Being, having, and nothingness
Posted by Ron Edwards
Let’s not get trapped in the meme-fest that is this film’s legacy, and instead look at that moment for itself. The Wolf is talking to a quirky, attractive, possibly sociopathic young woman who has just aided him to dispose of a murdered person’s body, and who is strongly implied to have done this before. The disposal of said body has been a plot-problem for a good bit of the film, but now it’s over, and this moment and this character’s appearance solves it instantly with no, zilch, issues. As I see it, the comment is self-referential: both this woman and the Wolf himself are characters in the colorful, quotable, “such a character!” sense, but frankly, have no character whatsoever. They provide information, sweep away no-longer-important plot tension, and dress up their functionality with a song-and-dance.
This is my second detailed post comparing first-generations Champions (1981-1985, through 3rd edition) with GURPS: Supers (1989). The topic is protagonism, no small bone of contention in the history of the role-playing hobby.
As I’m a simple soul, let’s not be bothered with the circles-and-arrows of lit crit. I totally get that protagonist, hero, and good aren’t synonyms but rather play Venn games. After that, all I want to say is that a protagonist is a main character who for whatever reason gains distinctive and reasonably sympathetic interest from the reader (viewer, et cetera) for their situation and actions, as I have experienced many times, and so have you, and we should let the larger gabble proceed from there without participating. My own little gabble, completely informal and not intended to be used outside the context of this post, concerns whether a character you’d like to be a protagonist, since you’re the creator and participatory author, is one of the following.
- being a character
- either quirkiness or solidity, what the film people get a “character actor” to do
- used as a foil, a closed foreshadow-do-it-later loop, a walking McGuffin, a sweeper-out of used plot bits, or what I like to call Bobby G, the guy you have to meet to get where the plot wants you to go
- having character – exhibiting agency and judgment: he or she does or experiences or both
- variant 1: edgy, messing with intersections with “good” and “heroic,” apply anti- or semi- or whatever as you please; stories exhibit more internal conflict, changes of direction
- variant 2: simpler or less internally edgy, such that “good” and “heroic” form a three-way near-synonym; stories exhibit more sacrifice, external consequence, context
- I’ll talk about the “nothing” in the post title at the end
It’s readily apparent that the players-creators of the big push in superhero RPG design during the 1980s were thinking about this stuff, hard.
How they do it
GURPS: Supers and Champions are so alike in this sector of RPG design-and-play that their two differences can be compared fairly, orange to orange. The similarity first: in both, the fictional character’s “strength of character,” what it may be directed toward, and to what it may react strongly, is a matter of inferred psychology. There is no single score, no named morality/hero “thing,” and no categorization – you have to look at criss-crossing influences across more fine-grained things. Many of them are called “Disadvantages” in the rules but are better understood as desired features, from the player’s point of view, and often from the character’s too.
- Designated attitudes and standards: values regarding killing, most obviously, but also customized points of view of all sorts
- Implied interaction with the public: public/secret identity, distinctive appearance, reputation, institutional enemies (legal or illegal)
- Explicit relationships: dependents, personal enemies
- Connections between any of the above and the super-powers, including modifiers built into them
- Last but definitely not least, the character’s geographic origin, ethnicity, nationality, age, sex, income and other financial concerns, employment, status intertwined with all those things, and personal history regarding all those things
Neither game defines a “good guy” or provides types thereof to fill out on the sheet – for every single character, you must look across all those details up there and, in play, run with what you feel they imply in any given situation. Even better if some of them conflict. A character’s protagonism therefore emerges, or rather, may well do so, in a wide variety of ways (shining brightly, besmirched, saddened, given nuance …).
