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.


Don’t Lower Your Auctoritas

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So of course, when Fred asks for DRYH hacks that don’t use existing IP, that’s all my game design muse wants to give me. Here’s one for Nobilis. Note that I don’t have the new edition yet, so it works off of 2nd edition’s assumptions.


It’s all over the news. There’s been another bizarre death. There’s been one every day. What the news doesn’t say is, with each one, the city gets a little weirder. Most people haven’t yet noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to get out, but they will. The roads are turning in on themselves. The ties to the rest of the world are slipping away. Somehow, you’re one of the few that have noticed. There’s something behind it all, something far more than human. And it’s watching you. It’s judging you. It’s changing you.

You’ve started to notice that you can do things. Things not human. Things not even superhuman. And with the powers of a god come the trials of one. You’re being challenged. Threats are seeking you out. But nobody will tell you the rules. Your powers grow the more you use them. What are you getting yourself into? What happens if you pass these tests? Even worse, what happens if you fail?

Growing Power

This system serves as a way to play out the Empowerment of Nobilis PCs. It postulates a situation where an Imperator is gradually determining which of the citizens of a new Chancel will be its Powers by slowly extending them capabilities during the 100 day ritual to make the Chancel. If they prove competent, they’ll be awarded soul shards… if they don’t, dementia animus is possibly the best case scenario for a mortal that tasted the powers of creation and then had them taken away.

Players have three types of dice: Competence, Passion, and Miracles.

  • Competence is similar to Discipline. Every PC starts with 3 dice in the Competence pool. It represents anything that a pure mortal could do, if only in movies with a very liberal view of physics and other sciences. When Competence dominates:
    • The success or failure plays out with the precision and order of the truly skilled.
    • The player should make a mark next to Aspect.
  • Passion is similar to Exhaustion, but represents the power of the character’s will and soul. It starts at 0 dice, but a player can take on one die of Passion before each roll. As the Passion pool increases, the character becomes increasingly “real” and noticeable, giving all the impression of a colored image against a desaturated background. When Passion dominates:
    • The success or failure is strongly influenced by the character’s overwhelming emotions or force of personality. If the result was a success, and any kind of supernatural effect was in play, onlookers will notice a “bubble” around the character, about the diameter of her own height, where her own reality is imposed on the world.
    • The player should make a mark next to Spirit and reduce the Passion pool by 2 dice (to a minimum of 0). Passion has no technical cap, but will become increasingly likely to dominate and reduce itself the higher it gets.
  • Miracles is similar to Madness, in that it is a fast surge pool where the player can add from 0 to 6 dice on any roll. Adding these dice represents warping local reality to produce a result, and the player should describe what is being attempted. When Miracles dominates:
    • The result of the miracle is very obvious, and may cause mortal onlookers to go mad.
    • The player should make a mark next to Realm (unless using her Affinity, as described below, in which case make a mark next to Domain).

Players also have a Skill and a Domain.

  • Skill represents an area of mortal concern that the character is particularly skilled at. It is mechanically about as broad as an Exhaustion Talent. Whenever using the Skill, the player may choose to turn any or all Competence dice into 6s after rolling (i.e., the player can all but ensure that Competence dominates).
  • Affinity is the miraculous concept with which the character is becoming increasingly associated. It is a single word that will eventually become the character’s Domain. Whenever Miracles dominates, if the result is within this affinity, it increases Domain instead of Realm.

GMs roll two types of dice:

  • Tribulation dice are rolled when the GM believes that the situation the players are dealing with was engineered by the Imperator to challenge the characters. This might be an overt manifestation of the Imperator’s domains and operatives or may be a situation that was socially engineered (e.g., clues that lead the PCs to a tight spot). Tribulation ranges from a minimum of 1 die (to some extent, everything the characters encounter is being monitored and allowed to happen by the Imperator) up to 10 or more, and should generally increase over the course of the 100 days as the Imperator tests the PCs more thoroughly. When Tribulation dominates:
    • The seams of the challenges become obvious: it is metaphorically like a trap suddenly springing shut.
    • Mark whether the PC succeeded or failed on such a roll, and record a mark next to Approval or Disappointment for that Imperator’s subsequent dealings with that PC.
  • Bane dice are rolled whenever the situation involves dangerous elements that aren’t directly under the Imperator’s control. That is, the PCs are in more danger than just failing their future master’s tests. This can be anything from conflict with citizens of the soon-to-be-Chancel, to environmental difficulties, to the involvement of supernatural elements beyond the Imperator (rival Powers, future Chancel Banes, or even Excrucians). Bane dice range from 0 to 6 based on the severity of the situation. When Bane dominates:
    • The PC is injured in some way; if the roll was a success for the player, this injury is superficial, but failure can bring actual life-threatening problems.
    • It is up to the GM and players whether death is on the table from too many failed Bane dominations.


