Do the two-step



Some orientation: Steve Long and I met in the early 2000s in the context of role-playing publishing, as he had just become the lead line developer for Hero Games and I had shifted my digital-only products to book form for Adept Press. As a long-ago and long-time Champions head, I was interested in what he was doing, and he was interested in my ideas about the processes of role-playing and the history of the hobby. We became annual GenCon buddies, always making time for a lunch or a drink, bouncing ideas around about various TV shows, hobby history, and game design ideas. As we aged a bit, we became confidantes about difficult grown-up problems like family deaths and parenting, and somewhere along the line, I realized he was an important guy to me, a true friend. Oddly, we didn’t know our closer history relative to the Clobberin’ Times APA until relatively recently, but I don’t think either of us was surprised.

What follows is based mostly on a conversation we had about five years ago, and also on a recent phone conversation where we reviewed our former talk and compared our reflections about it since then. It isn’t really a “Steve said Ron said” presentation because it was a real conversation full of grunts and finishing one another’s sentences, or veering off onto some idea that sprang up unexpectedly. So for what follows, I drafted this post, Steve edited it and re-wrote parts of it, and then I tweaked a last couple of phrases.

Maybe we should start with a plain old timeline. Green means Steve Jackson’s work at Metagaming, blue means Steve Jackson Games, orange means Hero Games, and red means Hero Games after it was bought by Iron Crown Enterprises:

  • 1977: TFT: Melee
  • 1978: TFT: Wizard
  • 1980: TFT: In the Labyrinth
  • 1981: Champions 1st edition
  • 1982: Champions 2nd edition, Champions II (supplement)
  • 1984: Champions III (supplement)
  • 1985: GURPS
  • 1986: Champions 3rd edition
  • 1989: Hero System, Champions 4th edition, GURPS Supers

OK, so this is the big “two-step,” like the c&w dance. The point is to see that Steve Jackson’s Fantasy Trip work at Metagames, the work on Champions at Hero Games, and then work on GURPS at Steve Jackson Games represent a seminal development-phase of role-playing design in which neither game should be considered without the other.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything unseemly was happening or that anyone was copying anyone. Publication dates don’t mean very much when it comes to such close dates, and this was an incredibly rich and active period of game design. There’s no way to unravel parallel developments from influences-inspirations from interactions, nor is there any point to doing that.

To a certain degree, though, there’s an identifiable difference in philosophy between the two. It shows up a bit in the “negative points” with which you “buy” more points above your nominal limit (Disadvantages in Champions, Limitations in GURPS). In the earlier Champions, they are mostly social and plot-oriented, whereas in GURPS they’re mostly effectiveness-limiting. This needs a post of its own to develop further. It’s also evident in the basic goals: in the Jackson line, to provide a chassis for “any system” play, and in the early Champions line, to provide tools for producing precisely the superhero comic you want to create.

Part two concerns a more subtle contrast between or among parallel design philosophies within Hero Games itself during the 80s, which I guess is less of a two-step than one thing being supplanted by another. One might be thought of as “original” Champions, first through third editions (which are basically ongoing mods on the original), rooted in the comics experience and the desire to make some of one’s own – I’d tag certain design principles which didn’t last past 3rd edition, as well as some of the supplemental material (the Gadget Pool in Ch II and the broader Vari-Pool in Ch III, among others), and specifically the supplement Strike Force, which although published later (1988) is best understood as a very early Champions artifact (and also worth a post of its own). I should also stress that these titles and their supplemental and scenario books associated with these title were never presented as unified-setting material – something which may be hard for some readers to grasp. I might need to clarify that in the comments.

The second strain of design philosophy is a more modeling/completist one driven at least in part, I think, by the realization that Hero Games could use the rules underpinning Champions to publish other RPGs: Espionage (1983), Justice Inc (1984), Danger International (1985), Super Agents (1986), and Fantasy Hero (1987). As early as 1984 the company referred to its rules set as “the HERO System” on the backs of books and in other such places, though it never developed the rules as a truly unified system until 1989 under the editorship of Rob Bell at Iron Crown Enterprises.

