Kill, kill, kill

Art by John Hotchkiss

I jumped back into role-playing with gusto in late 1985, armed with Champions 3rd edition and a handful of enthusiastic friends. Before too long I was meeting lots of others playing the game, in person and through The Clobberin’ Times, and I got a good look at how plenty of people expected to play their heroes. How was it? Easy. In a word, they were killing all over the place.

It wasn’t just them; soon, some of our group were doing it. Despite my professed unhappiness about it, it was me too: when I introduced my character Hawk, there he was with his knuckle-duster claws extending over the back of his hands just like that guy from Lone Wolf & Cub.

There were three relevant game bits to consider: going Berserk, Code vs. Killing, and Killing Attacks. I’ll go into them all carefully a few paragraphs down.

Before talking about rules, though, I stress that this is not a matter of going off-genre and thus awry from there. All of these were obviously inspired by the comics we all knew, totally four-color superhero. All of them were intimately entangled with the dramatic, fan-obsessive high-water marks of those comics in both plot and visuals. All of them should have been engines for the best at-our-tables comics-inspired creation in this other medium that could be done. We were going awry within the genre, to the extent that play started to feel like the bit with the army psychiatrist halfway through “Alice’s Restaurant,”

… I mean, kill, kill, KILL!”

And I started jumpin’ up and down yelling, “KILL, KILL!” and he started jumpin’ up and down with me yelling, “KILL, KILL!”, and we was both jumpin’ up and down yelling, “KILL, KILL!”

And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, and said, “You’re our boy.”

This is another post in my series comparing first generation Champions (1981-1985) with GURPS: Supers (1989), which so far includes Exhumed, still lovely my dear, Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, Dynamic mechanics, and Where are you going, where have you been. It’s another of the posts for which the two named games were essentially identical.

Back then, the conversation devolved quickly into a non-debate between “I’m the man who does what must be done,” vs. “Heroes do not kill.” It was rendered actively harmful, rather than merely sterile, due to the pop culture shift to glorifying an uncritical version of the lethal vigilante. This post seeks to mature the conversation from those days into something more insightful and useful.

Talking comics

Let’s take a look at those heroes. Born in large part as they were from the detective-horror pulps, the very earliest comics superheroes were not Boy Scouts, one hair short of narrative culpability. Although Superman didn’t exactly pulverize anyone’s head in the Siegel stories, he sorta might have just off-panel and occasionally was about to, if you read them without the character’s future self in the way. Although the 1939 Batman didn’t directly push the no-goods into vats of acid, the stories from that first year left a trail of them who doubtlessly regretted their life-choices from the grave, and he did pack a pistol here and there.

However, as documented in careful detail in many places, after Bats machine-gunned a “mutant” in early 1940 with, admittedly, a thought-bubble of remorse, the DC Comics Code was instituted later that year. You know this Code, because in 1954 it was imposed upon all newsstand comics as the infamous Comics Code Authority. In this Code, among other things, heroes did not kill and they actively assisted positively-portrayed law enforcement. The already tricky compromise, or cognitive dissonance, which blended vigilantism with assisting police arrest, skewed solidly toward the latter.

That’s the letter, but what about what happened? Hop ahead a generation, and I squint at many 1960s Marvel series and DC’s Doom Patrol. Do not kill, on principle? Really? All these creators were schooled in war comics, and plenty of panels showed a bunch of bad-guy soldiers or minions caught in explosions, then shifted off-panel and out of sight. A number of other off-panel left the fates of various perpetrators unknown. I submit that although these heroes didn’t murder, and I’ll even spot you the off-panel implications, there are few or no moments of proclaiming flat-out non-killing as a principle and standing by it under pressure. Rather than a bunch of upstanding “not gonna kill, it’d make me just like them,” I see a lot of don’t ask don’t tell.

