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Reviews - Smallville
 
by Andy Vetromile


SmallvilleSmallville
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).

Bizarro Smallville
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 backstory).

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.  

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