Very special effects

This is my first detailed post in a series comparing first-generation Champions (1982-1985 publications) and GURPS: Supers (1989). The blog has received some new readers who are invested in the issue, so (i) welcome!! and (ii) let’s try for extra civility, learning-curves, and no-blood-no-foul, all around.

The topic today: how rules-in-text relate to what’s imagined-and-said-and-heard during play. I like to call that latter part the shared imagined space, but it’s fair as well to call it the fiction. Early role-playing felt rather than talked its way through this topic, until Champions came along – the first text actually to lay down how they were supposed to relate.

One quick definition before we start: the “rules.” This term is both loaded and molten in role-playing culture, and I have to be careful with it. I’m using it to mean how play – and in these games, points – are organized in use, and I’m also distinguishing between text and whatever it is you or I actually do at the table with it. I’m not using the term either as authority – “the rules say, thus you must” – or as a pejorative – “screw the rules, we do real role-playing.”

I’m focusing on the term special effects, introduced by this very game.

Champions (first-generation, 1982-85)

The rules in this case are naked of fictional content and organized in terms of mechanics, so you have to specify what the character does in fictional terms yourself. That’s what special effects are: “nova blast,” “mystic mastery,” “spider-y things.” The rules, here meaning the instructions based on points and dice, are a kind of anatomical mechanism for making things in play “go,” and the special effects are how to describe and visualize them.

If such a thing does little or nothing in play beyond what the current rule in action does, then it remains what I’ll call “soft” – we describe and visualize that you’re shooting loopy-looking drug gas and not, for example, ice or fire, and that’s it. A modern word for that is “skin.” That’s what the black arrows are doing in the following diagram: we use the rule but describe it with the special effect.

However, and the text is explicit as hell about this, the GM may assign a special effect a more consequential fictional impact at any time during play – exactly as if that effect were a textual rule. It might hit harder, it might do half effects, it might not work, it might shut down the thing or foe it’s hitting entirely, it might do some wild thing that no one intended or knew could happen. This procedure has no point cost, no pre-arranged parameters, no number-of-use limits, no “metagame mechanic,” no nothing in rules terms beyond the standing permission to do it – it’s simply that the GM thinks this special effect ought to get some more fictional weight at this particular moment of play. In practice, when you have a fun working relationship among the people at the table, it’s not solely the GM at all, as suggestions for such things pop up from anyone more or less regularly, often rubber-stamped by the GM.

That’s what the red arrow is; I’m calling this a “hard” special effect. It’s still damned soft in terms of textual rules, i.e., there aren’t any being used at all beyond the statement that you can do it, but at that moment anyway, the power or whatever is affecting things in the fiction just as severely as any rule-invoked thing would have, in terms of qualitative and quantitative impact. Sometimes, and of those, often unplanned, the effect can be quite significant.

Off the top of my head, and acknowledging that these reflect my accustomed standards for the procedure, if you have a Gas Jet defined in game terms as a simple, unmodified Energy Blast, it may well affect more than one person if they’re being hit at the extreme end of your attack range, or do some automatic damage to the guy in powered armor – solely because at that moment in play, it seems sensible or fun or “just right,”  for some of the gas to spread, or to seep in no matter what. Same goes for negative versions, e.g., the Gas Jet being half-effective when high winds or similar effects are present.

At least to my eyes, in this generation of Champions, special effects are much more than skins – they are, actually, the primal “matter” of the body-of-play, with the rules being a functioning subroutine within them. (Please note that nowhere am I saying that special effects override the rules. That is way not where I’m coming from.)

Now, it may be that you like a given nuance of your power’s special effect so much that you want to see it in action all the time, or to put it differently, you conceive of the power in such a way that you cannot imagine it functioning without this effect, or to put it even more differently, it occurs to you that your power will be more effective if you spend points on making the special effect into a rules-driven feature. Having already, and necessarily, defined your Energy Blast (power) as Gas Jet (special effect), you find it easy to say, “you know, this really ought to have the Area Effect: Cone advantage and some Piercing points,” or whatever you decide among the interesting list in the text; I chose those two to correspond with the fictional effects I spitballed two paragraphs above. Essentially, you’re saying, let’s not rely on in-the-moment inspiration for these specific elements of my special effect, instead, let’s bake’em in using points so they’ll become rules.