Full stop here to examine Batman around 1970. He received a comics face-lift more or less in defiance of the Go-Go comics, of the mid-60s TV show that either reinforced or spoofed them depending on your squint, and perhaps of the entire history of the character since the original Code of 1940. As I wrote about in The not so secret cabal, the writers include Archie Goodwin, Denny O’Neil, Len Wein, Frank Robbins, and Steve Englehart, and the artists include Bob Brown, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, and Marshall Rogers. But note the timing: this is during the extremely uncharacteristic editorship of Carmine Infantino (see And the horse you rode in on and Context Too!), but just before the revision of the Code, which DC more-or-less controlled and adhered to unswervingly. So there’s Batman, restored to coolness with a The, brought back to 1939-1940 as traumatized, ruthless avenger from the shadows – but with that imposed Does Not Kill still set in stone. The result is very much a new invention, a retroactive hybrid.

To trot right along the history, you also know the Code saw considerable revision in the early 1970s, permitting drug references, occult and horror elements, negative authority and police figures, and explicitly anti-establishment outcomes. That’s where the Marvel comics that most informed first-generation Champions role-playing came from: when the young creators and editors threw themselves into newly-opened spaces of the revised Code with what can only be called comix enthusiasm. I point to the late Thomas and Englehart Avengers, the Conway Spider-Man, the Gerber Defenders, Marvel Team-Up, the Gerber and Wein Hulk, and the mostly Claremont New X-Men. I don’t know whether the name of the role-playing game deliberately harked back to the title of the notably borked series (see Never heard of’em), but if it did represent the desire to make such a title “right,” I would understand.

According to these 1970s comics, yes, heroes still “did not kill,” but they went into wild rages a lot more and came a lot closer: they certainly wanted to, and more than once, sort of did. I’m not really focusing on legal definitions for my point, but if you were to do so, look for plenty of negligent homicide, ADW, and debatable degrees of manslaughter. During this period, too, they started not to leave the body just off-panel.

During as much of these comics as I remember, no hero proclaimed, “I do not kill.” Not any member of the Fantastic Four. Not any Avenger. No X-person. And no, people, not Spider-Man. The frequent question fell instead into three things. First, gratuitous killing by villains, which by this point was frequent and graphic, to establish how deranged they were and that it was high time the hero got busy (two especially nasty instances come to mind: Solarr in Englehart-Buscema Captain America, and the Gladiator in McKenzie-Miller Daredevil). I’m mentioning it as a step toward where things would end up a decade later, in terms of what started being shown in the pages. Second, explicit wartime killing, against extraterrestrial military forces, whether en masse in detonating spaceships or up close and personal – every Avenger had blood on his or her hands by the end of the Thanos confrontation, for example, and that wasn’t the first time. Third, this or that hero, especially Wolverine, threatening to kill someone apparently sincerely, with more level-headed heroes saying, “not this time.” The latter case included its share of when “this time” was deemed OK, at first just shy of actual manslaughter because it was a robot or something, but by 1980, played quite straight when some really no-goodniks had it coming. Here I’m speaking of the Hellfire Club sequence by Claremont and Byrne, which became the bedrock, not only of that character, but of any character “doing what it takes.”

Let us not forget – it’s important – by 1981, when Daredevil and the Punisher mixed it up on this very basis, proclaiming their ideologies between punches and bullets, who the editor of that title was. Therefore Marvel, not previously too concerned with kill/don’t-kill, now received the conundrum of The Batman gift-wrapped, as it were, to be developed in detail through several characters under O’Neil’s eye and hand (Marv Wolfman gets credit here too). More and more stories across other creators and many titles began to concern villains and semi-villains defined as similar to the heroes, but having gone over the line, and tagged as crazier than our hero because of it.

Yet … something went kind of weird and, if I had to speculate, not very O’Neil. Somehow, more and more, the “OK, gonna kill him now” heroes and other characters came out of each story looking more clear-headed and understandable than the hero. Partly it was due to the adversaries being so heinous (e.g., God Loves, Man Kills doesn’t manage to make its pro-Xavier, anti-Magneto message any too well; and all those street gang rapist-robbers started looking pretty kill-able), and partly to the cool-ization of Wolverine (see Where did I get these mutton chops?) and the Punisher (see Eat hot lead, comics reader and The Big Bang), and partly to the box-office success of on-panel murder (Elektra, specifically).

And there’s your mid-1980s right there, as Miller and Byrne hit the “up” button on teeth-clenched slaughter back and forth to rack up buzz, as Jim Shooter either dominated the editorial community or struggled among impossible economic demands, however you choose to see it. Add to it the tapdancing dishonesty of retconning (turns out those guys Wolverine killed were only sorta dead and got better) and the interesting policy of encouraging the deaths of heroes and romantic leads as a means of pumping up fan intensity.

