Thursday, April 17, 2014

Things I Learned From Champions: Exactly the Character You Want

I never paid much attention to this phrase before, especially in the heyday of my Champions years. It just seemed to be a given -- if you wanted to be build the character you wanted in your head, you used the HERO System.

Keep in mind: if you were looking for industry news, this was in the time of BBSes and FLGSes and -- if you somehow got internet access -- Usenet Newsgroups. And, of course gaming magazines like Dragon and White Dwarf and Shadis and so on. So, I didn't really get a huge reaffirmation on this phrase from anywhere beyond the SF Bay Area gamers (the birthplace of the game); I just assumed it was both (a) a given in the industry; and (b) probably a local view, not necessarily held beyond Northern California.

But having encountered the phrase on the HERO boards (of course, the choir preaching to the choir), and on some blogs, and more recently on podcasts I listen to like (Gamer's Tavern, and -- of course -- Play On Target), I began to wonder about what the phrase meant then -- and what it might mean now.

A Reaction Against Character Classes


D&D was (and, in a way, still is) the 100 pound Gorilla in the RPG industry. And it handled character creation with character classes with a very rigid progression of abilities tied to levels. So, on one level, the phrase might have been a comment on the freedom from class/level-based progression.

And yet, there were skill-based and point-based game systems out there (Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying System and Steve Jackson Games's GURPS, for example), so it surely wasn't just that.

Building Character Is Its Own Reward


One of the great innovations of the Hero System ruleset, as spearheaded by Champions was the following concept: Game Effects Cost Points, Special Effects Are Free.

This freed players from looking for a super-exhaustive list of powers and allowed them to focus on the effect(s) of said powers: what do they do in game terms? And then they could move forward to model those powers with the champions power rules.

Now, a discussion on the many facets of this simple concept (like clever power builds, and rampant SFX abuse) warrants another post, but as to how it ties into the phrase: the many combinations of base powers, advantages, limitations, and power frameworks have allowed many character concepts to be realized (within a certain set of points) that in most other game systems of the time were unattainable without GM permission.

Some have even commented that this is, in a way, a mini-game within the overall game. And some of my old (non-Champions-playing) gaming buddies used to say that building a character was the most fun you'd have playing the game -- a disparaging statement that still hints at the inherent fun in this activity.

Also, there was a thrill in figuring out how complicated builds (like Firestorm's ability to combine from two separate beings) and complicated special effects (the ability of Nick Fury to call in a sniper shot from a nearby building on demand), even if you knew that, ultimately, the GM wouldn't allow it.

Player & GM Buy-In


In the early incarnations of Champions and the Hero System, the concept of Hostile GMs & Hostile Players meeting in the RPG arena was a reality and rules lawyering was a common practice. In, a hobby and a genre that is all about ensuring your abilities, having a way to guarantee that a power works exactly as a player defines it (and not as the GM might interpret it) was a delight -- especially with the argument: "hey, I built it this way and I paid my point and you accepted the build."

With Champions, you could build a power that would be legal within the rules, but would be up to the GM to approve or disapprove for their campaign. The difference here is subtle -- instead of can I have this? submitting a constructed power becomes will you allow this?

Naturally, this required a certain amount of system mastery on both ends. But the tinkerers tended to have this already anyway.

I Paid For It, It's Mine

Once the GM accepts, then the player's character gets the approval to the game effect paid for within the rules. Sometimes more, rarely less, depending on the GM's tastes.

What this means is that if the GM constantly vetoes your use of the power as defined, or nerfs it or changes it to your character's detriment, you're within your 'player's rights' to say: "well, why the heck did I pay points for this if you won't let me use it as built?"

If your power only has a special effect, for example, of being a power ring -- but you didn't take on the limitation of Focus (meaning that when it's taken away from you, you don't have your powers), then that power doesn't get taken away from you.

This kind of thing is big in a genre where players don't want to suddenly gain limitations or complications or disadvantages that they didn't accept discounts or extra points for.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Five Doctors - Comparing Attributes

Now that we have the stats for the first five Doctors in Doctor Who: Adventures In Time And Space, we can do what we did to other officially recognized RPGs based on licensed settings: compare their stats!

