Dynamic mechanics

I said I’d be getting to actual comics during all this role-playing talk, didn’t I? Here we go.

Look at that page, from Avengers #58: where are the characters, relative to one another, relative to important devices, and relative to the ceiling, and what are the consequences of those positions? Who realizes what, and when? Who communicates what to whom? Who’s faster? How much damage, and what kind, does what?

That’s what dynamics are: louder vs. quieter, harder vs. softer, nearer vs. farther, faster vs. slower, this direction or that direction, stronger vs. weaker, more determined vs. less, better oriented vs. more confused. They’re dynamic because they change moment to moment. In fiction, these things establish both what happens and why. But medium matters – a lot.

  • In comics, the language is transitive and fully visual: creators make a thing, the reader looks at the thing. The thing’s features – layout, internal panel composition, interplay of dialogue and image – communicated from A to B. The one-way communication is so strong that a condition or circumstance can be established retroactively, by seeing its effect. Thus neither Hank nor the reader “expects” the ceiling to nail him for increasing his size carelessly, but its height is taken as having been there once that happens.
  • In role-playing, the language is interactive, composed of literal language and a shifting mix of preparation and improvisation. What keeps it functional – neither collapsing into vague-ass committee workshopping nor condensing into bullying nannying leadership – is what I call the Bounce, some form of unpredictable input which nevertheless can be treated as logically preceding from the immediate circumstances. How this emerges from and feeds back into social and creative group dynamics … well, that’s what “game system” largely is.

This is another piece in my series comparing first-generation Champions (1st-3rd edition, 1981-1985) with the first edition of GURPS: Supers (1989). However, regarding contrasts, there aren’t many, as for this material, they are almost one game. To understand them or it, consider what I wrote about in Getting it just right:

The considerably more prevalent view was reductive: that the more clarity was established for action by action resolution, then the smallest atoms of these imagined moments would be clear to everyone – and thus, strictly through accumulation, any larger-scale units, regarding major changes in fictional events, time, and place, would be accounted for, and never unclear, from the bottom up. Many RPG designers have dedicated considerable effort toward this end.

Keep in mind for this post, that people were struggling with whether and how this reductive approach really worked, and toward what end. Whether this approach is “best” or “truest” or even “real” role-playing is of no interest to me. I point first to the remarkable diversity of original fantasy and science fiction role-playing designs throughout the 1970s, and then, to the early 1980s, when fantasy role-playing condensed into the single-author-driven, franchise version of the genre. Almost simultaneously, superhero role-playing opened the issue up again in what Emily Care Boss calls the “dialogue of design,” with everyone reading and playing everyone else’s games, and different methods flying this way and that. This handful of contemporary 1980s superhero games, with Champions/GURPS as one member, were the primordial soup of the informal design schools to come after.

Where are we & what’re we doing

One of these days, I’m going to give one of these games to a younger role-player without warning, in preparation for playing it … and wait for the moment when he or she says, “What the fuck is a ‘hex?'” and “Wait, my power blast only goes twenty inches?!” I sympathize – although these legacy features of the era were abandoned at the table by many role-players, they remained in the texts as basic vocabulary.

Anyway, fancy and ancient history aside, I’m calling attention to the context of the battle map for complex, multi-individual violence in role-playing situations. Look at that X-Men page, and see how much is apparent and implied about the various characters’ relative positions, who can see what, and the necessity for movement in tandem with action. Without much actual mapping in the visuals. In the role-playing terms of the day, that meant you really had to know the basics: position, distance, options, motion, hits that knock people through things, blasts whose effects spray around. And contrary to what you can see on that page (and the pages before and after), relying on a map.

Well, there’s a problem with that right there: whether you have a map for it or not. Role-playing is allegedly about emergent events, not pre-canned ones. If characters can go all sorts of places and things can happen anywhere, especially at the scale of superhero capabilities and in a known location like the city we live in at the moment … see? You’re stuck. Either:

  • You go with what happens and therefore will not have exactly the right battle map for the situations which occur, there agreeing that the spoken-reinforced “mind’s eye” will be the real stage instead of the map, or
  • You all tacitly agree that you’ll end up at the GM’s designated spot, putting aside the entirety of “play to see what happens and where we end up” as a polite fib.

I went with the first, as did the other groups I played with, and significantly, it was only really successful for superheroes, as fantasy and science fiction play snapped into the second through our habits, even if we swore it didn’t. For Champions, we often used a whiteboard, laid out flat on a table, sketching in enough of a diagram for the physical situation that had emerged, so we could set stuff on there more or less as miniatures. But it was definitely supplementary; we’d establish distances verbally, “over here, about two blocks away,” or “that’s medium range, no penalty.”

Keep that in mind – all the procedural mechanics I’m discussing were created in an ongoing, rather stressful re-establishment and re-communication about where every character is, with no way to do what Nightcrawler does on the page, showing that he had been in a position to see those kids, and had time to do something about it, because of what we see him finishing doing.

Getting hurt / getting tired

For historical reasons, early role-playing locked it in that your character is all gassed up to start, and whatever happens, it depletes a reserve or reduces a mode of effectiveness, which can then only be restored “back up.” The notion that you start at “medium” and can ramp up through events in play, didn’t hold at all. This proved to be a serious absence for play inspired by superhero comics. Contrary to the blithering of academics about power fantasies, it’s axiomatic that a superhero becomes really great in large part by getting his or her ass thoroughly kicked at some point or points.

Look at Superman taking a beating there. That’s where the importance of the Death of Superman lay – not in his alleged death which was actually even a bit less so than the typical comics hero death, but in his long-denied vulnerability, his badly-needed escape from the “invulnerability” prison Weisinger and Co. had locked him into, even from the”all better, wins after all” cycle of his fake vulnerabilities. I’ll go so far as to suggest that the character has undergone a writing renaissance since then.

Personal damage in role-playing was originally quite abstract as in Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls, but it was typically interpreted at the table as traumatic tissue damage, and codified as such by RuneQuest, a.k.a. Basic Role-Playing system. Some designs had introduced fatigue through a series of notoriously difficult encumbrance tracking rules, and the superhero games adopted these regarding spectacular feats of strength or speed, such that Champions featured a bank of Endurance which could be more important – at least for some groups – than one’s injury status, which it called Body (in GURPS, Health). Even more significantly, Champions also introduced unrealistic Stun damage, including the entirely fictional consequence “knocked out” which is so important to popular fiction of all kinds, and GURPS: Supers adopted it despite much reluctant text about how unrealistic it is.

