Thursday, May 9, 2013

Smallville


5.5 Starling Nurse Adventures on TV!

In 2011 I had a chance to test out the Smallville RPG character/campaign creation system.

Here’s a brief description: the game tries to emulate the form of a televised soap opera, both in terminology (the PCs are Leads, NPCs are Extras or Features based on whether they are important to one Lead or more than one) and in scenario design (GMs are advised to design episodes based on wedges that stress the Leads relationships to each other). Character and Campaign creation are a simultaneous group affair in which the players define their Leads as they define all of the resources (locations, Extras and Features) the lead can draw on, with other players linking to those resources or defining relationships between resources and Leads. Creation takes place along a lifepath where each stage gets mapped by each player allowing for some general character improvements along with a predetermined number of resources or links draw onto the butcher paper holding the relationship web.


Tom, Jim & I opted to use Doc Toltec, Jim’s Doc Savage meets Theosophical Atlantis hero discussed here previously, as we all knew his general mythos and supporting cast. We had discussed doing something totally new but the consensus was that the mechanics lent themselves to settings where the players already had a grasp on the general mythos. I may be wrong, and it might be worth doing a second experiment.

In any event, we set the Leads as Doc Toltec, Nurse Betty, Dr. Raymond Robinson and Ralph Crabtree (who are best friends at this point, for a good love triangle). We know that some experiment gone awry will sent the 21st C heroes back to Atlantis, Doc decided to accompany them to the present, and they arranged him a modern identity. This would be the first 4-6 episodes, and we just took it as writ those will happen, and the character creation process would get us to that point.

I’m focusing more on the R-map more than anywhere else since all the rest is a standard lifepath system. Jim is doing Doc, Tom is doing Raymond and I’m handling both Betty and Ralph, since we’re short a player.

Step 1: Draws a Square for your Lead, arrows between all the Leads, one Extra (a circle) and an arrow from their Lead to their Extra. They can chose to define the Extra’s arrow back to them (and hence the Extra’s view of their relationship with the Lead) as well, or leave it for someone else later.

Jim adds Bill Jackson, who in the original mythos is a black physician at the hospital. In the 21st century reboot I recommend that he be the UBE so we can avoid the ‘who has to play the hacker’ question. Jim defines Doc Toltec’s relationship to Bill as “friend of”, and Bill’s relationship back as “learns from” to emphasize the strength of Doc’s genius.

I add Liz Anderson, Betty’s Mom; the name is a nod to the 1980’s reboot of the character where the ageless Doc is now dating the daughter of the original, wartime Nurse Betty. I defined Betty’s relationship as “raised by” and the reciprocal relationship as “heals” – My intent is for Liz to be a focus of sanity in Betty’s life, who always helps her pick up the pieces. 

Tom adds Miss Willows, Raymond’s secretary; this is a wholly new character, and Tom does some early defining of Raymond in the relations – Raymond ‘employs’ Miss Willows, but she ‘has a crush on’ him, setting up nice Willows to Betty conflicts.

Finally I add Smithers, Ralph’s aide de camp, the looming, impressive butler. Again, Raymond ‘employs’ Smithers while Smithers ‘sees Raymond as family’. Both men are colder to their employees then the reverse, implying similar psyches.

Step 2: Everyone adds a diamond for a new location, an arrow from their Lead to the new location and an arrow from any of their resources to any other resource.

Jim added the Time Vault in Guatemala, where Doc stored all his inventions from Atlantis before the time shift and can now visit for high tech gear defining the relation as ‘invents at’. Not seeing a good place to connect anything Jim held off until more people made more resources.

I added East Side General (ESGH) for Betty, defining her relation to it as ‘works at’. I then defined Liz as being ‘former chief of nursing at’ ESGH. Again, this works to make young Betty a carbon copy of her mom, but in a less Reincarnation of Peter Proud sort of way. Jim now drew an arrow from Bill to ESGH with the legend of ‘works there’.

Tom considered making Raymond’s office a specific location inside ESGH, but opted for U-Chicago Medical School, for which Raymond is a ‘prominent alumni’. He then links Miss Willows to Bill Jackson with a ‘Flirts With’ relationship, but since he can only draw a one way arrow we don’t know how Bill feels about that (and it turns out we never define it…).

