Posted by Ron Edwards
This was early 1988, following college graduation the previous year, while I was working at the Field Museum of Natural History. A fellow staff member invited me into Ran Hardin’s Champions game, played in Chicago, set in Chicago. The group was called Northwatch, an iteration of a game he’d begun years before. Marty played Warp (player & character from the original game), Ken played Cyclone, Jim played Outburst, Aaron briefly played Leech, Tommy played Agent Kotowski, and John played Persistence, the latter two coming in late during the run. My character was that pile of Lovecraftian menace and non-Lovecraftian smoothitude you see illustrated to the left, called Nocturne.
I’d been role-playing like a crazyman since returning to the hobby in 1985, not only my own games of Champions, but also a variety of fantasy games like Stormbringer and Rolemaster, as well as the game we all thought would change our lives, GURPS, and when it came out, Cyberpunk. However, this was the first game I’d played outside of my own friends and invitations in probably a decade, coming in as the “new guy” in a circle of established friends. I’d been invited into various RPG groups over the past previous years but usually ran back into the night, thinking Kurtz got off lucky.
This time, I liked everyone in the group, and I played with them weekly for over a year, until I moved to Florida. As it happened, Randy was the best logistic choice for my ride to the train station, and he and I really hit it off. Our midnight conversations on the way home turned into a long-term friendship.
Here’s the character sheet, in which I’ve left the paper clip at least to indicate the considerable wad of papers it’s attached to, which include the more readable beginning and end versions and the definitely embarrassing origin story. I included it in my early Clobberin’ Times posting and a lot of my contributions there concerned Nocturne’s various adventures. I’ve spared you the notes I took during play and the running summary of play-sessions that I kept, which shows me that we played three major storylines over 34 sessions.
Consider the pop culture timing: in late 1987 or early 1988, although Interview with a Vampire had been a mainstream seller and was spawning sequels, vampires and gothic stuff were not yet the evident New Hotness. I was also not overly sold on grittydark in my superhero comics, preferring its presence in Grimjack. This is to explain that my spin on these things was extremely 1970s, making the character only half-seriously demonic-shadow-scary, and at least half or more in the hedonist, psychedelic zone. I played him as a fun-loving guy who mostly played up the scary stuff for effectiveness except when he meant it. Nocturne had more in common with the early Ghost Rider than with Lestat, or for that matter, Cloak. I often described him as an inky doodle with pale hands and calm, amused face, and some artists in the Clobberin’ Times turned out good versions. Through pure coincidence as they never met, Tim Watts’ version bore a striking resemblance to Randy:
My characters of that time were an assortment of fairly restricted motifs – snakes, Mexicana, darkness, demons, hallucinatory drugs or magic, and Borgian family destruction – and Nocturne represented a subset of these pretty nicely.
I confess he was a terrible Mary Sue and I was an impossible player: a spotlight hog and interrupter from hell, basically buying narrative concessions by being interesting.
Now for why I’m inflicting this mess on you.
Randy’s game was similar to the ones I ran in embracing the Champions‘ texts’ commitment to comics structure, with episodes that everyone expected to work like a single issue, including personal soap opera, an opening or closing set-piece, and very little wasted time. It’s also of its era in our age group: those who’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons, and other games, in the first “out of the Midwest” wave in roughly 19777-1987, who were classic Bronze Age Babies for the comics especially the Defenders, and who then really hit our stride as game organizers in our early 20s. His college game used Champions 2nd edition and Champions II, as you can see via the unmistakable 2nd ed character sheet featuring Marty’s character Warp. The character sheets in the core book featured silhouettes you can draw your character’s details onto, and the available templates are instantly recognizable by edition. Each also featured a blank, and since I was used to playing with artists, I typically used that one, as with Nocturne, who eventually got his picture done by a fellow player.
