Minor Minor Features: Background and one-off NPCs in Smallville

Smallville (aka Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying) is a good game, but as a GM I find it frustrating in a lot of little ways. One of these little frustrations is the overwhelming burden on the GM for prep work and oversight of non-player characters. (By the way, I know Smallville refers to the GM as Watchtower, but I’m going to use the more general term in this post.)

Leads, Features and Extras

In Smallville, player characters are called Leads, and non-player characters can either be Features or Extras. In the corebook, Leads and Features are identical (except for Leads being controlled by the players and Features by the GM), and Extras are considered so minor that they literally cannot take actions on their own.

Fully-realised Leads and Features have six Values, about two more Relationships than the total number of players, plus a handful of Assets (Distinctions, Abilities, and Gear) and Resources (Extras and Locations). All of these traits have a die rating from d4 to d12, Values and Relationships have free-form statements, each Distinction has up to three triggers, Abilities and Gear have Special Effects, and each Resource has two single-word tags.

That’s a lot of game-specific jargon, but in short: Making Leads and Features is time-consuming, and there’s a lot to keep track of once they’re made.

For Leads it isn’t so bad, since each player will only have one of them and Smallville’s collaborative character creation is a fun little game unto itself. But for Features, all of which are created and managed and controlled by the GM, it can be overwhelming.

Minor Features

The game’s designers realised this, and in The Watchtower Report they gave rules for Minor Features, i.e. Features that will appear only rarely (perhaps once, as a villain of the week) or in the background.

Minor Features only have the traits that are most relevant, that define the character. Instead of the full six Values, pick as few as three. Specify just a few Relationships (at least one with a Lead). Pick a few Distinctions (and, optionally, Abilities) that are likely to come up. Then top it off with a Resource-like Depth, which is a pair of dice accompanied by a description of the character.

The idea is to save time and effort by cutting out unnecessary detail, but it doesn’t go far enough to make the process actually easy. GMs still need to make choices about what Relationships and Distinctions to use. They don’t need to come up with as many statements, which is fantastic, but half a dozen statements for Values, Relationships and Depth is still too many. (Compare this to characters from Fate Core, who have only 5 free-form aspects for full PCs and possibly fewer for one-off NPCs.)

It’s hard to believe that this is as pared-down as a Feature can be, considering that the next step down is an Extra, which doesn’t even have a character sheet and appears only on Lead Sheets as a pair of dice and two single-word tags.

What do Features actually need?

Extras can be full fleshed-out characters without a character sheet of their own. It only requires the GM and the players to have a good understanding of who the character is and how they would act. Let’s assume, therefore, that the GM in a hypothetical game of Smallville already has a good understanding of a certain character that they want to be a Feature. How much needs to go on the Feature’s character sheet?

First, let’s go back to basics. Leads in Smallville take part in Contests against other Leads or Features, and in Tests against the GM’s Trouble pool. Features only take part in Contests against Leads (Feature-to-Feature Contests forbidden because it doesn’t focus the drama on the Leads; Feature-only Tests would be pointless for similar reasons).

Contests involve both sides in turns building an appropriate dice pool from their traits, rolling the whole pool, and adding together the two highest numbers. At a minimum, therefore, a Feature needs to be able to build a dice pool of at least two dice in any situation.

Leads (and, in the rules as written, Features) build dice pools from their traits: one Value, one Relationship, one Asset (Distinction or Ability), plus any others that the Lead chooses to pay Plot Points for. So perhaps it makes sense for Features to have dice pools of at least three dice. Is it vital that this dice pool be made up of one Value, one Relationship, one Asset?

Let’s consider Assets, since this is more straightforward.

Distinctions are usually personality traits. They have three associated triggers that are gained when the Distinction die rating reaches d4, d8 and d12. However, Distinction triggers are designed for Leads, not for Features. They give players agency to direct the story, to earn or spend Plot Points, and generally be dramatic and cool. The GM does not need more agency, does not need to earn Plot Points, and Features should not be dramatic and cool at the expense of the Leads. Therefore, Features do not need triggers. And if they do not need triggers, the Distinction is only useful to give a description of their personality and for adding a die to their dice pool. But, per our original assumption, the GM understands the character sufficiently that they do not need a list of personality traits.

Distinctions can be replaced with a static die to go into all of the Feature’s dice pools.

