by Andy Vetromile
Published by Margaret Weis Productions (2010)
Designed and developed by Cam Banks, Joseph Blomquist, Roberta Olson, Josh Roby, Mary Blomquist, and Amanda Valentine
Edited by Amanda Valentine
Art and graphic design by Tiara Lynn Agresta, Zachary Baldus, Josh Roby, and Amanda Valentine
216 full-color pages, hardbound
$39.99 (PDF $19.99)
This game is featured in the OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2010.
The show Smallville has been a staple on television for nearly a
decade now, on two networks, and a top-rated one at that. As it runs its
final season, the creative crew at Margaret Weis Productions keeps the
action going with the Smallville Roleplaying Game Corebook. Based
on the early life of Clark Kent before he realized his destiny as the
Man of Steel, it traces his life from high school to his legendary job
at The Daily Planet. Players may take on one of the signature
protagonists of the show, or they can come up with their own spinoff.
Man/Men/Women Of Steel
The game is a new incarnation of the Cortex rules system. A player
character, called a Lead (in contrast to Features (people he knows) and
Extras (folks on the street)) is, at his heart, composed of his Drives.
This includes his Relationships (who he has a meaningful bond with, both
friend and foe) and Values (what he holds dear). The latter, Duty,
Glory, Justice, Love, Power, and Truth, are the core of how someone
interacts with the world, depending on circumstances, and those are
probably the closest someone gets to Strength, Intelligence, and other
traditional "attributes" in this system.
A character also gets Assets. These are Distinctions (personality
traits, like being a bigmouth or charitable), Abilities (the
superpowers), and Gear (your stuff – which may include superpowered
equipment like a power ring or wand). Finally he has Resources,
including Extras (the lesser but still important people he knows, like a
confidential informant or a doctor), and Locations (a secret base or a
favorite nightclub). Everything is rated with dice, starting at d4 and
going up by 2s to d12.
Faster Than A Speeding Bullet
The hero uses these ratings to accomplish uncertain feats set for him by
Watchtower – what the book calls the game master. He rolls the
Traits that fit best, however many he can justify, and keeps the two
best die results. (These rules may not be the best judge of every
situation – one example has Oliver shooting Lois' kidnapper using Love
as his base Trait. Riiight.) If he equals or beats whatever Watchtower
has set for him, he succeeds. If he's up against someone else, it's a
little more involved. Say a Lead is debating with an NPC the wisdom of
capturing superbeings for experiments. The hero might roll Justice and
add his Smartass die; if the two have a Relationship they would probably
roll that die (the hero uses his knowledge of this person to appeal to
his reason). They make note of his total, but if his partner in the
discussion isn't willing to listen, he might counter with his own
argument. Watchtower would then roll dice to come up with the opposing
view (and his own total), and if he bests him the ball is back in the
Lead's court. They go back and forth like this until one of them
withdraws from the contest or simply cannot increase his die roll. This
process causes Stress.
Stress is rated in five areas – Afraid, Angry, Exhausted, Injured,
and Insecure. The more you're feeling it, the worse off your character
is. As Stress builds for the heroes, the Trouble Pool grows. This is a
pile of dice Watchtower can draw from to increase those contested rolls.
In other words, where character interaction in most games is simply a
skill roll, part of the roleplaying system, in Smallville it
is the system. Heroes find their notions of right and wrong
challenged, and if the villains – or even your allies, whose personas
can clash violently with your own – can make you feel uncertain about
your position, they've got you on the psychological ropes.
The Plot Thickens
The rewards for this are Plot Points. The worse off you are, or the more
victories people score against you, the more Plot Points you have to
spend. These may activate special uses of one's Abilities, or just add
dice to your pool (so the game of one-upmanship can continue).
Roleplaying is no longer just part of the game, it's the whole game.
Characters you know are themselves literally rated with dice: if you
decided at character creation you had a long-standing rivalry with Biff,
played by Jim sitting to your left, you would roll the Biff die every
time you confronted him or had to discuss Biff with another character.
The bigger the die you assign to Biff is, the more strongly you feel
about him, good or bad. Characters are rated for whatever emotional
investment you have in them, and these emotions are colored by a
statement made with each Trait you have (maybe your sheet reads "Biff is
a jerk" – if Biff is rated at d10, you really think the guy is a
heel and you'll roll high whenever you badmouth him).
