Trouble

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.

Distinctions

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.

Complications

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.

Conclusion

Advertisements