[Steve and I] think this strain of development arose in large part because all the games listed above differed from Champions in a crucial respect: the characters didn’t have superpowers; they were just normal (albeit exceptional) people. Champions characters had all sorts of fantastic powers, so they generally didn’t need to rely on mundane skills or resources to get things done. As a result, the list of Skills in the Champions book was quite short (even after Champions II (1982) expanded it). Gamemasters and players could could easily assume that characters had all sorts of knowledge and assets (“I’m a millionaire playboy,” “I’m a rocket scientist”) without paying any Character Points for them because they didn’t really matter that much for game purposes — they were just fun character background for the GM to use when creating scenarios.

But in an espionage adventure, a pulp story, or a science fiction scenario, what a character can do and the resources he can call upon are important. They’re his primary assets in the game, the tools he uses to get things done and survive the perils he faces. So in games like Espionage, Justice, Inc., and Star Hero, the list of Skills becomes much, much longer and more detailed. (An early hint of this appears in Champions II’s Professional Skill, which let a character pay Character Points to define his job if he wanted to or the GM deemed it necessary.) Even in Fantasy Hero, where characters sometimes have access to incredibly powerful magic spells, they accomplish most of what they have to do through ordinary Skill Rolls.

This led to two problems. First, certain inconsistencies arose in the rules. In some books the rules handled a particular situation one way, while another book addressed it somewhat differently. Second, each book had a few rules the other books didn’t have, so die-hard fans of the HERO System had to buy every book just to make sure they had “all the rules.”

Unifying the HERO System as a single “generic” rules system eliminated both of those problems. But it also meant that the two design strains described above had to merge, which in turn meant that one or both strains had to change or disappear. Since the more freewheeling approach of early Champions simply wouldn’t work for the “Heroic” genres, 4th Edition Champions/HERO System hewed toward a more, well, GURPS-y, approach: a generic, multi-genre system that defined an explicit point-cost for every imaginable skill, ability, and power. I’m not saying this is bad! It’s a real difference between lines of work within the same company, that’s all. Acknowledging this helps to identify how and why this approach became central after Iron Crown took over the production and distribution of Hero Games books.

Putting the two big parts above together, let’s look at the significant publications of 1989: the Hero System book, and Champions 4th edition, the latter being the first Champions formally inside the generic/house system. This “package” owes more to the second, buy-it-or-don’t-have-it in-Hero design philosophy than to the first. Champions 4th was also the first to present a setting in its pages, which was also the foundation for the 1992 publication Champions Universe.

Here are some other details which I’m not going into because they’re not directly related to the design issues under discussion, but they shouldn’t be forgotten either; most of them will be future blog posts.

  • Villains & Vigilantes (1979/82) put out a lot of adventure material and not as much edition-revision and formal fanbase-building; very roughly, the publications tended to be more plot-oriented rather than “look we have a do-it-all system here.”
  • The first Marvel Super Heroes game (1983) was such an innovator that I don’t think it ties into the design issues under discussion here.
  • I barely remember a thing about The Golden Age of Champions (1985), but Steve says it’s not really a player in any of this history.
  • DC Heroes (1985) was textually incredibly point-building oriented, to the point of modeling the very fabric of the imagined material, everything, in the same points-currency; I don’t recall that it had “cost-reducing points” though.
  • My reading contrasts the influential Champions supplement The Coriolis Effect (1986, influenced by the X-Men Phoenix storyline) with Strike Force, because despite their publication dates, their content’s time-stamp and its actual content display difference between 80s vs. 70s gaming/publication ideals pretty starkly.

You can probably see that I’m typically more interested in what I see as the “lost” Champions, not only because I encountered the game at its 3rd edition, but because the title-specific, pre-Iron Crown design philosophy appeals to me on a practical level. I’m only mentioning that by way of disclosure, not as a judgment anyone else should adopt, toward the end of clarifying a real and interesting historical difference which I wish wasn’t as “lost.” Steve has his own take on that obviously oriented toward the much later publications, which he might present later in a guest post, but I recall as him saying that his work as a hired freelancer on 5th edition was best understood as compiling, clarifying, and adjusting the existing Champions/Hero as it stood in the mid-90s, whereas his work as owner and lead designer for 6th edition could step back and said “what really needs to be here” from the ground up.

There you go, some superhero role-playing game history and some food for thought about what system design might be for. Thoughts & questions are welcome!

