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