But the thing to remember is that in Champions, the logic never works the other way. In the diagram, that’s why the red arrow goes from left to right. I stand by this as textual, not merely Ron’s preference or quirk. It’s flatly absent from the text that if your Energy Blast (power) is defined as a Gas Jet (special effect), it has to have any such mechanical thing built into its point construction. Go ahead and leave it unmodified, if you want, and let the gas jet details crop up in play, unconstructed. (Champions folks, more views about this are available at Math is not hard and the embedded PDF there; warning, it includes humorous snarkiness.)

A related point is that if you do jack up the complexity of your power’s rules/point construction, an “envelope” of soft special effects still surrounds it, and those can be opportunistically turned hard during play as usual. Hardening particular special effects into rules-level modifications never replaces general special effects or reduces their potential presence in play.

Furthermore, the conceptual border passage between special effect and rule is made even more porous in this game through rules that only apply via special effects, and it’s still in the left-to-right direction, as I’ve added here.

The Elemental Control concept grants a significant cost break for unifying powers through special effects, and although it wasn’t a very effectively-used rule in our games, I’ll talk about its significance to GURPS comparisons in a minute. We did get a lot of use from the more-radical Variable Power Pool, as I discussed in What does this power do? It throws out the baseline concept of the game’s point structure, which is that if you buy X, you have less points to spend on Y, in favor of saying screw it, you bought every power, A to Z, with those points, usable strictly on the basis of special effects, and the point structure is there to manage certain when-and-how parameters – not “what.” It turns what was an improvisational option, soft special effects becoming hard now and again, into the constant basis for playing your character’s powers in the first place.

In both of these cases, the special effects drive the rules (in the case of Elemental Control, point costs; in the case of the VPP, managing which powers are currently available for the player to use) … not the other way around. To repeat myself a little, preacher-like, there are no rules in Champions which impose special effects, but there are rules which rely solely on having identified and on paying attention to special effects.

Looting a pic of Vertigo

Here’s a starting character I made up for this post: Miasma, built in three ways. I used the first-generation rules, with Champions 3rd as the baseline, including my spin on which supplemental material I prefer. I will be using her and the GURPS character I’ll introduce in a minute throughout this series of posts – please focus with me, this time, strictly on the special effects issue.

What I hope you’ll see is that, in play, her “fiction” would be almost exactly the same in all three, and what differs is based on turning potential hard special effects into rules. Conceivably, the first, “plainest” version might be played and GM’d such that many fictional events were the same, via opportunistically hardening special effects, as mandated by the rules-mods in either of the other two. The quantitative mods in Version 2 are specified versions of what could have been situational special effects when playing Version I, and the same goes for Version 3 relative to Version 2. The rules specifications don’t give the ability to do those funkier versions of the powers; instead, those funky ways to use them were already potentially there to be seen in play as opportunistic hard special effects, and this numbers-play only locks them in as the default way to do it.

Contrary to many Champions conversations, few or none of the modifications I introduced in the second and third versions concern min-maxing for its own sake. The file includes some technical talk about that for those who care about it.

Cue videotape (hey, it’s the Eighties)

I keep referring to the text this and the rules that, but let’s be real & fair: here are the texts in the two games that present their philosophies about special effects. (Champions 3rd edition, 1985, George MacDonald and Steve Peterson, pp. 19-20; GURPS: Supers 1st edition, 1989, Loyd Blankenship, editor Steve Jackson, pp. 6-7)

I retyped them for those links. I really wanted to use scans of the pages but am currently scanner-limited. If anyone could scan the pages and send’em as two files, I’d really appreciate it!

There are lots of fun things to debate or analyze about those brief but rich texts. Is there really difference between side effects and special effects; how both authors get sidetracked by the issue of using the rules (which is fully explained elsewhere) as opposed to using the special effects without them, and more. But let’s not get sidetracked ourselves. I want to look at the punch-home point in each regarding hardening special effects which are not codified in modifications, as an opportunistic technique in play.

At that level, you could read those as saying the same things, and historically, in 1989, I did in fact think they did. But I changed my mind after hitting the road with my rubber, i.e., playing, and now, looking back with almost thirty years of active reflection engaged, I really don’t think they do. The difference lies not in parsing the phrase with hyper-legalistic care, nor in trying to winkle out what a given author may have meant, but in using the building-rules, playing the games, and seeing how the concepts described in each actually apply in the context of the rest of the game’s features.

