Exhumed, still lovely my dear

Ah, boxes and boxes of trans-Atlantic stuff, you have at last yielded your layered secrets unto me, into my hands!

For the past two-and-a-half blogging years, I have really suffered over not having my Champions 3rd edition and GURPS: Supers 1st edition easily to hand. I know them well enough by heart to have made it through the posting I’ve done, but certain historical, design, and comics points have been impossible to nail down without the precise pages in front of me. And I haven’t played the damn things in twenty-five years, so the tactile and other direct-sensory input of holding the books, to help my memory and understanding, are a big part of that.

Sure, while living in Evanston, I ventured into the storage unit and sweated through boxes to find plenty of things, with these always on that list. But only now, at last able to shift boxes in two rooms’ worth of Rubik’s Cube as well as to shove the opened ones into sort-of categorized groups, I have them! That’s easily five dozen publications, especially if you count supers role-playing books in general, but I speak mainly of Champions 3rd edition, Champions II, Champions III, Strike Force, GURPS Basic Set 2nd edition (Characters, Campaign, Update), GURPS: Supers 1st edition, and Super Scum. Man, are my copies beaten up. It’s not just the years of heavy, sometimes thrice-a-week play; I used to take them backpacking and it shows.

Trying out a beard again, first time since 1983

This is related to present circumstances, so briefly, here’s the latest: we’ve been living in Sweden for exactly two months, and moved into our not-ready-yet house about five weeks ago. It’s now a lot more ready but the planned addition for the kids’ rooms is not yet begun. My wife has started he job; I’m now approved for permanent residency and have been photo’d and fingerprinted thereunto, so can get employed; the kids start school about five weeks from now. The big-ass container arrived from the States three weeks ago, and the first priority was to excavate kitchen stuff and other practical items, but that opened up enough Rubik’s holes to allow me to organize the boxes that remain, and to search them without turning around and around in frustration.

Thus begins my comparison of first-generation Champions (editions 1st-3rd and key supplements) and GURPS Supers (the 1st edition, the only one I know). I submit that it will illuminate core, relevant concerns for play and design which have been sitting mainly ignored for three decades.

What are we doing, and how?

During the early 1980s, fantasy fandom shifted radically. Reading the prior century of fiction vanished almost entirely, in favor of franchise style series fiction publishing, establishing hard genre conventions derived from the AD&D rules. I – and I’m not alone – was significantly put-off by this in every way (vs. the fiction, vs. the game/adventure design), seeing what I considered the source material, both literally and in its aesthetics, disappear from pop culture.

Superhero role-playing at that moment, on the other hand, offered what appeared to be the solution. Anyone looking at Villains & Vigilantes or early Champions could see the love and knowledge of the topic jumping off the pages, and liking the games went hand-in-hand with reading X-Men, (barely) still called the “new” X-Men. I’d pinpoint the famous #23 issue of Different Worlds as the moment for cementing mutual excitement between the two media. The relevant comics in the mix would soon include The New Teen Titans and Elementals.

I also point to the strong emphasis in these two games on making your own comic rather than using the game as a window into a new franchise. countervailed the fandom side of things in a positive way

In these texts, you’ll see literally zero language about how to play and say things, how to make and/or see things “go,” and any notion about what ought to happen, in contrast with the increasingly strict and codified AD&D culture and texts mainly via the RPGA and adventure supplements. I think this absence reflects a unique confidence and positive expectation built from comics readership: the idea here being, hey, we knew what comics heroes and comics stories were like; we wouldn’t be dealing with most of the people at the table not knowing it, nor with a rapidly-expanding body of source material which created a tautology with the RPG we were using. This should be easy!

