Slight sidebar. Just in case any of you out there in RPGland who are reading this blog aren't also friends on Facebook or Twitter, I just wanted to let you know that the long-promised podcast I have been working on with my lovely wife Megan and our friend and co-conspirator Colin has finally gone live. It's called Shake, Rattle & Roleplay, and you can find it on iTunes or on LibSyn. Check it out. If you like what you hear, give us some feedback or write a review on iTunes.
Sorry for the long gap since my last entry here. As you can probably imagine, the excitement around getting the podcast finally up and running has taken up a good deal of my time over the last week, and I also spent some of my precious downtime writing a Ghostbusters adventure for the Hallowe'en mini-con at the local university gaming club. Let's move on by talking about one of my very favourite games of the last few years.
My initial experiences with the Cortex game system were not good, but Cam Banks is such a nice fellow that he convinced me to give Cortex Plus (Cortex's more flexible cousin, if you like) a try. And I'm glad I did. Smallville is a little miracle of a game, filled with great ideas and indie RPG DNA. Cam and Josh Banks did an outstanding job, and they should be justly proud of this game.
Although from the outside you might mistake Smallville for a mainstream RPG, based on its slick presentation and production values, this game is subversive from the gitgo. It understands that the show it's trying to emulate is a superhero show, but it's not about people punching each other in the face -- it's about relationship drama. So the game does not include anything like a combat system. What other superhero game can you say that about? The stats on the character sheets are all about relationships and values, not who's the strongest or has the strongest heat-ray vision.
Secondly, it smartly realizes that if you're doing a game that's about relationship drama, then by necessity the heroes of the game must have intense relationships with the villains, the way young Clark Kent does with Lex Luthor in the early seasons of the show. That means that the players are going to be taking the part of any main antagonists in the game, rather than have the GM control all the villains. This changes the GM's role from one of providing problems for the players to solve (or faces to punch) to introducing wedges between the characters which force their conflicts into the open.
The way the game smartly re-assesses traditional gaming systems and the GM's position at the table make Smallville a very useful and informative learning text on any GM's shelf. But the centerpiece of the game is its character generation system, Pathways, which is one of the most brilliant innovations I've seen in gaming for years.
Relationship maps have been around in gaming for quite a while; I think the first time I saw mention of them was in the early 1990s, when I picked up a Cyberpunk 2020 GM handbook called Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! (That book has gotten unjustly knocked over the years for its chapter on laying down the hurt when PCs get too big for their britches, but even if that's too adversarial for your tastes, it's got some good stuff worth reading.) The idea is to flesh out the cast of characters for your game by creating a flow chart that shows how they're connected, delineating the relationships between the characters in a way that encourages the development of PC relationships and conflicts. Pathways takes this one step further by making it the method by which players generate their characters, and by extension, the whole campaign.
At each stage of character creation, the players make decisions about their characters' lifepath, their values, and their relationships with the other PCs. What drives them? What do they think of each other? Each stage lets them add to their character sheet, and each stage pulls the characters more closely together. It would be almost impossible to come out of a session of Pathways without characters that are connected in interesting ways. Intimate connections and conflicts are the stuff of good drama, so this is GOLD.
The players also add organizations and locations to the game which are connected to the characters, fleshing out the world of the game with allies and enemies and "sets" where scenes can be played out. Once you're done an evening with Pathways, you've got a very complicated diagram that sets down all the important stuff about your game in a way that's dense with useful information. You need to throw two characters together in a scene? Just look at their relationships and figure out what kind of wedge you need to create dramatic sparks.
I have discovered you can also use the relationship mapping in Pathways as a diagnostic tool, "reverse engineering" the map from an existing campaign to reveal where characters need more connections and conflicts to draw them into the game.
Smallville unfortunately never made a big splash, but for those of us who discovered it we've still got a lot of love for it. It's well worth seeking out, as are other Cortex Plus games like Leverage (which powered our Cold City campaign) and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. The latter had a criminally short run before the license was pulled, but it was also full of interesting stuff. A long term project for me is to work at making a more streamlined "hack" of MHR that lets me play Marvel heroes with a little less crunch.