Armagideon Time

I picked up the Bubblegum Crisis and VOTOMS manuals more out of interest in the licensed source material than anything else. I picked up Champions: The New Millennium because it happened to be racked next to those other two games.

Okay, maybe there’s a little more to it than that. The third edition of Champions was one of the first role playing games I dabbled with as a teen. Its superheroic theme and robust character creation system better fit my tastes than fantasy-based dungeon crawls, and the campaign that arose out of it managed to eclipse the AD&D run which brought my original group of players together. Every dumbass adolescent superhero fan has fantasized at some point about creating their own not-at-all-derivative shared fictional universe populated with all sorts of costumed crusaders. em>Champions offered the means to make (debatably) practical use of all the world-and-character-building ideas I’d previously relegated to study hall daydreams and notebook doodles.

Unfortunately, Champions was also a massive pain in the ass to run. The basic resolution mechanics were simple enough, but fell off the rails when it came to efficiently dealing with the absurdly complex bundles of statistics and algebraic formulas passing for player characters. The rules tried to be as pragmatically functionalist as possible, concentrating on mechanical effects and leaving the specific details to the players to define (e.g. a single “energy blast” rather than separate entries for cold/heat/force/cookie dough projection).

Yet any system able to codify such a wide array of powers and talents is going to ripe for “meta” exploitation and cause headaches to keep track of around the gaming table. A Kirby-esque dust-up between a single hero and a horde of minion could take an evening to resolve and a full-on battle between superteams was the stuff of glacially paced nightmares. I spent the better part of a decade trying to find a superhero RPG that accurately captured the fast-paced action of the source material, only to return to Champions out of residual loyalty and the grudging acceptance that it had remained the best attempt available.

The New Millennium was based on the “Fuzion” system, a blending of the old “HERO” rules used by Champions and the “Interlock” system developed by R. Talsorian Games. The idea was to create easily scalable and streamlined core game mechanics with universal utility. The notion of a radically revised and simplified edition of Champions was enough to induce me to buy a copy of the rulebook, despite some immediate misgivings.

If you can’t tell by the cover art, The New Millennium is very much grounded in the post-Image school of superhero tropes and aesthetics. Previous editions of Champions had held themselves to a generic “Bronze Age” take and presentation style which left the EXTREME! EDGELORDY! heavy lifting to the end users (and they were more than up for the task, trust me). Seeing the system embrace that level of contemporary kewlness was unsettling to behold. I felt like George Bailey visiting Pottersville or perhaps just a geek dude edging up on thirty and realizing exactly how much the world had changed while he was distracted by other things.

To further drive home the point that The New Millennium wasn’t your elder sibling’s SUPER roleplaying game, the manual opens with a short comic to dispel any doubts about what one should expect from it.

This is then followed up by a multi-page gallery of “Baby’s First Watchmen” mock-up news clippings explaining the background of this new rude and ‘tudey universe of superhero roleplaying.

Previous editions of Champions held back on establishing a specific background canon for the game. What existed was doled out in the form of default archetypes which could readily be adapted to fit or fill in for HYDRA or Doctor Doom or Batman or whatever — a logical and legally safe consequence of being a superhero RPG without ties to the big two publishers of superhero funnybooks.

New Millennium‘s in-game canon is flogged ceaselessly right from the starting gate. I understand publishers feeling the need to throw in a pre-made foundation for folks who might not be willing or able to indulge in heavy worldbuilding, but the one the game provides is a lumpy stew of every unfortunate trend in the superhero genre up through 1996. Take a dirty chamberpot and throw in every convoluted X-book storyline into it, stir in the first wave of Image offerings, sprinkle with “shit got real” grimdark swiped from Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, season with painful misreads of Astro City and Starman. Serve on a bed of Jim Lee inspired art with a garnish of pendulous breasts and shoulder pads…and you’d still have something slightly more palatable than New Millennium‘s in-game universe.

Maybe there was an audience out there for this kind of thing. All I know is that audience did not include me, and it is tightly wound through the entire rulebook.

As for the game rules (which don’t appear after a hundred pages of amateur hour riffing on the type of stuff which nearly killed the comics industry), well…let me put it this way. No matter how much the you revise or streamline the Champions rules, as long as even a single element of the traditional mechanics remain the game is still going to be ten times more complicated than it needs to be.

The fourth edition rules (my gold standard for Champions) were complicated, but comprehensive and consistent. The transition to Fuzion didn’t make things any less complicated, but funked up the consistency by shoehorning “simplified” workarounds for things like power mechanics. Character creation is heavily linked to the in-game canon, but with little in the way of explanation outside another opportunity for the writers to indulge in “clever” quotes. It also includes “lifepath” and “origin” flowcharts for some reason.

The Fuzion system is flexible enough that a motivated gamemaster could theoretically make the mess into something workable, but it would a bit like using paper towels to wipe your ass when there’s a roll of Charmin right there on the shelf.

When it came to deciding what stuff from my old RPG crate would make the transition to the House on the Hillside and which would remain in the attic of my grandmother’s soon to be torn-down home, Champions: The New Millennium was one of the few non-magazine items that almost didn’t make the cut.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Shy of perfect
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Fourth time’s the charm
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Gone dark

2 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Chromium phage”

  1. dean

    This is the one with the Lifepath background generator lifted from Cyberpunk, isn’t it? This was the first superhero RPG that I bought myself, and I still had a nostalgic regard for it, no doubt because I haven’t cracked it open in at least ten years.

  2. athodyd

    Somewhat off-topic but I remember watching the old WildC.A.T.S. cartoon (it was on right after Exo-Squad) and never being able to figure out what Grifter’s super power was or in fact why he’s called the Grifter. Looking it up years later, it turns out it really is just “good at guns” and some kind of telekinetic deus ex machina shield he barely uses, and at some point it’s mentioned in passing that he did some low level con artist stuff when he wasn’t a hitman/secret agent/secret agent hitman. Not even Alan Moore was able to do anything interesting with Grifter.

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