Well, it wasn’t that easy. Superhero comics stories are composed of little more than flash (cool visuals), bang (extravagant significance of evens), and soap (personal melodrama), but making them is not the same as reading them. Preparing for and dealing with emergent fights and plots faced both the classic comics problem of why fights matter in the first place, compounded by the classic problems of agency in role-playing. More specifically, how do we know, expect, design, and permit to emerge:

  • what powers “can do”
  • characters’ politics, social class, daily concerns, responsibilities
  • world and/or ‘Verse building
  • protagonism, ethics and themes

It’s about why do we play and what are superheroes as I discussed in Medium and idiom: they fight crime!, but it’s about a lot more too. I’m getting at why these questions are surprisingly difficult to answer.

What was in fact done?

I have been feeling itchy due to not posting a timeline of some kind for a couple of months, so scratch it with me with this:

But this is of course madness, so click on supers rpg history to get the PDF in an accompanying window.

It’s supposed to give an accurate big-picture portrait rather than capture every fiddly publication, so please don’t post to inform me about what I “missed” or “forgot,” unless you’re sure it’s relevant to a point I’m making in a post. I’ve deliberately left off many good comics-type games that aren’t in the idiom I’m concerned with, e.g. Underground. That said, I’m a surprised to see so little licensing in the history, so let me know about any core books of that kind (not supplements or splats, and not movie tie-ins) that I don’t have listed.

Pause for one thing – wow, talk about personal life-timing – look at that 1983-1985 swath of design-and-publish innovation which just happens to define the exact moment I returned to reading comics and playing RPGs after a significant hiatus! (see Moses and the Mosquito)

For previous posting about this publishing and design history, including input from Steve Long, please look at Do the two-step, What does this power do?, and 90s (H)ero.

What I have in mind

The plan is to compare core features of first-generation Champions (up through 1982-1985, especially 3rd edition) with the first edition of GURPS: Supers (1989). The reason for doing this, and perhaps my first major claim of this series, is the profound discontinuity between first-generation Champions and Champions 4th edition (1989). It’s perhaps clarified by identifying the latter as practically a twin of GURPS: Supers, published in the same year.

Here’s how it went for me. I didn’t like Champs 4th very much, and recognized that if this is what we were all supposed to be doing now, then one might as well use GURPS: Supers instead, as it was better written, more elegant in design, and marginally less numerically fiddly, and (this being the value added) it had a particular grounding in geographic, historical, political humanity that no other game at the time came within a mile of. So, having moved to Gainesville, Florida, after six years in Chicago, having begun a whole new life, I began preparing for new superhero role-playing using GURPS: Supers. All the prep for the Force Five game I described in Snakes and hotties was done using that system.

However, I was also dedicated to membership in and contributing to The Clobberin’ Times APA, in which my interest in GURPS received rapid censure and refusal of inclusion. Bowed by peer pressure, I stayed with Champions for Force Five … or rather, nominally using 4th, but really preserving both the spirit and several crucial features of first-generation, as well as retaining one major qualitative feature and a couple minor quantitative features from GURPS: Supers that I’d grown attached to along the way.

In case I haven’t been clear, I think something important about role-playing as an activity was silenced and even perhaps killed in that GURPS-izing of Champions to produce the latter’s 4th edition. However, GURPS: Supers had virtues uniquely its own that need highlighting too. My experience at that moment, and through two or three years of subsequent play, left me well-placed to reflect on the following:

  • How powers-and-identity concepts, quantitative building techniques, and probabilistic procedures generate emergent character/plot tension which can emerge, prepped but unplanned, into fictional crisis
  • How dynamics of luck/coincidence, effort/fatigue, money/status, and reputation/morality interact to emerge, unplanned, into relevant themes
  • How context, history, and setting, especially politics, generate genuine relevance, not the fake-relevance of “ripped from the headlines,” but ways for different people to confront and reflect upon their own views

So here we go with a bunch of highly specialized superhero role-playing posts, comin’ down the pike. They may look exceedingly narrow, pinpointed as they are on the long-ago 1985-1989 and on these two long out-of-print games which compared to the broad sweep of role-playing are not very different. Hold on tight anyway. I intend for this to matter.

