The Cornerstone Universal Roleplaying Game is another creation from Ben Dutter and Sigil Stone Publishing, this one a genre-neutral means of creating narrative-driven games in any milieu with a light-yet-robust system where — like many of Ben’s RPGs — the GM doesn’t ever have to roll the dice, enabling them to concentrate on the flow of the story and the player-driven actions and mechanics.
Cornerstone has been released in a free Basic version, with just enough examples to get you started in a few different genres (sci-fi, superheroes, fantasy, etc.) and minimalist artwork that keeps the presentation of this version clean and immediately useful as a reference tool.
Note that star ratings for Form and Content are on a 1 (bad) to 5 (amazeballs) scale.
Cornerstone is meant to cover any genre, to be a fairly simple pick-up-and-play game where you could choose a quick mash-up of genres, or simply call out that the milieu will be that of a favorite fantasy novel or sci-fi video game series, and immediately jump into the action. The rules reinforce this be having a clearly-defined “Game Concept” creation stage, and relatively simple character creation that highlights what makes each character special, as opposed to defining dozens of statistics, worrying about tech-levels, or requiring shopping lists of traits, equipment, and powers.
The Game Concept is decided either by the GM or the group as a whole, and is clearly defined by the Genre (sci-fi, space opera, fantasy, post-apocalypse, four-color superhero), the party’s Purpose, the Place that the session will be set (big or small), and the Color, which helps the group stay focused on whether the game is serious, funny, gonzo, epic, or gritty. By establishing these four things in as few words as possible, they remain clear, and can easily be referenced during play to determine if an activity or situation that crops up truly fits into the tone of the game. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but it really helps narrow things down quickly.
Characters use the Game Concept information immediately to develop their characters. There are eight standard Skills, the sorts of activities you see in almost every genre and roleplaying game, but the interesting thing here is that the Game Concept causes the party two choose 2 additional Skills to add to this list. These additional Skills will reinforce what the game is about, and could be anything from magic, to firearm combat, to psychic powers, and beyond.
Characters have three core Traits — Ideals, Method, and History — that are usually 1-word or short phrases that define what they do and how they do it. Obviously, the players’ choices will be informed by — and help reinforce — the Game Concept.
Similarly, each player chooses a single Ability, which is like 13th Age’s One Unique Thing: it’s the thing that they can do better than everybody else, or that they can do but nobody else can. There are clear mechanics on how to operate the Ability in play.
The mechanics of the game are quite simple. Player characters perform actions by rolling 1d6, comparing it to the appropriate Skill, and modifying it by circumstances and/or an appropriate Trait. Abilities are much more powerful, either ensuring success, or allowing someone to roll for something impossible to most other people. There are two things of note going on here.
The first is that success or failure is always appended with an And or But statement, providing the system a lot more narrative weight than just binary pass/fail rolls. Even die rolls add an And statement and odd die rolls add a But statement. The three core Traits of the player character can be used as either a bonus to the die roll, to add an additional And or But statement, or to cancel out an existing And or But statement, giving the potential for even more narrative weight to every single die roll.
The second thing worth noting is that GMs never roll dice. Player characters are either the acting force, or are reacting to situations and non-player characters. GMs have plenty of advice in rating enemies (and allies) in terms of their power-level at various forms of conflict, but the player’s rolls primarily drive the effects of the game, which might include determination of damage or other consequences.
Further permutations of the system include situational modifiers and gear. Circumstance modifiers use an Advantage/Disadvantage system almost precisely ripped from Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Gear only comes into play if it is a significant piece of equipment in the narrative, and is defined by similar Traits and perhaps an Ability, just like characters. Otherwise, they simply provide common sense usefulness to the characters: a gun allows them to use firearm-related Skills or Abilities, for example.
As a game primed for picking a genre mash-up, the universe of any book, TV show, movie, or video game, or simply snagging any adventure and adapting it, Cornerstone is an interesting way to reinforce narrative themes and keep the GM focused on the story and drama, while giving the players enough meat to chew on with regards to making their characters feel and act in unique ways. It’s meant to be the ultimate homebrew, universal system, and it does very well at that.
Creating a Game Concept is nothing new to fans of Fate and perhaps even GURPS, but the succinct manner by which this is done is something that can be applied to literally any game where the GM and players collaborate to build the world they will be adventuring in. The unique nature of the core Traits and the Ability of each character are equally applicable to many other game systems, and can be stolen whole-cloth or adapted to various existing roleplaying games to give some added narrative heft to character roles and abilities. The idea of adding And and But statements can work in a lot of systems, too, but isn’t going to be for everyone: it’s kind of like a less visual way of performing some of the story work that comes out of dice systems like FFG’s Star Wars games.
Cornerstone features simple, clean layout like all of Sigil Stone’s work, but more akin to their first full-fledged RPG, Vow of Honor, there’s a fair amount of artwork depicting alien or fantasy humanoids, actions, and equipment. The artwork is somewhat sparse, but as this is a Basic version of the game, it is incredibly evocative of the breadth of possible game settings and characters you could play using Cornerstone.
The book is just over 40 pages. The text makes excellent use of bold for various game concepts, and examples are very clearly formatted separately from the rules text.
This game is clearly spelled out as the Basic version of the game, meaning that a more robust version is coming soon. Whether this will simply be the addition of more examples and artwork, or perhaps fully fleshed out genre settings with Ability and Skill lists, remains to be seen.
As it stands, Cornerstone is a fast-playing system with lots of narrative tricks and enough mechanics to keep a game going for at least a dozen sessions before you tap out too many additional traits or skills, so it’ll be interesting to see where Sigil Stone Publishing takes this game in the future.
I’ve been pretty happy with Sigil Stone’s productions to date, and this one is not lacking. The universal nature of the game means that it isn’t dripping with evocative mechanics like Vow of Honor, but the Game Concept creation adds a twist that will reinforce the themes of whatever game of the week the GM and players want to run, so in a way, Cornerstone sets you up to come up with the evocative stuff on your own without much effort. That’s a lot more than I can say for more “mechanical” universal systems like GURPS or d20 Modern, and I’d argue it’s a little more succinct and clear than your out-of-the-box Fate Core game, even if Fate Core has more to chew on in other areas of play. That’s a tall order, and Cornerstone delivers.
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