[Review] Smallville RPG

Smallville RPG by Cam Banks, Joseph Blomquist, Roberta Olsson and Josh Robey
From Margaret Weis Productions

I would never have picked up the Smallville RPG if it wasn’t enthusiastically evangelized to me from multiple sources. I avoid games based on licensed properties for a number of reasons.  It has the double whammy of being JLA and I am allergic to JLA in all its forms.  “It has a great relationship system!” they said.  “Character creation is neat!” I can be worn down by shameless promotion and, despite never having seen an episode of the show and breaking out into hives if I pass old Green Lantern collections, I picked up a copy from DriveThruRPG.  Never say shameless promotion doesn’t work.

First Impressions

The Smallville RPG PDF is one of those PDFs used as a demo piece to show off how well RPG PDFs can look.  The colors are sharp and crisp.  The font is clear and easy on the eyes.  The art is mostly, with some exceptions, stills taken from DVDs and photograph-clear.  It’s a pretty, professionally laid out game with top notch graphic design.  Dark blue on white for callouts is more effective than bold or italics, and the text scans easily.  It reads easily, too: the text is clear and takes an optimistic, upbeat tone.  I found few errors in the text throughout the book and found it surprisingly easy to comprehend. RPG texts are notorious for being muddied and confusing, but not so here.

The PDF itself has the same attention to detail as the art, text editing, and layout.  It reads a single page/screen on my iPad so no squinting required.  It has bookmarks.  However, the table of contents is not hyperlinked.  I never missed that feature, though.

The content flows from overview of Smallville -> overview of the game system -> character creation -> playing the game -> game resources -> Smallville reference.  The only issue I had was in flipping between the “overview of the game system” chapter (called “The Basics”) and the actual play chapters (“The Scenes”), and that character creation and character resources are separated by the chapter explaining how to frame scenes — a little awkward.  I never felt confused by the presentation and the information was well grouped together.  I just found it mildly strange going from the Basics to Scenes and back again to understand how to play the game.  It also had a bit of inexplicable filler in the form of an “online” chapter which should have been cut or placed at the back.  From 5,000 feet, I understand why the overview of the system is placed before character creation.  Otherwise character creation makes no sense.  How can a player buy anything in character creation without some passing familiarity with the system?  But still, it felt off.  Speaking of character creation…

Character Creation

Character creation is where the Smallville RPG shines.  It is a game within a game; a game session where the text recommends one puts out snacks because everyone is going to be awhile.

The heart of the Smallville RPG are character relations.  All of the player characters (called ‘Leads’ throughout the book) have interconnections. Character generation proceeds in rounds where each round is a stage of life.  During that stage characters increase in power, pick up major life connections, and move to new locations.  As characters change and grow during their formative years connections grow or whither, and some disappear all together to be replaced by new connections.  The process is visual where the GM draws circles and squares on a map to demonstrate the connections.

This section of the book is… stupendous, actually.  Not only is it chalk full of explanations and examples, but the book walks through the creation of a full map complete with all the important connections and life changes.  The end product is a dynamic game where all the players have a stake in each other’s lives.  Characters are not just people who hooked up in a bar and went off to go kill orcs.  These are people. And it makes me want to play the game. It deeply makes me want to play the game.

The character generation chapter is worth the price of admission alone.

Playing the Game

The system is dead simple.  Every stat, relationship, power, asset, or resource in the game has a die value associated with it (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12).  When characters get into conflict, they have a contest — and contests can be over far more than mere punching.  The Smallville RPG has no combat chapter, as combat — if it actually comes to blows — is another kind of contest.  When having a contest, one picks the associated drive (basic stat) and whatever relationship/asset comes into play, reads the dice value, rolls them, and adds the values together.  Whoever is highest, wins.  Whoever loses takes some stress.  That’s… pretty much it from what I can gather without having played it.