Links: Steve’s website

Next: Give me liberty

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on June 18, 2015, in Clobberin' callback, Supers role-playing, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I’ll note that my own experience with Champions began with Champions III, and that play was just combat, and short interludes to get to the next combat, which actually only rarely dealt with my characters disads. Usually the interludes were just calls for help. “Villains are robbing a bank… time to go round them up, heroes!” Just pretexts to get to the fights.

    This changed precisely zero after 4 came out and people started using those rules. This includes not only play with local groups, but also convention play, where the GM had created pregen characters (which was every con game, since creating a Champions character could take an entire session for most players). In fact most of those games were set up like, “OK, you’re characters have had their noses tweaked, and now you’re facing off against the opposing team.” So that you could have all 3.5 hours of the session to do that combat, and then the final one against the big bad. Or sometimes it was just one combat.

    The notion that the additional rules in 4th detracted from the level of plot development in anybody’s game as compares play of previous editions seems unlikely at best, and similar to the arugment that the addition of a skill system in D&D 3E destroyed the role-playing creativity going on in that game world. That’s not to say that 4th is good for this sort of thing, particularly, but rather that the previous editions didn’t actually have much better effect. Not from what I saw. I think that any such differences were about table culture and GM rather than design.

    V&V, the supers game I started on when it came out, was the worst for this, given that it was an “I” game (you played yourself) and had no rules for creating a troubled background. Modules for any of these games, in fact, can’t know what the PCs are like, and were always played by myself and my groups without any regard for the PCs interests.

    Oh, sure, with Champions we’d roll the normal roll to see if the DNPCs or enemies showed up, per the rules. Sometimes. If we remembered to do so. But play wasn’t about recreating a comic much, but more about the fights and seeing how they turned out. With all of the fun of the collateral property damage that Champions brought.

    Or, in other words, play of all superhero games (I also played Marvel, and a tiny bit of DC) from 82 to 92 was, from what I saw, basically the same thing that was happening in all RPGs. That is, the use of the background material to set up a series of combats with characters in the genre in question. Usually with between little and zero attention to character backgrounds, even in systems that had the negative point systems you mention. We simply had not come to grips with the notion of character-centered plots. Not the vast majority of us.

    Sure, there’s an obvious design difference in 4th, going generic like GURPS. But, other than possible genre-mashing issues, the attention to character is still all on the GM to enforce, and these primitive design efforts seem just as (in)effective from one edition to the next, in terms of making the PCs central. Or, more generally, in terms of making the resulting plots look much like one you’d find in a comic.

    I’ll also note for the sake of the history that DC was very much “Hero System divided by 5” in terms of it’s mechanics (2 was an average stat instead of 10, and 4 was max normal human, instead of 20), and that we’d see that emerge again later with Fuzion.


    • That’s certainly one way to play — and at conventions, often the only reliable way to play, since you have no idea what sort of players will show up at your table — but I think you’re unfairly extrapolating from your experiences to gaming as a whole. Many groups, including my own, included a lot of roleplaying in our Champions sessions.

      More to the point, I don’t think Ron, and certainly not I, am saying that “pre-4th Edition was better for roleplaying.” That’s not the case at all. Roleplaying is largely independent of rules; you can do it with Phoenix Command if you want. All we’re saying is that Champions pre-4th Edition could be said to hew (consciously or unconsciously) to a particular style of game development that differed from the way the game developed from 4th Edition onward. We just like analyzing game development, basically. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Steven,

        Ron and I have had this discussion before, so I was really just sort of making a pro-forma entry on the record. That said, to be clear, I’m not supposing that my experience of play was how everybody played (even if I do reckon myself somewhat of a RPG play style ethnographer from even those early days). Clearly Ron was playing the way he was playing, and you were too, and I’ve seen other groups play that way as well. Played a great Con game of Hero once with Rob Bell, for instance…

        Nor am I specifically talking about “roleplaying” (especially given that this term actually has a great deal of meaning localized to the user). I’m refering specifically to the differing “philosophies” to which Ron refers, and whether or not those actually exist or do anything “practical” for participants in the sort of way that Ron implies. Basically I think that Ron brought the comics competency to the play of his earlier games. And at best there were simply more rules than he needed in later editions.

        That’s a difference. It’s just not a big difference, IMO.



