Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



The State of the Art in Superheroics, Part 1

by Allen Varney

[Published in Dragon #162, October 1990]

Scene: The 1989 GEN CON Game Fair. Friday, 11:55 AM. In the Great Exhibit Hall of the MECCA Convention Center a hundred exhibitors sensed, the way roosting crows sense an oncoming earthquake, that something momentous approached.

At the Iron Crown Enterprises booth, sealed cardboard boxes stood in tall stacks. Six dozen gamers, packed as tight as dice in a bag, waited tensely in the aisle as the time crept toward noon. Behind the counter, nervous attendants asked one another at 30-second intervals: Where is he? With the moment so near (almost noon now!), with the culmination of his year of labor so close, could the man himself be late?

They might delay the event. The crowd was growing by the moment, anticipation charging the air, yet the nervous attendants couldn't imagine opening those boxes and pulling forth their contents -- not without him, the man of the hour. Thousands of dollars at stake, and the disappointment of a hundred fans -- and yet....

But at 15 seconds before 12 noon, fifteen seconds, he strode casually up that carpeted aisle. Tall, blond, lean as a varsity swimmer, and wearing -- yes! -- an immaculate night-black tuxedo, Rob Bell, Hero System line editor at Iron Crown, had not planned the drama of his arrival. His wristwatch was set wrong, almost the only detail he had overlooked in a year-long preparation for the great event.

Those last 15 seconds passed, and then the packing boxes opened, the gamers' wallets opened, and across the table passed the first of over 400 copies of the long-awaited Fourth Edition of CHAMPIONS, The Super Roleplaying Game. It was big, shiny, and beautiful, the hit of the convention. And every time anyone saw Rob Bell, he was grinning like a father who gives away his daughter at a blessed wedding.

CHAMPIONS, The Super Roleplaying Game

Hero Games/Iron Crown Enterprises, $32

Design: George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, and Rob Bell

Fourth Edition Editing: Rob Bell

Cover: George Perez

Illustrations: Rob Davis, Glen Johnson, Denis Loubet, Sean Sharp, Jason Waltrip, Mark Williams, Barry Winston, Mike Witherby, Pat Zircher

352-page hardcover book

What makes an established game's fourth edition such an event? The answer lies in the checkered history of CHAMPIONS.

In 1981 two gamers in San Mateo, California, had designed a superhero game, printed the manuscript on a daisy-wheel printer, gotten one of their players to draw some illustrations, and found the money to print 1000 copies of the 64-page rulebook. George MacDonald and Steve Peterson took the first edition of their CHAMPIONS game to a Bay Area gaming convention with hopes that appear, in retrospect, overly realistic.

"We knew just how much we could afford to lose, what we would do with unsold stock -- we had it all figured out," says Peterson. "The one outcome we never considered for a moment was, What if the thing sold a zillion copies?"

Their little rulebook did sell, if not a zillion copies, at least very strongly. The success led Peterson and MacDonald to recruit another player, Ray Greer, as marketing maven and sales rep, and form Hero Games. During the next five years the Heroes produced two more editions of CHAMPIONS and two dozen adventures and supplements. They also translated their comic-book superhero rules into other adventure genres: superspy-espionage, pulp-era crimefighting, fantasy, and Japanese robots. Nimbly crossing genres, CHAMPIONS spawned the all-encompassing Hero System.

But as the little company's audience grew, so did its troubles. Fundamentally the three partners were gamers, not businessmen. Schedules fell apart, support fell to almost invisible levels, and cash flow problems sent Hero Games into virtual hibernation. Loyal players in isolated regions of the country sustained their campaigns purely by their own efforts.

In January 1986 the three Hero partners, fed up with business worries, made an arrangement with Iron Crown Enterprises, publishers of ROLEMASTER and a popular line of supplements set in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. The Hero partners would acquire and develop Hero System properties, and Iron Crown would produce and distribute them. To the core Hero audience that still hung on, the arrangement seemed dubious, but they were ready for any change.