The downside was the extensive bookkeeping, which was quickly cut back at most tables to eliminate the Endurance feature entirely, later reflected in the rules changes in Champions 4th edition, as I wrote about in Superhuman endurance. I’ll spare the ups and downs of the Recovery attribute in that game, which was either very significant or completely ignored depending on the table you played with. What I’m driving at is that, in role-playing superheroes, either fatigue and stunning are really, really big deals, to the point of hinging whole outcomes on them, or they aren’t. Rules proliferated in either direction and play did the same, independently.

But now I really mean it

Hit harder. Be stronger. Hold on just a little more. Do more than you thought – than anyone thought you could. Win after all, not just “against all odds,” but in defiance of certain defeat. Why? Because this time is not like any other – this time, you really, really want to.

It’s a tricky move in fiction, because it won’t work unless the reader or viewer actually doubts the character can do it, and yet that same reader’s opinion about the character is shaped by what the latter is seen to do. If you see they can do it, then well, they can, so how can you be impressed when they do … it takes some skill to get past this paradox, and I point directly at the iconic scene in Spider-Man #33, when he lifts the water tank, vs. the fall-flat attempt at such a scene fifteen years later, in one of the Secret Wars, concerning Spider-Man beating up Firelord.

Role-playing games took a long time to break the initial assumption that characters are maximally effective or fueled-up when untouched by circumstances, such that events in play can only decrease some resource or mode of effectiveness. Superhero games were the first to include a way to be more effective at a given moment through “trying harder,” e.g., Villains & Vigilantes‘ Iron Will. However – this early example was unique in singling out willpower as such for the direct boosting or override effect. Instead, game designs tended to focus either on the physical effort or on a player-level abstract mechanic, with the character’s fictional motivation to be filled in at the moment.

  • In Champions and GURPS, it’s effort-based, pushing the fatigue feature into the stunning feature. In play, universally, this was taken as synonymous with a special surge of the character’s motivation, but the quantitative attributes (Ego and Will, respectively, even with derived versions like Iron Will in GURPS) were not involved.
  • In Marvel Super Heroes and DC Heroes, it’s point pool-based, “looting” Karma or Hero Points respectively, that would otherwise be used to improve one’s character in the long run. Just as with the above method, people perceived and played it as a surge of willpower, and it was also informally considered to be extra physical effort. Also similarly, attributes or other quantitative features that one might think would be relevant were not, e.g. Psyche in MSH.

Some Champions groups informally adopted the latter method using experience points, although none of those I played with did.

Saying it loud

You can find a lot of unkind references to all the talking superheroes and supervillains do, especially in the thick of violent action. I’ll be the advocate for it – it’s not silly at all, either for information or for significant emotional interaction. See what the Punisher’s doing on that Daredevil page? That is what in Champions is called a Presence attack, which in this case happens to fail. It’s not a fight at all … or more accurately, the fight is emotional. It’s an obvious example because the physicality is deliberately called-out as false, whereas in most super-fighting, the physicality isn’t false – but it’s just as supplementary.

Early role-playing was absolutely crap at this, especially once the action-and-hits got going. It’s wrapped up with the general Murk problems with time and speed in combat, instantly distracted by how much time it takes to say a thing or to swing a sword. But even more so, the problem lies with what saying something can achieve, and whether the answer to this applies outside or inside of a fighting situation. You can even take it all the way up to the classic role-playing question of whether we did all “this” in order to get into a fight, or if fighting is one way this can go, out of many.

Taking it to comics-cum-gaming, the speed problem is especially tough because most role-playing struggles in a sequential freeze-frame model for individual actions. That’s why Champions‘ Presence rules, although they don’t quite solve the problems entirely, are a real standout for its day in addressing them at all.

Presence into a primary attribute, rather than a second-order reaction built out of skills and other things, and it can be used as an attack, changing other characters’ behavior. Although you can’t make, say, a villain surrender, you can set up a response which heavily influences the person playing the villain to consider doing so.

The rules also permit – for the first time in the hobby – designated “free time” for talking. It was kind of hilarious and sometimes spoofed at the table, but it was also invaluable for freeing up characterization and soap-opera during fights, which was bluntly revelatory in practice.

In the know

See what Brainiac did there? I’m not talking about the gadget or the escape plan in action shown throughout the page. I’m talking about his first sentence on the page, and its role in story logic. It’s not that he “found out” something we, the readers, were aware of. We find out, and it becomes the whole frame for what can and cannot occur, because he knows.

This is a special feature in fiction. It’s not the same as being designated “smart” on the same scale as “good at swordfighting” or “sexy,” to the extent that being designated that way means “actually pretty stupid,” guaranteed to be the foil for the more physical or emotional characters. This way, instead, is … to get the causality backwards, it’s as if the character were a co-author, able to frame time and circumstances for all the others.

In role-playing’s author-audience relationship, which is entirely different from all other fiction-presentation media, this feature evolved slowly from many angles. The first textual rule along these lines that I recall is a high-level spell from The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth (1980). It shows up as well in Villains & Vigilante‘s Cosmic Awareness, and in GURPS: Supers‘ Intuition especially when backstopped by a couple other things. I don’t think it’s explicit in either Marvel Super Heroes or DC Heroes, but it’s one of the common house-ruled applications of mechanics like their Karma and Hero Points.

However, it’s not part of Champions, not even a little (this is one of the few differences between it and GURPS for this post), so all the framing of situations and characters’ proactivity or competence in getting into those situations is left to the same devices I wrote about in Sense consequence nonsense and coincidence. The contrast doesn’t matter much because there’s a real, profound difficulty that makes pulling off “smart guy ahead of the game” much harder in role-playing than in fiction.

Conceptually, it’s the same: that you wouldn’t be playing unless something’s gonna happen involving your characters, especially back then when party-play was obligatory. So why bother “knowing” when the GM will throw you the right clue at the “let’s get to the fight now” point of the session anyway? He didn’t prep that fucking fight scene just to blow past it. Might as well not play Mr. Smart Guy – which in most cases means you are less effective anyway – and not waste points on the Intuition or whatever, and hit your cue as signaled.