With all that in mind, in reviewing those texts, I see the point of the Champions piece as encouraging hardening non-codified special effects in play as much as possible, and the point of the GURPS piece as reducing the zone for doing so as much as possible, including parsing special vs. side. I’ll try to make this case by completing my comparison with new diagrams.

GURPS: Supers (1st edition, 1989)

Here’s my diagram for GURPS: Supers.

This should be familiar, perhaps reassuringly so. It’s how most RPGs work: you have rules which, when employed, make changes in the fiction. Anything else fictional about the thing being used is colorful and fun to describe, but it does not, indeed cannot “do” anything in terms of impact on fictional targets or events. Or if so, very little and very local.

If you want your power or whatever to do something funky or specific to its special effect, well you just pony up the points or roll the right value or whatever it takes in that game to get the rule that does that. If you didn’t make your gas jet a by-the-rules cone, then it does not catch targets in a cone-shaped area, even if you and everyone else happen to describe its appearance in the fiction as a cone, or even if the circumstances strike you as just right for it to do it this time.

Furthermore, in-fiction qualities are baked into the rules categories, both in “what it can do” and in point costs. For example, vibration power costs 9 points per level and its attack does 1d6-1 per level, whereas fire power costs 12 per level and its attack does more damage (1d6+1 per level). Why? Because that’s just how vibration is, compared to fire, and the rules begin with similar comparisons in all directions and receive all their cost and effectiveness structure from there. All the different categories and abilities within them carry multiple verbal qualifiers, regarding both fictional circumstances and other rules. Examples are legion: the Fireball attack is incendiary; the Lightning Bolt attack carries an embedded Surge strike if it hits electrical equipment, plants under Plant Control slow pursuit by 50%, the Magic Power category cannot benefit from Extra Effort …

One could look at it this way: the GURPS powers rules have already built a Champions-style Elemental Control into each of many conceivable special-effects families of actions, then accordingly assessing the special effects into rules, assigning various minor benefits and limitations, and adjusting the point-costs accordingly. That’s why my diagram includes the all-important “hard special effects” already in the rules box. (That’s not a criticism: the vast majority of RPG design and play culture is arrayed in precisely this position; it’s almost synonymous with the term “gamer.” GURPS absolutely nails what this significant sector of the culture wants.)

Another way to look at it is that the names for powers in Champions,  although written as neutrally as possible, sometimes carry in-fiction implications, like Darkness …and yet it is also made clear that you’re not to take any of them literally. One person’s Darkness (power) may be the least-dark thing imaginable, like sheets of hazy, opaque light, or filling the air with mystic glitter – you start with the soft special effect and proceed into rules from there. Whereas the powers’ names in GURPS are rock-solid in-fiction identifiers, from which each one’s careful qualifications and its soft special effects proceed – if you want some other in-fiction identity, you might repurpose an existing rule if possible, but in many cases, e.g. Miasma’s powers, it’d be better to write up your own in-house power category entirely using the others as a model. (That’s not a criticism either: the existing categories are so clear that doing this is easy, and the text encourages it.)

I hope you can see what I’m getting at. Although one might read the two relevant text sections in isolation as saying the same thing, I think that when you apply the Champions text, you’re forced to see the arrows “go to the right” because the rules part is so naked of fiction, and if you’re inclined, the door to hardening special effects quite freely is wide open. Whereas in applying the GURPS text, if you wanted to harden a soft special effect during play, you’ll find that quite a lot of that creative space, for lack of a better word, has already been noted and codified into the rules you’re using for that power anyway.

In fact, here, I’ll complete the GURPS diagram in order to nail that down, with the relevant arrow going left, much more so in rules-choosing and preparation than in the course of play:

I acknowledge that the GURPS text does indeed include a “special effects can matter” qualification, opening a window in my Do Not Cross line for an arrow to get through. However … with so many fictional aspects baked into the powers, taking into account the Nuisance Limitation as well, there is very little room in actual play for such things to crop up. The way to regard hardening an informal special effect as a one-off quirk of play, is already modeled against in the rules-to-effects features. The window, constrained between “too effective, you need to have paid points for that” and “totally inconsequential, just a special effect,” is narrow.

