Knockout

These two covers depict publications from the same year, 1989. However, the past couple of months’ posting hasn’t been about them, but about a non-simultaneous comparison between GURPS: Supers and the prior Champions (1981-1985, up through third edition). Here at the end of what’s been, for me anyway, a gut-wrenching dozen posts, I’ll review and reflect upon why.

Opening point: these two games were historically incredibly important for role-playing and their qualities are relevant today. I don’t know if they’re perceived as niche today or not, but I do think they’re under-utilized in today’s hobby dialogue.

They’re also a single phenomenon, both in design and in how each one’s development influenced the other in a complex, multi-step way (see Do the two-step), so to include them in today’s dialogue, one has to grasp what their shared (too mild a word) qualities are as well as what does make them different. Because at the 1985 mark, comparing Champions up through 3rd edition with the early appearance of GURPS, despite their undeniable presence in almost identical design space, the two approaches were very different.

But as I see it, the shift to Champions 4th edition in 1989 was distinctly, non-trivially discontinuous:

That’s why I chose to compare GURPS: Supers with Champs 3rd, rather than with 4th, which given their common year of origin might seem like the more logical choice. Because there’s no point in comparing what are pretty much the same things, and because I want to recover and dissect those non-trivial early differences.

In terms of preference, both then and now, it also may clarify why I like Champs 3rd more than GURPS: Supers, but I like GURPS: Supers more than Champs 4th. And don’t get the wrong idea, that’s not a backhand swipe at GURPS: Supers, which does have unique virtues. It is, I admit, a solid forehand swipe at Champs 4th, which I regard as a betrayal of the prior line.

A little history. Except as an engaged customer, I wasn’t in on the events of how these titles were published. However, one of the benefits of blogging this much about the games is that I’ve been able to talk a little with people who were. That doesn’t mean I totally understood what I was told, or talked to everyone. If I get something factually wrong in what follows, I hope anyone who was there will speak up to help.

The business circumstances for role-playing at the time concerned strategic buy-outs, considered at the time to be the acme of success for a start-up independent entity, to be picked up by a “real” company. Exhibit A was of course the Williams purchase of TSR in 1985. In the case of Hero Games, the Champions property was bought (or leased in a big way?) by Iron Crown Enterprises, noted until then for Rolemaster. Thus 4th edition Champs was, business-marketing-wise, now to be the serious version made in this more august context, and although the original authors are listed, its production was carried out by an entirely new staff, headed by Rob Bell, beholden to different masters.

Steve Jackson Games was running along very different lines, as its founder and namesake had suffered one ownership and IP crisis with Metagaming, losing In the Labyrinth thereby. Therefore the new SJG was named and managed beholden to no one. Just months after the period I’m writing about ended, it would run into an entirely new problem, that of FBI investigation and near-halting of its publishing due to the contents, or perceived contents, of GURPS: Cyberpunk. But as I say that’s later; so for now, think of SJG as running on a very definite, uncompromised vision.

Leaving the psychology of actual persons out of it, the Champs 4th text shows several priorities in action which can’t overlook the presence of GURPS, and its impending release GURPS: Supers, as the perceived competitor. It’s the first version of Champions published as an acknowledged subset of an over-arching Hero System (published in 1987), flipping the Hero System from what had been a “how these different things overlap” into a “these things are specialized subsets of one big thing.”

Therefore you see not only a compilation of the admittedly messy and dispersed rules across the first-generation Champions titles, but some telling changes.

  • Imposing a canonical setting, with an eponymous super-group and a fairly detailed history including organizations like DEMON and VIPER.
  • The full shift to character points modeling everything; if you paid for it, you have it, and if you didn’t, you don’t.
  • The 50% cut in Endurance cost, effectively removing effort and fatigue from the events of play (see my Superhuman endurance post)

Summary: GURPS: Supers did what it did very well, but Champions 4th did what GURPS: Supers did not quite as well, and at the same time abandoning what had made prior Champions uniquely great.

Purpose – or let’s get fancy, aesthetics. I’ve written in some detail about superheroes’ power in showcasing human passions and social crisis, and about Champions as a game with considerable potential for events-driven, non-planned dramatic outcomes. Given that 4th edition is curiously empty as far as these are concerned, and that it similarly lacks GURPS: Supers’ distinguishing anchor in real-world politics and conflicts, you have to wonder what on earth this game was supposed to be for.

One vocal customer base may have had a louder voice in influencing the new text. It was active in the pre-internet, with its own APA and also using FTP and other proto-(or “real”) internet functions a solid decade before the rest of us were included. This group was dedicated to the exhaustive modeling of comics characters using Champions, and if my scuttlebutt can be trusted, was notably contentious. You might think of them as an engineering-style fetish club for deciding what Superman or Wolverine “is” in Champions terms, with The Official Handbook and DC Showcase in one hand, and the Champions rules in the other, translating “can bench press 400 pounds” back and forth between them, seasoned with plenty of invective and jostling. It was quite visible to the publishers and probably became the perceived target market.

