Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Champions (Hero System 5th Edition) Product Review Tuesday: Aaron Allston's "Champions: Superpowered Roleplaying"

Better late than never, right?

I'm proud to introduce a regular feature – Champions Review Tuesdays, which focus on the old 5th Edition, which is overrepresented in my collection. Every Tuesday I'll get another one up like clockwork of another Champions (Hero System) product.

Seriously, the necessity for reviews of this type dawned on me when I realized the quality of Hero System productions swung around so wildly that some books were must-haves and others were terrible to the point of absolute uselessness. I also realized that most of the webrpg reviews were done by sycophantic fanboys incapable of providing useful or thoughtful information.

Champions: Superpowered Roleplaying (By Aaron Allston)

When I first got this book I thought it was pretty friggin' useless, and a rip-off for the dough I forked over.

For heaven's sake, I already know how superheroes work, what a "brick" and an "energy projector" character are. I had a basic sense of how the genre worked, like the difference between a Master Villain (say, Doctor Doom) and a Henchman Villain (say, Whirlwind, Tigershark or the Wrecking Crew), defining characteristics of the Silver Age and Bronze Age, and things like skintight costumes and what a superteam government liason does. All of which, by the way, are explained in the book. I'm not joking – there's a whole page on how superhero costumes work. Take a look so you don't think I'm lying:

It felt like they were trying to explain superheroes to people on another planet where there were no superheroes. The book also suffers from things like an attempt to explain romance and comedy in superhero comics, which feels like word-count padding and filler, probably because it is.

Since then, though, I've played with enough people that don't "get" superheroes…and I've been on Champions Online, a game theoretically about superheroes ruined by a playerbase that instead creates furry weirdness like rainbow winged wolf-women and vampire faggotry for the no-longer-cool-or-relevant World of Darkness.

It was then that it dawned on me. The Champions Sourcebook is actually necessary because some people actually don't get superheroes and all this has to be spelled out for them.

It sounds weird, I know, but it reminds me of an anecdote told about Joe Orlando, a guy that was principally a horror and EC comics guy who transitioned into superheroes with great difficulty.

Joe Orlando once wrote a memo where he asked a plotter, "why does the Thing have to smash through a wall? Can't he use a door?"

To which the exhausted writer responded, "look, Joe, you either get this stuff or you don't."

It gets even more interesting when you consider that because Champions has been around for such a long time, there are people that play Champions and don't read superhero comics at all, just like there are people that play D&D and don't read fantasy novels. The Champions Universe started off as a store-brand version of Marvel Comics but acquired a life of its own. To an old school comics fan like me, it's inconceivable, and a perverse reversal of the natural order, that someone could be more familiar with Mechanon than Ultron or Doctor Destroyer over Doctor Doom. It reminds me of people that think Drow are really in world myth, instead of being a creation of Gary Gygax.

Suddenly I understood why, for example, the superteam in this book, the Champions, had powers, vehicles and bases that were so very generic: they're supposed to be that way, to work as "examples" of how you build, say, a Batman type hero, a brick-type invulnerable hero, a power armor hero, an energy projector, and so on. This is especially important and meaningful because the purpose of examples is to show what the system can do.

In an unusually prescient move that shows these people actually play their own game, there was even a Worf-type alien hero. I have almost never been in a group and not had at least one person not want to be a "today is a good day to die" Worf guy. They even give him a Phys Lim to represent unfamiliarity with earth culture. It's like the characters were created with a "how to do this" list in hand. If you're a newbie and aren't sure how to do something, this can be very, very helpful.

If you're an overworked dog of a man like I am, you can do what I do: steal the Champions' V-Jet and use it for whatever superhero team jet's in your own game (all superheroes need a jet, right?), borrow the stats for their wisecracking HAL 9000 AI computer and use it for the one in your superhero base (all superheroes have one of those, too). I hate to interpret designer intent, but I believe that's literally what they're there for, people!

That reminds me. Where the book really shines are the crunchy game bits, and there are a lot of them. The templates are huge packets that make superhero comics easier. They include game bits that are absolutely indispensable: team communicators. Comic book technology like blaster pistols, rocket packs, and character sheets for generic evil minions. Speaking from experience as a GM in a labor-intensive system who believes in working smarter, not harder, that evil minion sheet in back has literally been the henchman sheet for dozens of very different baddies.

The templates are a lifesaver because there's no reason to reinvent the wheel with basic character concepts like the Earth Control Hero, Growing Hero, Scientist, or Martial Artist. When you become a GM, these will be your best friend. Many of them even have things you didn't think of. My favorite was the Multipower for telekinesis heroes, which had Darkness (representing whirling local dust and debris to make a blinding smokescreen). I hadn't thought of that, but that's just cool.

There is also a no-frills Batmobile type supercar, and at least five types of bases: urban base, space base, and an underwater base complete with computers, all with pretty common options. If you think this will save you work, you'd be right. File off the serial numbers and you can pretty much Xerox this and hand them out to characters "right out of the box."