Product flow improved for a time, but soon dropped as the Heroes found new pursuits. MacDonald became Senior Game Developer at the software company Strategic Simulations, Inc., where he supervises many of the licensed AD&D computer games. Peterson also went into game software and technical writing. Greer worked for Steve Jackson Games, and later he joined a Los Angeles special-effects company, working on such films as The Abyss, Tremors, and Darkman.

Meanwhile, the Hero support line continued to dwindle. Each release seemed more slender and decrepit. Finally, in 1987, Iron Crown took over editorial duties as well as production. To that end, ICE (after an abortive liaison with a group of fans called "the Hero Auxiliary Corps") hired one part-time intern to take charge of the entire Hero line.

The intern was still at the University of Virginia when ICE hired him, just finishing a degree in History and Environmental Science with a thesis on two invasion scares in Britain during World War I. Yet within weeks of his arrival, despite his academic duties, Rob Bell had jump-started production of new Hero System supplements. And he had begun work on the CHAMPIONS revision.

Five Revision Cycles

The reasons for the revision closely resemble those behind the AD&D game's 2nd Edition. With the Hero System spread across five separate games, its mechanics were diffuse and inconsistent. Also, ten years of play by fervent devotees had revealed many rules glitches. To fix them, and to pull all the Hero rules into one comprehensive and consistent whole, Bell (who soon went full-time at ICE) and the original Hero partners enlisted over 100 gamers across the country, some of the core audience that had sustained the game during the long drought.

For more than a year they scrutinized every rule, proposed new ones, tore away at the proposals, and polished whatever withstood playtesting. It was "easily the single largest undertaking of my life," says Bell.

As politicians at budget summits like to say, everything was on the table. A CHAMPIONS player would blanch to see some suggested changes -- the EGO characteristic changed in name and cost, mental attacks hitting automatically, Damage Resistance and Mind Scan gone, and four, count 'em, four successive sets of Growth rules. One radical suggested stripping the list of 60+ super-powers down to just four -- Attack, Defend, Move, and Sense -- and simulating all effects with advantages and limitations.

Yes, that one died on delivery. Many others got weeded out in playtesting of unprecedented intensity, and the fifth cycle of revisions produced a clean and integrated three-part manuscript. The Rulesbook proper includes the complete Hero System rules, applicable to any genre. The Sourcebook section details the four-color superhero comics genre, its conventions and requirements, and the issues that arise in a superheroic campaign. Finally, the Campaign Book offers pre-generated heroes, villains, bases, and scenarios.

Iron Crown packaged this magnum opus using strong production values and a first-class cover by comics star George Perez. In the year and more since its 1989 release, the Fourth Edition CHAMPIONS hardcover has seen three or four printings, and even the most particular Hero savants have pronounced it a worthy accomplishment.

What's the Big Deal?

Of course every game has its adherents, but the Hero System's fans have shown devotion above and beyond the call. Why? The answer usually boils down to flexibility.

Character creation: The Hero System vastly improved on existing point-allocation systems of character building, and it pioneered the much-imitated concept of Disadvantages, where characters take drawbacks in order to buy more abilities. And what a candy-store of abilities the player can choose from! The CHAMPIONS Fourth Edition offers comprehensive lists of Skills from Acrobatics to Weaponsmith, Perquisites like Followers and Bases, Talents ranging from Absolute Time Sense to Simulate Death and Universal Translator, and a long list of superheroic powers.

The game's elegant approach to super-powers relies on the player's creativity. The powers list includes several dozen generic effects, like Energy Blast, Killing Attack, Teleport, and Transform. Then there are three dozen Advantages that improve the basic effects, like Area Effect and No Range Penalty, but also increase the power's point cost. To bring the cost back down, take a Limitation or two, such as Charges, Side Effects, or Focus (that is, making the power work through a device of some kind). Power Frameworks like Multipower and Elemental Control also give cost breaks for creative ideas.