Speaking as someone who very much likes character construction and a great deal more about Champions, I can tell you this community’s priorities repel me to the point of outright horror. I’ve written in detail about the math and underlying concepts of the game, especially to showcase a character’s dynamic and high-tension qualities. It is an instrument of play which can produce a powerful and above all emergent, un-programmed dramatic arc. In no way do I see it as an end in itself, specifically a Sudoku puzzle in point-balancing crossed with dress-up paper dolls.

Do you know what I mean by titling this post “Knockout?” It has nothing to do with one competitor K.O.-ing his opponent. It refers to the genetic technique which removes a single gene’s effect on a creature, which is to say, upon how it develops. A lot of important content – the adult form, if you will – got knocked out of Champions in 1989. One or two later supplementary efforts excepted, 4th edition is like an experimental animal with a crucial developmental gene knocked out of function, preventing the cascade of effects that result in the loss what we think of the animal “doing,” no matter that it is still alive and looking at us. A lot of it was never recovered (although I credit Steve Long for his efforts, especially 6th edition).

And of lot of what that was was knocked hard out at a much bigger scale, out of role-playing as a hobby at that moment as well. Those essays about the dramatic potential of disadvantages, and character development, that I scanned and included in the previous posts? Gone. The notion that your played game is your setting-and-story creation, not a version or expression of an official publisher creative vision? Gone. The notion that all that stuff on your character sheet is a springboard for stunts, to the extent that no one bothers to mention “stunting rules?” Gone. As one of the three primary strains of role-playing during the 1980s, Champions had been the one to showcase all those things. By 1996, the year I first published Sorcerer, and by 1999, the year I first published “System Does Matter” and “The Nuked Applecart,” no one apparently remembered they’d even existed.

There you have it: this is the final post, pending haphazard follow-ups, of the series which began with Exhumed, still lovely my dear and includes Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, Dynamic mechanics, Where are you going, where have you been, Kill, kill, kill, Balancing what exactly, Best with badness, On and on and on, and Recursion isn’t just a river in Egypt.

Next: Generation who (October 8)

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About Ron Edwards

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

Posted on October 1, 2017, in Gnawing entrails, Supers role-playing, The 90s me and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I never was one who had to see how my favorite comic book characters from DC and Marvel would be accuarately portrayed as Champions character sheets. I would rather see original creations.

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    • You and me both. Not that inspirations and even expys are bad – I hope to have expressed in my post about Michele Fiffe’s Copra that the key is whether the new product is good. Whether it came from something else is a secondary issue.

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  2. I owned and played two brief but memorable Champions campaigns prior to 4th ed, and owned the Champions boxed set, Champions II and Champions III; When I saw the Big Blue Book I thought I’d give it a pass, since I had just picked up GURPS: Supers, but leafing through it, I found the section on powergamers and what characters you could let them create with 1000 points. I laughed out loud and decided this was good enough a reason to buy the book.

    I think Champions 4th was generally a better system and a better roleplaying game book than GURPS: Supers, and I loved some of the supplements as genre distillations (Martial Hero, Mystic Masters), but I didn’t play it too much.

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    • Hello, and welcome.

      I’m willing to let personal takes on better/not to stand as personal takes, without making that a debate topic. And since I went on to play nominal Champions 4th which retained a bunch of 3rd’s features and grafted in a few GURPS: Supers ones, I am not one to say this or that as strongly as I did in the post, having created a partial hybrid to keep going.

      I’d like to know more about those games you played. Original Champions content from the mid-80s is precious; feel free to sound off on it however you’d like.

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  3. Great analysis as always! Though I don’t think I ever played Champions beyond 1st edition, I’m now digging into this series from the beginning…

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  4. Ron, I get what you’re saying about powers and stunting “springboard” being gone, but what about Disads do you feel changed so profoundly in 4th?

    Aside: I only played a bit of 4th in college, but we used none of the “canonical” setting stuff. (Granted, most of it hat yet to be published at that point.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Second point first, I think the significant issue is that there was now a canonical setting at all. Not to you personally or specifically, but man, it’s hard to get that across to people, about back when that wasn’t the default.

      Speaking as someone who remembers when the Monster Manual didn’t imply a single setting but was merely a fun list of critters from one person who’d read a lot to a bunch of other people who’d done the same reading, I sometimes feel like an unwilling visitor from another dimension.

      Anyway, for your first point, I don’t think the changes were atomic enough to say, “OK, that’s wrong with part X, and over here, this is what’s wrong with point Y,” and so on from A to Z. The ones that did seem strong enough on their own to support my point were the ones I listed, and even those had their impact in tandem with one another rather than being independent doses.

