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.

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