When left to my own devices, I generally run “character-based” campaigns that follow a drama television series model. They tend to focus on a single location such as a seaside town, a city, a feudal manor, or a starship, and involve numerous interactions between player characters and a supporting cast. It’s little wonder, then, that I’d eventually find my way to the Smallville roleplaying game.

The details of my particular campaign don’t matter (it centers on Gotham City for those of you that are curious), but one of the things that makes Smallville different from many RPGs is the Pathways system of character creation. In a nutshell, you put your PC on a large piece of paper with other PCs and, over the course of the session, draw relationships amongst the PCs as well as NPCs and particular locations. If you’re using pure mechanics, all of these relationships, NPCs, and locations are left up to the players to design and tweak as they go along.

At first glance, I was reminded of the career paths of Traveller, the lifepaths of Mekton, or the 20 questions of Shadowrun, but a key difference is that, rather than focus on a particular PC’s life story, all of the players have a say in how the party was formed. Connections are established between not only the players, but also significant people and places. A player may discover that her mentor is the uncle of another player, or that the coffee shop she goes to every morning for her mint mocha is a frequent hangout of another player’s rival.

It struck me that, with minor adjustments, the Pathway system would work well for other RPGs. Setting aside Smallville‘s mechanical bits, the relationships are a treasure trove for a GM. Knowing how your players are connected to each other up front, as well as what NPCs or places are most important to them, is invaluable when crafting your adventures.

From the player’s perspective, the Pathways system allows them to shape and develop their characters’ stories and enables them to share them with the other players in an organic way. It’s also much easier for a GM to follow a few arrows and quick relationship statements rather than mine through a 14-page backstory for bits to integrate into the campaign.

A Pathways system can also help spot when a player’s concept doesn’t match the execution. To use an example from my game, one player offered a concept of a genius-level PC interested in engineering, only to go through the pathways designing a martial arts master. Obviously there was a disconnect here, and one that was spotted before we started playing and discovering that she’d created a combat monster while struggling in any engineering situation (her supposed specialty).

Even Smallville‘s Values (core beliefs, such as justice, love, and truth) could be adapted in other RPGs to help shape character development. A player professing a desire to be an old-school fantasy paladin is going to raise eyebrows if she never puts much stock in truth or justice and every connection she’s made is to a shady NPC or location. Given that Smallville allows for a “life-changing event,” it’s possible that the paladin had a shady past until something recent put her on the straight and narrow; how this affects her old relationships is fodder for future adventures. It’s equally possible that the player realizes her paladin idea was a bad fit and crafts a more suitable profession.

While Pathways likely work better for campaigns that model television shows, they can also help shape backstories in traditional RPG campaigns. Rather than “you all meet in a tavern,” you could have players develop a web of relationships that detail why the PCs travel together and what people and events shaped them. The fallout from old battles or enemies from the past could return to haunt the PCs, and it’s more satisfying to bring back an NPC that they’d developed over the course of PC generation rather than use expository fiat to establish a previous relationship.

This is one way to build a relationship web that unites PCs. Do you do something similar? Have you tried something similar in the past? How did it work? Would you find something like this useful?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

7 Responses to Driftwood: Relationship Pathways

  1. I’m not sure on the specifics of the Smallville system, but this sounds vaguely similar to something I attempted last year with an M&M game. It was a low-key supers game where the PCs were the first to develop powers in a world that hadn’t seen them before, so I didn’t want to tie the PCs down to tightly.

    What we ended up doing was creating the characters together with a requirement that each character have one major and one minor connection to the other PCs. Once the players were all at the table, it was easy enough to establish the links. One PC was another PC’s mechanic, another a girlfriend’s co-worker, another a cousin, another was old college roommates, and so on. With those connections, that might normally mean nothing, once things started happening in the game, they came together really easily.

  2. Well, the core belief may not be very cyberpunk, but due to the setting I’m creating, I think I could use the relationship pathways. One of my biggest inspiration draws for my next campaign is warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan comic book series, mainly the setting of the City. The time I’ve been putting into making it into a city that can be easily sand boxed also means I have a bunch of relationships that could be ready to go pretty quick. http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=206

    I think I’ll be chatting with my players about possibly using this idea. thanks boss

  3. I found the character creation and relationship pathways of Smallville to be an utter disaster. While character instinctively create relationships during play, and I think it’s an excellent idea to contruct some kind of links between the PC and NPC of a campaign early, I thought turning this aspect of play into overly-complicated mechanics was unnecessary.

    Granted, I also didn’t expect an RPG that modeled the experience of writer’s on a soap opera, plotting relationship maps as the (apparent) main form of fun. It seems to do that quite well.

  4. Again, I recommend Fiasco! as a research tool.

    • With everything I keep hearing about fiasco, I really should think about picking a copy up. I seem to remember that Table Top played it, but the idea of watching a role playing game being played wasn’t my idea of fun.

      • That particular Tabletop episode is actually pretty fantastic. It’s not only nice to see an unusual game in action, but see how other roleplayers work their creativity into it. It’s also a good bit to show someone unfamiliar with RPGs and say, “This.”

  5. I love character webs, especially among PCs. Stop me if I’ve told you about this campaign too many times: One of my favorite games was a Mage: the Ascension game where each player built in a link to two other characters. When they encountered something disturbing, they called for help and it felt natural as the calls rippled irregularly through the PCs.

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