Medium and idiom: they fight crime!

superduoBack to role-playing game talk again, this time hitting a second-order topic based on the foundation laid by some older posts. Bluntly, what on earth is this activity doing? What if anything do the texts have to do with this answer?

Each of the Champions games I played in hit a point at which what we were doing was a very specific version or modification of what was in the rules pages. I observed too that every group I encountered or read about had kicked those pages’ tires pretty hard to result in very different vehicles. In the case of the games I GMed, and if I recall correctly, the Northwatch game run by Randy Hardin, we did not use the battlemat-based skirmish rules, or did it so informally that calling it “use” would be a stretch. Oddly, we spoke in units of hexes and as if we were looking at a battlemat, and as a GM I often used real-world maps (e.g. brochures) for the locations of battles, so we sometimes did have hard-copy paper concepts of distance. But also sometimes not, as it was common for us to say, “You catch up with him where Wacker Drive goes into all those under-passes,” and to orient distances and directions in that context. “I’m at the intersection with such-and-such street,” “Oh, so that’d be about … six hexes away, minus 2 to hit.” (or whatever it was) So if I visited some other group or read about their play-experience in the Clobberin’ Times, it’d be a little jolt to realize they used the full-on map-based miniatures method from the text, or conversely, completely tossed it to the GM to make up as he went.

That’s merely one example out of dozens. Each successive long-term game provided me with more experience to decide which rules and which applications served what I and the other participants actually wanted to do. To review from the previous posts, here are games I’m talking about and some of the principles they exposed for me:

That’s why this post focuses on Force 5 game mechanics, the first game for which I reviewed & reflected on what we’d been doing and why. Here’s the initial handout, the same as provided in the Snakes and hotties thread linked above. I’ll summarize the specifications both from the handout and from some other things that became standard as we set up for play. First, there’s a pure-fiction emphasis on institutions and charisma, setting up the framework for both the superhero group and the cultural look-and-feel. Second, there are the following mechanics specs:

  • Attacks have formal rules modifications (advantages or limitations or both)
  • Defenses are extremely low, and certain defensive powers like Damage Reduction are prohibited
  • Prohibited: no killing attacks or piercing (potentially confusing: armor-piercing and piercing are two different modifiers)
  • Prohibited: mind control
  • Character point ratios are low-ish (see Math is not hard linked above)
  • Characters are limited by energy reserves, prohibited from certain rules-tweaks (see Superhuman endurance linked above)

I was well aware that I was totally bucking the in-game genre that had become slowly established for playing Champions through the late 80s, and  which were accentuated by the 4th edition. KC Ryan wrote about this extensively in the Clobberin’ Times, for example in #12, scanned here. Generally a sunnier contributor, in this he’s showing the metal sheen underneath the finish, rubbed away by just a little too much exposure to fellow gamers over the years. Or better, exposure to the unthinking quality all too often displayed by comics readers and role-players, the more so, apparently, when those overlap. Also, this is in the summer of either 1990 or 1991 I believe, which you may agree is a low point in superhero comics, particularly for those of my age group who now realized, if they hadn’t already, that their beloved 1970s heroes and villains were now well-and-truly, and irrecoverably, stupid. It may have been the first decade since the inception of the modern medium in which one could not hand a current superheroes issue to a friend to refute the “you read comics?” reaction. (I had by that point switched to Grimjack and Cerebus toward that end.)

KC’s explicit point in the scan concerns solo vs. group superheroes, but he returned to the more general point about “the game as a genre,” over many issues, specifically how it deviated from the goal to make original comics (where “the” doesn’t mean the be-all for anyone, merely for people like him and me). I chose that scan because I think it was the first time he raised the subject. My take on the subject – this being 24 years later – is now more analytical. It concerns not only genre, his concern, but medium and idiom.

Medium’s the easy part: comics are a medium, in tactile, visual, and commercial terms. I’ll even grant you a little technological range and include reading them electronically (this is the usual Will Eisner and Scott McCloud territory, so you know all that). Role-playing games are another, with its or their own sensory and cognitive features. … But wait a minute. What are those features? Are we playing dress-up? Are we creating an original comic in an analogous medium? Are we simulating comics in a medium existing strictly for that purpose? Romanticize an “emergent art form” all you want, but half the time it’s more like floundering in the surf, or was during the period I’m talking about.

Leaving that aside, the real trouble begins when we start talking about the fictional content which is experienced and produced via these different media. To dispose of the unhelpful term first, a genre is a retrospective label, rather than a founding or generative one, which then in turn becomes a form or model for later use. Like it or not, when you do a thing as a genre piece, you know very damn well how it should turn out, both logistically in-the-fiction and morally, in its point. You can display these as such or put a spin on them, but even if you subvert it or defy it or whatever, the “it” is established as there to be seen.

creatorkitTherefore the term “superheroes” isn’t a genre. It’s an idiom. An idiom is a library or toolbox of specific terms, phrases, or visual effects which carries semiotic content (sociopolitical and historical positioning) but not specific cognitive content (narrative, outcomes, theme, directive). In language, you say something using a specific idiom which can be recognized as such, but what you say is wide open to the moment.

What I – and I think KC – are talking about, then, is that playing Champions (and I do mean this game specifically), subculturally was not merely shifting an idiom from one medium to another, but had locked down its topic (subject of play, fiction) into a genre instead.