Looking over the materials, I also very much recognize Randy’s mix of comics homage with or without the same names, comics inspirations with names and personalities of his own, Hero Games material as such, Hero Games material re-interpreted. As well as the “kicking the tires” interpretation of the rather scattered rules, just as with anyone else I knew who played this game. The Northwatch run used his college material as back-story, with a sort-of government organization called Emerald sponsoring regional supergroups. In our group, the core characters, i.e. always there, were Warp, Cyclone, and Nocturne, and I say with modesty that visually, and in characterization, they were credibly good. Warp was the single most interesting teleport-centered superhero I’ve ever seen, especially contrasting his rational, family-friendly personality with his own power constantly shifting reality(-ies) around him. Ken did not entirely conceive his guy riding a bad-ass motorcycle who pops a wheelie and goes chunk-chunk into a battle robot on his own, but frankly, his was way better, a flat-out curbstomp bad-ass. Nocturne found a lovely spot as a hero whose menacing side allowed for friendlier contact with a lot of the villain characters, and the style-and-personality tension between him and the utterly techie Cyclone was great – two team-partners who each think the other is deranged but are totally loyal to one another.
I hereby make an offer to artists to do some drawin’ for us, for money. I want to see these characters come alive in illustration, almost thirty years later. Email me (address at top right).
Ahh, anyone who played a solid series with Champions, conceiving it as a comic book, knows how much fun it is and what it must be like for me to go on about:
- The Church of Universal Truth, hiding its secret reliance on the entity Rune, a blend of transdimensional demon and ultimate computer …
- Its wicked villain group the Blood Brotherhood, featuring the Crippler, the Blood Queen (Nocturne’s sister and former lover), Deadline, Heartseeker, and Redjack, led by the Inquisitor …
- Their ongoing kidnapping of all teleporting heroes and villains, ultimately crucifying them in a big power-matrix thingamajig to do Really Bad Cosmic Shit …
With Randy in full bull goose loony mode of tying in past-play and made-up super-history the whole time. Just imagine there was once this great 80s comic that you never heard of.
“Role-playing is a character sheet’s way to make another character sheet.” One of the best ways to understand one, or even to learn about the activity at all, is to look over the physical materials of play early vs. late in the process and ask questions about every difference you see. In most RPGs, the relevant physical material is the character sheet. more-or-less mixing 3rd edition and Champions III into it via my character. (Remember, Champions 1st-3rd and the two supplements II and III are effectively one big rules-set.)
So check out the two versions of Nocturne: what changes? It’s all rounding out defenses (adding Lack of Weakness e.g.) and boosting the mental attacks and Presence, in other words, increasing character “toughness” and attacks. The trouble is, that shit was borked through the roof from the start! I can see hyping the Presence, but otherwise, I should have left the powers at their perfectly reasonable starting effectivenesss and edited the Disadvantages to reflect the events of play and to shape different problematic circumstances.
What do I mean? I’m working here from a section in Champions II, which as a supplement contained extremely varying material, more of a smorgasbord from different (and differing!) hands than a focused rules-revision. This bit was about what Disadvantages were for.
- Mechanics modifications such as taking extra damage from certain attacks, taking damage from otherwise harmless things, adding unwanted details to situations (Unluck), and other things that reduce or twist mechanical effectiveness
- Behavioral descriptions, including the famous Code vs. Killing, although whether these are actual options-limiting or thespian “guides” is a shaky topic; and the more mechanically-defined Berserk
- Social positioning, especially Public or Secret Identity
- More specific/adverse social and behavioral things such as Dependent Non-Player Characters and Hunteds, which are notable for their scheduling mechanics, such that one’s DNPC is deemed to be present in a session on a roll of 3d6, set at 8-, 11-, or 14-. You also set Hunted in terms of relative power and DNPCs in terms of competence.
- [The Disadvantages in the supplements and 4th edition were much more detailed and sophisticated, including Enrage as well as Berserk, Watched as well as Hunted, and lots more.]
The text I’m thinking of concerned DNPC and Hunteds as a feature of scenario construction, in that the GM in the heat of preparation could make the indicated rolls for all the player-characters to see who’s there first and then figure out what to do with the resulting combination. This may seem elementary to you but was extraordinarily clearly written (with a funny example regarding a giant chicken) and I do not recall any previous RPG text that came anywhere close. It was all about treating the Disadvantages as problems for the character but as welcome, fun material for ourselves as players. Because they weren’t just speed-bump distractions with a canned predictable response (“guess I have to save this stupid kid”), they were situations (“how does Warp interact with his autistic brother, does it change from last time”). As the components of the conflict we came for rather than distractions and annoyances to avoid. This attention to the presence of DNPCs and Hunteds could even work well ahead, as a contributing factor to longer-term thinking about preparation.