The simple system hides some neat subtleties.  The stress tracks ride along five different tracks: Anger, Exhaustion, Injury, Afraid and Insecure.  A contest can bring stress into play.  As a character takes more stress, the more an opponent can use it against them until the character ends up not in a hospital but curled up in a ball of fear or so angry they lash out at all around them.  It is very cinematic.

Why would anyone want to get into a contests?  Because contests yield up Plot Points, little bits of currency to spend in-game to make cool things happen.  New relationship!  New details!  More dice!  Activate powers!

The system works well with the recommended way to play the game: in tv show-like scenes. While most of this information feels a little filler at times, it does have good advice on how to frame, begin and end a scene so the game moves quickly. The chapter on how to build episodes through building on the existing character maps is interesting, especially when it explodes out into how to build in tension and conflicts into a gaming session.  Good stuff.

Examples, examples, examples.  The chapters with actual game information are full of examples.  The material presents so many examples even I can follow the basic gist of the system while reading the book.   Between the Basics, character generation, scenes and episodes, I find myself wanting to run the game.   It’s simple!  It uses dice!  It’s highly cinematic!  It looks like it is tons of fun.  But… then again…

Other Stuff

The Smallville RPG is still a licensed property, so a good third of the book is dedicated to setting information.  I cannot attest if this information is useful or not — I found it amusing to read some of the JLA members (Flash!  Black Canary! The Martian Manhunter!) written up as various characters in the show.  If nothing else, the large sections full of characters work as great examples and templates.  It’s all in there somewhere.

The episode writeups came off as a bit flat.  Having written these myself, I know they’re a drag to write.  Most of the seasons are hyper compressed into summaries.  Only the last two seasons are exploded out into full capsule summaries of each episode.  And having never watched the show, I couldn’t do much with the information.  It is aimed at the original audience of the game: fans of the Smallville TV Show.  It is telling that, on the strength of its game system, it has wandered past its intended audience and into the hands of the uninitiated.  It doesn’t help that Netflix doesn’t have Smallville on streaming.

Also, I so docked the game points for having writeups of the Wonder Twins.  I don’t care if they do or do not show up. Dude, no Wonder Twins.  Seriously.  I’m duding the game here, man! *shudder*


The Smallville RPG is a strange game.  I heartily recommend the character creation and the basic game system.  Typically, the mark of a good game is three game ideas after reading the source material.  But instead of three game ideas, I have three other games entirely I want to run and/or play using this system.  It is the perfect system for playing “The Tudors RPG” based on the (incredibly tawdry) TV show.  Or “The Reign of Elizabeth I — THE GAME.”  Or any soap opera-like game — it would be perfect for Amber RPG.  If I was going to pick a system for Amber, this would be it, the full on supers soap opera game.

I’m left with a mild glass-half full feeling.  Smallville fans will likely find the exhaustive list of leads, features, extras, villains, and locations satisfying but may not be completely happy with seasons 1-7 summarized and only seasons 8 and 9 broken down into individual episodes.  Those not a fan of the show may wish for more ways to adapt the system to other worlds and find the task of coming up with new Pathways or assets a bit daunting, and wish for a more generic game.

These are mild complaints.  Overall, it is a well written, well produced game with a clever system at its heart.  Character creation makes me desperately want to gut it and play my own supers/soap opera game with the rules.  This is a rare game where not only is playing a villain a viable option, it’s a desirable option supported by the game system and game mechanics.  The villain, the ultimate supervillain bad guy, has loves and hopes and wishes and backgrounds and has value as a PC — and that alone is worth the price of admission.  You can be the Professor X and you can play Magneto and you have dice on your sheet that shows their adversarial relationship — and they come into play.  Isn’t that what comic books are?  Soap operas with punching?

Worth purchasing on PDF.  I would run this game.

Smallville RPG: 4 stars out of 5

A required iPad app

A quick interlude:

If you have an iPad, you will want to go to the store and download the new, free TED talk app. It’s an interface to the TED website ( www.ted.com ) but much more comfortable to view. TED talks are about really cool things given by really cool people. Want to learn something cool about science or tech or art in 20 minutes? Watch a TED talk.

