Math is not hard

I got some advantages, I got some limitations ...

I got some advantages, I got some limitations …

BONUS POST: Thanks to Ed McW and his July pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! It’s really easy. In Champions, you pay for a ton of stuff in points. Just make up a fun character and find out how much it costs, and accept that superheroes, before about 1980, weren’t especially powerful at initial publication – no, not even the Hulk. (That’s one hurdle right there: you have a generation of gamers sucking on the “is” teats of the Marvel Universe and ignorant of what the Hulk, the Human Torch, or Spider-Man were like when they started out.) The structure as I know it from most of the editions of Champions, is that you get 100 points free, but the total should be about 250, so you’d need 150 points of Disadvantages to “pay for” exceeding 100. Not that we ever called such a character anything but “250 points,” though. [6th edition is the only exception: you get 400 points for purchases and taking 75 Complications points is mandatory. I’ll do one of those too.]

I’ll talk about the Disadvantages later in their own post; this one is about how much stuff costs, and about offsetting the cost’s literal amount. You can buy local Advantages on specific purchases, which make them more expensive, and local Limitations on them too, which makes them cheaper. I want to talk about these, specifically the Active Cost and the Real Cost.

To start, consider one power at a time. I’m talking 3rd edition now, for those who know. Let’s say your character has an Energy Blast, defined however you want it, which you’ve set it at 50 points (10 dice), and you want it to hit harder than most such Blasts, so you buy it as Armor-Piercing – never mind what that means in game terms, it’s good, so OK. That adds half-again its cost, so if it were a 50-point Blast, well, now it still does 50-point damage but with the Armor-Piercing effect in place, its Active Cost is 75. If you reduce that with a Limitation, the Active Cost doesn’t change; it remains as a term for how powerful the thing is all told. For example, let’s say the thing with the power is an Obvious Accessible Focus, which is to say, an power-providing device which can be taken away, which cuts its cost in half. Now it costs you 37 points (half of 75 = 37.5, rounded down), which is its Real Cost.

The notation for an individual Advantage or Limitation is set in quarters, as in ¼ or 1½ and similar. You put the (total fractions +1) as a multiplier to the cost for Advantages, and as a divisor for the Limitations. So in the example above, you can see that the Armor-Piercing up there must be ½, which it is, making the numerator (50) times (1½), or 75. And since the Obvious Accessible Focus Limitation has the value 1, I divide the Active Cost of 75 by (1+1). So the full equation for the power would have been 50 times (1½) divided by (2). Just do all your additions for the fractions above and below the line separately, before you do the multiplication and division.

One tiny confusing thing is that when referring to an individual Advantage or Limitation, use a plus-sign for the former and a minus-sign for the latter. This is strictly notation and has nothing to do with actual subtraction of that fraction, which never happens.

I chose Iron Man for the featured image because the character concept has lent itself so well over the years to messing with the limitations-in-action via explicit changes in the armor design. Sometimes it shorts out when hit with electrical attacks, and sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes the chest unit is vulnerable to a focused attack and sometimes it isn’t; sometimes it’s liable to run out of juice and sometimes it isn’t … “Depends on the writer,” yes, but in this case, it’s also easily visually tracked because a writer can more formally put a thumbprint on “now it works my way” with a special new-armor donning montage.

My fellow Champions nutbars will have expected, since they saw the featured image, that I was going to discuss the ins and outs of Iron Man’s armor conceived as a Focus Limitation, a long-time contentious topic. That is a hoary and well-trodden discussion and I don’t do those here. I do it in this PDF! (people unfamiliar with Champions are best off not clicking that, really)

Finally to the point. You can figure out a character’s total Active Cost this way with no sweat at all, adding it up without taking the Limitations into account. Typically it’ll be somewhat higher than the total Real Cost (again, usually 250). The question I’m after is, how much higher. What I liked to do, as one feature of understanding the character mechanics, is to make a ratio of the character’s total Active Cost to the total Real Cost. Say the guy has a total Active Cost of 301, and a Real Cost of 250, that’s 301/250 = 1.20 or so, which I stated in percent terms as 120.

