Smallville and Shock : tabletop storytelling games come to the library blog
South-east Queensland is, perhaps surprisingly given its usual depiction as a place of sun and beer, one of the great centres of gamer culture in the world. A capstone of the gamer year for the last couple has been GenCon Oz, which wasn’t staged this year for various reasons. Small groups of people filled that vacuum with a series of events scattered across Brisbane. What I’d like you to imagine is a semi-spontaneous community arts event. Imagine if Big Day Out were cancelled and various music fans decided “Now, I’m not going to let that wreck my weekend” so they hired venues, grabbed local bands, and decided to put on a show. Well, that was gaming in Brisbane last weekend, and during one of the nodal events, I presented some seminars on research for writers, and read a few game rulebooks. On Bookcoasters we talk about all kinds of books, so I’m going to review them.
Smallville is an interesting game, structurally. It takes its name from the Superman-related TV series which seems to flicker on and off one of the major channels. I can’t keep up with its times, and so I just tend to watch the DVDs from the library. Anyhow, this game design has a couple of novel features.
In most games, the player’s character has a series of skills, and uses a dice roll against those skills to determine success in actions. In Smallville, and this is rather clever, the character instead has a series of emotional ties to things, and the stronger the tie, the easier the roll. This means that in a conventional game, the characters likelihood of, say picking a lock, is a fixed number altered by environmental factors. In Smallville, the characters chance of picking the lock is determined instead by why they are picking the lock. Now, this is a little strange for highly simulationist play, because people really don’t get worse at things when their loved ones are not at risk, and better if someone is threatening to burn down their house, but in terms of representing an ensemble TV show’s plotlines, I think as a mechanic it works admirably.
I also find is campaign design mechanic interesting. Many games now have the idea of contractual play, where the players agree on the style of story they will tell. Smallville integrates this into character design with a relationship diagram that the players draw communally while designing their characters. The relationship diagram identifies significant supporting characters and key locations in the stories to be told, and works really well as a tool for communal interelaboration of characters.
All in all, a simple and elegant system that models its genre well, frames conflict well, and produces smooth and interesting play.
The actual game I played in is described in some detail on the LJ of the GM for that session.
Shock: social science fiction is a strange little game. It models hard science fiction tropes, by having the players agree that they will examine, in their stories, a particular sudden cultural shift (a shock) by each claiming a single issue related to that shock, suggested by one of the other players. The game is GMless (that is, it lacks a central co-ordinating player). Each player has scenes in turn, and each player also plays the antagonist of whomever is seated to his right. The game is very simple, mechanically: the players agree that two trait pairs represent the themes they are exploring, and players roll again a characters score in one of these four traits to perform any action that is opposed by their antagonist.
This means the game is effectively played as a series of vignettes, rather than as an ensemble story, although supporting characters and motifs do travel between the vignettes.
It’s a very enjoyable game, provided the player accepts in advance the premise, which is that the game is about how their character is changed, probably against his will, by the science fiction element that is being examined. This means that the game doesn’t have a strongly heroic premise.
I’d like to congratualte the many, many groups who threw together the various not-gencon projects last weekend. It showed an organisational skill and a dedication to their various facets of the hobby which was truly remarkable.