I am running a Smallville campaign using canon X-Men characters in a Hogwarts-style British boarding school. There are six players, based on Magma, Magik, Colossus, Rogue, Mastermind and (the incredibly obscure) Campbell Saint-Ange. It’s a fun game, but Smallville does not scale well. With six players, all of the problems with Smallville become much more obvious, such as:
- the slow resolution mechanic leads to very little happening in the story;
- player and non-player characters both require complex book-keeping by the GM (Watchtower);
- Abilities are either useless or game-breakingly powerful;
- Ability and Heritage Limits are confusing;
- Resources aren’t interesting unless they are shared by several players, but become strictly less useful when they are shared; and
- spending Growth for character advancement is messy, has a risk of failure, and leads to power gaps between the more active and more passive players.
At the request of some of my players, I have hacked the game almost to pieces in order to get things working better. The rest of this blog sets out the changes I have made. They aren’t changes that I would necessarily make to Smallville games in general, but they are necessary so that our specific six-player X-Men game can continue.
Values are gone
In general, I’m a fan of Smallville‘s central mechanic being based on what Drives you, whether that’s what you believe in (Values) or who has inspired you to action (Relationships). Values always have a fixed number of dice steps (15) spread across a fixed set of six Values, but with six players there are an absurd number of Relationships. Every Value and Relationship needs a statement and a trait, and might be challenged at any time, and every single time players pick up dice they need to consider all of it, and the pace of the game suffers as a result.
My solution is to remove Values entirely. This is perhaps a bit controversial, and it’s not a change I’d make to every Smallville game I run… but Values do have problems, and because they have a fixed number of dice steps they can be removed without unfairly affecting some players more than others.
The fixed list that you pick from has a big impact on the game that you play, although this may not be apparent to a first-time player. The default fixed list (Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power, Truth) is ideal for a Smallville or Superman-themed game, but not for a more generic superpowered teen soap opera. For example, Truth is a great Value when half of your characters are nosy reporters, and half of them are hiding deep dark secrets. But when I’ve played with the default Values, Truth tends to get a low rating and the statements become equivalent to “I’m a liar!” or “Lies are bad, m’kay”.
So far in my X-Men game, we have used a new choice of six that were more appropriate to the story we wanted to tell: Belonging, Fun, Identity, Love, Power, Responsibility. They’ve worked fine, but the new list has its own problems. Belonging tends to be covered by characters’ Relationships with the key Cliques in the school, and Love often refers to specific Relationships with individuals. Fun has hardly been used except where the character’s concept of ‘Fun’ is messed up. There are some gems, but all in all the Value statements tend to be bland and not worth the extra complexity.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the fixed number of die steps means that Values work differently than any other type of trait when working out Growth, and Growth is already complicated enough.
Therefore, we’ve removed them entirely. This does mean that only two traits can be rolled for free into Contests (one Relationship and one Asset/Distinction), but this doesn’t break the game. Players tend to accumulate Plot Points as well, so this might encourage them to pay to roll more traits. If necessary, we might add them back, but for now we’re going to try without them.
Resources are converted to Relationships
It’s a bit weird to give players a bunch of new Relationships when I’ve just used the “too many Relationships” argument to support ditching Values, but… yeah, that’s what I’m doing. The player characters have at most 2 Resources (one player has no Resources at all), so the extra bloat of the Relationships list should be minimal. And Resources tend to confuse new players, so very few of them have been used.
There are two main things I don’t like about Resources. First, in every single Smallville game I’ve been in, there has always been at least one Extra that should have been a Feature… or should have been on a character’s sheet as a Relationship. In the core game, players have Relationships with Features, but Extras are Extras (that is, ‘Extra’ is both the type of the trait and the type of the NPC). An NPC on only one character’s sheet must be an Extra, no matter how important to that character (this is intentional, I realise), and NPCs that players have chosen to record as Relationships must be statted up as Features no matter how insignificant they end up being.