If I did this with Iron Man of any vintage all the Champions people will scream bloody murder concerning the word “Focus,” so instead, here’s a pretty classic 3rd-ed character I just made up, built a bit more complicated than the ones in the core book of that edition, but a lot less so than most of the characters Champions gear-heads tried to wedge into my games, some of whom were pushing ratios close to 200.

JET STAR whom I’ve written up here. To summarize the relevant math:

  • The Multipower has 40 Active Points, so the three slots, which are fixed in application, cost 4 each. All of that is reduced by the ½ Limitation of “Usable only with Move-By and Move-Through,” which brings the costs down by a third (rounded down to 2 for the slots). Two of the slots are further reduced by their No Range Limitation to a minimum of 1 point each.
  • His Armor cost is 40 and his Faster-Than-Light Speed is 20, both of which are reduced by the ½ Limitation of “Observable Inaccessible Focus,” which brings the costs down by a third.
  • All the rest of his Active Cost, 104 for his characteristics and 80 for some of his powers/skills, is the same as its Real Cost.

Without his Limitations figured in, he costs 40 points more, so his total Active Cost is 290; dividing by the Real Cost 250 gives him a ratio of 116. If you have the 3rd edition core book, you’ll see that most of their example heroes and villains have very low ratios, like 102 and even plain old 100, unless they have a powered suit.

The same calculation can be done for any edition of Champions too, although the exact values aren’t comparable across the three distinct groups of editions (1st-3rd / 4th-5th / 6th). Here’s a similar example for a 6th edition character, KOBALT who is here. In this case the math goes like this:

  • The Multipower’s and its slots’ Active Cost is 96, but costs 70 due to the -¼ Limitation and another one on one slot.
  • The Telepathy’s Active Cost is 30 and the Mental Defense’s is 10, but they cost 15 and 5 due to the -1 Limitation.
  • All the rest of her Active Cost, 310 points, is the same as its Real Cost.

So her total Active Cost is 446 and divided by the Real Cost 400, gives us a ratio of 111.5 on the nose. If you have the 6th edition book, the example characters are very similar to the previous editions in terms of ratio: most a bit lower than this including 100, with the armored guys being considerably higher.

This post feels naked and cold without some art to liven things up. Hey, does anyone want to draw Jet Star and Kobalt? Send me an email (see top right); I’ll pay a bit for it and I’ll post’em here.

As a tentative point, it seems to me that 4th edition is the worst of both worlds, in providing relatively few points but demanding extensive skills, talents, and knowledge for a functional character, which leads to more and more dishonesty in Limitation definitions merely to work at all, which then leads to the failure to apply the Limitations in play or else they’d cripple the character. 1st-3rd gives you a ton of conceptual and useful stuff for free (e.g. the Baxter Building); 6th makes you pay for everything but also gives you a metric ton of points so you’re not sucking wind just to be able to fly and blast someone, and its various maths are much sleeker and more consistent throughout.

This ratio idea is not hard or weird at all, and it’s incredibly helpful when organizing play for this game. I’m not even saying what particular range is good or bad; that’s something you can decide for yourself. But man did people squeal when I tried to discuss it. I wrote a little essay and submitted it to The Adventurers’ Club, the Hero Games magazine, in 1987, and posted it in my first material to The Clobberin’ Times in 1988 … completely to silence or flak. No one gets it, no one gets it – they called it the “combat ratio” or expected it to account for every scrap of effectiveness; they miscalculated it (somehow); they refused to look at it; they told me to stop “ranting” which is to say, regarding a single essay. I never saw a single person adopt it as a useful, specific tool for discussing Champions characters. I still don’t know why.

Thanks: to Steve Long for a little pre-pub criticism

Next: Right there in the title

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on July 21, 2015, in Clobberin' callback, Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. oberonthefool

    Dude, you have just convinced me to never, ever play Champions.

    Honestly, MHR has been the only supers game I’ve played that felt superheroic to me, I’ll just stick with that and its complete lack of math =P

    Liked by 1 person

    • Didn’t say there was no math, just that it’s not hard.


      • oberonthefool

        You and I have different definitions of “not hard”.

