I got into role-playing games during the market correction which followed the fad-driven boom times of the early 1980s, when ads for the D&D Basic Set dropped out of “respectable” publications and slid back into the realm of funnybooks. There were no dedicated game shops within biking distance of Woburn, and the places which did stock RPG material limited themselves to a smallish selection of products from an even smaller selection of publishers.
If you were curious about something that wasn’t published by either TSR, FASA or GDW, you were shit out of luck in terms of cash and carry. That left mail order as the only option, which carried its own set of problems — which, in my case, involved getting my incredibly paranoid grandmother to write out a check to some firm named “The “Bugbear’s Boudoir” or some other hyper-geeky trigger for disapproving frowns.
That act of self-abasement, on top of the hassle of scraping together fifteen bucks while resisting the temptation to blow it all on near-at-hand impulse purchases, set a high hurdle and limited my mail-order purchases to a handful of truly “must haves.”
The first and most prominent of these was the third edition rulebook for ICE’s Champions game…
…ordered by way of a Dragon Magazine ad in the summer of 1987.
Tagged the “super role-playing game” (thanks, to DC and Marvel’s joint trademark on “superhero”), Champions was considered to be the gold standard of costumed crimefighting RPGs due to its detailed character creation and customization system. I didn’t know much else about it apart from a single Dragon article outlining additional superpowers for players to use, but its reputation alone was enough to edge out the more TSR’s more readily available Marvel Super Heroes RPG.
Besides, I wanted to remove any temptation the players might have to play and Captain America or Iron Man by forcing them to create their own original characters…who were thinly veiled analogues of Captain America and Iron Man.
It took three weeks for the book to arrive at my doorstep — which was an excruciating long wait for a fifteen year old — and I spent the another couple of weeks attempting my to familiarize myself with the rules. The “Hero System” mechanics Champions used were both astonishingly simple and hellishly complex. Characters purchased stats, powers, and skills with a pool of points which could be increased by taking on weaknesses such as psychological flaws or vulnerabilities to certain types of attacks. Combat and skill checks were resolved by adding and subtracting derived bonuses and modifiers from a base value of 11, then trying to roll under the resulting target number on a trio of six-sided dice.
It seemed so straightforward compared to AD&D’s hodge-podge agglomeration of conflicting rules, but the devil reigned unchecked in the details. Tweaking powers — like adding auto-fire to a ranged attack or specificity to a form of damage resistance — involved applying cost multipliers and a good deal of old fashioned algebra. Turn order and actions were resolved around a twelve “phase” system with the number of actions determined by the character’s speed stat and applied at fixed intervals. Lethal and “normal” damage were handled through parallel yet distinct systems with shared terminology.
The convoluted details were less of a problem than the glacial pace the inflicted on even the most routine in-game dust-ups. A multi-thug smackdown that would be resolved in under three panels in the four-color source material could take an hour and countless dice rolls around the gaming table. It was possible to fudge things for the sake of streamlining the adventure, but that risked fouling up something else in the system’s tangle of interconnecting parts. The open-ended nature of character creation in Champions and looseness of its rules also made it very easy for a cagey player to exploit the “meta” and unleashing balance-breaking nightmares upon any gamemaster who let their vigilance slip for even a moment.
Champions was a hot mess (and one that gave my scientific calculator a bigger workout than any trig or geometry class ever did), yet it worked really well in the context of my smallish gaming group. It helped that we had been comics fans before we became RPG fans. Heroic fantasy may have been the lingua franca for the hobby, but for us it was a second language. Our first love was funnybooks, and the chance to create and embark on our own superhero epics compelled us to make things work — if not perfectly, then well enough.
After burning ourselves out on AD&D, Champions felt like a homecoming. Our internalization of the genre’s tropes kept things running smoothly as Patriot (not Captain America) and Armor X (not Iron Man) battled Dynatek (not AIM), Baron von Totenkopf (not Doctor Doom), Retrodeth (not Deathstroke), and Violencer (not Elektra). Even the amateurish foul-ups were folded into the campaign narrative, such as when Scott neglected to purchase a defensive power for Armor X. His character was laid low by an almost fatal burst of machine gun fire, leading to his patriotic partner’s capture. I turned Scott’s do-over of his character into a role-playing training montage where he rebuilt his gear in preparation of a desperate rescue mission.
That same familiarity with the source material made it easy to run intertwined solo instances when either Scott or Lil Bro were engaged elsewhere, which helped deepen their engagement while sustaining momentum. The run became a group obsession, and I spent scores of dimes at the Woburn Public Library’s photocopier cranking out grainy photostats of character sheets to be filled with adversaries blatantly lifted from the pages of Who’s Who and the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
At the time, I felt like we were creating the basis for a future superhero universe. I also felt like I had a shot at being a legitimate funnybook artist, so, yeah, I’ve matured a bit since then. Even though neither of those dreams came to pass, my Champions phase had an enduring impact on how I looked at superhero comics in general. Writing a funnybook is different than running an RPG campaign, but the experience provided a glimpse into the workings of the sausage machine. What makes an effective adversary? What is the primary purpose of continuity and world-building? What is actual substance and what is stylistic fluff?
Even when the two mediums diverged, there were valuable lessons to be learned about the roles and rationales of genre conventions, as well the need for the narrative equivalent of negative space — why this works in one format but should be jettisoned. My contemplation of the bits that Champions got “wrong” or were unable to emulate inspired me to spend the following decades seeking out every similarly themed RPG in search of one that did capture the spirit of the source material. I’ve read dozens. A few have come close, but none have passed the Scarlet Witch test thus far.*
*The test: Can the game mechanics emulate those instances where Scarlet Witch knocks out a high-powered villain with a sucker punch?