Here’s Fireballs, who I confess has captured my heart in the moments of creating him. GURPS: Supers characters tend to do that to me, a topic I’ll investigate in detail in a later post.

What I hope to show in that file is that there is no I, II, and III for Fireballs like there is for Miasma. Jacking around with Enhancements and Limitations is much more concrete than in Champions – instead of more or less hardening existing special effects, you’re shifting whole parameters of play. The second version was really hard to keep within the original concept, then I hit a very hard limit in conceiving of a possible third, as any more building-in stuff would result in a different character.

Specifically, for Version 2, I was able to dramatize the already-existing potential for him to over-extend himself, building in Fatigue as a primary issue, so he’d furiously spend and regain it. To go any further, I’d have had to tap into the Limitations that would make his powers more dangerous and weird, like Fickle, Unreliable, Nuisance, and similar – all of which runs counter to my original, inspiring idea for him to be quite good at his powers, justifying his bad-boy humor, his Luck, his Charisma, and his tendency to go overboard, with the Jinx racking the emergent properties through the roof. Making the powers more dangerous and unpredictable basically turns him into a naive menace instead of a hero, as well as changing their soft and hard special effects considerably. Miasma hit a bit of a similar limit – but it’s based on utility, not on full-bore personality and theme, and the actual special effects remained unchanged throughout all three versions.

I stress that none of this is about saving points in the budgetary sense, opening up more of them to use on more powers. I could do that, but I didn’t. For both characters, I didn’t touch certain baseline features which I considered central to who they were and which inspired me to play them in the first place: for Fireballs, especially, the young-lawyer skill-set, the Jinx + Luck, the conflict between Pyromania and Hero’s Code of Honor, and the complete reliability and classical nature of things like Costume. The point was to Enhance and Limit his features to heighten the special effects’ presence in play – and again, my experience in play and in making super-characters in these two games, of which Fireballs is easily the 1000th, convinces me that GURPS really means it when it categorizes anything and when it says “point limits,” that the hardened special effects are pretty much already all there, and that you don’t harden the soft special effects to blur the edges of what can be done beyond the tiniest possible amount.

Ifs, ands, and buts

I guess I didn’t say it clearly yet, so here goes: both first generation Champions and GURPS: Supers refuse to be “skins” rules. The first avoids it by permitting, even encouraging opportunistic hardening of special effects, and the second avoids it by baking special effects directly into the procedures and points. The avoidance makes them very much alike, especially within their shared neighborhood of RPG design of point-build hex-combat … but the distinct ways they do it make them very different. OK, that’s the hard line, and here are some of the grey areas.

1. Those two diagrams are so different they might as well be two different activities, and I acknowledge the games might not be so distinguished, especially when massaged by real people in actual use. All I ask is that you see if you can meet me in the middle. if you’ll agree that I’m even 50% on the right track, I call that agreement enough and spot you all the rest.

2. The Champions supplements (II and III) – to my eyes – show a lot of author diversity toward these issues, to the point of outright philosophical differences. I think there’s an inadvertent tug-of-war among the contributions, some building-up the potential of the first diagram, and some trying to get over to the second diagram. Obviously one of my stronger supporting points, the Variable Power Pool, is a supplement contribution, but conversely, there’s also the addition of detailed skills, and the explanation of how the power Flash “simulates” the actual light-strike vs. the reflexive eye-blink, thus justifying two rolls rather than one. I’ll look at this tug-of-war regarding skills, resources, equipment, and other stuff that may or may not cost points depending on who’s writing, in an upcoming post.

3. Other aspects of the games aren’t so isolated to the powers as such, but rely on emergent aspects, i.e., how different parts of the character’s build interact. I alluded to this regarding Fireballs, in that I perceived an emergent framework among his point-cost parts which I refused to violate. I’ll discuss these differences in an upcoming post about character identity, social class, and relevant conflicts, with special reference to how characters change.

4. It suddenly occurs to me that someone is typing, even as they read the post, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Uh – no, no, I’m not. The only case I’m making is that this distinction exists, and all this-way-sucks or well-I-like-it-that-way can be left to personal disclosure, without authority beyond oneself.

