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Prepping for an actual Shadowrun playtest/potential ongoing campaign, here’s a procedure for developing a plot and character web in the style of Smallville. It’s similar to Dresdenville and Heroville, but with even fewer direct hooks into the character sheet. Even though the process doesn’t demand additions to the character sheet, players should attempt to buy anything they link to with a positive relationship in a way that makes sense for the system (as a contact, safehouse via lifestyle, quality, etc.).

Each player should assign priorities (A-E to Race, Magic, Attributes, Skills, and Resources) and decide on character generalities before proceeding, but shouldn’t do too much actual point spending (to leave room to tweak based on the chart results).

As usual, go around the table for each step and sub-step before proceeding on to later steps. Whenever you draw an arrow, define the relationship. There can’t be more than two arrows between the same two nodes (and those have to be reciprocal).

The possible nodes for this process are:

  • PC (Square): These are the player characters. Start by adding each of these to the map but don’t connect them until later.
  • NPC (Circle): These are contacts, antagonists, and other known quantities. The players shouldn’t feel obliged to make all these friendly: it may be better to define your own principle antagonists and have a general idea of their capabilities rather than letting the GM make them in secret.
  • Location (Rectangle): These are locations where the players expect to spend a lot of time when they’re not on ‘runs. They may be clubs, places of business, whole neighborhoods, interesting landmarks, etc. They’ll tend to be important for meeting clients, investigating, planning, and laying low.
  • Macguffin (Pentagon): These are items that are likely to come up as objectives for ‘runs. The players will really only know their names and the relationship of groups or NPCs to them, but giving them an interesting name makes it more likely they’ll come up in an interesting way. In general, their style should match the Priority that placed it: magic (something magical), resources (some kind of tech), or attributes (some kind of information).
  • Canon Group (Triangle): This is an official corporation, gang, cult, etc. from canon setting material. This is how you vote for which groups you’d like to see heavily invested in the campaign, and establish some idea of what their initial goals are and who they’re connected to.

Step 1: Priority A

  1. If your Priority A is:
    1. Race or Attribute: add an NPC
    2. Skill or Resource: add a Location
    3. Magic: add a Macguffin.
  2. Add a Canon Group.
  3. Draw an arrow from one of the NPCs or Canon Groups to a PC.
  4. If your Priority A is
    1. Race: add a Location
    2. Magic or Skill: add an NPC
    3. Attribute or Resource: add a Macguffin.
  5. Draw an arrow from one of the Canon Groups to an NPC or Location.
  6. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority A (see Tags, below).

Step 2: Priority B

  1. If your Priority B is:
    1. Race or Attribute: add an NPC
    2. Skill or Resource: add a Location
    3. Magic: add a Macguffin.
  2. Draw an arrow from your PC to an NPC.
  3. Draw an arrow from your PC to a Location.
  4. Draw an arrow from an NPC to a Canon Group or Location.
  5. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority B.

Step 3: Priority C

  1. If your Priority C is
    1. Race: add a Location
    2. Magic or Skill: add an NPC
    3. Attribute or Resource: add a Macguffin.
  2. Draw an arrow from your PC to another PC.
  3. Draw an arrow from your PC to an NPC, Location, or Canon Group.
  4. Draw an arrow from an NPC to another NPC.
  5. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority C.

Step 4: Priority D

  1. If your Priority D is:
    1. Race or Attribute: add an NPC
    2. Skill or Resource: add a Location
    3. Magic: add a Macguffin.
  2. Draw an arrow from your PC to another PC.
  3. Draw an arrow from any non-PC element to any other non-PC element.
  4. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority D.

Step 5: Priority E

  1. Draw an arrow from one of the NPCs or Canon Groups to a PC.
  2. Draw an arrow from an NPC to a Canon Group or Location.
  3. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority E.


For the current Priority, if you chose:

  • Race: Assign a race to the NPC. This can be any of the standard PC races, including human; NPCs that end the process without one default to human.
  • Magic: Assign a magic praxis to the NPC (Mage, Physical Adept, Shaman, Mystic Adept, Technomancer, etc.) or declare that the NPC is non-magical. NPCs without such an assignment default to no magic.
  • Attributes: Assign a method to the NPC (Agent, Operator, Conspirator, or Bystander; see below).
  • Skills: Assign a signature Skill Group to the NPC. The NPC is guaranteed to be good at the chosen Skill Group; other skill choices for the NPC are up to the GM.
  • Resources: Draw an arrow from one of the NPCs or Canon Groups to a Macguffin.


A method outlines an NPC’s general method of interaction with the world (colored by other tags and relationships decided for the NPC):

  • Agent: This NPC tends to be active in the world, and in the thick of things. The character is usually a ‘runner, guard, detective, or someone else used to face-to-face confrontation.
  • Conspirator: This character tends to be a social string puller who tries not to have anything directly traceable. The NPC is usually a face or Mr. Johnson.
  • Operator: This NPC tends to be active but at once step or more removed. The character is usually a mage, hacker, or rigger, or someone else that works directly but remotely.
  • Bystander: This character tries not to get directly involved. The NPC is usually a merchant, fixer, or other contact.

Contact’s Rating

Optionally, you can assign a fixed Connection Rating to each NPC that the PCs must spend to buy that NPC as a Contact. This keeps characters defined as movers and shakers from being purchased at low Connection Rating levels, and allows players that both want to have the same NPC as a Contact to know which Rating to take.