This series of posts is dedicated to the memory of K. C. Ryan and Mike O’Connell.

Links: History of superhero role-playing games (RPG Museum, dismayingly skimpy), Supers role-playing tag (for this blog)

Next: Very special effects (July 25)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on July 16, 2017, in Supers role-playing, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Ron, I loved the dedication to KC and Mike (I miss them both so often – for their friendship, fellowship and creativity). I look forward to this new series of articles. And enjoy your adventures in Sweden.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Since this is just an introduction, really, I’ll save my more substantive comments for later posts. I drew the attention of the game’s original designers to this on FB, so hopefully they will likewise stop by and chip in their two krona.

    I suspect, though, that we may have more significant disagreements — or at least significantly different perspectives — on the issues you’re doing to raise here. Looking forward to the series. Skol!

    Liked by 2 people

    • i’ll be calling for people to distinguish between the two. Disagreements pertain to claims like I made for the change in fantasy fandom and the perhaps special expectation for superhero role-playing, or to the accuracy of how I describe a given rule or that rule’s common emergent effect on play. Whereas differences in perspective concern whether you liked something and someone else didn’t, or how you think it related to some good/bad trajectory of game design culture, et cetera.

      I’m completely open to people expressing disagreements and I’m reasonably hopeful that we’ll all be able to identify differences in perspective without letting them become pissing contests.

      The only problems will arise from people being unable to accept that saying “this game does this” is not the same as saying “if you played the game, you must have done this,” or from them mis-reading a given description as “sucks” or anything similarly judgmental. Or – and I really fear this – being unable to let go of whatever pop culture identity games they, including me, bought into thirty years ago.

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  3. Looks like the beginning of a nice series of articles. I did get quite a few if not all of the GURPS: Supers books, mainly because I liked a lot of the world content and I enjoyed GURPS, though more for the genre books than the system itself. I was just more comfortable in the Hero system. I was another that really disliked 4th edition when it first came out, though I did get over most of that. (I still house rule -1/3″) I was in a used bookstore recently and a guy was looking at the Hero section. He hadn’t played any Hero and I discussed the merits of 4th, 5th, and 6th while there (each core book was available). He wound going with 5th. 6th was too spendy ($60 compared to $30). I also pointed him toward herogames.com, so hopefully he’ll get even more guidance there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Man, you should see how quirky my eventual system at the table was! Among other things …

      – no Damage Reduction, no Mind Control, no Killing Attacks, no Charges
      – using the 1 END per 5 points, not 1:10; also, no reduced END for any reason
      – no unmodified attacks (have to have an advantage, limitation, or both)
      – required 5 points of Quirks (lifted from GURPS) that counted as Disadvantages points
      – percentage ratio of Active Points to Real Points couldn’t exceed 120
      – keeping a low-ish ceiling on “stop damage” defenses, especially Resistant ones
      – we used “hex” as a distance measure in talking, but didn’t use minis or a hex map

      It really was first-generation with a few 4th edition mods, not the other way around.

      Everyone I ever knew or read about who played Champions during the 80s did this – what I think of as kicking the tires, and something about the game led this to occur in very constructive ways. Sometimes it concerned explicit text options (e.g. whether you used the very short or the more extended skill lists) and sometimes it was pure drift through use.

      Of course, every table did it differently, and when you played and read around as much as I did, sometimes the results were startling. I think of it as my first lessons in game design.

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  4. Steve Peterson

    I’m curious to know the specifics of what you preferred in Champions first through third edition versus fourth edition (or later), and why. As far as the design decisions and changes go on our end, they were made for a variety of reasons. We always strove to balance simplicity with creating the right “feel” (“right” is subjective, but we aimed to provide a Marvel comics style spirit).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Steve, and welcome, it’s an honor to have you here.

