Balancing what exactly
Posted by Ron Edwards
I nipped back to the States for GenCon, to learn it’s culturally way too soon for me to set foot back there, but also to have some good times. I did see the full solar eclipse, but alas, gained no super-powers.
For those reading the blog mainly for politics and/or comics, I promise, this series about the oldest versions of the role-playing games Champions and GURPS: Supers will come to an end in another post or two. But I do solemnly swear that I’ll wrap it up with material that’s relevant to those things. For those coming in recently, and who might be interested, the series so far includes Exhumed, still lovely my dear, Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, Dynamic mechanics, Where are you going, where have you been, and Kill, kill, kill. This one develops some of the previous points to focus on that curious innovation of the time, the concept of buying one’s character’s features with disadvantages.
Buying your character’s features almost completely ad-lib had been born – if I’m not mistaken – in The Fantasy Trip: Melee in 1977, but in 1981, Champions added the notion of a budget that was increased with negative points, here termed Disadvantages. I’ve spilled considerable verbiage in the past couple of posts to describe its many virtues, but inside it there’s also a hidden, conceptual falsehood: the notion that the good is being matched or balanced in some way by something bad, especially in comparable quantitative terms. This is, bluntly, not true.
The so-called Disadvantages in both Champions and GURPS: Supers outline the hero’s problems, positions, and relationships. These aren’t lack of benefit for a superhero comics protagonist at all – they are, instead, the maximum benefit he or she could possibly have. I point specifically to the jolt provided to the idiom by the Flash in the late 1950s, as re-imagined by John Broome and Carmine Infantino; and by the stupendous development of that jolt in The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and a varying range of others by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby. Say it again: these are not bad things about these characters; they’re what make them good. They are the story’s frame and fuel.
I want to set aside the issue of setting up Disadvantages badly, that is, pro forma and without regard for this very thing. That kind of vague mess is easy to spot, as I can attest after enduring years of people filling in the blank with blanks like code vs. killing for no discernible reason or purpose, “Hunted: Villains,” secret identities without a shred of job or lifestyle, non-descriptions like “Overconfident.” It’s also reasonably easy to attend to.
Instead, I want to focus on the confounding factor specific to role-playing: the concept of effectiveness, that a hero without enough “disadvantages” is too effective. It presupposes some quantum of perfect effectiveness which is not too little to be fun and not too much to … something. What is that something? Then, as now, player agency is easily mixed up with how much one’s character impacts the fictional situation, and protecting that agency is often wrapped up in real-person power struggles. Add to that the desire, on anyone’s part, for this process to yield a rising dramatic arc, and instead of respective contributions you get all manner of reactive, passive-aggressive horse shit.
I bring this up to state that whatever the positive/negative relationship of “good” points vs. Disadvantage points may be, it’s not gonna solve that. Let’s assume perfectly functional attitudes and aims of play along the lines of soap opera + smackdown superheroes – why should any particular set of powers-building, effectiveness-increasing points be mathematically matched to some value of allegedly balancing “bad” points in a way presumed to balance them – especially when the latter aren’t bad at all, but are to a very real extent the engine of the cool stuff we want to do?
Not quite alike
I keep saying these are pretty much the same game, except for the important points I raised in Very special effects. Here’s another difference, at first glance merely a technicality, but at least indicative of something deeper. The basic relationship among what my stuff costs, how many “buy” negative points do I have, and how much am I worth is parsed differently.
In both games, there is a baseline set of “free” points – sort of a buffer or cushion upon which the “I buy this” points and “here’s my budget” points rests. In first-generation Champions, it’s 100 points. In GURPS: Supers, it’s 400. All points gained from Disadvantages are in addition to that cushion
Each game has the “free” baseline I mentioned above, then a set number you’re supposed to get in addition but have to “buy” as points of Disadvantages.
- In first-generation Champions, if you get 150 points via Disadvantages to add to the 100 point base, you’re called a 250-point character. In other words, you cite the “positive” total.
- In GURPS: Supers, you get 400 points “free” for your baseline, then you can get 100 points via Disadvantages and 5 more from Quirks. In Champions, this would be called a 505-point character, but in GURPS: Supers, you do the subtraction and call it a 400-point character.
That might seem trivial, a mere matter of which algebraic unit you care to call “my character,” but it applies more deeply as follows. The various texts for this iteration of Champions didn’t explicitly state the whole negatives-worth-the-positive notion, at most sort of gesturing that way. Instead, a Disadvantage counted not so much as an undesirable thing but – as acknowledged in the text I scanned and included in the previous post – as a relevant, unavoidable thing. The numbers terminology reflects that: you weren’t “paying” for the good with the bad, you were increasing total value with interesting complications. Whereas GURPS: Basic (1986) very much conceived a Disadvantage as a disability, a stigma, a serious mental or behavioral incapacity, or a danger. If not, no points. Again, the numbers terms express that perfectly. If you wanted to be “returned” to an implied correct-and-proper total, then you needed the bad, literally to bring you down.