  • If the NPC seems like he or she should be very highly connected from the way the chart lays out (e.g., it’s implied that an NPC is high up in a corp or nationally recognized), the GM can simply assign a Rating over 6 that makes sense. This character will not be valid as a starting Contact, but might be befriended officially later. This shouldn’t be done for NPCs on the map that clearly have a relationship with a PC that implies that the player planned to buy the NPC as a Contact.
  • Otherwise, count the number of non-PC lines attached to the Contact (i.e., either to or from other NPCs, Groups, Locations, and Macguffins). That’s the Contact’s Rating; it should generally be between 1 and 6 and, thus, valid as a starting Contact.


Here’s a potential web created by the above system, using data I threw together to test it (click to enlarge):


Pathways Chain


On the whole, my Online Pathways system didn’t work out quite as well as I had hoped, and this had a lot to do with trying to coordinate over 20 players, most of whom had never tried Smallville-style creation before.  The web had a tendency to go wide, and without table banter it was hard for everyone to figure out what additions to nodes other players would like and what contradicted their original intentions in non-fun ways. But we did still wind up with a pretty nice web when all was said and done, with some really neat plots put into motion. A good part of this came from THE LIGHTNING ROUND that I set up to keep players busy while I was without internet access. And that system is further expanded below…

Making the Chain

  • Seed the map with nodes for player characters and at least one type of significant other node (I’d go with themes, but you could pick NPCs, locations, etc.). You can do a bit of standard Pathways creation first, or just put down the nodes with no connections.
  • If you’re in person, go around the table normally. Online, each player can go whenever they want, but they can’t go again until all other players have gone. You might also set a time period (e.g., make one connection a day).
  • The GM picks a node to start.
  • The next player then chooses a node on the map, draws an arrow from it to the previously selected node, and describes the connection.
  • The following player does the same, drawing an arrow and describing the connection to the node chosen by the preceding player.
  • And so on.
  • There are only a few rules:
    • You can’t pick another player’s character as your node choice. You can pick your own player character (and then the next player will draw an arrow from something to your PC, describing how it feels about you).
    • Pick a certain (limited) type of node (I recommend Themes). Each node can connect to a maximum of two of these. When one player picks one of these elements, you can invent a new node and immediately connect it. Otherwise, you can’t invent a new node (to keep the number of nodes manageable).
    • You can’t make a connection that already exists (though if there’s an arrow from one element to another, you can generally make the connection the other way).
    • If the map is being drawn live, the GM may request that you limit the distance and crossover of other lines made by your connections (i.e., limit yourself to connecting nodes that are nearby), as this will make the map easier to read.


  • The GM starts the process by picking the Theme, “Knowledge.”
  • Player 1 chooses to invent a new Location, “43rd Precinct” and draws an arrow to Knowledge, “The best detectives in the city.”
  • Player 2 has to connect something to the Location, and chooses his own PC, Max, drawing an arrow from Max to the location, “Works here as a detective.”
  • Player 3 has to connect to Max, and decides to connect her own PC, Lucy, drawing an arrow from Lucy to Max, “Friends before they were on opposite sides of the law.”
  • Player 4 can’t resist the urge to bring this full circle, and draws an arrow from 43rd Precinct to Lucy, “Collecting evidence to arrest.”
  • The next player can now hook something else to the 43rd precinct, and might choose a second Theme so the next step is to invent another new node and keep the process going…

Online Pathways


As regular readers may have noticed, I really like the Smallville Pathways method of group character generation. It’s the best system I’ve seen for simultaneously getting player buy-in, starting the PCs as relevant, and crowdsourcing setting ideas for the GM.

But, being as it’s all about the players and GM sitting around a table and drawing on a big sheet of paper, it doesn’t translate directly when playing online and/or playing with a bigger-than-normal group of players. Since I’m currently thinking about running a play-by-post game where I’m expecting at least a dozen participants, both elements need to be solved. Below is my attempt. Notes:

  • It’s obviously tuned to a Camarilla Vampire: the Masquerade game where the players are new vampires. You should be able to toggle pretty easily to lots of other things. The focus on NPCs is because I plan to ultimately spin them out into Technoir-style contacts/plot sources, so the players need to have a feel for them and their motivations early.
  • Distinctions are bolted on and I intend them to work very similarly to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying/Leverage. You can easily replace them with Aspects or similar mechanics. Care should be taken to have them not directly replicate attributes if you’re using them.
  • You may want to do this live via chat to make sure everyone’s thinking about it and responding quickly. If you coordinate via post or email, be sure to give the players reasonable deadlines but enforce them to keep the process moving.
  • The GM should turn all of the feedback into a graphical web as the process goes on, both for player visual interest and to keep the amount of information manageable.

Step 1: Clan

Choose a Clan for your character and name a Theme.

  • Available Clans: Brujah, Gangrel, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, Tremere, Ventrue
  • Themes: This is a one-word idea noun (e.g., Power, Loyalty, Fear, Loss, Immortality, etc.)

Step 2: Identity

The GM will consolidate Themes into 14 (or 7 if there are less than 20 players). Final themes may combine multiple ideas. The GM will send you a list of other players in your Clan and a list of the final Themes.

  • Communicate with the other players in your clan. Decide which of you will share a Sire. There should be no more than three players to a Sire. Coordinate with your siblings to name your Sire.
  • Choose one of the Themes from the list, and write a High-Concept Distinction that is based on it.
    • Your Concept should be something you see motivating you constantly and coming up often.
    • The Distinction is written as a short phrase or quote. It does not have to include the Theme precisely, but should be obviously derived from it.
    • “Power” might be “Occult Aspirant,” “Political Mastermind,” etc.
    • “Immortality” might be “Playing a long game,” “No Death means No Fear,” etc.
  • Name your character.

