The biggest problem with the “indie” movement in RPGs is that it’s caused the rather meaningless concepts of being author-owned or tiny-press to be entwined with the idea of being cutting edge or free-forming. Thus you end up with the ludicrous suggestion that Rebecca Borgstrom, Bejamin Baugh or Robin D. Laws aren’t doing exciting work because they don’t own their own company, or that D&D 4E wasn’t breaking new ground because it’s so very popular. So when I say it’s been a good year for being indie, what I mean is that in the last year, some of the systems of the smaller games (relatively speaking, as always) and more extemporaneous designs have suddenly shifted into the limelight of “big” business and big names. Particularly noteworthy was little-engine-that-could FATE getting the Harry Dresden licence; even more impressive is as big a property as Superman himself getting an RPG that is not quite like anything else we’ve seen before.
What makes it truly amazing however is that as well as being very different and being very new, the Smallville RPG accomplishes the most important of all tasks: being very good. It is an exhaustively impressive piece of work, radiating accomplished skill, creative brilliance and evident hard work. In an age where so many of the brightest ideas are appearing in the flimsiest of products or least-developed properties, Smallville has landed on the RPG scene with a shuddering impact, like a visitor from a distant planet, and things may never be quite the same again.
Perhaps the single most important thing about Smallville, the thing I want to mention first up, the thing that caught my eye immediately and showed me this game was going above and beyond all expectations, is that it has a section on Online Play. And I don’t just mean playing over skype or in a chatroom, although that alone is now a major feature of our hobby yet one which continues to be mostly ignored by our actual books. I mean it acknowledges the other roleplayers out there. For at least the last ten years, roleplaying has meant more than just what we do or what computer roleplayers do. Another hobby has developed with the same name, mostly but not entirely separate from our own, but following the same instincts and desires. Fans of anime and TV shows – descending from hard core shipping and fan fiction and the like – made their way onto internet chat rooms and forums and started to create stories together, as their favourite characters and in their favourite genres. So far, they’ve never really needed our hobby, but occasionally borrow our settings, but it’s always seemed strange to me that we’ve never even acknowledged theirs. Until now.
It’s not a huge chapter and a lot of it just “you guys probably don’t need this book that much if you’re doing forum fiction gaming, but you’ll find it really useful for developing strong characters, exciting conflict and rich storylines.” But it’s there and that fact alone is simply first class.
So we’ve covered the important stuff. But what’s the game about?
In case you’ve been swearing off super-powered-teen-angst-television lately (and I can imagine you might have had your fill), Smallville is a TV show that tells the story about the young Superman, for that is the name of his home town. Of course, now that the show has run nine series, Supes has grown up and moved to Metropolis and the show has powered on. Perhaps a key to the show’s longevity has been its instinct to quickly abandon a series of independent “disasters of the week” episodes in favour of a more soap-operatic serial show. This is the new kind of soap opera, however, as seen in critical-darling shows like Breaking Bad, Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Deadwood, where the main characters are often directly at odds and the villains get just as much spotlight (and dramatic depth and subtlety) as the heroes – assuming of course that you can tell one from the other. Power balances and negotiated deals see-saw back and forth and generally, nothing gets accomplished except adding to the angst and frustration. The cleverness of the show Smallville was taking an extremely well-known and populated mythos and refracting all its elements through this dramatic lens, making the old suddenly new again, in much the same way that Buffy took old vampire and Lovecraftian stories and refracted them into its own unique style. And the genius of the Smallville RPG is it focuses entirely on that refraction, and replicates it perfectly.
Almost all RPGs mimic a setting by its elements; very few, even in the indie crowd, try to mimic the unique aspects of its narrative structure. Indeed, few games even have a distinctive narrative structure to them, or have them in only the vaguest sense, merely suggested in the GM’s section or with space left in the rules for them to happen, not hard-wired into the system or adventures. Or if they do have a structure, they borrow D&Ds (meet in tavern, kill all monsters) or Call of Cthulhu’s (investigate, freak out). Smallville has a feel and flow unlike any other RPG out there, and it achieves this by hard-wiring its structure into every molecule of the game so that it cannot be played otherwise. Yet at the same time it still feels to a great amount like a traditional RPG, not an abstract GM-less improvised story-telling experience.