Then it changed again in 1987 with the effects of the second major Marvel buy-out and the DeFalco editorship, which isn’t mysterious at all. Remember economics: Cadence Industries needed to concern itself with the Code to maintain newsstand distribution; New World Entertainment with its shift to retailer-order direct sales did not.  All the comics took a curious sado-machistic turn, when Wolverine could now leave mounds of ninja and merc corpses everywhere, and the Punisher’s “eat a bullet, punk” was straightforwardly what you do, while wussy-lawyer Daredevil wrings his hands in the background; Wolverine goads so-tormented Spider-Man into killing an unarmed, physically helpless woman on-panel and smugly grunts. Meanwhile, DC in the same circumstances could not but succumb to the gritty-dark in the flush of Dark Knight excess, and eventually to whatever it is they thought they were doing with Lobo.

The immediate heir was what may be called the Lee-Liefeld era, which moves beyond my attention to superheroes at the time, but I did see its beginning – which I’d already seen at the role-playing tables by then.

Talking role-playing

In early fantasy role-playing, habitual and even systematic slaughter is built-in well past that of the source fiction. The built-in ethical difficulties concerned (i) which less-dangerous or surrendered foes to kill too and (ii) the sharing of treasure after you did it. By 1978, these spheres of choice and possibly character conflict became canonical by adding the thief, assassin, and paladin character classes. But whether to kill, out of the gate, wasn’t an issue; the tournament context for early play and the publications that emerged from it baked lethal combat into play of that era, far more than any initial wargaming context for the design had done.

The meaty thing, though, was called alignment, which to save a lengthy discussion, led to much in-house play development concerning just how much agency anyone playing a character really had. Particularly concerning what the character “would” and “wouldn’t” do, particularly concerning whether a prior statement or description of the character is binding. Keep that thought in mind.

Early role-playing also introduced the “going berserk” tactic, introduced in … let’s see, maybe a Greyhawk supplement? Or the Arduin Grimoire, or a Dragon article …? It didn’t get into the actual rulebook until the 2nd edition, many years later. Anyway, it was instantly adopted across tables via a certain Telephone effect concerning what the rules actually were. In practice, A/D&D as then played (1978-80) was often devoted to relatively un-strategic skirmishes and kill-count, so whatever in-fiction blither about “out of control” and “danger to friends and foes alike” was easily ignored for purposes of multiple strikes, bonuses to hit, and increased damage. Significantly, it’s the only rules or semi-rules tweak I know of from that era that permitted increased effectiveness due to character mental or emotional state.

OK!, So, Champions, 1981 – there are the three things in question.

  • Berserk is nominally a disadvantage, defined as hitting the nearest target, friend or foe, with a roll to get in it and a roll to recover from it.
  • Code vs. Killing also nominally a disadvantage, to indicate a hero who will not kill. Although it’s potentially modulated by different phrasings and different costs, the culture of play I observed the most was uncritical. People just wrote “CVK” in the Disadvantages list, took the 20 points, and thought no more about it.
  • Killing Attacks, powers which do rather nasty damage that both reduces the “real” injury score called Body and ignores ordinary defenses.

I can say GURPS: Supers is pretty much the same except for parsing the various possible codes very carefully over multiple disadvantages, and for using lethal damage as the default and retrofitting Stun damage on top of as a superhero tweak.

You see the possible interaction, right? That Berserk by definition removes responsibility for what you do when you’re “under,” and Killing Attacks are over-powered – either nasty damage to Body or ignoring defenses, but both, come on. The poor little Code vs. Killing starts to look a bit toothless in comparison to the advantages afforded by the other two. And what does “having” a Code vs. Killing really mean, anyway? Does it mean, by default, but with the agency to reconsider edge circumstances? Or a thespian commitment never to do it no matter what?

However, I’m not simply pointing to game infrastructure as the sole topic. Berserking, for example, is right there in the 1970s superheroes comics too. Explicit rage-driven super-strikes became a lot more common than in the 60s. Spider-Man lost his shit about five times that I can remember during my purchasing period, including almost beating a guy to death in an alley (the woman he’d just saved had to stop him); the Hulk gained his famous “the madder the stronger” during this time, and nearly anything by Jim Starlin featured someone freaking out and laying waste to anyone nearby, Elric-style.