5. One missing component in this post is comics, including the obvious inspirations from the 1970s (Conway’s Spider-Man, Englehart’s Avengers, Gerber’s Defenders) and especially those during the late 80s – X-Men, Elementals, Alpha Flight, The New Teen Titans, Watchmen, for instance. The looming presence is, I think, the drive to ‘Verse at both Marvel and DC. I’ll get to that topic for sure.

Thanks to everyone for reading this, and apologies to my more politically-minded and/or comics-first readers. I hope to show how more of these general interests are present in this series as it goes along.

Next: Being, having, and nothingness (July 30)


About Ron Edwards

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

Posted on July 23, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Posts like these are very valuable! Thanks for taking the time to share~

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron, I appreciate the in depth focus you give and the example characters you provided.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Steve Peterson

    An interesting analysis, and a perceptive one. We considered at various points trying to codify special effects to some degree, but ultimately left it alone. I’ve always felt the fundamental design precept of Champions/Hero System is that you buy game effects first, then decide exactly how those game effects occur. This lets the game model absolutely anything, unleashing the creativity of the players and GMs.

    One minor point: the game was first released in 1981, not 1982.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks!

      I agree, although I can take that line of thought into a more complex area.

      Specifically: goes both ways, doesn’t it? I mean, in the best possible sense of that phrase. One might buy effects first, e.g., “I’d sure like to play someone with Power Transfer this time,” and then consider magic vs. cosmic vs. radiation from there, or more likely nab one, say cosmic, out of the gate without comparison. Or conversely, one might conceive of a woman whose cape’s interior is a gate to unguessable cosmic realms, thinking of her “universe” absorbing energies into it, and of otherwise-tough super-foes dropping like flies in front of her, and thus, “OK, I’ll need Power Transfer for that.”

      I’ve found the two phenomena to occur at once, regardless of the initial direction of thought, and perhaps with a third of pure visualization and/or naming without much powers-implication involved as well (in fact you can see it above). Since character creation takes a little while, I’ve also found that the need to budget points and rack up disadvantages has a productive, prompting effect, “gonna need some points,” and then one of those three vectors gets activated some more.

      P.S. I’ll probably mix up 1981-82-83 at least once more before these posts are done … it’s a damn dense historical moment for RPG publishing.


  4. Ron, in honor of this new series of articles I dug up my old HeroMakr directory backup on my portable drive, restored it on my current desktop and fired it up via DosBox. Instant great memories of 4th edition character creation. I am even considering new updates for my old World Of Maenza website – – which was from our days when we resurrected the Clobberin’ Times for the Internet era.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d love it if you dipped into that wealth of examples for any purpose during this series of posts.

      Also … do you still sketch? If so, feel free to whip up nothing-fancy but fun images for Miasma and Fireballs. You don’t have to go with the images I casually linked to.


      • Ron, my skills were more in the writing area than they were the art one. I used to get care packages of art in the mail from CT members specifically so I would not do my own art. 😏 LOL


  5. I never played GURPS Supers — I already had the greatest RPG ever designed at my fingertips, why waste time looking for something better? 🙂 But I can offer some general insight on a few points:

    1. When I was designing the 5th, and even moreso the 6th, edition, there was some strong consideration for further “genericising” the Power names. Some that I considered included:

    Energy Blast = Normal Attack, Ranged
    Hand-to-Hand Attack = Normal Attack, HTH
    Sensory Deprivation = Flash
    Sensory Deprivation Field = Darkness

    But at that point in time, with nearly 30 years of game history behind us, those seemed to go a little too far. Most dedicated HERO gamers knew what those Powers did, and I felt the 5E and 6E books did a great job of explaining the concept of the “special effects principle.” I did remove a few “special effects suggestive names” (e.g., Force Wall became Barrier, and Force Field and Armor became Resistant Protection), but only a few.

    2. The concept of associating specific game effects with specific special effects is discussed in THE ULTIMATE ENERGY PROJECTOR, one of our 5th Edition supplements.For example, it suggests that Ice/Cold defenses provide -2 points of defense against Fire/Heat attacks, and Fire/Heat defenses get +1 defense against Ice/Cold attacks. (It covers 32 categories of Special Effect.) As with anything HERO System, it’s not the definitive discussion — it’s merely one possible take on the subject. And it’s a subject I’d like to return to sometime, since it’s fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I spotted that care toward making the Power names color-free right away, in 6th especially. It’s a good example of why I think the material’s in good hands.