      Maybe some of the changes weren’t negative or weren’t relevant to my point, as well. If I remember correctly, the reduced point-benefit for repeated types of disadvantages was no longer in place. I’m not committed to the idea that any given change for 4th edition was bad, and perhaps that was a good one, kept people from scrabbling too hard for that last 30 points and taking stuff that meant nothing to them. I’m not claiming first-generation was perfect and couldn’t have stood some tuning of that sort.

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      • Santiago Verón

        I wonder, what are stunting rules?

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        • Stunting means extending a character’s listed ability past its textual description during play. For example, your character may have a trait “agile” for which the book’s description lists some benefits. But if you want to do something especially fancy or perhaps extravagant due to being agile, or perhaps merely something that’s not listed in that description and gain the same sort of bonus for being agile, that’s a stunt.

          My argument is that prior to the late 1980s, there was no need for stunting-type rules text because extending listed descriptions in this way was ordinary, even default. The texts like those I quoted for Champions expressed the wider perception: that if I have “Energy Blast: Flame Jet,” that any number of secondary effects it might have, and any number of improvised tricks I might do with it, are already written-in.

          I cannot say for sure but I also suggest that the hyper-legalistic, rules-text-only, “you can’t do that” way to play is an offspring of the RGPA (the TSR-associated Dungeons & Dragons convention community) and strongly tied to the Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms concept of playing “through” a textual saga, shepherded by the DM who was, in this role, considered a deputy author to Margaret Weisman or whoever. Or it may have broader roots in more generalized Murk.

          Many rules texts of the 1990s assume that you cannot do something with a listed component on a character sheet except for what is stated in the rulebook for that component. I found myself surprised over and over by texts that said things like, “With a successful [funky ability] roll, you may ask the GM one question,” when it had been built into my early training that I could ask a GM whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. To me, the assumption that you wouldn’t do that without a special ability that said so, came out of nowhere. I’m not claiming all the texts of that time did this all the way through their pages, but rather that before that, I don’t recall any text doing it. Not even GURPS, noted for its legalistic approach.

          Feng Shui (1996) is often credited with introducing explicit stunting rules, regarding improvised and extravagant use of martial arts and powers, although I don’t know if that’s accurate. I remember being puzzled at the excitement and at later references to it as an innovation. For one thing, such improvised and extravagant actions when playing a game in that genre seem, to me … expected. What else would you be doing? For another, in that rules-set, stunts were penalized in terms of difficulty, i.e., chance of success, which if anything seemed backwards to me. In Champions, no comparable “stunt” was ever penalized in terms of success; doing something fancy with your Flame Jet was the same as simply rolling to hit with it, or needed no special roll at all. And if you wanted to encourage such things during play, it seems reasonable to make them more likely to succeed rather than less.

          A lot of texts were half-and-half. The early White Wolf games stated in their resolution sections that characters could try anything simply by identifying two attributes to support it … but the phrasing and organization of specific abilities (powers, skills) favored an “if you don’t have it you can’t do it” approach. I suspect different tables playing the same game, in terms of the rulebook at the table, tended toward very different interpretations.

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        • Santiago Verón

          Fascinating! Thanks.

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  5. Ron, I was reading Champions II over the weekend and feel compelled to mention that you see some of the DNA for 4th even then. The book adds most of the Knowledge (City, Science, Knowledge, Professional) skills, and in the essay on spending experience, there is some discussion of spending points on “instantiating” as Powers certain types of things that might be considered special effects or stunts. Add in the rules for building bases and vehicles, and you’re at least, IMO, heading in the general direction of 4th. (Granted, the whole canonical setting thing is totally absent.)

    At least that was the vibe I was getting.

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    • Yes. I’ve acknowledged the diversity in supplements II and III in several posts, most recently in Being, having, and nothingness, and I think the DNA you’re talking about appeared most early (in Hero) in Super Agents.

      I’ve also mentioned keeping an eye on the authors, who are cited by section for both supplements. The profiles really jump out – Steve Peterson and Michael Stackpole very far out on the “we are making great comics with great comics characters” vector, complete with lovely GNS-y “the point of role-playing” rhetoric; Bruce Harlick with his numbers optimization way out on another vector; and Aaron Allston in a zone I recognize well, of working out how to do this comics-making thing in a fashion that makes use of the available points and rules-specs.

      I think it’s important to think of both supplements as essay collections that operate more like a symposium or even a debate, as opposed to a single-vision single-text book.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed re: the symposium. Now that I’ve read Strike Force, it’s really fun to see Allston drop then-contextless references to characters from that campaign. Also doubly satisfying to see how much of all the content is borne out of the authors’ actual play — “We wrote some rules to handle this thing that came up in our campaign.”

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