The comic Elementals jumps out as a key symbolic entity for the time and for the experience of superhero role-playing, almost to the point of totem. I know I’ve linked to a lot of previous posts in this one, but this time, I really ask you review Elementary to see the pure identification between comics creation and role-playing creativity that it represents. It features a certain tension between the horror of what a clawed supervillain could do to you, and relishing it as excess. I point especially to the heroes’ rapid regeneration as a key factor, which unites both D&D damage/healing with the contemporary boost of Wolverine’s healing powers into so-called “healing factor” territory. The appropriately-numbered issue 11 amped it up with a running gunfight through the pages including multiple fractures and gunshot wounds, and in the next few, the relative drama of that issue seemed to vanish in an ongoing escalation – Captain Cadaver bites off Jeannette’s breast, Tommy suggests executing miscreants in as symbolic  rejection of the game’s roots in V&V as one could imagine, and more. To some extent it’s just taking the veil off 1970s Marvel, but it also reduces any actual morality thereof to the vanishing point.

Then there’s the consequence mechanics to consider. Villains & Vigilantes is predicated on playing the Good against explicit Evil, and grounded a bit in interesting choices because the character’s relationship to the law (and desire to uphold it) is the standard for play. The text is blunt about refusing to play with people who aren’t doing it, and insightful that this is a social choice rather than anything a rule can impose. In practice, who knows how many young teens, playing themselves with powers, felt this strongly enough to overcome the desire to Disintegrate or Dimension Portal people they didn’t like, but that’s not the present topic. Marvel Super Heroes hides within it a rather shocking – yet so Marvel – capability for kill-ready heroes. Yes, you lose all your Karma if you kill someone, but nothing stops you from using or spending Karma ‘way down, killing someone you really think has it coming, losing the small change left if any, and then building your Karma back up just as you would have anyway. If you think that’s “gaming the system” I suggest you look at the stories I referenced above to see plenty of exactly that in the comics.

By contrast, neither Champions nor GURPS: Supers has any provisions concerning moral choices and game-mechanics points, nor, in contrast with V&V, does either even have a philosophical position about it. Your hero is thrown naked upon the interplay of stated ethics (stated as Disadvantages), the effectiveness of Killing Attacks, and the fairly rewarding points received from taking Berserk as a Disadvantage. What emerges is as fair a profiling result for you and the rest of the group as one could ever devise on purpose, particularly when everyone involved is enjoying comics and enjoying producing fiction of the kind they consider to celebrate or even to originate.

Not that the result of that profiling was edifying. The 1970s Marvel acknowledgment of heroes’ desire and capability to kill had spoken to me eloquently as a young teen and I knew the issue would be front and center when playing Champions. I did not anticipate the same effect to be so amplified at the table both in my age group and especially in those somewhat younger, regarding the early-mid 80s Wolverine and Punisher actually killing, close to morals-free. (How this plays out in superhero role-playing for people whose whole experience of comics began with DeFalco Marvel and grittydark DC, even more so with Marvel Ultimate and Image, I can’t imagine.)

[Oh – I know of a couple instances in which kill-heavy games were also strong creative work, e.g. The Firm which I’ve referenced before; the key for them seemed to be a certain zest and satire. I’m not criticizing them here.]

Looking at our group in about 1987, the combination turned poisonous for our superhero gaming really fast. The long-standing not-quite solid dance comics had done; all the problems with alignment-as-interpreted kicked in. Fortunately we avoided something that I saw very frequently in other groups, as follows: the precise same as in the comics, as I wrote above, when the Punisher player snarls “eat a bullet, punk” because that’s what you do to get the job done, while wussy-lawyer Daredevil GM pleads “heroes do not kill” and wrings his hands in the background.

All of which is profoundly intellectually dishonest. “Heroes do not kill” is not a genre-faithful statement, if one actually read the comics, and some of us were very unhappy with being cast, as the GM, in the exact same role as the Comics Code Authority played toward the comcis. Even if one were to try, players were uninterested: the comics of the moment promoted that position as the obviously-wrong, ineffective strawman, so it was easy for players to say of themselves, “well, I’m Wolverine/the Punisher, then,” confident that it was to be supported by everyone at the table to be the right answer.