Finally, I added Crabtree Manor for Ralph, marked as ‘lives at’. I then connected Smithers not to Crabtree Manor but to the Time Vault, with the relations of ‘helps maintain’ This was the first of many steps of insinuating Ralph into everyone’s lives…and their advanced technology.

Step 3: Everyone draws an arrow from their Lead to an existing resource a new one. They then draw an arrow from any resource to any resource or Lead.

Jim creates a new extra, Johnny Deuce, a mobster who runs gambling houses - one of Doc’s best known foes who in the original series dies a heroic death - with the connection that Doc saved Deuce’s life. He then adds an arrow from Smithers to Doc saying that Smithers ‘helps out’ Doc, trying to mitigate some of the sting (and justify the connection) of Ralph having one step removed access to the Time Vault.

I draw draws an arrow from Betty to Bill Jackson with the relationship ‘gets help from’; this moves Bill from an Extra to a Feature, meaning that he’s now important enough to merit a character sheet and an appearance in the title credits. (This appears as a shadowing of his circle on the map). I then drew a connection from ESGH to Doc with the label ‘works at’ – this cements Doc’s position, but since he doesn’t have an arrow to the hospital it doesn’t count as a resource, so he gets no mechanical benefit from being there.

Tom draws an arrow from Raymond to ESGH, with the legend ‘administrator at’, then one from Miss Willow to Liz, stating that his secretary ‘Gossips’ with Betty’s mom. This makes perfect sense and further ties the extras together.

Finally I add an arrow from Ralph to Miss Willow, saying that the playboy also ‘gossips with’ Raymond’s secretary, as at this point I’m seeing his playboy nature as being a lot of social engineering and glad handing. Miss Willows also elevates to Feature status, with her own shadowed circle. An arrow from ESGH indicating that Ralph is ‘on board of’ completes this round and makes sure that everyone is tied to that locale.

Step 4: Draw an arrow from any resource to any Lead.

Jim draws a line from U-Chicago Med to Ralph, indicating that Ralph is a donor to the school.

I draw a line from Bill to Ralph indicating that Ralph once fired Bill from a job, for unknown reasons.

Tom draws a line from Bill to Raymond, indicating that Bill owes Raymond his job at ESGH

Finally I draw a line from Johnny Deuce to Ralph, saying that the mobster does occasional work for Ralph.

This step is the last one before the ‘life changing event’, and really serves to link the Leads to one another’s resources before the map gets too complicated.

Step 5: Everyone draws an arrow from their Lead to an existing resource or creates a new one. They then draw an arrow from any resource to any Lead. You can drop a resource to replace it with a new one or step up an old one.

Jim adds a Hermetic Bookshop, to capture Doc’s occult side, with an arrow showing that Doc is a ‘HabituĂ© of’. He then draws the relationship from Johnny Deuce to Betty indicating that he ‘lusts after’ her. Bondage scenes await!

I add a new location of Mom’s Apartment for Betty, with the relation that she lives there and it shelters her. I have informed the others that I see Liz and her apartment as how Betty tries to avoid her weirdness magnet life. They promptly begin to sabotage this. I also draw a relationship back from Johnny Deuce to Doc, saying the mobster wants to employ/ get respect from Doc, giving them viable hero/foil relations.

Tom adds an Extra, Jack Meadows, as Raymond’s research assistant. Raymond ‘employs’ Jack, but we never define how Jack feels about his boss. Then, beginning the sabotage, Tom draws a line from Liz’s Apartment to Ralph, indicating that the playboy has the place under surveillance. Since Ralph just picked up an attribute that lets him put anywhere under video surveillance this makes sense, but it does mean that Betty’s shelter is already compromised.

Finally, I add Theoretical Energy Labs (TEL), the home of the ill-conceived lab experiment of the week, as being under Ralph’s ownership. I then link Miss Willow to Betty as a rival. Finally, drop the relation with Miss Willow for Ralph to boost the TEL – it worked when he was just a playboy, but Ralph has emerged as something else, a technocratic, venture capitalist manipulator. In that frame gossiping with his friend’s secretary is just…petty. I’m not sure if this means that Miss Willow goes back to being an extra, but since Tom had boosted her as a ‘relationship’ rather than a ‘resource’ for Raymond earlier we decide she stays as a Feature.