My advice? If you know superheroes, skip the flavor text in front and then go right to the crunchy bits, which you can then file the serial numbers off. I really hate to do "time is money" comparisons, but let's get cold and logical about this: how much would you pay to save yourself hours of unnecessary work? Seriously, let's attach a dollar amount to GM labor. If you say you'd pay anything from from $5-$20 an hour to save you the equivalent amount of work, this book will still pay itself off eventually if you run a campaign longer than a few weeks.

The optional rules are interesting, although they conform with intuition. For instance, the rules on the "Fastball Special" are basically what you'd expect: a character does a Move-Through maneuver based on the velocity of the inches of throwing. You can probably guess that's how it would work if you've ever been a GM for Champions for any length of time, but it's nice to have that in writing. The Directed Knockback rules measure what happens when knockback is used to hit one character into another: namely a second attack roll against a target in the path of the knockback, which gives damage based on inches of Knockback on a 1" = 1d6 basis. This is such an intuitive way to handle it that I'm not entirely sure this even counts as a new rule.

When building characters I always turn to the Vulnerability Frequency tables. How often do cold attacks come up in your average superhero world, anyway? Mental powers? Again, good to have it in writing. Though I notice there is a slight Marvel emphasis on a lot of these tables. For instance, Cold/Ice powers are judged as uncommon, and fire and heat powers as very common. That's one big difference between the Marvel and DC Universes: Marvel has tons of fire people and relatively few ice characters, while DC has tons of ice people and relatively few fire people.

Finally, in back there are some great classic villains for a variety of campaigns, in addition to the famous Utr – er, I mean, Mechanon. Green Dragon, a villainous kung fu expert, is a great character because he can with very few alterations be retweaked into the character sheet for literally dozens of "costumed athlete" martial arts types with very little effort.

It's at this point I ought to admit a prejudice I have that colors my appreciation of the book. I don't like "genre toolbox" supplements that give you an overview of a genre or milieu so you can create your own setting with them. Universal systems, or games like Champions that play-act at being universal systems, are pretty much plagued with books of this type. The non-crunchy parts of these kinds of books are irritating to read because as I said, they waste your time telling you things you already know.

The worst part is when toolbox books of this type take a view that genre simulation is the absolute top priority, and if simulation is the priority, things end up becoming parodies of themselves because they never break new ground.

The best and most interesting things ever done with superheroes, and with anything else for that matter, are the ones that "break the rules." The FF didn't have secret identities, for example, which was a pretty ironclad comics rule until then.

Because genre simulation is paramount, the books give frankly horrible and embarrassing advice I can't see any real GM taking. Typical of this is a section on fads and creating fad-themed superheroes with disco and skateboarding themed powers. Does it occur to anyone else that maybe accurately simulating the genre is ultimately not as important as not being retarded? Because having disco and skateboard themed characters sounds pretty retarded to me.

This gets even worse with other Hero System products. My favorite is another toolkit book, Pulp Hero which gave the most dysfunctional advice imaginable on handling race and sex. When it came to women, it said that "because pulps like Adventure made an effort to portray females as smart, strong and sensible, there are many examples to fall back on when creating as many heroines and capable female NPCs as you like."

Okay, fine, but later on, they discuss racism, and give three possible options for a game master and group, all of which are equally insane: the first is setting a game in the 1920s and ignoring racism and sexism as existing in society entirely (!); the second is making all characters white and male to "accurately simulate the pulps," (!) and the third is a "compromise" (their words) possibility where "Oriental" is used instead of "Asian" and "if there is a nonwhite player character, there should be only one."

What blows my mind about this is not how horrible the advice is (pretending racism and sexism didn't exist in the 1920s, or requiring players to make all-white male heroes?) but it never even occurs to them that maybe it's possible to create smart and capable racial minority heroes, or even an all-minority party, even if there is no precedent for that in the pulps themselves? In other words, the reason women heroes can be smart and not useless is only because Adventure magazine did it!

Another reason I don't like books of this type is that they take a backwards approach to how, in practice, the creation of settings work. They start with making someone ask big questions that in practice most people creating a setting, roleplaying game masters or otherwise, don't answer immediately, like what the status of superhumans and the law is, or the history of superheroes.

In a homebrew game, it's a very rare game master that has everything fleshed out from day one. Thinking about the history of superhumans isn't the first thing you should be thinking about when starting a game or a setting. I understand different GMs work in different ways, but is starting with a chapter like "Timeline" about the history of the entire world really the way most GMs do things? Is that even the most helpful way to think?


David said...

