Armagideon Time

Necromunda marked the end of my days as an active tabletop gamer. Most of my gaming pals had scattered to the four winds, and the ones I did manage to keep in contact with were busy with other concerns. We’d reminisce about the “good old days” during our increasingly infrequent meet-ups and float the idea of maybe starting a fresh campaign, but we knew nothing concrete would ever come out of it even as we speculated about what shape it might take. The Sci-Fi Club was gone, repurposed as an academic office on a space-starved campus, and with it went the convenient centrality it had provided.

Although videogames, comics, and other retrological crap had eclipsed the role playing games as an all-consuming interest, I did still make a token effort to keep a hand in the scene. Nearly all of it was done as private mental exercises, where I’d fill a notebook (and eventually computer text files) with incredibly detailed notes for theoretical campaigns. There’s something about world-building I find meditative in its own right. Working out temporal and topographic tapestries has proven to be a reliable distraction from unpleasant real life concerns — drowning out thoughts such as “oh, god. I’m graduating in a month and have fuck all job prospects” with “in the seventeenth year of the Fifth Age, the surviving Eldren departed the Broken Realm, leaving behind a few thanaturges to slay the remaining members of their rogue kindred.”

Even today, my substitute for counting sheep involves plotting out some random RPG adventure in my skull.

For a pretty lengthy stretch, my focus along these lines involved the 4th edition Champions rules. The game had fallen off my radar after the start of my series of college era Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaigns, but was rekindled thanks to the Great Back Issue Buying Spree of the mid-to-late Nineties.

Sometime during the twilight of the comedy troupe era, I got the nostalgic hankering to read old issues of Firestorm and other favorites from my tweener years. Most of my original copies had been succumbed to the entropic grip of time or gone missing in the years since my mother’s death, but Lil Bro’s serious comics collecting phase had entered full swing and he invited me to tag along with him on his many, many trips to local shops that maintained a decent inventory of back issues. Over the following three years, I had managed to amass an ample cross section of Marvel, DC, and some indie books spanning the period from 1978 through 1990.

Reading through that material — along with various “Essential” collections of Silver Age Marvel stuff and post-revisionist homages like Astro City — got me excited about the superhero genre after a long-ish fallow period and sparked all sorts of ideas about translating it into a role playing campaign. I even managed to rope Lil Bro and Maura into brainstorming characters for a potential run (with the latter’s concept for a nuclear-powered bombshell eventually serving as the inspiration for my DC Universe Online character a decade later).

To this end, I began picking up some of the Champions sourcebooks and supplements that had been released since I’d lost interest in the game. I wasn’t hunting for anything in particular, just various mechanics or idea seeds worth transplanting into my grand, never-to-be-actualized vision. Most of the books had at least something worth consideration, even if it was just “a mildly entertaining thing to flip through on the shitter.”

On the other hand, Dark Champions — one of the thicker tomes of the lot — had nothing but induced heavy eyerolling to offer.

The 1993 release was the game system’s sad attempt to keep up with the grimdark wave which had overtaken the superhero genre and inspired this site’s “Terrible ’90s” tag. While the core Champions rules were locked into an off-brand Bronze Age stasis, Dark Champions was hellbent on welding a whole new iteration of fan-wank onto that rusting chassis. Much of the sourcebook was dedicated towards selling players on the notion of superheroes who casually kill their opponents, which the author treats as an utterly radical idea and not something every single Champions gamemaster has had to deal with multiple times over the course of trying to shoehorn a bunch of Punisher tee-wearing edgelords into a remote approximation of the Claremont Era X-Men.

Substantial portions of the tome were given over to equipment listings for various real-life firearms, as well as mechanics for more “realistic” rules for using them in the game. (Because, really, the Champions game system really needed more complex combat resolution rules. You weren’t planning on doing anything else but running a simple fight against three minions for the next two weeks or so, right?)

