Looking back at my RPG purchases from that year, 1989 was apparently “The Year of the Expensive Hardback.” I bought three of the damn things during those twelve months, each one wielding an outsized influence that went beyond the gaming table.
– the 4th edition Champions rulebook.
I didn’t really follow the RPG fan press (apart from occasional back issues of White Dwarf) at the time, so I had no idea the massive tome was in the pipeline until I spotted a copy at the Compleat Strategist in the late summer of 1989.
Champions was the first superhero-themed role playing games I ever played, and remained one of our gaming group’s few constants amidst a giddy churn of one-offs, non-starters, and quickly abandoned Hot New Things. The game was creaky and complicated to a fault, but its subject matter and robust character creation mechanics kept us coming back to it. In short, I was an easy mark for this new iteration of the game, especially in the form of a classy (and weighty) hardbound edition that sported some sweet cover art by the legendary George Perez.
The buy-in was pretty steep for my cash-strapped self — the money from my time in split-shift food service hell was long gone — but I managed to mitigate it by offloading my set of 3rd edition Champions rulebooks onto by buddy Scott for fifteen bucks.
After sitting down and skimming through the book’s salient parts, it became clear that 4th edition Champions was intended to be a consolidation and clarification of the existing game instead of a radical revision. The core rules and combat mechanics were largely unchanged from the 3rd edition, apart from some small “quality of life” fixes and the codification of ubiquitous house rules. Bonus hand-to-hand damage, for example, became a distinct power instead of a workaround where’d you buy ranks of energy blast then apply the “no range” limitation to them.
Despite the branding, the revised Champions rules were designed to serve for the entire “Hero System” in general. The power levels and tiers of abilities could be scaled and adapted to cover anything from dungeon-crawling fantasy to two-fisted pulp adventure to epic space opera. The idea was to consolidate the various Hero System games into a single comprehensive rulebook, and the designers mostly succeeded in that task. (Eventually the core “meat ‘n’ potatoes” rules were released in a standalone paperback edition, though I’ve never met anyone who has ever used them to play anything but superheroic campaigns.)
The fourth edition of Champions was less about revisions to the rules and more about how to approach them as a player or gamemaster. The bulk of the book consists of guidelines, suggestions, and rationales for effective character creation, scenario design, and campaign planning. In earlier editions of the game, power levels were an ad hoc and eminently exploitable affair where characters could (and did) load up with an excess of ludicrous disadvantages in exchange for more points to purchase abilities. The tendency spread though and/or was enabled by officially published supplements, in which the most disposable adversaries were inflated into archfiend levels of power.
The 4th edition attempted to dial that back by setting baselines and recommended maximums for base character point pools and disadvantage totals — for example, a typical superhero was fixed at 100 points to start with a maxmimum 150 additional points through disadvantages. This put a greater emphasis on “frameworks” — discounted bundled deals for thematically related or limited powers — which in turn encouraged players to think in terms of character concepts instead of raw advantage via exploits. Various example characters were provided to illustrate the potential of the approach, and what it was capable of accomplishing.
It was a necessary and long overdue step towards reining in Champions‘ tendency towards “metagaming” absurdity — which was rapidly tossed aside in subsequent supplements.
This behind-the-curtain stuff captured my attention more than anything else in the book, and boosted my enthusiasm towards re-starting our sporadically ongoing campaign. Lil Bro and Scott reworked their Captain America and Iron Man analogues (“Patriot” and “Armor X”) using the new recommended power limits, while my buddy Damian remained true to form by creating an original character who absolutely wasn’t a carbon copy of Strider Hiryu from the Capcom arcade game. The campaign lasted for a half-dozen sessions, which was a remarkably long streak for us as this stage.
More importantly, the book’s in-depth discussion about things like pacing and character development stuck with me on a deeper level. It was fairly rudimentary as far as practical criticism went and leaned heavily on unquestioned fandom, but it did (alongside the similar parts of Mekton II) open my eyes to the idea of genre as both a construction and a convention governed by certain expectations. These shallow revelations paved the way for more intensive forms of observation and engagement. Because they involved things I actually gave a shit about, these basic lessons found easier purchase than anything gleaned from listening to a bored English teacher drone on about A Separate Peace or Johnny Tremain.
In the short term, it inspired some truly awful superhero fiction from yours truly. Over the long haul, however, it helped attune my perception towards weightier questions to come.