Where are you going, where have you been

I have no trouble citing the single most profound detail of 1974-1977 Dungeons & Dragons: that the levels one could gain were named. A first-level magic-user was an apprentice. A tenth-level fighter was a lord. There was absolutely no context given for this, no rules, no process, no examples, not one single indicator except for an illustration or two). However, in practice, that one little thing generated massive buy-in and elaborate creative input. You didn’t just gain tenth level after ninth. You became a lord. It must mean something, something obviously cool, and thus, at the tables across the land, it did.

Never discount the role of character change in role-playing systems – and I mean something very different from the long-presumed chassis, quantitative character improvement. I’m talking about the attraction of having the improvement be, not merely plausible based on what’s happened, or fair based on some presumed equivalence across character types, but rather, fictionally important. What the latest alteration to the mechanics on the sheet means, in terms of who they have become. Provide even the tiniest indicator of such things and you will see it blossom in use beyond anything you imagined.

Here’s a look at how first-generation Champions and GURPS: Supers ran with that in the 1980s. For those maybe arriving now, the series on comparing these two games so far includes Exhumed, still lovely my dear, Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, and Dynamic mechanics.

A new way to do it

The first few years of role-playing design favored two models:

  • Reward mechanics in very tiny units: experience points which were banked until they reached very high values, the minimum or benchmark for changing your character (D&D)
  • Recording in-play the successful uses of skills or other things, to be incrementally improved on a single-item basis (RuneQuest/BRP)
    • Other, more significant changes to a character were scheduled to accord with specific quantitative benchmarks, similar to the level-up in D&D.

A minority version, or its antecedent, was present as far as I know only in The Fantasy Trip. The points were still tiny in scale, but all the points of a character (attributes, skills, spells) were measured in exactly the same units, and you could spend the experience points into that currency to build your character some more. It’s not hard to see how this became the framework for Champions: receiving points following play in the exact same units as points used to build one’s character in the first place, and using them as such. This was adopted by GURPS (by the author of TFT), and in the decades to come it became the most common standard for the hobby, excepting period reboots of D&D.

It was a big structural concept: the points arrived constantly in small handfuls, they were general when bestowed but customized in use, they were in usable units (you could spend even just one for a real change), and they were available for use upon arrival. They were also notable in criteria, including participating at all, “good role-playing,” and some other things – and even more notable in practice, in every group I played in and others I know about, everyone received the same amount of points without review.

Here’s how that added up:

  • The points acted as a motor: they simply kept coming, adding up faster than you’d think, and sooner or later they’d have an impact
    • Players were often overtaken by them, surprised by how much change was available to them if they hadn’t been paying attention for a few sessions
  • Different kinds of fictional change became available
    • Sometimes it was about the character steadily becoming more powerful; sometimes it was a dramatic transformation
    • Crucially: you could either springboard off something that happened during play as the cause of the change, or you could spend the points as you please and retro-fit that the cause occurred “between issues” (GURPS tended to be less forgiving about the latter; see my points below about that)
  • Concept creep and accentuation: a new idea in role-playing – things that were newly bought could be conceived as always having been there
    • At the most extreme, mundane things like skills or appearance could be enhanced using powers rules, like a stealthy character taking Invisibility merely to be very very stealthy, not as a literal power
  • Character development, especially in references to buying off or changing Disadvantages, but also more subtly in exactly how you chose to improve or add to the powers – more on this below

For this variable, first-generation Champions and GURPS: Supers were 99.5% alike, especially since – unlike Marvel Super Heroes or DC Heroes – they have no in-play bonus mechanics that experience points fed into as well, so there was no trade-off between momentary bonus and future improvement. In other words, you couldn’t spend the new points any other way.

Better, stronger, faster … and different

Champions is very almost unique in the first two decades of role-playing to dedicate textual effort toward personal character arcs, putting its design where its mouth was concerning point-based and attendant fictional change. I can only describe it as gusto: yes, characters change, they totally did it in the comics and no one knew how an initial concept was going to shake out within a few years, gradual and significant increases in power were standard, so you go right ahead and spend those points. Experience points are explicitly celebrated as the functional equivalent of continued comics sales and reader commitment. I’d even tag it as first-generation Champions‘ defining feature: the game holds up the “is” of a character as something that develops through authorship and readership (play), rather than a fixed initial quality.

I’ll go to the texts.

… those of you familiar with comic books may feel that beginning characters in Champions are not as tough as your favorite comic characters. You’re right; this was a deliberate design consideration. A careful study of the oldest comic book characters shows that they started out with very few points. They got stronger, faster, and more skilled as time went on. Some of them even got more handsome.

… there’s a big difference between a character built on 400 points and a character built on 200 points plus 200 Experience Points. [the latter] should (and usually will) have a much broader range of capabilities [and] will be more more useful and enjoyable …

The one aspect of an adventure that the Gamemaster cannot control is the characters who are going to be involved in the adventure.

Before anyone protests that a GM can always limit the characters going into an adventure, we should clear up a point or two. By “character” l’m not referring to the ungodly pile of points that indicates that your playing piece can lift a car, eat the tires and throw the rest of it a country mile. That sort of action can be done by any hero who decides to take his vitamins in the morning. What l’m speaking about when I refer to a character is the personality that motivates that collection of Powers, gaudy cloth and Disadvantages.