      Conversely, your #2 doesn’t grab me. Such things seem to me to be already fully present in play whenever and however they seem called for, via the ordinary special effects rule. So I, at least, ask why I need anyone else to list any, or especially to assign values.

      That’s a this-reader-only response and not a challenge to your authorship or thoughts on the supplement itself. In fact, I noticed three days ago that I have that very book nicely lined up with others related to it, in a box – so before delivering any more internet opinion response, I better go to it and see what’s there.


      • Re: why #2, simply this: some HERO System gamers want that level of specificity and detail. Those who don’t want to get that specific can easily ignore the rules in a supplement. The “Ultimate” line as a whole is about providing much more detailed rules about a given subject.


  6. At the G+ share of this post, Joel asked,

    Would you say that a similar distinction (certainly not the only) exists between the Marvel Super Heroes game and the DC Heroes RPG?

    It’s more complex than that – we’re getting into papaya and tomato comparisons at that range, not two sorts of orange. I’ll bring in those two games, and V&V, a little bit in my next post because that’s addressing emergent properties of characters rather than this single principle.

    That said, however, I’ll apply it here by saying that DC Heroes is probably the most complete expression of “points model everything already, even when you’re not looking,” vs. “if you feel like modeling it you can use points.” If I had to guess, I’d say that if one were to harden special effects in DC Heroes, which in GURPS: Supers terms would definitely be side effects rather than special effects, you’d be most consistent with the rules in assigning all sorts of properties to the effects in points terms based on the effectiveness of the initial roll to use the power. In other words, not special effects at all, but pure rule from start to finish. Thus even the more delimited and possibly cautionary GURPS: Supers text about special and side effects isn’t part of that picture.

    So the diagram for DC Heroes would be like the first one I did for GURPS: Supers, no red except for the Do Not Cross line. Hell … it might not even have the Special Effects line at the left at all, but instead just the single completely vertical line currently on the right, albeit acknowledging that rules-use associated with character creation in the other games is an ongoing activity in this one for literally everything.

    Also, Miasma’s ego boost tied to her enraged is brilliant. I am much better versed in HERO, so I’m asking for your thoughts: does GURPS approach to baked in effects constrain the player from such thematically powerful player constructed relationships (i.e. mechanics to themes)?

    I modestly claim that this sort of criss-crossing among Disadvantages, Powers, soft special effects, and Modifiers is a personal specialty, so, again, that’s in the next post.

    To answer your question, I suggest that GURPS: Supers achieves startling success with that effect through a different route. If you’re familiar with the game, or especially with the first enemies book Super Scum, take a look at every character’s curious and compelling grounding in real-world place of origin, personal motivation, and political conflict. I’ll talk about how this is done in the upcoming post.


  7. Santiago Verón

    I’m loving this. I wanted to know, so, Champions lets you put more points into characters between sessions? Is this a form of Experience (in the D&Dish sense)? Or are you just shuffling points around? It intrigued me when you talked about a player saying “I better put points into this to solidify the way I use it”. Or is the player simply adding Advantages and Disadvantages, so it all sums up to the same point cost?

    If so, can you do that in the middle of a session?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Yes, Champions is one of the earliest games for which you receive a small number of experience points after every session, and they’re the same as the points you used to build the character initially. So you sort of just add onto the character with more of the same currency; he or she literally becomes more “valuable.”

      GURPS is exactly the same. It’s not surprising because their history is a little close, from before the existence of either game, which I’ve written about previously.

      Textually, for either game, you don’t spend these points during play. Doing so was sometimes house-ruled in, as I’ll discuss in the (newly-conceived) upcoming post about how characters change.

      You can also spend points to counteract, i.e., “buy off” disadvantages. As I recall a lot of groups ignored this and merely waved away disadvantages that no longer applied or that everyone was uninterested in pursuing, rather than “waste” points they could be spending on more powers.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m in a strange place for this series of posts, with lots of RPG experience and opinions, but not with supers-RPGs. I’ve owned/read some, done non-Supers things with GURPS and Hero (and M&M and others), but … I expect I won’t have much to say here.