Step 3: Difficulties

The GM will send out a list of all Sires listed with their Childer (PC name and player name).

  • Assign a Theme to one Sire (it doesn’t have to be your own).
  • Invent a Location (a large building or small contained area of a few blocks within the city) and assign it to one Sire (it doesn’t have to be your own).
  • Choose one of the Themes from the list, and write a Trouble Distinction that is based on it.
    • Your Trouble should be something that is your biggest flaw, and which usually works against you; suffering for this failing and yet succeeding anyway will be a major source of Willpower.
    • It is written in a similar fashion to the Concept Distinction.
    • “Power” might be “Too easily tempted,” “Intimidated by others,” etc.
    • “Immortality” might be “Afraid to lose eternity,” “Already becoming anachronistic,” etc.
  • Write five adjectives or short adjective phrases that someone who just met your character might use to describe her appearance.

Step 4: Dangers

The GM will define each Sire’s Concept Distinction out of the assigned Themes, define each Sire’s relationship to the assigned locations, and assign the Sires roles within the city power structure and add new NPC names to fill vacancies. Once you have received this information:

  • Assign a Theme to any of the NPCs (Sires or new ones).
  • Write a short phrase that explains what you think of/how you feel about your Sire.
  • Write a short phrase that explains what you think of/how you feel about one other PC (you may want to coordinate with the player of that PC).
  • Connect yourself to one of the Locations and explain why it’s important to you.
  • Name an Antagonist or Macguffin:
    • An Antagonist is an individual or group that is hostile to most of the Kindred of the city.
    • A Macguffin is something mysterious or otherwise important to the supernaturals of the city, that they might hunt for and fight over. It could be a person, place, thing, or idea.
    • At this point, just try to give the thing a descriptive name that inspires the creativity of others. What it actually is will be further defined later.
  • Describe (in three sentences or less) what your character’s life and career was like before the Embrace.

Step 5: Ambitions

The GM will turn the assigned Themes into the NPC’s Trouble or High Concept Distinction (depending on whether it already had one) and send out all updated information.

  • Connect a Theme, Location, or NPC to an Antagonist or Macguffin (it doesn’t have to be the one you named) and define the connection.
  • Write a short phrase that explains how one NPC feels about another NPC.
  • Choose one of the Themes from the list, and write a Nature Distinction that is based on it.
    • Your Nature should be some additional facet of your character that is your biggest strength or weakness outside of your Concept and Trouble. It might be specifically tailored to help with something you expect to be your core competency.
    • It is written in a similar fashion to the Concept Distinction.
    • “Power” might be “Comfortable among the powerful,” “Discipline Prodigy,” etc.
    • “Immortality” might be “Eternally youthful beauty,” “Endlessly patient,” etc.
  • In one sentence, describe a goal your character wants to accomplish in the short term.

Step 6: Realities

The GM will send out updated information.

  • Connect a Theme, Location, or NPC to an Antagonist, Macguffin, or NPC (that do not already have a connection) and define the connection.
  • Connect your PC to a Location, NPC, Antagonist, or Macguffin (to which you do not already have a connection) and define the connection.
  • In one sentence, describe how you think your character fits into the local Camarilla society.

Step 7: Conclusion

The GM will:

  • Determine the Generation (from 7th to 12th) of each NPC based on number of connections (more interesting NPCs get lower generation). This will define the generations of each PC based on Sire.
  • Establish a final city hierarchy and titles (for both NPCs and PCs), possibly adding additional NPCs not tied directly into the hierarchy to round out the city numbers.
  • Choose the top four most-connected Themes and use them to write two city-wide Distinctions. These will effectively be truths about the city that anyone can use when appropriate, and serve as broad direction for the setting.
  • Assign two Themes (or one if there were only seven) to each Clan based on how many members of the Clan linked to that Theme, and then write a Clan Distinction based on those Themes. This Distinction will be available to all members of that Clan when appropriate, and will explain the high-level goal of that Clan within the city.
  • Use all that information to finish plotting the Chronicle.

The players will finish character creation normally based on the information decided in these steps.

Heroville Pathways

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This is a character creation hack for MHR based on Smallville‘s pathways. It uses some of the ideas from Dresdenville and is based on the point values in my previous post on MHR chargen, with some new insights based on playtesting. It’s intended for making new heroes not based on existing characters, but potentially existing in the Marvel universe. The character map steps should be useful to you in creating relationships and antagonists even if you prefer the default, freeform method for generating stats. Note that this system treats all power traits and SFX as if they were of equal value: if you feel certain of these are less/more versatile, feel free to charge half/double for them.


The following node types are used in this system when making the relationship map:

  • Protagonist (Square): This is used for PCs. All PCs are placed in the center of the page and are automatically connected to one another.
  • Secondary Character (Circle): This is used for NPCs. Unlike Smallville, there isn’t a mechanical distinction between features and extras, but you might wish to double-circle NPCs that wind up with a lot of lines drawn to and from them, as they’ll likely be very important to the plot. These NPCs should typically be neither antagonistic nor completely helpful: they are not the players’ enemies (that’s antagonists, below) but they will often have their own goals and serve as foils.
  • Theme (Triangle): This is a one or two word theme, typically a very broad noun like “Ostracism,” “Fear,” “Sacrifice,” “Forgiveness,” and so on. The intent is to provide a core concept for Distinctions to build off of, and to give the GM ideas as to what concepts are central to the game when planning scenarios.
  • Macguffin (Pentagon/Shield): This is an important item or element that will drive the plot by frequent attempts to obtain or use it. It can be something powerful but specific (Mjolnir, Cap’s Shield) or something broadly important (the Odinforce, the Super Soldier Formula). It should not be something easily destroyed. It might also sometimes be an important location; in this case, draw the symbol as a diamond per standard Smallville notation.
  • Antagonist (Hexagon): This is a character or group with goals the create conflict with the PCs. They might not be villains as such, but they will always have an agenda that causes them to be at odds with the protagonists.