I know of three play-communities (bigger than one group) which avoided it well, right in the thick of circa-1990. K. C. Ryan was strongly committed to comics in which the heroes’ killing never really came up as an issue, mostly the Legion, and if you played with him, that’s how it was. Ran Hardin, if I recall correctly, simply didn’t permit Killing Attacks. My solution, eventually, was spread across a number of different rules-features: to require some Psychological Limitation regarding the issue, to disallow Killing Attacks, and also to position the group a priori in a media-conscious, potentially celebrity context. Crucially, none of us invoked the false dichotomy.

On the other hand, we lost some of the productive tension you get from the heroes being implicitly able to kill, and sometimes motivated to do so.

If anyone was able to preserve that in their Champions or GURPS: Supers game, without skewing into the rather spastic, non-thematic butchery, I’d be really interested to know about it.

Links: Code vs. Killing poll (Hero Games), RP: It’s a code vs. killing, not a code vs. boiling and melting

Next: Multiplying negatives (August 27)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on August 20, 2017, in Supers role-playing, The 70s me, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Ron, very much like our good friend KC, I too was very limiting when it came to players killing in my games. Yes, I came from the AD&D experience of slaying your foes but, for me, comic book heroes were meant to hold that higher standard. That is why I explicitly stated “no Wolverines, no Punishers” which in the late 80’s and early 90’s annoyed a lot of players. They wanted to be the cool vigilantes. I guess in a lot of ways that really helped our other friend Steve to create the Dark Champions line – a world of situations and rules that really spoke to that kind of player base.

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    • I am reminded of a DunDraCon in the mid-late Nineties when KC was running a Champions game. The blurb describing the game explicitly stated, “Nothing from any Steve Long books.” Being the stand-up kind of guy he was, he apologized to me for putting it that way, but I wasn’t offended in the slightest — I found it kind of funny. 😉

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      • KC also had a con experience in which his character was vaporized in the first moments of combat. He and the GM in question (of “Wingboy” fame) joked about it in The Clobberin’ Times, but KC was also very clear – and not apologetic – about why this kind of thing was a problem.


  2. Wow, that takes me back to one of the worst gaming experiences I’ve been a part of, a Champions game I played in college, probably in 1990/91 or so.At least half of the 7 or 8 players in the game (set in the near future, where the US government had recently outlawed superheroes unless they registered with the government and worked as government agents, with the government soon declaring martial law) had characters that were grimdark supers who killed casually, with no penalty, including one who, like you mention, took the Code Against Killing disad and then the player and the GM ignored it as the PC used his Human Torch-like flame powers as a killing attack. When the PCs discovered that the way to save this next-Sunday-AD dystopia was to travel back in time to our present and stop a Bill Gates-type figure from developing technology that would lead to our dark future, I suggested we try to convince the Bill Gates guy that we were from the future and trying to prevent it, but the rest of the group decided a better plan was to kill drug dealers and take their money, until the group would have enough to buy out the Bill Gates guy. At which point I said, “This is not my superhero game,” and dropped out.

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    • Hi Josh! At about that very moment in history, Mike O’Connell and a few others ran a deliberately “not with KC” game of their own for a while, called The Firm. It was precisely as you describe with the proviso that everyone doing it went into it for just that reason. It went very, very well, especially since, to my eyes, its political content constantly blended sincere/satirical, without front-loading it.

      In other words, if you’re gonna do that, then do it. The danger lies in saying only “we’re playing Champions” and seeing the minefield do its thing when anyone else tries to participate. Or even worse, not even thinking about it and kind of ending up there because that’s how the mechanics led you, with the initial desires to enjoy superheroes lost in a haze of in-game effectiveness and corresponding adolescent sadism. Which I saw way too often in some groups.

      I always like mentioning The Firm, though, as an example of utterly nasty kill-happy heroes without either of those problems, as a game.

