Smallville, also called the Smallville Roleplaying Game, is a dramatic role-playing game published by Margaret Weis Productions in 2010. It was the first game to use the Cortex Plus system. The game was co-designed by line developer Cam Banks and indie publisher Josh Roby.
The game is designed to allow player characters of very different power levels (from super-powered aliens to unpowered humans) to be played on equal terms and to let players build casts of characters who might have opposing goals (e.g. featuring both a hero and a villain), both of which it does by focusing on story and inter-personal conflict rather than raw power. It won a Judge's Spotlight Award at the 2011 ENnies.
Smallville is a licensed role-playing game and is written in a way that assumes that campaigns of the game will take place in the world of the Smallville television show, a version of the DC Comics superhero universe that focuses on the life of a young Clark Kent before he becomes Superman, and uses examples from that show throughout to explain the rules. The example of character creation in the rulebook shows you how you can create and play the protagonists of Smallville season nine: Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Chloe Sullivan, Tess Mercer, and General Zod.
However, while the game is designed to emulate the genre of super-powered coming-of-age dramas (or soap operas) like Smallville, very few rules (with rare, optional exceptions like the Kryptonian Heritage character trait) tie the gameplay to that specific setting. In fact, the world of Smallville is an example setting for the game, which is otherwise largely generic and can be played in any setting, which is facilitated through Smallville's life path character creation system, called Pathways.
Smallville was the first game using the Cortex Plus game engine, and was the only published game that used the Dramatic Roleplaying rules established in Smallville and further codified in the generic Cortex Plus Hackers' Guide.
As a Cortex Plus game, Smallville is a roll-and-keep system where players build dice pools from their characters' statistics (each of which is rated as a polyhedral die of a particular size from d4 to d12), which they roll and (usually) add up the results of the highest two dice results.
A dice pool will always include one of each of the core statistics, i.e. one Value (representing personal beliefs about Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power and Truth) and one Relationship (representing feelings about other characters). Other dice may be included based on other factors like personality traits (Distinctions), preparation, character resources, and powers. Players can also use a metacurrency called plot points to influence their dice pools and results, as well as other mechanics.
Most rolls are centred around character conflicts, and are opposed rolls with both characters building pools and rolling. If one of the characters involved is an NPC, the GM (called Watchtower) will roll for them. The two sides roll off in turns, needing to exceed the previous score. Before rolling, a player can choose to give in (granting their opponent what they want from the scene); if they choose to escalate by rolling but fail to exceed the previous result, they do not give in or do what their opponent wanted, but instead the losing character takes Stress. There are five different stress tracks (Afraid, Insecure, Injured, Exhausted and Angry) and too much in any of the stress tracks can overwhelm any character.
In rare situations when characters are in a moment of uncertainty other than a conflict with another character (e.g. when performing superheroic actions to avert a disaster), the player rolls against the GM's trouble pool (which gains and loses dice over the course of a session, generally as player characters get into and out of trouble). In this case, both pools are rolled simultaneously and there is no escalation.
Pathways character creation
Character generation in Smallville is a collaborative process, with characters going through their lives together step by step and deciding how their histories are woven together (a life path system). At each step, players choose a relevant option from the Pathways Chart and note the relevant traits and statistics for their character. Each step will also instruct players to draw a new connection between characters and places in the game world, which are recorded on a large shared relationship map (called the Pathways Map).
As players proceed through the Pathways steps (Origin, Youth, Focus, Road, Life-Changing Event, Priority, Modus Operandi, Motivation, Identity), they will determine the statistics of their characters, what they characters care about, how the characters relate to each other, what powers and resources they have, and what other important NPCs and locations exist in the game world. Although an involved process, Pathways helps to get players invested in the game world and the other characters before the game.
Managing Values and Relationships
As mentioned above, the most important traits a character has are their Values and Relationships. Values are a fixed set of six (in the default rules these are Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power and Truth) and always have a fixed number of dice steps spread across them. Relationships are an open-ended list that includes, at a minimum, all the other player characters (called Leads) and the most important non-player characters (called Features). The ratings (measured in dice size from d4 to d12) of a character's Values and Relationships will determine how strongly they feel about the core themes of the game and the other characters respectively.