In addition to choosing a Skill and an Affinity, each player should answer the following questions for her character:

  • What is your name?
  • Why is this happening to you?
  • Who do you love most and why?
  • Who do you hate most and why?
  • Why should you have power?
  • What just happened to you?


Once the group is ready to proceed to their characters becoming Powers (everyone agrees that they’ve been sufficiently challenged for the Imperator’s satisfaction or the 100 days run out), convert the characters to Nobilis rules via the following method:

  1. Total all marks made across the four scores for each player (e.g., 5 Aspect, 6 Domain, 2 Realm, 7 Spirit is 20 total).
  2. Divide the game’s character creation point total by this number to create a multiplier (e.g., in a 30 point game, 20 marks means a 1.5 multiplier).
  3. Apply the multiplier to each individual category so the marks turn into character points with as similar a ratio as possible to the original marks (e.g., in the above examples, the player would have 7-8 Aspect, 9 Domain, 3 Realm, and 10-11 Spirit).
  4. Spend each category to buy the related trait levels, bonus miracle points, or Gifts related to that category (e.g., 9 Domain points buys 3 levels of the Domain trait, 9 bonus Domain Miracle Points, 9 points worth of Domain-related Gifts, or some combination of the three).

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

Don’t Waste Your Tass


This is Mage: the Ascension converted to Don’t Rest Your Head, as inspired by Fred’s recent post about hacking DRYH. You could probably run Mage: the Awakening with it by changing a few trait names and groups. Familiarity with both DRYH and Mage will probably make this make more sense.


Player characters have three major traits:

  • Arete: The sum of a mage’s fully controlled magical potency, Arete is a fixed pool that rarely changes in the course of an adventure (though it might increase over time). It is also a good reference for the character’s skill at mundane activities, so will generally be rolled for everything. It is very similar to Discipline in standard DRYH. When Arete dominates, the player may reduce Resonance by one die or remove a Paradox check as her mage masters reality sufficiently to undo previous mistakes.
  • Resonance: As a mage bends reality, his or her changes tend to build up a mystical “tone” that makes further changes to reality both easier, and more dangerous. Reality, already bending, is easier to adjust, and this spills over even to mundane activities (just like Arete, Resonance is rolled for everything). It is very similar to Exhaustion. A mage can voluntarily take on one die of Resonance each roll. Additionally, if Resonance dominates, she must take on an extra die of Resonance as reality gets strange. If Resonance exceeds six dice, the mage experiences a Quiet. The higher a mage’s Resonance, the more likely other supernatural beings will be to notice and identify her.
  • Vulgarity: When casting magic, a mage often has a choice of how coincidental or vulgar to make the effect. The more vulgar the effect, the more power the mage can usually unleash. Thus, the more vulgar the effect, the more Vulgarity dice can be added (up to six). It is very similar to Madness. GMs should attempt to come up with a way for any effect to work as coincidental if the player wants it to; for example, a coincidental teleportation may somehow arrange for an available taxi cab and clear traffic (though going vulgar would obviously be faster). If Vulgarity dominates, the mage suffers Paradox as described below.

Each mage has a Tradition, with an associated Skill. The Skill works identically to the Exhaustion talent in DRYH, setting success to a minimum of Resonance and allowing the player to take on an additional die of Resonance to instead add total Resonance as bonus successes.

  • Akashic Brotherhood: Do (acrobatics, meditation, and combat involving martial arts or melee weapons)
  • Celestial Chorus: Song (any voice-based interaction, including intimidation, negotiation, commands, etc.)
  • Cult of Ecstasy: Cool (any interaction about knowing useful people, getting by via being interesting, or playing music)
  • Dreamspeakers: Wisdom (any interaction with spirits and surviving in and navigating in the wilderness or Umbra)
  • Euthanatos: Death (stealth, guns, and any combat where killing the opponent is a primary goal)
  • Order of Hermes: Knowledge (ritualized magic, book learning and research, and dealing with spiritual or supernatural politics)
  • Sons of Ether: Science! (making or understanding most things relevant to physics, chemistry, biology, etc.)
  • Verbena: Myth (any interaction with bygone beasts or physical supernatural beings like vampires, werewolves, and fae)
  • Virtual Adepts: Hacking (any interaction with, mediated by, or greatly assisted by a computer system)

Additionally, each mage has at least one Hobby which is a more limited Skill that is specific to the character’s background (effectively, any one skill off the normal Mage skill lists).

