#RPGaDay2015: 6 – Smallville

These days, I have a weekly game group, but other than the occasional convention, that’s about all the gaming I do. So the “most recently played game” is pretty much whatever I did this past Tuesday—and it’s probably the only thing I’ve played for the last several months, unless we just switched games.

This week was week 2 of our “Smallville” game. That’s in quotes because we ended up deviating significantly from the core rules. See, I love supers as a genre, but one other player likes it, and the other three actively dislike it, at least for roleplaying. So I got voted down on anything supers when we were picking our next game, but people were intrigued by a lot of the mechanics of Smallville. And since several of us love Lost Girl, we decided to take Smallville and tweak it slightly to do modern fantasy, focusing on a highschool for the magically inclined.

The basic concept is a world where magic used to be common, and everyone knows it—there are dragon skeletons and unicorn horns in the museums, ancient handwritten spellbooks are as common as illuminated bibles, the wizards and spells that decided Agincourt and the American Revolution are well-documented, and the descendants of the last few wizards talk about them the way that a descendant of Ben Franklin might talk about him. But everyone knows that magic was used up or faded away long ago, and nobody alive ever saw a spell cast or captured a leprechaun.

As is obvious with this set-up, everyone is wrong. Magic is much rarer than it used to be, but it still exists, mostly hidden. And our PCs are all highschool students at a prep school in Vancouver which teaches magic alongside the usual subjects.

So we tweaked the rules to reflect this: Abilities are justified as magical abilities or a touch of fae blood or a dragon’s curse on your bloodline; we changed the Values and Stresses to better fit the world; and we added some magical skills as an additional category of Asset. And, obviously, the setting is very different (though High School Yearbook is still very applicable). But we’re still calling it “Smallville”.

So far, it’s pretty awesome. Smallville has a really useful structure for creating story hooks, by tying them into the interpersonal conflicts of the PCs. I love that it’s making me think about how to set up for the next session in a very different way than anything else I’ve run before.

It’s really too bad the game is no longer for sale, and Margaret Weis Productions had to destroy the copies they still had, because I think it is just about the best version of Cortex, and I don’t think there’s another Dramatic Cortex game with the same level of sophistication and clever details. It’s also a really great balance between “traditional” RPG structures (like Savage Worlds or D&D) and “indie” or “storygame” structures (like Blowback or With Great Power…). If you can find it somewhere, give it a read.

Smallville via Lost Girl

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.

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Vigilante =/= Mutant

Smallville is this season very transparently stealing the mutant registration act storyline from the various X-Men comics. I’m impressed at how many ways it doesn’t work. For starters, it just doesn’t fit the tone of the series or the universe, IMHO. But that might just be me; the other problems are more significant.

The Mutant registration act was, of course, an allegory of the Holocaust, and various other historical–and current–attempts to scapegoat a group of people. As such, the allegory required that the victims be blameless, at least as a group. In the Marvel universe, nobody chooses to be a mutant. Thus, condemning them for that status, irrespective of their behavior, is what makes the allegory work. Vigilante is a behavior–a profession, i suppose–and something that the characters clearly chose. So the “Vigilante Registration Act” is not immorally condemning them for an accident of their birth, or even for their beliefs, but for their actions. It’s like the writers completely missed the allegory of the mutant registration act, so when they went to copy it, they copied the superficial details, but changed the one bit that gave it moral weight.

On top of that, they chose as their “persecuted group” those who made a set of decisions and behaviors that is pretty morally gray. Which could possibly work–you could explore some really complex questions, and Smallville has at least taken stabs at them in the past–except that they’re not examining the morality. They’ve simply replaced “mutant” with “vigilante” wherever it appears in the script, and written the stories as though “vigilante” is inherently and obviously good. Our heroes are the good guys because they’re the good guys. Which, I suppose, takes us back to the origins of Superman. :-/

What’s worse is that Smallville has flirted with these themes in the past–in fact, for the majority of the run–and done it much better. So a heavy-handed attempt at cloning a popular theme from the rivals is even more insulting, since we’ve seen them much-less-clumsily tackle this same theme on the show already. The persecution and ostracization of “meteor freaks”, most obviously. But for a couple of seasons, at least, they’ve toyed with the question of “alien invasion” or how the populace would react to knowing Clark is an alien. They’ve tread this ground before, posed some great questions, answering some of them and letting us mull over the others. This new plot arc wouldn’t be doing anything new or interesting even if it were doing it right–which it’s not.