My only complaint is the lack of a good search engine to find talks. Hopefully they’ll take feedback – it’s a common complaint – and get one into the app soon.

It shows off your iPad and it’s free. If you have an iPad, you should have the TED app.

On Reviewing RPGs

Now that I have an iPad and PDFs, I find myself reading an awful lot more RPGs than I used to.  PDFs are ideal for RPGs — they are cheaper than hardcovers, they take up less space, and no one feels guilt if the game isn’t played.  A hardcover is heavy and unwieldy; a beast that takes up precious shelving space better used for, say, comics.  A PDF fits comfortably on my iPad with few concerns and Good Reader is a fantastic PDF reader.  Good Reader + easy access to PDFs == reading games.  I have conceded that I have no time to sit and play these games but I can, at the very least, give them a brisk read.

I like to review stuff I read but I want to approach in a structured manner.  The question is: how?  I have been tossing around evaluation categories for a few weeks to take the gut feeling of ‘this is good’ and ‘this is bad’ to a more concrete why one thing is better than another without major bias toward one type of system and another.  Taking a shot in the dark, I have cooked up as broad categories for scoring, from a loose most important to least.  These are for sourcebooks and not supplements — I am still working up how to handle supplementary material.


At their core, RPGs are technical manuals describing a mechanic to a group to play a game.  Difficult to follow instructions are every bit as frustrating in an RPG as they are in IKEA instructions for assembling flat-pack into a bookcase.  Imagine paging back and forth while putting together the new table just brought home from the Temple of Swedishness.  That table would never get built.  A game with poor organization never gets played.  It’s that simple.

Is the index complete?  Does the game have a table of contents?  Are the sections logically organized with all the important bits for playing a part of a game (skill resolution or character creation or setting or other information)?  Are the headings on sections clear?  Can pertinent information on a question be found in under five minutes without scanning the entire book?  Does the book function like a useful technical manual for a complex system?


Does the game look nice? Is it laid out well?  Does the layout use a readable font?   It might sound stupid, but something as simple as a poorly chosen font detracts from the reading and comprehension experience. Most RPGs use standard fonts pre-chosen for readability but woe be to he who chooses to publish a book in comic sans.  Headers, footers, watermarks, bleed — fancy art has a way of interfering with understanding the text.  If reading the book causes a headache, the book will not be read, let alone played.

Art is a bit of a waffly subject because it is so “your mileage may vary.”  A good RPG does not require art but most utilize it in some capacity to evoke genre and mood.  Well chosen art counts for points.  Does the art detract?  Is it appropriate? Is it drawn by Rob Liefeld?  Art is great.  Bad art is far worse than no art.


The text must be read.  Is the text well-written?  Is it clear?  Does it scan well?  Can someone who only read the book understand the game well enough to discuss it?  Beautiful art can mask terrible text, but terrible text ensures the ideas contained in the book will never get exercised by actual people.

Is the text clear?  Do I understand what you mean when you give me a dense pile of rules?

Character Creation

Is character creation clear?  Does it have complete examples and a walkthrough?  How much flipping back and forth through a book(s) is necessary to find all the skills/stats/equipment/add-ons to create a character?  Does this cause tons of aggravation or is the process smooth?  Does the game include sample complete character sheets?  How much free stuff is available off the game’s website to support character generation?

Recently, I have run into the trend of group character creation.  I am all for group character creation. I like it. But I like even more complete walkthroughs and examples of how to apply it to a play group.   Bonus points for reminding the GM to provide snacks.

This leaves out things like “how much is the player invested in their character at the outset” or “are the equipment lists full of neat stuff.”  The primary concern is: what is chargen and can a group navigate it without wanting to throw the book across the room.

As a note: I put character creation above game rules resolution because if one cannot craft a character from the rules as presented, one cannot execute the system and exercise the ruleset.