Now, players only have Relationships, and it’s up to the GM to decide whether the NPCs are Features or Extras. (I’ve talked about my issues with Extras and Features before, in Minor Minor Features: Background and one-off NPCs in Smallville. This is an extension of that thought process.)
The other thing is, when Leads (or even Features) share Resources with each other, this ties the Resources closer to the characters, but it strictly reduces their effectiveness in the system. There’s a risk someone else will use up the Resource before you get a chance to, but there’s no upside to offset the downside. I tried to house rule around this, but it made things more complicated, so instead I’ve decided to remove them entirely.
Yes, this does mean that players can have Relationships with places and things other than people. That’s fine. I’m even willing to let them have Relationships with abstract ideas (such as the Values that I’ve removed). This shouldn’t derail the focus of the game, since there are already so many Relationships with people, players and NPCs on the character sheets. (But, hey, wouldn’t the game be different if we could have Relationships with anything during character creation? Something to consider later.)
Abilities are now dice pools
My number one choice for Abilites would have been to scrap them wholesale, just like Values (although my number one choice for Values would be to keep them, so…). Unfortunately, much like the writers of the Smallville game in the first place, I’m constrained by the setting and the genre that I’ve got in front of me. X-Men has superpowers, so our game must have superpowers.
In theory, Abilities should work. Treating them as just more dice to add to pools means that they aren’t overly powerful, and the game remains balanced for people with and without powers. That’s less of an issue for games in which everyone has powers, but when it comes to straight-up fights there is still an advantage to having more different powers because you get more dice to roll (as long as you have Plot Points to pay for them).
Also, and perhaps this is a failure on my part as the GM, I have never seen a player react to somebody else’s use of Abilities as if it had been used in the fiction. They can accept that it makes sense it’s being used against them, but as far as how it affects their choices it’s just another die value to beat on the next roll. Abilities-as-traits are only as useful as their die value, and because they are so expensive to increase it’s actually much better to increase Relationships or Distinctions.
In understand that design choice. But to counteract that, Abilities have Special Effects, many of which are pointless and some of which are completely broken.
For pointless, take Teleportation as an example. There are Special Effects that let you pay a Plot Point to switch scene regardless of distance, to take people with you, or to take objects with you. The problem is that, this is either something your power can do (in which case permission is granted by the Ability at all times and shouldn’t require a Plot Point) or the power cannot do (in which case one of the Limits should be ‘Only teleport yourself, not others’ and you should earn a Plot Point every time you are unable to teleport someone else).
Some Special Effects actually break the game, like the various sweep Special Effects (for Blast, Combustions, Poison, etc.), the Magnetism Special Effect that causes automatic Injured Stress, the Telekineses Special Effect that causes automatic knock out, or any of the Special Effects connected to Mind Control. There are some great Special Effects, which affect the game without breaking it, but these are more in line with Distinction triggers (with tags like Gain, Increase, Decrease, Recover and Reroll).
Transfer of Plot Points for Abilities is complex. It’s not just spending a Plot Point to activate a Special Effect. There’s also Plot Points transferred when an Ability is Shutdown due to a Limit, or due to a Heritage Limit, and more. Go and have a look at my Complete Plot Points reference list and see how much of it relates to Abilities.
So my extreme fixes to Abilities are as follows:
- Each Ability is now a dice pool instead of a single trait. During any Test or Contest, you can roll (for free) as many dice from the pool as you like (but keep in mind that rolling a 1 on any of the dice will cause the relevant Ability to go out of control, earning a Plot Point but meaning that none of the dice can be used in the roll). Then, once they have been rolled, they can be added to the result in the Test or Contest. This doesn’t cost a Plot Point, but once they have been added to the result, they are removed from the pool for the rest of the session. This gives Abilities more impact when they are used, but means they can only have dramatic weight a limited number of times per session. (Note that inability to include an Ability die in your result does not mean that, in the fiction, you don’t have the ability. If you have superspeed and want to run away from an argument, you can still try to do that even if you’ve spent all your superspeed dice already—your opponent then needs to be able to justify preventing you from running away, else Give In.)