Everyone knows that the Disadvantages built into a Champions character are there for more than just the purpose of justifying his powers. Disadvantages force you to define some areas of weakness, of personality for your characters. The Disadvantages are supposed to give you a handle on the nature of your character that will make her different than all the other car-lifting, tire-biting monsters out there.

The key to lively role playing, of true campaigns and character development is contained in the internal motivations of the characters in the campaign.

In short, try to figure out what element of the character’s background,relations, or psychology make him interesting, but will eventually make him (and his player) unhappy if not ultimately resolved. That’s the Character Story. Once you’ve figured out what it is, over the months and years, through subplots and adventures, you should bring this Story to a climax and resolution.

I’ll grant you there’s no do-this do-that, this is what to do section in the rules, but there’s plenty of evidence that this is what they were doing with those rules, and what kind of aesthetics and preferences were underlying the evolving design during the first-generation phase. It’s especially evident in the character summaries in Strike Force. Simply: not just “more,” “more powerful,” but changed in response to emotional tensions, dramatic interactions, and consequential events. Furthermore, in the long run, the dramatic excess of a Phoenix-like transformation-accident is actually the lesser version.

I’m dubious if one can capture the sustained, incremental impact on a Champions character in a hypothetical example, but I faked it with two versions of future Miasma, built to reflect how one might spend about 50 experience points depending on differing histories in play. I hope you can see from it that even just twelve or so sessions are significant. The first version is a lot like Hawkeye or a number of Marvel characters who began as throwaway but somewhat sympathetic villains and became heroes for whom many fans didn’t even know they’d started that way. The second is more like the edgy dangerous-type hero whose teammates are always keeping an eye on or holding back, sort of like Wolverine around 1980 or any number of slightly-nuts characters in the X-Men a few years later.

Looking over the twenty-plus Champions histories I either played in or was kept regularly informed about, every game-produced series title feels very, very 1970s Marvel under the sequential chief editorships of Thomas, Wein, Wolfman, Conway, Goodwin, and the early Shooter – reflecting all the good and bad. The good includes an immense range of creative input and anything-goes ambition, especially toward new character ideas and characters’ emotional development; the bad includes disorganized and often scattershot storytelling, full of incredibly unjustified plotting, but also including streaks or sub-sectors of sustained brilliance at it.

It’s much harder to change one’s initial character portrait in GURPS, speaking of the core game. To my eyes, the game includes a philosophical horror of character change coming “out of nowhere,” such that every single alteration is enjoined to be justified in prior events of play, preferably through the expenditure of in-fiction effort, time, and money. Even when you add GURPS: Supers, the total page-count devoted to character change can be found on one hand, and although the latter text is is a little bit more generous, it’s mainly through sidebars with a certain grudging quality in their phrasing. Its default is that you flatly cannot buy new power categories, which is why Fireballs’ starting version has that Latent Light Power, to develop for later. There’s no text at all about engaging with the characters’ drives and problems as a priority.

In comics terms, the game runs as if the series title’s owner, editor, writer/artist, distribution method, readership preferences, and marketing campaign were all very stable: structurally idealized comics, at least from a majority fandom point of view. Toward this end, validation of the character concept is more important than changing it. (DC Heroes was very similar in this regard.)

My writeup for future Fireballs – with all the same caveats that doing this is not like real play – confirms this to the extent that it can. You gotta seriously bank your points even to adjust or brighten up your powers a little, and changing an attribute is like pulling teeth. Now – it’s true that the point currency in GURPS is higher-value relative to Champions, and the rate of getting the points is the same, so spending the points for less effect-per-point makes sense. Those brakes are really strong though, such that getting higher-value points at the same rate yields a change rate in real time that’s cut down, not to parity, but way slower. If my hypothetical comparison isn’t totally wrong, then Fireballs isn’t going to see the kind of character development Miasma gets until at least another 100 points come down the pike for him, and if one is prone to spending the points as they come, then mostly what’ll happen is improving the chances for stuff you already have. The “radiation accident” is possible just  as it is in Champions – “hey, look at this pile of unspent points, let’s have a big-ass radiation blast in the game soon and then re-write your guy” – but it’d be interesting to know if it ever happened.

It also strikes me that the GURPS: Supers text is generous in a different way – if something happens during play, then any changes, in Disadvantages especially, are justified. That’s actually better than a “radiation accident.” Nightwing has no different powers from Robin, as portrayed in The New Teen Titans; there’s no better-stronger-faster involved. But it’s more than a change of clothes, too, and would be represented in an almost entirely new profile of Psychological Limitations and most especially the absence of “Reputation: Batman’s sidekick.” That can happen in this game more easily than in textual Champions, and as I’ll write about soon, was often house-ruled into the latter game.