Here’s another presentation of my example characters, Miasma (Champions) and Fireballs (GURPS: Supers), tuned to the purposes of this post, both of whom please me regarding their potential or incipient protagonism in exactly these terms. Given my tastes in superhero characters, obviously I’m blurring hero/villain, in that she’s a hero who used to be a villain, and he’s a hero who, but for a quirk of values/psychology, could easily be a villain. Both are therefore hot-buttons of public perception but – for protagonism purposes – have at least a chance of social validation and/or good image management. For both, nothing about this is generalized or explicitly typed; instead, you pick it up by looking across the various details, and this diffuse identity translates into a questioning “what will he or she do?” rather than a fixed “this is what he or she does.” I hope you can see that the key is not single-noted consistency across a character’s many features, but rather productive tension.
Miasma’s criss-crosses include her full-on code vs. killing + cynicism + Enrage, as well as my notion that her competent dependent character is a heroic mentor or sponsor; but you can see it as well in the edgy villain-like tropes of her powers + the ruthlessness of (i) the multiple stealthy skills/powers combinations and (ii) the obvious Find Weakness + teleport-to-hit tactic. Note too the lack of Secret Identity, as she outed herself when choosing not to be a villain – she values solidity and the truth of things, and doesn’t want to live a lie of any kind. (I altered the build to include Public Identity to add some weight.) (I also purposely didn’t punch frantically on the “drugs-bad-bad!” trope, with Addiction and/or Susceptibility and/or a victim-style Psychological Limitation, but I nodded that way with her very specific Vulnerability.)
There’s no way to know before you play, but there’s enough “sinister-looking hero” going on to rev hard in the first session. Also, depending on the other player-characters, since she was the “only sane one” in her former villain group, which is why she stopped, she might now, amusingly, be possibly the “only sane one” among idealistic heroes.
Fireballs’ criss-crossing is really extreme, partly on purpose and partly because in this game, each named feature is so specific. One arm of the X, if you will, is the contrast between his Jinx on everyone else and his own Extraordinary Luck, neither of which are conscious or even “real” entities in the fiction. The other is composed of his fire enthusiasm vs. his Sense of Duty about fire safety, the latter tied to the non-Human-Torch focus on putting fires out. This one also intersects with his idealism about the law turned up to to 11 in the Hero’s Code, versus the frustration with being a lawyer and the implied onerous nature of his Duty. The rules text of the Superhero Code of Honor is very specific about upholding the law, bolster that with the Sense of Duty and Secret Identity – so he’s going to care a lot about what he doesn’t set on fire … yet he’s also a wise-ass trouble-maker who doesn’t mind hot-footing a stuck-up foe. He has Charisma and good people skills partly to show that he’d be a really good lawyer, partly to backstop his smart-mouthing, and partly to help keep his heroic image intact despite some almost inevitable property destruction comin’ down the pike.
Acknowledging again that you can’t know beforehand, I look forward to all the ways he’ll run up against the values and expectations of other heroes, often without intending to.
If my claim about this “same thing” seems too pat or isn’t obvious, examine the other contemporary superhero games, well into two papayas and one tomato territory.
- Villains & Vigilantes: player-characters are designated Good as opposed to Evil (only other characters can be Evil or Neutral); there’s also a remarkable section on the values of superheroes which includes patriotism (to be fair, not without nuances), upholding the law in spirit with the New York State Criminal Code for reference to the letter, and higher moral values. Regarding social context, because the character is based on you-the-player, his or her income and status and ethnicity aren’t hardened in rules numbers, but they are deemed hard via the other players’ knowledge of you. The whole game, therefore, is a hair short of a very personal challenge from author to reader, to play the best “you” you can in these terms. See Vee and Vee for thoughts and testimony from other contributors.
- DC Heroes: similar to V&V, well-defined hero-ness is baked into playing a character at all, with a bit more range as several types of heroes are designated with delimited moral and legal standards. You choose one type and play it, period. Play isn’t built to challenge these so much as to showcase them, so, whether it’s for a canonical character or one you make up, you know your part about killing, the law, et cetera, much as an actor does. Regarding social context, there’s no problem knowing and locking-in everything about the “guy,” both through the subplot rules and because this game is one of the most strict in constructing everything about the character – in fact about every living thing, every object, and every planet or star – in points. See Getting it just right for more.