        I mean, if you wanna give me the benefit of the doubt, let’s go with “I’m too lazy to do that much math to play a game” or “math is the opposite of fun so I don’t want it in my gaming”.

        It’s been a looooong time since I was a do-math-for-fun kinda nerd. Which is actually mostly your fault, so…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve been getting into Champions lately; it’s got a high learning curve, but the math is mostly up-front. Lots of stuff I like; lots I don’t.

          Definitely has a different feel to it than MHR, which I think is pretty cool. Options! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Gordon Landis

    You really don’t know why? I’ve only the most trivial of Hero system experience (and no Champions), but I think this transfers pretty well to vehicle construction in Mekton Zeta, and I can tell you exactly why (some) people would hate this idea – “you’re going to use it to keep me from building what I want.” Oh, they may couch it in other terms (“unrealistic”, “doesn’t take X into account”, whatever), but bottom line: fear of it being used to block.

    It’s a SILLY why, and I agree the idea is nice and useful, in a variety of ways. I think a Mekton GM I used to play with who was REALLY into spread-sheeting vehicle builds used a similar idea to generate a “complexity” for the vehicle, to determine how maintenance and mechanical failure could be applied. That whether or not that complexity ever became relevant was based on whim and caprice (and perhaps personal animosity) is no fault of the idea … is it?


    • There’s a strange dishonesty to it. I mean, if ever there were a transparent process in a role-playing game, it’s Champions character construction. You’ll remember that twelve-years-ago conversation at the Forge about that term, when I argued that “transparency” was not a system-complexity feature but an experiential, use-based one. But here I’m talking about it in the more ordinary sense, as applied to policy: can you see what’s going on?

      I think that’s what surprises me. If people are using the math to get away with something, or if that’s how they feel they are using it, then … how can they think I wouldn’t notice? It’s right there. (By the way, the buzzword was “efficient.” My guy is built efficiently.)

      Champions as most often played in my presence, and as I read about for others, also has a quality which is familiar to many role-players: the antagonists scale up along with the heroes. You either fight groups of characters about the same points as you, or you fight fewer individuals with more points each, and as you get more, so do they. (D&D 3.0 and afterwards are directly influenced by Champions point-spending, regarding antagonists.) If that’s what’s going on, then this so-called “efficiency” is a way to stay ahead of the curve and therefore, effectively, be a couple “levels” higher than the GM “thinks.”

      Which to my way of thinking is pure wussing out. I want my comics heroes sucking wind, convinced this guy is too tough to take down, desperate for any momentary edge, and genuinely in fear of losing – both for personal safety and regarding what the villain is accomplishing. I want the fights to be about what someone wants, and how much, not about knowing who can win based on prior-determined points. It’s the same old problem of “balance” – gee, look, we’re “balanced” at last! What have we gained? Uh … we gained the feature that for all our elaborate options and layers of complexity, the entire outcome now has the same probability as flipping a coin. Wait a minute …

      So I ran things differently, as you’ll see in an upcoming post, especially after a couple of years of intensive experience. I ran Champions such that the heroes were always outclassed in raw numbers terms. The idea being that only if they coordinated efforts, used the immediate situational and psychological terrain to their advantage, and really embraced the concept of special effects, would they have a chance. I also took the concept of villain motivations very seriously, such that every one of them appeared for a reason, to do a thing, to make a point, and to engender massive player buy-in to the fictional situation.

      And confronted with a character who featured a ratio over 140 while the others were all at about 110, I didn’t just take a Focus away. I broke the fucking thing. Not without talking it over with the player ahead of time, and not without clarifying that the points were still his to spend in some new, preferably less borked way, but I did it.


      • Gordon Landis

        With no WordPress login, I can’t just “Like”, so – this. My read is (as expected) you DO know (the main) why and rightly dismiss it. I’ll look forward to that future post.


  3. Lucius Alexander

    In 6th edition, it’s really NOT “mandatory” to take the full value of Complications. The information that it’s actually optional is buried on page 414 of the Character Creation book, and the rest of the text seems to be written to create the impression that taking the maximum value of Complications is mandatory, without actually making it mandatory.

    It’s obviously very good at creating that impression.