All mages have ratings in Spheres (Correspondence, Entropy, Forces, Life, Mind, Matter, Prime, Spirit, Time) which define what kind of effects they can produce. See the Mage rules for what is available at each Sphere level (Spheres are not simplified over regular Mage to make magical advancement a major element of long term play).

A mage that must take on more than six Resonance dice instead enters Quiet. The mage will typically snap, automatically solving whatever problem she was currently facing with some overwhelmingly vulgar magic (that somehow avoids Paradox), and then leave the scene to cause mad havoc across the city for a while until finally calming down (and dropping all non-permanent Resonance dice). Henceforth, one Arete die is permanently replaced with a Resonance die (which still counts against the limit of six). A mage that runs out of Arete in this way (or a master that gets a seventh permanent Resonance die) becomes a Marauder and is permanently insane and stuck in her own mad vision of reality.

Whenever Vulgarity dominates, the mage takes Paradox. A mage can suffer up to Arete in Paradox (check off a box). Whenever a Paradox box is checked, the player must decide on Feedback or Fallout. With Feedback, the mage suffers damage from the wracking Paradox and might come away with some kind of Paradox Flaw; she is incapacitated by the pain and unable to contribute meaningfully for the rest of the scene, but is not totally helpless. With Fallout, the Paradox instead has bizarre, unpredictable, and often horrific effects on the environment and bystanders (the GM is not expected to be kind), and the GM gains another Echoes die, but the mage is otherwise unharmed and able to keep contributing. If the mage suffers Paradox and has no remaining boxes to be checked, she is spirited away (either claimed by a literal Paradox Spirit or by a nearby Technocratic reality police squad). She may be returned later with lingering side effects determined by the GM.

All mages can use Tass to alleviate Paradox and Resonance (one spent Tass removes one die of Resonance or one check of Paradox). Tass comes from nodes or from other useful confluences of Quintessence. The GM is encouraged to give players Tass as a reward for accomplishments and to track it as tokens.

Making a Character

Answer these questions:

  • What is your name?
  • What happened to make you Awaken?
  • Why did you pick your Tradition?
  • How are you at odds with your Tradition?
  • What is your Avatar and your path to Ascension?
  • What just happened to you?

Fill out the following stats:

  • Take 3 Arete (and, consequently, 3 empty Paradox boxes)
  • Write your Tradition and its associated Skill
  • Pick one Hobby
  • Assign Spheres:
    • Take one rank in your Tradition Sphere:
      • Akashic Brotherhood: Mind
      • Celestial Chorus: Prime
      • Cult of Ecstasy: Time
      • Dreamspeakers: Spirit
      • Euthanatos: Entropy
      • Order of Hermes: Forces
      • Sons of Ether: Matter
      • Verbena: Life
      • Virtual Adepts: Correspondence
    • Assign five more ranks to Spheres (to a maximum of Arete in any Sphere)

The GM can award ranks of Arete, additional ranks of Spheres (to a maximum of Arete), and additional Hobbies as character advancement in long term play.

Here is a character sheet (Big Photoshop Editable Version or Small File Version).

GM Dice

Instead of one pool of Pain, the GM constructs challenges out of the following pools (any of which can independently Dominate):

  • As players use magic, Echoes begin to build. Echoes represent reality attempting to snap back and correct the deformations made by the mages. Add one Echoes die every time a player wins a challenge using magic and gets more successes than the current Echoes pool (e.g., if there are currently 2 Echoes dice being rolled, and the player wins with 5 successes, Echoes is now 3). Always roll Echoes against the players; things get consistently harder in general the more magic they use. When Echoes dominates, some mundane detail that they thought they’d accounted for or had taken for granted pops back up to cause a major complication. Reduce Echoes by one die whenever it dominates, and it also can slowly fade over time (one per hour or scene where no magic is used).
  • Whenever facing agents of the Technocracy or other challenges that represent the government, bureaucracy, or other mundane order of the world, roll Stasis dice (1 for a minor problem up to 6 for a major opposing Technocrat or large opposing force). When Stasis dominates, the local environs have become a little more influenced by the Technocratic paradigm: security gets harder, citizens phone 911 sooner, and issues require more forms and paperwork.
  • Whenever facing Nephandi, evil spirits and supernaturals, or mundane challenges inspired by moral decay, roll Corruption dice (same scale as Stasis). When Corruption dominates, the local environment is infected by apathy and malign supernatural forces: casual violence and crime gets worse, local denizens and wildlife are more likely to attack the characters, and progress is more likely to require bribery.
  • Whenever facing Marauders, natural or otherwise capricious spirits or supernaturals, or mundane challenges inspired by chaos or insanity, roll Madness dice (same scale as Stasis). When Madness dominates, things get a little crazy: bizarre and unfortunate coincidences happen with greater regularity, poltergeists and other capricious spirits have easier access to the world, and people are more likely to go mad.