I've decided to do that exercise purely based on their Attributes and Skills, excluding their special traits and gadgets usually on their person. I'll also do it on a per-attribute (and then later, per-skill) basis, just to see what patterns or insights come up. Most of it won't be a surprise to long-time fans of the series, but perhaps there are some eyebrow-raisers hidden. Let's see!


Awareness: The Doctor's Awareness is set at 4 all throughout his incarnations. This places his awareness above human average, but below an exceptional level of awareness (wherein intuition is rarely wrong). He's certainly not at the human maximum (which is 6). This may seem surprising, given the current portrayals of The Doctor, but each of these older Doctors had personality quirks that -- it could be argued -- dampened their innate awareness. Still, one might argue for a higher value here for all of them.

Coordination: Given the age of the 1st Doctor, I'd argue for a below average rating here. The 2nd Doctor is certainly in the 3 to 4 range to my mind, and the 'Intergalactic Man of Mystery' feel of the 3rd Doctor certainly places him at 5. The 4th and 5th Doctors are also men of action, but not to the almost James Bond-ish levels of the 3rd Doctor.

Ingenuity: Well, this is interesting. As a measure of intelligence, as well as "general knowledge and practical experience", this attribute would certainly rank the Doctor at beyond the human maximum (6) most certainly. What's of note is that the 5th Doctor garnered a jump to a value of 8 -- perhaps as a measure of increased experience after those four prior lifetimes of adventure?

Presence: The Doctor is certainly always above average in terms of force of personality. I like that the 3rd and 4th Doctors are reflected as being individuals who can "charm or boss their way through almost anything", with the 5th Doctor as a return to the former levels (given his drop in self-assuredness, no doubt).

Resolve: As an attribute reflecting willpower and determination, I agree whole-heartedly with the first three Doctors having the human maximum rating. I'm not so sure about the 4th, though it could be argued that his tendency to go off on tangents could be interpreted as a lack of focus (he's still better than 'above average', but not at the peak of human ability). I can understand the 5th's rating here, given his occasional self-doubt.

Strength: This has the most variance, and tells a great story. The 1st Doctor's advanced age was, certainly, well-reflected in this near-crippling value rank. The 2nd Doctor, rejuvenated but not at human average, makes sense, but I'd have put him at average. The 3rd Doctor, with his man of action status, certainly figures at above average but not at strongman levels. And the 4th & 5th certainly struck me as being average as well -- the 5th Doctor's fondness for cricket certainly is better reflected in coordination rather than here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Armchair Reviews: DWAITAS -- The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook

With the release of the Fifth Doctor's Sourcebook for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG, we have the opportunity to run our own version of the classic episode The Five Doctors, for gaming groups that have really wanted to all play not just Time Lords, but The Doctor!

Again, like the other sourcebooks in the series, this one provides the predictable crunch (new traits, character sheets for the Doctor / Companions / acquaintances / enemies) and fluff (series and episode synposes), and provides some thematic explorations and comparisons to the episodes and themes from prior incarnations.

Of note are the plot motifs that keep repeating in this season: betrayals, surrogate parenthood, (relatively) large adventuring groups in the TARDIS, and so on.

By this fifth book, it's great to compare the growth of the Doctor and the selection of Companions throughout his career. I also noticed how often the Master figured into this season's adventures.

For a hard-core canon fan, there are many adventure seeds suggested that deal with inconsistencies or contradictions found in the season as compared to prior episodes or seasons. That alone may be enough to start an entire campaign. Clara's Commandos, anyone? She can't save the Doctor all alone, you know...


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Things I Learned From Champions: Sometimes the JLA is busy

"Elminster? He's --
busy at the moment."
One of the most common issues I used to hear about the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, was about the preponderance of high-powered heroes. As in: Why worry about the Zhents, when Elmister will take care of them? Why worry about the Drow, when Drizzt will take care of them? And so on.

I never really had those same issues with the setting or those characters, though it's likely due to the fact that I came to Faerun only after I'd gone through Champions.

Let me explain.

Champions: not everyone can be Superman

It's rare for superheroic campaigns (especially the older point-based ones) to start at the Justice League level (and I'm talking Superman / Batman / Wonder Woman power levels). It's also rare for superheroic campaigns wherein the PCs are the only metahuman heroes in the world.

