Killing rules, or does it

Designers of superhero role-playing games have suffered far more agonies over whether, why, who will and who won’t, how-to, do-or-don’t, and what-have-I-done, regarding killing, than any fictional superhero ever did.

This is not about the ethics, not about what heroes do and don’t do, and not about what is or isn’t in the comics. I’ve written extensively about those in Kill, kill, kill, and before that, in How did I get these mutton chops? There’s yet more to say, more to consider, regarding killing in the comics, and killing as an act in stories which are not themselves about murder. There are many ways to “do superheroes” without killing as a major issue, and many ways to avoid doing it individually even when it is, but that can wait for a later time.

Instead, it concerns the fact that role-playing game design frames decision-making, and further, that instead of such decisions being quite coherent in some limited competitive framework, they are fraught with consequence in a fiction that is twisting in and out of shape by the moment.

So, here, enmeshed in design, we’ll take it as a given, that killing people, for superheroes, is a known act and therefore a considered option during play. Therefore this is a highly specific question of game design, and in the context of Champions, which is – if you’ll forgive me – super quantitative, here are the issues:

  • Making things more expensive in points
  • Making things more expensive in Endurance
  • Making things more effective as tactics
  • Making things which provide more agency
  • Making things that are cool and scary

Bored yet? Want to talk about real-world stuff and comics? But it’s the same! These are the procedural versions of what goes on in Ye Genius Writer’s head or in Ye Genius Artist’s heads, which my favorite medium exposes rather than leaving it safely locked behind bone.

[Quick point: I am not yet addressing things that kill that aren’t super-powered, and aren’t used as a super-character’s equipment, like guns and bombs and so on in the hands of others. Definitely an issue for this game, but not yet well-conceived.]

The idea is to clean out all the parallel tracking and differently-structured point systems, so that doing this is simply and only an available act which happens to cost X, Y, or Z based on how you structure it. That leaves all the ethical and thematic stuff where it belongs: with the group, to be conducted as acts of play.

I am, after, all the author of such things as Sorcerer, It Was a Mutual Decision, and Shahida – any game I’m designing is aimed at who is playing, and what they want to make of it, rather than something they get. But also at provoking the best that they can do. So here are the things I’m hoping to see receive judgment in the form of story, now that the structure and decisions for killing are hammered into a different shape:

  • killing as the ultimate heroism (“maturity”)
  • killing as manliness, especially for women
  • killing as vengeance, torture, and gorn

I mean, we could discuss and ponder and deconstruct all of that to our heart’s content. You know something, after 25 years in academia, I’m convinced that rates … oh … about negative pi on the authenticity scale. When we make stories via intuitive decisions framed by transparent procedures, though – look out.

All right! I promise! Next post will be full of politics and comics, and plenty of them.




About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on July 17, 2018, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’ve thought there should be a maneuver in Champions called Murder. All damage is rolled as if it were normal dice, unless you take the Murder maneuver, in which case you roll the equivalent value in killing dice. You can’t just say “I use the ‘Murder’ maneuver”; you have to use it as a verb. “I’m going to Murder the Purple Banana,” you would have to say.

    You’d also have to have your target helpless; you can’t just Murder someone in combat. And Murder doesn’t increase the damage or provide you any combat bonuses; in fact, it might be a full Phase, attacker at half DCV or worse.


  2. oberon the fool

    What about accidental murder rather than deliberate? Like, when you punch someone through a wall, or fire a volley of bullets (or eye lasers or whatever), or kick them down a flight of stairs (looking at you, Daredevil), there’s a pretty good chance of catastrophic injury, if not death.

    I dunno if that’s thematic for a supers game, but it’s something I think about a lot, especially watching the Netflix Marvel shows. In anything even adjacent to a realistic universe, superheroics would probably leave a lot of bodies on the ground.


    • You could still do enough damage to kill someone through normal attacks. Murder is the deliberate choice to attempt to take a life.


    • This is one time I won’t object to the term “what about!”

      Accidental murder, or if we get legal, lesser-degrees of murder and manslaughter, as well as negligent homicide, were muted in depiction, but nevertheless standard in 60s and 70s superhero comics, more explicitly in the 70s but not new. Knowing what I know now about Gerry Conway’s run on Spider-Man, the death of Norman Osborn seems to me exquisitely poised on a legal and moral precipice, written perfectly to place Spider-Man into social limbo.

      As I discussed in the “Kill, kill, kill” post, the heroes-don’t-kill concept was very much imposed by DC, and DC/Archie’s deathgrip on the Comics Code Authority, over a much more grim default context for masked super-stuff. Marvel broke out of a lot more than just newsstand title limitations in the very early 70s, and revealing the “real” superheroes from under that imposition was a main component.

      That said, I’m not taking the view that “they do it in the comics so that’s what we do in the game.” I’m interested in letting each group decide what’s in there, what their characters do, and how fraught that is, through their decisions and depictions. In other words, we are all Gerry Conway, and that’s a good thing.

