Smallville: Party Conflict

Originally Published at on 2011-11-07.

I got a message on Obsidian Portal today from a user called DissenterKnight. He found my Gotham Nights page and wrote to me. I’ve included his message so you can see what he said. I wrote a pretty lengthy response and I wanted to share it with all of you too. I talk a bit about getting into Smallville (a story I’m sure you’re all very familiar with), a bit about party-conflict in gaming, and the strengths of Smallville. I also do some shameless promotions for good measure. Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.

DissenterKnight wrote:

I just tripped over your Batman RPG using Cortex Plus and I’m a huge fan just from what I’ve read. I love it.

How do you find the Smallville system works? I’ve purchased it (Origins last year), but I’m concerned that a system designed to put players in tension -if not outright conflict- might have some issues. Maybe it’s to many years at a D&D table chant the mantra of “never split the party… inter-party conflict kills…”

Thanks. I’m really proud of this game. It’s one of my longer running campaigns and it’s been a ton of fun to run. We just did the first session in No Man’s Land (Assuming you’re semi-familiar with Batman storylines) and it was a blast.

Anyway, so funny story about how we picked up Smallville. My friends and I have been doing an RPG podcast for the last the years. At one point we went off on how absolutely shitty Cortex is. We hated Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Supernatural. I’ll spare you the details, but we spend a good half-hour just ripping these games apart. After the episode released I got an e-mail from Cam Banks, the head designer for Leverage and Smallville. Turns out he’s a big fan of the show and wanted us to take a look at the games he was responsible for. He promised us they were different than the old Cortex game and send us free PDFs of the games. I took them and filed them away laughing. I hate the Smallville TV show and Cortex so why would I read this? Skip ahead five or six months and a friend of mine wanted to run a “Superheroes in High School” game. We tossed around ideas for systems and I jokingly mentioned Smallville. Later that night I actually pulled up the PDF and scanned it, hoping for some content we could lift from the game. I ended up reading over the whole game and just being blow away. I encouraged my friends to read the game and they loved it too. Next episode, we apologized to Cam and became some of the biggest supporters for MWP and Cortex around.

So, back to you question. Personally, I like how the Smallville system works. I’m a fan of party conflict but most games don’t handle it very well. Smallville’s system makes it rewarding to argue with other players. If you just remind everyone that they can’t ever lose control of their characters, most players have no problem with it.

One of the biggest strengths about a party-conflict style game is the overall level of player interaction. Instead of one player arguing with the GM’s NPC while everyone else sits there and listens, you get two players talking between each other. A good GM can spin the game to get all of the players talking amongst themselves, everyone in the game interacting with the story. No one sitting there, waiting for their turn.

See, the D&D Anti-Party Conflict mentality tends to stem from how that system handles arguments. If I’m the Rogue and I want the Fighter to do what I say, I roll Bluff or Diplomacy. If I roll high enough, the Fighter has to believe me. I got a 47 on my Bluff check, you loose. The mechanics take away the opposing player’s free will.

In Smallville if I want you to do what I say we have a conflict. If you don’t Give In, you never have to do what I say. Arguments become more about whats at stake. If you really don’t want to do something, another player can’t FORCE you to go along. However, if you’re on the fence and the other player picks up dice… You can just give in.

That said, most players still shy away from party conflict. It’s been breed into us after years and years of traditional gaming. Don’t split the party. Don’t argue. It’s PCs vs. GM. Even in my Gotham game I tend to find the players working together more than working against each other. The system handles that fairly well but it’s not the real strength of the game. If you’re looking for more of a Us vs. Them superheros game, I’d say keep your eyes open for when MWP’s Marvel game comes out. We’ve been in the playtest for it and it’s more “party” focused than Smallville. It’s also really good.

I’d say give Smallville a try. It won’t be for everyone but it does some really interesting stuff. Plus, the Pathways system is a ton of fun by itself. It also takes some of the heavy lifting from the GM, which is always a good thing. Honestly, I can’t say enough good stuff about Smallville.

Anyway, if you have any questions about specifics feel free to ask. You can check out our podcast too ( and we talk about Smallville from time to time.


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