Kill, kill, kill
Posted by Ron Edwards
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.
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.
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.
Next: Multiplying negatives (August 27)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on August 20, 2017, in Supers role-playing, The 70s me, The 80s me and tagged Batman, berserk, Bill Willingham, Cadence Industries, Champions RPG, Code vs. Killing, Comics Code Authority, DC Heroes RPG, Dennis O'Neil, Elementals, God Loves Man Kills, GURPS: Supers, Marvel Super Heroes RPG, Punisher, The Clobberin' Times, Villains & Vigilantes, Wolverine. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.