That means you tend to accept that there's at least one hero (or more) who are more powerful out there in the world (though you may out-shine them in your particular area of expertise).

Perhaps the things they're dealing with are far more earth-shattering than what you're working on. Or perhaps dealing with street thugs just isn't going to call the attention of Doctor Fate or Doctor Strange.

As for teams -- well, they can be in another country, on another planet, in another universe, or have been disbanded for one reason or another!

Champions: this is my city / turf

 In comics, it's also common for a kind of recognized turf for heroes. Batman's city is Gotham, Superman's city is Metropolis. While they do operate on a worldwide basis, there's a precedent for the city's hero (or hero team) as being the primary defenders.

At the same time, look at all the Marvel Super-Heroes based in New York (who only encounter one another in brief cross-overs or as part of team books). Somehow, there's an accepted rationale that allows them to do their own thing without rubbing elbows all the time.

So, while there may be other heroes -- big-time heroes even -- they're not top dog in your neck of the woods, and in your area -- you matter.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Inspiration: Gadget Man


Gadget ManI'm fond of telling detail in RPGs -- little bits of detail that help flesh out the world. It may be innovative, it may be weird, or it may be downright domestic in that quirky, but very human "that's stupid but so true" way that we almost never think of but recognize the veracity of when we encounter it.

TV shows and magazines are my go-to source for these types of things, especially lifestyle bits and cutting edge technology.

I recommend Gadget Man (Season 01 has Stephen Fry, and Season 02 has Richard Ayoade as host) for some particularly interesting bits of lifestyle gadgetry that can be extrapolated -- or added in straight as 'old technology' -- for Science Fiction and Cyberpunk games.

My personal episode favorites so far are:

  • The one where Mr. Ayoade takes us through a gaggle of gadgets aimed at making child care easier. The origami stroller (a self-folding and unfolding stroller) and the Puzzlebox Orbit (a mind-controlled flying toy) will definitely trigger ideas in the devious GM. Oh, and the automated rolling spycam to keep tabs on your children.
  • The space-saving episode, chock full of ideas that could be stolen for your cramped starship or space-station... or just a Cyberpunk sarariman's home.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Confederation Chronicles: A Gumshoe Sidestory

I've been reading through Ashen Stars and began looking at ways to integrate it into the Stars Without Number setting. I suppose it's due to my curiosity about Gumshoe's focus on both investigation issues in RPGs AND about tackling the procedural format in gaming sessions.

My original concept for the Confederation Chronicles tackles an all-out exploration / expeditionary approach to the Stars Without Number setting & system.

The setting is different, but not campaign shatteringly so. There are echoes of Stars Without Number here, and the mystery of the Mohilar war certainly has resonances similar to the Scream of SWN.

In the end, it's the campaign framework I'm looking at testing, and having Lazers trolling the Bleed to solve mysteries and uphold justice on the frontier does have a nice feel to it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Things I Learned From Champions: It's okay to RetCon or Reboot or even Re-invent!

Like any other RPG campaign, there's a potential for an ongoing campaign. Unlike other genres, however, it's arguable that super-heroic campaigns have the greatest leniency for changes to established canon or campaign history -- and it's because of the source material.


Comics themselves have a long track record of forgetting / ignoring things like character histories, established universe rules, and even character deaths. And that was before things like the establishing the multiverse, and those oh-too-often universe-wide retcons known as "crises" in the DC parlance.

In-Session Fixes


Now, while my old gaming group was very much dedicated to the 'death by the rule of the dice', there were instances when certain things would be replayed or adjusted.

For example, the GM forgetting to inform a PC with a set of extra-normal senses (that are always on) about a crucial clue that would've changed the outcome of a situation. Or the incorrect calculation / interpretation of a rule in combat. These -- in my group -- would've triggered a re-roll or a re-play before the events were committed to campaign canon.

These changes could be likened to editorial fiat of comic books, before the book gets published and distributed to the masses.

Next Session Fixes


Now, if you imagine that a GM is equivalent to a given creative team or perhaps another comic book entirely, using the same characters, then you might find some disagreement over what happened to shared characters.