Just as important as these game terms, though, is the power's "special effect," what it looks like and how it works. The text sums it up nicely (p. 52): "For instance, when a character buys an Energy Blast, the attack might come from the character's fingertips, eyes, or forehead. The energy may be lightning, fire, cold, sonics, radiation, rubber bullets, or whatever. Rather than trying to list each type of Energy Blast we could think of, we let the player choose what type of energy to project."

With these abilities, and Disadvantages like Secret Identity, Rivalry, and various Psychological and Physical Limitations, the Hero System lets players create any character, in any genre or time period, with any abilities and power levels.

Granted, the player needs an hour or two, plus a pocket calculator. It's an arduous process, bolting all those abilities onto the character-conception lathe and grinding them into shape with appropriate Advantages, Limitations, and Frameworks. But the final character starts play as a capable individual, customized to the player's wishes. The game imposes no arbitrary restrictions of class, weaponry, armor, behavior, languages, or power level; if you can think of it, and can get your Gamemaster to approve it, you can play it.

Combat: The combat rules, like character creation, offer endless, not to say overwhelming, options.

On the face of it, the basic hit rules sound simple: Each character has a Combat Value (CV) based on the Dexterity characteristic. The base roll to hit a target is 11 or less on three six-sided dice. The attacker adds his or her CV to 11, but the target gets to subtract its CV. If the attacker can roll the resulting number or less on 3d6, the attack hits.

So far, so good. Then the attacker rolls huge numbers of six-sided damage dice and counts them up in two different ways, while the victim applies the damage against his resistant and non-resistant defenses, subtracts the remainder from his STUN and BODY characteristics, compares the damage to his Constitution characteristic to check for a Stunned result, checks for Knockback ... are you lost yet?

This intricacy has always been the standard rap against the Hero System. For the devotee, though, nothing less captures the variety of attack outcomes seen in comics, movies, and adventure stories.

For example, the Hero System gains much by separating STUN damage (grogginess or unconsciousness) from BODY damage (wounds, or "hit points" if you will). In most RPGs characters who take damage get knocked out, then (and only then) die. But think of all those movies where Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney, riddled with bullets and bleeding to death, staggers on through the final scene, blasting G-Men and calling for his Irish mother. Mortally wounded CHAMPIONS characters can perform the heroic equivalent, and eventually stagger to the nearest first aid kit. Not that the situation arises often, mind you -- this is only one example of the system's wide range.

Action proceeds by 12-second turns, divided into one-second segments. Characters act in "Phases" within the turn according to their Speed and Dexterity characteristics. With various options to delay attacks or abort to defenses (that is, give up a later Phase in order to defend against a surprise attack), even the sequence of play can approach wargame-like complexity.

When added to the long lists of maneuvers and combat options, this complexity can turn a single battle between super-teams into an evening marathon. This is the price of tactical richness, and few games can match the Hero System for that.

Hero System combat, in short, is for experienced players who prize versatility over simplicity. Note that I don't say "realism over playability" -- despite its slow pace, CHAMPIONS combat remains quite playable, with well-integrated rules and a clear play sequence. As for realism, that leads smoothly to the Hero System's greatest virtue.

Campaigning: "Realism" varies from genre to genre -- that is, according to the story being told. The magnum load that splatters a post-holocaust starveling will only put a superheroine's boyfriend in the hospital; the same shot just makes James Bond grit his teeth. They're all ostensibly the same weapon and the same human beings, but in each case the genre's conventions set weapon deadliness at a different level.

A system that purports to be universal can adjust the genre to match "reality," but in my experience that simply makes the game's adventures as routine as everyday life, or as deadly as a real-life battlefield. These cases seldom recapture the genre's native appeal. Far better to take the Hero System's approach: Adjust reality to match the genre.

The CHAMPIONS rules distinguish between heroic and superheroic campaigns. The first type involves putative normals, the characters of spy stories and pulp and heroic fantasy, whereas the second ascends to the fun-filled and garish realm of comic books.

