Armagideon Time

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.

While I underwent a good deal of buyer’s remorse over Realm of Chaos and Rogue Trader, I had no qualms about plunking down a stack of bills for the third major acquisition of the year –

– 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.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Pulp friction
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: A la cape
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Grail and farewell

3 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Fourth time’s the charm”

  1. Viru

    This was my first Champions. Even with all that clarification, I had a hard time trying to know how much was a “Good attack” in game terms? 5d6? 7d6? Same with almost everything? Was I putting too much, or too little in energy defense?

    6th edition made all of this much easier. Sad that it was launched in 2010 and I’m not a teen anymore.

    Our group was called The Invincibles and got the following members:

    TK-Man (variety of telekinetic powers)
    Energy Man (you can guess his powers. We’re not native english-speakers, so those names sounds OK to us)
    Mystyc Force (Dr. Strange with an armor)
    Maximus (my own character, ripping off Giant Man)

    My campaign lasted… around 6 – 8 sessions. But I loved the game, after the very random Marvel Superheroes Game, where all your powers were choosed randomly and you got very strange combinations.

  2. bitterandrew

    Those names are cool as hell, Viru.

    Yeah, I can see how someone unfamiliar with previous edition could get tripped up by the balance and scaling.

    I set a limit of 250 pts, with offensive powers no more than 10d6 to start and defenses capped at the mean of that damage potential.

  3. GE

    Seconded, Viru – there’s no problem with those names at all.

    I remember playing in a summer-long D&D game at camp that one of our cooler counselors DM’d, and I was mildly disappointed when the royal dude of wherever told me that the magic sword I’d been awarded with was named “Shadowrazor.” When I gave DM Arturo a look and pointed at all the cool fantasy names with exotic syllables that existed in novels and sourcebooks, he rolled his eyes: “Yeah, sure. We could call it some long-ass Elven name with a bunch of Y’s and S’s…which just translates to ‘Cutter of Shadows’ in Common, anyway. Right?”

    He inadvertently gave me one of the earliest writing tips I ever got, and one that more fantasy and sci-fi writers should consider.

    Ditto with superhero names. The edgy 80s/90s had some crazy phonetic spelling and dripped with the sweat of thumbing furiously through thesaurus after thesaurus – but nothing says what a character’s all about better than “Megaman villain” type names. After all, is “Energy Man” any weirder or less on-the-nose than Batman, Iron Man, or Spider-Man…or Magneto?

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