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Session #0: Promethean Institute

So, I’m gaming gain, and yesterday we had session zero of the new campaign: The Prometheus Institute. We’re using the Smallville role-playing system which focuses on the relationships being the core of the game, just like a TV show. Basically, as part of cold war activities and experiments, the Prometheans were created for espionage purposes. That was closed down only for the next generation to form the Prometheus Institute for the second generation. The HBO like series is the story of the key characters involved with the institute, their relationships and the issues surrounding the Promethians and wider society, celebrity, politics, etc.

What can I say about the Smallville character creation process? It’s brilliant, frustrating and, while not complex, they certainly make it more complicated than it probably needs to be. It’s like they’ve purposefully designed it to make it hard to predict. It’s not easy to take a design approach to it with outcomes in mind. You can walk through the process entirely if you have the time, but even this isn’t entirely possible as some of the elements you’d assign ‘raises’ to might only be present due to another player’s actions.

This means it’s a journey you have to strap yourself in for and accept what comes along.

The best you can do is have a broad destination in mind. It is an exercise in letting go on numerous levels, infinitely more so than a game like FATE, which also has collaborative character generation. The broad concept you wanted will no doubt win out, but lots of other stuff will be things you never predicted or elements you had in mind but they’ll have morphed and changed. In my case, both elements of my main protagonist changed (though the broad concept survived) and key characters, such as his childhood sweet heart, totally changed in background, purpose and in game relationship due to the collaborative nature of the process. Invariably the outcome is better, as it was in this case.

The brilliance of the process is undoubtedly the relationship map that is produced. Naturally I’d think this due to being a fan of relationship maps to design the narrative crucible since it was advocated as a central mechanism for the Sorcerer role-playing game. It’s worth the time invested. I’ve only done it twice in Smallville and each time it has produced a relationship map that was suffused with drama, intense relationships (with people and things) and narrative potential. Each time I’ve wanted to play the game afterwards. At least this time we’ll get to do it. You could de-construct the process and use it for other games. For instance, you could use the process to build the map but not assign any values to it as the values are implicit to Smallville. This would give you a relationship map to represent the narrative space just without the integration into the system. It would still make explicit that remain implicit at the table. In fact, building it before you start adding ‘stats’ to it may well be a better method for Smallville.

The best part, which really adding something new and rich to the game, was the creation of a relationship map for the previous generation of characters (the protagonists’ parents). This has created something akin to Heroes, in which the previous actions and future desires of the previous generation influences the lives of the current. We are going to have at least one flashback session to the 80’s. It’s also brilliant how the attitudes of one generation ‘cold war spies’ contrasts with that of the current ‘public facing institute’. This element, being it’s most unique one, could be the part of the game that creates something very powerful.

It’s still going to be an interesting journey as the system is so different. We’ve played similar things before, both Primetime Adventures and Duty & Honour have similar, broad elements in terms of their resolution mechanisms but we only played them for a session or two and neither has the razor focus on relationships. Playing such a system for our typical season length of circa 8 – 12 sessions is going to be something new and interesting. Considering the systems focus on Smallville as a show, it’s also going to be interesting to see how it transfers to the HBO-style.

It’s also probably wiped one campaign of my ‘to run’ list as Hollywood scale, neo-Silver Age, contemporary thriller superheroes might be way too similar to this. We shall see.

About Ian O'Rourke

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