As with the speedy/order/action topic, I see the games at this point as entrapped in Murky semi-solutions, especially in terms of who gets to say “The execution is scheduled for the day after tomorrow.” The mechanisms in most of them pretty much mean, “You get to ask the GM,” based on the fixed assumption that only that person determines the fictional fact in the first place, and also implies that for some reason, otherwise, you can’t ask him or her. Getting past these lay in the future.

Luck or pluck

Although I couldn’t prevent myself from choosing a Longshot page, I’m actually not talking about in-fiction, Teela Brown style luck as a character’s metaphysical feature. It’s more of an outcome or necessarily “not really there but damn does it happen” association with a character. His or her qualities for it are usually psychological – a certain daring and/or determination, “pluck” perhaps.

It’s also surprising how much it’s acknowledged as a key fictional concern in role-playing,present as a separate variable in Tunnels & Trolls and in RuneQuest for considerable effect. Especially in this medium, considering the primary source of unpredictability (dice or similar), luck is so weird. I mean, given that stochasticity is hardwired into most RPG design, therefore luck as an individual feature is already there insofar as all the dice rolls aren’t 50:50. What did “luck” do: establish the probabilities before the roll, or account for the stochastic effects after the roll? If it the latter, then you play to find out who was lucky this time, with tendencies thereunto already baked in but not guaranteed …

… which would mean the dice aren’t supposed to match the listed skill values or other numbers, but rather are there to make what happens deviate from what would “usually” happen or what’s apparently happening until the rubber hits the road. That matches a lot of later designs, and diverse ones, especially since certain organizations of simply talking can serve as a source of unpredictability too. But whether that principle applies to this exact, experimental moment of RPG design (mid-80s), who knows?

There’s no luck mechanism in Villains & Vigilantes aside from the effect described above. Does it remove anything from the game, relative to its contemporaries? Not that I can see.

In Champions, and GURPS: Supers, luck is definitely its own entity differentiated very far away from either the listed values (Strength, et cetera) and the dice rolls’ ordinary effects on them. Exactly how it works varies a little, e.g. it’s always qualitative in Champions, almost always quantitative in GURPS: Supers.

In DC Heroes and Marvel Super Heroes, the special mechanics of Karma and Hero Points can be tapped for effects one calls luck in the moment, just as they can be tapped to represent special willpower + effort.

There is no working principle for either “too random” or “not random enough” in role-playing, and more than one rather famous designer has told me they can only assess it in play, intuitively, rather than running actual numbers. I might even suggest the question is only meaningful in the presence of bad design, but the underlying principles of the good design which obviates it are not yet articulated either. What can be stated fairly, though, is that real data and insight can arise from playing the games I’m talking about – they’re already a laboratory for not only using stochastic semi-predictability in satisfying ways, but also for tweaking that very thing for purposes of characterization.

Our two heroes

Let’s see what I can extract for Miasma and Fireballs.

  • Speed: They have nothing special, square in the default zone for each game. The only exception is Fireballs’ two-shot attack, necessary to underscore his mildly-vulgar name.
  • Mobility: I purposely did not give Fireballs easy Super-Flight or Acrobatics, partly to keep him from being a Torch clone and partly because I like him as a visible, watchable icon, saying something up there. Miasma has her flexible teleport+attack combo, intended to be changed up with going fully vaporous to appear outta the wall behind you, and if it’s described right, the impression will be that she can appear and disappear wherever she wants within a wide slightly-smoky area, as if she were part of the whole thing. I want her to be notably strategic and good at working with others’ tactics, knocking opponents into teammate’s attacks.
  • Fatigue: This is where things are difficult or potentially unsatisfying to me, for both characters. My latest build for Miasma put her power-set on an Endurance Battery, which I kind of hate – if my hero gets tired, it’s dramatic, but who cares if “my power reserve” gets depleted and it’s not a robot heart or cosmo-power battery thing? This is something I’d really want to try in play while reserving the chance to revise it entirely if I don’t enjoy the results. Fireballs is more intriguing, with his Super-Flight and Neutralize Fire requiring extra Fatigue, and with my general agenda to have him use Extra Effort a lot – it’s underscored by the Quirk “goes all-out and all-in” as a signal to everyone. I want him visibly to work at being a hero. My concern arises only because I’m not familiar enough with the game (meaning Supers, not GURPS as such) to anticipate how it’ll play out.
  • Willpower: Miasma is carefully constructed in this wise, to arrive at a character who’s strong-willed without being an in-charge type. I put a situational limit on her strong EGO, and began with a slightly-high Presence and most significantly, Presence Defense. I see her as hard to impress, being an ex-villain. Fireballs is a little bit boring here, on purpose, as I don’t see him as a leader but as what the tropes guys call a Lancer.
  • Talking: Both games afford room for comics-style dialogue, especially Champions – and that ties right into why I want to play both characters. Each one’s perspective and potential for detailed commentary on any situation is very clear in my mind.
  • Knowing: Neither character is conceived as the super-brain in terms of that special quality I wrote about above. Champions doesn’t have a mechanism for it anyway beyond high Presence, and I didn’t tap into the GURPS rules along those lines – for Fireballs, the whole Luck thing is more than sufficient gun for an “affects story profoundly” feature.
  • Lucky. This is a very big deal for both of them. For Miasma, it’s in the significant-absence sense, as she has neither Luck nor Unluck. I see her background demanding that she not get better than an even break, and I also prefer her standing question to be whether she can overcome her already rough current problems, not why interfering fate says she can’t. In stark contrast, Fireballs is purposely built all around the GURPS: Supers phrasing for both Jinx (which affects everyone else) and Extraordinary Luck (which permits frequent re-rolls) – things work out for him relative to everyone else, to an aggravating degree, even more so because with that Charisma, he’s genuinely likeable. I also wanted to get dirty among the very few GURPS rules which explicitly take play off the hex-map and into the real people’s judgmental, dramatic, and possibly amused dialogue.

If you’re having trouble making up a character for one of these games because you’re over-invested in “getting the right build” for the powers, then I suggest you go through these yourself, to decide which you want to ramp up, which you’ll screw over, and which you’ll leave as default. I guess I should have created an example character for each of the other three games strictly for this this comparison.

