Gamechanging: An overdue follow-up to my Worthington Academy hack for Smallville RPG

Illyana Rasputina's demon form from New Mutants #71Back in July, I posted about a hack of the Smallville RPG that I was going to use for my British high school X-Men campaign. There’s more details in this original post, but here’s a quick recap of the major changes:

  • Values are gone entirely;
  • Extras and Locations as Resources are gone, and specific existing Resources have been converted to Relationships;
  • Abilities are now dice pools separate from the main traits, and more similar in mechanics to Resources;
  • Growth is now used like an Ability, and entirely separate from character advancement;
  • Useful Details are cheaper;
  • Stress is inflicted via an MHR-style Effect die rather than a separate roll;
  • Giving In is free.

I’ve now played two sessions with the new rules, and while there were some expected teething issues, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

As hoped, building dice pools is now a lot faster, which makes the whole game faster. It’s also a lot easier for people to engage with it after being away from the rules for a while (and that’s important because sessions are very infrequent).

Nobody has complained about missing Values, which was my biggest concern. However, there have been some side effects, and in this blog I explain how I have tweaked the rules further as a result of playing.

Dice pools are really small now

Losing Values not only meant that there was one fewer free die for a standard dice pool, but five fewer dice that you could pay for and others that now weren’t available by challenging. This had a notable impact on the overall size of the dice pools.

Small dice pools aren’t inherently bad. Nobody is particularly disadvantaged, since everyone is in the same boat, but there are interesting results. First of all, all the dice that are in the pool are now a lot more meaningful, especially the Distinctions. It’s also noticeable that people don’t have very many Distinctions. The average is about 3 per person, and more than once players struggled to find Distinctions that were relevant.

The small dice pools are offset by the increased use of Useful Details, which we had never used before and are now a big part of play. This was also intentional. One of my players had been concerned, before playing, that I hadn’t put any restrictions on the number of Useful Details that could be used. Fortunately, this issue didn’t crop up in the sessions we’ve had. I actually hope that Useful Details are used more as plot drivers that give the players more agency.

Another unexpected side effect is that the use of an Effect die to inflict Stress, coupled with smaller dice pools, sometimes means that there is no Effect die left in the pool and therefore no Stress inflicted. This isn’t a problem especially, just different.

In the second session, I tried to counteract the lack of dice in dice pools by letting people add a free d6 to the roll just for being a Lead (or Feature). I think it worked better, although one player consistently forgot to add the d6 and afterwards claimed not to have missed it.

Two quick points on Growth

Growth as an Ability is great, and has seen a lot of use. Now that it can be spent during Contests however, it has become important to determine exactly when Growth dice can be used. So far I’ve ruled that Growth dice from Challenges are added to the Growth pool at the end of the Contest (i.e. when the die rating from the Challenged Relationship is stepped down).

In fact, Growth has been used a lot more than Abilities so far, although that might be because players have quite large Growth pools carried over from the previous rules. However, Growth has been used so much that I’ve realised it’s just as important to justify the use of Growth as it is to justify any other trait. Tying it in to the way Growth is generated, perhaps it can be used because the character previously learned something relevant to the situation, or because they have recently recovered Stress that they took in a similar situation? I’m prepared to be flexible about the justification, but I think it’s necessary.

The big revelation: Abilities, Resources and Gamechangers

As soon as we started playing with the new rules, it became obvious that using Growth (and, thus, other Abilities) in exactly the same way as Resources was illogical. Nobody wanted to roll Growth on the off-chance that it would be needed, and this led directly to the next big hacking revelation:

Abilities (and Growth) are rolled AFTER the result.

The reason for turning Abilities into finite, Resource-style dice pools was that I didn’t like them being ubiquitous and inconsequential (except when using Special Effects, which is a different problem). It would work in some games, especially using the default Smallville assumption that some characters will have powers and some will not, but this is an X-Men game in which everyone is a super-powered mutant. I wanted superpowers to show up occasionally, and to have an impact when they do.

