I recently started running a 1-v-1 game of Smallville with my girlfriend, as she’s considering adapting Cortex Plus Drama for her own upcoming campaign. It’s an interesting challenge, taking a game that’s so clearly designed to generate momentum from the interactions of a player party (the campaign villain is usually a PC), and trying to make it fit to our quite specific requirements. It’s also been a challenge relearning all the things I didn’t like about the game when I tried it the first time: the impenetrable layout, inconsistent rulings, and seemingly limitless ways in which the game’s Plot Points can and cannot be spent. If it wasn’t for Stephen Morffew’s comprehensive Plot Point exchange chart, I think I’d be lost entirely.
Sitting snugly in the centre of my love/hate Venn diagram is the relationship map Smallville uses to form the basis of its “Pathways” character creation. I love the way it connects the PCs in messy and complicated ways, how it succeeds as a world-building tool by fleshing out the important locations and NPCs around them, and remains a centrepoint of character drama for the rest of the upcoming campaign. But I hate that it takes so long to do. It took us 3 or 4 hours just to do with one player; when I ran a campaign for 4 players a few years back, it took us just as long to complete the first 5 stages, for what passes as “Quickstart” character creation. I know a group of 6 players who took most of a day to complete all 9 stages of the Pathways together.
I think I would still recommend the Pathways system for a Smallville campaign, but there’s clearly a gap here: character creation for convention or one-shot play. I suppose pregenerated character sheets are the intended solution (the rulebook contains many), but I don’t think that’s ideal for Smallville. The fun of the game is working out what values and relationships your character holds dear, then watching them surprise you as they challenge those drives under pressure. That’s just not as satisfying to roleplay with a character you inherited from a game designer.
So here’s my solution: Speed Character Creation for the Smallville RPG. I’m hoping it should take around an hour to do – if anyone tries it, keep a stopwatch to hand, and let me know how it turns out!
Smallville character sheets consist of four components: Values (including statements that explain what the game’s six values mean to them), Relationships (also with statements, explaining how they connect with the game’s main characters), Assets (which includes personal Distinctions, as well as superpowers and special equipment) and Resources (both key allies and useful locations). Speed generation doesn’t define all of these elements, just the most important bits to get people playing faster. Anything that isn’t defined now is left free to be determined later during the game itself.
Whilst Values and Relationships are the most important parts of a Cortex Plus Drama character (collectively referred to as Drives), in speed gen we actually define those last. This is because the personality of a character is usually developed over the course of character creation, rather than determined in advance, and it’s very hard to come up with strong Drive Statements in a vacuum. Starting with a more straightforward list of talents (Assets) and defining the world around the PCs (Resources) gives players something more solid to work with when establishing the most personal elements of their character.
Finally, whilst we’re not using the origin path or relationship map to mechanically define characters in speed gen, you should definitely still talk about character origins and draw out relationships if you like! Anything to give the game more texture and definition, so long as it doesn’t slow things down.
SPEED GEN STEP ONE: CONVERSATION
Even if accelerating the process of character creation, it’s worth players taking five minutes to talk about their basic idea for a character, what the world around those characters is like, and how they relate to one another. This is the stage at which you find out which characters are related, for example, or who is crushing on who. If you, as GM, are entirely agnostic about setting or plot, this is also the chance for players to announce they’re all in high school, or a retirement home, or on the moon, or under the sea.
The GMs job at this stage is to keep things moving quickly, by latching onto the first ideas that get shouted out and encouraging them. They should also leave room for everyone to contribute roughly equally, and to make sure everyone has a very basic idea they can workshop over the next hour. Once everyone has something, ANYTHING to work with, it’s time to move onto step two.
SPEED GEN STEP TWO: ASSETS
Every player now comes up with five things distinctive about their character, that are useful (broadly speaking) in helping them to solve dramatic problems. This includes superpowers and special equipment, or as Smallville calls them, Abilities and Gear. It doesn’t include any people who render the PC assistance, or any places that they rely on for support (these are covered by Resources and Relationships later).
It’s probably quicker to let players pick any five Distinction-sounding words they can think of, since if they’re choosing from the Big List, they won’t be satisfied until they’ve read through every option. However, for some players, total freedom is the most intimidating choice of all, and giving them a list might make things faster. Your call.
Encourage players to come up with Distinctions that could be a potential source of problems as well. This is because all Distinctions in Smallville speed gen have the same d4 distinction trigger:
- d4: Earn a Plot Point when you Choose for your distinction to cause some kind of complication.
(Abilities and Gear don’t get this trigger, but do gain a special effect as detailed below.)
After each player has defined their character’s five assets, they should assign a die rating to each of them, to determine how useful or important those assets are for the character. Assign one a d10, one a d8, two a d6 and one a d4. Whichever asset is most troublesome to a PC should be assigned the d4.
If the Assets assigned a D10 or D8 are Distinctions (rather than Abilities or Gear), they’ll need a second trigger. As a simplification for speed gen, tell players to use one of these four triggers below:
- Offence: Add a d6 to Trouble to Increase the lowest die in your Stress pool when inflicting Stress with this distinction.
- Defence: Spend a Plot Plot to Decrease the highest die in a Stress pool against you when this distinction can protect you.
- Focus: Add a d6 to Trouble to Reroll a die in any pool where you’re using this distinction.
- Flexibility: Spend a Plot Point to Reveal how the distinction provides a useful windfall (discuss with the player what kind of windfall this could be – it might be an Extra or Location rated at 2d8).
Any Abilities or Gear the players chose as Assets will also need to receive Special Effects – extraordinary feats that the character can perform simply by spending a Plot Point. Each Ability or Gear comes with one special effect, or two if it was rated at d10 or d8. Discuss with each player what they want these special moments to be. In lieu of any other ideas, players can use the four distinction triggers instead, except that any triggers that would add dice to Trouble cost a Plot Point to activate instead.