- Marvel Super Heroes: this one’s the startling outlier – it’s almost wide-open about what you decide really being a hero or even individual morality is, even though moral judgments are locked into the rules for gaining Karma. This is possible because these Karma rules don’t lock you down so much as provide many differing ways to be right, and furthermore, you can be very situational about it, as you might gain a bunch for doing X this session, but lose a bunch for doing the opposite in the next. Also unlike either V&V or DCH, villains have their own Karma rules … and the text bluntly acknowledges that you may well play all-villain games with heroes as foes, with viable dramatic and fun results. (Ignore all of this for playing canonical characters.) Regarding social context, income and reputation get quantitatively tracked with some care, and going by the examples, put “bite” onto the characters’ situations so that interesting Karma-relevant choices emerge. See The little game that could for more thoughts.
That’s why I’m saying that for this issue, first-generation Champions and GURPS: Supers are oranges who vary in interesting ways. Their structure and definitions for protagonism and heroics are amoral, or rather, existential. Whereas Villains & Vigilantes and DC Heroes are both moral, imposing and expecting what protagonism is (the former game being more confrontational about it, and the latter being more thespian), and Marvel Super Heroes is, perhaps characteristically given the pre-Universe history of the comics, open to the possibility of immorality per character and storyline.
Difference #1: Points and personage
In the first-generation Champions core texts (1st-3rd edition), the non-super, relatively usual components of the character are entirely not built with points. There are very few skills and those are all exaggerated: comics-style acrobatics, comics-style combat acumen, comics-style beat-the-security, comics-style computer wizardry, et cetera. Everything else, especially money, Bruce Banner’s homelessness, Peter Parker’s photography and associated job, Tony Stark’s fortune and business holdings, Doctor Doom’s whole damn country and its resources – all of them are equal in this iteration of Champions, and gain or cost nothing in game-terms points. If you want to use these things in play, regarding all manner of very consequential details like status, resources, and a myriad of implicit attitudes, influences, and problems, you treat them as soft special effects and just harden’em up in the moment and do it. Doesn’t matter if it’s buying a yacht or panhandling – see what the character’s background and identity are for those things, and play him or her as doing anything those things imply.
GURPS: Supers is exactly the opposite. There’s a designated or effective “average” set at a low-earning white-collar person of no notable ethnicity (the text tacitly implies that white is neutral rather than privileged), and if you disadvantage the character in any financial or social way, you get more points, or so advantage him or her, you spend some. A fair amount of a starting character’s points are devoted to positioning the character in this way. I think it’s textually inarguable, however, that GURPS: Supers takes on a Champions-like quality in expanding the core book’s list of disadvantages – all of which focus on disability, discrimination, and dysfunction – into more frame-and-relationship variables that “place” a superhero’s activity into desirable tension rather than simply force characters into odd shapes. (Back then, the accusation that basic-book GURPS characters were disproportionately one-eyed, elderly, one-legged, alcoholic schizophrenics is not entirely unfounded.)
Let’s examine heroes’ clothing as a good example, in the opposite direction for the same vector, of the games’ profound difference in what the “character points,” so ostensibly similar, even are. In this generation or version of Champions, all the points are about already being in (better, creating) a super-hero comic; you don’t buy “being rich” or anything about the guy in points, not because it doesn’t matter, far from it, but because the “soft” elements of the character are all potentially treated as thoroughly solid things in play, ad lib. This context is so extreme that the Human Torch’s indestructible costume wouldn’t be designated a power in rules terms even though it is explicitly a power in fictional terms.
Whereas in GURPS: Supers, you have to buy not only the basic socioeconomic identity of the character and whether he or she can even ride a bicycle, but also to ramp “up and out” into the unrealistic conventions of super-hero comics – basically spending points just to be where Champions starts. Hence its 20-point cost, no small sum, for a costume that doesn’t burn up or whatever. As modeled in this game, not only would the Torch’s in-fiction “unstable molecules” costume be a power and cost points, but so would most characters’ outfits, e.g. Wolverine’s or the Black Widow’s, even when they’re not designated as anything but clothes in the fiction.