      That said Mk 2, one of my biggest goals was not to privilege killing as a more effective, more rewarded, and more cool option in the rules. I wanted it there as a thing, priced accordingly in both character points and in Endurance, and I wanted each player who used it to be personally responsible for how it worked.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Ron, I couldn’t remember where the right place was for design talk. 🙂 I’m trying really hard not to fall into internet-debate style; this is me looking for clarification. Assuming the 0714 playtest document as well.

    If I’m reading it right, Body damage (unless the attack is otherwise advantaged) comes back at the same rate as Stun, correct? Like, if I have 8 Recovery, and I take a recovery (post-12 or otherwise) I get back 8 Body? If the attack is built with the Destructive advantage, it’s long term, requiring medical attention or otherwise.

    From this, it seems to me like we’ve got maybe two different kinds of Body damage, short term and long term. That might get confusing with bookkeeping.

    Essentially, Body damage now works differently than it used to, unless you buy a number of advantages on the attack to make it work the same as it used to, and this applies to all attacks that do Body. Do I have that right?

    This will trip up a lot of people who are coming into Champions Now from any of the other versions of Champions or Hero. It might definitely be worth calling out in the final version.


    • Provisionally, the answer is yes. However, although I’m trying it this way, it’s also true that I am really gritting my teeth at making Body came back that easily as the default. It seems too easy … but then again, it simply makes sense to have all damage function like X, with Destructive providing it with Y.

      My current decision is to regard my own reluctance as mere sentimentalism and to try it out as written. As far as being confusing with two tracks, that doesn’t seem to me to be any different from Stun or Drain/Transfer [whatever] tracking with the old Power Destruction power in place.

      The idea, I hope, is that genuinely vicious injury is a choice, not a side-effect of just wanting to be cool and effective. I want to make the choice available among any other possible choice about the same variables. Also, another idea is that the particular configuration of Body, Killing Attack, and dying from the old rules is itself merely an artifact, and not particularly sacred or logical as opposed to other ways to do it.

      I agree about the debate-style, so I hope it’s clear that I’m airing out what’s in my head about it, not saying you’re wrong. You’re certainly right to be looking into it this hard, and I respect your work in the trenches re: Champs 6th on this topic.

      I also agree about calling it out to avoid confusion. Fortunately, right now I’m concentrating completely on playing, designing, playing, designing, and seeing where that cycle takes me. So presentation – and its pitfalls – can be left for later.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Genuinely vicious injury as a choice… that actually brings up something I’ve thought of in D&D 5e, namely that hitting 0 hit points there, but coming back from it in whatever way, means you’re back up and fully functional. That’s always seemed to me to be a bit unsatisfying, so I’ve thought of, but not tried, an injury rule for that situtation.

        So… maybe 0 Body means you’re dying, unless you make the choice to take an injury. Player probably decides, given the rules on dying so far. And maybe it’s based on the magnitude of the hit that would have put you at 0. So if you’re at 1 Body, limping along until you can get that sweet, sweet Recovery, but are hit with 8 Body through defenses, you can choose to keep your 1 Body but take a grievous injury, something 8 Body worth. In our D&D game, every time we took a monster down, the DM had us describe the death blow, how exactly did we kill this monster, so maybe there’s something there as well; for an NPC, the GM can say “Okay, he’s now critically injured, how did you critically injure him?” For a PC, the GM can say “How are you injured?” The first-gen non-supers Hero games included rules for long term injury, so it might be worth looking at those as well.

        I agree about the debate-style, so I hope it’s clear that I’m airing out what’s in my head about it, not saying you’re wrong. You’re certainly right to be looking into it this hard, and I respect your work in the trenches re: Champs 6th on this topic.

        Thank you. I appreciate you saying so. 🙂 I’m right there with you on the reluctance to change; we threw in a lot of suggestions, a lot of which felt unsatisfactory on the surface, others that took some spreadsheet work. Part of the problem was that what Steve Peterson, George MacDonald, et al, came up with was just so tight. It really was an innovation from hit points and had been through… at least two years of playtesting? More? I think the playtest versions of original Champions were 1979, and first edition was 1981, so there was definitely a lot of work put into it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Following up my own posting here.

    What if Body damage worked similarly to the way Stun damage works, both ways. Like, in a fight, if you hit 0 Stun, with your next recovery you’re back up, but if you hit 0 Stun again you’re out of the fight. So, how about the same with Body… if you hit 0 Body during the fight, you’re injured. Hurt bad, but if you’re still conscious, or regain consciousness, you can keep fighting… but at that point any Body damage you take is “for keeps” and automatically considered Destructive.

    I dunno, it’s an idea. I’m spitballing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a very good suggestion. Since I’m going with the very generous rules about dying in first-generation Champions, I could easily shift to those at the second-time “zeroing out” regarding Body.

      Liked by 2 people

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