Today, I bring you a review of The Smallville RPG by Margaret Weis Productions. The folks over at Margaret Weis were generous enough to provide me with a review copy of the game (just getting that out of the way). I have always been a pretty big fan of Superman; I love the movies, the Lois & Clark TV Show, and I am a really, really big fan of the Smallville TV Show. I own pretty much all of the box sets, except of course for the 10th and final season which doesn’t hit shelves until October.
The Smallville RPG is an interesting game to try to figure out. It is really hard to place it into any single category of RPG, which makes it a bit tough to explain and also to review. The game is certainly falls into the Superheroes genre since in it you get to take make your own and play one with a bunch of friends. However, the game is also a TV Show simulation built on relationship drama. However, I think this game really fits best into the niche of Superheroes in Training games. Maybe you play a full-fledged cape sporting crime fighter, but it’s more likely that the path you take in the game is leading towards that in the end game.
So let’s take a look at the Good and the Bad of the game and then I’ll wrap up with some random thoughts.
The core game book is very pretty. It’s filled with lots of full color images from the show so chances are you have probably seen all these shots before if you actually watch it on TV. The game uses the Cortex system, which can be a bit complicated to grasp, but when you boil it down, it works pretty easily. As a simulation of the TV show, I think this game excels. Although the show is very much about Superman as he grows up, it doesn’t really focus too much on the Superhero aspect too much. Instead, this game is about developing relationships and playing them out to their logical or sometimes very illogical conclusions. The game is designed for 4 players and character creation is done as a group; you develop a complex web of relationships as you build your character from start to finish. These relationships become very important to your character and provide you bonuses throughout the game. This is really a great reflection of how the show works; Smallville, the TV show, has always been much more about relationship drama than anything else.
As far as the bad goes, I hate to say but I had several complaints with the system and the book. As a story telling game which focuses on the life of a hero as he or she gets super, the game falls a bit flat in several areas. It doesn’t seem to me like the game would work all that well as a general Superheroes based game. I haven’t played a lot of them, but if it were me, I’d probably want a bit more of a focus on all the superpowers and see those powers work more mechanically in the game. In this RPG the powers behind the superhero take a bit of a backseat. Relationships are clearly at the center of this game. You really need a bunch of friends in order to play this; I really couldn’t see playing this game with less than 4-5 people. Don’t look to this game if you are trying to play some generic supers game. I just don’t see it working very well in that way.
This game is kind of a mixed bag. Depending on what you want to use it for, it might be perfect. As a story-telling game focusing on simulation of a licensed television show, the game works great. If you like the Smallville TV show and want to play a game which is very closely based on it, than you have found the game you are looking for. If you want to play a Supers game, you might want to look somewhere else. There are a lot of other Supers games out there and this one might not be the one for you.
I think this whole RPG brings up a very interesting discussion about simulation in RPG’s in relationship to licensed products, especially Television shows. There are lots of them out there; Margaret Weis also put out the Leverage RPG, based on that hit show; I’ll be doing a review of that here in a week or two as well. But the problem with these type of games is the question of what you are actually trying to simulate. If the attempt to simulate a particular show goes so deep as to limit its usability, it might not be such a great game. But, if the game system is open enough, it could be a very good game. I think the big issue is getting tired of what you’re playing. I think I would have a lot of fun playing Smallville, since I like the show, but at the end of the day, I don’t really know what else I would use it for. Overall, I’d give the game about a 4 out of 5. It works great as a Simulation of the Smallville TV show and might even work pretty well if you were playing origin stories for other superheroes; but, if you are trying to play as the full-fledged man of steel, you probably want to pick up something else.
Isn't simulating the TV show the point of the game? Is it even attempting to be a more generic superheroes game? I think it may not, and isn't it a bit unfair to criticize a game for something that it quite explicity doesn't try to be? It's like saying D&D isn't such a great game because it doesn't handle Spaceship combat all that well.
Many (if not most) modern indie rpgs try to fill a certain niche or simulate a very specific type of story or conflict. While Smallville isn't exactly an indie game, I think it does something similar. I believe we should try to take step back from judging rpgs based on how broadly applicable they are.
Caveat: I haven't actually played or even read Smallville itself, just some reviews of it.
Thanks for the review… While I like the Cortex system, and liked the Firefly game, the other games they’ve put out with it have not really interested me. Case and point with Smallville. I have watched the series, loved some episodes, but I have no interest on playin it. The review only confirmed this to me…
But by the same token I see the potential for games like this to attract a new audience into the fold. Looking forward to the Leverage review.
I've not had a chance to study this game yet, but the podcost show Jennisodes had an interesting interview with a pair of writers/developers from the company about turning properties like Smallville into games. I'm not defending any failures in the game, but the episode is interesting.
I think you kind of have to judge this game based on it being a Supers style of RPG, if nothing except for the fact that you are playing Superheroes (at least most of the time) when you are playing this game. The rules also make it clear that you are encouraged to make your own "Leads" (probably superhero characters) and play the game that way. It even mentions not playing the game in the actual Superman universe, but going outside of Smallville and Metropolis as well. All this leads me to believe that the game wants to be, at least in some way, a game abuot Supers. I feel like it has to be judged that way at least a little bit because of it; that being said, I didn't really detract much because I thought the game lacked in that respect. I still think it is a solid game that definitely fills the niche that it is mainly designed for.
My recent post Review- Smallville RPG @ Stargazers World
I should probably note that SMALLVILLE is intended to be a game about relationship drama with super hero trappings, rather than a supers game with relationship mechanics. It really is ideally suited to modeling any young adult TV drama, and I've had folks tell me they're using it for such diverse properties as ROSWELL, ROME, THE TUDORS, and even GLEE. In other words, it really isn't a supers game, but a game about characters who have conflicting ambitions, passionate goals, and complex relationships with one another. In other words, most ensemble TV relationship drama shows. 🙂
Thanks for clearing that up Cam! with that in mind, I would definitely say that the game does very well. I could certainly see using this game to play the shows that you mentioned above. I would love to try running a game of MAD MEN with it. I think that could definitely work as well. Thanks for commenting!
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