SPEED GEN STEP THREE: RESOURCES
Now that everyone has defined a little bit about their characters, it’s time to flesh out the world around them.
Everyone takes a turn describing someone else in their lives who provides useful support or assistance. Don’t worry in speed gen about defining their two useful areas of influence – just give a vague description of what the Extra’s about, and let table consensus (or GM fiat) determine where their support is and isn’t relevant. Players can present a specific person, or a small group of people with a united agenda. The player who presents this character(s) gain that Extra as a Resource rated at 2d8.
Every other player then has a choice: they can either choose to have a connection to that Extra too, and add them as a Resource rated at 2d4; or they can choose not to have a connection, and increase a different Resource by one die step. It’s ok to wait until all Resources have been announced before deciding which ones to step up or step down.
If a particular Extra captures the players’ imagination – if everyone wants a connection to them, for example – then step them up to a Feature. Tell all the players to scrub them out as a Resource, and gain a Relationship with them instead at the same die rating (i.e, 2d8 becomes d8). If your session villain isn’t going to be one of the PCs, consider that this Feature could fulfil that role instead.
After every player has announced their Extra, have each player do the same with a Location that is important or useful to them. They get to add that Location to their Resources, rated at 2d8. Every other player can choose ONE of the other players’ locations to rate at 2d4 as well.
Once all players have finished tweaking their Resources, move on to defining Drives.
SPEED GEN STEP FOUR: RELATIONSHIPS
Every player chooses another PC who they think they have the closest relationship with. They should then write as a short phrase what they think of that character, or how they view their relationship – note that a close relationship doesn’t have to mean a positive one! They gain that PC as a Relationship at d10. Whatever they wrote for their relationship with that character becomes their corresponding Drive Statement.
It’s worth taking a bit of time to get these statements right. As a GM, you’re hoping for opportunities to challenge that statement in play, to show off one of the best parts of the Cortex Plus Drama system. But don’t overthink it too much.
Every other PC should also be noted as a Relationship rated at d6. Don’t worry about Statements for now, unless they immediately come to mind – they’ll be worked out in play.
Players can tweak their Relationship ratings here if they want – stepping one down to step one up – so long as no Relationship goes above d12 or below d4.
SPEED GEN STEP FIVE: VALUES
Every player chooses which Value matters most to their character, and which Value matters the least. As a reminder, Smallville’s six default Values are Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power and Truth. Assign a d10 rating to the most important, and a d4 rating to the least important.
Like with Relationships, work with the players to create a Value Statement for their most and least important Drives. The most important Value is the one the player is likely to use most in play, so it’s this one you’re aiming to challenge during the one-off. The statement for the least important Value is just for flavour, to round off the character. Skip it if you’re running out of time.
Leave the other four Values blank for now, without a rating or Drive Statement. Again, they’ll be completed during play.
THE ACID TEST: COMPLETING CHARACTER GENERATION IN-PLAY
Start the game. You should be able to get some roleplay going from the narrative elements of character creation, enough to trigger dramatic action, and so long as players are using the already-completed parts of their character sheet, play should proceed like any other Smallville game. Only when there’s a Contest or Test involving undefined Values or Relationships (either Values without a rating, or Drives without a statement) do you need to resort to special rules.
When a player is using one of the four Values that they haven’t assigned a die rating to yet, they can choose to assign it either a d8 or d6. No more than two of their Values may be assigned a d8. As GM, you should probably encourage the player to assign a d8 to the first two undefined Values that come up – it’s very unlikely they’ll get to use all six Values in a one-off anyway, and since the thing you want to show off about the system is how Value Statements change in play, you want to encourage players to use the same Values repeatedly. Giving them high die ratings is the best way to encourage that.
If the player is about to make a roll with a Value or Relationship that doesn’t have a statement, pause briefly and ask them to define that statement now. This can be extremely circumstantial – how they’re feeling about the character RIGHT NOW is fine (the more short-term the statement, the more likely they’ll be able to challenge it later). If a player is about to roll with a Value and Relationship and NEITHER have a statement, just pick one to workshop now. Having to define statements for two drives before you even roll just really slows things down. Assume that the second, undefined statement is broadly appropriate for all circumstances the drive connects to, but cannot be challenged until a statement is written down. If players are struck with inspiration for a statement mid-way through the game, and want to write it down even though they aren’t using that drive right now, then that’s ok too.
Finally, the GM should be prepared for the PCs to create another Feature as part of their character creation. I’ve assumed for now that you already have one-shot scenario in mind (with NPCs either mostly pre-prepared or stolen from the book), but if an ascended Extra comes out of character creation, then here’s a quick way to detail them.
- Choose a Value the Feature really cares about, and write a statement for it. Give them a d12 (!) for that Value, and a d6 for everything else.
- Write a Relationship statement for whichever player created the Resource. Gain a d10 relationship with them, and a d6 with everyone else (or a d8 for any other PCs you think the Feature would know well).
- Jot down some Assets when you have time. All your Assets are rated at d8 by default. Trigger-wise, encourage the players to spend Plot Points to activate complications from distinctions, and spend Plot Points (or Trouble dice) to trigger any of the speed gen triggers you feel like. Similarly, instead of special effects, just spend Plot Points for a Feature to do something super-awesome.
- Bring in Extras whenever you need them like normal. If they seem like they’d be useful Resources for your Feature, they can use them as assistance for free.
Looking over this, I can think of ways to speed things up further. I’m happy with this as a start – it’s certainly much faster than the Pathways – but think there’s also a niche for doing character generation in fifteen minutes rather than an hour. Next time I’ll try to develop that some more, into “Super Speed Character Creation”.