Similarly, if a cosmic-powered villain run by a bloodthirsty guest GM that ended up killing a PC or two, then one could expect that game to be entirely ignored canon-wise (but experience points retained, of course). Or perhaps certain villainous NPCs were portrayed / played incorrectly -- they would be revealed as fakes or copycats. Or if a PC had played out of character (a rare occurence due to personal reasons), then perhaps the copycat rationale or a mind-control subplot would be hatched -- that the player and PC would then have to endure for a series of sessions until resolved.

Of course, there are some game sessions where everyone -- including the GM -- agrees that a certain character, or series of events, or the entire storyline was an abomination, and never happened. I know I still do that with certain comic book storylines or details -- Cable, I'm talking about you.

A Character Revamp


These can range from a simple updating of a character (much like the shift from the "first citizen" version of Batman to the "dark avenger of the night" Batman during the run of Neal Adams in Detective Comics), to the creation of an alternate / upgraded version of that character in "another universe" -- like the Barry Allen Flash instead of the Jay Garrick Flash, or the Hal Jordan Green Lantern instead of the Alan Scott Green Lantern.

This could be due to many reasons:
  • a new GM who didn't like the old character's build;
  • a new ruleset that mandates (or gives an excuse) to refine the current character's build;
  • boredom with the current character concept, or an insight into what the player really wants the character to be;
  • a new movie / TV series / cartoon / comic book gives a new spin or take on a character archetype and a player wants in on that.
Often, a player will rebuild the character in a more optimized manner than before, due to perennial problems that are encountered during play and also to expanding rules knowledge and expertise. However, sometimes the rebuild breaks the effectiveness (or even appeal) of the character -- much like an upgrade of software that somehow ignores a certain sweet spot of a build that was heretofore unknown.

But, like comic books -- this may all be necessary to keep the characters, the game, and the campaign fresh and relevant to the players and the GM for years to come.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Things I Learned From Champions: A Power Fantasy Has A Cost

About this time last year, I wrote about power fantasies in RPGs.

I'm returning to that well once more, because I was thinking about what lessons I'd learned from playing Champions with my old group of gaming friends.

Many of them dealt with the power fantasy that some would say are inherent in comic book heroes. More than mere wish fulfillment ("I can fly!" or "I can see through walls!" or "I am the best fighter in the world!"), there's also the desire of a child or adolescent (and some would say, adults) to have a greater ability to make a difference: to become someone respected or feared, to save lives, to stop injustice, to change the world.

But in a point-based system like Champions -- which can reflect a need for the 'fair-play' mentality in a supers game, wherein everyone has the potential for roughly equal efficacy in the game, as well as a way to keep the powers at a manageable level for a desired campaign -- you routinely run out of points for your desired character concept, especially early on.

And when you hit that ceiling, that's when you start negotiating -- sometimes with the GM, mostly with yourself -- about how to realize that power fantasy embodied by your super-heroic character concept. Here are some approaches and the lessons they taught me.

Approach 01: Cripple yourself Physically, Mentally, or Socially to get more points


Veterans of point-based games know this trick. There's a famous article in an old Adventurer's Club magazine concerning uber-powerful cripples that were clearly built to abuse aspects of if the Champions system: powerful beings lacking arms, legs, and sight; dangerously insane; hunted by everyone and their grandma.

But after the initial rush of having been able to 'break the system' by getting ridiculous amounts of points, and perhaps allowed to play a game or two with your PC, there is the dawning realization that your character just isn't the suave, sophisticated hero; the even-tempered, full-limbed bastion of reason, or the hyper-competent polymath that you tend to enjoy reading about in your favored graphic novels.

There's a point that (well, some of you) realize that there's an additional cost to this type of rules abuse: the inability to play the character you really wanted to.

Approach 02: Bend the Rules Until They Break


This covers applying as many ridiculous limitations to your powers to reduce their costs (even though they're clearly not limitations due to the rarity of the occasion), combining powers and advantages and limitations in strained configurations (often devoid of a serious special effect or an attempt at a concept), and even straight out ignoring the rules that state you can't do certain things.

