The Saving Throw
Smallville: the Roleplaying Game 2010
Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy. Sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.

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Overall Review
published by Margaret Weis Productions reviewed by Scott Wachter
216 pages, 2010, $39.99 (print), $19.99 (pdf)
Game Setting 3.5
Art 2.5
Character Generation 3.5
Game Rules 4.5
Intelligibility 4
Review Scoring

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. Nevermind that it's based on a Superman TV series that ran for a decade without ever actually getting the nerdsphere particularly excited about it. 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.

Looking closer, it is perhaps not the best disguise (more like glasses and a hairstyle switch), as characters do not have any stats representing attributes or skills. Instead, characters have a set of virtues and relationships. Each given a die rating from d4 to d12. Additionally, any significant assets a character might have (signature weapons, resources, superpowers, etc.) also have dice attached to them. Whenever a character acts, he gathers as many dice as he feels suits the situation and rolls against his opponent’s dice, which are determined the same way, comparing the total of the highest two dice. What makes this unique is that there are no procedural elements to conflicts. Every action has to be justified emotionally. Thus, hitting a dude stops being a question of rolling your agility, your combat and your kung fu master perk, and instead involves walking through your character's motivation becoming “I’m going to hit this dude because he’s a bad guy and because he’s threatening my brother and I want to use my magic sword to do it, meaning I roll justice, my brother, and magic sword.” Smallville was less about superpowered action and more about teen drama, this paradigm shift in dice mechanics forces characters’ emotions to the forefront at all times, which keeps drama and player investment high throughout play. These virtues and relationships also have a descriptive phrase attached to them, allowing for some very unique interpretation to the value the character places on each. As giving a high rating to antagonistic relationships, or a deceptive character can still have a high truth stat believing it must be kept hidden. This adds another layer of character depth to mechanics of the game, which is just awesome for a game this focused on character interaction.

Characters are created using a style that's seldom seen in RPGs, lifepath style character generation. Wherein players walk through your character's life from birth to present day choosing that represent its lifestyle for each given time period and deriving new stat bonuses for lot in life at that juncture. It also showcases precisely why it is so uncommon, unless you are designing a game with very narrow focus for player character types: designers are forced to cover every possible background. This problem has two solutions, neither of which is especially appealing: cover every possible permutation, leaving players with a bevy of options and the analysis paralysis that comes with that, or offer a handful of broad generic options at each stage of development. Smallville opts for the latter approach where as often as not the player will be choosing options based for the related stats as you will for what they say about your character.

Characters are not created in a vacuum, however, as you go through the character creation process players build a relationship diagram showing how player characters, NPCs and major locations relate to each other. This ends up front-loading a lot of PC interaction straight off the bat, which helps the drama get rolling much faster and an absolute boon to this sort of game.

All conflict in this game plays out the same way: opposed die rolls between an active character and a reactive one, going back and forth until one player loses enough die rolls that they have to stress out or concede to defeat of their own volition. There are enough stress tracks (representing different physical, mental and emotional states) that each conflict feels interesting and varied. Also of note is that characters aren't forced to inflict the same stress on each other, meaning physical violence can be answered with emotional manipulation and vice-versa which makes for some great villain dialogue moments.

Smallville is a teen drama with super-powers, and as such the game does have a super power system (the first for Cortex). This is probably going to be disappointing to hardcore supers gamers, as players aren't going to be able to get into the nitty-gritty, point-based crunchy fun that is the typical example of the genre in gaming. That being said, a crunch-heavy super powers system would be completely at odds with this game, and what is presented fits in perfectly with the rest of the system and does nothing to make 'mundane' characters feel underpowered. The powers themselves cover everything seen in the series and have enough variety to satisfy most character types.

Character advancement opts for a method more involved than the usual XP reward at the end of the session. Instead characters gain advancement points by interacting with your distinctions and relationships in meaningful ways, more so if you challenge the nature of the statement, but you have to rewrite the statement after advancing the relationship. It's a unique idea that encourages organic shifts in character personality over the course of a campaign.

The book also features fairly extensive coverage of the Smallville setting with season summaries from the very beginning up through the end of season eight and every major character from the series profiled and statted in detail. As a fan guide it's great and if you wanted to hop into the characters and run an alternate version of season nine and ten or continue the series beyond that there is plenty of material to do that. But on an anecdotal note, everyone I've spoken to running this game is doing so without any elements of the TV series setting, so perhaps more options to develop their own teen drama-infused slice of the DC universe would have been a better use of page space.

A big part of the book is advice for gamemastering this style of game. It all proves to be incredibly helpful, giving ideas on how to use NPCs to spark PC conflict, or how to structure sessions similarly to a TV drama. Also included is something rare in gaming manuals — advice on how to run the game via remote play. All this advice is welcome in a gaming style that's so different from the typical 'kick in the door, kill the dudes, get the loot type' of game.

The book is not really as organized as it could be, with concepts being explained in slightly different ways multiple times across the book, and rules being referenced frequently without cross-indexing the page number of the rule in question. The print version does not have an index, so the PDF bundle is worth buying if you do purchase this game.

Something else that is a change of pace from the usual Margaret Weis production is that not all the art consists of screencaps and promo pictures from the source material. In the case of some character profiles they are depicted in a pastel style that is quite visually appealing. This development is a happy accident related to appearance fees and likeness rights for a number of actors, but might be worth continuing in future products.

Smallville does something rare in a licensed game: not only does it deliver an experience that captures the feel of the original, but also comes up with a set of mechanics that create an entirely new dynamic for roleplaying. It may have few flaws, but I heartily recommend this book even for non-fans and look forward to more from this creative team in the future.

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