Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Smallville Spotlight - Relationship Drama Abounds

If there is anything that Smallville the television series has in abundance, it is relationship drama. Wow. Now that I think about it, there is a LOT of relationship drama. Going back through all the series, it becomes a tangled web of emotions between all the characters. First Clark loves Lana, then he doesn’t love Lana and goes off on a fling with a teleporting meteor freak. Then Lana and Clark fall in love, finally, and Clark has to hid his secret, until she eventually figures that out for herself. But nooooo, that is just the beginning of the drama that goes on with Mr. young man of steel. So much happens in that show that it is almost impossible to keep track of.

I have always been a sucker for super hero relationship drama. I was much more interested in the trials of Spiderman and his experience dating Mary Jane and his other suitors than I was interested in how Spiderman and the green goblin were going to get it on using the same powers they always had. For me, superhero stories that are light on character development and relationships are not ones that I am going to be interested in. This might be why I have never taken to Batman very well. He shut himself off in his little cave and doesn’t really have many meaningful relationship drama going on; the new Batman movies kind of had some going on, but never nearly as much as Superman had.

Superman can stop bullets and catch trains; depending on who is letting him run wild, he might even be able to turn back time (*starts singing the song of the same name*). But, what always limited him the most, more than Kryptonite in all of its shades and colors, were his relations with people: Lana, Lois, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lex Luthor, and all the other long cast of characters which get involved in his life.

The Smallville RPG seems to do a really great job of getting that aspect of the Superhero genre into the game. In fact, I would say that relationships are central to this game, more so that anything else.

In the Smallville RPG, you build your characters as a group developing relationships between the Leads (characters involved) before you even start the game. What most games, especially D&D 4e mostly ignore, or perhaps footnote before the play experience begins, Smallville embraces and centers the entire play experience around. Player Character creation in this RPG is an entirely different style than I have seen most anywhere (though it has some similarities to those found in SotC and Rogue Trader). You start out by mapping your characters path through life in conjunction to the other characters playing the game. This game is not going to be very suited to the lone wolf character who has no emotional ties and no relationships with anyone but him or herself. I found the character creation section to be wildly confusing, but entertaining and interesting. A lot of my confusion cleared up by reading the accompanying diagrams which plot out how all of the characters are linked together and how their relationships mingle, mix, and get messed up.

The game is designed for a group of 4 players and “Watchtower” this game’s version of the GM. What I found fascinating about this setup is that the GM is described as more of a “gardener than a conductor.” The GM is there to facilitate the growth of the players and to allow them to tell their own stories, rather than play through a story setup by the GM. This is pretty much the opposite of everything I play. You could almost describe the entire game as being a great big sandbox adventure. Even the rules are there to back up the fact that you aren’t on a linear rail adventure; this game is more like driving your car through the desert. But, what I found even more interesting than all that was the fact that if you play character creation out through the identity phase, where you essentially decide your character’s destiny, you have essentially put a final destination somewhere in that Mojave desert of a game. What is even more difficult to deal with, mentally for me, is the fact that you are a group of Leads, telling your interconnected stories, but you all have a different final destination in mind for your characters. So, the metaphor descends one step deeper (I feel like I am watching Inception again not writing about Smallville).

The Smallville RPG, to me, is like getting into a mini-van with an assorted cast of Super and not-so-super heroes, driving through the Mojave desert, while each person in the van is a back-seat-driver directing the car to a variety of Final Destinations, none of which are the same. So, yea, there is going to be a LOT of relationship drama in this game. Simply on the surface of the Smallville RPG you have a system which entrenches itself in not only the mingling relationships of the Leads playing, but also has the relationship of a whole cast of other background characters that have varying degrees of interaction and connection to the players… ok. The metaphor is getting lost now. I was going to remark about other cars either following you in that desert, or trying to crash into you, but I am going to leave it at that for the day.

This system intrigues me to no end. I look forward to exploring more of it. Stay tuned. Smallville Spotlight week continues.


  1. ... Okay, that isn't quite what I was expecting, but on the other hand it makes a lot of sense - and fits the source material in surprising ways. I am intrigued! :D

  2. My impression of the game so far is that Smallville RPG is really good at running a certain type of game: Superhero growth up until that superhero realizes his or her purpose and identity in the world, it also plays on the relationships between the characters in the game as well as the players around the table. I like it a lot. It feels uniqe and different. Maybe this game wouldn't work for a really high powered, strictly beating people up, superhero game, but, I think it works really well for what it is designed to do.