To Me, My X-Men: Mutant Pathways for Smallville RPG

x_men_lineup_by_americanninjax_reordered
The Heart, the Leader, the Rebel, the Specialist, and the Hammer (for example).
Edit of an image by Matthew Humphreys

One of the best parts of the Smallville RPG is its character creation system, Pathways. Pathways is a lot of fun, and it lets players collaborate to produce an entangled web of characters for the game to come.

Players do Pathways by following the instructions on the Pathways Chart. The chart is an incredible piece of roleplaying design. You start at the top, and each row is a stage of the character’s life journey. At each stage, players choose options for their character, and those options list Traits that go on the character sheet.

The Pathways Chart in the Smallville Core Rulebook is specific enough to its source material that it can be used to produce the cast for a game modelled on the TV show Smallville (as shown in the rulebook’s example), and it is also generic enough that it can be used to create a cast for any similar Superpowered Teen Soap Opera.

Sometimes, however, the default Pathways Chart is not the right tool for the game you want to run. If the gaming group has an idea for a campaign that isn’t Smallville, but is more specific than a generic Superpowered Teen Soap Opera, going through the default Pathways Chart may be too long or too confusing, especially if the players haven’t played Smallville before. That was the case for my Worthington Academy game (in which the player characters are alternate versions of the X-Men in a British, Hogwarts-style boarding school).

Here, I present an X-Men-themed Pathways Chart that anyone can use for their own games. It should hopefully facilitate a game based on that setting, and provide a shallower learning curve for new players. Enjoy! Let me know what you think!

The Worthington Academy Pathways Chart

An image of the Pathways Chart is included below, but there is also a pdf version that you can download here.

Because I don’t have exactly 5 choices at every stage, I have dropped the suggestion to only restrict to three choices at the next stage based on what you pick now. It’s a bit less elegant, but nevermind.

Each stage is described more fully below the image.

X-Men themed Pathways chart for Smallville RPG

ORIGIN

This is how and where it all began. Whoever your parents were, when they brought you into this world, this was your start in life.

The Origin step is taken directly from the Core Rulebook, but I have cut the number of options down to three and renamed them. In the Core Rulebook, the Origin stage includes options for being an alien or otherwise born with special powers. I wanted this game to focus on the normal kids whose lives are turned upside down by the revelation that they are different. I removed the Alien and Gifted options, then renamed Rich to Privileged and Strange to Freak. I wanted Privileged to be broader than the connotations of wealth. For Freak, in addition to the usual possibilities for Strange (e.g. raised in a hippy commune, or astronaut parents, or just being from somewhere else), I wanted to give players the option of playing one of the very rare characters in the X-Men mythos who was born with an inhuman appearance (such as Nightcrawler, who had blue skin and a tail from birth).

Reducing the number of options at this stage also helped simplify the section for players who may not have done Pathways before. A shallower learning curve, with fewer choice up front, may help ease them into it. For the same reason, I have taken several trait steps out of this stage and moved them later.

Now, in Origin, everyone gets:

  • Draw your Lead square.
  • Draw arrows from your square to all other squares, and add d4 Relationships for all Leads you connect to. Don’t write the Relationship statements yet.
  • Draw an arrow from your square to a new circle (a new 2d4 Extra).
  • Start all Values at d4. The Values are Belonging (changed from Truth to better fit X-Men‘s themes of otherness, understanding, and finding your place in the world), Duty, Fun (changed from Glory, but only for younger X-Men), Justice, Love, Power. Don’t write the Value statements yet.
  • Add a new Distinction at d4.

The only mechanical difference between the different options then is which Value you get to step up, and you only step up one.

  • Step up one Value. Privileged chooses between Duty or Power; Ordinary chooses between Love or Belonging; Freak chooses between Fun or Justice.

UPBRINGING

This is about your parents and the circumstances and decisions that were made in raising you.

Upbringing is taken from the High School Yearbook, but again I have reduced the number of options and moved trait steps into later stages in order to give players a shallower learning curve. In this case, there was no wider reason for removing the options except that I felt three sufficiently covered the main possibilities, if you broadened what they meant. Nurtured is now for children whose parents (including adopted or foster parents or other carers) were involved and invested in raising them; Neglected is for children who received little affection and may have had to look after themselves; Toxic is for problematic home lives as well as dysfunctional or damaging relationships with “caregivers”.

Everyone gets:

  • Draw an arrow from your square to a new diamond (a new 2d4 Location).
  • Draw an arrow from a circle or diamond on the map to any another circle or diamond.
  • Add or step up a Distinction.