Like standard Smallville notation, connections between nodes are one-way arrows: one node might have a relationship with another with a different reciprocal relationship (or none whatsoever). There are a few limitations to this:

  • Themes cannot have outgoing arrows, only incoming arrows. The label for this arrow is the name of the Distinction so created.
  • Other players and the GM might draw arrows from other nodes to any protagonist, but only the player of that character can draw outgoing arrows (i.e., only the player can define how his PC feels about other nodes). With the above rule, this means that only the player can connect his own PC to themes.
  • Each node can only have a single outgoing connection to any other node (i.e., it can’t have two different relationships with the same element).
  • Unlike Smallville, when a player draws an arrow from his protagonist, he does not get to draw and define a reciprocal relationship for free: if he wants to control both sides of the relationship, he’ll need to spend another connection before another player or the GM decide to spend one to define it first.
  • Remember that placing something means giving it a node type and an interesting name, but the other players can and will define it by creating connections, and the GM will ultimately stat it and use it based on those connections. Don’t get your heart set on a thorough definition for an item as soon as you place it: something cool sounding but vague will likely be enhanced by other player input.


Begin the setup by placing and naming all the PC squares and connecting them (the arrows can be labeled at any point for free or left blank). Come up with a basic concept for your character. You can define your Solo, Buddy, and Team dice (from d10, d8, and d6) at any point in the process. Rotate around the table between every addition to the map (e.g., everyone adds a node before connecting to nodes) and alternate which player starts the process each time. Stop at the step that best defines the type of game you want to play (e.g., complete step 4 but don’t complete step 5 if you want to play regional-level heroes).

1. Background

Think about your character background and what your primary Power Set will be.

  1. Add a Theme (Triangle).
  2. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as your first Distinction.

Pick one of the following:

  • Early Power: Add a Power Trait at d6.
  • Early Training: Add an Expert Specialty (d8).

2. Catalyst

Think about the situation that granted your character powers.

  1. Add a Secondary Character (Circle).
  2. Add a Macguffin (Pentagon).
  3. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Circle or Pentagon.
  4. Draw an arrow from any Circle or Pentagon to any protagonist.
  5. Draw an arrow from any Circle or Pentagon to any Circle, Pentagon, or Triangle.

(Define all connections as you make them.)

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes two connections (between any valid elements).

Pick one of the following:

  • Indoctrination: You received your powers from training or deliberate experiment.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Add two Power Traits at d6.
    • Add an SFX or step up one Power Trait to d8.
    • Define an appropriate Limit.
  • Mutation: You are a mutant and likely received your powers at puberty.
    • Add a Power Trait at d8.
    • Add two SFX.
    • Add another Power Trait at d6 or an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Take the Mutant Limit.
  • Accident: You received your powers from some kind of scientific or mystical accident.
    • Add a Power Trait at d8.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or two SFX.
    • Add another Power Trait at d6 or two SFX.
    • Define an appropriate Limit.

At this phase, no specialties can be higher than Expert and no powers can be larger than d8.

3. Mission (Local-level heroes)

Think about your character’s personal ethics/code and desires. Add one of the following:

  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character is defined by an Ethos
  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character is motivated by Love
  • A Macguffin (Pentagon) if your character is in pursuit of an Item


  1. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as your second Distinction.
  2. Draw an arrow from any valid node to any protagonist.
  3. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes two connections (between any valid elements).

Pick one of the following:

  • Addition: You gained a useful piece of gear or a secondary suite of powers.
    • Add a secondary Power Set and choose a Limit for that set.
    • Add one Power Trait to the new set at d6.
    • Step up any two Power Traits or add two SFX (or one of each).
  • Empowered: You went through some training or enhancement process to increase your powers.
    • Add two new Power Traits at d6 or step up four Power Traits (or one Trait and two steps).
    • Add one SFX.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8).
  • Trained: You went through an education process that mostly focused on mundane abilities.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10) or add an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or add two SFX.
    • Step up a Power Trait or add one SFX.

At this phase, a maximum of one specialty can be Master and only one power can be larger than d8 (any number can be d6 or d8).

4. Agenda (Regional-level heroes)

Think about your character’s plans for the future and why he or she continues to fight. Add one of the following:

  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character pursues an Ideal
  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character is supporting a Group
  • A Macguffin (Pentagon) if your character is in pursuit of Knowledge


  1. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as your third Distinction.
  2. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon.
  3. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes two connections (between any valid elements).

Do all of the following:

  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or step up two Power Traits.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10).
  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or add two SFX.
  • Step up a Power Trait or add an SFX.

At this phase, there are no limits on specialties at Master except you cannot have more Master specialties than Expert specialties. Only one power can be d12 (any number can be d10 or less).

5. Legend (Global-level heroes)

Think about the legacy your character plans to leave the world and what he or she has already done to attain it. Add one of the following:

  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character will be remembered for Virtue
  • A Macguffin (Pentagon) if your character will be remembered for Power
  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character will be remembered for Awareness


  1. Draw an arrow from any valid node to any protagonist.
  2. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes three connections (between any valid elements).

Do all of the following:

  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or step up two Power Traits.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10).
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or a new Power Trait at d6.
  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or add two SFX.
  • Step up a Power Trait or add an SFX.