The GM can mix and match the dice if it makes sense for the challenge. A corrupt politician might be Stasis and Corruption dice, an evil natural spirit might be Corruption and Madness dice, and an overly complicated and arbitrary bureaucracy might be Madness and Stasis dice.

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

Why the Standard Social Skills?


  • D&D: Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate; Sense Motive
  • Fate: Deceit, Rapport, Intimidate; Empathy
  • FSuns: Knavery, Charm, Impress; Empathy
  • NWoD: Subterfuge, Persuasion, Intimidation; Empathy

Somewhere along the line, it became accepted fact that RPGs with social skills break them down in very similar ways: you have a skill to lie, a skill to persuade without lying, a skill to be scary, and a skill to tell when you’re being manipulated. The occasional game mixes it up a little, either by combining a couple of the skills or by adding one or two others for specialized uses (e.g., NWoD’s Socialize for being the life of the party). But, by and large, it’s common to arrange skills in a way that you will use a different dice pool for social encounters depending on whether you’re lying, being honest, or being scary.

Social combats are hard to model in general. Even in games like Smallville and Technoir where social combat is functionally identical to physical combat, the cadence of the fight is hard to pick up at the table. We’re used to modeling trying to kill people with whatever pacing mechanism any particular game requires, because it’s never going to get in the way of us standing up and just roleplaying out the fight. But for social conflict, it’s natural for most gamers (particularly those that grew up on systems with at most one die roll being involved in any argument) to just roleplay out the scene in character. Adding a social conflict mechanic with a back and forth similar to combat requires you to break up your roleplay in a way that doesn’t feel natural, only roleplaying out a small portion of your speech before pausing to roll and then giving the other side a chance to rebut when you weren’t even done talking. Or you completely abstract the social combat (as the examples in a lot of indie games seem to suggest) by merely stating your intent in the scene and barely saying a word in character. That latter method is a really hard sell to gamers used to doing everything in character that’s at all practical at the table.

But, getting back to the initial point, I believe that part of the difficulty in making a really workable social conflict system is over-reliance on the standard four-skill model of social skills.

From a purely simulation perspective, these skills are weird. I finished reading The Big Con last week, and one of the things it hit home is that there’s not a bright line between any method of persuasion. There may be poor liars that are good at persuading people with the truth (though politics makes that dubious), but there are probably not many excellent liars that suddenly become unpersuasive if they’re telling the truth. Sure, you can buy multiple social skills in most systems, but the game system doesn’t often reward you for avoiding specialization. So you get situations like my paladin in a previous game: as soon as my attempts to convince NPCs drifted from pure fact to concealing information or being evasive, the GM was suddenly justified in asking me to roll my +5 Bluff skill instead of my +17 Diplomacy skill. Despite the fact that, in my mind, it was all part of the social patter required of being the party’s Face, the system didn’t see it that way. If we’d needed the NPC to buy a lie, I should have deferred to the party rogue (which, itself, would have been suspicious).

The inclusion of a social detection skill (empathy/sense motive) creates further complications to roleplay. The active social character is often at a severe disadvantage against a target with a high rank in this skill, because even the simplest and most believable lies can be detected in a way that borders on the magical. Even experienced police detectives often have to have ideal circumstances (such as an interrogation room and facts to catch the target off guard) to reliably detect lies, but RPG characters specialized in empathy can do it in any scenario (frequently against an opponent in the seat of his power). The converse is also true: a character that doesn’t specialize in this skill doesn’t allow its player to make up his or her own mind about a lie, but can be told that even the most bald-faced lie sounds perfectly correct (not that players regularly actually proceed with that assumption when they know they blew their sense motive check or are up against a character that they expect outclasses them in bluff).