    HOWEVER (and why this comment) – Ron, I think everything you say here about Special Effects and Powers applies to things like “descriptors” as applied to Skills in some systems, and what you’ve outlined here makes the questions (issues? switches?) really clear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In what I like to think of as the 1989 synthesis of the three main trajectories of RPG design to date by that point (AD&D, GURPS/Champions, BRP), the concept of soft special effects, specifically of hardening them all the time, seems to have been lost. It remained inside the Hero System subculture, but not anywhere else. You got this spell or that vampire power, and it both was and did exactly what that paragraph in the book said. (In case it’s not clear what I mean by the synthesis, see the guts of all three trajectories twisted together somewhat grossly in Shadowrun, and see Vampire for Shadowrun‘s penetration into “how you do it” for role-playing publishing and design.)

      I found that when I published Sorcerer, a lot of people had a terrible time understanding what I meant by building demon powers using a fixed, brief list of abilties with only Color as a guide. To the point that one very well-versed reader – except not in Champions – accused me of plain laziness in not providing an extensive library of demons and demonic powers; it didn’t occur to him that I’d provided a much vaster library of both with what’s in the book.

      I’m not sure what you mean by descriptors as applied to skills – examples?


      • I want to answer “what you mean by descriptors as applied to skills” with a thorough examination of designs from Story Engine to Universalis to FATE to 3.5 Skills vs. 4.0+ Backgrounds, add in some long-ago local hacks to White Wolf “dots”, other stuff from personal play … but a QUICK think-through reveals what I currently mean may not really be IN any of those places, so instead:

        Let’s say there’s a skill list, either defined by the game or built custom to the character. And lets say that each skill has a value, how good at it you are. You can work with that, but I’m sure anyone still reading has run into problems with it. Scope of skill definition problems, embedding play re: skills into the SIS/fiction problems, more.

        Now let’s say I’ve got the skill Computer Use at 7 of 10. Bland, less helpful than it might seem. So I spice it up by adding descriptors/aspects/special effects/call ’em whatever: “CS degree”, “gifted logician”. Or “lived in the comp lab, age 15-27.” Or “Zen connection to the Code”. Whatever. Fixed-list, freeform – variants abound.

        Everything about special effects/hardening you’ve written here seems like it can apply once we start adding those. Especially the various degrees/ways of hardening, or not letting that happen.

        Probably all I’m saying is “a “skill” is [potentially, in some design approaches] just a less-oddball Power, isn’t it?” Maybe not even necessarily less-oddball.


        • Got it! I agree with you, and there’s some real power in examining how it goes awry, and why that happens so often. There are two variables at work, I think.

          1. Complexity or specificity of the skill’s name: “computers” vs. “computer programming” vs. “code analysis and debugging” vs. fill in with hyper-specialized task.

          I bet you banged your head against as many walls about this, rulebook by rulebook, as I did. There’s an endless fascination in game text culture about it, which although it’s totally absent in original RPG rules sets, appeared pretty early in the form of skill trees. You remember … you got your named skill somewhere on the tree, which also gives you weak versions of the more general category the skill belongs to as well as the skill’s subskills, but no hope at the equivalent “other branches” at your level on the tree. You might get the most general “basal” skill but you’re not real good at any application (you just have a lot or all of them), or you’re the hyper-expert who can nail viruses of a specific sort but can’t do anything else well at all.

          Damn did people like that: “specialist vs. generalist! awesome!” The thing is, though, that none of that has to do with play culture, does it. In all fiction, everywhre, all the time, when a fictional character is coded “good at X,” that the goodness is supposed to apply at a greater level than the named X, and also at various subroutines or detailed specifics of the named X (in fact, also to related skills of all sorts). Exceptions are exactly that, exceptions, usually appearing as nasty surprises.

          So right in the middle of the allegedly choose it your way 1000-entry skill purchase systems that proliferated like crazy trees themselves (did this start with the infamous setting-metaplot second edition of Traveller?), you then see people cutting back to composing skill packages – basically functional wads of what you really wanted the character to be understood to do. All that work, just to yield a few fixed categories to choose from that were easily understood as “master computer dude in the group,” “starship captain,” or, tellingly, “the thief.” By the time of Fantasy Hero and GURPS: Fantasy (1986), this was standard especially for those who fancied themselves the hard-SF or realistic-fantasy branch of role-playing.