At this phase, there are no limits on specialties at Master except you cannot have more Master specialties than Expert specialties. There are no limits on Power Traits.

6. Transcendence (Cosmic-level heroes)

Think about what your character means to the cosmos and what they will call you across the stars and dimensions. Add one of the following:

  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character is a powerful being’s Agent
  • An Antagonist (Hexagon) if your character will be known for a powerful Nemesis
  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character is considered a God in his or her own right


  1. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as a replacement for any previous Distinction.
  2. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon.
  3. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM makes four connections (between any valid elements).

Do all of the following:

  • Step up two Power Traits or add a new Power Trait at d6.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up two Power Traits.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or a new Power Trait at d6.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10).
  • Step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10) or add two SFX.
  • Step up a Power Trait or add an SFX.

At this phase, there are no limits on specialties at Master except you cannot have more Master specialties than Expert specialties. There are no limits on Power Traits.

Work with the GM to come up with Milestones for your completed character.

System Review: Smallville, Conclusion


The World Has Folded in Your Heart

“Author Stance” is a term I hear bandied around the indie-sphere. Based on this article, I’m not completely positive I’m using it correctly, but in my head it’s the kind of RP summarized in the Smallville examples of play: the players talk about their characters in third person and are free to hand wave and summarize things that don’t seem germane to the narrative. “‘You’re such an idiot!’ Sam says to Trevor, and then proceeds to lay into him about his drinking.” Someone correct me if I’m over summarizing or getting it wrong.

Regardless of whether I’m using the terminology correctly, it’s something I seem to recall seeing pretty frequently in examples of play in various indie-spectrum games. And I can never tell whether it’s an accurate example of how that game would play at the table, or whether it’s a simplification to make it easier to explain the game’s concepts clearly and in the space allotted. None of my gaming groups have ever really played that way: “I hit it with my axe” is far more common than “My character hits it with his axe” and it’s pretty unusual not to roleplay out the entirety of any important conversation. If my character and Harbinger’s character are at odds, you can bet that there’s going to be a fully in character argument at the table. Hopefully fully in character, at least.

I say all that to point out that I believe that my group’s experience with the game is probably not indicative of actual flaws in the system. It may be indicative that the designers took for granted that players would automatically be in Author Stance for the game. The game really might have benefited from having a big disclaimer at the front saying something along the lines of, “This game will make your character hate other player characters a lot of the time, so you should try to describe your actions in such a way that you’re not necessarily truly immersed in your character’s feelings. And a play contract for how far you’re willing to stymie one another might be a good idea.” Or we might be atypical and most groups have no problem keeping their in character actions from bleeding OOC.

All that said, I absolutely love that the game is a salvo of pure innovation shot directly into the mass market. The sheer courage involved in letting respected indie designers have an option to put some of their ideas into a slickly produced book obviously designed to reach gamers (and non gamers) that follow a popular show is commendable. Even if you don’t want to play it as written, there are a bunch of concepts that can be usefully grafted into other games. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the character creation system, which is likely to see play in pretty much any game I run from now on.

So even though my group had some difficulties with the system, I can suggest that yours might not if you go into prepared with a play contract and/or a comfortable distance between you and your character’s emotions. And, even if you can’t overcome these issues, the system is modular and doesn’t obfuscate any of it’s design: you could take it down for parts or just fix what doesn’t work for you really easily.

I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern game design: even if you’re not going to play it, you owe it to yourself to be aware of what it’s doing and why.

System Review: Smallville, Part 4

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As mentioned in part 2, NPCs are pretty easy in Smallville, insofar as they don’t have a lot of stats and the ones they do have include descriptive phrases to help you roleplay them at the table. While you’re encouraged to go through the same chargen for NPCs as for PCs, it’s pretty easy to eyeball it when you’re not trying to give them very specific connections (i.e., you just want them for a one-off). So, by and large, NPCs are very easy to create for the table.

But if you’re like me, the best NPC is one you don’t even have to think about statting at all until the players have given enough of a damn at the table. Smallville has you covered, and I’m actually shocked more games don’t do something similar. The GM has a resource called the Trouble Pool, which starts small but grows from various things throughout the session. Not only can the GM spend this pool in ways comparable to players and their Plot Points, it can also be rolled for any situation that doesn’t have its own character sheet (and used to augment NPCs that do have one). Further, if you want to take the single step of saying “This NPC is a 2dX Extra,” you can use those Extra dice to assist the Trouble Pool when the NPC is on screen.

The main way the Trouble Pool increases is that the GM can “buy” a player’s die that rolls a 1 to add a Complication and also add that die to the pool. So if the player rolls a 1 on a d6 (even on an otherwise successful roll), the GM can toss that player a Plot Point, describe something that complicates the action, and add a d6 to the Trouble Pool. Since players will often be rolling several dice, at least one of them turning up a 1 is likely, so the Trouble Pool basically grows faster the more the players are making rolls.

This is very intimidating to players. And, honestly, that’s really its major benefit as a system: because smaller dice are more likely to roll 1, the Trouble Pool is likely to mostly be made of small dice that aren’t much of a threat against any PC rolling any d10s or d12s. I stopped buying d4s altogether unless I had something interesting to add as a story complication because the value of a Plot Point to the player was generally more than that of a d4 to the Trouble Pool. But players do eventually roll 1s on big dice, and toward the end of the session, the players seriously need to worry that their troubles are going to be rolling several high dice with a lot of low dice to use similarly to Plot Points.

