Posted by Ron Edwards
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
- 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.
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 EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on August 6, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged Avengers, Champions III, Champions RPG, Daredevil, DC Heroes RPG, endurance, GURPS: Supers, Legion of Super Heroes, Longshot, Marvel Super Heroes RPG, Michael Stackpole, Secret Wars, Spider-Man, Superman, system, System Does Matter, The Evil That Lurks in the Hearts, Villains & Vigilantes, With Great Power RPG, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.