We beat up a dumb-ass villain, so what

Superheroing brought one more amazing thing to role-playing: consequence, both for characters and for external situations, including those to be played next. It’s not entirely obvious in the texts I’m talking about, especially not in retrospect with the dysfunctions of the 1990s throwing their cloud into the dialogue. However, it’s implicit in the “can you be a hero” challenge – not empty rhetoric – in Villains & Vigilantes, and explicit in Michael Stackpole’s essay in Champions III, “The Evil That Lurks in the Hearts,” which is not referring to villains. From the latter (boldface emphasis mine),

Revenant would like nothing better than to destroy his grandfather’s criminal organization, to literally destroy what could be his if and when his grandfather dies. And he’d be willing to sacrifice everyone he knows to accomplish his goal.

So there it is, a look into the heart of hearts of Revenant. That is the force that drives him, but it is not the only force that motivates him. Interpersonal relationships with other characters can direct his actions and cause him to do other things.

[snipped: extensive example showing Revenant behaving both irresponsibly and responsibly, reviewing his own motivations and self-imposed limits of his actions, relative to other player-characters]

Changes in a character, new motivations, may be added through actions that take place in the campaign. This includes interaction between characters and should include actions as a result of adventures within the campaign.

[snipped: further discussion of how later situations, as prepared or emergent in play, provide arenas for further pressure or insight into the character’s ongoing reflection or ethical development]

There it is: why “play my character” is not only a tactical or thespian exercise regarding what’s on the character sheet, and why “tonight’s adventure” is not only a battle mat. This had perhaps not been absent from role-playing tables until the early to middle 1980s, but it was certainly absent from the texts and was absent from my experiences I’d had to date. This lack was the single reason my age-group left the hobby during high school, before the Satanic Panic and the social backlash, and why a lot of us came back for the superheroes, where – again, for us – the subject, or idiom, was synonymous with its presence.

There are two features to this new presence in role-playing, distributed differently across the contemporary rules systems.

  • Currency: In Champions, DC Heroes, and GURPS: Supers, you acquire more of those build points you had to budget so carefully in originally making your character.
  • Social: in Villains & Vigilantes, Charisma has changed, and in Marvel Super Heroes, Karma and Popularity have changed, in the latter case, in part due to social as well as super actions.
    • In both, the relevant score is also used for building, even acquiring new abilities, as with the above games.
    • DC Heroes is a lot like Marvel Super Heroes in adding build points, but also includes a soap-opera, personal life sub-system of play running in parallel with the crime-stopping.

I’m saving ongoing character improvement and development for another post, and here I’m focusing on the social consequences, and relationships, briefly anyway. Not only were these synonymous with superhero for us and the game authors at the time, through our inspirational sources, but finally, also present in the texts. Even in Champions and GURPS: Supers, the two which lack designated mechanics for social or ethical standing, they’re profoundly present in such features as Stackpole’s essay and procedurally made manifest through intersecting mechanics, which is exactly what you can affect with these new build points.

As in the comics, skirmish outcomes could now be conceived as subroutines to the soap opera. Halting or scattered into isolated bits as the texts may be, doing this as a group creative activity – genuinely a new medium – had come into its own.

Game design

Superheroes’ entry into the role-playing hobby was slightly belated compared to science fiction, but I think it permitted a remarkable shift in thinking about what we were there to do. In my experience and observations anyway, fantasy as a subject had failed in role-playing, in the larger context of being subsumed and neutered by a number of different social circumstances by the early-mid 80s (see my essay Naked Went the Gamer). Whereas superhero role-playing starkly demonstrated, textually, that this wasn’t about simulating comics, but about doing well in role-playing what they do well in superhero comics. I suggest that both Marvel Super Heroes and DC Heroes core texts are fairly included in that point, but were both sabotaged and subordinated to the simulate-the-franchise effect after a few years.

Regardless of the details: collectively, the design across these games displays of getting all those things in there. I submit that the roles of motivated effort, willpower, dramatic communication, insight, and extracurricular luck in role began right here with superhero roleplaying, because we knew that superhero stories were really that: stories. You can quibble about how well this or that was handled at the time – I certainly did, especially in the thick of using them at that time – but that’s not really the issue I’m after.

Instead, the outstanding question today is whether the fully-reductionist approach was really the best, or at the very least, whether other ways are at least satisfactory in their own right. Perhaps the jury’s in – screw the old-school roll-to-hit, play-within-scene, slog ahead to later events approach. My posting about With Great Power … investigates that case (Scratch pad, Dark Omen, With more power …). However, my position isn’t that extreme. I think there’s room in the older context of playing fully in-scene, relatively linearly, engaged in the same design space and questions as the 1980s superhero designers, without being captured by the contemporary constraints and immediate solutions they found.

I recently had a chance to playtest the thoughts I introduced in Is your hate pure? I’ll be posting on that as part of this series too. The next one, though, stays with the 80s games to investigate how characters change.


Next: Where are you going, where have you been? (August 13)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on August 6, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. epweissengruber

    It’s not a supers game but it does deal with mind’s eye/drawn map and emergent/pre-canned issues in an effective way: Burning Empires.

    The game has very detailed mechanics for determining the outcomes of battlefield engagements. It prioritizes the mind’s eye over strict mapping. But it does so by making the creation of a battlefield map an emergent event.

    The GM can prepare comprehensive lists of what persons and resources are available to their NPCs. But what can be brought to bear in a particular situation depends on rules. Moreover, the placement of obstacles and features are governed by rules that assume competing aims between GM and players while at the same time permitting contributions to the map from all participants at the table.

    The creation of the map is a gamed event.

    Also, a comment on the prevalent assumption that a character is at greatest effectiveness before engagement in a situation. FATE makes the creation of a situation a gamed event. Tagging elements in a setting or creating new ones is covered by rules. These rules take into account the currency players have at hand (FATE points) and rolls of the dice. I never saw enough player creation of playable elements during actual FATE play and often felt that as a GM I should just go back creating intriguing details for my players by fiat, taking on the common role of GM-as-setting creator and manager.

