Apparently I review a lot of supers games these days, and the latest in that field is the Smallville RPG, newly released in PDF for $20 at RPGNow, and available in hardcopy at GenCon for $40.
I’ll be honest…I’m not a big fan of the show. I tried watching it in the early seasons, but got turned off by a mix of “Freak of the Week”, Tom Welling’s one facial expression and how seemingly every episode ended with the same overwrought scene between Clark and Lana where she went on at length about how people can’t keep secrets from one another and Clark, well, had his one facial expression. I sure did enjoy Lex and Lionel Luthor, though.
That being said, it’s not the license that brings me to the game, it’s the system. Smallville was released by Margaret Weis Productions, who are handily taking over the slow once occupied by Eden Studios as the cult license company, previously releasing Serenity, Battlestar Galactica and Supernatural. All of their games use their own in-house system known as Cortex, which ranks any abilities, perks and what have you in die types, and you roll the relevant dice together. In Smallville, you virtually always roll three dice (unless you spend Plot Points to roll more), taking the highest two results and adding them together.
One of the major areas where Smallville departs from the other Cortex games is that your characters don’t have ability scores in the classic sense. Instead, they have Values: Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power and Truth. What’s more, each Drive is further defined with a sentence. Clark Kent, for example, believes that Power Corrupts, and ranks that Drive with d4. Zod, on the other hand, ranks it at a d10 with the tag on sentence “Kneel before Zod!” Again, every character has the six Values, ranked from d4 to d12, and every character has a sentence describing their connection to the Values.
The next thing they are ranked on are Relationships…which includes relationships with the other PCs (PCs are called “Leads”), as well as major NPCs (Features) and minor NPCs (Extras). Relationships can grow and change over the course of the game, getting stronger, weaker or even changing dramatically (rivals slowly becoming friends, or lovers drifting apart). Just as with Values, every Relationship is ranked with a die type and a descriptive sentence.
Distinctions are descriptive qualities, often positive and negative, that are triggered with Plot Points, or grant Plot Points. The negatives are often choosing to do something in character, but detrimental, in exchange for a Plot Point. Lionel Luthor’s Family Reputation allows him to gain a Plot Point and give his opposition a d6 whenever his reputation precedes him, or he can add a d6 to the GM’s (Watchtower’s) “Trouble Pool” (dice the Watchtower uses to add opposition to a situation, beginning with 2d6 and changing over time) in exchange for a “get out of jail free card”, that is, buying his way out of a sticky situation.
Abilities are things like superpowers, and Smallville provides a good number of them, plenty enough to add in your own. As it’s not a heavily “balanced” system, there’s not nearly as much tinkering involved in inserting new Abilities (or Distinctions, for that matter). You can use the die type of Abilities for relevant rolls, or spend Plot Points to do amazing stunts.
Gear is a lot like Abilities, just mainly for the non-powered types.
Lastly are Resources, such as Extras and Locations, which can be tapped up to twice in an Episode for aid. You can even tap someone else’s Resources…you just have to pay them a Plot Point for taking away their Resource.
Also, as mentioned, Leads have Plot Points which are used to trigger Abilities, call in Resources, roll extra dice, include extra dice in your final result (instead of just the two highest), tag a Useful Aspect in a scene that gives you an extra d6 to call on in the scene, or add a Relationship on the spot.
For someone who is generally a pretty traditional gamer, like me, there are a lot of concepts and philosophies in Smallville that confound me a bit, such as Relationship Maps, Stress Pools, and so forth. Character generation, in fact, is a group session that also entails basically creating the world, because each player adds important NPCs and Locations to the game as they build up their characters. Luckily, the book is filled with examples, including a step by step walkthrough of character generation, complete with diagrams of the Relationship Map.
Smallville uses a Lifepath system called Pathways, and you build your characters in steps, starting with Origin (Rich, Ordinary, Gifted, Strange and Alien/Metahuman) which guides you on the initial adjustments to your characters. From there, each Origin has an “exit” to three of five Youth options: Jock, Average, Geek, Outsider and Paragon. From Youth you get your Focus options: Money, Life, Status, Technology and Paranormal, which in turn opens your Road: Risky, Straight and Narrow, Lofty, Underground and Ethical. This all sets up your Life-Changing Event, be it Advancement, Tragedy, Power Manifestation, First Contact and Destiny. These are the minimum steps to create “rookie” characters. Throughout this, the Pathways system is also giving you instructions on modifying the Relationship Map, so it is growing and changing as the character generation progresses and the game world is taking shape.
