In the Eighties
Posted by Ron Edwards
Now we’re taking Intruder into the role-playing games of the Eighties proper, that is, culturally. There’s a certain fun for me in making this character with these games, considering that his whole existence is a modern critique of the future interpretation of this era.
This is the seventh in my series of posts about Intruder, a character and bit of comics by me and Scott LeMien. The earlier posts include Intruder alert, “I Am I” (the comics), Forms and features, Rough and ready, Oh noes, and What medium and idiom hath wrought.
This post took forever to compose, not only due to the detail of the systems I’m talking about but because the cultural play-history is complicated. There’s a significant system that the others were derived from or were developed in close contact with, and yet they all deviate from it in one shared important way. So I have to introduce it and then veer away from it. As before, click on the cover images to see the character sheets.
The 3rd edition of Champions and its supplement Champions III (1985-1986) are the culmination of the design principles of the earlier games, including its own prior versions. (I also nod to V&V ’82 and Marvel Super Heroes as their own things, but let’s stay with this one.)
It has a divided personality, which is especially evident in the supplements because the entries’ authors are cited. Backtracking from those to the core text, it seems to me that one personality is represented by MacDonald, as well as Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston, which uses the systemic points to establish and resolve social and psychological pressure on both heroes and villains, for maximal dramatic confrontations with unpredictable outcomes and character transformations; and the other by Peterson, which uses the systemic points to assemble any and every object or effect in play. I’ve written before about table-use of these rules, calling it “kicking the tires,” to find some way to prioritize between the two personalities, which you must do in order to play at all, and which means that any time you joined a new table, you found that (to you) it’s driving funny.
So, daunting as the sheet may be, you have Intruder showing both: on the one hand, it’s a rather stunning application of his powers’ and skills’ influence on play-situations and their flexibility in response, as well as competing and engaging nuances of his motivations, circumstances, and problems, all of which are very dynamic, with unpredictable outcomes depending on which rolls are failed and which are successful, and for his powers, how much. (I left out the “steal your power” effect, which would have rounded him up to a solid 300 points, a perfectly good build for a villain intended to be substantial.) If you know the game, then you’ll see I chose to make the AI a kind of gestalt among his Limitations and Disadvantages.
On the other, the expectation to set up all these fancy detailed points for static objects is crazy. I choose to regard these supplemental mechanics as optional; I am not going to sacrifice the many hours it would take to construct his base in 2-meter hexes! It adds an abstract fussiness similar to the material fussiness in Superhero ’44 that would require me to budget the payments for the car that Ali uses to pick up Sharon at the train station.
Now for the bad news: by “culmination,” above, I also mean that this game is followed by the termination of the MacDonald, Stackpole, and Allston priorities. Superhero/comics role-playing culture shifted wholly into a different ideal. Although at first glance the overlapping and subsequent wave of games are mostly Champions imitations, they are far divorced from it in principle, and unified under another principle, than anyone could have imagined at the time.
- This moment marks the elevation, in gamer culture, of the generic or universal role-playing system, so that superheroes (for instance) are perceived as a genre; thus the “superhero game” is a specified version of the generic/universal game. The tacit priority is to show how the generic system “can” do this particular application, as opposed to the topic’s unique features being used as the chassis for this system.
- The purpose for a given rule or description is effectively a legal one, to establish during play that this is exactly what a particular thing does, fictionally. Think of a player’s mantra as asking “can I,” and the game master’s job is to check the rules text to say yes or no.
- “Points,” as in units for building, shift from being tools for specific and delimited portions of the fiction into the very stuff of the fiction, as if the whole fictional world or universe is made of them and they literally account, in that word’s precise meaning, for anything that might happen and its extent. The games without explicit points are organized into categories which serve as walled-off sets for quantitative decisions, resulting in the same effect as using points.
- Play absolutely relies on everyone’s compliance regarding outcomes as in service to a known plot, related to “run through this adventure” thinking or “experience this scenario” practices (see On and on and on). Therefore the GM takes on the role of aesthetic authority, channeler of any and all information, and controlling entity of outcomes’ consequences; this role’s purpose is to ensure that all activity and outcomes remain within the parameters as planned and known.
- As a softer or more speculative point, this outlook may also include an ideal form of repeatability to play, in that if Group A and Group B play some particular scenario or even a confrontation among the same characters, the events and outcomes for them really ought to turn out the same, or if different, in some highly identifiable way that was subject to a dice roll; otherwise, something must be wrong.
Intruder as a character reveals the cracks in this approach to RPG design. I’ll talk about the mind control at the end, but consider, for instance, my notion (not depicted explicitly in the story) that most people don’t fully perceive Jay’s maimed face, due to his combination of mental powers and personal charisma/demeanor. So he can walk around and people won’t “get” it – they’ll think of him as mildly impaired or disfigured, but nonspecifically, or at most, that he is missing an eye. So what would his Comeliness or Appearance be? The following games are extremely literal in their “is”-ness; you’d have to get low scores, then come up with some powers-effect that compensates for it. The same goes for his health, which is more explicitly presented in the story: for these games, he really ought to be constructed as sick and dying, but constantly regenerated; whereas in first-generation Champions we can just call that fun visuals and fiction (with a Disadvantage for occasional application) and treat him as relatively robust in the descriptive/point-based rules terms.