But GURPS: Supers (1989) had to backpeddle on that, in part because it did (I must say) cleanly lift certain concepts from Champions, and in part because no one into superhero comics could possibly deny, nor would want to lose, the fervent social soap opera part of them. So among the one-armed and schizophrenic and alcoholic disads, appeared a bunch that were much less … well, disadvantageous, and more along the lines of shaping someone whose attitude, situation in life, and unique impact on a crisis were fun to play. Also, in fairness to the newer text, the listed array of independent differing values does a better job in arranging all the interesting vectors of opinion a hero of this type might have.
It borks the logic, though. How can having, for example, a really cool Enemy be considered a bad thing which devalues your character in the game’s currency? How can my character Fireballs’ Honesty (in GURPS, this means law-abiding), which is nicely criss-crossed with his mischievous side, be a bad thing when it intersects with team leader Stink Bug’s brooding, honorable standards? (Yes, I made up Stink Bug. He’s awesome.)
I recall in the 1996 game Feng Shui, by Robin Laws, the text says to go right ahead and take off your character’s leg or otherwise cause6him or her hassles with some specified condition or situation. And? And nothing, you wanted it, so enjoy. That made a lt of sense to me.
In recent years, for Champions 6th edition, Steve Long finally said it the way it was from the beginning: these aren’t Disadvantages at all, they’re Complications, and if you want some, more power to you (literally), because we all agree that we like our heroes this way. The points shift a little too, which isn’t relevant here, only to say that there is no more implication of “balancing” and “paying” in order to have a viable character.
Magnitude doesn’t matter
Here’s a character I made to illustrate the “not balancing anything” point: Zap. Briefly, he’s in the mold of the original Nova (1976), the Impact version of the Fly (1993), or today’s Khamala Khan – a really nice mid-teen who’s landed with hefty, somewhat troublesome powers without overriding origin-esque personal trauma. I’ve built him with 250 points (150 points of Disadvantages), the recommended starting value. I’ve also provided an extra 50 points of Disadvantages for a hypothetical example of starting at 300 points. I want you to look at the difference between the two sets of Disadvantages as they pertain to playing this guy out of the gate.
My thesis is that instead of “balancing” the extra power for the 300 point starting version, the additional Disadvantages are counter-productive. Furthermore, that this is not because the character’s effectiveness is crippled, but because the framework provided for character crisis and developing during play, evident in the 250 point version, has been rendered a diluted mess. Instead of a focus on control over powers and the resulting hassles with relationships, he’s neurotic, hounded, and tormented too.
What I’m saying is that the raw quantitative value of Disadvantages gains its actual value in play not from the “badness” that counterbalances or somehow reduces the character’s in-game effectiveness (if anything, it’s the Limitations on the powers that do that). Instead, the points “stop,” i.e., the recommended 150 points, where they genuinely shape who this character is, making a coherent handful of potential for what might happen now. It’s arguable that 150 is a bit too many, and I have myself struggled to get that far when my character concept seemed nicely done at about 100 points of Disadvantages … but I’ve also seen a character snap into conceptual place beautifully when I pushed a player just a little to fill in that same blank. That total – wherever your sweet spot may be for a given character – has literally nothing to do with reducing or matching or balancing whatever powers and things happen to be on the point-buy end of the character sheet.
Developing and changing disadvantages
I’ve written about this a couple of times so will recap only slightly: instead of spending experience points for more powers or whatnot, you can spend them to buy off Disadvantages. The implication is that since the latter are bad, well, getting rid of them is just as good (worth spending points on) as buying new powers. However, consistent with my claim that many people did not see Disadvantages as bad at all, I don’t recall anyone actually doing this.
Instead, the more common practice was to rearrange and redefine them to reflect developments that happened in play or which you’d like to springboard into play. Change your Secret Identity (15 points) into a Public Identity (10 points), and ramp up a villain who hunts you to make up the difference – that kind of thing. Overcome or reduce your fear of fire, get a ladyfriend who follows you around filming her documentary. You can see I did this in the contrasting future-Miasma examples in my previous post.
I’m sad to say that I, personally, didn’t use this rules potential hardly at all, as I described in Cloaky Spookydark. Nocturne, at 300 points, should have had a radically different profile of Disadvantages than he started with – not because the originals had been ignored or discounted, but because they’d been addressed and evolved. The total would have been about the same, but the components would have included:
- Hunted: clueless occultist fan base
- DNPC: son (this would have replaced being hunted by his sister; the kid is theirs and was heavily implied to be all sorts of evil, so making him a Dependent is way too much fun)
- Public Identity instead of Secret
- Reduce the “struggling with the evil inside” thing to 10
In other words, he’d have become a more public, better adjusted character with his family emphasis given a new angle – exactly what happened in play.
That vigilante game idea: It’s sorta taken off and has a name now. I even have an artist who wants to go berserk with it. Read more about the latest playtest and get the draft to try out yourself at my Patreon – thanks!
Next: Best with badness (September 3)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on August 27, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged Carmine Infantino, Champions RPG, disadvantages, Feng Shui RPG, Flash, GURPS: Supers, Jack Kirby, John Broome, Khamala Khan, Nocturne, Nova, Robin Laws, Stan Lee, The Fly. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.