It’s also clever in that it does all this while also using the house system of Margaret Weis Publishing, known as Cortex. It’s impressive to see a house system preserved yet everything else being fundamentally different, for it proves just how much you can do with a base dice mechanic if you change all the names and buttons, and it proves MWP are keen to use Cortex in some very exciting ways. That means their game design will never feel constrained by their publisher’s need to stamp brand loyalty. The essence of Cortex is to roll two dice and add them up. The size of each die will depend on how good you are at the thing in question, stepping up from d4 to d12. Sometimes, you’ll get to add additional dice but you always just take the highest two of your pool and add them. In standard Cortex, one die will be an attribute and the other a skill. In Smallville, one die will be a personal value, the other a personal relationship.
Okay, let’s back that up and go through it again.
Your character’s main descriptive mechanics aren’t stats. Instead, you have six Values – Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power and Truth. Then instead of skills you have how strong your relationships are with the other people in your life, be they PCs or NPCs. Now, in both cases these relationships don’t have to be positive, and must be explicated by a phrase describing your emotions. So someone might have “Love is all I need d4” while another person might have “I have no time for Love d12”. They don’t have to be complimentary either, or objectively true; Joe might have “JANE is my soulmate d8” while Jane might have “I like to lead JOE along d10”. The size of the die represents how much you value that statement and staying true to it.
So then, you ask, how does one looking for secret doors or anything else? The answer is by figuring out why you’re looking for secret doors. Do you want the Glory of being the one to find it? Or is it your Duty as the party rogue? Is it important to get Justice (d6) for the Buxom Bar Wench (d8) who you saw weeping over her dead father this morn? Or just to get to the Truth (d12) about whether the party Wizard (d4) sold you out to the orcs?
Obviously, a system like this will not please hard-core simulationists who think looking for secret doors should depend on your eyesight. Don’t despair entirely however as characters can also get what are called Distinctions to add to their die rolls. These represent stuff you are good at. If you’re super-poweredly good at it, they’re called Abilities but they work in almost exactly the same way, by adding a third die to your pool. However, there’s no point where you just roll your Elven Eyesight to find the door, you always come back to a Value and a Relationship first and foremost, and for traditionalists that will be hard to get used to – sometimes you really just want to know if they can or can’t do something, and it’s not something that comes with any emotional ties. On the other hand, it works more than you think it does. After all, how many RPGs tell you to only roll when it matters? Welcome to a system where you can’t do anything but, because you simply do not have the stats to do so.
The system is more than just that, of course. If you’re just doing something against the universe, the GM (or in this case, the Watchtower) rolls two dice from his “Trouble pool” - at least 2d6 but it gets bigger as play goes on. Beat that total and you succeed. If you’re going against a fellow PC or a major NPC – and you very often will be – things get stickier. In those situations, you enter into a kind of bidding war. One person states their goal, perhaps the rogue wants to “convince the wizard to confess if he’s sold us out to the orcs”. Then the instigator rolls their dice. The wizard can then agree to do whatever’s been demanded (confess), or roll his own dice. If the wizard gets a higher number, then the roles switch – now the rogue has to choose to give in to what the wizard wants, or try to roll higher. On the other hand, if the wizard doesn’t beat the role, he takes stress. Stress is basically damage although since these kind of battles are more often mental and emotional than physical, this damage comes in many flavours: Afraid, Insecure, Injured, Exhausted and Angry.
Take too much damage from this conflict or others and you become stressed out, and can’t act any more in that scene.
The important subtlety here is that unless you willingly give in to the other player’s demand, you can’t actually lose. Or rather, you can lose agency but you don’t submit to their goal for you. In our example, the wizard might head off on his own, or fall into a sulk, or pass out from the torture, but he doesn’t confess. There are some obvious hiccups with this idea because it is not always easy to figure out a way to lose agency but not give in. And contrarily, it can be easy for a sharp player to pretend to give in but then try and weasel out of whatever he promised. However, the system is set up to provide lots of help with dealing with these things and it’s not as tricky as you think. It also matters less than you think because stress isn’t that bad. Indeed, it’s the easiest way to get XP so you want to be stressed at some point.