Step 6: Everyone draws an arrow from their Lead to an existing resource or creates a new one. They then draw an arrow from any resource to any Lead or resource.

Now Jim changes the center of gravity – he creates Count Schrek as a resource for Doc. Schrek is another old Doc villain, a vampire mobster (fusing the two strands of his enemies, mobsters and monsters). Jim draws a line saying that Doc is hunting Schrek, then a line from Schrek to Ralph, indicating that the vampire wants to get the techno-venture capitalist under his thrall. Suddenly we have our big bad, or at least an outside force that give the Leads a common enemy, and the rest of the map will show that.

I add the Talon Gym for Betty, where she brushes up on her martial arts (as the post reboot Betty is a bit of a badass) and can also use as a bulwark. To complicate things I then draw a link from Schrek to the Hermetic Bookshop, making him also a habituĂ© of the place – the hope is for some “holy ground, Highlander!” moments where Doc and Schrek meet.

Tom adds Dot Simmons, Raymond’s college friend now Chicago’s ME, and links her to Schrek in that she is investigating the vampire killings.

Finally, I add Oroboros Medical for Ralph, which he secretly owns, and sets it to hunting Schrek as well. While the vampire isn’t a feature, he’s still very connected to things.

Step 7: Everyone draws an arrow from their Lead to an existing resource or creates a new one. They then draw an arrow from any resource to any Lead or Resource.

Jim links Doc back to ESGH, gaining the hospital as a resource. He also completes the subversion of Liz being an island of safety by drawing a relationship from her to the Hermetic Bookshop – apparently she owns the place! Fine! We all agree that Betty’s life changing event – the ‘accident’ that killed her father and ended her sports career – was in fact a vampire attack of some sort.

I add the Sewers as a location, giving the link of Betty of ‘inevitably chased through’ – this is a bit of a cheat to get a necessary location on the map, which we shouldn’t just randomly add to. Unfortunately the sewers are an oft visited place in Doc Toltec stories, so I wanted them in there. For my other arrow I indicate that Count Schrek also lusts after Betty, turning Jim’s joke into a running gag.

Tom links Raymond to Oroboros Labs, indicating that he is a consultant there, which makes sense – naturally he doesn’t know about ‘Lab 3.14’ or whatever the really secret wing is, but Ralph would make sure his genius doctor friend would be a resource for his medical labs, even if it is at arm’s length. Tom also gives Johnny Deuce controlling interest in the Talon, meaning that Betty is running out of normal places.

Finally I add Ralphs’ Security Detail as a resource – I had originally pictured Smithers as serving that role, but no one else linked to him to make him a Feature and, hey, Ralph has vampires hunting him! He needs security! I advance what I started with Betty by linking Count Schrek to the Sewers.

Step 8: Add an arrow back to any Lead

Jim draws a line from Dot to Doc, marking that the M.E. is suspicious of the Atlantean Toltec.

Giving in, I draw a relationship from Liz to Doc, showing how she offers Doc ‘tea and sympathy’ via the bookshop.

Tom draws a line from Dot to Betty, indicating that the M.E. ‘borrows’ Betty from time to time to assist her work. This is mostly a way to get nosey Betty into the M.E.s office.

Finally, I draw a line from Jack Meadows, who has been pretty much absent so far, to Betty, continuing the running gag of people who lust after her.

Step 9: add an arrow from any resource to any resource or Lead. Switch out any resource on your sheet for any new or existing resource. Remove your link to a resource to step up another existing resource. 

Jim draws an arrow connecting the Sewers to the Talon, seeing the potential for creepy camera angle ‘the monsters are watching you’ moments for Betty and her friends.

I get around to noting that Liz lives at Liz’s Apartment, and then sever Betty’s connection with the Sewers, which existed only to get the Sewers on the map, and drew an arrow from her to the M.E., turning Dot into a Feature. 