  2. I still remember Fantasy Hero fondly, because when you made your (wizard) character, you could *create your own magic system* (or if you made your non-wizard character you could create your own special items or abilities, but why would you create anything but a wizard when you can CREATE YOUR OWN MAGIC SYSTEM?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The ability to create your own magic system is one of the best aspects of FH. It’s also one reason why the Magic chapter in 5E/6E FANTASY HERO is 50,000 words long — as long or longer than many stand-alone game supplements.

      And even with that I’ve long wanted to write a book specifically devoted to creating magic systems in FH. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Super Agents wasn’t a standalone game; it was a Champions supplement. You may be thinking of Robot Warriors.


  4. Just a minor correction: The first version of Fantasy Hero was released in 1985 (before Danger International), not 1987, making it the third heroic-level Hero System game. After 4th edition came out, the second edition of Fantasy Hero was then released (1990, I think).


    • That’s correct. I think the 1987 was a typo I introduced somewhere along the line. It’s entirely my fault, not Ron’s.


      • I should have caught that too because I remember buying it hot off the shelf, and what-all was going on at the time, but on the other hand, I played it most intensively in 1987 – that probably confused me.


        • As a side note, Danger International became a thing when we got a copy of Stormhaven for MSPE (which included Espionage! stats) from Flying Buffalo and George MacDonald wanted to run it. I remember the discussion of characters not having to be CIA agents and getting built on 75 Base points, like Justice, Inc (since we didn’t have the agency perks). That was the genesis of what would become George’s White Knights campaign, which was much of the inspiration for DI. Man, I loved the modern-era roleplaying we did in this days; so much fun. Both George and Doug Garrett ran fantastic campaigns.

          Liked by 2 people

        • My group used DI for pretty much everything with a gun that wasn’t JI or Champions. Old West, modern day, near future, SF, even a few Battletech Hero campaigns before Robot Warriors came out (which we embraced just as enthusiastically!).


  5. It’s very safe to say that TFT had a strong influence on what would become Champions. Our gaming group played a fair amount of Wizard/Melee/TFT in its time and I’m sure that informed George MacDonald and Steve Peterson’s design sensibilities.

    It’s somewhat amusing that despite the image of being bitter rivals with the GURPS vs Hero wars, Hero Games and Steve Jackson Games were quite close; we hung out at conventions, did cross-system products (Autodial Champions), and general had a great deal of respect, admiration, and affection for each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a player of both games, I was often annoyed by the fanwars. I ran into it later at the Clobberin’ Times, when I tried to post some GURPS Supers material with, I thought, suitably comparative text, and was told not to do it again. (defenders, please button it, you know I’m a true-blue CTer)


    • I like how Steve Jackson, Allen Varney, and Warren Spector made a humorous appearance in the “Office Personnel” credits in 1st edition Fantasy Hero – that’s certainly not something that would have happened if HG and SJG had been gunnin’ for each other 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A few years ago I wrote a retro-clone of TFT, and as I was going through it I could see all of the fingerprints and breadcrumb trails. I played and enjoyed quite a bit of TFT, though not as much as Champions/Hero, and never had any TFT materials back in the day. I got into GURPS with Man-To-Man and was a fan there until they hit 4e; I also couldn’t understand the hate between fanbases.


    • It’s interesting to see the fingerprints go further back from TFT to Tunnels & Trolls. Things like the ST requirements to use particular weapons, and using Xd6+Y for damage, and lots more things that I’m not remembering.


  7. The other missing piece in the history of Champions was Superhero: 2044. There are definite traces of its DNA in Champions, especially the earliest editions (1-3). This makes sense, given that it was unplayable as published, and needed massive house ruling to be useful.

    Some neat stuff on this connection:

    Liked by 1 person

  8. @Bruce Harlick: I’ve long wondered at the disappearance of George MacDonald and Steve Peterson from Champions/Hero. Did they move on from gaming totally, or are they still involved in some way?


  9. So, I posted this at a couple of places, but since this blog post inspired it I thought I would follow it up here also.

    I think I have figured out what the change was.