      I understand there might be some tension and wariness, so for whoever’s reading, maybe this will help. (not necessarily you, Steve; I’m taking the opportunity for a PSA)

      First, I’m not going anywhere near the long-standing discussions about power balance, proper costs for this or that, min-maxing, or what powers should or shouldn’t do; it’s simply not my topic and there are probably dozens of other websites where people can wrestle about it. Similarly, I’m good with the notion that the two games’ early histories are intimately informed by one another, through several steps, which for me, negates issues of who-really-did-what-first rather than prompts them. So none of that is in the mix either.

      Second, I’m relying on a concept which I often stated to colleagues during my career as a biology professor. It is, “You can know what you said, but you can’t know what you taught.” In that context, I was telling them that they shouldn’t resent the students when the latter claim they were taught this or that crazy thing, and the prof says, but I never said that. Instead, they should figure out how on earth the students came up with that reaction, without judging it spurious or stupid out of the gate. They should also incorporate as much genuine interaction during their classes in order to reveal such mismatches before they get baked in. In my experience, the prof will often find that he or she really is teaching something that he or she didn’t intend or expect.

      Applied here to my Champions experiences, it’s a little different. Unlike a class, there’s no social contract between publisher and buyer for “getting it right.” I think that lets some of the pressure off, fortunately. So, my thought is to say, yes, the designers and authors of the game texts did everything, made every decision, made every effort, in order to improve and enjoy the game as much as they could. Nothing I’m saying is a criticism of that – even if what I say about using the game texts runs counter to what they intended or expected. There’s no way anyone can control for what the receiver wants or knows prior to purchase, or what he or she does with the thing, or especially, what may be in the thing, discoverable by the receiver, which the designers didn’t intend or expect.

      So there’s a little dance, I guess. On the one hand, I own the weirdness or individuality of what I did with the game texts, without insisting that’s what they “are” in a universal sense, or claiming “that’s what you said” or anything like that. On the other, I ask that anyone reading this consider that I did in fact use the texts (I’ll specify which bits mattered most to me), rather than just cart them around while I entirely did my own thing, and therefore, what I saw and found in them can bear some examination. As long as we all respect the dance, there’s no threat or challenge at work in the discussion.

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  5. Chris Goodwin

    Ron, thank you for this. I was always a little dissatisfied with 4e, and it’s taken me this long to really be able to articulate why. I’m looking forward to your later posts on the matter.

    Incidentally, my “Look Back at 3rd Edition Champions” document that you linked to previously has suffered from link rot. I now have it publicly shared on Google Docs; I’ll try to email you a link separately, because I’m afraid if I post it here WordPress will treat it as a spam link.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This could get interesting, even if just to see how the other side thinks so to speak. My views are completely opposite. GURPS has never sat well with me, and I loved Champions and thought it got better with each release, especially 4th and 5th… (not so much 6th, sorry Steve). But if this topic is keeping it to ‘toolboxes’ then yeah, HERO and GURPS is spot on.

    But if you are looking for the major comic RPGs overall, you miseed TMNT which likely has a much wider influence during that time, and to some extent Ninjas & Superspies.

    Like

    • I might have to clarify a little – looking back, I was a Champions guy. The GURPS bit ended up being an influence (I’ll talk more about that later), and the real deviation on my part was to stick with first-generation Champs in so many ways, after 4th edition seemed to have landed squarely upon and fully occupied the user-base. I’m not sure if you needed that clarification, but I figured it’s good to say it.

      It hurt me not to include TMNT in the table, especially since the comic was directly spoofing Miller’s Daredevil, but I decided to stick with no-parody “superheroes in costumes” in order to stay sane.

      Like

  7. Ron, like you, when I GMed I was very against players having mind control and telepathy as well as putting a major restriction on Killing attacks (I did not want Wolverine or Punisher clones in my game world). Time travel also had major house rules in my campaigns.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Super Squadron was also 1983 which fits into that highlighted chunk of 1980s

    Like

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