Design Masterclass: Smallville

Having taken a look at Pendragon, it should come as no surprise that I noticed plenty of other games out there that can teach us a lot of about game design. So it’s time to take a look at one of the most underrated games I’ve ever known - Smallville.


To a certain degree the license stands against Smallville, if you are not a fan of the series you probably let this one pass you by. Had it been based on Vampire Diaries (and I’d love to reskin it for that myself) it may have been far more successful. However, the license is part of the reason this game stands out, because it presented designer Cam Banks with a serious problem. How can you run a game where Superman is a character, but Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane are equally viable? How does Superman not just take over the entire game?

The answer was to look at all the characters and see if there was a level playing field between them all. Clearly it isn’t anything physical, Superman wins every time there. He’s pretty clever too, but a game just about thinking wouldn’t work very well with action superheroes. But there is something that everyone is just as good as everyone else with, and that is relationships and reasoning.

In RPG characters spend a lot of time doing things without much reference to why, apart from it being what the adventure demands. Smallville ensures every single action is defined by why the character is doing it. It does this by throwing away any options for skills and attributes (strength, dexterity, etc) and instead bases every roll on a Value and a Relationship.

Values represent why you are doing something: Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power and Truth. Relationships are open ended with each person that is important to the character listed with a rating. Both Values and Relationships are rated by a die, which are the two dice you roll to beat the action difficulty.

So, let’s take a simple scene where Lois Lane is falling from a building and Superman has to save her. In most games Superman would make a Dexterity + Flying test to see if he gets there in time. But he makes the same roll no matter who is falling or what is going on around him.

In Smallville, Superman’s player first has to wonder why he is saving Lois. Does he feel Duty bound to save everyone? Does he enjoy the Glory of being seen to rescue people and reported in the papers? Is it just that he Loves people and wants them safe? Maybe he even enjoys proving he has more Power than anyone else. Having decided on this, we add Superman’s relationship die for Lois (a pretty high one) and he rolls to succeed. Now, he might get a bonus to save her as he has super strength and flight, but the base roll is about why and who. A different person, a different reason, his roll might be very different; despite the fact the action is basically the same. In Smallville, you make the most effort for the people who matter most to you.

With this focus on Relationships and Values, Jimmy Olsen is every bit Superman’s equal. He might even be better at plenty of things. It doesn’t really matter who put out the fire on the oil rig (spoiler - it was Superman) what matters is can Clark tell Lois he cares without screwing it up? Probably not, and so Jimmy needs to dive in to save him and explain to Lois he didn’t meant it the way it came out.

Now at this point plenty of you may be thinking ‘oh that sounds boring, I want action’. While a relationship driven game might not be your thing, I urge you to try it. You will find it draw you in quicker than you realize. This is because everything you do actually matters, both to your character and those around them. A conversation goes badly with someone you really like and your character takes a hit more hurtful than any wound. Get punched and you just need time to heal, screw up a relationship scene and time may not help, you have to get out there and fix it.

Either way, in terms of game design, take a look at Smallville as it elegantly solves the issue of how to make a relationship based RPG work and offers plenty of story and adventure. The system easily adapts to pretty much any setting, such as Supergirl, Stranger Things, Vampire Diaries, anything where relationships might matter. So give it a try, it is a gaming experience you won’t find in many other places.

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


Having never played the game, how does Smallville's Value/Relationship compare to Pendragon's Personality Traits (positive/negative)? Both seem to represent the character's motives. How do the systems play differently?


Some elements in there remind me of Primetime Adventures where characters will always win combats (they are the main characters in a TV show after all) but might not win in regular social situations, especially when their personal issue comes into play.


Having never played the game, how does Smallville's Value/Relationship compare to Pendragon's Personality Traits (positive/negative)? Both seem to represent the character's motives. How do the systems play differently?

Simply put, in Pendragon you make a trait roll to see how you deal with the result of a situation or test. They determine your motivation, or how you feel about your actions, but don't determine how well you do.
'I'm about to fight, will I be a coward or dive in'
'The enchantress is really into me, will I spend the night or not'

In Smallville, effectively the trait test IS the skill test. So how much you care about Lois and whether you are saving her for Glory or Love determines if you succeed or fail, rather than just how you feel about it.

Stacie GmrGrl

This doesn't even touch on what makes Smallville such a genius rpg design and that's it's character creation process.

Going through Pathways to make characters is Character Generation, Setting Generation, and Session 0 all combined together in one process and it's phenomenal. By the time the group is done everybody is really invested in the game.

Its also why Smallville is my favorite rpg.

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