The rules separate heroic and superheroic campaigns by their power levels, restrictions on character creation, the availability and cost of normal-level technology, hit locations, and "pushing" -- that is, how easily a character can increase his or her abilities in emergencies. At least a third of the game is schizoid this way. The dichotomy gives a Gamemaster, or GM, maximum flexibility (there's that word again) in establishing his or her own unique world.

The GM's duties include passing judgment on what abilities are allowed in the game. The text encourages every GM to set up house rules forbidding certain powers, requiring others, and altering the written rules. A GM can change anything in the game, so long as the players are alerted before play. The GM also arbitrates numerous case-dependent rules questions ("Does my Continuous Uncontrolled flame attack go away when I shift the points out of its Multipower slot?") and interprets the consequences of a power's special effects. The GM's total control of the game has given rise to the CHAMPIONS Light-Bulb Joke:

Q: How many CHAMPIONS characters does it take to change a light bulb?

A: That's a GM call.

I hear that this open-ended approach brought a sneer from an editor at a rival game company that publishes another universal system. "Look at this!" he said of the CHAMPIONS powers list. "They put pictures of magnifying glasses and stop-signs next to some of the powers, to warn you that the power is unbalanced! If they can't balance it, they should leave it out."

A reasonable point. But like the issue of reality vs. genre, it admits of two approaches. In the Balance-or-Die version, the game's designers try to imagine every combination of powers and situations, rule on them at length, and autocratically veto any they've overlooked. They treat rules like the Food and Drug Administration treats medicines, requiring exhaustive testing to prevent consumer toxicity. Once balanced, the rules become Holy Writ, from which thou shalt not depart.

I know players who prefer this approach, perhaps for the sense of control and stability it produces. Again, the CHAMPIONS rules take a different tack by shifting the responsibility for game balance from the publisher to the GM. The rationale is that in a system that allows desolidification, time travel, clairsentience, and a dozen other story-altering devices, it's up to each individual GM to choose not only the story, but the ways the players can alter it.

This is one more reason that a GM or player should have experience, and a certain amount of courage, before coming to the CHAMPIONS game.

Storytelling: Fortunately, new arrivals get plenty of coaching from the hardcover's Sourcebook. This friendly text tutors the GM in the selection of campaign parameters -- for instance, whether the world's morality is fuzzy or clearly drawn, whether the campaign is optimistic or pessimistic, how important the player characters are in the world, and so on.

Story values also dominate the discussion of adventure design. Supervillain motivations, the creation of subplots, the narrative use of deathtraps, the role of Hunteds and Dependent Non-Player Characters (DNPCs, another much-imitated CHAMPIONS tradition) -- none of these elements involve hitting the bad guy, but they make the difference between a routine slugfest and a lively plot as engrossing as any in the comics.

Is it paradoxical that a game with 200 pages of rules argues strongly for story values over game mechanics? Only at first glance. In fact, given such a flexible system, story logic becomes a necessary check on "power gamers" who simply want to pile up points and buy their Nova Blasts to planet-roasting levels.

I recall the Computer Science department at MIT university, which had problems in the 1960s with ambitious hackers who tried to crash the mainframe system. The operators finally foiled the hackers by creating a "CRASH" command -- type it, and the system would crash. As easy as that. Bored by the lack of challenge, the hackers abandoned their vandalism.

The parallels with the Hero System's power gamers are not exact, but the point is clear. Given a charitable GM, abusing a system this flexible is not only easy, it's positively degrading. Eventually the power gamer, bored with Novablast the Planet-Roaster, grows up and begins to roleplay characters with personalities, not just scads of points.

Recommendations: One cannot lightly recommend a game that costs 32 dollars. Sure, it's a 352-page hardcover. But really, that's almost the price of two 128-page Chaosium supplements, almost twice as much as the 192-page 2nd-Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, over half as much as a big imported box from Games Workshop ... well, then again, maybe $32 isn't so far out of line. Boy, this industry sure has gotten pricey.

In any case, certain readers need the CHAMPIONS Fourth Edition at almost any cost. Fans of previous editions will delight in the new consistency and versatility. Experienced players of other games, discontent with the arbitrary restrictions of their current system, should also find the Hero System a superb investment.

