Last time, in my Smallville Spotlight, I talked about the idea that all games are essentially a simulation. We also talked about how well Smallville worked as a simulation of the Smallville TV show, from which it was drawn. Today however, I want to take a look at Smallville not as a simulation of the Smallville TV show, but as a simulation of a generic Superhero world.
I have actually heard this game critiqued a lot. A lot of this negative feedback that I have picked up has been from the point that Smallville doesn’t work very well as a game of Superheroes. I think that is a problem. I think the problem here is that people evaluate Smallville not on how well it simulates the Smallville TV show, but how well it works as a Superheroes game. A lot of times, comparing apples to oranges can be a problem, but really, when it comes to this RPG, you kind of have to.
The Smallville RPG is fundamentally an RPG about Superheroes. Clark Kent, and many of the other Leads described in the book, are super-heroes in the making. They will become caped, or masked, crusaders of justice, trying to save the world the best that they can. Although the game mimics and simulates the show, the show is about a Superhero. So, while not all Superhero games may be the apples that the Smallville TV show is, Smallville is fundamentally a superhero game and show. God this is confusing. I remember Bertrand Russell talking about these kind of logical statements in Principia Matematica, but I never thought I would have to bring logic into this.
TL;DR – You need to examine Smallville as a simulation of superhero games as well as a simulation of the Smallville TV Show.
I must say, I think a lot of the people that I have been getting this negative feedback from may be partially right. I don’t play a lot of superhero games, but I do play D&D. Honestly, my D&D characters feel far more super than the characters in the Smallville game. The reason for that is the game is done episodically and with scenes, so while Clark might be running around using his spare time to save people when between those scenes, he is not really able to go whole-hog with all of his powers because of the limitations put on him by the cortex system.
One way I would like to compare this is with the character Wolverine. If I were going to try and play Wolverine in this game, It might be very difficult. Because of the way that you use his regenerative healing, or his super duper claws, there might be times at the table where you actually don’t have the ability to use those powers like you would normally think Wolverine should be able to do. Though I don’t play Superhero games, I have read through a couple rules sets. Because the cortex system kind of puts character powers in the background (at least that is my impression) your challenges aren’t going to try and make you put those powers of yours to creative use, which is something that I think I would really want to do in a simulation of a superhero world.
My viewpoint is this: If I am a superhero and there is a world full of superheroes and we are all in this to snag bad guys and go around saving people, fighting evil villains and what not, than I want to be able to use those powers as much as I can, as long as I am in the absence of my own personal Kryptonite.
BUT… WAIT!!! There is a problem with all of this logic and argument. Should you really be evaluating Smallville as a superhero RPG? “Why yes, Superman is a Superhero, of course we should!” Well, maybe you should, but you should also keep in mind that Smallville isn’t actually a game or a TV show about superheroes. What it is about is the growth of a man, or alien, or whatever, into a superhero. In this game, you are essentially playing the part of that heroes life which is covered in the very beginning of most comic books, or the first 30 minutes of most comic book movies. You are really playing through their origin stories.
I could totally see the Smallville RPG being used to run the story of Peter Parker as he grows up to become Spiderman. During that portion of his life, he has all kinds of drama with the girl next door and has to deal with the pressures of people at school and his aunt and uncle. I could even see using this game up to the point, after Uncle Ben kicks the bucket, and Peter Parker throws on his Spidy Garb and becomes a wicked web slinger. But, after that, once Spider Man is Spider Man, we aren’t dealing in Origins anymore. At that point, we are dealing in stories.
To compare this game to D&D, I would say that you are progressing ever forward to the point where you hit level 30, but in the Smallville RPG, hitting level 30 means you become the hero that you have always meant to be. There are going to be a lot of relationships and drama on the road to 30, and you are going to use your powers (just on the dl). Once you hit around level 29, throw on the red cape and tights and become Superman, you are just about to hit max level, at which point your character becomes renowned around the world and you have to start a new character, who may know about the last PC you ran through the leveling gambit.
So, I will still stand behind Smallville as a simulation of the TV show for which it is named. I will also stand by it as the tale of a Superheroes origin story, whether that be one of the X-men, or any of their Marvel buddies, or whether that be Batman, Green Arrow, or whoever, but I won’t stand behind Smallville as a simulation of life after the mask or cape gets donned. Once you get there, once you are public and everybody knows who you are, I think it might be time to find another game to carry on your character, or even better, start a new one and see how that one grows up too.