This points to a whole list of pros and cons for the game. For one
thing, it's an ingenious mechanic – Smallville may be focused on
character relationships like no game before it has been. Then again, the
whole system shares this abstracted feel. Other games have foregone hit
points or skill sets, but this one does away with all of them, and you
have to think about, work for, and discuss every single thing your
character does. Superpowers have to be interpreted broadly, but can
Power Leech really let its user steal Abilities from Gear? You can
"borrow" the power of Oliver's sleep-gas arrows? If you didn't have a
theatrical bent coming into this, you'll have one going out. There is no
combat mechanic outside Stress; if you have enough of it, you run away
crying like a little girl, or collapse from mental strain, or yes, get
buried under a car thrown at you. But all the tactics are those of the
mind and the spoken word, of outplaying your opponent instead of
outmaneuvering him. For some it's a revolutionary use of a bidding
mechanic but for those looking for a traditional superhero dustup with
"bonuses to hit", it may be cause to blink in confusion and pass.
That's perhaps part of why the character creation system is so hard to
get the first time through. It's a lot to absorb, and the dice mechanics
are somewhat glossed over before one really sees how the whole thing
comes together. Leads are created by selecting different archetypes
throughout specific stages of development. For example, everyone has an
Origin, and if you choose Alien at this stage, when you go to the Youth
section you have to be an Outsider, Paragon, or Jock; you cannot be
Average or a Geek. This also determines which Traits on your sheet are
likely to go up (because others presumably just don't fit the
Small details speak out against the process here. Part of it is the
nomenclature. Characters are Leads, Features, or Extras, but veterans of
many systems might think of Features and Extras as being akin to
"bonuses" or other words used to describe advantages. The TV show
characters are the examples in the character creation section, but the
writers, trying to add a little color, use the old "The designers of
this game are the players in our example" trick. Not only do you have to
keep up with the changes being made to Clark Kent as the example moves
along, you're asked to remember Cam is playing Clark (at the very least
you're reminded of it repeatedly), and they trace the development of six
Leads. Worse, one of the designers was Amanda Valentine – which is no
reflection on Ms. Valentine, but "Amanda Waller" is a character from the
comics and the show, and she is given a write-up later in the characters
section, causing a bit of cognitive dissonance when unrelated first
names from the program's pantheon are conflated.
The game suggests getting the group together to create a massive map of the
relationships among all the participants and their NPC friends. It's a
pretty cool exercise, and they make it look like a lot of fun. What they
don't seem to address is new players joining or old players switching
out if they tire of their hero. Either the person must forgo all the
intricate work that places the new figure into the narrative, leaving
them with no connections, or they have to attach themselves after the
fact, and there don't seem to be mechanics for doing that easily...
every relationship two people create in this game has more than a
"flavor text" effect. Adding a character to this relationship map
mid-campaign seems akin to to Supergluing a Ming vase.
Word count is badly utilized, mostly where character write-ups are
concerned. After the example in the creation section concludes, a full
character sheet for each completed Lead is provided. Then in the back of
the book the same folks are shown again but presented as Features
(another way of saying it: you can play Clark from the front of the book
or go to the NPC Clark at the back of it for advice). There are
differences, yes, but it's like a DVD commentary track no one is
interested in. It would have saved space to present both versions in one
place, tweaks included, and just include page references to bring people
to that spot. As it is, the first set of character sheets takes up about
six pages and the second more than eight, illustrations excluded. Space
could have been saved in Abilities as well – loosely defined as they
are, some could have been combined (Animal Control and Insect Control
could go together, for one).
Many characters share similar Traits (with an abstract system the
options are less refined), but they don't simply list, say, Big
Brother for each character who has it, they list both it and that
character's level in it. Instead of using the die rating as a shorthand
(if you have something at d10, obviously you haven't unlocked its d12
use), the little tricks that entry allows you at each level are repeated
half a dozen times.
Sometimes the problem is just wording, as with this sample effect from
the Absorption Ability: "Absorb energy to Decrease your opponent's
Injured or Exhausted Stress pool against you or another character."
Given that the section on Stress specified the beneficial effects of
receiving Stress, it's hard to parse out who's doing what and in whose
best interest this process is.
. . . And The American Way (Conclusions)
The game's adventure creation advice is fantastic, the best since the
original Judge Dredd, and hopefully it sees reuse in more
products at Margaret Weis Productions. There are plenty of examples, but
the ones that work best are the short and sweet ones. The extended ones
are more baffling, and while talking down to one's audience isn't
commendable, treating the reader with even softer kid gloves wouldn't
have hurt. The examples have a lot of "how" but often at the expense of
"why". The tone is overly conversational in places, but at least it
doesn't take itself too seriously.
Smallville is an excellent idea, and the system tweaks truly get
to the heart of how a TV episode plays out. It's not just about
super-beatings, it's about the characters and the process of learning to
be a hero. The live action is well duplicated by these mechanics. That
said, the presentation suffers mightily, and slogging though the
creation portion is unpleasant at best. Once the secrets are revealed,
what remains is a beautiful gem of a game with a process so clever it
counts among maybe three systems that could turn the hobby on its head.
Just don't call Smallville super yet; it still has a little way to go.