    As for the ratio: while I agree that Hero math is not that hard, I do oppose introducing extraneous extra math that doesn’t seem to serve a useful purpose. So far the only purpose I’ve seen given is to provide an excuse to destroy a character’s Focus, something that you don’t need an excuse for if it’s proven problematic in play, and shouldn’t be doing at all otherwise. But I suppose it might provide a kind of signpost or clue that a character could be unbalanced compared to its peers; either so overpowered as to outshine them and hard to challenge effectively, or so Limited as to be less effective in play than the player envisions, or bouncing back and forth between those two states.

    Lucius Alexander

    Palindromedary Unlimited


    • 1. 75 points. Mandatory or not doesn’t matter to my point, and since I’m not representing Hero Games or acting as an instructor, that level of pedantry isn’t called for. Take it up with Steve, who reviewed the post before it went up.

      2. The ratio. You can’t have it both ways. Maybe you think the ratio isn’t useful, in which case you’ll have to do better than attacking my GMing from 25 years ago. Or maybe you think it sort of kind of could be, and provided examples – which you did, and very well, which I appreciate, but in which case your line about “extraneous” falls apart. Pick one and then we can talk.

      Much as I’d like to do that, I’m calling out your patronizing tactics, e.g. opening with a correction to establish a dominant position, and low-grade content, the above-mentioned doubletalk. This uses up your default social credit here. Please review your future comments for ordinary respect, disclosure of your own human interest in the matter, (otherwise why would I care), and logical strength.


  4. Ron, I started playing Champions (1st edition) at the UofChicago, where the math/gaming/physics geeks looked for ways to break the system. “Oh! I just made a character, Planetcrusher, who can increase his density once per month to the point where his mass exceeds his own Schwarzschild radius. He becomes a black hole, destroys the world, then he uses his FTL fly speed to reach another star system and repeats. Let’s see, yeah, I can do that for 250 real points.” But nobody ever tried PLAYING a character like that. It was just the mental gymnastics playing with the character creation rules.

    I do remember playing in your game where you finally had Spectre lose his focus objects (which made him spooky, incorporeal, invisible, etc) in a massive boss battle. We redistributed his points so that he had the same powers, only not as strong. After a while, he built up enough additional points to get back to where he had been, but without the focus limitation. The character rationalized it that over time, and due to the battle, he had somehow absorbed the items powers through constant exposure.

    The REAL reason, unveiled by you months later, was that Claude never survived the origin accident at the pyramid where he found the Pharaoh’s treasure. He died back then and had been a spectral presence the entire game run. Blew my mind, but made total sense.

    Fun stuff.


    • Good ol’ Claude. I really liked hammering that guy for some reason – even gave him a temple-to-ankle scar after getting hit with a lightning strike, possibly part of the Coriolis story. You always played him toughened-up each time, almost without realizing it. He started as a fun contrast between a scaredy-cat guy with uncharacteristically spooky powers, and ended up being practically a demigod of ghostly fear.

      I do think now that I would have been happier as a GM who introduced very little such material, being freed up instead to max out villainy, and instead we all shared a which everyone would riff and rip on the math-and-fiction of their characters in this way. But none of us were in that mind-set back then, and “story” was way, way too much turfed to GMing. Player-agency back then tended toward protecting one’s unchanging character concept by any means necessary, as I did my own self every time I wasn’t GM. The day I realized I’d be a horrible player for a GM like me, and vice versa, was when I realized something was off about this whole thing.


  5. Chris Goodwin

    I’m getting ready to start a Champions game, using the 6e rules. All of the players are new to Champions, so I’m likely going to be generating all of the characters to their specifications. I will calculate the ratio for each character, just to see what the numbers look like. I know I can overbuild powers with the best of them, so this will help me keep myself honest…

    I suspect it would pretty closely track what a previous group (4e era) would call “cheese”, as in, how cheesy is this build? Higher ratios mean the character is more work for the GM.


    • I’ll be providing some character designs in my next post (July 23, 2017) which you’ll find interesting, playing with builds more on the basis of special effects and situational modifiers than on racking raw dice or values way up.

      Hey, if you keep notes on your thoughts and decisions as you prepare and play this game, I bet they’d add up to a good guest post one day.


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