The other hiccup with the system is it is fairly easy to min-max. For example, if you want to be absolutely sure that nobody is backstabbing you because you promised your lord to always seek truth, you could be rolling I must know the Truth d12 + I must protect my Lord Kelvin from enemies d12 while the poor wizard who generalised only has Truth is relative d6 and I don’t like the Rogue d8. Generalists, in short, tend to be screwed because they’re competing directly with other specialist PCs, and because of the very open nature of the abilities in question, it’s easy to use the ones you want for most every test. Of course, this does make sense from a simulation perspective: if you have a d12 in something then you really believe in it so of course your life will be dominated with you using that conviction – when all you have is a hammer, and all that. The problem is also slightly mitigated by the fact that even if you beat somebody in a roll-off, you don’t necessarily get what you want. You can stress them out so badly that they lose their agency but that’s all. So power-gaming can only get you someone who runs around stressing people out constantly and players and characters won’t want to hang out with such a person. So there’s little game reward from powergaming. That said, there is some need for everyone to agree on how specialised to make characters, and for the GM to make sure that nobody can use certain values as dump stats. That means designing challenges and encounters that demand the use of all the Values, which can be a brainburner (“How does this orc attack challenge the rogue’s Love?”)
For the GM, there’s also the issue that you have to make sure your NPCs are fairly well fleshed out so you know which dice they’ll be rolling – and then trying to figure out if that’s an appropriate challenge. Again though, that’s not quite as hard as it sounds. The game helps by taking pains to point out that just because you’re playing an NPC doesn’t mean you should forget you’re telling a story, and the give in mechanics really support that. It is literally impossible for the PCs to kill your bad guy in the first scene in this game unless you let them because the bad guy cannot be killed unless you choose to let him give in to that demand. Likewise, TPKs are impossible because the players have to give in. Again, resolving how that works in practice is a skill that needs to be mastered (“I shot him in the temple, how is he just Angry?”) but the narrative power it gives to GMs (and to players) is delicious. And the best thing is, it gives the players and GMs this agency without turning them into pure authors, scripting things at a distance from their character’s motivations, or into tactical gamers opposing each other, nor without removing or minimising the GM, so players and GMs alike can still get their full immersionist avatar thrill. It’s a startlingly clever balance that works very well.
A similarly clever device is the mechanic for Resources. These are things that provide a large bonus to your die roll but only work twice per session-episode. This is a nice way to model things in television shows that come up now and then but aren’t a major part of the character, like the ass-kicking PI who occasionally shakes down a local stool pigeon, but that isn’t a major part of his character. The hard limit on using resource stops those situations in games where players – being real people – just go “Well, why can’t we just keep doing X until we get what we need?” In TV land this often occurs across multiple episodes, where our hero gets information or resources from source Y one week then doesn’t do it again for many episodes, despite the audience screaming for him to do so. The only reason for it is dramatic necessity or writing fiat, and the Smallville game doesn’t try to explain it any other way. That’s an inherent part of the design of the entire game: while it doesn’t force players to be writers rather than characters, it does assume you’re all getting together to make an awesome TV show, not the reality that occurs inside a TV show. That helps a lot when it comes to explaining some of the less-simulationist mechanics and outcomes we’ve already discussed.
But it doesn’t just explain how TV shows work and then make you do all the hard work of creation and styling by yourself. No. Smallville once again goes above and beyond and provides a fantastic life-path character creation system which is also woven amongst a SERIES creation system. The two, in fact, are inseparable, which makes sense because in TV writing they don’t come up with a setting first and then populate it with characters second. How it works is that at each stage of the nine-step life-path generation, as well as the player choosing the path for their character (and getting the appropriate abilities for that selection), they also draw things on a big piece of paper. That’s just one piece of paper for the whole group, which is important. What they draw are symbols for their PCs, major setting locations and important NPCs, connecting these up with arrows to indicate which PCs have a relationship with the NPCs or locations and labelling the arrows to explain that relationship. So you might draw a line from your character to your mum and write “can’t know my secret”. You might not know what that secret is, of course. Or you might draw a line from your character to the moon base and write “holds my secret army of ninjas”. And so on and so forth.
The important thing is that all these added nodes and lines are on a shared piece of paper, and at each step, every player gets a chance to add to the piece of paper in general, not just to their character’s elements. In this way, the setting elements – people and places – belong to everyone, and everyone gets to define their own relationship with them, and even other people’s relationships with them. So everyone else can now draw lines to your moon base and say if they work there or if they are plotting to destroy it, or indeed, make your mom be plotting to destroy it, unaware as she is that it contains your army of ninjas. As you can see, players are encouraged to set up complex relationships with each other and with what each of them cares about, and it is very easy (and desirable) to make these relationships operate at cross purposes. You can even make relationships non-reflexive, so your mom might know your secret but be pretending she doesn’t, or the moon base may no longer be accepting your shuttle, because said shuttle is now controlled by your mom’s new boyfriend....