Every Value and Relationship also has an associated statement, a short phrase that describes how the character feels about the object of the trait. For example, two characters with the same ratings in their Power Values are still very different if one has the statement "Power is a means to my ends" and the other has "I need Power to keep myself safe". When used in a dice roll, statements reveal things about the character's motivations, letting players telegraph their characters' intentions even if actions seem to contradict those intentions, and helping to externalise the character's internal lives.
A powerful move in the Smallville RPG is for a character to challenge one of their Values or Relationships by acting contrary to the associated statement. This immediately lets the player roll the relevant dice three times in their dice pool (rather than once), but reduces the rating of the trait for the rest of the session. In the long term, however, challenging is also the main way (along with addressing Stress) that players earn character advancement. Once a Value or Relationship has been challenged, it can either be stepped back permanently (and its points redistributed to other traits) or rewritten to reflect the character's new understanding and beliefs.
Values and Relationships and their associated statements are also important because the GM (Watchtower) can use them during prep. The game includes advice for GMs that sessions should be prepared by creating Wedges, which are characters or obstacles that will try to wedge apart characters' feelings, putting the player characters at odds with each other through their Values or Relationships, thus encouraging them to challenge their beliefs and grow.
There were two published supplements for Smallville before Margaret Weis Productions lost the license at the end of February 2013. Those were Smallville: High School Yearbook (for playing high school characters using Smallville) and Smallville: The Watchtower Report (with new rules and new example stat blocks for characters from the TV show).
When it was produced the reception was positive but surprised, with RPGamer declaring
- "The Smallville RPG is perhaps the most peculiar release of this year. Everything about its cover screams 'mediocre at best' — the cable television series license, the Margaret Weis productions and Cortex System logos, even the studio promo picture recycled as cover art would have led to plummeting expectations. ... But this volume proves that one should never judge a book by its cover. You should instead judge a book by its inside cover, which features a crew of up-and-coming indie designers in the main credits and laundry list of Evil Hat veterans in the special thanks section. If covers aren't enough a read-through, will reveal that Smallville is a great story game ideally suited for teen drama that has been cunningly disguised as a cheap TV tie-in."
The reviewer from io9 was equally surprised:
- "So I'll admit that when I saw the Margaret Weis Productions booth at Gen Con stacked with Supernatural, Smallville and Serenity RPGs, a small voice in the back of my head was saying, "These could be pretty bad." I have tied the small voice up securely and locked it the trunk of my car, because it was very wrong. The Smallville RPG is a finely crafted game that understands the quirks of the show and the things about it that its fans love, then wraps the game around those core values rather than tying them on as window dressing."
- Conceptual Design Leads: Cam Banks and Josh Roby
- Smallville RPG Design and Development: Cam Banks, Joseph Blonquist, Roberta Olsen, and Josh Roby
- Additional Design and Development: Mary Blomquist and Amanda Valentine
- Editing: Amanda Valentine
- Art and Creative Direction: Tiara Lynn Agresta
- Shannon Appelcline (2011). Designers & Dragons (354 pages). Mongoose Publishing. ISBN 978-1-907702-58-7.
- Ed Grabianowski (2010-09-04). "Smallville RPG wields big drama". io9. Retrieved 2020-03-27
- "2011 Noms and Winners". ENnie Awards. Retrieved 2020-03-27
- Steve Darlington (2010-10-22). "Review of Smallville Roleplaying Game Corebook". RPG.net. Retrieved 2020-03-27.
- Jeff Preson (2010-08-12). "Smallville RPG Review". Flames Rising. Retrieved 2020-03-27.
- Scott Wachter. "The Saving Throw: Smallville: the Roleplaying Game" (archived 2017-10-16). RPGamer. Retrieved 2020-03-27.
- Smallville Roleplaying Game at Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.