Mandatory disclaimer: if you love the TV show Smallville, you’ll like the Smallville RPG. I don’t like Smallville, so I’ll be approaching this product as if reviewing “Superhero Soap Operas: The Roleplaying Game”, for whatever that’s worth.
Mechanically, this game can be best described as “quirky”. Character generation involves drawing a big old relationship map that chronicles every part of your character’s life to date, and seems to take forever. The “quick” version took my group a full four hour session; my friend who ran the full version said it took him 7 or 8 hours. That’s a huge up-front commitment for a silly little teen drama RPG, but its intention is to invest players in their character emotionally from the moment they start actual play.
It works. Angst and drama permeates every aspect of the game’s design. Your character might have point in “Marksman” or “Martial Artist”, but their impact on combat actions is actually pretty minimal. WHY you’re doing something and WHO you’re doing it for – and what score you have in the respective Value or Relationship – counts a hell of a lot more for determining an action’s outcome. And when the Relationships you have with other characters carry such mechanical weight, it’s not just the fight scenes that are wrought with tension. Arguments, romances and betrayals become an integral part of the game, with stress tracks not just for injury, but for fear, anger, exhaustion and insecurity. It’s dramatic roleplaying at its finest.
There are flaws. The book is poorly laid out with no index; some rules are hidden away in incredibly obnoxious places, occasionally directly contradicting mechanics outlined elsewhere. Characters “level up” at different rates, which for some is a game design cardinal sin, and at times the contrast in character ability can be rather jarring. But if you’re worried about the old superhero roleplaying problem of severe character imbalance, Smallville has a novel solution: combat simply doesn’t matter that much, being only one way of leveraging dramatic influence, and your un-powered comic relief/sidekick players will find other ways to make a difference.
In short, Smallville isn’t really a superhero RPG at all. In my opinion it’s something better.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)
One thought on “Mini-Review: Smallville Roleplaying Game”
That was 7 or 8 hours for 6 players, and the length of character generation I would say is more or less directly related to the number of players you have.
I love this system, but I agree that it has its flaws. From my experience, having run three campaigns and being a low-prep GM, is the considerable up-front GM prep is a huge burden. However, once you get started the players drive the story and the drama; the GM’s job during an actual play becomes a lot easier, and it’s a lot of fun for everyone.
I’m gonna point out as well that although Margaret Weis Productions lost the Smallville license, they included the base game as ‘Cortex Plus Drama’ in the Cortex Plus Hackers’ Guide. Hopefully they’ll continue to use it, possibly without using the default setting of ‘modern day teen superheroes’.