- Dice spent out of the Ability pool only apply to the single result to which they are applied, not to every roll for the rest of the Contest.
- Ability and Heritage Limits are no longer explicit. At any time, a player can decide that their character tries to use the Ability but that it doesn’t work, for any reason, and earn a Plot Point. (This now includes, e.g., someone with Super Strength going “no, I just am not strong enough to lift this building over my head right now.”) Players do not get 3x dice for rolling an opponent’s Limit.
- Special Effects have been weeded to take out any that are pointless or broken. I may replace some with new Effects, but I also might not. We’ll see how it works in play.
Growth is a life experience superpower
The Growth pool is built exactly as in the core game: from Challenged Relationships and recovered Stress. But now it is completely separate from character advancement. You don’t roll Growth in order to increase your traits at the end of the session. Instead, traits are stepped up a flat amount for everyone at the end of every session (1 Ability die is stepped up, and 1 Relationship or Distinction).
Growth remains relevant, however, because it is now a ‘life experience superpower’. That is, it can be used exactly like the Ability pools described above. (Thanks to Simon for pointing out how wonderfully thematically appropriate this was.) Growth pool dice can be added to the results of rolls in exactly the same way as described for Abilities, but once spent they are gone for good not just for the session. There is no restriction on when you can use the Growth pool.
Useful Details are… Here, this is what Useful Details are now
Useful Details are narrative facts that exist in the scene. If they are relevant to a dice roll, anyone can use them for free (i.e. without paying Plot Points).
If something has been established by the GM as existing in the scene that has not been written down as a Useful Detail, but someone would like to use it as a Useful Detail, they can ask to use it as a Useful Detail. They do not have to pay a Plot Point, but if they do not then the Useful Detail may be set at d4.
If players want a narrative thing to happen in the scene, whether to use it as a Useful Detail in a roll or not, they can pay a Plot Point for that thing to happen. When they create a Useful Detail in this way, it will usually be at d6. (Special Effects or Distinction triggers may allow them to use such Useful Details at d8.)
Other minor changes
- Stress is done using the ‘effect die’ mechanic from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. I generally don’t like Marvel Heroic as a game, and I don’t much like the ‘effect die’ either, but it takes out an unnecessary roll and that’s gold dust to me right now.
- You can use opponent’s Distinctions (if you pay a Plot Point). This makes Distinctions and Stress effectively opposites: use your own Distinctions for free and pay to use your own Stress; use your opponent’s Stress for free but pay to use their Distinctions. Unlike the core game, this does not necessarily stop your opponent from using it.
- Giving In no longer requires spending a Plot Point. People don’t need more reason to not Give In, not even to model the hormonal high-drama of a superpowered teenage soap opera. Games like Fate Core and Hillfolk would actually pay players to concede.
- Players control how much their Stress steps down at the end of a session. It can even be removed at their discretion. The die rating that they change it to gets added to the Growth pool for next session. (Mike Duxbury referred to this as “choose your pain”, which I love as a delightfully dramatic turn of phrase.)
Oh, there’s just one more thing
Speaking of Stress, here’s a house rule we’ve been using that is not relevant to the sweeping changes I’m talking about today, but has been kinda cool: The type of Stress (Afraid, Angry, Exhausted, Injured, or Insecure) is chosen by the player inflicting it; an associated Stress statement is chosen by the player on whom it is inflicted. That Stress can then only be rolled into Tests and Contests if the Stress statement shows it’s appropriate. There may be room for a mechanic similar to challenging your Relationships (a reward for wallowing in misery, for example?), but nothing on this has yet been developed.
That’s pretty much everything. We’re trying it out soon. Let me know what you think, and I may give an update on what works and doesn’t in future once the new rules have time to settle in.