Again, after the rush of getting away with it (maybe once or twice), the one-trick pony character you've created loses its luster, and you end up wanting a more well-rounded, fun to play character. More likely, however, you find that the ideal situation that your character will be a nigh-unstoppable combat monster in never comes up, and you hobble around trying to make an impossible set of circumstances take place.

Approach 03: Hide from and Lie to the GM


This familiar approach, with a near-infinite number of possible variants, often ends with the realization that you're only cheating yourself because you know you didn't earn your victory. Or it ends with your GM (and possibly other players) pissed not only at your violation of rules, but also the trust of the gaming group and you find yourself reprimanded or kicked out.

Ultimate Realization: Choose Your Character Concept and Pay the Price


At some point, perhaps in a flash of grudging insight or in a slowly evolving philosophy of character creation, you accept certain things, like:
  • you don't have enough points to realize your character as he / she would be at the zenith of his / her power, but you can build him / her at the beginning or early part of his / her career;
  • the power levels of the current campaign are inappropriate for your superheroic concept, so you shift to another character concept that you're also fond of;
  • you will not take on disadvantages that will lead to you violating the spirit of your character for the sake of points, thus helping your GM understand what you're going for and avoiding irreversible reputation-damaging incidents. No more Berzerk: when in an enclosed space (almost guaranteeing an avoidance of elevators, vehicles, and narrow corridors);
  • psychological disadvantages will serve to help define your character, rather than act as a crutch to be overcome for the sake of points. Psych Lim: Never Leaves a Teammate Behind (Total Commitment) isn't even something you'll ask to roll to overcome, you play it as such -- pretty much ensuring that your other PCs will have to force you to do so in-game;
  • you accept that your GM will bring your power limitations into play with a given frequency, and thus choose them according to how often your want that disadvantage to rear its annoying head -- dropping them (by paying points) when it gets old;
  • you play straight with your GM, perhaps doing real negotiations with him / her to get certain concessions or approvals -- a word of honor to eschew rules abuse and to roleplay true to type. For example: promising to adhere to the moral codes of Batman or Superman in order gain lenience for restricted or banned powers or power framework constructs.
  • agreeing to regular peer reviews of character pointage to keep you and your players honest (and error free).
Of course, your gaming group and mileage may vary. But, in my experience, this has been the path of Champions character creation enlightenment for my fellow players and GMs -- though some achieved enlightenment earlier than others.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fading Suns: A Priestly Path -- Part 01

"Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?" -- Father Brown

Two From Life, One From History, One From Fiction

In a past post (also titled A Priestly Path), I talked about creating new characters using the current version of the Fading Suns system -- inspired by real priests.

I decided to pattern the first two on priests I've actually met:
  • a priest I knew in school who taught us math, and held our class to a very high standard. For most of the year, we hated him -- but toward the end, we began to appreciate his methods as we experienced a jump in our mathematical skills. He was a Jesuit, very smart, told corny puns, and was very protective of the trees on campus. He passed away years ago, and is still remembered by our class with fondness.
  • another priest associated with my alma mater who is in administration, but also teaches on campus. His path through the priesthood is very interesting: with a Bachelor of Science in Physics, he entered the Society of Jesus and got another set of degrees in Philosophy and Sacred Theology, before moving on to the U.S. to get a Master's Degree in Physics and a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Physics at two different universities there.
The next one would probably drain all possible points, unless I start him off from an earlier point in his career. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) is someone whose mark on the world cannot be underestimated -- though reading through his achievements and those of the Society sound like an epic campaign, straining credulity. Despite the limitations, I'll definitely run out of points.

The last one might be a bit more reasonable -- inspired by the literary character Father Brown.

The real trick is to tweak them so that they might be found in a noble's entourage -- or perhaps tie them all together as an adventuring party? Too bad there's no Brother Battle in the mix for combat. But I did know an ex-military man who became a priest in the U.S. at my parish...

Friday, March 14, 2014

GM's Day Finds: NeoExodus Starter Kit

You've got about two days at the time of this posting to avail of this excellent setting for Pathfinder.

Nine products, including the core setting book -- normally priced at $32.93 for a low, low price of $10.99.

Check out NeoExodus: A House Divided and buy it (along with the character classes addenda, adventure book, and spell card packs) now!

Maybe I should try my hand at converting these to Monsters & Magic...

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