    And some metaphysical speculation. What’s up with the assumption that you are most effective when completely unengaged from a determinate situation? That engagement with what is can only dilute what you are rather than being an opportunity for becoming something more than what you are? To invoke the Big Lebowski: “What’s this essence precedes existence bullshit!?” It’s gravity and friction that allow me to walk on this carpet to go to a place. The assumption that there is some ideal or abstract effectiveness that particular situations can only compromise is an abstraction from prior experiences of being previously engaged in situations that lead to the evolution of new capacities that you didn’t have before the situation. And the capacity to comprehend new situations in which one could be effective in ways you never imagined before.

    Early RPG texts hold out the model of a “campaign” where characters go into the field and after a series of engagements perhaps win some kind of victory. This model emerges from war games as re-enactments of military campaigns. The engagement of a person with their world and their life, or a protagonist and a world, or a PC and the game world isn’t really the same thing, isn’t it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s quite a wealth of role-playing history and conventions to cover, and as far as I can tell, there’s no disagreement at work.

      “Campaign” as a term, check, although it had become nothing but a legacy term by the late 1980s and was soon be abandoned by the youngbloods (Laws, Tweet, Rein-Hagen, all Champions veterans).

      I was talking about ramp-up mechanics by about that time, 1990 or so, and discovered that people stared at me like I had two heads, e.g., treating full to-hit effectiveness as activated by damage, as opposed to some bonus to-hit based on some other variable. I suggest that berserking was the standard workaround for 1980s gaming, a way for your character to be more motivated and more dangerous, which is why no one ever quite designed it to be truly disadvantageous. I’ll be writing about berserking and codes vs. killing in their own post soon.

      It’d be a useful exercise to see how many superhero combats, in the comics, really use the terrain as a “battle map” instead of incidental furniture or stuff that it’s fun to destroy. I wrote about Spider-Man’s first fight with the Vulture a while ago as an example, but even that tended to “pop in” a useful or important terrain feature rather than lay out the whole landscape for the reader first.


  2. epweissengruber

    [Edit to mark rhetorical question]: “is it?”


  3. oberon the fool

    I can only argue one point: Spidey taking out Firelord was f*cking awesome. I mean, to be fair the guy just wanted a pizza, can’t really blame him for that. Just his bad luck to stop by when anti-mutant feelings were running high. And it’s not like there was no lead up- Peter tried to hand Firelord off to heavier hitters several times. But when he realized that it was him or nobody, he stepped up his game and did what needed to be done. Just as badass as lifting the big metal thingie in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ron, I was one of those guys in college who kept a graphing paper notebook where I would layout a variety of building floor plans (offices, banks, jewelry stores, restaurants, dorm floors, labs, homes, etc.) – just adding to the collection as inspiration came. The idea was should I need a layout for something impromptu I could check to see if I had something that might work in a pinch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did that too. I also collected as many little city maps as I could, especially when the graphics were three-dimensional. I’d put’em out for us all to use; they were solid gold for running fights through the rooftops and zooming around this or that tower and blasting through office windows, cubicles, and out the other side.

      A related point was repurposing cool real building maps, especially museums and similar places, for comics-style installations of all kinds. Something like this makes a killer spaceship or interdimensional palace.

      Over time, I found that we used less and less of the grocery store or gas station maps, relying instead on verbal descriptions and references to real things, like “that construction that’s going on over on 55th,” either directly because we were locating play right there, or saying “like that” with a couple of qualifiers like “twice as big,” and proceeding from there.


      • epweissengruber

        Laws came up with an interesting way to co-ordinate the minds-eye understanding of the scene of conflict. In Feng Shui he suggests deploying photos of interesting rooms or spaces. You get the participants all pointing at and working off of a public representation without locking everything down in minute measurements. Also stimulates players utilizing height and depth in deciding character actions.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s definitely the same effect we’d achieve with both visual references like the city maps I mentioned and – perhaps surprisingly – with one person’s personal account about a given location, either the literal one (“we’re fighting at the top of the Sears Tower”) or one which he or she is deemed to be good at describing. This could be anyone at the table, based on workplace, travel locations, and life-style.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. A while back, I took a look at where “the action” happened in early Justice League and Avengers stories.

    The JLA tended to charge about the world and visit “exotic” locations.

    The Avengers, on the other hand, visited a lot of bases. These bases may or may not have been in exotic locations, or may have been spaceships and the like, but ultimately they were bases. This included the Avengers’ own base, naturally.

    Naturally, the bases reflected the aesthetic style of the characters (villains). They were part of their “look” almost as much as their personal artistic design.

    Since then, I’ve been including bases as part of (Champions) supervillain design, along with notes on the aesthetic style of the characters.

    Obviously this allows for quick and lazy scenario design.

    “Weird Things are happening around Location X.”
    “We go there to investigate.” (Or not, as the players choose.)
    Hilarity ensues.

    The sad thing is that that’s not entirely dumber than a lot of actual comics plots. Just add soap opera…

    Liked by 1 person

    • In looking over the old supplements, I’m impressed by how much work went into bases. I remember reading them carefully and using tons of them, usually repurposed for characters of my own. … However, we never really used them in the minis-battlemap sense. After the heroes were in a certain area , for example, that mansion in The Coriolis Effect, I’d just set the pictures out and people would say stuff like, “I whip around that corner,” in tacit understanding that the character didn’t know what it was like on the other side.

      It makes me a little sad that in none of our games, people set up a budget of earned points to construct their own base, but in retrospect, it was also dumb of me not to realize (i) that if I wanted that, I should provide special points toward that end, or (ii) that a lot of what the texts said should be paid for with points could be better handled by hardening the special effects of the characters’ wealth and connections.

      H’m, not making my point – which is, we did the latter for the bases, is what I am saying, but could have enjoyed using points for fancy features too, which we didn’t.


      • This reminds me of one of my one house rule/variants, which is that stuff which is as much a convenience for the GM as for the player is free.

        This includes bases, which are places where scenarios happen as much as they are assets for the PCs.

        Vehicles are another. If I want to be able to set a scenario in Patagonia, for example, the PCs need to be able to get there without much fuss. So, a Batplane, or even an Invisible Plane doesn’t need to cost points. Unless, of course, they become assets in combat. In that case, they cost points. Or, naturally, if the players start abusing the privilege, or if it becomes an issue with the players of the characters who paid points for the ability to run there at superspeed, or whatever. At that point, zero point things can be blown up. Things bought with points are part of the character. Things not bought with points are a privilege.