The height of Dark Champion’s sad-larious antics, however, came in the form of its semi-official mascot, the Harbinger of Justice. Put forth as a representative example of the campaign setting, the overarmed and over-accessorized lovechild of Deathstroke and Frank Castle was an ungodly agglomeration of stats and abilities whose point totals exceeded the core game’s Galactus and Beyonder analogues.

There was nothing the gun-summoning juggernaut could not do, as expressed in the breathy and overly lengthy write-up which boasted that the character had personally dispatched over a thousand enemies, both mundane and super. The character’s obscene power level and convoluted ability sets didn’t really lend themselves to any form of practical use as a template. For all intents and purposes, he was a walking deus ex machina which made any attempts at codification irrelevant. You could just skip the rolls and algebraic combat modifiers and just assume he could do whatever you needed him to do.

So why was the Harbinger given such lavishly detailed attention?

Because he was the author’s own player character. The Dark Champions sourcebook was his world. The poor dupes who bought a copy were just forced spectators of those tryhard efforts at awesomeness. The character was so pathetically egregious in its excess that it developed into both a cautionary example and a punchline (even in Hero Games’ own in-house magazine). The criticism prompted the author to push back and claim all the harbingers points had been legitimately earned, which just made debacle that much more laughably tragic.

Thanks to the Great Back Issue Buying Spree, I’d managed to slip free of the grimdark snare. It taught me to enjoy the goofier parts of the superhero genre without getting hung up on some defensively adolescent notion of what constitutes “mature content.” Stuff like the Batman TV show and the Legion of Super-Pets were fairly ridiculous, but the were also pretty entertaining and certainly didn’t deserve spittle-flecked rants by fanboys with a self-contradicting need to be taken seriously. Reading Dark Champions at the time felt like staring back at the prison walls after I’d just had my sentence commuted.

That said, Dark Champions ended up becoming one of the better selling 4th edition sourcebooks, with it and a slightly depowered Harbinger being brought back in subsequent editions of the game. The marketplace muscle of adolescent edgelord fare may be capricious at times, but it can still reap sweet returns when it hits the mark.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Chromium phage
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Fourth time’s the charm
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Super late

9 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Gone dark”

  1. Chris Gumprich

    Apologies if you’ve touched on this already and I’ve forgotten (hey, I’m old), but reading this made me curious as to your take on the CHAMPIONS comics published by Eclipse, and to a lesser degree the later “Hero Graphics” stuff. I’ve picked up random issues in various quarter bins over the years, and it always struck me as fairly inoffensive super hero stuff.

  2. ArghSims

    Wow. This reminds me to thank the gaming and comics gods that I skipped the 1990s en total.

    I lived in Japan a year, worked for Microsoft phone support four very long years, started work in state universities, tried to OD on prescription drugs, started on anti-deprressants and generally hated myself.

    But at least I wasn’t reading Leifeld-level shit.

  3. ArghSims

    I am not a candidate for dating sites.

  4. Jason L

    I owned this, but I don’t remember ever looking at the Harbringer’s stats at all. I do remember finding the whole thing kind of counter to the kind of supers game I wanted to run, and I regretted it.

  5. Kevin Lighton

    Chris:
    He did a Nobody’s Favorite entry on them which can be found using the Champions tag at the end of this post. (I’d provide a link, but I’m blanking on html right now.)

  6. Cygnia

    Ah, the Stubringer of Justice…I remember getting a copy of this in the discount bin over in Harvard Sq. (which my mind is now blanking on the name of — right across the hall from the Tower Records outlet?)

  7. bitterandrew

    Newbury Comics, you mean? In the Garage? Pandemonium Books, where I bought my 2nd ed 40k set (back when it was located over the Wursthaus).

  8. Cygnia

    THAT’S IT! And yeah, I initially wrote Newbury Comics, then switched to Tower Records…I know they both were in the area too…damn senior moments.

  9. Chris Gumprich

    Kevin: Thanks for the pointer. I do (now) remember reading this when Andrew first posted it, but in my defense it was eight years ago…

    Hey, I’m old.

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