I mentioned in a previous post that GURPS: Supers does an excellent job of grounding its fiction in personal, relevant, real-world things, thus speaking to one of the 1960s and 1970s superhero comics’ great strengths. It does the same for getting everyone on the same page about what sort of super-team we’re talking about, with what sort of relationship with the world. That’s actually one of the weaknesses of Champions in practice, that it can be conceptually scattered to the point of nonsense (the supplements correct this to an extent). Therefore in talking about change, maybe focusing so much on character improvement and/or powers alteration is missing the point, and for GURPS: Supers we should be talking about external conflicts and their outcomes’ effects on social and political situations, especially on other people besides the super-characters. This is absolutely impossible to fake in a “what if play went this way” sense, so I didn’t even try, in the Fireballs example.

Historically, these were significant design steps. Many, many games were to adopt the model of three-to-five experience points per session, to be used for build points. I found most of them to be the worst of both worlds: little room for dramatic development as opposed to piling on effectiveness, and little relevance to external conflict, especially as the settings for the games became far more self-contained than the 1970s superhero model.

Coda: In writing this post, I discovered that the issue of changing Disadvantages is pretty thorny to organize. The whole idea of “balance positives with negatives” is a dubious claim that’s masking more significant cognitive and creative processes, and the rules in both games for altering Disadvantages are scattered and simplistic compared to what people sometimes did with them at the table. You can see I messed with them a little bit in the examples, not by buying them off but rearranging the points. Anyway, I decided to devote a whole new post to the topic, coming up next.

More posts in this series: I have a couple more ideas to develop in comparing these versions of Champions and GURPS: Supers: more about disadvantages, one on lethal or otherwise excessive violence, another on role-playing villains. What am I missing? Anything you want to ask or talk about? Let me know.

Next: Kill, kill, kill (August 20)

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About Ron Edwards

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

Posted on August 13, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Ron, I was always reluctant to let players buy off disadvantages right away. Like you said they are there for balancing and spring boarding. Could Superman buy off his weakness to Kryptonite? Could Daredevil buy off his blindness? It is part of the genre.

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  2. Hi Martin, I’m not sure we communicated. Let’s do some back-and-forth to make sure.

    First, I didn’t see players buying off Disadvantages unless I reminded them that they could. The usual behavior was simply to ignore those points, and if (for instance) someone took his or her identity public, or their enemy reformed and stopped hunting them, there was no discussion of changing the original points for the Disadvantages. Similarly, no player came up and said, “hey, I’m tired of being hunted by Mucus Man, I’m paying 20 points to get him off my sheet.”

    I’m not arguing against what you said, but I’m interested to know if you really had players eager to burn experience points on reducing Disadvantages as opposed to building up powers and other things. Structural differences between groups are important data.

    Second, I think you and I and the Champions texts agree that some Disadvantages are basically sacrosanct, e.g. Daredevil’s blindness. The comics have thrown us more than one curveball, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, some day, did a “The Day Matt Murdock Could See” story – but still, to revise the character entirely that way does seem impossible.

    However, plenty of other concerns which are easily understood as Champions-style Disadvantages have seen revisions and removal in the comics, and I don’t mean via reboots but through gradual and occasionally climactic story events. Taking the Stan Lee run in isolation, that Spider-Man issue #33 I referenced in the post initiated a set of events which actually removed Aunt May as a DNPC from Peter’s life, sending her off to live with Anna Watson in what appeared to be elderly happiness. Sure, Gerry Conway reversed that – but he also gave Peter an ulcer, killed his biggest DNPC, and shifted points from a nasty individual Hunted to amp up the one by the cops. Kitty Pryde clearly bought down her confused naivete in stages until it was, basically, gone. Daredevil converted his chief Hunted from the Owl to the Kingpin.

    Therefore it seems to me that most Disadvantages are fair game for removal or revision, with admittedly a few that I can’t imagine changing, per hero.

    GIven those clarifications, are we still on the same page, as you see it?

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  3. Ron, we are on the same page. I did have some players in the past try to buy off disadvantages early on. I guess some people did not like to have them lurking out there.

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  4. My group in the late eighties dealt with this. We all took turns GMing so we kind of had an unwritten rule that you had to justify your changes with a comic book reference. Maybe I’m alone on this but in my group we allowed complete rewrites of a character, complete overhauls of disadvantages. Our reasoning was that we wanted personality continuity, like, we wanted the same characters to stay in the game but their abilities changed and fluctuated. So a hero with a power ring might lose the ring and focus on his martial arts. A gadgeteer might lose his gadget pool and choose to build “permanent” power armor.

    I guess it would be like Peter Parker losing his powers and then staying in the biz by getting power armor from Tony Stark, or Daredevil being healed on a galaxy-trotting adventure, having his eyesight restored and bionic limbs added. So Pete and Matt stay in the game, but Spider-Man and Daredevil do not (because the players got bored with spider powers and blindness etc. respectively).

    In Aaron Allston’s Strike Force there is a nice example about a character–it might have been Revenant? Shadowwalker?–who starts with one kind of Hunted and it gradually shifts to another kind of Hunted: the Hunted starts as a large number of 50-point agents brainwashed to think they are the hero and to see the hero as the phony, and over a span of years the hero whittles down the group until there are only a handful left, but these few have become highly skilled and rival the hero for power level.

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