        I do the same thing with skills. If a scenario requires a character to be able to read Ancient Babylonian, then a character with an appropriate background will be able to read Ancient Babylonian. Or, an NPC who can will be available. This costs no points, unless it becomes a recurring feature of the campaign.

        Essentially, this is a case of hardening character backgrounds. (Wealth, connections, etc.) The risk is, of course, that players will chose backgrounds that lend themselves to this. Bruce Wayne can justify a lot of stuff that Peter Parker or Luke Cage can’t. At that point, it’s time to think about scenarios that play to their strengths. (Easy for Luke Cage. Less easy for Peter Parker, but doable.)

        I’m also not a big fan of massive skill lists. After all, if a player spends points on a particular skill (or Perk), it needs to come up in the campaign often enough to be worthwhile. This gets harder as the number of variable increases. Simpler, in this case, is better.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. First let me say that I’ve been following your blog for the last few weeks and I really enjoy it. Your writing style is light and lively and a pleasure to read. It’s also clear that you find a lot of joy in what you’re writing about, and your enjoyment is contagious.

    One point I wanted to make was regarding your view (if I read it correctly) that knockout was unrealistic. I may be alone in this but this was exactly what drew me into Champions. I was playing AD&D and I had multiple experiences of characters dying rather than being knocked out. One was in a barfight. One died falling down some stairs. I felt that it would have made more sense if these characters had been knocked out…which does happen quite frequently in real life!

    So when I started playing Champions I was like: Yeah! This Batman-level villain just did a roundhouse kick on my Black Lightning expy, and my character is knocked out, not dead!

    Anyway, you see where I’m going with this. To sum up, I think games where knockout is the standard (as opposed to death) are *more* realistic than combat-generally-leads-to-death games.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mike, and thanks for the kind words. I think I can smooth over an inferred disagreement by saying that realism, so-called, is one of those role-playing bugaboo words I typically avoid. I’m not trying to use realism/not-realism as an argument for or against doing things a certain way, but instead I’m talking about what fictional conventions are going to hold when we do this thing.

      Can’t help but get anecdotal for a paragraph. I definitely am not in the camp that says, “oh, but realism, so here’s your critical,” having sucked up way too much of that since my very first D&D character was eaten by giant rats. Even though the AD&D DM Guide (1979) later specified that the majority of hit point damage was incidental scrapes or nicks, no one I knew played it that way, instead treating hit point damage as EMT level badness. Especially if you lost, in which case you died from your injuries, period. And the other texts took that to town in gruesome detail; people nicknamed RuneQuest “LimbQuest” which you probably recall.

      So back to this post, I’m talking about how valuable it was to get fictional knockout into role-playing, just as you say. It’s a critically useful convention: among other things, a “story time out” for a character for precisely as long as the author needs him or her to be absent. And in comparison to the other fictional convention, you lose and die, that had been established for the hobby by that point, which also doesn’t correspond to most literature or story-media that I can think of, it was a great relief. You could lose a fight and that could be part of the story, not a sudden eviction from it.


  7. Ron, I appreciate the essays and how they make me challenge how and why I play these games. Thank you.

    There is a struggle in me that loves older games and how they work and newer games and all the cruft they expose and cut away. DC Heroes is my favorite super games and does a lot of things very well. It’s informed a lot of my gaming in and outside the super heroic genre. That being said, a lot of the newer games are sleeker and focus more on table generated content that democratizes story and where it’s going. In the past 30+ years of gaming, I’ve acquired a lot of tools and built and rebuilt my gaming Citadel many times using tools from many different games.

    In my old gaming group, I was the “Genre Fiend” and was frustrated a lot with Endurance as its expressed in Champions. It always frustrated me that I ran out of gas during a scene and had to hold back during pivotal scenes for fear of not having the Endurance to execute at my full potential. I was notoriously bad at building characters in Champions because I hated the extreme foresight and acumen it took to maximize your characters. I wanted to create my “Cool Guy X” and was frustrated that I couldn’t just pour the concept in the game and walk to the other side to see what was pushed out.

    GURPS played a lot better for me, but even that game lost its charm when people were killed by the Cyclops clone’s Optic Blast that had a piercing quality causing people to bleed out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Role-playing culture really struggles what is or isn’t acceptable in game design, or if accepted, what can be mentioned out loud. (1) Doing what we did before, to the same purpose, without parts an individual has found to be dysfunctional; (2) doing something to the same purpose/feel as before, but differently in method, presumably with value added; (3) doing something to a different purpose but with familiar methods; (4) doing both a different purpose and in different ways … Even worse when one is revising an existing title or working with established content.

      About Endurance, my time with Champions was different from yours: I looked forward to running on empty and near-empty, became immediately frustrated at the plethora of ways that people dodged it, and resigned to building some of my favorite characters with the same dodges simply to keep up. You can see that in the build for Miasma that I posted last week.

      I would investigate, if possible, whether the reason you were frustrated by your characters running out of Endurance is that no one else was. It’s painfully easy to bork the Champions rules, in any edition, into energy-free powers, or so cheap that no one bothers to track Endurance or number of Charges, and house-rules them off the table. (Eventually the system itself did that, in 4th edition)

      If the villains and your teammates were all sucking wind like your characters were, then there’d be a big difference in the fights: people would have to take out phases for Recovery, and decide how much to use up before doing so. The effects down the line from there are numerous: seeing more maneuvering and more dialogue, outcomes being decided by more interesting things than merely hitting hardest fastest, tactics like coordinating Recoveries and double-teaming being distinctly more effective, defenses against getting hit (Defensive Combat Value), to permit maneuvering and set-ups, being at least as important as withstanding damage upon being hit (Physical/Energy Defense, Armor, Force Field), fights lasting past 12 phases so that one automatic Recovery matters a lot …

      If I were doing (1) in my list above, it’d be easy, not much more than house-ruling; I’d severely revise the rules about reducing Endurance costs so people would all be suffering from them, and I’d look forward to all those things happening at the table. But if I were doing (2), I might take a page from the short-lived Marvel Universe game and base all actions off energy invested, so that managing that actually mattered more than statistical probabilities to hit or similar things – probably not as extreme as that game does, but something like that, it was a good idea. And so on and on for (3) and (4), meaning, how I “fixed” a problem depends greatly on what I’m going for.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Special reply box for the Cyclops comment – man, did that power for that character prove to be a problem in RPG design. It exposed precisely what no one in role-playing wanted to admit: that game design had to go beyond what something “was” in the “universe” and instead investigate what the thing did in the stories we presumably valued so much.