Tom connects the Sewers to Oroboros Medical, giving the Vamps access to the building. Gee, thanks Tom. Tom also notes the change of Dot being a Feature on his sheet.

Finally, I draw a counter line from Oroboros back to the Sewers showing that the experimental medical labs have the sewers under surveillance.

And that finishes up the R-Map! The only thing left is defining the Relationships between the Leads and Features which will drive the game forward

Doc’s: Betty is my secret love; Raymond is an admirable man; Ralph can be trusted with my secrets; Bill is a steadfast friend.

Betty’s: Doc is the hope of the future; Raymond is the one I’m waiting for; Ralph will always be there for me (i.e. he’s her fallback guy); Bill is an unappreciated genius; Dot helps gives victims justice.

Raymond’s: Doc is a strong ally; he’s awfully fond of Betty; Ralph is his best friend; Miss Willows is reliable; Dot is a hard core professional.

Ralph: Doc is a powerful asset; Betty will be my crown jewel; Raymond is a genius who needs to be nurtured.

In this incarnation Doc is a little less sure of himself (at least, not yet) and is torn with his secret love for Betty vs. her love for Raymond, but he’s still clearly Doc, working as a surgeon in ESGH while being drawn into the world of mobsters and monsters that he will ultimately move to clean up (and that will produce the monster of the week episodes).

Nurse Betty, on the other hand, retains her 80’s reboot badassossity with her martial arts training but is also the one whose drive to find out what made her patients sick (i.e. the monster of the week) also makes her a field investigator. Still, it’s entirely possible to see the original Nurse romance comic in Betty’s tangled emotional mess of waiting for Raymond to notice her as she fends off the advances of other men, which can easily drive many episodes (some with her being tied up).

Raymond, originally just a surgeon, then a two fisted anti-Nazi adventurer, is now re-envisioned as a medical genius and tech wizard, building new healing technologies between rounds and paperwork at ESGH – new methods convenient to what-ever new monster menace has cropped up, or whatever odd medical case has been transferred to him at ESHG. It’s just as easy to see Startling Nurse Adventures as a modern medical drama, albeit one with supernatural elements, and in that vein Raymond is clearly the hero.

Ralph has yet another transformation, starting as a playboy competitor for Betty’s affections, then a Nazi saboteur, and finally a full-bore madman super-villain, he’s now a bored millionaire venture capitalist who funded whatever science caught his eye (and worked to aid the career of his childhood best friend Raymond, an unsurpassed medical genius) altered by the discovery of Theosophical Atlantis and the potential for replicating its sciences to uplift humanity. Now he will push, manipulate, wheedle, threaten and ignore safety protocols in a drive to create a better world. Of course, he should end up in a prominent position in this new world, with the lovely Betty at his side, but that’s only right and proper….

Bill Jackson, a Feature, Betty and Doc’s IT resource for the inevitable computer research. He’s also a good wedge point between Ralph and Raymond (one fired him, the other brought him in) and as a friend for Doc and Betty (Betty thinks he’s a genius, Bill knows that Doc is a genius). As a GM viewing the scenario I’d likely drop the Bill Meadows character in favor of Bill being Raymond’s research assistant, in part due to the law of conservation of NPCs but also because the inventor-doctor Raymond could use good tech support.

Miss Willow, another Feature, will be less important than we originally thought, but she’s still an expert on the bureaucracy of ESHG and a cog in that noble institution’s confused machinery of love. It’s possible that she might play a Cordelia-style role as the acerbic deliverer of painful truths.

Dot Simmons, the final Feature, provides a nice role as an outside investigator for internal mysteries and a provider of the mystery of the week. Her suspicion of Doc – in part because he is wandering into the criminal underworld and in part because he is so clearly alien – means that we can have a few episodes of Doc being a suspect in the mystery of the week

To keep with the mythos direction we figure Raymond will die around season 3-4, with Bill being the new 4th lead. After Raymond’s death Ralph starts to slip further into his grandiose plans, especially when Doc, not himself, becomes the focus of Betty’s affections. By the end of season 5 he’s gone round the twist and is a full bore villain, with Doc a major hero, filling Raymond’s shoes as well as his own.