vague announcement at GenCon that nobody wanted to talk about publicly, things just seemed…awkward.

So, here we are (as of yesterday) and Cam Banks — lead developer and project manager, and social media guru — gets the license to take the helm for Cortex Plus while MWP steps out of the RPG business on their end, concentrating on novels and film deals. This is good news because:

  • Cam was THE GUY for Cortex Plus
  • He surrounded himself with a diverse cast of industry veterans and newbies that are awesome (Monica Valentinelli, Robin Laws, most of the Fate Accelerated and Fate Core teams)
  • Cam’s appetite for taking a beating or winning praise on social media and RPG forums is legendary; his ability to make everything end on a positive note and his willingness to chime in is a credit to the entire RPG industry

Now, there’s obviously some difficulties that any new studio faces, but if memory serves, Cam was in the business of owning/running stores before his name was as big as it is in the industry, so theoretically, he’s got some sense of how many works.

Why are you such a jerk?

MWP’s a small operation, and they left it largely to their freelancers — writers and designers, mostly — to do the lion’s share of their RPG-related marketing and public relations. Turns out folks like Cam and Monica are great at that, so it worked for a time. But then Cam moved on to Atlas Games and other projects. There weren’t any high-profile releases after Firefly, and the not well-announced seeming-death of the Action Roleplaying and Heroic Roleplaying Kickstarter gave the appearance of a company that was quietly getting out of RPG publishing. Then pictures from GenCon came out, and they were Margaret sitting with a pile of novels. No RPG books in site. MWP’s online store cleared out RPG listings. No public announcements.

On October 25, 2016, Matt McElroy and Monica Valentinelli announced they were no longer working with MWP, and they did so on forums, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. That was probably the most widely-blasted news MWP had in months aside from the Creator Studio announcement in August, and it was worded vaguely enough that it could have been a mutual split, or it could’ve been a “hey, you’re fired. Don’t let the door hit you.” Hard to tell. But the evidence of a company winding down its RPG side and an announcement that it’s two remaining high-profile members reported to be spearheading the Kickstarter that was semi-quietly killed just didn’t look good.

So, I engaged in my usual social media conjecturing, and there was a lot of negativity. Necessarily so, I’d think. All the signs were there of this being the end of new Cortex Plus releases. Questions for the Creator Studio lingered, but that’s the sort of thing that can just live on, generating 50% royalties for MWP but never receiving any company support or marketing, allowing releases to die on the vine.

And yeah, that’s bad for my business. Which is ridiculously small and shouldn’t really matter to anyone making business decisions, but there it is.

Go back to the RPGnet thread and see how Cam spun the conversation. The first signs of a new life were there, but I admit that I didn’t see them. So yeah, now I can take back the negativity, because Cam has more or less confirmed not just a new life and home for Cortex Plus, but also…

  • Monica and Matt remain friends with Cam, and have a good chance of showing up in Cortex Plus’ future.
  • All new “core rulebooks” for Action, Drama, and Heroic.
  • Creator Studio remains open and unchanged for now. New changes coming down the line will likely just be “here’s a new, better laid-out rulebook to reference.”

My bad for being a Negative Nelly!

A Lesson

To MWP and any RPG company: your announcement timing and public relations absolutely impacts your bottom line. Even if the only complaint is “communication was awkward” — and I’m sorry, but that’s not the only complaint here — that’s damaging to all future releases, and continued sales of existing merchandise or digital releases.

We don’t know the details of timing or business deals, but the fact that Matt and Monica blasted out a “we’re out” message does not look well. MWP could have easily got ahead of this or — assuming it was an end on a positive note — could have coordinated better language to make it sound a lot less like a fiery middle finger. Or could have done a bunch of other things that mitigated how the announcement was received. As you look through some of the linked threads below, you can see the conversation turn a lot, and a lot of people that are still not happy with MWP, and 9 out of 10 times, it comes down to communication. There’s always going to be haters, but the evidence shows that these aren’t just internet trolls; they have legitimate grievances and healthy skepticism.

If you ever need help with this sort of thing, it’s what I do for a living, and I work relatively cheaply 😉 I’m also a lot more professional when managing other people’s stuff, because when it comes to my own site and products, I act like a silly, eccentric weirdo on purpose!

First Priority

And I will say clearly: core system Cortex rulebooks designed to be used as foundational documents for the Cortex Creator Studio are my first priority.

– Cam Banks (source: G+ post by Neil Ford)

Yep, that’s awesome.