    In Champions editions 1-3 (which I usually call first generation HERO System) the system wasn’t separated from the game. Everything in the Champions book and the Champions II and III supplements, both system and fluff, was aimed at emulating the superhero comics in your game. While there wasn’t mechanical niche protection, there was explicit niche support. Bricks, Martial Artists, Energy Projectors, Egoists (first-gen speak for Mentalists), and Others (anything that wasn’t one of the first four) were called out. If you wanted to play a brick, the assumption was that your primary offense and defense would come from Strength, Constitution, and the Figured Characteristics based on them. For a martial artist, there’d be a few points of Strength plus Martial Arts (with cost equal to your Strength, and made your primary offenses a 1.5x STR punch or a 2x STR kick) for offense and DEX + SPD for offense, defense, and mobility. It was assumed that energy projectors would likely go with Elemental Control and/or Multipower, to pick up some of the points-efficiency bricks got with their Figured Characteristics, and DEX, SPD, and a movement power for mobility. Egoists had their niche mechanized with Ego, ECV, and the Mental Powers rules.

    A lot of this carried over into Fantasy Hero 1e as well. The Powers system was made into Spells, and the assumption was that if you wanted powers you were going to be a caster of some kind. There were just enough mechanical fiddly bits added so that if you wanted use-at-will powers you had to fight through the spell build system to create them. (In 4-6e terms, all Effects had Extra Time: 1/2 Phase, Concentrate: 1/2 DCV, and Requires A Skill Roll built in, for no cost break; there were Advantages to use to take those down, which increased the cost of the base effect.) Among other things, it added a bit of challenge to building magic items (mainly weapons and armor) and monsters with spell-like powers. But also, if you wanted some extra resistance against mentalists you couldn’t just slap on a few points of Ego Defense; you had to engage with the spell system, even if it was just to buy around it, and there was a strong implication that it would be part of either a spell that a friendly caster would cast on you and maintain, or an item that you would either build, buy with points, or acquire in play.

    The big change from 3e to 4e wasn’t so much mechanical, though there was a top-to-bottom refurbishment of the system. The you’re-playing-a-superhero fluff was effectively moved into a separate book, as the HERO System explicitly came into its own. Looking in the rules you weren’t seeing the fluff and the niche support mixed in. I think it’s important to note this: the system changes weren’t as important as the notion that as of 4e the HERO System was a system rather than a game, and that you’d use it to build your games, while in first-gen it was a series of games that were all based on a house system. I also want to stress: none of this was bad, it was just different.

    Also, in the first-gen games there was a lot of GM power given not just to deny but to allow; if you were playing FH 1e, for instance, the GM could say “We’re using these Champions Powers as spell effects, and here’s the point costs…” but the basic assumption absent that was that what you had in the book was what you had to work with. That last assumption carried over to 4e, but the difference was that in the book you had everything, and it was harder for a GM to say “These things here are not permitted, and if you want to build those things you have to do it this way.” The FH book for 4e included magic system design sheets with checkboxes for this reason, but that turned out to be more paperwork.

    Fifth edition went more in the direction of fourth, and I usually consider 4e and 5e to be a second generation; 5e is probably more of a “4.5 edition” as far as overall edition differences are concerned. 6e is either a third gen or a 2.5 gen, depending on how you consider the changes.

    (Disclosure, if it matters: I was around for the pre-6th edition discussion, argued strongly for the decoupling of Figured Characteristics, and was part of Steve Long’s “SETAC” advisory group.)

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thanks for sharing your remembrances on this. I got into the HERO System in October, 1990 with 4th Edition (bought it with birthday money) and it quickly became my favorite rpg (and like many of us, I had played and continued to play a lot of different games).

    I ran many sessions and campaigns across many genres using the HERO System for many years (lots of many’s, basically). I wandered off to other games from time to time, but always ended up saying “this would be better if we did it with the HERO System” and I’d soon be back, slapping together a hack or a conversion or whatever.

    These days when I do have time to play or run an RPG it tends to be Fate Core or Fate Accelerated based due largely to time and player interest. Most of my gaming books have been boxed up and put into storage for several years, but I stubbornly keep a shelf loaded down with HERO System 6e and favorites from earlier editions. Hopefully I’ll be able to come back to HERO once again at some point in the future when the demands of life are lessened. In the meantime it still continues to hold a place in my black, desiccated, life long gamer’s heart after 25 long years. It’s crazy that a game system can have that kind of resonance, but there it is.

    I look forward to reading more of your (and Steve’s) recollections.


    Liked by 1 person

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