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).
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.