This week I am reviewing Smallville, the role-playing game.
Released by Margaret Weis Productions, Smallville, the RPG, is based upon the popular TV show of the same name. This is the source of this RPGs material, its successes and unfortunately its failures as well. Smallville the RPG is also the latest adaptation of a TV series to a role playing game released by Margaret Weis Productions. Other such games from shows released by her company include Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural and Jersey Shore.
Starting with the structural matters, Smallville, the RPG is available in hardcopy and PDF. This review focuses on the PDF version, though I am led to believe the physical copy rings in at close to 220 pages, possesses a hard cover, is printed on good quality paper and is all in full color.
Moving on from there, the book is attractive, bright, with easy to read text and many images captured from episodes of the titular series. The PDF does not feature an index, but an excellent table of contents and a superb internal organization makes up for this arguable deficit. In short, the book presents the game well.
All RPGs must handle a number of things, including conflict resolution in some manner and powers and resources. Smallville the RPG is no different and it is innovative in several areas, including making everything it can dependent upon relationships and turning game plot and world creation into a collaborative process.
In terms of mechanics, Smallville uses a variation of the Cortex System developed by Margaret Weis Productions for all of its books. In its simplest form, the Cortex System employs the usual spread of RPG dice – the d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 – and players usually roll at least two dice, one representing an ability and one representing a skill or something similar. The results are added and compared to a target difficulty to determine success or failure.
Smallville the RPG rattles this by replacing normal abilities with six values, including duty, glory, justice, love, power and truth. All characters possess these values and their die for the value says much about the character. For example, Clark Kent gets d10 (the second highest die for the game) for justice, with the descriptive phrase I must protect the innocent, while Lex Luthor gets d10 for power, with the descriptive phrase I need to be in control. By comparison, in the Jersey Shore RPG Snookie’s value is glory, with the descriptive phrase, Let All Know I Am Skanky Bitch, which lets her roll all the dice on the table.
In addition to these values, Smallvile the RPG heavily uses relationships – again, for example, Clark Kent is defined by his relationship to his parents and Lois Lane, while Lex Luthor is defined by his relationship to Clark Kent. This rule applies to all the characters and in short relationships replace skills. Clark gets a d6 for Luthor relationship, with the descriptive phrase Lex can never be trusted. This contrasts with Luthor, for whom Superman is an alien menace with d10.
Tasks are accomplished by rolling dice determined by the right combination of the value and relationship. So in dealing with Lex Luthor, Clark rolls d10 for his since of justice and d6 for his distrust of the man. When he deals with Clark, Luthor a rolls d10 for power and d10 for his antipathy for the Emo of Steel. Much of the game – as presented by this book – resolves around emotional, rather than physical, conflicts handled by these kinds of dice rolls.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Smallville the RPG is the collaborative nature of character, plot and world creation. A large sheet of paper is placed on the table and the players and GM write on the paper characters, places and even things. Examples from the early seasons of the Smallville series include Clark Kent, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, the Barn on the Kent Farm, the Luthor Fertilizer Factory, Lana’s Kryptonite necklace and porn mags Clark kept under his bed. Anyway, between these points, the GM and the players draw lines that define relationships, such as like, dislike, deadly, mysterious and so forth.
Diagrams of personal relationship in the Smallville RPG are good but start to take on tones of what you may find scribbled in the notebook of a high school girl, who likes who, who hates who, who is dating who, and so forth. Even so, it is commendable for the way it makes everyone in the game involved and responsible for world creation.
Smallville the RPG also does an excellent job of presenting a frame work for games modeled on the narrative structure of a TV show, such as scenes, episodes and story arcs for a season.
Perhaps ironically the books devotion to Smallville the show – the very reason this game exists – is actually the books biggest drawback and failure.
Too much of the book is too closely tied to the Smallville TV program to be of use to anyone who is not interested in the show. Large sections of the book – not even counting the capture art from the show – are given to lengthy descriptions of episodes, seasons, characters and so forth. This seriously undermines the utility of the book, especially as time goes on.
To some degree, all role-playing games are rooted in facilitating a desire to run around in another world. Fans of Lovecraft created the Call of Cthulhu game, Star Wars has seen a number of RPG adaptations and the earliest forms of D&D were deeply rooted in the worlds of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkeen and Michael Moorcock, among others. There are also a number of superhero RPGs.
As such, making an RPG adaptation of something popular is part of the hobby and has always has been. However, Smallville as an RPG was and is quickly dated – the game book came out during final season of the show, as the ratings had been declining and while an excellent adaptation, is it also thoroughly niche. To get full use out of this book, you really have to be a die-hard fan of the program as about half of the book is inseparable from the show. As time goes on, that becomes increasingly unlikely. As such, as time goes on the fun and relevancy of the book will continue to decline as genre fans move on to the new popular thing. Whatever the new popular thing might be.
Because of this, I give Smallville, the RPG a 10 on a d20 roll. The book is well designed and the innovative parts that can be separated from the show are quite good, but too much of the book is devoted to something already dated… and which is only becoming more dated as time goes on. If you still have a mad on for the show, then get this book, otherwise do not bother unless you can get it second hand.
[3 of 5 Stars!]