Nurtured gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Duty or Love)
  • Step up a Relationship or Extra

Neglected gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Fun or Belonging)
  • Step up a Location

Toxic gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Justice or Power)
  • Step up a Distinction

SCHOOL

This is about your peers and the role or social circle you made for yourself outside the home.

The School stage is based on the Youth stage from the Core Rulebook, but here it is the third stage instead of the second. School contains more trait steps than Youth, since it is the main developmental stage before the Life-Changing Event. (Many of the trait steps moved out of earlier stages ended up here.)

The options have remained the same, with a full complement of five, but Paragon has been renamed High Achiever (and no longer includes an option to gain an Ability).

Everyone gets:

  • Draw an arrow from any circle or diamond to another circle, diamond, or square.
  • Draw an arrow from your square to a new or existing circle or diamond (a new d4 Relationship or 2d4 Resource).

Jock gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Duty or Fun)
  • Add or step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Distinction
  • Step up an Extra or Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

High Achiever gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Love or Power)
  • Add or step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Resource
  • Step up an Extra or Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Average gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Fun or Love)
  • Step up a Resource
  • Step up an Extra or Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Geek gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Justice or Belonging)
  • Add or step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Resource
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Outsider gets:

  • Step up a Value (either Belonging or Power)
  • Add or step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Location
  • Step up a Resource
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

LIFE-CHANGING EVENT

This is where everything changed. Despite your development up to this point, one day you discovered that you were different. You learned you had a power, an ability, that set you apart from everything you knew, and forever changed the trajectory of your life.

The number one thing that I realised when thinking about an X-Men Pathways Chart was that all X-Men characters should have the same Life-Changing Event: their mutant powers manifest for the first time, irrevocably setting them apart from the rest of humanity. This meant that there would only be one option, a sort of bottleneck, at this stage of the chart.

I also decided to move the Life-Changing Event earlier in the sequence. Who the characters are after their mutation is often much more interesting than who they were before.

(Note, because the Life-Changing Event is now earlier in the sequence, Rookie characters should continue to the Exposure stage before stopping.)

Everyone gets:

  • Draw an arrow from your square to a new or existing circle or diamond (a new d4 Relationship or 2d4 Resource). If your characters are the actual X-Men, this might be a good opportunity to pick Professor X or other mentor figure as a shared Extra/Relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any circle or diamond back to a Lead square.
  • Step up any Value twice, or two different Values once each.
  • Add an Ability
  • Add or step up an Ability or Distinction
  • Add or step up an Ability or Distinction
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

EXPOSURE

This is how unsuspecting, unpowered humans (including your own family, friends and neighbours) reacted when they learned what you are and what you can do.

The characters’ experiences of bigotry in the wider population can be hugely influential in their character, so I created Exposure as a new step to represent how the characters are treated immediately after their powers manifest. This might be a reaction to a new appearance or to the potential of the powers themselves, but it might also be a reaction to the way that the powers became apparanet (Rogue’s powers are dangerous, but the reaction of those around her was worse because she rendered someone catatonic when they first appeared).

Hostility is when the young mutant faces abuse or violence. The humans may think they are defending themselves by attacking you, but it’s also possible that the violence is in the form of bullying because you’re different or an actual mob trying to hunt you down.

Fear is when people are afraid of you and, whether they try to or not, cannot hide it. Some people may try to treat you normally, but you can tell that they see you differently now and will never fully accept you. Others may simply flee at the sight of you.

Rejection is a severing of ties. Parents may disown you, old friends may snub or ignore you, and communities may exile you.

Acceptance is when those closest to you ackowledge the change, but also recognise that you are the same person you have always been and continue to give you love and respect. The mutants who are accepted after their powers manifest are the luckiest of all.

Awe is when people around you see what you can do now and start to treat you better than they ever did. This may be literal superstitious worship, but it may also be a desire to use your powers for their own ends. Strangers suddenly want to be your friend so that you can help them at school, or make the crops grow, or get back against the bullies, or rob that bank.

Everyone gets:

  • Draw an arrow from any circle or diamond back to a Lead square.
  • Optional: Switch out any Relationship or Resource currently on your sheet for a new Relationship or Resource at the same die rating and draw an arrow to a new or existing circle or diamond as appropriate. (If you didn’t take a mentor figure as a Relationship or Extra in the previous stage, you could do it here.)
  • Optional: Remove any d4 Relationship or 2d4 Resource and step up another Relationship or Resource.
  • Add or step up a Distinction

Hostility gets:

  • Step up an Ability or Distinction
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Fear gets:

  • Step up a Resource
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Rejection gets:

  • Step up a Location or Distinction
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Acceptance gets:

  • Step up an Extra or Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Awe gets:

  • Step up an Ability or Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

RECOURSE

This is where you instictively turn for comfort when things get tough. In particular, it’s where you turned after your powers manifested.