      Pretty easy in the comics, right? (1) The blast never killed anyone. (2) It was feared by all and sundry as one of the most punishing blasts among the Marvel heroes, capable of knocking truly heavy hitters around and taking out many otherwise dangerous foes with a single shot. (3) It was explicitly not hot and hit like a physical ram. (4) Its edge could be apparently used as a cutting device, implied to be in effect by Cyclops swiveling his head and body, and the blast curving. (5) It never, ever hit a living opponent for the effect in #4. The fact that certain zones like cutting a person in half were left untouched is merely “how this guy is written,” period.

      Now how the hell were you supposed to manage that in play, if play were defined by “this power can do this” and “not that?” You can’t. You only get powers like this by doing what I’m talking about in these posts: integrating personal values (Cyclops is not a butcher) with absolutely fixed soft special effects (it’s not hot, it hits with physical impact) yet with complete flexibility about “what it can do” grounded in what you wrote/played this character for. Then you can rack up the dice and the advantages like Armor-Piercing without suddenly realizing you’re not creating what you wanted.

      I blame the Official Handbook as I discussed in ‘Verse this. It’s one of the great role-playing history tragedies that this abomination, and all the curse of this brand of fandom, hit the 1980s comics at the very moment that role-playing games were capturing the power of the 1960s-1970s comics that had come before. The effect was for the RPG culture to swerve into its weird little “can it can’t it” engineering mode, and to lose what shone so brightly and briefly in the supers games.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. “In my experience and observations anyway, fantasy as a subject had failed in role-playing, in the larger context of being subsumed and neutered by a number of different social circumstances by the early-mid 80s (see my essay Naked Went the Gamer). Whereas superhero role-playing starkly demonstrated, textually, that this wasn’t about simulating comics, but about doing well in role-playing what they do well in superhero comics.” — That’s a pretty provocative statement but it makes a lot of sense to me. Like, the EXTREMELY idiosyncratic content of superhero comics, the absolutely unique one-of-a-kind characters, the unique powers, the dramatic personal stories apparent in pictures on a page and not hidden away in all those words in a big book — forced designers to break out of a lot of assumptions about what roleplaying games were supposed to be like, and confront things that had been ignored or glossed over in other genres.

    Maybe not a coincidence that I loved the hell out of Fantasy Hero because you could use it to create a wizard and the system of magic he used at the same time as part of character creation. Who would have possibly come up with that in any context but as a follow-on from Champions? Did anything vaguely like that show up in any other fantasy RPG for a long time afterward? I doubt it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree about Fantasy Hero, in principle. In practice, I ran into a brick wall with it – the strict emphasis on detailed skills, the absence of any sword-and-sorcery aesthetic, what seemed to me a betrayal of the customizing potential into the blah fantasy of (say) Raymond Feist’s work … all of it fed straight into the work which would become Sorcerer & Sword. It’s not alone in these things, as I battered right into Rolemaster at the same time, and I was a funky-70s Glorantha purist who disliked the Avalon Hill reboot despite trying very hard to like it.


      • Yeah, Fantasy Hero’s coolness was mostly limited to the roll-your-own magic factor, the rest wasn’t anything that special. But that was enough for me, both because I was the Guy Who Played The Wizard, and because my making-characters to playing-games ratio was very high.


      • If non-magical characters had the same wide-open possibilities and lack of annoying-fiddly-bits as the magicians, FH could have been really awesome. And yeah, a weirder aesthetic would have been nice (again, it was easy to go weird with the magic if you wanted to).

        Liked by 1 person

      • I massively loved Fantasy Hero 1e (first-gen); I played about the same number of wizards and non-wizards in it, and as far as I can recall had equal amounts of fun with both. Our games tended to be one session of skill-heavy investigation and roleplaying, and one session that was somewhere between half and all combat, the balance of which was skill heavy investigation and roleplaying. (It was with the same group I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Game Alliance of Salem (GAS), which I’m naming here because it’s long defunct and there’s no reason not to, and so I don’t have to keep calling it “that group I’ve mentioned elsewhere”.)

        To me, FH 1e felt like a sort of meld between early Middle Ages and Conan-style fantasy, although at GAS we occasionally mutated the hell out of it. We ran a number of games as written, at least a two year long game using Bushido (FGU) as the source material, along with a couple of further-afield fantasy games (one higher-powered, based on “ourselves popped into a fantasy world” that was shit-tons of fun; one I ran based on Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures; I’m sure one or two others I’m not recalling offhand).

        The spell build system was largely the Champions first-gen Powers system, cut down and with names and special effects more strongly focused on fantasy color (with a few extras — Aid, Summon — that wouldn’t appear in the core game until 4e) with the first-gen END costs and the added bonus that all spell effects cost END by default, and a set of built-in requirements for which you don’t get points: all spells take a full Phase to cast, require you to be half DCV, and take a Magic Skill Roll; each of these can be bought down or off with Advantages, such that if you wanted to build the equivalent of your point-and-shoot Champions power, you were looking at +1 worth of Advantages at minimum. Monster abilities were built the same way, so even a dragon’s claws were built using the Killing Blast spell effect, with all of those Advantages plus No Range and salt and pepper to taste.

        I liked Fantasy Hero less and less with each passing edition. I played in I think one straight session in 4th edition, one in 5th, and one each of someone else’s demo and my own demo in 6th; as the edition numbers crept up, it felt more and more like a superhero game with fantasy color, with the Champions “character classes” standing in for fantasy archetypes, with powered characters as the primary build mode instead of skills. Fighter types with “Fighter Trick Multipowers”, rogues with Invisibility to Hearing and Clinging, casters with spell multipowers that looked like to me like superhero multipowers with the original special effect crossed off and “magic” written in. 6th edition magic system design puts a lot on the GM, which means that you could more or less re-create the first-gen spell effects list as written and played and not be running afoul of “you can’t do that!” even by implication.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Hey – “Presence Attack”! I bet you would not be at all surprised to learn that, across multiple groups of “more-Roleplayers-than-comics-fans” I ran into, Presence attack was held up as one of the main reasons “Champions is a bad design” (my generous translation of “Champions sucks!”)

