A few weeks ago I was in a local Barnes & Nobles and looked over their $2 clearance table. To my surprise, I found several hardcover copies of the Margaret Weis Productions Smallville RPG Corebook. Now, I am not a Smallville fan (I have never seen one complete episode) but I do like the Cortex System as used by Serenity RPG and the Battlestar Galactica RPG. So for two bucks I figured I could not go wrong.
The game I found is very much unlike any other I have played before, and in some ways it defies explanation. The Smallville RPG is not a supers hack-n-slash game nor is it a pure narrative storytelling RPG. Some have described it as “indie” which I take to be almost anything not hack-n-slash. The core mechanic is known as Cortex-K or Cortex Plus. It uses the standard Cortex dice pool of various size dice which are rolled to get your number. Plot points serve as meta-currency for the game.
Where this game is much different is the characters. Each character (either a Lead or Feature) is described by Values, Attributes (Distinctions and Abilities), Resources and Relationships. These are created using a Pathways system which I read has been used in some form or variation elsewhere. The Pathways Map lays out all of the above. When you try to do something you pick the value, attribute, and relationship to roll against. For example, as used in the Corebook, Oliver shoots arrows at a thug trying to run off with Lois over his shoulder so he used Love (Value) + Lois (Relationship) +Tricked-Out Compound Bow (Attribute) as his dice pool, rolling all three and adding the highest two. A series of scenes make up an episode, where the GM (“Watchtower”) used Wedges (i.e. conflicts between Leads) to make players challenge their characters beliefs and relationships.
While I find the Pathways method of character generation interesting, I have had a hard time wrapping my head around how scenes and episodes play out. What I get out of the book is that this game is all about challenging the other Leads and less about working with them. On the surface this looks to be mighty confrontational and is not what I really expect in an RPG.
In my quest to understand the Pathways method I created three Leads and mapped out their “life.” For lack of better terms, I labeled them The Jock, The Nerd, and The Princess. For this example, I carried their Pathways through five of the nine stages, which carries them from “Origin” to “Youth” to “Focus” to “Road” and to the “Life-Changing Event.”
The Jock starts out as an Ordinary guy. The two most important people in his early life are his Coach (Led By) and a Booster (Advice, Money From). He hangs out at the local Cafe which the Booster owns. However, at his Life-Changing Event he discovers he is a Technopathy; able to control technology. He now has a Secret Basement in the stadium as his refuge. He is rather stand-offish with the Nerd but wants to “save” the Princess.
The Nerd starts out Gifted. He works for a Scientist who hates him at a Lab that also supplies high-tech games to the Arcade where he likes to hang out. Unfortunately, this is also where the Jock has bullied him in the past. He is a clever genius with a super iPad which he has customized to support his hacking and computer activities. He also has an autistic brother who depends on him but who he tries to hide from the world. The Nerds Life Changing Event was First Contact when he gained knowledge of Extraterrestrials. He despises the Jock but recognizes the Princess has money he needs.
The Princess is the most complicated. As a Rich girl, she of course loves her Daddy who owns the Bank which the scientist has hacked into in the past. She also has a secret Bad Boyfriend who knows the Jock takes money and is blackmailing him. Her Daddy also had an affair with the Booster’s Wife making those two men rivals. Along the way, she has discovered that being attractive not only allows her to manipulate others, but she may even be able to influence their dreams. Her Life Changing Event was a Tragedy when she slept with the Booster, became pregnant, and secretly got an abortion. She is much more balanced in her relationships with the other Leads, favoring the Jock a bit more than the Nerd.
Sounds like a soap opera, right? Well, it is Smallville. Right away we have conflict between the Technopathy Jock who can control technology and the Genius Nerd who depends on it. Maybe the Nerds autistic brother is not autistic, but alien? And how will the Jock, the Princess, the Bad Boy and the Booster keep their secrets away from each other?
Maybe I am a bit too old-fashioned to fully understand and embrace this game. But for $2 I am not shedding any tears. I am looking for how to use the Pathways in other games because it does do a great job defining how players are related to each other as well as their drives and motivations. Much more useful than dropping players into a bar in some distant spaceport and letting them go from there.