Margaret Weiss Productions and the Cortex Plus System
The Smallville Roleplaying Game takes step beyond where most licensed role-playing games go: it uses an innovative character creation process and dice mechanic. Smallville is based on the Cortex System (which is also the rules-system used in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game) by Margaret Weiss Production, but it uses a system called Cortex Plus. The resulting game lets you create a cast of characters that aren’t necessarily all Clark Kent types, but feasibly lets you play the Chloe, Lana, and Lex type characters alongside Clark. For a game based on a television show like Smallville, that actually works.
The TV show Smallville tells what happened in Superman’s life before he became Superman. The series began with young Clark Kent entering high school and facing the usual pressures and awakenings of a teenager, along with a monster of the week. In the Smallville pilot, a meteor shower brings the infant Kryptonian, Kal-El, to Earth (and Smallville) in a rocket ship. The meteor rocks that land in and around Smallville are the twist on the usual Superman origin story, and they act as weekly plot devices for the first season or two (and periodic one-shots in later seasons). Essentially, humans in close contact with the kryptonite rocks develop strange powers, along with a variety of mutations and mental defects. The kryptonite not only harms Kal-El, but it powers the monster of the week.
The Cast of Characters
Also, Clark has feelings for his neighbor, Lana Lang, the popular cheerleader type who has feelings for Clark, but dates the more popular guys in school and tends to misunderstand Clark’s secrecy and frequent disappearances. Meanwhile, Clark Kent is coming to grips with his emerging powers, while chafing at the restrictions his father place on his using those abilities. For instance, he can’t try out for the football team, as he might harm the other kids. Like most teens, Clark Kent is defined by the relationships he has with his peers. Chloe, his friend at the school newspaper, is a conspiracy theorist who keeps a “Wall of Weird” in the journalism room to track all the mutations in the county. Clark’s best friend, Lex Luthor, acts as a kind of older brother and mentor.
Lex, whose wealthy father employs most of the people in Smallville, is saved by Clark in the first episode and takes an interest in the young hero. Meanwhile, Lex must deal with a controlling, borderline evil father, as well as the consequences of his own exposure to kryptonite in the meteor story (perhaps the source of some of his genius–and certainly the reason behind his resultant loss of hair). As the seasons go by, a metaplot begins to develop. Main characters leave the show, die off, or otherwise turn out to be villains. Key characters like Lois Lane and Green Arrow are added, while Perry White and Jimmy Olsen even show their faces once in a while. For the last several seasons, Clark Kent lives in Metropolis and is learning to be a world class journalist. The series ends with Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen (regardless of what they say in Season 8), and Perry White all working at The Daily Planet.
The Smallville Corebook
That’s the type of program the Smallville Roleplaying Game tries to simulate. While it would be easy to skip ahead to Clark Kent’s young adult years as the Red-Blue Blur and match him up with other Smallville heroes like Green Arrow, Aquaman, Black Canary, Cyborg (?), and Supergirl, those plot developments were pretty big deviations from the original concept of the television show. The Smallville Roleplaying Game seeks to create a game where you can play out high school with superpowers, but also one where you can play a non-powered “supporting cast” member and not feel overwhelmed or overshadowed. Game balance becomes a real issue.
The Cortex Plus System and Smallville
The Cortex Plus modified game system seeks to solve that problem and has a pretty innovative way of doing it, mainly by using abstract stats instead of literal descriptions of your physical, mental, and social abilities. That’s the standard way a role-playing game handles character creation, with some version of strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, and charm statistics serving to define the character. A standard superhero RPG would also add in a powers list and let you further delineate your character with those descriptors.
Instead, you get six values: Power, Glory, Truth, Justice, Duty, and Love. These stats define your character’s capabilities. So while one character might have a high power stat, that might not outshine the characters who have high scores in duty, justice, and the all-important Love characteristic. Character’s successes are determined by their motivations, not how much they can lift or how fast they can run (at least not always).
To make up a character, you define where your stats are set. Stats are associated with either a d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12. The higher the die, the higher that attribute is. Whenever you take an action, you determine which of the six value is most associated with the task you hope to perform and you roll its associated die. This becomes one of two dice you roll for task resolution.
Skills and Relationships
The other die is determined by your in-game relationships. For every other player character in the game, you define your relationship to that character and assign a die value between d4 to d12 to that character. You also write a short phrase to describe your relationship: secret admirer, stalker, romantic rival, or creepy brother to name a few. Every single PC receives this definition and they don’t have to be reciprocal.
As an example, let’s say you’re playing “Drake” and the person sitting next to you is playing “Mitzy”. Drake’s descriptor for Mitzy might be “Love of My Life: d12″. Mitzy’s descriptor for Drake might be “Just Friends: d4″ to show she’s just not that into poor old Drake. The key non-player characters also have their relationship to these various PCs defined in the same way.
When a scene happens in the game, the character takes actions by choosing the value and the relationship that are most important to completing the action. If Drake is trying to learn the truth about who abducted Mitzy, he would probably roll the die for “Truth” and the die for “Mitzy”. If Mitzy were trying to escape from her captors, she might roll “Power” or “Glory” for her value, but also might roll the dice for her true love “Silas” as her relationship. Or maybe she rolls “love”.
As you can see, the Smallville RPG gives players plenty of room for maneuver. Your characters will need to be able to be honest in their assessments, while the GM needs to have an understanding of the relationships among the cast and be firm in making judgments on these. Smallville is a game a power-gamer and rules lawyers could exploit, but it’s not a game for power-gamers and rule lawyers. In fact, Smallville requires a player to use their relationships to other characters. Therefore, it almost requires the player characters to become storytellers.
Smallville RPG Books
Books are still being published for the Smallville RPG. The Smallville Roleplaying Game core rulebook is the obvious book you’ll need to buy. For those wanting to know everything about Clark Kent’s high school experience, you can purchase the Smallville High School Yearbook, which details everything you need to know about the first 4 seasons of Smallville. Smallville: The Watchtower Report gives details on Luthercorp and writeups for dozens of antagonists, monsters, and other plot seeds.
A gaming group could also buy the Smallville Corebook and make up their own cast of characters. Nothing says you have to take on the roles of Clark Kents and his friends–nobody would want to play that annoying Lana. Instead, you can make up your own version of Smallville with an all-new cast of characters. That’s the way most people I know play it. That way, you and your friends can define your relationships (and powers) however you want to.