The first-generation Champions supplemental texts are full of radical disagreements about this issue, when you compare the many small sections in the supplements. Champions II drew upon the company’s other developing publications (e.g. Danger International, Super-Agents) to provide a more RPG-standard skills list, although it was designated “if you want to use it,” and the core book never adopted it even as an option through the 2nd and 3rd editions, pointing interested readers to the other games in the latter. Characters provided in the many Enemies books and scenario supplements, especially during the run-up to 4th edition, vary wildly across the available standards.
Then, and as one of the reasons I see a big discontinuity in the game’s history, the 4th edition core book did a 180 and instituted a full social status, appearance, reputation, income, and fine-grained skills system based on points – which I can’t help but think of as Champions being colonized by GURPS. Even more so since it wasn’t even a “core” book anymore, but now designated to be an application of the separately-published Hero System (also 1989). Good, bad, or indifferent isn’t the topic – I’m reporting on the history of how the two games did the same thing in different ways, and it so happens that at one point, one of them shifted to do it the other game’s way.
This is why the verbal introductory story is so valuable in these games, usually misnamed “origin” as if the powers’ dubious physics were the important thing (they’re not). Its purpose is to identify and highlight the implied connections using one or few events, to add relevant details (e.g. that Miasma kept her old “villain” super-name), and to establish that the tension is now cresting. It turns the point-buying ore into fictional metal.
My Miasma write-up for this post should show that the curse of this generation of Champions is letting you slide by with unnamed and often completely faceless enemies and DNPCs, meaningless psychological crap like “overconfident,” and in practice, permitting a tacit agreement that none of this is really supposed to matter in play. I encountered a lot of the first version – not much more than wiggling one’s fingers at the point-build – during my years GMing the game. Important: it wasn’t hard to get people to produce more specific, compelling versions, but the problem was you didn’t have to; most people I played with were eager to do so, but those already versed in Champions had often forgotten they wanted to, and/or were distracted by the engineering qualities of the build process.
Fireballs demonstrates the virtues of GURPS‘ more precise and somewhat more severe point budgeting, such that everything on the sheet is consequential – if you bought it, it matters, and in many cases it’s necessarily specified (more on that in the next section). It’s easy simply to add verbs and tighten up details like Quirks, and since “less is more,” meaning, Blankenship did it just right to establish a unique profile of Disadvantages rather than piling them on for points, you don’t have every character with casual personality features billed as major disorders, Hunteds and Dependent NPCs spilling all over the place, and Vulnerabilities and whatnot. This individuality and focus even leaves room for fun twists like I did with the Enemy.
Difference #2: Protagonism jet engines
I’m turning to another strong feature of the Champions supplements (II and III), including Strike Force (published later but drawing upon this generation of game-play). In them, many different small-essay contributions add up to a remarkable treatise about how characters change directly from experiences during play, focusing on both positive and negative point costs. Therefore changes in disadvantages as well as in boosting or changing powers often express genuinely moving reframing, psychological development, and plot consequences. Steve Peterson’s comment in last week’s post about Marvel as the model makes perfect sense in this regard; see also my acccount in Cloaky Spookydark.
Miasma, if I do say so myself, is set up nicely for developing her productive tensions in response to whatever happens in play. As long as you look at the components of the character as productive, there’s room for all sorts of change in her relationship and reputation issues, in developing new relationships and standards of behavior, adapting powers into more positive forms, discovering yet more rules-expression of existing features and learning new things (martial arts and security systems come to mind). I’m focusing more on the thematic than the “how powerful” side, so in that light, whether she winds up being an “irredeemable, but she tried” morality fable, an ongoing “what’s a hero anyway” question for other characters to ponder, or a solid “villain origin, solid hero,” is entirely left to play, but it’s all begging to be discovered.
