Friday, June 11, 2010

Margaret Weis Productions Releasing Smallville RPG at Gen Con


Margaret Weis Productions is quickly becoming the West End Games of the 21st Century -- and that is a good thing.

In the 1980s, West End Games went from a publisher of war games and board games. Among their early titles were Campaigns of Napoleon, Operation Badr, and Killer Angels on the "war gaming" side, and Junta and Bug Eyed Monsters on the "board gaming" side. In the mid-80s, West End Games acquired the license to make official Star Trek based board, war, and role playing games. They weren't the first company to get the Star Trek license, but they were the first company to create consistently high quality products based on an existing license. Star Trek itself had been licensed as an RPG product prior to the West End license, but that product lacked the combination of high production value and quality mechanics that West End brought to the table.

Following on the Star Trek license the company acquired a license for a Ghostbusters role playing game, and the rpg they published for that game secured their reputation. So secure was their reputation that they eventually landed the grand daddy of all rpg licenses -- Star Wars and the game they produced was a masterpiece. To this day it stands as the gold standard for adaptation of a licensed property into a role playing game. The Star Wars mechanics were an adaptation of the Ghostbusters d6 system, one of the cornerstone rules sets for players who prefer "cinematic" role playing games over "mechanics."

The list of licensed properties that West End created games for grew and grew, and they maintained their consistent quality, but changes in the gaming market like the explosion of Magic: the Gathering, the d20 explosion, and the loss of the Star Wars license conspired to bring the company down. It took a while for the company to completely peter out, and you can still find a small pulse out there somewhere, but peter out it did.

When West End's reign as the king of licensed rpgs ended, there was no clear leader in the field. Several companies had licensed properties. Wizards of the Coast had Star Wars. Decipher had Star Trek and Lord of the Rings (the movies only). All of which are/were good products based on "mainstream" intellectual properties, but none of which fired the imagination in the way that West End Games' Star Wars line did.

The death of West End left a hole in the marketplace for a company to emerge as a leader in creating adaptations of "mainstream" intellectual properties.

Green Ronin is earning a reputation as a skilled creator of licensed games, but prior to their recent acquisition of the DC Comics license their properties had been more niche than mainstream. As much as I love George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, it's a fantasy series and not a television series/movie.

It appeared that Eden Studios, with their Buffy, Angel, and Army of Darkness games might have become the next true successor to West End, but these hopes fizzled with their City of Heroes license.

Margaret Weis Productions, on the other hand, seems to be acquiring license after license and publishing quality product after quality product. The first licensed game they produced was Serenity based on Joss Whedon's film of the same name -- and which takes place in the Firefly universe. The game was well put together and well received. This was followed by a Battlestar Galactica game and an excellent game based on the Supernatural television series. All three of these games use some variation of Margaret Weis Productions' in house "Cortex" gaming system. The "Cortex" system is a cinematic system, in the tradition of West End's old d6 system, and bears some similarities to the excellent Savage Worlds game system. Not enough similarities that one would accuse MWP of lifting another system, but both systems are easy to learn and use "steps" of dice to signify attributes/skills. The similarities, and the quality of products, likely contributed to their ability to acquire the license for a Leverage based game. The fact that John Rogers, the creator of Leverage, is a big gaming geek couldn't have hurt either.

What is remarkable about this list of licenses is that they come from a variety of networks and companies. Serenity is Joss Whedon/Fox, mostly Joss Whedon due to the status of that IP. Battlestar Galactica is NBC Universal. Supernatural is a CW property (CBS and Warner Bros.), and Leverage is a TNT show (Turner). All of the properties have "geek street cred," but all of them also have audiences outside the gaming community.

This summer, MWP will be adding Smallville to the list of games it produces. According to MWP, the game will use a variation of their in house Cortex system -- but with some key changes:

We've had a few questions regarding if we'll be using the Cortex system for Smallville. The answer is we'll be using an updated version now called
Cortex Plus. It focuses on Values (what's important to you) and Relationships (who is important to you). Powers, training, etc. are Assets you can add
into your rolls when appropriate.

Smallville will use d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12. Many of the game elements are the same but fixed difficulties are gone, replaced by opposed rolls. We feel it's a super fit (sorry for the pun) for this line of product!

The focus on "Values" and "Relationships" demonstrates a desire by Line Developer Cam Banks -- and the writers working on Smallville -- to highlight the interpersonal relationships of the characters over combat situations. Stressing interpersonal relationships in superhero rpgs is an important, but often overlooked element of the emulation of the subject matter. One of the innovations of the "Marvel Method" was the incorporation of personal relationships with "real life" stakes attached. Marvel's genius was in combining Teen Romance comic narratives with superhero action. Some roleplaying games -- like Capes, TSRs Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP), Mayfair's DC Heroes -- have internal risk/reward systems that facilitate non-combat role play. Other games -- like Champions and Mutants and Masterminds -- encourage and allow for personal interactions, but lack a robust mechanic specifically designed to encourage such interactions.

About a year ago, Cam Banks blogged some initial thoughts regarding the development of an independent RPG called Superteam. The game would have been a superhero role playing game that was structured around team dynamics and team-member interdependence, inspired by comics like Teen Titans and the X-Men. Sadly, Bank's posts on the topic faded and I had lost hopes of seeing some of his ideas regarding the proper design of a superhero RPG.

Thankfully, he is working on the Smallville project and we'll get to see some of his ideas there. I would still like to see where he was going with Superteam, but I eagerly await Smallville.

MWP is offering free pdfs of their Supernatural rpg to anyone who pre-orders Smallville.

I'm wondering if one can pre-order and request to pick up the game at Gen Con rather than to have the game shipped.
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