Pacing wise, the Trouble Pool mechanic has a very similar effect to Exhaustion in Don’t Rest Your Head: it creates a natural curve over the course of a session where players eventually realize they need to start dealing with their problems before they become insurmountable.


Smallville handles the concept of “merits and flaws” in a very interesting way that captures many of the advantages of Fate‘s Aspects while retaining a level of crunchiness that’s easier to use for new players. Distinctions are additional traits that players can buy during chargen, and, as mentioned, they wind up filling out a lot of the “skills and attributes” mindspace that a more traditional system would have. So, for example, the “Athletic” Distinction fulfills a lot of functions that a Strength attribute or Athletics skill would cover. But Distinctions can be more traditional-style advantages/disadvantages as well: see “Impulsive” and “Family Reputation.”

In addition to providing an extra die to any roll in which the trait applies, as a player increases the die size of a Distinction, he or she gains access to new thematic special abilities. The cool thing about these is that they’re built with a very specific language of system modifiers. Every special ability gives you one of a few types of bonuses in exchange for one of a few types of costs (such as spending a Plot Point, giving a bonus die to your opponent, or adding a die to Trouble). There are enough of each side of the equation that, coupled with the theme lent by the Distinction name, there are a lot of variations, but it’s easy to understand and simply phrase how they work by virtue of the consistent list. They synergize pretty well too: see Pyro’s three Plot Points for 3d6 added to Trouble trifecta of “Impulsive,” “Willful,” and “In Over My Head.”

Distinctions are a very clever way of hooking advantages to the system rather than making each one an exception that must be remembered. Many other games could probably do something similar with the positive and negative components of their own core rules.


It bears mentioning again, that Complications (i.e., the GM buying a “1″ with a Plot Point to get a Trouble die and describe a problem) are a very cool aspect of the system. I’ve never seen players so happy to “take their medicine” and accept the bad consequences of a roll as when they knew they’d immediately receive compensation in the form of Plot Points for the inconvenience. Someday, I might have to try an old school WoD game with the punitive botching rules and see if giving the players back Willpower every time they botch increases the enjoyment of the system.


System Review: Smallville, Part 3


Playing the Game

Conflict and Player Drama

The Smallville TV show is more about conflict between the principle cast than it is about the problem of the week. In fact, generally each episode’s plots are more about finding new ways to get the main characters to have interpersonal drama than to work together. It’s a very efficient way to make a large-cast show work, as there isn’t a lot of screen time wasted on introducing new characters to fight with. Instead, the leads spend a lot of time fighting among themselves.

The RPG works very hard to capture this milieu, and the character examples are up front about it: in addition to the four heroic principles, who have their own drama about secret identities and such, two of the example PCs are actually the recurring show villains. Effectively, the game suggests that you make your character to be frienemies with as many other PCs as possible. The GM advice even suggests that making a game is about inventing Wedges that can set different PCs against one another based on their mutual relationships, and then assembling those into a plot. What’s going on in the story is secondary to how you’re going to get the PCs fighting one another.

Knowing all of that is necessary to understand why the rules are the way they are.

As mentioned in the first post in this series, conflicts beyond a simple test are done as a series of back and forth rolls between two opponents, each trying to get successively higher numbers as the conflict escalates. The ultimate loser either takes damage (possibly having to leave the scene if the damage or margin of failure is high enough) or has to give in and allow the winner to accomplish the stated goal of the conflict. Note that these are mutually exclusive: if you beat an opponent who chooses to take damage, you don’t get what you wanted (unless all you actually wanted was to get the opponent out of the scene). The most uneven conflicts in the game cannot be resolved if the loser is willing to take a severe beating (physically or emotionally) rather than give in.

In the initial post, I framed this conflict system as PC vs. NPC/Trouble pool, but, as explained above, it will actually be PC vs. PC quite a lot of the time. If you’ve done your job right as a GM, two PCs will go at it with words, fists, or superpowers frequently and about topics they care very much about. If you have a group that doesn’t enjoy PvP and/or can’t completely partition PC emotions from player emotions, this is not the game for you. In my second session, I found a particular wedge that worked very well indeed, and I was rewarded by the entire group suddenly realizing they treasured their real life friendships too much to keep playing. Because the game doesn’t differentiate between social and physical conflicts, and doesn’t ever want to force a change in how you play your character, you can never actually accomplish anything against another player willing to stick to his guns and take the damage. Even something as simple as getting the PC to admit a lie or give up a held object is out of bounds, and you could find play fairly heavily stalled by players that refuse to budge. A play contract is highly suggested.

Assuming your group is able to handle the player drama inherent in the conflicts, the system gains complexity by using plot points and other optional adds. That is, if you rolled two dice to start the conflict, then your opponent rolled higher, you can start pulling in additional adds if you feel like the new difficulty will be impossible to beat with your initial dice pool. There is even some support for switching to a slightly different dice pool with the justification of responding to your opponent’s action (but you’re not supposed to straight up turn it from a social conflict to a physical one in the middle of an exchange). Plot points allow you to roll additional dice and/or keep additional dice beyond the initial two, distinctions may let you add in dice in exchange for something else, and resources and PC assistance can add bonus dice beyond the two. My only real complaint about the system is that it’s unclear how long added dice persist: if you add an Extra, for example, do you get the bonus for just one roll or the rest of the exchange?