Abilities are usually superpowers or other ways of affecting the plot. Ability traits grant permission to use the superpower in the manner described, and they have associated Special Effects that can be bought. Special Effects require the character to spend a Plot Point to activate, and let the character do something over and above the Ability’s usual description. But the GM already understands the Feature enough to know what they can and cannot do. Special Effects are another way of giving players more agency, which Features do not need. They can be replaced with Useful Details (in that the car I just blew up with my heat vision is just a detail about the environment that I can use), and Features already have rules for Useful Details: GMs can create them by taking a die out of the Trouble pool. So Features do not need Special Effects. This means that the Ability merely grants permission to use the superpower (unnecessary since the GM knows what the Feature can and cannot do) and for adding a die to the dice pool.

Distinctions and Abilities can be replaced with a static die to go into all of the Feature’s dice pools.

Values and Relationships depend on how important this Feature is going to be to the campaign. If the Feature is a constant presence, tied to multiple Leads, then presumably they should have full stats for all six Values and Relationships with all Leads and a few Features, including statements. Statements for Features can be useful to inform the players about what the Feature is thinking or feeling, or even to pass along plot information or foreshadowing. (In the first campaign I played in, one Feature had the Love statement Everyone must be attracted to me… and we later found out she had magnetism powers. I’ve used the same trick of obliquely referring to secrets or powers in statements in my own campaigns).

For anything less than a regular cast member, Features don’t need all that. I don’t just mean that they don’t need every Value, or every Relationship. They don’t even need statements in general. Again, the Leads are the dramatic focus of the game, so in most cases you don’t need to know what Features are thinking or feeling. Features never get Growth and most never change their minds about anything, so they don’t challenge their statements (although the GM may re-write them between sessions). If they don’t challenge their statements, and if the GM and players have a good understanding of the Feature, then the only important thing about Values and Relationships is the relative die ratings. And this is only important if the Feature has vastly different die ratings for the Relationships with different Leads. If this isn’t the case, we could replace the entire Feature sheet with:

Feature name
Value (generic) d8
Relationship (generic) d8
Asset (generic) d8

Just three dice, used in every single Contest. No need to build a dice pool every time. This will speed up play, put more focus on the Leads, and make it much much easier for GMs to keep tabs on everything.

Scaling up where needed

Background characters might become more central as the story develops, or their role might change in other ways. The beauty of a generic dice pool for all Features is that it can easily be expanded. Certainly this is easier than converting an Extra to a Feature under the current rules.

If the Feature develops an important Relationship with one of the Leads above all others, consider adding a single Relationship trait with a statement for that Lead. You can roll the Lead’s Relationship where appropriate, but in any other situation you can roll the generic one.

If you want to make the Feature more (or less) of an immediate threat (like a villain of the week), increase (or decrease) the die ratings or add new generic assets or resources. Or, if you want to make the Feature a threat only in certain circumstances, perhaps when they use their Super Strength, then add a Super Strength Ability at a higher die rating and drop the Asset (generic) die rating to d6 or d4.

Don’t forget that GMs have access to the Trouble pool too, and can spend dice from it to increase a Feature’s dice pool (with Useful Details) or add dice to the result. Over time, as you figure out how important you want the Feature to be, you can keep adding more info to the character sheet (like specific traits) and tweaking die ratings until you find the right balance. But, in most cases, 3d8 or 3d6 will probably be sufficient.

Final thoughts

Features in Smallville are important for driving Wedges between Leads, but the Features aren’t the focus of the game. When I suggest stripping down the Feature’s character sheet to just three generic traits at a standard die rating, I’m not trying to diminish the importance of their role. On the contrary, I’m trying to enhance it.

It’s not that the Feature doesn’t have Relationships with the Leads, or doesn’t have Values of their own, it’s that the specifics of these Relationships and Values aren’t important to the Leads. That’s the one and only yardstick to use when deciding whether you need to change up the Feature sheet.

By using this method, you don’t need to come up with everything up front, before the first session. Let things play out organically. Create the Features, understand them at a high level beyond the character sheet, but don’t bog yourself down with stats that might never be used and that don’t make the Leads more interesting.

This even makes it possible to add new Features on the fly, something that the rules as written just don’t allow. Maybe a Feature added at the last minute will become a central character over time. It’s on the GM and the players to decide.

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4 thoughts on “Minor Minor Features: Background and one-off NPCs in Smallville

  1. Stephen Morffew October 12, 2018 / 3:50 pm

    With the announcement that Google+ will be closing, I’m copying over some of the comments that people have made there about my blog posts.

    —–

    Cam Banks:
    Good stuff! I always encourage folks to push the borders more when they find out that they’re frustrated by them!

    Christopher Moore:
    Oh I wish there were more articles like this about cortex plus games!