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      • You’re right, there wasn’t much communication about whether killing was A Big Deal or Just Part Of The Job. (Same goes for stealing money from drug dealers.) The first character I created for the campaign had the Berserk disadvantage and I intended it to be a disadvantage, a tragic result of having watched his family murdered in front of him, part of the larger picture of the character having his sanity broken. But I never said out loud “Yes, this character can go berserk and kill when triggered, but this is not a good thing, this is a sign that the character needs help and healing.” No wonder I was confused when other characters were casually setting people on fire or lopping their heads off with badass swords. (Also, the GM exercised little to no oversight on how characters were built and played. One of the players made a character who was a genius hacker with a powered armor suit but had the disad of Illiterate. And no one, not the GM, not any of the other players, called him out on it any more than they called out the player with the CvK who casually killed people.) If the GM had said, “In this game, killing is part of what superheroes do, it’s not a big deal,” I might not have joined the game. But it was, as you say, the minefield “let’s not talk about it, let’s just play.”

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  3. My groups in the Eighties didn’t really have any problem adhering to the idea that “heroes don’t kill” — we just sort of took it for granted, I think. There were a couple of PCs with Killing Attacks, but I don’t recall any PC deliberately setting out to kill anyone. There was never any real concern about it.

    Starting in 1986 I changed that when I began to play the Harbinger of Justice as my PC. From the very beginning that caused a lot of tension, which the GM, John Grigni, handled with admirable grace and skill. Much of the drama in the campaign was driven by the explicit difference in philosophies between Harbinger and another PC, Dr. Midnight, who had the strongest possible Code Versus Killing and followed it strictly (even to the extent of actively trying to prevent other characters, be they good guys or bad guys, from ever killing anyone). Those experiences, some of the best and most intense of my roleplaying career, eventually inspired me to write DARK CHAMPIONS — and the rest, as they say, is history. 😉

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    • The tough thing to discuss is that saying “heroes do not kill” isn’t even the issue, and as I wrote, I think it introduces problems. Those of us who either didn’t face crazy-kill player-characters (the negative kind) or took steps to prevent it, don’t seem to have made a big deal over that particular claim. Your account bears me out – instead of descending into a power struggle over whether they do or don’t in absolute terms, it became a perfectly good ethical and heroic concern among the characters, played for value added on all sides.

      I just noticed, too, that of the 13 hero examples in the 3rd edition core book, only one (1), Crusader, has a Code vs. Killing. There’s a bit of perspective on where the game authors were coming from …


  4. I was opining about CvK recently, so I’m really happy to see this post. It seems such a bizarre Disad to me, born purely out of the ’70s murderhobo mode — “Hey guys, in this game, you can’t just kill your way out of everything, but here are some points to compensate.” I mean, isn’t an unwillingness to kill people as a problem-solving method baseline sanity?

    Looking that the poll you linked to, I was happy to see some people refusing to give points for CvK.

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    • This topic is totally going into the Disadvantages post I’ll be doing.

      1. The whole concept of “buy more good with some bad” breaks down over why things we don’t want to see in play end up giving you more points. The predictable, understandable practice is to ignore listed disadvantages.

      2. Code vs. Killing, or even more so the unconsidered, slapdash “CVK – 20 points,” adds a new dimension to that standing problem because it leaves open whether you (the player or the group, whichever) wants it or not. And whatever productive tension might arise from that is lost when you consider the over-powered qualities of Killing Attacks.


  5. This post seems to veer into nostalgia, and maybe that’s the whole point. The reminiscing of the play-communities is interesting to read, and continues into the comments. I’m reminded of the letters of HP Lovecraft to his fellow writers like Howard and Derleth and Clarke Ashton Smith, and others.

    But I would also like to hear how the insights of this post affect role-playing today. Ron, you end the blog entry with a call for readers to describe how they dealt with the issue of killing in their own games. But I’d also be interested for insights into how this carries over into modern gaming, in modern comics, and its implications for the future.

    So I’d like to hear how people are dealing with it now, in their current games, and how their old gaming experiences led to how they are grounded today.

    This blog has a set thesis, mostly looking back. But I think the implication is that we are looking back to understand where we are now, and to glimpse where we are headed.

    That all usually happens naturally with this blog, but this week I’m left feeling shorted on that!

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    • My aim with these historical moments is for memory rather than nostalgia, so let’s complete the process. (A friend in the relevant academic field said I was doing autoethnography in this blog. So, that’s good? … I guess.)

