Thursday, January 20, 2011

Smallville Spotlight - Smallville as a simulation of Smallville

Today, I want to bring up a discussion that I have had with a few people on Twitter recently. The main point of this discussion was regarding simulation in roleplaying games. The blunt of this discussion was regarding dissociation of mechanics in RPG’s. I found the discussion to be very intriguing; the topic, in my gaming, has never really come up. What the gist of this discussion led me to was to some searching into the term, but what it also really spawned was a train of thought in my head, which is now hell bent on evaluating games on a simulation methodology, which is something I want to talk about in this section and the next section of my Smallville spotlight, but not really from the mind-set of dissociation of game mechanics from reality.

Actually, what I want to talk about is how well Smallville acts as a simulation in itself. Since RPG’s are in some respect all just simulations of something, I think it is somewhat important to figure out how well a game acts as a simulation of something, but Smallville is a tricky one for me to deal with. The hang up I am having with the game is trying to figure out exactly what Smallville is actually simulating. The first and most obvious thing that The Smallville RPG is a simulation of is the Smallville TV Show which started on the WB, which later became the CW, and is now running in its 10th and Final Season.

As a simulation of Smallville the TV show, I really think that this game holds up and does a pretty good job. The book itself is cramped full of images from the show, filling it up with glorious photo art. You aren’t going to find many drawings in this one, other than the abundance of charts used to help describe the character creation process.

Beyond the photos, the book brings a significant amount of really awesome stuff from the show, and from Superman mythology, into the game. There are a bunch of great characters which are presented, including art in some places, as well as character bios and statblocks. You get all of the very obvious cast of characters, but there are a lot of characters from early in the shows run which are left out. Many dead characters are brought back to life in the RPG, but many are left out. Dr. Swan (played by Christopher Reeve) did not make it into the characters section. I thought that was a bid odd, but I can deal. I also thought it was interesting how many characters from early on in the show were left out as characters. You don’t get a lot of meteor freaks here (I assume they will come out with the new book which is coming out soonish). I was a bit disappointed to find out that the girl Clark dated, who could teleport through walls, Alicia Baker, didn’t find her way into the book, except for a mention in the season guide…

Oh. Did I forget to mention that a fair amount of the back of the book presents a guide to the TV Show? Yes, it does. Actually, I found this very interesting. If you are going to play D&D in an existing setting, like Forgotten Realms for instance, you are going to want a history of that world and the major players presented in it in order to better paint a map of that world inside your head. Comparatively speaking, a breakdown of all the seasons in a game which is a simulation of a TV Show, is kind of the same thing. I don’t know that I will ever look through this section, unless I am trying to find out which season of the show Clark reveals his secret to who in, but having it for people who don’t own all the box sets might be a very nice thing to have (I own all the box sets… actually, I own 2 copies of season 8 and I have bought season 6, 3 separate times – my first copy I lent to a friend who never returned it and I lost the second copy in a move at some point… stupid college).

One of the other setting specific inclusions in the book is a brief discussion of Smallville and Metropolis, the two major locations for pretty much all of the show. I liked these sections and they definitely merit inclusion in the book, but here is where I am going to throw a big wrench into this wonderful cog of a book…. There is only 2 freaking pages on the actual city of Smallville… I know it is called Smallville and there are not many people who live there (thus small), but 2 pages?? At least half of the show is set there and the name of the show is Smallville, not bloody metropolis… You need to have more description of the book than that, especially in the core book. I know that the show has moved on to metropolis now, but the first half of the series was set there… come on… *grumble grumble*

Moving on for fear of a rant ensuing, I want to talk about how the mechanics of the game can help to simulate the show. At the beginning of this post I talked about mechanics dissociation. I may have mentioned that some people rant about how they hate that 4e doesn’t simulate reality very well. It’s mechanics are highly dissociated from reality. The people on twitter that I talked with don’t fall into the ranting crowd, fortunately, so we were able to have a much more enlightening discussion. But, I think you need to talk about dissocation of mechanics from reality in Smallville the RPG in context with how it corresponds to the show, for which it is a simulation of.

I think this RPG actually simulates the reality that is presented in the TV show very well. The cortex system, which heavily values relationships and skills over superpowers in this game, actually does a great job of simulating how the show works.

In Smallville the TV show, Clark Kent is a young superman. Sure he is running around the city (cus he can’t fly yet) saving people using his super powers, but any time anything of importance comes up, his superpowers always have their foil and their limitations. He either has to hide those powers from someone or he gets zapped with some Kryptonite and has to rely on someone else to save his alien behind. If you actually want to get into power balance in the show, all the characters have their important points and most of them come in useful in some way. Clark isn’t OP. He is just an alien dude, with relationship and trust issues who can see through walls. His powers may be important, but his growth as a man is more the point of the story. He isn’t reaching maturity and becoming superman because he defeats another dude this week and gains some more XP; he is on his path to becoming superman, and will reach the end of that path, by growing as an individuals, developing the ability to trust people and establish real relationships with people (I feel like I should go into some of the developmental psychology I studied in college, but that would be boring).

So, in my opinion, as a simulation of Smallville the TV show, Smallville the RPG works great. I think if your goal for picking up this book is to carry on the TV show in spirit, even though it will no longer be on TV, I think you have a very good baseline to do so.


  1. I am a fan of the TV show, and your posts about the game have me keenly interested. You've pretty much sold me on picking up the game, though I doubt I'll be able to convince my group to play it.

  2. That is good. I hope you check out my final review. I think the product is pretty solid, but it all comes down to how you want to use it.