Lastly, for comic book fans who want to simulate every maneuver they see in their favorite stories, CHAMPIONS remains, after almost ten years, the system to beat. Though I dislike its slow pace, it's still the one I play. Rob Bell has left Iron Crown for greener pastures, but we long-suffering devotees owe him gratitude for resurrecting this landmark system.

The Support Line

Perhaps the prime virtue of Rob Bell's tenure at Iron Crown has been, not the CHAMPIONS Fourth Edition, but the tsunami of support products that followed it. Unlike the pale 32-pagers that once slouched forth semi-annually from Hero Games, these are solid, sometimes very substantial works, appearing monthly and filled with long-term usefulness and campaign possibilities. Measuring by page count, number of products, or sales volume, Bell brought out more and bigger Hero material in his three years at ICE than Hero Games did in the six years before his arrival.

The Hero System Rulesbook

220-page softcover rulebook, $20

What if you're curious about the Hero System, but you have no interest in superheroes? Or you've sprung for one copy of the hardcover, but can't afford additional copies for the players who keep wanting to borrow it?

The Hero System Rulesbook exactly reproduces the rules section of the Fourth Edition hardcover. It omits the hardcover's Sourcebook and Campaign Book, the genre-specific material covering superheroes. Significantly, this softcover edition incorporates errata from the hardcover, plus a couple of Advantages introduced in a post-hardcover supplement, and that most neglected of virtues: an index.

With this rulebook a GM can create everything needed for a campaign in any genre. All it requires is a few months of intense effort! How good, then, that ICE has obliged the overworked GM with campaign supplements that detail specific genres (see below under Ninja Hero), with more on the way for horror, cyberpunk, and even the Old West.

This book provides an economical introduction to the Hero System and a handy reference for those times (such as the last hours of gaming conventions) when the hardcover is just too heavy to carry.

Classic Enemies

Editing and Development: Scott Bennie

Cover: George Perez

Illustrations: Pat Zircher, Mark Williams

112-page softcover, $13

This book should be every CHAMPIONS Gamemaster's first supplement. Scott Bennie is the author of the new FORGOTTEN REALMS Game Accessory FR10, Old Empires, and co-author of the MU series, Gamer's Handbook of the Marvel Universe for TSR's MARVEL SUPER HEROES. Bennie is also a longtime Hero player, and he has poured his heart into this massive roster of 80 super-villains.

They come from Hero Games' first three Enemies collections, published in 1982 and 1984. Hopelessly obsolete in game mechanics and poorly illustrated, these sturdy opponents still excited interest, lo, unto the third edition and beyond. Bennie revised their statistics, updated and expanded their character backgrounds, and generally gave them more pizazz. (He also took the opportunity, with some glee, to omit the less well-conceived villains from those three early books. No sign here of the Amazing Darkon, Sledge, or Frizbe the discus thrower.)

Classic Enemies also incorporates an updated description of Stronghold, the venerable super-villain prison which first appeared in 1981 and since then has dutifully served as a revolving door for villains in campaigns nationwide.

Pat Zircher, currently the best superhero illustrator in the gaming field, presents these fiends with clarity and style.

If you run a four-color CHAMPIONS campaign, you want this book.

Mind Games

Design, Illustrations: Scott Heine

Cover: Neal "Spyder" Hanson

48-page booklet, $8

Mentalists of the villainous Parapsychological Studies Institute (PSI) dominate the first supplement for the Fourth Edition. PSI comprises thirteen villains, mostly mutants with psionic powers, with goals as varied as their personalities.

A crazier bunch you wouldn't want to meet -- there's a megalomaniac, a split personality, a glutton, obsessives, amoralists, and miscellaneous psychotics, all prone to infighting and conspiracy. PSI even trains a cadre of super-powered students, and they're just as maladaptive. The author draws all these personality types from his own experience counseling the mentally ill.