I usually made him a bit beefier than a starting player-character, about where I’d put a solid villain at the beginning of play. Also, non-trivially, we can discuss how I’ve addressed the AI as an independent entity, or not, for each title in the comments.
Among the following games, we should probably also examine Golden Heroes (self-published, 1982/Games Workshop, 1984), Challengers (Ragnarok Enterprises, 1985), and Enforcers (21st Century Games, 1987), which may fall on different sides of the divide, but I don’t own or know them. Marvel Super Heroes (TSR, 1984) and DC Heroes (Mayfair Games, 1986) will appear in the next post, which is about licensed games.
It’s not nice to say this, but Superworld (Chaosium, 1983) is a Champions knockoff, little more than an algebraic conversion to the Basic Role Playing (BRP) resolution mechanics. That would be fine, no skin off my nose or anyone else’s, except that the text is also uniquely sterile in terms of drives, conflicts, relationships, and situations; even the job and income are curiously bloodless in terms of their use in play. It’s fine for completing a super-powered checklist with a couple of comic-book-like specifications, but you don’t get a superhero-in-motion (and distress!) as you would for any of the games I’ve discussed previously.
The resulting Intruder is well set-up for nuanced mental influencing in a face-to-face, zap-you way, and the array of skills might complement that (deriving the beginning skills values kind of wore me out; I underlined the ones I’d boost hard, but I didn’t calculate their values). However, he’s pretty much ineffective in the important ways, as he has no way to set situations up and affect their context – you can’t play him to pull off the operation we see in the story, as all situations and their circumstances are flatly and completely under the GM’s purview. He’s also very vulnerable; the concept is already a little fragile for the pit-fight concepts of play that were becoming standard at the time, but here, he’s simply non-viable.
Heroes Unlimited (Palladium Games, 1984) uses the publisher’s house system codified in Rifts; I’d prefer to be using the first version for this post, which is also the one I played long ago, but the only one I own is the revised edition from 1987.
The usual reference to Rifts games is “nuts” and “gonzo,” but I don’t mind that part at all. I only want to know what Intruder looks like this way … and the answer is very similar. The rules are essentially gladiatorial: you build a character and see if they can stand up vs. Killer Croc if the two of them were released at opposite corners of a bare room. It comes down to “zap you with my mind” as a wussy-guy version of “shoot you with my gun” or “rip you apart with my hands.” The core concepts of Intruder to know things and use them effectively to shape situations is simply not part of the players’ jobs. The most you can do is make rolls to ask the GM what’s going on so they can steer you into things without using grimaces and hand signals.
I’m using the original GURPS: Supers(Steve Jackson Games, 1989) publication as well as the original GURPS and its quickly-published Update. It is no small topic, as you might recall from Balancing what exactly, Where are you going, where have you been?, and Knockout. As pure structure it’s rather brilliant (similar in this to DC Heroes), and its fiction-side is grounded in real-world issues and identities.
However, for present purposes, I’m focusing on the negative: this sheet and the point-structure it’s based on flat-out fail to get Intruder into playable form. (1) It does provide means for his “plays outside the rules” presence in situations, via the combination of Extraordinary Luck, Common Sense, the complete version of Eidetic Memory, Intuition, and Danger Sense, as well as Willpower and Charisma, but in my experience, the net effect is still subordinate for the player: they have a hot-line to the GM to ask what to do (i.e. to “gain clues”), or if they want to see the character do these lucky or intuitive things, they submit to the GM basically playing the character.
With one exception: his very complex reaction roll modifiers, which depend on who’s involved and what’s just happened or been said. Played in good faith and integrated with the mind-powers’ effects when called for, these would be high-pressure fun. (Also, no surprise: these very rules in the Basic Set warn against letting reaction rolls’ outcomes overly influence play! My God …)
(2) His technical, secret base-based surveillance, code-cracking, and maintenance of multiple points of influence are simply not done by these rules: you’d have to hybridize them with GURPS: Cyberpunk, ideally well enough to justify the infamous U.S. Secret Service investigation of that text. Maybe GURPS: Fantasy or GURPS: Horror as well to arrive at some means for the AI to produce unwanted or rebellious effects. Could these be done? Sure, but aside being way past my spoons limit of the moment, the resulting point-structure of the concept would expand well outside the margins of one character and into a whole environment, again, pretty much GM-managed, just as it’d have to do to build the base (and therefore many or most of his capabilities) in Champions.
I’ve said it before, saying it again, that Champions 4th edition (Iron Crown Enterprises & Hero Games, 1989), i.e., a genre book for The Hero System, was authored by totally different people under a different editorial mandate, and it should be considered the first edition of an entirely different game which happens to share the title.
