Do the two-step
Posted by Ron Edwards
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 EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on June 18, 2015, in Clobberin' callback, Supers role-playing, The 80s me and tagged Champions RPG, GURPS, Hero Games, Hero System, Steve Jackson, Steve Long, The Clobberin' Times. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.