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.
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 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…
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