      Role-playing today is mighty decentralized, nor was I describing all of it at the time I described in the post, so I’d do better to narrow the focus. Do I have a good grasp on people playing superhero RPGs today? I do not. Do I hang out with comics creators these days? No. Do I follow superhero comics much? No, very badly in fact. So … that’s probably why the post seems truncated. I really am not the right guy to say.

      I do have a question I’d bring to any such look, which is whether superhero comics role-playing has anything to do with comics. It’s been a long damn time since I talked comics with anyone (aside from one or two dedicated long-term friends and conversants on that subject) without immediately shifting to movies and TV. The medium of comics, for superheroes, now seems to me to be fully embedded as a junior partner within visual media, especially what I might dub franchise pop.

      In other words, if I sit down to play any of the titles I’m seeing about, it is a matter of whether we’re playing Marvel Netflix or the animated Justice League Unlimited, or anything else in a similar context? I’m not talking about faithfulness to some specific run of comics, nor even an expectation that comics role-playing emulate comics as such – but about creativity – and the rather surprising potential often seen reached in superhero comics – rather than fan emulation of the latest and most immediate product.

      None of which has addressed the topic of killing per se. But if I had to guess, shooting people with your gun as a form of argument or even “yes, I’m a protagonist” expression, is completely normalized in SF/superhero discourse. I’ve run into this a lot in playing Sorcerer, in that “I shoot him” is often treated very much as a basic interpersonal option as long as we’re perceived to be playing in fiction-land rather than human-land. People blow right past the rules which render gunfire tricky, unpredictable, and terrifying (including thinking that you simply attack a gun-wielder hand-to-hand when you feel like it). Interesting – in the convention game I just played in four days ago, for which I think I did an unusually good job of setting a certain emotional/creative baseline, when a character did shoot a guy, it was clearly a psychopathic act.


  6. Thank you! 🙂

    I am in the same boat: I have a friend who is still an avid comic reader and he hands me something that I “must read” about once every two years. But I’m mostly out of the loop. I agree that the television and movie superheroes are really the template that people use for creating an rpg campaign now. I recently did one that used Heroes as the general basis, with set pieces from the Avengers movies and possible Watchmen angles on morality and plotting. That’s how I described it to the group before we got started, and everyone “got” it.

    (I was clear that it would be all original characters and storylines, but the general tone etc. would be within the parameters I described.)

    There were occasional grumblings from players due to plot twists and I responded, “Okay, but I told you there would be a Watchmen element, right?”

    And this goes back to how the Watchmen kind of upturned the “code vs. killing” aspect and helped to erode that taboo–and not necessarily for the better, when all was said and done, in my opinion.

    This reminds me of something I read on a forum somewhere. There was a fellow starting an online game, and he was using the old superhero serials as a basis. As with my Heroes/Avengers/Watchmen example, he cited several serials that he would use as parameters for the game: the Batman serial from 1943, Captain Marvel, the Shadow. There were more, but I can’t find the original post. He suggested that the players watch a couple episodes on Youtube to get a feel if they hadn’t seen them before.

    This leads me to wonder if this is a common practice. Do GM’s generally “pitch” their campaigns this way in 2017?

    Liked by 1 person

    • As before, I don’t have much idea of a or the 2017 way, or if there is one. I have found using inspirational sources to work only when it works, if you see what I mean. The chance for players to spin off into varying interpretations is high, especially when there’s a generation gap. Try saying “like Star Trek” some time to see what craziness ensues, and even if you specify the original show, people’s varying capacity to grasp what they’re looking at may surprise you.

      For comics, the looming presence of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (and the DC equivalent), as well as the infinitely distracting movies/TV content, are insurmountable. It’s a genuine conundrum to say, well, let’s do some role-playing in the idiom of superhero comics, without running some kind of forcible mind-screw reconditioning which will drain out all the enthusiasm and individual contribution. And yet, the solution does exist, because it does – strangely – indeed work, when it works.

      I’ve done better to express my own desired gestalt using tone poems and collages – purely amateur, short compilations of phrases and images, which work in concert to express a very few things I really want, rather than referencing an entire source.


