TTRPG Roll 23-11: Why the Smallville RPG (Margaret Weis, 2010) is my RPG kryptonite and did Cortex Prime warn of the OGL debacle?

In 2023 I’m working my way through my roleplaying game (RPG) collection and revisiting each through their character generations system. This week it’s time to look at the Smallville Roleplaying Game (Margaret Weis, 2010). The Smallville Roleplaying Game by designers Cam Banks, Joseph Blomquist, Roberta Olson, and Josh Roby is not a bad game. It’s just not my game. When I first got this game I bounced hard off the concepts within. Over time I have come to respect the system, but I still won’t play it for it is way outside my preferred genre of roleplaying game (RPG).

I know exactly why I picked up the Smallville Roleplaying Game. I was a fan of the Cortex System as found in the Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis, 2007) and the Serenity Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis, 2005). It was 2011 and I was walking through the local Barnes & Nobles bookstore (back when they actually sold books) and passed by the ‘Red Dot’ table where everything was $2. Sitting on the top of the pile were copies of the Smallville Roleplaying Game. Now, I am NOT a fan of the Smallville TV series nor an I a rabid DC Comics fan of Superman. I was then—like now—a fan of the Cortex System. At $2 could I go wrong?

For me, the Smallville Roleplaying Game turned into a super bust.

Cortex Relations

I didn’t know it at the time but the Cortex System was undergoing change. The lead designer on Serenity and Battlestar Galactica was Jamie Chambers. With the Smallville RPG a new designer, Cam Banks, took the reigns of the Cortex System. Thus, we got a new version of Cortex first called the Cortex Plus System. From the initial description in the book it didn’t sound that different: “It’s called Cortex Plus because with this game there are even more twists and tweaks than before, all in an effort to really capture the flavor and feel of SMALLVILLE. And it’s a system because it all works together like an engine, with the players keeping it running smoothly.”

That didn’t sound too bad, but the four pillars of the game that follow sent up warning flags:

  • Relationship Drama – “The SMALLVILLE RPG’s rules encourage the introduction of relationship dramas to the game table.”
  • Heroic Action – “The SMALLVILLE RPG is designed to allow superpowered characters to really cut loose when the action ramps up and yet still allow their all-too-human friends and family to aid them and deal with trouble on their own.”
  • Keeping Secrets – “Everyone has something they feel they need to keep from their loved ones or their most implacable foes, and in SMALLVILLE the pressure to keep and protect those secrets is often at the core of a character’s motivation.”
  • Embracing Destiny – “In the SMALLVILLE RPG, embracing your destiny is more than a story goal; it’s built into the Pathways rules you use to create characters.”

The biggest red flag from the Smallville RPG was that first one; Relationship Drama. I guess that appeals to some folks but I have enough ‘relationship drama’ in real life that I don’t need—or want—more on a weekend game night.

Beginning a Different Path

The core game mechanisms of the Cortex Plus System in the Smallville RPG are introduced in a (very) short chapter called “Basics.” The core mechanisms are covered in five pages of rules. The next chapter covers character generation. Except they don’t call it character generation, but ‘Beginnings.”

Character generation in the Smallville RPG uses what the designers call the Pathways system. Here is how the Pathways system is introduced:

Pathways is the system we use for creating new Leads in the SMALLVILLE RPG. This system call for all the players to sit down and work together to create an all-new cast of characters, including many locations and supporting characters—Extras and Features—that populate your version of the SMALLVILLE universe. It’s called Pathways because to create a Lead you follow events and situations that shape who he is, until you end with a full-fledged Lead. All your Drives, Assets, and Resources come together as a result of following this unique and personalized path, which is connected to the paths of all the other Leads.

“Beginnings, Introducing Pathways,” Smallville RPG, p. 12

I have used other “lifepath” character creation systems before, but never something as different as the Pathways found in the Smallville RPG. Frankly, it doesn’t work for me. Part of the reason is that I grew up with a Classic Traveller RPG approach to character creation which is certainly NOT built around a group approach. I also didn’t grok at the time how in character creation one ‘creates locations’ or supporting characters (aka Non-Player Characters or NPCs). The very fact the entire Pathways System was predicated on linking a character’s path to other’s paths meant to create characters you literally needed a group. I certainly didn’t have a group to play the Smallville RPG and the very fact it was sitting in the $2 bin at B&N pretty much told me that there were actually few-to-none groups around that played either.

Plus before Prime time

Over time I have come to appreciate the Smallville RPG not as a game I play but as an example of the power of a game design. The Cortex system survives up to today with the latest generation named Cortex Prime. The incredible power of the Cortex Prime system is that it can be used to create a wide diversity of games. That diversity is not only in the settings of the games, but in the game mechanisms too. This is best explained by the introduction to “Chapter 5: Prime Settings” in the Cortex Prime: Game Handbook written by Cam Banks and published by Fandom in 2020:

While characters are the heart of Cortex Prime, the world they inhabit gives context and meaning to their stories. Cortex evolved from a variety of licensed settings with wildly different expectations and tropes, and this book wouldn’t be completer if it didn’t address the need of every Cortex Prime game to have a setting of its own.

Cortex Prime: Game Handbook, p. 125

Creating a Prime Setting in the Cortex Prime: Game Handbook is as easy as ‘Pick Three and Add Cortex.’ In this case the ‘three’ are genres (or tropes) for your game. Can you figure out which popular TV series is Science Fiction + Western + Swashbucklers? The Smallville RPG is Superheroes + Romance + High School.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this post and why I bounced off the Smallville RPG like I did. It isn’t my genre of gaming choice. With all the dust up in the past week over the Open Game License (OGL) many people have been looking for a ‘new’ RPG to play. The Smallville RPG is my reminder that just because it’s new or uses a (supposedly) familiar system doesn’t mean it’s always going to be for me.

Interlude – Cortex Prime Open Warning?

The Cortex Prime: Game Handbook was Kickstarted by Cam Banks in 2017 and was not delivered until 2020. At one point it was sold to Fandom, the creators of D&D Beyond, before being sold to Dire Wolf in 2022. The press announcement of the sale in August 2022 is interesting to read in light of the recent OGL dust up. This part in particular stands out to me:

“As we looked to exit the RPG business with our recent sale of D&D Beyond to Hasbro, we were laser focused on finding Cortex the right home with a company who would nurture and grow the business with a fan-first mindset. I’m confident we found that with Dire Wolf Digital,” said Michael Chiang, Chief Business Officer at Fandom. “Dire Wolf’s enthusiasm and passion for the RPG space, as well as their intent to dive right in and grow the product with a new expansion already in development, will ensure fans won’t miss a beat and are well taken care of for years to come.”

Hmm…“as we exit the RPG business…finding…the right home with a company who would nurture and grow the business with a fan-first mindset…will ensure fans won’t miss a beat and are well taken car of for years to come.” Did they know the OGL debacle was coming?

Feature image courtesy The Nerdist © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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