    Devon Kelley:
    This is fantastic. While I haven’t had the same problems, I can see the benefits of the solution presented and it’s presented very well. This is going into my Smallville toolbox.

    Benjamin Davis:
    Some interesting thoughts here, although I ended up going in the opposite direction: if a character is minor enough that we don’t care much why they’re doing things, I just give them a motivation and a couple of Triggers (usually one where I give the effected Lead a PP, and one where they can spend PP to make the character do unwise things, as outlined in the main book), but they just roll Trouble, as they’re really just a facet of the tension of the episode.

    Stephen Morffew:
    Thanks all. +Benjamin Davis​, your method is interesting too. Have you had much success using triggers that way (request a PP from Leads to make the Feature do something unwise)? I’ve tried it and wasn’t entirely happy, but that was when I was just turning the existing Distinctions upside down. I expect it would work better if I designed a trigger for the purpose.

    Benjamin Davis:
    It’s worked fairly well. I just make it explicit that the character effectively has a given Distinction and that therefore they have this/these Triggers available for the players to activate if they want.
    Usually there’s some kind of in-character goading on the part of the Lead, but not always.

    Stephen Morffew:
    Hmm. I’ll have to try it again. Thanks.

    Michael Duxbury:
    The first thing to say is that I think this is a solution to something that, for me, isn’t a problem. Because whilst creating NPCs for Smallville is time-consuming, I actually really enjoy it. Like Fate Core, and unlike almost every other game system, it makes game prep a delight instead of a chore.

    But you’ve definitely identified something that could use a fix (statting NPCs takes ages), and I agree with some if not all of your suggestions.

    Are drive statements used for anything mechanical except when challenging them? If not, then I agree they don’t belong on an NPC’s sheet. Too fiddly to track, not mechanically consequential in the long term. Though I do have fun writing them anyway 🙂

    And do GMs in Smallville not use Plot Points? (I’ve got the sheet for the aforementioned super-magnetic Anna Avalon in front of me and it’s filled with “Spend a Plot Point” stuff, but I could have just been an idiot.) If not, then yeah, asset triggers can go too. Or at least, cut them down to two or three and make them player-facing. You’re way ahead of me on this in your latest blog post.

    Where you lose me is the point where you have “generic” scores for values, relationships and asset. At that point, I don’t see any point in not just statting them as an Extra. And yeah, maybe the lesson here is that the rules for Extras should be more liberally applied. But assuming these are characters that we want some definition for, I don’t think it’s too much work to assign:

    (1) Die ratings for values, without statements. If only because the decisions the GM makes about which value to use for which action says something interesting about that character.
    (2) Die rating for relationships, without statements. Because if you can’t give an NPC an interesting relationship with someone, they’re not a Feature, they’re an Extra.
    (3) One to three extremely broad assets. Leads get quite a few, quite specific, assets with extra triggers. The NPC response to that should a smaller number of wider abilities (Fighter, Protector, Manipulator, ) that come up about as often. And it’s not hard to bash out a couple of vaguely defined specialities.

    I think assets are particular important to distinguish one NPC from another, especially as something to hang player-facing triggers off. I really disagree with your analysis that distinctions are just personality features that can be covered anyway through roleplay. Distinctions like Hacker, Marksman and Martial Artist deserve to have mechanical representation in at least some capacity.

    Michael Duxbury:
    One thing that has always been striking to me about Smallville is that Tess and Zod are statted as Leads. In any other game, they’d be Features. Smallville is clearly a game that wants to keep the Big Bad and the metaplot of conflict with them WITHIN the party. Which offers further support to the principle of “make all NPCs Extras, don’t bother with Features at all”.

    Christopher Moore:
    I personally think Feature should just be what the Watchtower’s Lead is called. obviously for the story watchtower can change features, but it should not be a common practice; anymore then the player’s changing leads.

    Benjamin Davis:
    Certainly when I’m running, I don’t have Plot Points. Instead, when I would spend one, I give one to an inconvenienced player.

    Stephen Morffew:
    GMs have unlimited Plot Points and give them to Leads when they are spent. That’s fairly explicit in the rules, I think. But a lot of the things that Leads would spend Plot Points to do don’t make any sense to require for Features (where there isn’t an appropriate Lead to give them to, for instance).

    Anyway, I agree with most of your analysis, Mike. I guess I wasn’t seriously arguing that Features should be statted this way. I was more making the case that this is a better starting point than insisting all Features should have stats just like a Lead. There’s a gulf between the two extremes, and the sweet spot is surely somewhere in the middle.

    Like

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