Margaret Weis Productions has a host of TV licenses in their stable of RPGs, from Battlestar Galactica to Leverage. These aren’t just generic systems with a layer of genre-colored paint slapped on — if the Smallville RPG is any indication, each MWP game is carefully designed to integrate the important themes and concepts that fans love about the show into the game itself.
Licensed RPGs have something of a bad reputation. There are obviously exceptions, but quite a few of them seem to be half-assed efforts designed to cash in on the license. Yes, Farscape RPG, I’m looking at you. 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.
I’ll confess that I’m not actually a Smallville fan. I watched a few episodes and didn’t find the teen drama aspects to my liking. Not that it’s a bad show, it just wasn’t what I was looking for at the time. Since then I’ve been intrigued by the addition of more and more bits of the DC universe into the show. Plus, nine seasons! They must be doing something right. The important thing to know is that the show is not spandex superheroes having the superpowered battle of the week. Sometimes it is, but it’s really more about building layers of relationship drama all amped up by the fact that some of the people can move at superhuman speed or are the last son of an extinct alien race or something. Also, everyone is pretty.
The Smallville RPG is based on MWP’s Cortex System. I said before that it isn’t a generic RPG, but of course, MWP doesn’t need to create a new system from the ground up for all their games. That would be pointless. Cortex is a flexible toolkit RPG that MWP’s designers (and clever GMs) can use and modify to create a variety of different scenarios and variants. In this case, it’s been prodded and modded into a very interesting shape.
Your character (referred to as a “Lead”) does have basic statistics, but equally important are your relationships with other people, both the other leads and the important NPCs you’ll frequently encounter (known as “Features”). The strength of your convictions has a direct impact on your ability to accomplish things as well. So each time you try something, you’ll roll three dice — one for the relevant Value, one for the relevant Relationship, and one for a useful Asset if you have one handy. If that seems kind of abstract, here’s a great example from the rulebook:
Oliver Queen needs to take out a thug with an arrow, and the thug is kidnapping Oliver’s girlfriend, Lois. Oliver rolls one die each for his Value (Love), his Relationship (Lois) and his Asset (the sweet compound bow he uses as Green Arrow).
Success is based on the best two dice, so if Oliver lost his bow he could still make the shot (with an improvised bow of some kind), but at a disadvantage. If the kidnapping victim was some random pretty girl he didn’t have a relationship with, the Value might be Glory instead of Love. If it was the mayor, it might be Duty. The depth of those values is represented by the type of die rolled. For example, Oliver rolls a d8 for Glory, but only a D4 for Duty.
The character creation process is unlike any I’ve seen before. It uses something called Pathways. It’s a collaborative story creation process that’s sort of a game in its own way. It looks a lot more like a group of writers planning the story arcs for a season of a television drama than gamers rolling up new PCs, and I’m sure that’s no accident. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Pathways has its roots in group writing exercises. The system is a little too complex for me to describe in full, but basically each player makes a series of choices for his or her character and creates a large map showing how characters are connected to each other, events in their lives and the locations they frequently visit.
It’s interesting to note that there’s no section of the book reserved for the GM (which, somewhat oddly, is called “The Watchtower”). When a group plays through an episode, there are certainly mysteries and revelations, but it isn’t necessarily forbidden for the players to know about them ahead of time. Indeed, the characters all have secrets that the players all know about. The game ends up being about finding creative and dramatically satisfying ways to resolve all the conflicts that crop up, dealing with competing interests, values and relationships, and telling a good story. The Watchtower can always hold back a few surprises for dramatic effect, though.
There’s a very interesting approach to dramatic irony that results from this “open secret” type of gaming. The rulebook encourages something called “telegraphing,” in which you make your character’s intent clear when you act, even if your actions contradict your intent. For example, let’s say one player’s superpowered investigator is checking out another, and asks what’s on the official documents he just saw her shove into a briefcase. She might respond, “I lie and tell him they’re just some tax forms.”
The effect is something quite different from your typical RPG. The goal here isn’t for the players to “inhabit” the roles of the characters. The players in the Smallville RPG have a point of view very similar to that of a TV audience. They know, for example, that the documents actually show medical tests revealing that the character is a clone. The goal isn’t to find that out, it’s to explore the drama that surrounds it. In this story, however, the players aren’t just the audience — they’re also the writers and show runners. It’s really quite brilliant.
There are sections of the book devoted to the statistics of the Smallville versions of all the DC characters who have appeared on the show, and, it seems to me, quite a few who haven’t yet. There’s even a breakdown of every one of the show’s nine seasons, with full episode guides for seasons eight and nine. There’s a lot of advice for both players and Watchtowers alike on how to play the game, integrate storytelling with action, write good episodes, and keep the plot moving. The text is liberally strewn with full-color stills from the show. Overall, the graphic design is beautiful — bright, vivid and clear. It’s a very appealing book.
The Smallville RPG’s one drawback is that it is somewhat complex and throws a lot of emphasis on highly involved role-playing. It’s certainly not confusing or difficult to understand, and the book does a great job of hand-holding to guide even total RPG newbies through the experience. I just worry that someone who is a Smallville fan and has never played an RPG might pick this up and feel overwhelmed despite the helpful tone, and to some extent that is the target audience for a book like this. As long as there’s at least one experienced RPGer in the group, I predict no problems.
If you’re a gamer and a Smallville fan, this is obviously a no-brainer. If you’re looking for a superhero RPG with more of an emphasis on story and interpersonal conflict than who punches harder than who, this is also a good buy (I might even suggest it is singular among superhero RPGs in this regard). If you’re a Smallville fan and you’ve never played an RPG before, you might want it just for the excellent character outlines and episode guides. But find a friend who’s a gamer and give it a shot…we’d be glad to welcome you to our favorite hobby!