Now if you’re nerd enough to have heard of the Hero System, you may already be questioning my sanity in including it on the plus side of my “Let’s Pretend” equations, particularly when I was so rough on Leading Edge Games in one of my previous posts. Bear with me. If you still disagree after I’ve made my points, I bow to your preferences. In fact, I’ll admit I have my own reservations with the overall Hero System, to where rather than proclaiming it great for everything, I’m focusing this analysis on the game that launched Hero in the first place, and continues to be its flagship universe: Champions.
Let me take a moment to catch the rest of you up. Hero Games, the parent company, first published Champions in 1981. It was an RPG designed to simulate the Superheroic action of mainstream American comic books, and hit shelves right around the time the Bronze Age of Comics was in full effect, with all-time story classics like the Uncanny X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga having published the previous year at Marvel, while at DC there was the New Teen Titans re-launch by Wolfman and Perez that would eventually lead to 1984’s Judas Contract. I was still a wee lad at the time, but my older sister had purchased several of the Dark Phoenix issues, and my sneaking reads of them was my first experience with comics beyond the likes of Archie and Peanuts. Just by sheer chance, I got smacked right between the brain by Chris Claremont’s magnum opus, and never recovered. Nor do I ever wish to.
I suppose I’m veering off-topic with all that. The point is, the 70s and early 80s were a fantastic time for comics, a fusion point where the freewheeling mayhem of the Silver Age came together with a sense of more mature storytelling that gave some earthly grounding to these men and women in tights, even as they were still punching one another into the stratosphere. This was when, for better or worse, heroes and villians started to get complicated.
Enter Champions. Champions cannot be sanely defended as uncomplicated. What I can say about it is that, more than any other system like it, Champions achieved (and achieves) a balance between complexity and customization. Character creation in Champions has not one shred of random number generation, or randomness, period. You and your fellow players all have a set pool of points to work with, from which you design and purchase every last aspect of your character, from how strong they are, to the armament level of their Supermobile, to their unreasoning fear of goats and how often their sweet old Aunt Margaret gets in trouble.
In my Teenagers From Outer Space review I mentioned that the system was loose and flexible enough to enable just about any character concept you could imagine. What if I told you that Champions can do the same thing, and all those weird imaginings you have can be built using the existing ruleset? You want to play a 20 foot tall talking rat-monkey who teleports in an explosion of broccoli and stuns his foes with hungry man eating sharks that stream from his eye sockets and sing and dance an a cappella rendition of Mac the Knife? Champions has you covered.
Where TFOS and Champions (and by later extension, the Hero System as a whole) differ is that TFOS handwaves everything, while Champions quantifies it. The all-singing, all-dancing shark attack will be broken down into its base elements, assigned necessary modifiers, and eventually becomes a point value that more or less brings it in line with effects of similar point value. An experienced GM or fellow player can talk you through this process easily enough. I know, I more or less said the same about Leading Edge Games, but there’s two important differences here:
1) Calculating point costs in Champions never requires anything more than basic arithmetic, either of whole numbers or easy fractions.
2) All of the complexity is front loaded before the game starts, at the time of character creation. The actual combat system and skill resolution system is fairly straightforward.
Does this mean combat is fast? Ehhhhh, depends. Sometimes you can carry over the complexity because you want your character to have variable options, like whether you use the Boxing Glove Arrow or the French Tickler Arrow. Hopefully in that case you also thought to make some cheat sheets for yourself to speed up the decision making.
Even then, combat in the Hero System is based on “rounds” of 12 phases each, with each phase representing one second. Depending on the Speed (SPD) attribute of a character, they get to act on certain phases. The average person gets two actions in this 12 second period, while heroes and villains might act 5 or 6 times, all the way up to the pinnacle that is SPD 12. This means that you might be sitting around the gaming table for an hour while only half a minute passes for your characters.
So how in the hell does that translate into a rousing superheroic experience? Well, again, hear me out here, because Champions innovated more than just a point buy system of character creation.
For one thing, they are, as far as I know, the first system to actively encourage players to take and define flaws for their characters. In fact, your character’s point allowance would be phrased (for example) as: “100 point base, plus up to 150 points in disadvantages”, which means you could conceivably have up to 250 points of good stuff, but if you spent over 100 you had to take some bad stuff to balance out. The disadvantages were completely optional, but in practice most people take them, and they help to make a character more fleshed out. They’re how you show that your superhero has that sweet old aunt they occasionally need to rescue, or that they won’t kill under any circumstances, or have that vulnerability to certain space rocks unveiled in their presence. Tommy is not immune to kryptonite because it’s Sunday, unless it’s noted on his sheet that kryptonite only affects him Monday-Saturday (and he gets less disadvantage points for that).
Could you do all that purely through roleplaying? Sure, and there’s a contingent of people out there still offended to this day that Aunt Margaret has been made into a calculation that gives you 25 more points to spend on goodies. But the hard fact is not as many gamers would bother thinking up Aunt Margaret without a system prompting them to do so. Champions takes note of the fact that heroes are defined as much by their flaws (and overcoming them) as by their abilities.
Next up, Champions has certain game mechanics that I fully believe were created to simulate being a superhero.
Champions has a basic statistic called Presence, representing force of personality. As a built-in action, you can have your hero make a “Presence Attack” where you roll a number of dice based on that stat (and certain modifiers like impressive speeches or actions), and if you roll well enough your enemies may hesitate, panic, or even surrender. Batman, anyone? No other system at the time gave you actual game benefits for making a good entrance, and superheroes are all about good entrances.