          2. (this is more where your post was aimed, but I hope you’ll see why I did #1 up there too) The whole other variable is … what shall we call it, non-reductionist? The idea that what you see about this character most obviously is easily named, but it’s a window to tons of other things. Like you said, this might be formalized by a list or left open to improv (and double that choice by applying it to character creation and play as two different activities).

          I’d add to your list Over the Edge, which preceded Maelstrom (the original and best version of Story Engine) by a few years and influenced it really strongly … there, not only did you name your attribute and effectively define it, you also chose a Sign or detail which coded it to an observer, and you also got to apply it very generously across tons of different activities. This is tied to a general early-90s trend to reduce what I call research time, the effort it takes during play to figure out what to roll or otherwise do. Even the early White Wolf games, not ordinarily my choice for positive examples, are incredibly easy to “grab and roll” compared to Traveller of the same period, often on an aesthetic and colorful standard for choosing.

          This topic is strongly related to, although not synonymous with, the ongoing conundrum about atttribute vs. skill. It’s rooted in a Nature/Nurture fallacy which proves as obsessive and fascinating to game text writers as the taxonomic hierarchy of skills, and is equally irrelevant to the activity of play. It doesn’t surprise me that the games you mentioned tended to treat attributes as aspects of skills or vice versa or actually to throw the distinction away entirely.

          Musing … when #1 and #2 get confounded, the world blows up. The first version of Hero Wars (2000) ran face-first into it, when Robin Laws’ system was obviously influenced by Over the Edge and Maelstrom, mostly taking a more fine-grained approach but also including cultural and other keywords which were supposed to encapsulate massive skill-sets … but the playtesters and fanbase were absolutely determined that someone with “broad-axe” would have to be relatively worse with “edged weapons” and vice versa, as God forbid player A would have “more” than player B based on naming the thing differently, especially in generalist vs. specialist terms. So right in the middle of these gloriously functional abilities mechanics comes this whiny-butt subroutine of penalties for straying up or down or sideways from your specific branch on the perceived skill tree.

          Then there’s figuring out when you “can” or “can’t” do something on the basis of your character definitions, especially as coded on the sheet. Do you remember the anecdote at the Forge about the Vampire players who were stalled out for hours as they struggled to figure out whether their characters could work a photocopier? Sounds crazy, and even kind of rules-ignorant as I recall that to do non-named stuff in that game, you just grabbed two attributes and rolled, but to them, the list of skills and abilities were so absorbing and defining that they were completely unable to harden the soft special effects of even “being a guy doing an ordinary thing” into a fictional action.

          Anyway, I hope I’m making sense: that in the effort to color-up and otherwise personalize one’s character as you describe (naming cool versions of your skills), you run into the play-habits which focus deeply on denying what’s not named. Which is, I think, the opposite of the very positive effect that you were aiming for. Instead of “bad-ass virus maker & stopper” who’s also obviously able to hack this or that, or to use the computer for nearly anything, you get “you can’t do that” or “take a -5 penalty” when he tries to do anything with it besides start or stop a virus. Unless, of course, you take the eighteen other skills and probably one or two necessary advantages or traits to backstop them … which is to say, commit so many points to the breadth of the character that the “bad-ass virus guy” is no kind of image or definer at all, as it’s merely one detail among many, and you might as well have just chosen a character class with all that shit on there already and be done with it.

          As I alluded to in both variables, the core issue here is the difference between sitting at the table chewing on your eraser vs. actually playing the game and seeing how people process the textual procedures. Superhero RPG designs seem especially prone to the hazards of the former … the more so as I examine the five or so designs I’m referencing in this series, and see how incredibly baked in play, and in trust of the actual people’s joy in the topic, they all are.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. I can now Like, and have done so, despite my ambivalence about the concept. Which is mostly all I need say here, probably – Like as shorthand for “I pretty much agree with all that, Ron.” What MIGHT help (to avoid eraser-chewing, and to enhance joy-sharing) doesn’t necessarily do so, but you’ve outlined here a lot about how things intended to help (special effects, hardening) function. That ought to be some benefit in the effort to make ’em more likely to actually help.

    Liked by 1 person

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