  7. I remember during some games, being frustrated that we couldn’t even take down villains without hitting the Stun Lotto, and that even then they were back up like clockwork in at most a Turn and a Phase. That’s when we started leaning more and more on Killing Attacks, and if our previous characters had CvK’s we’d just create new ones that didn’t. (This goes back to one GM who I quite enjoyed playing with, a lot, and am still dear friends with thirty plus years later, but who had a tendency to do things like this. He has almost certainly improved, though I haven’t gamed with him in too long.)

    To me, the drive towards Killing Attacks, and player characters who could and would kill, was almost entirely GM driven in this respect. If you don’t want PCs that kill, don’t make it so the only way they can take the villains down and keep them down is with Killing Attacks. That may also mean don’t turn the villains into characters that are 200 points plus 200 experience; they don’t have to be easy to take down in a straight fight, but also encourage the players to play intelligently. “He didn’t seem to go down to your heaviest flame blast; do you want to try something else? Maybe your ‘burn out the oxygen’ power…”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Back in the 5th Ed. days, I noticed that the point guidelines for superhero PCs generally resulted in PCs who had attacks and defenses that were so evenly matched that, on average, successful attacks would, on average, not result in much effect. I feel like just tweaking those point limits would change fights dramatically.

      I mean, in heroic games, dropping foes in one shot was often comically easy, as defenses were harder to come by.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve written about this a couple of times, including in the post, but I think it’s always good to lay it down again.

        1. I limited defenses as well as anything that brought END costs down to the point where they weren’t worth tracking.

        2. I disallowed Killing Attacks, or in one case, limited them to 1d6. If the player turned out not to be about slaughter but wanted a scary punch-it-through attack, I often found that he or she didn’t know about Armor-Piercing advantage or Piercing points, both of which served that purpose better.

        3. I strongly encouraged movement and highly tuned signature attacks with multiple powers and often interwoven with personality traits (just as you noted for Miasma, Mark).

        In building the villains, I tended to make them a little bit simpler – but still focusing on interesting powers-building and personality/history – and a fair amount stronger in raw dice. I did not cheat on END for them either. Therefore everyone in the fight had to deal strategically with energy and recovery, and the heroes’ real hope lay in (1) physical maneuvering and intended/unintended teamwork, (2) leveraging anyone and everyone’s soft special effects (today’s “power stunt” terminology is a simplistic and weak version of what I’m talking about), and (3) learning to know and understand the villains’ personalities and goals.

        I was fortunate to have begun playing with people without extensive role-playing histories and who were more wickedly attuned to dynamics of this kind than I was then. It prepared me well for when we did include other role-players, to be able to stand up to various claims of how it was supposed or obviously to be done.

        Liked by 1 person

    • aYes! In lots of independent ways.

      1. The even-steven effect when opponents are equal in arms and armor is the design conundrum of wargaming. There’s a deep desire to see what happens in a “fair fight,” which is easy to answer: flip a coin. Opinions differ about whether that’s good or bad game design, or nuanced, or whatever.

      However you want to look at it, it’s a primary feature of The Fantasy Trip: Melee, which is the ur- for Champions + GURPS. As a statistical feature, it’s made all the stronger with multiple particpants as well as higher values of defense. Champions’ incredible emphasis on strong bell curves for damage, even more so.

      2. The fact that Killing Attacks had two properties, any one of which probably would have suited the concept by itself: ignoring normal defenses, doing tons of BODY. I can only point to the early romance with Wolverine as the cause for over-powering it like this.

      It may be that the triple cost (15/d6) was intended as a brake, but I suspect that in the very early days of Champions, no one realized just how cheap people were going to make their favorite powers. (Remember, the example ratios from the books are typically very low; the game authors didn’t rack in not-very-limiting Limitations the way users would learn to do.)

      There were a few neat features that I appreciate, e.g., that STUN damage varied greatly so you might be bleeding but still in the fight. It’s not crap design at all. But getting both properties in there in full

      It’s not at all surprising that players would latch onto #2 as a way of getting past the deadly dull grind of fights ruled by #1. Add to that the Wolverine romance, reinforced by Elementals, and the long-standing grudge about player-character agency (doing something, anything the GM can’t hand-wave away), and you get right to where we’re describing.

      (see my reply to Mark above for what I did, eventually)


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