Recourse is a combination of Ambition from the High School Yearbook, and Priority and Modus Operandi from the Core Rulebook. (There is one fewer stage in my Pathways Chart than in the default one.)

Community is taking solace in other people, especially ones who have similar experiences and know what you’re going through (i.e. other mutants).

Solitude is needing time by yourself, to think or brood or meditate or simply to get some peace and quiet. Fortress optional.

Creativity is directing your emotional energy into making things. It could be art (painting, sculpture, writing, etc.) or technology (this is the first opportunity to get a Gear trait), or even something less tangible through your relationships with other people.

Learning/Discovery is all about trying to understand your situation through study and training. Maybe you research history or psychology to find out why people treat you the way they do, or maybe you spend your time honing your new Abilities so that you can better control and use them.

Destruction is about lashing out at the world around you. It may be revenge, or it may just be fun. Maybe you restrict yourself to loud and cathartic destruction of things (perhaps wrecked cars and empty buildings), or maybe you coldly calculate the downfall of people and organisations.

Everyone gets:

  • Draw an arrow from your square to a new or existing circle or diamond (a new d4 Relationship or 2d4 Resource).
  • Draw an arrow from any circle or diamond to another circle, diamond, or square.
  • Add or step up a Distinction.

Community gets:

  • Step up Duty and Justice once each, or step up Duty twice, or step up Justice twice
  • Step up a Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship or Extra

Solitude gets:

  • Step up Power and Justice once each, or step up Power twice, or step up Justice twice
  • Step up a Distinction or Resource
  • Step up a Location

Creativity gets:

  • Step up Fun and Belonging once each, or step up Fun twice, or step up Belonging twice
  • Step up a Relationship or Add a d4 Gear
  • Step up an Extra

Learning/Discovery gets:

  • Step up Duty and Love once each, or step up Duty twice, or step up Love twice
  • Step up a Relationship or Ability
  • Step up a Location

Destruction gets:

  • Step up Power and Fun once each, or step up Power twice, or step up Fun twice
  • Step up a Distinction or Ability
  • Step up an Extra

MOTIVATION

Your Motivation is why you do what you do; what you’re fighting for; who you’d save from the proverbial burning building. When the going gets tough, this is what inspires you to make the choices you do.

Motivation has the same purpose as the equivalent stage from the Smallville Core Rulebook, but the options have been changed to better reflect the X-Men themes.

The Helpless is based on Others, and is about helping those in need. This might be oppressed mutants, but could just as easily be unpowered humans under threat from dangerous mutants.

Mutantkind, based somewhat on The Cause, is a desire to help mutants as a people. It’s up to the player whether that is by working for equality (like Professor X) or by fighting for superiority (like Magneto) or by turning people into mutants (like Mister Sinister) or by killing people who aren’t mutants (like Apocalypse).

Future is seeing the greater good, possibly even literally trying to fix the timestreams after receiving prophetic visions (like Mystique and Destiny) or after seeing the future for yourself (like Bishop or Cable). The way you go about this might be counter-intuitive to some, it might even come across as callous or evil, but you have faith that it will lead to the best outcome in the end.

There is no equivalent option for The Job, since that’s not really applicable to an X-Men story (X-Factor Investigations notwithstanding).

Everyone gets:

  • Draw an arrow from any circle or diamond to another circle, diamond, or square.
  • Draw an arrow from your square to a new or existing circle or diamond (a new d4 Relationship or 2d4 Resource).

The Helpless gets:

  • Step up Belonging or Love once each, or step up Belonging twice, or step up Love twice
  • Step up a Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Mutantkind gets:

  • Step up Belonging or Duty once each, or step up Belonging twice, or step up Duty twice
  • Step up an Ability
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

Self gets:

  • Step up Fun or Power once each, or step up Fun twice, or step up Power twice
  • Step up a Resource
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

The Future gets:

  • Step up Justice or Power once each, or step up Justice twice, or step up Power twice
  • Step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

IDENTITY

This is the big finish. It’s who you are and what role you play in the larger picture.

Identity is perhaps the most similar to the version from the Core Rulebook, but I adjusted the options in the Identity stage to better reflect the Five-Man Band trope. Smallville has a single hero around whom the other characters revolve, but X-Men is an ensemble story with a team. There may be a team leader, but the other characters do not revolve around them (so there is no Sidekick and no Foil).