Champions was the first game to split up the concept of “hit points” into two different statistics, called BODY and STUN. BODY represented the more classic idea of hit points: lose too much and you were dead. However, the way combat and most attacks in Champions were structured, taking BODY damage was rare in comparison to taking STUN damage. STUN was a rating of how much trauma you could endure before going unconscious, and that could happen a lot. Sometimes you’d just be a little unconscious, more like woozy until you could catch your breath. Sometimes you’d be a lot unconscious, like those iconic covers of a wiped out team of heroes being gloated over by a grinning villain (refer to Uncanny X-Men #135, above).
And that’s just it, isn’t it? There are exceptions, but for the most part when you think of someone being down and out in a superhero comic book, it’s not because they’re dying. They might have a black eye, or bloody mouth, or strategically ripped costume… they might be on all fours, groping blindly at a villain’s boot as they struggle vainly to rise, or lying in dreamland amidst smoking rubble with their mouths limply open in a silent scream, but they’re not bleeding out.
For that matter, comic book heroes generally don’t stop bank robberies with lethal force. STUN vs BODY is the concept that allows Batman to work in an RPG, by sending thugs to the hospital with concussions and broken bones instead of having to kill them to stop them. “Normals” are much more susceptible to taking BODY damage than most heroes, but that’s also why Champions from its very beginning allowed heroes to pull their punches. Superman doesn’t need to use his full strength to hit a purse snatcher; if he did, he’d probably splatter the guy into several pieces, and that’s not very heroic (The Authority notwithstanding).
Another constant feature of superhero comics is the idea of pushing past your limits: Susan Richards “must… maintain… force field!” for just one minute longer as Reed scrambles to assemble his device. Spider-Man has to summon up every ounce of his will to free himself from the machinery he’s been trapped under. The Flash has to run fast… faster than he’s ever run before! There’s something about watching those we’d already consider Gods stretched to their limits that speaks to our souls.
Champions? Has a built-in Endurance stat. Everytime you use or maintain your powers, you mark off a portion of it. There’s also a Recovery stat which helps you keep going, but over the course of a battle your character could become very tired, particularly when they Push. What’s Pushing? Why, the mechanic that lets your hero push past their limits, of course! It costs scads of Endurance, but in return you might just be able to reach the Senator in time to block the assassin’s bullet, or hold up that falling building until the schoolkids can run to safety.
The best part? You don’t have to stop pushing when your Endurance goes to zero, but the effort starts costing you STUN. You grit your teeth, sweat breaks out on your brow, you howl with the pain of the effort… and, at the very last, it’s entirely possible you’ll swoon into unconsciousness. If that sounds like a lot of superhero comic panel sequences you may have read over the years, well, now you see why I like Champions.
Champions also knows that a HUGE part of the awesomeness of superheroic action is that SHIT GETS BUSTED UP. People might only get knocked out, but main street is going to be a mess when the fists and firebolts start flying. Champions, as evidenced by the 4th edition cover at the start of this post, knows this. So Champions has a list of all sorts of objects, walls, and other environmental niceties and what it takes to break them. Furthermore, what it takes to pick them up and whack someone with them. Seriously, no superhero game has any excuse being published without rules for walloping someone with a lamppost or tossing a car at them. It’d be like publishing a game based on John Woo action flicks and not having rules for guns.
Last, but by no means least, is what I consider to this day to be the most awesomest feature of the Champions ruleset, and that is a little thing called “Knockback”.
Remember the epic battle in Superman 2 where every punch, kick and throw the Kryptonians inflict on one another results in them flying hundreds of feet? Sometimes all the way through entire buildings? That was the first cinematic depiction of how fights in superhero comics had been shown for years. If you get hit, you’re gonna feel it, the wall behind you is gonna feel it, and maybe even the wall behind that one if the blow was massive enough.
Now for context, let me tell you something I forgot to mention before: in Champions, you roll a lot of dice to determine damage. I mean, a LOT of dice. You get real good at counting up d6s in Champions. Now this might be the main reason why combat can slow down, but on the other hand, the heaving fistfuls of dice are kind of a nice analog to the massive energies being thrown around. For most attacks, the total of those dice is the STUN you inflict, and in general you’ll inflict one BODY per die (it can vary, but we don’t need to go into that).
What matters then is that you roll for Knockback, which is the sum of 2d6 subtracted from the BODY inflicted, whether or not the target’s defenses absorbed that damage (usually they do). The difference is the amount of distance the target goes flying away from the source of the attack. Should they contact a solid object along the way, you roll a number of dice based on how much more distance they should have gone, and that damage is applied to the character and the object: if the object breaks, the character keeps going, on and on until the momentum is finally gone.
Look, I know that sounds complicated, but in practice it’s the most wonderful part of Champions for me. Nothing is more epic than haymakering a dude half the length of a city block and having him smash through both sides of a semi trailer before ending up sprawled against a fire hydrant that’s now broken and spewing a geyser of water 50 feet into the air. Hell, Champions even has stats for asphalt and dirt, so that you can quite literally pound someone “into the ground”. This is where complicated combat resolution is A-okay by me because the results are so freakin’ cool. Not to mention so freakin’ superhero.
The Hero System itself might be a turn-off to inexperienced players, and perhaps because of that, falls short of being truly termed “great”. But Champions came first, and once you get past the overhead of creation, Champions has (and in many cases, invented) all the tools needed for superheroic roleplaying to work. That’s why Champions passes the test for Let’s Pretend.
Plus, Knockback. ‘Nuff said!