Whether or not you believe that the divide in skill is a realistic simulation, the fact remains that it’s part of the problem in making social conflict similar to physical combat. While games typically silo physical combat ability in a similarly weird way (how many martial arts experts are useless with a weapon?), the typical combat offers the ability to contribute with any relevant skill (except in situations where firearms would be too loud or the PCs were disarmed before entering). The martial artist, the fencer, and the pistoleer are each contributing in their own way. But social conflicts are frequently constructed in a way that makes it way more obvious that certain types of skill can’t contribute. We’re trying to befriend this guy, so the party heavy with intimidate can’t help. We’re not actually lying (or we’d blow everything if we were caught in a lie), so the rogue is cooling his heels. Not only do you have the roleplaying need to just let one guy do the talking for simplicity’s sake, there’s little game benefit in the other players trying to contribute anyway.

So what’s the solution?

The easiest answer is to just have one really broad social skill, but that’s probably not something many game engines want to do (if you thought Diplomancers were bad now…). It is worth noting that the standard methods for adding more skills to what a game is focused on creates a paradox of incentivizing the “wrong” builds. For example, it’s way easier to get good at social conflicts in D&D than in combat and it’s way easier to become great at combat in any flavor of WoD than to become adept at intrigue.

The real answer probably starts with the intrigue tactics available in the Song of Ice and Fire RPG (which itself uses pretty close to the standard four skills, except with intimidate as a subset of persuade, so it isn’t a full solution). Specifically, cutting up social skills not by lie/truth/fear/detect but by whatever the verbs are in your social conflict system. For example, if “convince” is a tactic in your system, perhaps that’s the skill and it doesn’t matter whether you’re using lies, facts, or intimidation to convince the target. The trick would be creating a conflict system where any particular social encounter could map victory conditions to more than one such verb in a natural way. And I haven’t quite gotten to that particular holy grail yet.

So am I missing implementations with the standard four skills where they’re a natural fit to the social conflict mechanic? Can anyone come up with a list of verbs that would be applicable to a broad range of social conflicts?

System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Conclusion

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To Make that Blind Leap

Your typical RPG system is a determination engine: it gives structure (often, a chance-based structure) to the determination of how likely a character is to succeed or fail at a given task based on capabilities and hindrances. DRYH isn’t really typical in this sense. Sure, there are small elements of it with talents, but what it really is, instead, is an escalation engine. The game is less concerned with whether a character can do something than it is with keeping him or her doing something.

The natural consequence of making a roll is getting you into a situation where you’re compelled to make more rolls. The more you roll the bigger your Exhaustion pool is going to get, and the faster your own personal countdown to solving this scenario before you crash is going to tick. The session of the game I ran had the most beautiful adventure cadence of any one shot I’ve ever run: comfortable start in player directed activity, quick increase in pace after the Exhaustion started to build, and then a furious descent toward the climax. A huge portion of this was player directed: they didn’t want to crash before dealing with their biggest problem, and the closer they got to crashing the more dice they had to deal with that problem.

However, I do wonder if the system couldn’t be slimmed down even further. It’s still using a lot of the language of a deterministic system when it doesn’t necessarily need it. Moreover, there might be a way to streamline the mechanic so you can play the game without the requisite rainbow-colored pile of d6s that has become the hallmark of the indie gamer. Given the players’ ability to succeed at virtually any challenge by taking on more risk, and similarity of dice pools, it seems like a similar effect could be achieved with fewer dice. But there is something to be said for the tactile advantage of fistfuls of dice.

One area where I really would have liked to see a game system would have been making purchases at the goblin market that springs up every night at 13:00. As recounted by Harbinger, I was able to use the character backgrounds provided by the five questions to come up with a satisfying payment method in the moment, but given how central this market is to the setting, I would have liked some system or at least advice on how to present a meaningful and long-term financial system using the ephemeral goods usually traded at such places.

At the end of the day, though, DRYH does something very right. Much like Technoir, the players of my one shot have been very excited to potentially play again. The system may be almost unnecessary in the face of the natural draw of the setting and ability to be arbitrary and freeform, but what it does do it does well, and that’s define the structure of play. My normal caveat applies to GMs that are uncomfortable improvising: player characters in this game gain a lot of agency very fast and you’ll find yourself following the lead of what they want to do pretty early on. From my own point of view, as a GM that loves having just enough structure to assist improvising, it meets most of my needs. As mentioned, there are a few things I’d tweak, but I’d gladly run it again.