And this wasn’t merely a GM thing at all! It is, after all, the player who decides how dangerous the Hunted is or how often the two appear, statistically speaking. Therefore if you want to contribute to the upcoming material and its structure, write your Hunteds and DNPCs accordingly. If you want to change the way it’s working, then use experience points to modify those things. The experience points therefore become an instrument of contributing to preparation, arguably the single most revolutionary mechanic proposed by that time in role-playing. The Champions II text is completely up-front about this.
Cross-reference it with Aaron Allston’s text in Strike Force, which although published a few years later, was based on the events of very early Champions play and creatively is roughly contemporary with the Champions II text:
THE “CHARACTER STORY”
One thing that each Champions GM needs to learn to do is to spot, carefully nurture, and eventually play out the “Character Story.”
Each player-character has a Story above and beyond the ordinary adventures encountered during the course of the campaign. This Character Story usually involves the resolution of the most important desires of the character.
Phosphene – Discovery of and Acceptance by Family. Raised by a single parent and knowing of no other relatives, Phos started his career cynical and alone. Learning that he had a family, the enigmatic Brood, he discovered that he had a tremendous need to become one of them. Eventually he met all his surviving relatives and earned the affection of most of them. Now married and a family man himself, his personal story is resolved.
Lorelei – Growth into Womanhood. In the course of her years of playing, Lorelei grew from a 15-year-old innocent into a mature woman and team leader; the most important elements of transition (other than the years involved) were her romance with Commodore and her eventual rescue of and reunion with her father.
Take a look at your own character – or at all the PCs if you’re the GM – and try to root out the Character Story of each one. [examples follow – RE] In short, try to figure out what element of the character’s background, relations, or psychology make him interesting but will eventually make him (or his player) frustrated and unhappy if not ultimately resolved. That’s the Character Story.
In the final paragraph of this section:
Of course, no campaign lasts long enough for every Character Story to be discovered and exploited …
… to which my reader’s response was, “Really? Why not? What if everyone knows that this is on deck and really enjoys it? Maybe not ‘every’ if you mean every last PC and NPC ever, but enough is a reasonable goal to shoot for.”
Allston elaborates on the above parenthesis (“or his player”) too:
LISTENING TO YOUR PLAYERS
Always listen to your players’ discussion of the ongoing adventure. They’ll constantly be analyzing, theorizing, and commenting on the adventure. Often, their discussion will give you even better ideas than those you’ve been implementing.
Also, pay attention to the recurring phrase, “It might be neat if …” The player who is saying this, whether he realizes it or not, is expressing a desire about a future storyline or character development. Usually it’s easy to accomodate him, and gives him a more personal interest in that specific plotline.
Which is to say, the people best positioned to say what the character’s emerging story (arc) is or how it well develops, are the players of the protagonists, not the Den-Daddy Story-Nanny GM.
What did I just say above in this post, about Nocturne?
I should have left the powers in their perfectly reasonable starting effectivenesss and edited the Disadvantages
By “should,” I don’t mean you should, or that “real Champions players” should. Most games treat steady improvement as an expectation relative to the increasing threats, such that diminishing or altering the Disadvantages would be obviously wasting points, and that’s how nearly everyone I ever played Champions with did it too. I’m talking about where I myself was as a creative player at the time, or at least as I perceived myself: the kind of story-arc oriented, protagonist-agent guy who’s inspired by those two texts. As far as characterization and concept goes, I’d built him for fun adversity, which means a solid half or more of that Disadvantage stuff should not be going his way at any given moment. Except that I clearly ignored the completely understandable rules to help do what I said I wanted sitting in front of me, which offered the most literal player agency in the entire game, instead spending my points, as I semi-desperately tried to keep Nocturne from ever ever losing.
There’s a strong dose of Mary Sue in the foundational concepts of historical role-playing, and I can only point to myself and this character as Exhibit A. It didn’t sit well with me; it rankled and festered. I wanted to be proud of Nocturne, who if I say it myself was a pretty good character, and something in me knew I couldn’t. The year was 1989, and my wheels began to turn.
Links: James Raggi’s 2007 In Character article
Next: Long live Lib
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on July 30, 2015, in Clobberin' callback, Supers role-playing, The 80s me and tagged Aaron Allston, Champions II, Champions RPG, Cyclone, goth, Ken Norton, Marty Devine, Mary Sue, Nocturne, Northwatch, Ran Hardin, Strike Force, Tim Watts, Warp. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.