Armagideon Time

I spent early part of 1989 settling into my new routine of school, work, and visiting my father on the weekends. It only lasted about ten weeks, but it felt much longer because it was the buffer between a pair of big life-changing events. During that stretch, my interest in role-playing games became eclipsed by a rekindled love of comics (thanks to weekly exposure to New England Comics’ giant wall o’ new releases) and my growing engagement with thrash metal music. Both siphoned off a lot of the mad money I used to drop on RPG stuff, limiting my purchases to “might as well” consolation buys during low-volume or “skip” weeks.

What I did buy was almost entirely limited to Champions sourcebooks and adventure modules. They were six bucks a pop, Excalibur had a wide selection to choose from, and the superheroic subject matter dovetailed with my resurgent comics fandom.

None of the stuff in these supplements ever ended up in any of my campaigns. My interest in them was a matter of morbid interest than anything else, the same imp of the perverse that convinces me to consume a two-liter bottle of a store-brand Dr. Pepper knock-off. The material tended to be written by superhero fans with the faintest grasp of the genre’s conventions or traditions.

Their aim was to create something worthy of the Marvel Universe, but the results felt like something scraped from the pages of a Mighty Comics offering from the Silver Age — tracing the outlines while completely wiffing the all-too-crucial intangibles. The convoluted origins, overly-complicated powersets, and generically try-hard character names could’ve been pulled from one of my grade school notebooks in which I attempted to out-do the House of Ideas by turning a full-blast shithose against a borrowed canvas.

“HIS NAME IS POWER MASTER AND HE’S FIFTY TIMES STRONGER THAN SUPERMAN AND HAS CLAWS AND HIS FAMILY WAS KILLED BY CRIMINALS BUT HIS POWERS WENT OUT OF CONTROL AND TURNED HIM INTO DARK POWER MASTER AND HIS FRIENDS HAD TO KILL HIM.”

It also didn’t help that — by either tight deadlines or miscommunication — the art rarely reflected the text in the entries. A character described as a human demon hybrid with horns and a barbed tail would be depicted as a quick trace of a Hulk Hogan promo photo with nary a diabolic feature to be found. The illustrations weren’t terrible by the RPG standards of the era, but rarely did they fit the funnybook vibe with the exception of Patch Zircher’s work. It further emphasized the distance from the source material and heightened the off-register vibe.

Rules-wise, most 3rd edition Champions supplements were a hot mess. Throwaway adversaries on par with Marvel Team-Up’s villains-of-the-month would sport power levels that were double or triple what you’d see in an average player character. The writers’ commitment to a concept would override all other considerations, leaving the incredibly fiddly process of re-scaling encounters to the hapless gamemaster. Making a published Champions scenario fit for actual play took more effort than creating a homebrew scenario.

Yet for all the irritating flaws, I still have a great deal of affection for those sourcebooks. They’re artifacts of a fixed moment in time, and their goofiness is inescapably tangled up in other, completely unrelated recollections from that period. I have no idea why the Bolshevik Barracuda’s ability scores have become tidally locked to a certain memory about a high school crush, but I’ve long since resigned myself to it being the case.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: I’ve paid my dues
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: What you mech of it
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Hardly heroic

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