My hack didn’t go far enough, but by moving the Ability (or Growth) rolls after working out the result of the main dice pool, you now don’t need to roll unless you need to swing the outcome. They are the big guns that you break out only when you need to. It’s exactly what I was aiming for.

Abilities and Growth are finite, like Resources, but they are really a wholly different kind of trait, powerful enough to change the course of a contest.

They’re Gamechangers.

What else are they good for?

Ok, so perhaps I’m overselling the hack. It’s quite straightforward really. Gamechangers are just Resources that are used after the main roll. The trick is in perspective: instead of representing limited screentime, as Resources do for Extras and Locations, Gamechangers represent limited spotlight; instead of being mundane and inaccessible, they are impressive and precious.

A superpower might be used all the time without its trait being rolled, but as soon as it can influence the outcome of a contest it has a huge mechanical impact. It won’t happen often, but when it does it’s special.

The concept can be applied to other sorts of traits in other games.

Consider swapping Abilities and Distinctions. That is, what if Abilities were standard traits that could be rolled as default, and Distinctions were powerful and rare? Would the game focus more on accomplishing feats through skill, with personality shining through when the character does something meaningful? It sounds a bit like that would be an appropriate mechanic for a dungeon crawler, or maybe even something more like Cortex Plus Action.

What if Relationships were used as Gamechangers? They’d be used when a character was inspired to do something big and show-stopping. This could fit easily into something like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Spider-Man needs to stop the train and save the passengers, but he just doesn’t quite roll high enough. But Uncle Ben taught him that with great power comes great responsibility, so Spider-Man reaches inside himself and finds the inspiration to do the thing and save the people! Uncle Ben!

Gamechangers could even be grafted onto other systems, not just Cortex Plus. Gamechangers based on Drives, or perhaps a more general Inspiration, could even work in games like D&D. Perhaps someone with more experience will think about that and let me know.

P.S. If anyone’s wondering about the image I used for this post…

It’s Illyana Rasputina’s demon form. Illyana is one of the player characters in the campaign, and she took on that form last session while the school was under the influence of magic. It did not go well. For her or anyone else. And that wasn’t even the most shocking thing that happened.

I’m really quite looking forward to finding out what happens next.

4 thoughts on “Gamechanging: An overdue follow-up to my Worthington Academy hack for Smallville RPG

  1. Benj November 4, 2015 / 9:27 pm

    I feel like Resources are already pretty decisive, as they add to your total, rather than just being extra dice in your pool.


    • Stephen November 6, 2015 / 11:42 am

      Decisive maybe, but they’re not intuitive. I’ve played in four campaigns with different groups of people (about 14 people besides myself in total) and Resources have never really been used to their full potential.

      Partly I do think this is because they are rolled first instead of last. Maybe people will decide to use a Resource die in the total, but there’s no guarantee that this will influence the outcome. Even if they do influence the outcome, it doesn’t *feel* as if that’s the case because there are two many steps between that roll and the result. Whereas by rolling them after, you use them when you need them (and yes, they’re still added to the total, that hasn’t changed) and they feel like they’ve actually swung the result both to the person rolling and the person they’re rolling against.

      But partly it’s because Resources, or more specifically Extras and Locations, are the wrong things to be treating as decisive in a contest. I certainly understand why Extras and Resources need to be reflected somehow as traits in the game, because they flesh out the setting through Pathways. However, they are background elements and shouldn’t be able to swing results of contests. I sort of guess that it’s supposed to reflect situations in Smallville or other shows when the heroes go to their super-science ally (Dr Hamilton?) or their steadfast emotional support (Martha?) to resolve a situation, but it’s hard to translate that into a Contest when you are trying to make a third person voluntarily do something else take stress.

      Anyway, the new hack is working for me and my current players. I think it’s interesting enough to give it a try, but it’s also a bit of a bizarre change so I understand if you choose not to.


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