Each line on the page always translates to an element on your character sheet, so as well as gaining stats from your choice of life-path, you also get a record of all your connections to the various locations and NPCs. Really important NPCs may turn into Relationships, but otherwise they’ll remain, like locations, as Resources to tap for support (when you need Mom to give you some cookies and milk and remind you why you need those ninjas after all). Thus you don’t have to refer to the big piece of paper during the game, but it remains as an awesome visual summary of your campaign for players and GMs alike to consult for inspiration.
Indeed, the “how to GM” chapter on setting scenes and creating episodes hangs on using the criss-crossy diagram (use a BIG piece of paper, kids, and different colours!) as your source. There’s some heavy lifting for the GM here, as he’s expected to create episodes by developing complex NPC foils that will throw the spotlight onto several major PC conflicts and then ensure that the PCs engage with these foils in the right way and at the right time. (Some might call this railroading, but that’s a stupid definition of the word we won’t deal with here.) It’s actually a good way to learn to write scripts, and even makes use of TV-script jargon like Reveals, A and B plots and Tag Scenes. The last of these are scenes which “tag along” at the end of episodes where the main characters get to reflect on what happened and what’s changed in the show as a result. In a perfect marriage of setting and system, these scenes are where you get to spend XP. You can also use this chance to rewrite and restat your Values and Relationships if they have changed, so your character can develop ("now that I know my mom has been trying to destroy my secret ninja moon base all along, can I ever trust her again?" MOM can’t know my secret d8 becomes MOM cannot be trusted d10). Using tag scenes and foils provides a formalised process of developing an episode, and similar hints are given for stepping these foils out through reveals, reaching a climax and then tailing into tags. This structure gives the GM a lot to hang onto and build upon – as does the fantastic series design diagram which cannot help but be dripping with potential conflict. So while it is hard work, it’s not as hard as it seems.
It also helps that the players are encouraged through the system and the book itself to help in this process. Indeed, while I called this the “how to GM” chapter, it actually comes quite early in the book (before the kewl powers list) and is explicitly specified as being written for players and GMs alike. This is such a stunningly good idea I am aghast that it took us thirty five years to get to it. Of course the players should know how to GM because that way they can understand the nature of the stories they are in and help them along, and there’s much, much less chance for the players to misunderstand what the game will be about. The icing on this cake is right at the very beginning, after explaining how to roll the dice and what roleplaying is, the game breaks down the central responsibilities of the players, whether they be player, GM or both. Again, stunningly obvious. Key to any good shared collaborative experience. And it took us this long to get here. Even games where the narrative power of each role is specifically listed usually forget to simply and carefully lay out what everyone is responsible for – or again, they put this information in just a vague explanation of how they think roleplaying works (“The GM describes things, you react”) without telling you who’s responsible for who’s enjoyment. But here, the first duty of every player is “Make everybody else at the table look awesome.”
Like so many rules in RPGs, many of us knew that implicitly, but nobody thought to write it down as an actual rule, not just a chatty suggestion in the back somewhere. Until now.
Sorry, I’m gushing. To bring us back to earth, the game does have its faults. The extremely idiosyncratic resolution system is not going to appeal to everyone, and even when it does appeal, it has a few hiccups and speedbumps along its sharp learning curve. We’ve already discussed some of the strange artefacts that can result from a system rooted entirely on player or GM permission, and there are more in the nitty-gritty of the elements around this system. For example, ganging up is the best way to win challenges because any help you get comes across as an addition to your rolled total, not an extra die to roll. This may mould your group into cliques and again, may need a watchful eye to avoid it becoming abusive (and you won’t necessarily see it coming because the system is so arcane). It also puts a lot of pressure on the GM once again because it is entirely up to him who is in which scene. That leads to another strange artefact where the primary effect of Superman’s superspeed is the purely dramatic bonus of being to enter any scene he wants. The same goes for Green Arrow’s zipline. Wrapping your head around a system where super-powers are represented in such a narrative fashion (although they do other things too) is not easy, but it is also a huge part of the fun. It kind of mirrors the lens of the show, where the established world of superheroes was refracted into the dramatic format of teenage angst power plays; here the established concepts of superhero RPGs is refracted into this new and exciting way of roleplaying.