Everyone gets:

  • Draw an arrow from any circle or diamond back to a Lead square.
  • Draw an arrow from any circle or diamond to another circle, diamond, or square.
  • Optional: Switch out any Relationship or Resource currently on your sheet for a new Relationship or Resource at the same die rating and draw an arrow to a new or existing circle or diamond as appropriate. (If you didn’t take a mentor figure as a Relationship or Extra in the previous stage, you could do it here.)
  • Optional: Remove any d4 Relationship or 2d4 Resource and step up another Relationship or Resource.

The Heart gets:

  • Step up a Relationship
  • Step up a Relationship or Extra
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

The Leader gets:

  • Step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Relationship or Extra
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

The Rebel gets:

  • Step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Location
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

The Specialist gets:

  • Add or step up a Gear
  • Step up a Distinction
  • Step up a Relationship, Asset, or Resource

The Hammer gets:

  • Add or step up an Ability or Gear
  • Step up an Ability or Gear
  • Step up a Relationship

Tweaking the Pathways Chart

As described in the stage sections above, I have used the Pathways Charts from the Core Rulebook and from the High School Yearbook and tweaked them, rather than starting from scratch. My X-Men game is still a Superpowered Teen Soap Opera, after all, and the existing Pathways Charts are a strong foundation to build on. (There is guidance in the Cortex Plus Hackers’ Guide for making your own Pathways Charts, but the only example it gives is of a telenovela-style game and it’s not laid out in full anywhere.)

Here are some of the tweaks I used to customise the Pathways Chart:

  • Change the list of Values
  • Relabel the options
  • Relabel and/or reorder the stages
  • Change the number of options in a stage
  • Change the number of stages
  • Move Trait steps between stages (but keep them level across options within a stage)
  • Change what Traits are given for each option
  • Change the overall number of Trait steps – If you do this, be aware that it can change the scope of the game and the apparent power level of the characters. The Cortex Plus Hackers’ Guide suggests limiting steps between 20 and 35, with average of 25. The Pathways Chart above uses 30.

Pre-pre-generating the characters

One of the ideas I toyed with for my Worthington Academy game but never used was to have a prequel mini-campaign with the five original X-Men. Players would have the choice of Cyclops, Phoenix, Beast, Ice or Angel. (I’ve picked these codenames because they are gender neutral, which I’ll come back to later.)

Each character would have:

  • a list of recommended initial options for Locations and NPCs for the Pathways Map (Cyclops would have Havok as a suggested NPC, for example),
  • a list of recommended Abilities (Angel would have Flight; Phoenix would have Telekinesis, Telepathy, Flight, Power Aura, etc.), and
  • a list of recommended Distinctions (Beast would have Genius and Inhuman Appearance; Ice would have Shirker).

These lists would be recommendations only, but even having this much structure would probably speed up how fast it would take to get through the Pathways process and generate some characters that are both recognisable as their canon counterparts and customised to the preferences of their players.

In my version of this idea, players would go through Pathways without finalising their characters’ real names or genders. At the end of the process, they would write their Relationship statements, working out their feelings for each other (including any romances or attractions), and only then would they work out their genders. Phoenix (not Marvel Girl) could be Jean or John Grey. Ice (not Iceman, and also not to be confused with the DC character) could be Bobby or Bobbi Drake. Beast could be Hank or Hattie McCoy. Angel could be Warren or Lauren Worthington. Cyclops could be Scott Summers or Summer Scott. I’m leaning towards randomly generating them, but having players pick would be ok as well if I thought they’d avoid the primarily male imbalance of the original comics.

I’d love to hear examples of games where GMs gave players a more structured Pathways process to follow. If you’ve ever been in such a game, please let me know.

Also, please let me know if you liked this Pathways Chart. If there’s interest, I might be tempted to do others. Suggestions for improvements would also be welcome.


Header image is an edit of X-Men Lineup Compiled by MatthewRHumphreys at DeviantArt. Image used without permission.

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4 thoughts on “To Me, My X-Men: Mutant Pathways for Smallville RPG

  1. Benjamin Davis June 6, 2016 / 11:47 pm

    I like how the real life-changing event is other people’s reaction. That’s very apt to the setting.

    Like

    • Stephen June 7, 2016 / 6:16 am

      That’s a neat way of looking at it, but the idea of people’s reaction setting the direction and tone of the character arc was intentional. I thought back to stories of the X-Men recruiting newly empowered mutants, and the stories almost always start juuuust after the community has reacted.

      Like

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