As with GURPS: Supers (the games are basically twins), you can make Intruder but you probably won’t get to have the fun of playing him, even putting aside how far you have to go outside the parameters for starting characters or even near enough for a permissive game. Part of the problem is an abundance of detail and effort for effectively nothing but a reassurance that he’s “paid” for anything that might conceivably describe him, especially that plethora of picky skills. If one doesn’t have the anxiety that needs this reassurance, the whole thing looks like a huge unnecessary tax audit with fake-money.
It was pretty interesting to visit the available specificity for building AI. I could have gone with making it just powers with an assigned personality, codified as No Conscious Control or Independent, or as I did, make it an autonomous being via the Summoning Power.
It’s true too that the base, the flexibility, and the power-stealing are all mechanically more available via these rules than for the other games, but compare with the earlier version – here, you have to account (that word again) for every single thing that each of them can do, e.g., how the communications at the base can handle input from multiple languages. I keep asking, “how does this specifically contribute to dynamic, emergent-event play,” and coming up empty.
These latter four games are not trivial. They established the parameters of character builds, resolution, skill lists, scenario design, and even the purpose of play for the next fifteen years of role-playing, yes, much more so than any form of D&D. They mark a profound break with the trajectory represented by Champions 3rd edition. Since those fifteen years were also marked by a very narrow chokepoint via the distribution system, frankly, after 1990 or so, if you played any of the perceived “big” games, it was all the same game. What they provided can be summarized as the difference between opening things up vs. locking things down.
The rules are extremely concerned with precise allocations of effort to effects, as in, how much you can do of “this” while you’re also doing “that.” This is sometimes spoken of as “can’t” games vs. “can” games, but I think it’s more about management per unit of time per unit of effort, and of what kinds. Don’t get me wrong: I think enough of that to constrain choices in high-stakes situations is great – but examine the logic of who says how much you can swerve without tipping over at what speeds and with what loads. The logic here is suited for Autoduel Champions purposes (SJG, 1983), not anything to do with making your collective comics title go in group play.
The rules also shift into a highly specific “what can it do” mode regarding the fictional identity of powers. The reasoning goes, if this guy has ice powers and that guy has sonic powers, then we necessarily have a problem figuring out what happens in play, so how’re we gonna make it “work?” Cue the need for a careful breakdown of exactly what to do in each and every similar case. As soon as the powers’ fictional qualities become part of the rules, and go so far as to express the context of those qualities relative to one another, then Intruder becomes much, much harder. The rules-set becomes its own “universe” of what things are and how they relate to one another, as opposed to being procedures for how you affect the fiction’s setup and the fiction’s outcomes. In my preferred terms, the powers cannot be allowed to be a source of Bounce.
Critically: if the game authors didn’t already think of it and set up some subroutine for it, there’s no way for you to do it. Even their “build your own” rules are locked into the same scale and circumstances of the ones they have. Add to this the presupposition that powers and abilities are basically reactive, because you’re “in” the situation that’s been prepared for you, and now you have your bandolier of weaponry and vest of defenses that pertain to your body and to various ranges of effect emanating from it.
In this context, mind control is quite boring. It’s true that each rule-set offers a different spin and some opportunity to construct different versions, e.g., control vs. influence, puppet vs. convincing, or different kinds of energy requirements, and that a couple have playable “windows” for some aspect of the character. However, throughout them all, the problem is that not that mind control might hit too hard, but that it doesn’t hit hard enough, because the things it can really affect are not allowed for players to do.
This downside is nicely demonstrated by any bottom-rung mind-control villain from the comics, as seen here in the Hypno-Hustler, in that they have limited range, require a lot of concentration and maintenance, and feature unusual vulnerability. They’re even usually devices but if not, as easy to disrupt as devices are.
You know what mind control in these games isn’t? Scary. It’s just another attack, and frankly not a very effective one – you really ought to stick with the basic zap-bolt or auto-rifle, and you’ll have enough points left for better defenses, too. The master o’mental-dominance is watered down so player-characters won’t have to fear it for what it should do (here we can open a whole textbook on power-struggle player-GM crisis issues), and once watered down, it’s relegated to loser, jobber villains.
It fits very, very badly with the concepts (1) that player-character activity can shape upcoming events as much or more than a GM’s own preparations and (2) that a player-character can respond to circumstances in ways that re-shape whole situations. In the better comics stories, or even the not-actually-terrible ones, mind control is plot set-up and unpredictable plot-events, which in this philosophy of play are strictly GM jobs. These games present the cusp of this issue in play culture.
Working on these sheets took me back to a terrifying statement posted at the Forge, long long ago: a person’s view that playing the protagonists (i.e. significant agents) in an analogue to his favorite SF TV series would be impossible, because in order to have that kind of impact and shaping-drive upon the plot, they’d have to be NPCs. This kind of game design is where the experiences that shaped that position come from.
Whew! This post kind of killed me. I may have to lighten up on the back-end effort for these.
Next post: Taking Intruder to the symmetry of comics/role-playing licensing crossover
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on April 30, 2020, in Adept Comics, Supers role-playing and tagged Champions II, Champions III, Champions RPG, DC Heroes, Elementals, GURPS: Supers, Heroes Unlimited, Intruder, Justice Machine, Marvel Super Heroes!, Superworld. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.