Game Rules Resolution

This is the “game” part of the game.  Usually this manifests as skill resolution but not always.  It is some presented resolution mechanic to resolve conflict or facilitate taking turns to move toward a goal.

Do all the facets of a regular skill resolution — player vs. environment, player vs. npcs, player vs. player — get spelled out clearly?  Do they make sense?  Is it easy to grasp the general gist of the rules through a simple read through?  Do they feel clear?  Is it overly complicated?

Are there examples?  Is the core mechanic and all important ancillary mechanics given plenty of clear examples and scenario walkthroughs? Does the text walk through what happens when someone takes damage?  When someone is knocked out or harmed? How a character recovers?  Do the examples flow logically from one part of skill resolution to the next, from simple to more complex?

It may sound like I am harping on examples.  I am.  Examples, examples, examples.  Games can be radically different so teach me yours.  I don’t want to be told how to play.  I want to be shown.


Not every game has to bring a great new setting to the table.  I have read great games that are quite thin on the setting details and poor games with heaps of settings.  A great setting with a poor system is salvageable.  A poor setting with a great system is also salvageable.  I like great settings but if the text is poorly organized and the system lacks the game part of a game, it leaves me wondering if the authors are better off working on a novel.


The most minor of categories but worth considering.  Does your urban fantasy game have a section on city construction?  Does your military game have a callout for squad combat?  Is there something new and interesting and outside the main formula this game brings to the table?  And is it necessary?

I’m certain I am forgetting some important categories.  I left off character advancement because I’m not certain how important it is any more.  To some games it is extremely important but to some, it is left on the cutting room floor.

Wow, this is long. Have I left anything out?  Any sections I am overlooking?  I am planning to apply this to an RPG as soon as I finish reading it to see how it works out for providing a comprehensive review.

I Don’t Like the New D&D

Disclaimer: This is not to go knocking other people’s preferences or to start screaming that Mike Mearls is a poopyhead[1]. I had this conversation with Rob yesterday (largely spurred by his post about Dark Sun) and I’m trying to work this out in real time in public because, oh, hell, why not.

Onward we go….

I don’t like the new D&D 4th Edition.

I have played it. We played it when it came out and I took photographic evidence to prove it. And when we played it, I enjoyed it. It was fun. We used LEGO guys for Minis and some grid paper and some index cards and all was good. It didn’t feel like regular D&D but it wasn’t bad.

And we never played it again.

Since then all sorts of tools and widgets, from online character creators to minis to cards to a re-balance release to D&D Essentials have come out. Lots of toys, lots of books, even some settings. I thought to myself: it’s an age thing. I’m not interested because of age. I am simply too old. A simple, easy, pleasing answer. I started with D&D Red Box God knows how many years ago and I’ve just outgrown it. Off I go to read comic books which are so much more adult[2]…

Yet, since I acquired my precious iPad, deliverer of media, I have started reading games again. I went on a seven year hiatus but today I buy them from Drive Thru RPG and slurp them onto my iPad and they look spectacular. Then I lay on the couch and read them. I think about them. And I’ve actually played a little bit lately. I don’t think it’s an age thing.

I wandered off and thought about why I don’t like the new D&D. Right or wrong, I came around to this conclusion:

D&D 4th Ed takes the old Dungeons & Dragons formula, smooths out the lumps, shakes out the dust, and offers a pure, undiluted, shining new D&D formula. No more worrying about calculating weird negative THAC0s. No more 5 foot steps. No more worrying about buying a spell that turns out to be utterly worthless. No more Tasha’s Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter. No more 1st level mages with 1D4 hit dice. Everyone gets to be awesome. Everyone gets cool magic foozles to use in a fight. It has maps and minis and dice and cards which show you what you can do. Pure reward cycle of kill things, take their stuff, get the ex-pees, and move on.

It’s the perfect Utopian D&D. It is well designed.

And yet I’m the John Savage of Brave New World of gamers:

“But I like the inconveniences.”
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

There it is.

