For our latest weekly game, it was my turn to run, so I pitched some games that I thought would be interesting and engaging for our group. Mechanically, Smallville was one of the favorites, but 3 people vetoed supers, and the other 1 was only indifferent to the genre, so we decided to tweak it a bit for a different flavor setting. After some discussion, modern fantasy, somewhat in the vein of Lost Girl with a dash of X-Men: Evolution (we’re actively working to not echo Harry Potter, on several levels).
So that meant we needed magic, and probably some other changes. I immediately decided that the Stresses would need changing, and the others insisted that we change up the Values. So far, some of these changes have been more successful than others.
We brainstormed a bunch around Values, discussing what sort of world we wanted, what sorts of stories, whether the emphasis was going to be more on education and learning, interpersonal stuff, magic, external threats, or a few other ideas that I don’t recall right now. In the end, we went with:
For purposes of character creation, they match up with the Values in the Smallville rulebook like this:
Some of these are just slight shifts. Popularity is a lot like Glory on a more personal scale. Loyalty is pretty much the non-romantic equivalent of Love, but with maybe a bit broader connotations. Truth and Secrecy are covering the same ground, but we wanted to focus on a world of secret magic. Tradition is very similar to Duty, but we wanted to emphasize the long history of magic and wizardry. Changing from Power to Mastery still covers ideas of power, but also rolls in self-improvement and skill. There’s really no intentional connection between Justice and Individuality—they just got treated as equivalents because they were the 6th value after I matched up all the others with the closest equivalent.
To go along with the new Values, we needed to change up the Stresses. Specifically, I wanted at least one Stress that embodied the danger of magic, and from there we played around to come up with:
- Unstable: you are out of control, maybe not making the best decisions, and maybe not doing what you would like to do.
- Drained: you’ve run out of energy.
- Injured: you’ve been hurt.
- Not Making the Grade: you’re unfocused, not applying yourself to school.
- #5: choose a personal coping method or failure reaction (afraid, angry, withdrawn, quiet, embarrassed, insecure, isolated, lonely, alienated, depressed, hysterical, cocky, bitter, ashamed, shamed, paranoid,…)
In hindsight, I might’ve liked 2 social/psychological Stresses, but I’m not sure what to give up. I like that there are two different Stresses related to magic, but neither of them is magic-only. And we definitely want something to reflect injuries. That would only leave Not Making the Grade to remove, and we decided it was important to have something related to the fact that the PCs are highschool students. So, just one psychological Stress, unlike regular Smallville.
Magic a la Abilities
Those were the two easy parts. Magic is proving a little harder. Everybody loves the verb-object magic style like Ars Magica, but we didn’t want to grab that system whole-cloth or get overly complex in a game like Smallville. And because of how the dice work in Cortex, simply having one more die whenever you use magic doesn’t mess things up. You still only get to add up the top 2 (unless you do something special), and more small dice increase the odds of a Complication, which is perfect for a world where magic is a little dangerous.
My idea was to take the bits of the Abilities system and spread them out to create magic. So the 6 effects could be my magical verbs, and I just needed to come up with objects. We went back and forth a bit on the objects, and finally ended up with a set inspired by the original Mage: the Ascension: very broad categories, intended to cover the whole of reality.
The mapping of the Smallville Effects to magical Methods turned out to be a little bit awkward. If I were trying to run a game that was task-focused, I think it wouldn’t quite work: Enhance is really more about the target than it is about what you’re doing to it, so it sort of breaks the scheme. But since Smallville die rolls are more about narrative outcome and resolving scenes, we’re a step removed from the actual spells, so it seems to be working ok. In other words, I don’t need to adjudicate “which Effect to target a lightning bolt at the car?”, I only need to adjudicate “can Enhancing himself help him persuade Tiffany’s mom?” So far, at least, in practice it just doesn’t matter—the game is operating on narrative importance, not logical connections. If someone can justify it, it’s fine, and I don’t have to worry about the players “breaking” the game like the wrong kind of cleverness could do in the 1st edition of M:tA.
So far, I think the upside of tying it into the existing mechanics outweighs the downsides of the oddity from a world-logic standpoint and occasional difficulty adjudicating which Method applies.
|Attack: Dice from this Method hurt people; you use them in rolls to give others Stress.||Matter: Solid, liquid, or gas—if it’s not alive, use this Target on it.|
|Defend: Protection from harm. These dice help you against attacks or rolls to inflict Stress.||Energy: This Target encompasses all forms of detectable energy: electricity, magnetism, radiation, light, etc.|
|Alter: Manipulate aspects of your surroundings, changing, shifting or altering. Use these dice to influence the outcome of a Test or Contest by altering the environment.||Space: Distance, closeness, farness, size—all are aspects of Space.|
|Move: Moving things (or yourself) from place to place in unusual ways. Roll these dice into Tests or Contests that depend on speed or movement, or when you move objects to influence the outcome of a Test or Contest.||Time: Time isn’t just relative for physicists. Speed things up, slow things down, maybe even make time run backwards.|
|Sense: Perceive or understand your surroundings; roll these dice into perception-based Tests and Contests.||Probability: With this Target, you can decide what is random and what is fated.|
|Enhance: This Method lets you use the Target to enhance yourself. Roll these dice into Tests or Contests when your enhancements can aid you.||Life: All living things, from toadstools to redwoods and elephants, and everything in between.|
|Mind: Thoughts, feelings, ideas—with this Target you can manipulate them directly.|
|Mana: The stuff of magic, it is what wizards use for spells, and what gives dragons, fae, and other supernatural creatures their supernatural-ness.|
How to Use Special Effects?
In addition to Effect (covered by the new magical Methods) and Descriptors (covered by the new magical Targets), Abilities in Smallville also have Limits and Special Effects. This is where I’m not sure we have it figured out. My initial plan was to have each player assign a Limit to each Method, and a Special Effect to each Target.
The Limits part worked just fine. But the players all balked at trying to assign Special Effects to Targets, which are only one half of any magical effect (since whenever you use magic, you’re using a Method and a Target). My initial thought was to think of the special effects as sort of “signature spells”, so it doesn’t matter that they might only make sense with a specific Method—you’d only use it in those circumstances. But this just didn’t feel right to the others. For now, we’ve tabled the discussion while we play a few sessions, and people can either add Special Effects according to my original plan, between sessions or in play as they come up. If that still doesn’t make sense to the rest, we’ll revisit the topic in a few weeks and see whether we should leave them out or come up with a different way to apply Special Effects to magic.
Only thing left was to tweak the Pathways chart to incorporate the new rules. Values were substituted as above. We left Abilities in—they’re what you use if you want to play a character with some fae blood or the like. At every stage, no matter what box you choose, in addition to everything already on the Pathways chart, you also can either choose a new Method and Target, or step up any two magical skills you already have. And since the magical skills are slotted in as a new kind of Asset, any pick from the Pathways chart that applies to “Assets” as a category can also be used for magical skills. In that case, a single Asset pick lets you choose both a Method and a Target, or lets you raise 2 magical skills.
And that’s about it. The only other change we’ve made is to say that if you use magic but don’t have scores in both the Method and Target, you automatically become Unstable or Drained. I’ll write again once I can judge better whether the changes we’ve made are working.