So what does GURPS: Supers do? To some extent, the same thing applies because of the games’ structural similarity, although perhaps the less-squishy meaning of the points introduces a different qualitative effect. I don’t know, not having played it long enough to know. However, very clearly, something else does apply in spades: for all but the alien/construct characters, you begin by building the person first, as if he or she were a 100-point GURPS: Basic character. You necessarily get someone who’s grounded in a considerable amount of real life and politics. Then you “super them up,” and although that might impinge upon or rearrange the initial choices (and none of this suggests that the person ever existed exactly in that original form), the result is startling, genuinely nothing like anything I’d seen in role-playing before. It’s apparent in the example characters, but really evident in Super Scum: carefully-identified and precise ethnicities and national origins, tons of highly-motivating and rich-in-use events like the unification of Germany (in debate/process at the time of publication), various victims of or participants in the War on Drugs, tons of fallout from the Vietnam War and the wars in Africa, sinister but curiously interesting Soviets, the Iran-Contra affair, entirely non-trivial quirks that open role-playing doors and instant inferences … whether notable, problematic, ham-handed – hey! just like real comics do! related: related very well to setting and Earth Now; see The game you never heard of
I like Fireballs – he is solidly grounded as I initially built him in non-super “guy” form, even making a strength out of his no-point-plus, no-points-minus default background. He’s full of skills that seem “successful” without giving him status, and which, upon viewing the super-version, are a genuine asset. I can play up a feature of Daredevil which never really got its due; the expertise at whether and how super-heroing can uphold the law. I can see him as watching the Occupy protests as a college kid in 2008 and being shocked when they evaporated; I get why he got into Burning Man and feel for his frustrations.
This contrast may be a little too extreme: that I like Miasma for where she may go, and like Fireballs for where he is. Obviously, both ideas apply to both characters. For what it’s worth, I do feel a little bit of apprehension that if no one else picks up on Miasma’s potential, then I’ll be playing the “Desol Mentalist chick” tactical piece forever; and that if I play Fireballs long enough to “see” everything on his sheet once, then he’s done as far as character-arc interest goes, as well as becoming unrecognizable via numerical change to the character sheet.
These versions of both games also showcase the ongoing confusion between genuine disadvantage for the character (linked to the notion of “balancing” the “extra” points) and exciting plot points we all want to see (linked to the notion of the developing/cresting arc). In the comics, is Professor X’s wheelchair-bound condition really a disadvantage, or welcome characterization and thematically-powerful symbol of marginalized status? In the games, is a Dependent NPC a beloved supporting cast member, an otherwise-empty railroading plot hook, or a despised pain in the ass you really hope never to see in play, and which one is what the points are supposed to be buying? This confusion may be tagged as a primary artifact in role-playing culture which persisted until about 2000; I call attention as well to how Champions 6th edition recognizes and solves it.
I feel a whole post coming about character change, using the details of the older texts I’m referring to, character development, powers improvement, the differences between initial vs. later versions of heroes, 1980s comics, and 1980s role-playing, so I’ll stop myself here from doing it off-the-cuff. I’ll add it to this series’ list.
For now, staying with the basic contrasts I’ve outlined in this post, I find that my eventual “Ron” Champions of 1990-1992 (see Snakes and hotties) is more of a synthesis of the two games than I’d remembered.
- Including reputation and promoted image as a quantitative variable, using every possible rule, such that a character might have as many as three different versions of Unusual Looks
- Adopting a little bit of GURPS style (and Champions 4th edition) point investment in jobs, contacts, and income specifications
- Requiring that attack powers be modified by rules to help underscore their special effects
- Insisting on geographic, ethnic, and lifestyle specifications as part of the background
- Insisting on at least one institutional association, whether a real group or a fictional expy of a real one
- Adopting the Quirks rules, for more details for criss-crossing, and also including them as Disadvantages points (unlike GURPS) to cut down on the “fill’em up” problem
What the Wolf didn’t say
Is having better than being? I say nothing of the kind. It depends on what you want, especially in a group-authored, non-mass medium like role-playing. Arguably if everyone is “being,” then you get at most a pedestrian plot rise-and-outcome, but also arguably, so what, no one is holding any other activity to a different standard from that. Also, “having” character requires a degree of group commitment which according to the Great Minds of the hobby, is either too rare or too scary to contemplate. I’m not picking and choosing between them on any basis except my own desires for play, and those of the people I’m with. They’re not incompatible when you look across participants – “being” may well be a support structure for someone else’s “having.”