    Considered as you do here – a way to create certain kinds of seen-in-comics interactions in play, towards various ends – it makes sense. Without that, what I heard was “why have any other kind of attack – Presence is the best!” More recently, I guess they’d say “broken!” I didn’t run games with it at all, and built characters/played only a few times, so I can’t really judge the substance of the claim. But again, in the context you give here, it occupies an entirely sensible spot in the “how can we play something like what we read?” tool-set, across multiple understandings of what “like what we read” means.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a rare example of completely contrasting experience in our gaming histories. Presence as both an attribute and an attack mode were embraced as genius by everyone I remember, even from afar by people who didn’t play Champions. It’s hard to wrap my head around a perspective which would say otherwise.

      Simply a matter of disagreement in aesthetics and preferred procedures? … I guess, but the statements you briefly referenced seem a bit disconnected from (my) reality. Since you had to devote an action to a Presence Attack, it’s not the same as the 0-time monologue, therefore wasn’t “free” in terms of timing; since being in a fight (at all) or working against the prevailing mood incurred penalties, it wasn’t a way to make the villains suddenly sit down obediently and give up …

      Anyway, even that I’m coming up with a spate of counter-statements toward people who aren’t here and that aren’t/weren’t even talking to me, clearly shows that I’m being touched somewhere important. I imagine if there were a conversation with actual people saying these things, it’d be one of those “space alien” conversations, with no hope of meeting views.


      • Ron, I don’t remember exactly how PRE attacks worked; what the “damage” was like, and I don’t have any easy way to look it up, can you refresh my memory?


        • No problem, got the 3rd edition right here, page 80 with the awesome wolf-guy illustration, which I think is one of the Zircher pieces. I’ll paraphrase.

          1. A Presence Attack terrorizes, impresses, or convinces people depending on the emotion and the accompanying statement if any. Note that this permits all influential social actions, including a polite measured business conversation at a conference table as well as smashing the interdimensional Hoo-Wha and telling all the enemy alien soldiers to surrender.

          2. It gets dice like most powers or attributes: 1d6 per 5 points.

          3. There’s a comprehensive list for bonus or penalty dice, mostly pretty understandable, notable for generosity such that if you do something violent and say something that makes sense, you’ll be rolling quite a handful. Also notably, though, you get less dice for doing it as a combat action, for trying it from a position of weakness or desperation, and/or for going directly against the listeners’ prevailing mood.

          4. There are four levels of effect based on your total as a multiple of a given target’s Presence. 1x gets you the chance to act before this target this phase; 4x knocks the target’s Defensive Combat Value down to 0 and they will probably run away or do what you say. 2x is really what you’re shooting for: the target is “very impressed” and will “deeply consider” what you say, if anything; he or she also loses a half-phase action.

          5. It affects everyone, allies included, although the effect is 1 level less for those it’s not directed against. (I like this rule; you actually make your teammates stop and go “whoa” a little when you terrify the minions)

          If people pay attention to these rules, then different characters’ differing Presence values are very apparent during play, as well as those moments when circumstances permit a low-Presence character to knock out a good one once in a while. It’s also a fantastic attribute to modify with Limitations – that personalizes a character like nothing else.

          Liked by 3 people

      • The claim I’m remembering (and this fits your puzzlement) is that Presence is such a good tool you should always put your points there rather than in building another ability/power, and that OBVIOUSLY every character will have to build a defense against this overpowering Presence ability or they’d be “unplayable.” Yeah, thinking back on it, that latter was a big factor, probably grounded in player-abuse by GMs via Presence-wielding NPCs.

        Such concerns are, I think, in a different universe than “it’s also a fantastic attribute to modify with Limitations – that personalizes a character like nothing else.” I suspect that “personalize a character” impulse is more likely with a powerful shared understanding of comics characters, so I speculate that that’s (part of) what was missing in the groups I’m remembering. That’s what clicked for me reading your post – “hey, those folks were missing the point, weren’t they?”

        For me back then … this was in my toe-dipping, “does anyone I can find play RPGs like I did/want to?” phase, and I was just kinda puzzled (memorably so, clearly!) at the vehemence pointed at a RULE. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t play with these groups long at all – from 84ish to 92, I was rarely at the same table more than once or twice.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve never seen Presence Attacks in play as any kind of instant win button. They’re not presented that way in the 3e text or in any edition since. Later editions switched the progression from PRE, 10 times PRE, 20 times, etc., to target’s PRE, 10 plus PRE, 20 plus PRE, etc. Even so, it’s still hard to get a Presence Attack high enough to beat the top level, especially against opposition on the same level as you (superheroes vs. supervillains of similar power level). You might convince some minions in a crowd to run away, some to do what you tell them, but most of the time the best you’ll get is some hesitation.

          Presence Attacks are the cops pointing their guns at a suspect and yelling “Freeze!” Even in real life, sometimes the target doesn’t just go along with it. They’re not mind control, or Mind Control; if Mind Control is what you’re looking for, then buy that Power! And at that scale, Presence Attacks are not a better buy than Mind Control.


        • Chris –

          It wouldn’t surprise me if folks were flat-out wrong about how Presence attacks worked. I’m certainly not going to defend the idea that they’re bad – as presented in this thread, I think they sound pretty neat.

          Maybe my strong memory of multiple negative reactions to Presence attacks (such that the few times I played Champions, they were houseruled out of existence) is simply because people misunderstood/misused the rules. If it’s all about roleplaying issues, and not at all about comics, here is probably not the place to sort it out. But I still think it’s possible part of the issue is comics-savvy folks would get how to use a Presence attack more readily than others did … it’s impossible to know what would of happened if I had tried to run a game with Presence attacks based on whatever-edition back then, but I’d be VERY grateful for Ron’s example here if I tried to do so NOW!

          Liked by 2 people

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