Free-standing Distinction triggers in Smallville

I’m currently running a game of Smallville based on the X-Men. Sort of. We’re using canon X-Men characters in a slightly new context: a Hogwarts-style boarding school just West of Chester in England. In order to make the Smallville system more appropriate for this setting, we are using a slightly different list of Values and there is a single Distinction trigger that is always in play:

Earn a Plot Point whenever you Choose to have your mutant powers go out of control.

Distinctions in Smallville have three associated triggers that are unlocked when the Distinction’s die rating reaches d4, d8 and d12. This particular trigger is in the same format as triggers from the core rulebook, but it didn’t make sense to have a whole new Distinction for it since every character is playing a young mutant student. Making everyone buy such a Distinction during character creation would have prevented us from exploring the characters’ more interesting differences.

But it felt important to have such a trigger in play, so I just let everyone know that it was there without thinking much about what else I could do with free-standing triggers. I’d stumbled onto a neat little hack of Smallville without even realising it.

Triggers for NPCs

After last week’s post on Minor Minor Features, Benjamin Davis made some comments about it on Google+, and it got me thinking about triggers again.

Last week, I said that triggers weren’t necessary for NPCs because they’re designed to make the Leads look cool. I suggested that, therefore, most NPCs could be treated as three generic dice and no triggers. Benjamin’s solution for the same issue was that NPCs didn’t need dice at all (the GM could roll the Trouble pool instead), but he did give them triggers. Usually, so he says, he’d include one to give an affected Lead a Plot Point, and one where the Lead can spend a Plot Point to make the NPC do unwise things.

Triggers for Features are touched on briefly in the corebook (page 91, specifically). It suggests that triggers for Features work “often exactly backwards” from Leads’ triggers, and gives some advice about what this means: when it says to add to Trouble pool, take something out; when it says you can Earn a Plot Point, ask the players if they want to Spend a Plot Point to buy one. However, this is the extent of the guidance. There are no examples of wordings, or examples of triggers being used in action. I’ve tried using triggers this way, and sometimes they work (triggers asking to spend a Plot Point are largely unchanged, for instance), but at other times they are not satisfying.

What I take from Benjamin’s post (and he may correct me if I’m wrong), is that he uses triggers that are customised. Triggers must be about giving the players more agency, and must focus on the Leads.

The Magneto example

As an example, Professor Erin Magnus in my X-Men game (the headmistress of the school, based on Magneto) has Authoritarian as a Distinction. It comes with the following trigger: “Earn a Plot Point when you Choose to ignore pleas for mercy or understanding and inflict reprimands to the fullest extent of the rules.”

As suggested in the corebook, I tried turning this around, making it a player-facing Spend option: “Spend a Plot Point to make Professor Magnus ignore pleas for understanding and to inflict reprimands to the fullest extent of the rules.”

This doesn’t work. Why would anyone ever Spent a Plot Point to make things harder for themselves? Besides, this is just what Professor Magnus is like. As a GM, I wouldn’t play her differently if a Lead chose not to Spend a Plot Point.

I now understand that the problem is that while I was giving players the option of activating the trigger, I wasn’t making it about the Leads. A much better wording for a Lead-facing trigger would be:

Earn a Plot Point when you Choose to break the rules in front of Professor Magnus and suffer reprimands to the fullest extent of the rules.

This finally works because it puts the emphasis back on what the Leads do, and gives players full control over the trigger’s relevance. ‘Choose’ need not be an in-character decision, mind. It could just as easily mean that the player would like to Earn a Plot Point by having Professor Magnus arrive unexpectedly during rule-breaking.

Putting triggers on the table

The corebook suggests that GM (Watchtower) should ask players whether they want to buy the Feature’s trigger’s drawback. That is, the triggers are only available when the GM says they are. This doesn’t give the players much agency. They should have the choice to activate them whenever they want, in order to have more control over the flow of the story (and as long as the triggers are worded in a way that allows it).

As I did with my powers-go-out-of-control trigger at the start of this post, Benjamin said that he makes the existence of these triggers known to the players to activate if they want to. This reminds me a lot of Aspects in Fate Core. Indeed, triggers are very much like Aspects that can be compelled but not invoked. (In contrast, Useful Details are like scene Aspects that can be invoked but not compelled. More on those another time.)

When I play Fate, I put Aspects on the table. Perhaps on an index card or a post-it note. Perhaps just in a list. The important thing is that they must be visible to players at all times.

Let’s do the same with free-standing triggers. The powers-go-out-of-control trigger at the top is clearly separated from any Distinctions. But so too is Professor Magnus’ Authoritarian trigger. Even though it is derived from a Distinction on her sheet, her having the Distinction is irrelevant to the existence of the trigger. I might streamline her character sheet by replacing all Distinctions with a single generic Asset die (as I discussed last week), or I might scrap her character sheet entirely and roll Trouble in its place (as Benjamin Davis does). But the trigger remains. Magnus doesn’t even need to be in the scene, since the trigger implicitly allows players to bring her into the scene if they’re breaking some rules.

This opens up a let of possibilities. Almost anything that could be a compellable Aspect in Fate could be re-worked as a trigger (or multiple triggers) in Smallville. Perhaps when Leads are a dangerous scene or location, a trigger on the table lets them earn a Plot Point if they choose to get in danger? This has given me ideas for more interesting ways of using them in my games. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Free-standing Distinction triggers in Smallville

  1. Benjamin Davis June 14, 2015 / 10:05 am

    I’d probably have gone with Earning a Plot Point by Increasing Afraid or Insecure Stress that she’s inflicting on you ,but this works.
    As for having your powers go out of control, that sounds like a prime d4 Trigger for a Mutant Heritage (which I’d cheerfully give out gratis if they’re all meant to be mutants, so it’s not so different).
    Still, I see no real problem with an orphan Trigger, as a way to always make an option available.


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