Action and Ambitions – Hacking Smallville RPG

I’ve been eager to try hacking Smallville RPG for the anime/manga One Piece to match its distinct style of storytelling (alternating intense emotional engagement between hope and despair, victory and utter defeat). In the process I feel like I may have come very close to something I would want to use instead of 4e for my group’s regular D&D game.  I’m leaning away from the drama inherent in the SV Core, in favor of action and conflicting ambitions.

Furthermore,  Rob Donoghue is exploring the topic of Lateral Connections in RPGs lately, and the Ambition hack below might offer some interesting lateral opportunities in play to mirror the interconnectedness of One Piece conflicts, without the outright inter-player conflicts of Smallville.


In One Piece, Ambitions are more powerful than anything, and growth happens as you have to fight hard to keep them from being thwarted by others.

Also, Locations don’t matter, since chars are always on their ships or on various islands in the world of seas and islands. The point is to progress and not sit still.

Thus I’m replacing Locations with Ambitions which work the same way Locations do, except you use them when you’re defending your Ambition. They will work differently in conflict but I’ll get to that. Whenever Pathways lets you add or increase a Location, you add or increase an Ambition instead. Other players can buy into each others’ ambitions (and are encouraged to do so) just as multiple people can have a Location on their sheet. When Pathways says “Increase a Resource” you can increase an ambition, but not when it says “Increase a Resource, Asset, or relationship.”

The Rub: Using Ambitions for Lateral Dynamics

Whenever you take Stress in a Test/Contest that threatens one of your Ambitions, you add a die to the Ambition Resource. The more stress you take, the more powerful your ambition becomes.

Furthermore, when the GM/opponent rolls a 1, you can allow another character (not yourself) to recover one step of one Stress trait. This way, a character can take tons of stress in the narrative, but still keep getting up and actually get very strong in their ambitions, with support from their allies. Even with strong ambition, a character with d12 stress that doesn’t Give In is risking death.

The Growth Pool consists primarily of the number and size of Ambition dice gained (or Ambition dice used maybe?) but also less often of challenged Values and Relationships as normal in SV rules.

Relationships and Stats

Relationships matter but not as much as in SV, so I’m going to compromise them with more standard stats:

In addition to Values, characters have Stats: (Force, Grace, Insight, Resolve, Panache)

Whenever Pathways lets you increase a Relationship, you can choose to increase a Stat instead (some chars will have lots of strong relationships, others will have strong Stats)

For every roll (Tests, Contests, everything), players/GM choose 2 primary dice most relevant to the situation chosen from among Values, Relationships, and Stats. They cannot use the third even if it applies. So a fight action may include Force+Justice, or it might be Force+Luffy, or even Luffy+Justice.

Alternatives and Considerations in Including Stats

Does this give players too many choices so they have little reason to use smaller dice? Should I have rolls always use Stats plus either a Value or a Relationship? DainXB suggested only allowing access to using Relationships when your character has had Stress of the Relationships die size or higher, drawing on emotional power that may exceed personal power when the chips are down.


No Trouble pool, but rather Complications like in Leverage. Abilities that add to the Trouble Pool, instead let the GM create Complications, or hold that size Complication in reserve for an better opportunity.


What do you think of this? They are pretty drastic changes, but I’m very intrigued by what they allow, and may perfectly fit the style of play we prefer in our D&D game, and it definitely seems to fit One Piece’s storytelling style. I ran halfway through Pathways with a friend yesterday and it seemed to work wonderfully. We made it to Life-changing Event and already had characters that seemed potent and valid as “Level 1” characters. We aim to finish tonight and make Seasoned Veterans to see how the power level lines up with our expectations of powerful One Piece characters and Level 15 4e characters.

I’d love any feedback on what you think might happen to the system with these changes, and unexpected consequences I am overlooking.

About Adam

Adam is a husband, an explorer of the inexhaustible, and a hunter for unexpected synergies and collaborative potentials. His explorations into RPGs began with DMing D&D, though lately he enjoys mining the potentials of diverse systems, especially Cortex Plus.
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2 Responses to Action and Ambitions – Hacking Smallville RPG

  1. craggle says:

    Some interesting ideas. Curiously, some of the concepts with the “Trouble” pool and stats are similar to those I was thinking for a Firefly hack, although with a few twists to make them more flavoured towards that show.

    Are you still keeping Plot Points, and using them in the same way as Cortex Plus? If so, I think preventing adding more dice to the “basic pair” is going to see them getting used less: not only can you not buy more dice to roll, you don’t have any “spare” values to add to your total afterwards. These are probably some of the most common uses of the PPs, so not having this could alter the dynamics.

    • atminn says:

      Thanks for the feedback Craggle. You raise good insights.

      I do aim to keep Plot Points the same as they are used in Smallville, with some uses inspired by Leverage. So PPs allow new temporary assets as in Leverage, but also allow access to the Special Effects and triggers from Abilities and Distinctions.

      I was only suggesting limiting the use of Relationships as one of the primary two, since there are already Values and Stats to fill out the primary dice. Players can still definitely include Assets, Distinctions, and Useful Details to have those spare dice you mention.

      Perhaps a better way to represent the moderated benefit of relationships (compared to their use in SV) would be to make them mechanically identical to Resources, or maybe ambitions. So when a character derives fervor for an action from a relationship, it is treated just like gaining benefit from an Extra, except instead of descriptors they would have taglines.

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