A reader or two may think I’m driving at broken rules, or various approaches to play accused of point-mongering or powergaming, as these are long-discussed matters relative to Champions, possibly more so than any other RPG. However, that’s not my topic at all. I’m talking about these, to start:

  • The introduction of character classes: the terms brick, energy projector, mentalist, speedster, and so on were merely supplemental food for thought prior to 4th edition
  • Generic disadvantages like “hunted by large criminal organization,” as well as claiming 20 or 25 points for psychological limitations like “won’t harm innocents”
  • Inexhaustible energy reserve such that the characters look a lot like they do in many other RPGs, able to produce actions indefinitely through an action scene

You can see what I mean, right? The characters have lost their individual positioning in the fiction. Their relevant characterization shifts from their limitations (in the broad sense of the word) to their powers, indeed specific and expected packages of powers, and to the concept of effectiveness as a contributor to combat. But that’s only the beginning. This powers-package next became scarily standardized across publications and games. Now, numerically, every starting character had to have at least SPD 5, at least 60 points in each major power, resistant defenses (withstanding killing attacks), at least one killing attack most likely at least 2d6 if not 4d6 (!), flash defense, ego defense, life support, every defense … basically, a full inflation in the “this tough” variable such that a character need not fear any attack unless it was beefed up to tank-threatening extremes.

I think of it as a creep-up of the baseline – breaking with the idea that the characters were operating off a human chassis, and instead setting a superhuman default upon which all powers-concepts were laid. This concerns a very “soft” level of analysis in role-playing terms, not mandated in point terms or formalized as a step in character creation in any way. It’s about the unregulated statement of what the character could do at a human level – and it got lost along the way, along with the folding of 4th-edition Champions into the “model everything” Hero System formalized in 1989.

In fairness, it was happening in the comics too. “Healing factor” came into the in-fiction vocabulary, and I recall “speedster” as well, in that “they” can do this or that. I certainly can’t say whether the trend in comics which resulted in (for lack of a better word) Liefeldism fueled the genre-specification of Champions as a game, or the increasing gamer-like demand for quantitative precision in comics fans became a powerful market force for comics’ content.

But whatever the causes were or in which way they flowed, you’re not going to get a Doom Patrol this way. Nor my favorite period of the Avengers (various permutations of the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Mantis, and the Beast, add the Pyms, Thor, Moondragon, and Iron Man to taste). Nor, certainly, KC’s nearest and dearest, the Legion of Superheroes or any meaningful subset thereof.

Next: Family values



About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on October 15, 2015, in Clobberin' callback, Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I usually don’t comment the “champions” blog posts because I never ever did read a single Champion book (strange as it may seem, superhero rpgs never interested me, and more in general superheroes are a very American thing, a tiny percentage of comic books readers read them here) but from the description, what Ron is writing about, it seems to me a particular application of the general principle “Hell no, I don’t ever want to be a character in a story, their life sucks!”

    I love superheroes comics where the protagonist(s) is put to the grinder, when they suffer, and then survive and triumph. One of my preferred comic is “Daredevil: Born Again” where Daredevil lose his job, his money, his friends and his sanity.
    For many RPG players (me included, up to 2005 when I first saw a game system that allowed me to play differently safely) the principal emotive motivation to play is character identification: you are your character and you don’t want him/her to suffer.
    Most people don’t realize it, but what this mean is that they don’t want to play characters in a story. They want to play people who always win, make a lot of money, look cool in dark dresses (Vampire), in Armor (D&D) or in Spandex (Champions) and never ever suffer, lose, or risk too much. They want to play a rock star, without the embarrassing divorces.

    This pose a impossible to solve conundrum to games like Champions or even Vampire: they attract you because they say to you that you “can be as a character in the story you love”, but then you don’t really want that, you want to be somebody else who is not in a story. So the more they try to re-create these stories, the less you enjoy the game, and the things that most players like (more powers, no weakness, always win, taking no real risk) would ruin any story.

    Thinking about it, maybe this is the reason I never wanted to play superhero rpgs: who the hell wants to have Peter Parker’s life?

    (the conundrum was obviously solved, but with different kinds of games)


    • This ties into my ongoing favoritism toward Champions 1st-3rd editions vs. 4th edition, and simply via association, 5th. And also into my strong desire to play 6th edition, which is much more than a mere streamlining and represents a new view toward play.

      Superficially, this might be puzzling – after all, 4th edition offers “all types” of comics play, or so it is averred. However, in the context of this game-as-genre, the consequences for playing a character much like Hawkeye, or even the beginning Spider-Man, would quickly be a dead character. As I’ve written about for years, game texts are often better understood via their published adventures and other supplemental material rather than their core books (sort of a Catechism vs. Bible thing), and the portrait of play from these materials starting just before the release of 4th edition features no such characters.

      So although nostalgia may be involved, I maintain that the view toward play presented in the earliest forms of the game, and especially in the supplements which as associated with them (various parts of the I-III books and especially Strike Force) is focused on exactly the sort of adversity and resulting character development that you’re talking about.


  2. epweissengruber

    Villains and Vigilantes kept the human chassis base. The character before superpowers was supposed to be YOU the player, described in the generic stats of the game. As many hours of lonely fun as I had creating Champions characters, the few V & V sessions that I played, with players straightforwardly riffing off of fictionalized versions of themselves stick in my mind.

    For textual documentation of superheroes as represented in games, the Different Worlds #23 of Aug. 1982 is an invaluable resource. (And for the interior art w. Louise Perrin handling the X-Men in BRP statistics for Superworld).

    There was no “supers” genre. There were different games with different reward systems and premises. Like the campaign management system of Superhero 2044 and its “work out your power descriptions with the GM” — holy proto-Sorcerer! The only fantasy analogy I can think of would be Pendragon.

    Liked by 1 person

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