If you choose to continue After The Event, you get to move through the steps of Priority, Modus Operandi, Motivation and Identity…and then, if everyone really wants to keep on moving, the book provides handy guidelines on advancing even further, to have some truly seasoned characters.
This would all really throw me except, as mentioned, they use excellent examples in the book. Though the Pathways system encourages you to follow certain Paths, the book does mention that it is perfectly viable to skip around a bit, if it’s really suitable for your character concept.
Once this is all finished (using the Season 9 Leads of Clark, Chloe, Oliver, Lois, Tess and Zod), handy character sheets are provided for each Lead, matching the example just used.
Lots of advice is provided for scene framing, as well as Contests (complete with examples). If you’re losing a Contest, you can Give In and let the winning side get what they wanted from the Contest or you can run the risk of taking Stress (and possibly becoming Stressed Out). There are five types of Stress (Afraid, Angry, Exhausted, Injured and Insecure), and the types of Stress can be influenced by certain Distinctions and Abilities. If a Lead becomes Stressed Out, they gain a Plot Point, are basically removed from a Scene, and step all their Stress back one step. Giving In is not without risks, though. If you’ve rolled any dice, then Giving In costs you a Plot Point, either straight up, or gained by lowering one of your Values or Relationships.
One area I would have appreciated an example for is Advancement, as you use your Growth Pool (which includes healed Stress, or dice from Values that you have challenged through the course of the episode) to roll against the Watchtower to try to boost Relationships, Resources, Abilities, Gear and Distinctions. I think I’ve got it now, but it took a few re-readings. This makes for an interesting game, too, as it basically forces you to fail in order to improve your character.
Some good guidelines are given for making Episodes, starting by making an Episode Map with your leads, pinpointing Relationships to highlight and then finding Wedges (adversaries, generally) to provide conflict for them.
A whole chapter is also devoted to online play, although that one veers a bit into pretentiousness, in my opinion, and that’s not a good thing. (Asking for writing samples? Really?) The remainder of the book is just an in-depth dissection of everything that makes up your characters and how they are used in play,
A massive list of Distinctions are present, as well as useful guidelines on making your own Distinctions to fill in any blanks you might have. The same is done with both Abilities and Gear.
Resources are the big exception to the rules, as they are rated as 2dWhatever, and each have a couple of tags, which basically indicate how they are used by the Leads. For instance, Lex Luther has LuthorCorp Security with (Security, Retrievals) at 2d6…he can call them in and add their D6 to a die roll when trying to locate Lana, who has gone missing.
Every major (and a lot of minor) characters are included, with the notable exception of Pete Ross (who will surely show up in the High School Yearbook), full statted out for use as you see fit. This section is one of the few parts that doesn’t use screencaps, instead using art pieces that I wasn’t a big fan of. Among the heroes and villains present include Doomsday, John Jones (Martian Manhunter), Amanda Waller, Doctor Fate and Lex Luthor himself.
The game material concludes with an extensive listing of locations from the TV show, but the book isn’t done yet as it provides extensive overviews of the first seven seasons, followed by episode breakdowns of seasons eight and nine.
The book is gorgeous, laid out in red and blue, with tons of screencaps from the show and it is just filled full of Smallville Stuff. I mean, I quit even trying to follow the show a couple of seasons in and I feel comfortable about running something in canon based off of the book. Combine that with the helpful guidelines to go along with the extensive examples of Abilities and Distinctions and they give you everything you need to expand the game as you see fit. I also have to applaud the MWP crew: Smallville Season 9 ended in May….this book released at the end of July…and is up to date from the end of Season 9. From my experience in following licensed RPGs, that is some really impressive stuff and speaks to the level of cooperation MWP had from someone on the Smallville crew.
Tremendous game with top notch production values…the best release I’ve seen from MWP yet and the best licensed DC RPG I’ve read, hands down.
This review has been kindly supplied by Tommy Brownel. My sincere thanks
So what do you think?