The Pipeline

In the many conversations since the announcement (linked below in “Sources”), Cam has stated or insinuated the following:

  1. Core rulebooks for all three flavors (Action, Drama, Heroic) are top priority. Probably 2017.
  2. Creator Studio (AKA Community License on DriveThruRPG) remains unchanged for now. Keep using the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide for rules referencing in your community content.
  3. Monica and Matt — and one can easily presume Rob Wieland and a plethora of other Cortex Classic and Cortex Plus contributors — remain friends with Cam (they were before Cortex Plus came around, so why not?) and though they aren’t confirmed for future contributions, it’s not out of the question. This doesn’t precisely explain the public nature of their “we’re out” messages and a lack of commentary on that from MWP, but that’s the kind of private, business-oriented stuff we’ll likely never know, and if everybody’s on good terms (Monica continues to comment on related discussions, so they gotta be!), there’s no point in trying to reopen wounds.
  4. The press release specifically mentions “crowdfunding” which harkens back to the cancelled Action Roleplaying and Heroic Roleplaying core books, but Cam has repeatedly shouted his love of the Smallville Roleplaying Game (the origin of the Drama flavor of Cortex Plus), so this will not get lost in the shuffle. Whether a Kickstarter will be the means to seeing these three releases pushed out remains to be seen, but regardless, we’ll likely be waiting until 2017 to find out.
  5. MWP is officially out of RPG publishing. Doesn’t mean much, though ***PURE CONJECTURE*** that could influence the availability of future Cortex Plus physical releases in stores. Or, of course, it could mean that MWP can go to bat on negotiations with smaller publishers and get Cortex Plus releases out into the wild just fine, but without having to actually buy into the resources of publishing said books themselves. Remains to be seen.
  6. This announcement is *not* the obscurely referenced “announcement from GenCon” as it came about [was finalized, I imagine – ed.] after the convention was already over. ***PURE CONJECTURE*** That announcement could’ve been MWP saying “We’re out of RPG publishing, but we’re working on making sure that means Cortex Plus isn’t dead.”
  7. Cam does not get licenses to Firefly for Marvel. No official statement on Leverage, but the books are POD on DriveThruRPG (and for 11/2/16, Leverage Roleplaying Game is the Deal of the Day at 50% off for the PDF or the Softcover+PDF options!).
  8. Bits & Mortar program is a definite maybe when their books hit retail stores; too early to say anything official-sounding.
  9. More news “in the coming months.”


Follow the news and developments (and some of the drama!) at the links below!

Full text from the press release:

Tabletop RPG designer Cam Banks licenses Cortex™ from Margaret Weis Productions, announces new design studio Magic Vacuum

Saint Paul, November 1, 2016 – Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) and Cam Banks are thrilled to announce that Banks has signed an agreement to license the Cortex Plus™ and Cortex Classic™ rule systems. Under terms of the agreement, Banks and his new design studio Magic Vacuum are taking over the design, development, and publishing of games based on these rules and spearhead the development and crowdfunding of new core rulebooks for 2017 and beyond.

This announcement coincides with Margaret’s retirement from RPG development to focus on her current novel and film projects. Banks is taking up the reins to develop and ensure Cortex Plus™ fans receive the foundational rulebooks for the Cortex Plus Creator Studio as well as new RPGs based on the system.

Margaret Weis stated, “I couldn’t be more pleased to entrust Cortex to Cam. I have every confidence fans expectations will not only be met, but exceeded by his new design studio Magic Vacuum.”

“I’m proud to take on the role of publisher for the Cortex Plus system going forward,” said Cam Banks. “I spent the formative period of my game design career working for Margaret, and nobody knows Cortex Plus like I do. I know I can deliver the kind of worlds, stories, and core rules the fans have been asking for since we first published Cortex Plus games at MWP.”

About Margaret Weis: Margaret Weis is an internationally known bestselling author. Known as the mother of Dragonlance, she co-created a world that continues to intrigue fans spanning several generations. Her current projects include a film adaptation of STAR OF THE GUARDIANS, and a new series in the Dragon Brigade world co-authored with Robert Krammes. SPYMASTER, which will be released in March 2017 (Tor Books). In her role as owner of MWP, she is an award-winning publisher of tabletop roleplaying games. They are best known for the licensed RPG games created from the worlds of Dragonlance, Serenity, Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, Leverage, Marvel and Firefly. Based in Wisconsin, MWP has been bringing games to fans since 2005.

About Cam Banks: Cam Banks is an award-winning writer, designer, and developer with over a decade’s worth of experience in the tabletop gaming industry working for and with companies such as Margaret Weis Productions, Atlas Games, Paizo, Green Ronin, Modiphius, and Dead Gentlemen. He helmed the production, design, or development of multiple award-winning game lines including Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Smallville, Leverage, Dragonlance, Feng Shui 2, and Unknown Armies 3. Cam lives and works in Saint Paul, MN with his wife Jess and two sons, gamers all. Follow Cam on Twitter at @boymonster.

For further information, please contact Cam Banks at or Christi Cardenas, agent for Margaret Weis at, or by phone (612-868-4066).

If you enjoyed this article, please comment, like, and share! You can support future reviews and articles at our Patreon. We publish supplements, campaign accessories, and adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at Dungeon Masters Guild as well as other OSR games and Cortex Plus at DriveThruRPG.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He’s been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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