And as I said, the powers do other things as well. The over fifty powers listed are broken down into six types by effect – Attack, Defence, Movement, Senses, Control and Modify – telling you when you can add your die roll to your actions. Power tricks are usable by spending Plot Points (which you can get by giving dice bonuses to the GM or by giving in during conflicts). Normal abilities (ie Distinctions) also have their own cool mechanics beyond simply adding a die roll to your Value + Relationship pool. At the d4, d8 and d12 level they also give you an extra power. It’s a small added complication that in return offers every player – whether they have superpowers or not – a few unique and interesting kewl powers, with mechanical backup. It also allows some Distinctions to work like disadvantages, granting Plot Points when they can lead you to do something foolish. This kind of mechanical depth in a long list of powers is refreshing in a game as narratively-focussed as this, and again shows their dedication to making an RPG that combines its originality with a very traditional frame.
If there’s a problem with the Distinctions it’s that they’re too specific to the Smallville TV show. If, like me, you don’t know the show at all, some of them are a bit confusing and some things you might want are missing. This isn’t really a negative, however: a licensed game absolutely should be laser-like in its precise following of its source, and it is clear throughout that this game is just that. It’s just that it’s so well designed and so much fun and so easy to run in any setting that the few times it does leave the reader behind with show references make you wince, for anything that might detract from this game being embraced by as many people as possible feels like a crime. Thankfully this is not a crime which is committed often: although the game is fiercely on-genre and contains complete write-ups of all the characters and a detailed series and episode guide, it never feels in any way arcane or exclusionary. I have nothing but distaste and disdain for the television show (and indeed much of the genre it occupies) but I felt at home in the game and quickly wanted to use it to run shows like Smallville. Or indeed, shows NOTHING like Smallville, because despite that laser-like focus, the clever lens can refract anything and despite the mechanical depth of the Distinctions, it is surprisingly easy to make your own (and the superpower list is exhaustive).
Making up your own material is also helped by the clarity with which the rules are presented. The writers have worked hard not just to make the rules easy to learn and simple to understand but to explain the purpose and meaning behind them as well. (They’ve also gone a long way to doing this on the RPGNet forums, as well.) The writing is also written with a light touch making the book a joyful breeze to read. It’s also beautifully laid out, with everything easy to find and a very detailed contents that fully compensates for the lack of an index. Plus it’s full of glossy pics from the show, sometimes full page (and a few weak sketches that we’ll say no more about) and includes a foreword by executive producers of the show. With the aforementioned episode guide and lovely glossy cover this should indeed appeal to fans of the show – and even if they have no roleplaying experience the fantastic writing and clear explanations make this game playable by anybody.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy – like I said this is a game that demands some heavy lifting from the GM, including a strong sense of narrative composition and a flair for making sound judgements on the fly. And new gamer or not, it requires a sharp gear-change even once you master the learning curve. The power of its lens means it will always produce a strange new dynamic, and that dynamic is always going to work better for some players than others, and simply not work for plenty of players – and plenty of stories - at all. But it is also a game that does everything within its power to make that heavy lifting as easy and fun as possible. It is a game that eases you into the strangeness so cleverly and so well that you’ll quickly find yourself mastering that learning curve and wanting to return again and again to this new dynamic of play, in every setting you can find. It is a lever of maximum power, a machine that turns little ideas and regular effort into great drama and epic fun.
And that’s the key. Yes, it is a game that consolidates the last ten years of indie design insight into how to define and refine the roles of players and mechanics in creating strong dramatic interplay and transposes all of that into a traditional and familiar RPG format with the player and GM roles in their usual places and kewl powers still on hand. Yes it takes these great ideas and binds them to a slick-looking book that showcases a fantastic property which is already much roleplayed in chatrooms thus no doubt helping our hobby reach new and untapped markets, and filling those markets with such new ideas they may never understand how to play Dungeons and Dragons. But what matters more, more than all of that put together, is that the game is just damn good. Well conceived, well designed and fantastically well written. It may not hit every mark perfectly but that is only because it is extremely courageous in its reach, not because of any lacking in its truly impressive grasp.
Now get out of my moon base, Mom, I need my ninjas.