So is there anything to criticize, complain about, be a pain about? … what, is this a blog or not?
It’s possible neither to have nor to be (a) character. This is, I’m calling it, the “nothing,” in which some poor actor or some set of prose gesticulates in the medium, without the surprising or comforting or charming or spectacular features of being a character, and certainly without the “damn that smarts, what will he do, how could this go” features of having character. Instead, it’s a function of fulfilling audience expectations based on prior works, and its core feature is to avoid being surprising or engaging in any way which violates that expectation.
- Typically it’s when the character now appears as part of, or even defines, a serial presentation, after the character’s initial appearance in what was evidently a single story.
- It doesn’t have to be, and it’s also true that serial fiction characters don’t have this problem, but the association is very common.
- It may be either the same character, nominally, or a nominally different character who’s clearly an expy or in some sense, a rip-off.
- The requirement is anything but “seeing him again,” as the point is to be reminded of when he was seen – usually dialing it back to some memorable detail of a climactic or rising-action moment.
- The external situation or problem is ramped into maximum spectacle in order to provide anything new to look at; supporting characters are exaggerated into parody levels of their original appearance or new and extra-gaudy supporting characters appear.
- Often, both the original plot and its protagonist’s core decision-and-identity features are lost from the audience perception, replaced by a gestalt of fan-favorite memes and later versions’ moments. If the nothing is a zero, then this is zero squared.
- It’s the acme of marketing “success,” akin to getting people to identify with a product which is indistinguishable from the competing products – you can rouse the audience to pay again and to behave in very invested ways without actually having to concern yourself with a new story, and especially not to risk anything with a story that does anything thematically.
It happens in the comics, as I discussed in Spider-Schlep, How did I get these mutton chops?, and Super, thanks for asking + Context too! There, as in film and other franchise media, one may at least point to executive, corporate, career, and mass-culture interests at play. In the rather different sphere of role-playing, however, we build castles in the sand and no one makes megabucks off it, and back then especially, when managing even the minimal recording and presentation logged in Strike Force could be a nearly unique achievement.
The joy of superhero role-playing in the 1980s comes directly – I think – from the knowledge that we didn’t have to restrict ourselves to the nothing, not even a little. It was a moment of freedom, with a brand new medium and a wealth of specialized-marginalized history to draw upon, with no editor or larger audience to care. We were all Gerry Conway from a decade earlier – wait, Roy, did you just say, I get to write Spider-Man, however I want?! Or our perception of and very real identification with Chris Claremont from just a moment earlier – wait, Len, I get to do whatever I want with these new X-Men?! Sure, all your characters might “be” characters, perhaps junior in compelling power to those which “have” character, but even that is still perfectly enjoyable story creation.
The danger is to accept the nothing as a result or standard for play. Perhaps accepting that anything comics (or fantasy for that matter) is low-grade enough not to need or support more. Perhaps accepting that the role-playing activity is itself “a copy of a copy,” already low-grade fanfic. I don’t see any excuse for succumbing to that danger at all. And as far as I can tell, neither did anyone playing and writing for first-generation Champions, GURPS: Supers, Marvel Super Heroes, DC Heroes, or Villains & Vigilantes.
Got a request? This series of posts is turning out to be fun. I have at least a couple more in me, and I welcome suggestions for anything you’d like to see addressed about these two games and any implications.
Links: This whole series, but especially this post, is what I wanted to write about all the way back in 2006 – see HERO System, M&M and assessing incoherence
Next: Dynamic mechanics (August 6)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on July 30, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged Champions II, Champions RPG, disadvantages, fruitful void, GURPS: Supers, Loyd Blankenship, protagonism, Pulp Fiction 1994 film, Steve Peterson, Winston Wolf. Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.