And adding in PC allies, Extras, and Locations is the point where the system expresses its biggest flaw. All of these elements assist by breaking the “keep the best two dice” rule. Instead, the assistance you get from these sources adds the best single die to your kept two. Even an ally of 2d6 is likely to add 4-5 points on average to a roll, which is a much bigger bonus than simply adding more dice, even large dice, to your own pool. Since the game tends to assume the PCs are fractious and rarely in a scene together, the assistance rules don’t actually specify a limit to how much assistance can be gained in this way. And when two groups of PCs (or PCs and NPCs) are in conflict over the same thing, it tends to make sense to elect a leader for each side rather than breaking into multiple conflicts. All of this means that conflicts with allies tends to blow the dice curve out of the water with all the bonus assistance dice. My players, already not fully bought into the PvP aspects of the game system, questioned heavily why they wouldn’t always team up on the NPCs because the system so heavily incentivized it. Ultimately, the assistance mechanic gets a very small portion of a page in the book, almost as an afterthought, but has sufficiently large impact on play that it could have used more explanation as to how to manage it (such as guidelines for breaking up large conflicts and assistance caps).

PC Advancement

Intensifying the problems with refusing to give in on a conflict is the advancement system. Effectively, damage turns into exp. You can’t raise traits at all without at least one wound, and your biggest wound plus any wounds you had healed during the session becomes your “growth pool” for the session. You’ll roll all these dice against a pair of dice rolled by the GM (made up of the die size of the trait you’re trying to increase and a bonus die for how valuable that trait is), and keep the best two with no ability to modify the roll other than having a big pile of dice. My players were not fans at all of the random advancement (they universally failed to raise anything their first session, despite several big damage hits). Further, it really encourages players to never back down: they very quickly realized that their goal was to get hurt as much as possible in order to get exp, and giving in would only ever cost them advancement (in exchange for the temporary inconvenience of damage, which I’ll go into more about next week). While the experience system being tied to getting hurt seems like a cool idea, it has enough ramifications with the rest of the system to have undesirable effects even before bringing the pure randomness into it.

This week wound up trending unfortunately negative, but that means next week can be all the things  I liked about the system, starting with the Trouble Pool.

Part 4

System Review: Smallville, Part 2

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Character Creation

Group character creation is now clearly a thing. Pretty much every system that’s been informed by indie gaming these days actually makes it impossible to fully (or even partially) create a character without being at the table with the rest of the party. Given loads of previous games where everyone made their characters independently and then discovered the party refused to gel at the table, I tend to support this evolution. I’ve played a lot of games lately that include elements to create characters that are linked together and have a pre-established position in the game world, and Smallville probably does it the best, or at least the most thoroughly, of any of them.

If you’ve read my Camarillaville or Dresdenville posts (accessible via the Smallville tag), you’ve seen the context for the system. Character creation is broken down into distinct phases (theoretically correlated with the aging of a character from childhood, but it can be more abstract than that if desired). In each phase, you get to spend some points and, more importantly, you get to add elements to the relationship map.

Spending points is interesting in itself: rather than giving everyone the same options at each phase, players instead select a particular package (representing an archetype like Jock, Outsider, or Geek) from those available at that phase. Each package has limited choices: one might offer you more Distinctions or Abilities (superpowers), while another might offer you better Relationships. And the packages flow between each phase to create a natural progression: for example, if your previous phase was Geek, you can jump to Technology in your next phase, but if you were a Jock, you can’t (but you have access to options that a Geek doesn’t). So even before considering that your available traits were different, the high level description of your character is generated out of your path through the phases. For example, in my game Colossus had Ordinary > Jock > Paranormal > Ethical while Shadowcat had Rich > Paragon > Paranormal > Ethical, arriving at the same package through different paths.

The meat of the system, however, is in generating the relationship map. Throughout character creation, the group is sitting around a big sheet of paper (or looking at a flowchart software screen for those with a high tech gaming room). At each phase, before you assign points, the players get the opportunity to add elements (generally NPCs and important locations) to the map and/or connect them to other specific elements and describe the relationship. Effectively, the players generate the primary NPCs and settings for the campaign for the GM, just as a consequence of character creation. Before you’ve even sat down at your first session, you have a whole list of people and places that the PCs care about (and are actually important resources on their character sheet to make sure they care). This is solid gold for a GM: the players can’t make characters without also giving them story hooks.

This process is additionally integrated into the actually points-spending creation elements by making Relationships, Extras, and Locations largely dependent on this map. When you add or connect yourself to an NPC or Location on the map, you generally get them as a resource on your sheet. When you get points to increase extras or locations, you have to spend them on ones already connected to you on the map (and, therefore, added to your sheet). When two players both connect to an Extra, it’s automatically upgraded to a Feature and the points spent on it convert to Relationships (effectively, the NPC becomes more important to the game and is reflected in it becoming a core stat rather than a limited-use accessory stat). A quarter or more of the stats on your sheet will generally emerge from creativity on the map.

Once everyone has made their characters, there’s one last really important step: value and relationship statements. In and of themselves, the Values and Relationships are a little bland. They’re things like “I have a d12 in Justice and a d6 with Shadowcat, what does that even mean?” So once you’ve gotten the stat numbers finished, it’s up to the player to qualify them in a way that makes sense for that character.  A character with Justice: ” We need to make our own rules” and one with Justice: ” It’s not that hard to know right from wrong” are very different, and not just in how that statement informs the GM about the character. The first character will roll Justice when committing crimes, rather than trying to stop them (unless he challenges the Value, as described next week).

But that’s not to discount how useful those statements are to the GM. You not only start play with a detailed list of useful NPCs and locations, but also a player-generated explanation of the PC’s moral code and feelings about others. Further, when statting out NPC features, adding these statements basically gives you enough detail to roleplay the NPC without any extra background text.