Though the text lacks flash and there's little insight into mentalists as such, this supplement offers a scary and ruthless villain group and some nice scenarios. Worth a good look.

Ninja Hero

Design: Aaron Allston

Editing and Development: Rob Bell

Cover: Jackson Guice

Illustrations: Pat Zircher

176-page softcover, $17

Aaron Allston wrote the new D&D HOLLOW WORLD Campaign Set, as well as The Complete Fighter's Handbook and Priest's Handbook for the AD&D game, among many others. He has been "the CHAMPIONS Guru" almost since the game's inception, and wrote many of its best supplements. Ninja Hero is Allston's latest and best, an exhaustive treatise on martial arts as they exist in both reality and in freewheeling kung-fu movies. Technically this book supplements The Hero System Rulebook, not the CHAMPIONS game; that means it works with both heroic and superheroic campaigns.

One of the great ornaments of the Fourth Edition line, Ninja Hero describes two dozen martial arts (everything from Aikido to Wrestling, plus 15 sub-styles of Kung Fu, not to mention Football); guidelines for developing ninja, samurai, Chinese Knights (shih), Buddhist warrior-monks, and so on, including classic stereotypes like the Irritable Student and the Unwilling Fighter; and, a highlight of the book, rules for designing new martial arts and maneuvers.

Learn how characters fight in enclosed spaces, while bound, or in zero gravity. Check the Sourcebook for huge lists of weapons and gadgets appropriate to different campaign styles. The Campaigning chapter details those styles, from the heroic level of real-world martial arts to the Wild Martial Arts campaigns of Hong Kong chop-socky films, where frantic avengers leap over buildings, exhale noxious winds, and wield the dreaded Dim Mak touch. That's the one where a master hits you with six precisely timed touches, and a week later you die. Or explode. Whatever. The scenarios are among the best Hero has published.

I'm convinced Aaron Allston, whom I count among my esteemed professional acquaintances, is the best in the business at writing campaign material, so I am biased in evaluating Ninja Hero. If the topic interests you, see this one for yourself; its quality shines forth.

Miscellaneous Hero Support

The Hero fan community owes a vote of thanks to the official Hero System magazine, Adventurers Club. Its constant tardiness has provided them with an unflagging source of sarcastic humor. The AC, allegedly a quarterly magazine, appeared more or less annually for years. Now in a new comic-book size, it shows signs of lurching back toward regular publication.

The AC deserves attention for its scenarios, NPCs, gadgets, and campaigning tips, but it's thin and badly-printed. At $3 an issue, it's still in a wait-and-see stage. [1999 UPDATE: Now defunct.]

Short and Sweet

RED EMPIRE, by Frank Chadwick. Game Designers' Workshop, $12. GDW won the topicality award at this year's Origins gaming convention with "The Card Game of Soviet Power Politics." Three to six players (more is better) get a Politburo faction of Party, Military, and KGB leaders, and a hand of cards used to attack rival leaders, expose scandals, and take foreign junkets. Players try to purge opponents and make one of their leaders President. Meanwhile, crises keep turning up in the deck, and everybody has to help solve them -- or the Soviet Union falls apart! Despite some rules inconsistencies and gaps, this two-decker game evokes the required ambience of internecine backbiting. Play it before its real-life model vanishes from the Earth.

CHALLENGE Magazine, edited by Michelle Sturgeon. Game Designers' Workshop, $3.50/issue. There's been a dearth of good general-interest gaming magazines, but now an ambitious new editor is expanding this one-time house organ to cover science fiction games of all companies. The bulk of each bi-monthly issue of CHALLENGE (it's up to issue 46 as I write) still covers the MEGATRAVELLER game and other GDW releases, but there's plenty of notice given to FASA's SHADOWRUN and other sf games, and even West End's PARANOIA game. Plus reviews, news briefs, a miniatures showcase, and "Players Wanted" classifieds. No challenge in learning to like this solid periodical. [1999 UPDATE: Defunct, along with its publisher, GDW.]

Return to Allen Varney's home page

Copyright ©1990 Allen Varney