This is all geek to me, as I never got into this kind of thing (bought the James Bond games, but never played them). However it was worth the read if only for the Pythonesque announcement that "Champions Review Saturdays" will be coming our way every Tuesday. :-)

Re: that page on superhero disguises and costumes, maybe it was meant to be humorous, like the old "Cartoon Laws of Physics" piece that circulated the Web back in Usenet days (ex; "When stuck on the head with an object such as a flat-iron, mailbox, shovel, etc, a cat's head will take the shape of that object" and "the law of gravity does not apply until and unless a character realizes he is in fact suspended in mid-air.")

Interesting observation about the hot-and-cold characters at DC and Marvel. I wonder if it's because arson and pyromania are so closely associated with juvenile delinquency, something DC as the more "establishment" company would work to avoid being tied to (the only flame-based hero I can think of from DC is Sun Boy, and even he worked more like a space heater than a flame-thrower). Or maybe it's just because Timely cornered the market with The Human Torch and made it impossible for anyone else to do fire characters without looking like copycats.

As for the "Pulp Hero" rules, I think the point is they want you to create a world as close to the pulps as possible. And just as you wouldn't find a harpoon cannon on the Starship Enterprise or an iPod in Sherlock Holmes' pocket, you're not going to see a lot of heroic minorities in the pulps. Of course if that's what they're getting at then the sentence "if there is a nonwhite player character, there should be only one" should end with "...and his name should be something like 'Chop-Chop,' 'Whitewash' or 'Hambone.'")

I'd never even considered the notion of, say, a black pulp hero, but now that I have it's an awesome concept. I wish someone would write it, or base a movie on it. Think of the dramatic possibilities if you had a "perfect man" like Doc Savage saving the world every week and it turned out he was black. How would 1930s America handle that?

Of course the biggest question in all this is why the makers of the "Champions" game would name it after the lamest, most useless super team in the Marvel Universe.

Julian Perez said...

This is all geek to me, as I never got into this kind of thing (bought the James Bond games, but never played them). However it was worth the read if only for the Pythonesque announcement that "Champions Review Saturdays" will be coming our way every Tuesday. :-)

Ha ha! I just caught that. The reason is that I wrote that article on Saturday and I didn't get my scanner working until earlier today. I thought I'd caught it in the text.

I never played the James Bond game, but my very first RPG was the TSR, Inc. spy game Top Secret! I found it when I was eight in my old elementary school teacher's board game bookcase.

She bought it thinking it was just another board game and couldn't make heads or tails of it – she had it for years and I was the first kid that ever gave it a second look. I thought it was the coolest thing ever...in addition to the basic Top Secret set, it had an adventure module where all the players had a cover identity as racers or pit crew in Monte Carlo. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen up until then and I got my friends together immediately.

(I also used to draw my own board games so I was a receptive audience.)

It's generally been my experience that fans of adventure novels tend to also like video/computer games, whereas fans of really elaborate mystery novels tend to like roleplaying games.

Or maybe it's just because Timely cornered the market with The Human Torch and made it impossible for anyone else to do fire characters without looking like copycats.

I think this is more likely to be the explanation - Jules Pfeiffer wrote about how the original Human Torch was important because he was the first superhero to have a gimmick.

Though there is something to part 1 though. There are some superheroes where I honestly wonder why they were ever popular.

I don't ask that question about the Human Torch.

It's so easy to understand: every kid goes through a phase where they're a pyromaniac.

As for the Pulp Hero chapter...

Maybe bringing that quote up – particularly without a scan to let it speak for itself – was a little unfair because that's one topic where literally anything they say would sound terrible in some way. As a married guy I'm sure you're aware of this kind of situation.

But I just think it's goofy to say "capable heroines are possible. Why? Because there's precedent set in 'Adventure'" and then say competent, heroic minorities are a thorny problem. Why? Because there's less precedent. That's why the simulation-centered emphasis of these kind of "genre toolbox" books gets a little blockheaded.

I didn't mention it because I think I'd made my case at that point, but the Silver Age section in Champions had to be seen to be believed. They even give advice on TV Superheroes (e.g. Almighty Isis), which is probably the kind of games they have at the gaming store in Hell.

Morefield said...

The Torch was like Plastic Man, in a way; no one could ever do their schtick without looking like an imitation. Superman and Batman, though the biggest names, were much easier to imitate, largely because they were imitations themselves.

Anyway, doesn't all this bring a pang of nostalgia for the days when "RPG" meant something entirely different than it does now? :-(

Julian Perez said...

Check out this article that argues that the RPG-7 is the most important weapon in warfare of the past 30 years.

Most Valuable Weapon: the RPG

eduardo m. said...

I'm surprised the worf-like character doesnt have a weakness where he gets his @$$ automatically kicked by a bad guy to prove how serious the threat is.

Matt Celis said...

Actually disco and skateboard themes would be a nice change of pace from the usual misunderstood brooding vigilante in a raincoat crap most players I meet want to do nowadays.

Matt Celis said...

TV super hero games are fun. Playing William Katt. Connie Sellecca, and Robert Culp is a blast.