Character creation for Smallville basically takes up a whole session’s worth of time, but it’s entirely worth it. Once my players realized how much narrative control they had in setting up the map, they started having a great time and didn’t really want to stop.

Part 3

Smallville: Westchester Characters and Plot

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I wound up making a bunch of text and a character map for my Westchester game in preparation for the ongoing Smallville review. So those interested can get a better idea of what I was doing (and potentially point out stuff I obviously missed when building my understanding of the system), these documents are presented here.

Images of actors are included for the PCs, and I actually had “fantasy-cast” most of the features and extras too in order to provide NPC reference images when they were in scene (these cards are not included, but I could provide my actor list to anyone interested). Obviously, no copyright is asserted by the inclusion of these images or by the use of the X-Men in general.

Of course, these are just my GM reference materials, so may leave out some things I took for granted. Feel free to question or comment.

System Review: Smallville, Part 1

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My Wings Have Broken in Your Hands

Playing through Arkham City recently, I was struck with just how much comics have become modern mythology. The parallel between, say, someone who knows the basics of Hercules vs. the details of his Labors is close to someone who knows the basics of Batman vs. the specifics of his continuity. Pretty much anyone can get the Disney Hercules movie, but the Hercules TV show with Sorbo tried to remain accessible but still contained lots of references just for the mythology buffs. Similarly, there have been a lot of Batman properties over the years, but the ones that really lived on (the animated series, the Nolan films, the Arkham games) are both accessible to newcomers and still use the deep well of continuity to tell really interesting stories that appeal to casual and deep fans alike.

The Smallville TV show was meant to do this with Superman. It took large archetypal building blocks from the canon and rearranged them, using deeper continuity from the comics as stitching wherever it fit. I was a big fan for the first three seasons, but by the fourth season I feel like it had a triple threat of getting trapped by its success (there were talks about trying to end “Smallville” and begin “Metropolis” as the story moved on that never materialized), being driven to change focus to appeal to the post-Buffy WB demographics, and, most importantly, generating so much of its own continuity that the bits of genuine Superman mythos were largely drowned out by the noise. I think I jumped out at about the point that Lana got possessed by her witch ancestor to work a sexy party spell.

Whether or not you stuck with the TV show into its later run, the Smallville RPG seems to be largely based around that core concept: using a mythos to tell new stories in the format of a one hour scifi/fantasy drama. The book says it’s a pure licensed property, of course, all about making your new characters to play in the Smallville TV show’s continuity. And a great deal of the book is devoted to stats and background for the show. But most of the buzz I see about using the game is definitely more about making use of the system to make your own TV-show-ized take on a favorite canon. If you’ve been avoiding the game because you don’t like the Smallville TV show, that’s not really a concern. The actual licensed material becomes mostly an extended example of how to put the core systems to work in any setting you choose.

For my own playtest, I did a take on the X-Men, as detailed here. Beyond a slight reskin on the character creation to change “alien” to “mutant” in a consistent way and downplay tech-based characters, I had to do relatively little. The existing power descriptions were plenty for most of the characters (and are even fine for non-supers settings like Vampire).

So, with a somewhat atypical system review where I actually literally cut out the setting and used one I prefer, there should be no particular setting bias to get in the way of testing out the rules.

Core Mechanics

The highest level overview is available in my first look review of Cortex Plus. Essentially, for any challenge you usually have two or more dice of varying numbers of sides composed from various traits. The bigger the trait, the bigger the die. You then roll all of them together and keep the highest two results to generate your score. Since you will often get to roll three or more dice on any challenge that you’re built to handle, the roll-many-keep-two aspect serves to further reduce spikes of low rolls on good skills. If you’re rolling on something you’re good at, the number of dice in play tend to make it really hard to roll worse than average.

Smallville‘s major modification of the Cortex Plus system is to do away with a traditional attribute/ability structure. Instead, characters have Values and Relationships. You don’t win the fight because you have a good Dex + Fight, you win because doing so will give you Power over the opponent or because he’s hurting another relationship that you Love or have a Duty to. Effectively, putting together a dice pool is less about what you’re doing and more about why you’re doing it and who you’re doing it for. Of course, lest it seem like this is a system completely dominated by theatrics, the traditional elements of skills and attributes find their way into the game as bonus dice when applicable. A character that doesn’t much care about the situation but has the requisite Distinctions has a pretty solid chance against a highly motivated character that is otherwise untrained for the situation. But I’ll go into that in more detail later.

Simple tests in the system are always rolled against a Trouble pool of GM dice that changes in size and number throughout the session. So a simple test that’s easy early on may be harder later in the session as tension has mounted. The GM gets more Trouble whenever he or she pays a Plot Point to a PC rolling a 1 on any die (effectively buying that die for the Trouble pool), or when PCs use certain special abilities.

Complex tests (including all forms of combat) are a back and forth series of raises between a PC and an NPC or the Trouble pool. The initiating character rolls to set a difficulty, the opponent then tries to beat that difficulty. If the opponent wins, that becomes the new difficulty and the original initiator has to roll again. Eventually, someone doesn’t hit a difficulty and has to decide whether to give the winner what he or she wanted in the first place, or take damage (“Stress”) and keep the argument/fight going. Again, it’s a bit more complex than that, and I’ll discuss that later at more length.

In general, the system becomes fairly straightforward when you get used to it: figure out which Value most closely matches why your PC is performing this action and take that die, figure out which Relationship indicates who your PC is performing this action most directly for or against and take that die, and then figure out if any of your secondary traits indicate your character would have some skill or advantage in this situation and take those dice. Then roll, keep the best two dice, and try to roll high.

Part 2

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