I appreciate the design and the goals of the new D&D. To my perception, it’s not so much an RPG as an interesting and complex board game; an in-person version of Final Fantasy Tactics. I love Tactics; I have played it and many variations on my gameboy, but that’s where I want it to stay. I am pro-tactical turn-based strategy board games. I’m not certain I want that in an RPG.

I can see where the rabid split lies — between those who want to play this exceptionally tuned game and those who “don’t think it is real D&D.” Here’s the rub: it is real D&D. It’s the realist version of D&D ever produced. It is real and pure and shiny. It is D&D rubbed of all its little barnacles and fungus and clingy little bits that made no sense and balanced and made easy and neat. All the things: maps and spells and minis and killing kobolds, it is all there in the box. Who hasn’t played D&D with graph paper and markers and arguments? It’s D&D.

Yet I want THAC0s. I want 5 foot steps. I want Mages with 1D4 hit points. I want 10 foot poles! D&D happened for me in the little inconveniences and variances. The game lived and breathed for me in the stupid little spaces where we argued if Monster Summoning IV would allow you to summon a whale 50ft up and drop it on your enemies in a horrible splatter.[3] Those arguments made the game special. Frustrating and stupid, yes, but also special.

Yes, I know Pathfinder exists. I will take a look at it. Meanwhile I am immersed in FATE variants and the CORTEX system and GUMSHOE[4] so I’m good. A little sad, but there it is.

Update: I have been told I mean SKULLDUGGERY and not GUMSHOE. But they are both Robin Laws systems and thus both awesome by definition.

[1] I have it on good authority that Mearls is not, in fact, a poopyhead.

[2] I went on another ripping tear about “Why I Hate Green Arrow” yesterday. So much for maturity.

[3] The only way we could find a good area of attack spell for Bards in 3rd ed. No one bought it.

[4] Based on the system from the Dying Earth RPG! You’ve at least read the Dying Earth RPG, right? RIGHT? No? *shake fist* And I think it’s out of print, too. It was marvelous beyond words. *sigh*

Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 stars is, alas, the most stars I can give this book. But I give it an extra imaginary star just for good measure.

What can I say about a book that, in concise and funny verbiage, examines some of the worst parts of a mission to Mars? Things you never, ever think about? How do clothes get washed? What happens if you have to go to the bathroom? What about food particles? G-forces? Can you jump out of a crashing space lander? How much food does it take for a two year manned mission? Can you have sex in zero-G? And really, how do they design the toilets?

And more. I loved Mary Roach’s previous books but this one is the best of all of them. If you are interested in manned space flight at all, this book is incredibly educational. And it will make you really think about the engineering of getting human beings to Mars.

Absolutely recommended. Brisk, fun, educational read. Available on the Kindle.

View all my reviews

Thanks For Paying Taxes. Here’s A Receipt.

Over on Planet Money:

Thanks For Paying Taxes. Here’s A Receipt. : Planet Money : NPR.

I have been saying this for years.  People pay their Federal Taxes and it feels like it goes into a black hole.  Hell, me too.  One of the reasons I am going to vote to re-up all my County Executive people is that, on a quarterly basis, they send me a breakdown of the County taxes and how much is paid into what and they just put that in last few years.  I love this.  They are great communicators via twitter and email and reports — if you live in Howard County, re-elect, people, because, man.  They actually respond.

People pay these enormous Federal Tax bills.  God knows I do.  And no one knows where the money goes.  I feel furious about my money being spent on bombing brown people but I cannot tell you how much I am paying.

You can go to the PDF direct here.  Go read it.  This isn’t a liberal or a conservative issue.  It is a “Government today in 2010 with fancy computers ought to be able to generate this through an automated process, dammit.”  We can send probes to blow up people in Pakistan but we cannot send a damn receipt.

I believe this so strongly I might take this PDF and send it to all my Congresscritters and start making a serious nuisance of myself.