Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Words, Words, Words

There has been no shortage of wonderful topics to blog about over the last few months, from political issues like Palin’s sudden resignation or that delightful business about flying to Argentina to get a little sum’m sum’m to comics-related topics like the Shakespeare & Comics book I am working on with Kate Laity at the College of St. Rose, to gaming topics like my personal D&D campaign or my upcoming project from Vigilance Press, Arthur Lives! Yes, there are many, many things I could have been writing about but did not. No excuses offered.

I’ll start with something I have been having a lot of fun with lately, the Champions Online Beta test. Now, for contractual reasons, I can’t go into any detail about what the game is like, other than to say that I am enjoying it immensely, having logged probably around 25 hours on the game at this point. What I can talk about is Champions in general, which for years was simply the game which I preferred, played, and ran above all others, from junior high all the way through my undergrad years and beyond.

I discovered Champions at OrcCon sometime around 1980, when it was a 1st edition boxed set. I picked up the game and a couple of adventures, “The Island of Doctor Destroyer” and “Stronghold,” my first exposure to the “super villain prison” idea which would eventually see its result in “Escape from Alcatraz!” To that point I had played a lot of AD&D and a little bit of other games like Traveler, Gamma World, and various home-made systems, but nothing like Champions. Let’s face it, I learned how to read on comic books and they will always remain the genre closest to my heart, beating out even Tolkien if forced into a blood-for-money cage match. My first Champions character was Doctor Starr – I guess I wanted a doctorate even at the age of 12 – a super-agile staff-fighter who wore a five pointed star medallion that, in hindsight, looks like sort of a hippie bling thing. I drew him, I painted him a lead miniature complete with painted pin for a staff, and I don’t know if I ever played him more than once or twice.

That’s because I was always the GM for Champions, and when I moved to a new high school I took Champions with me and soon had a whole circle of friends defined mostly by the fact that they were my Champions group. I don’t remember a single adventure I ran for them, but there were a lot of them. The game was evolving in fits and starts back then, with additional rulebooks coming out which expanded the game’s core. Champions II and Champions III gave us vehicle rules, a few new powers, a random character generator which I never much saw the point of, rules for mental combat, and a cover which had upon it a picture of Flare bearing breasts so large that I was actually embarrassed to be seen with it. Champions II got hidden inside my notebook a lot.

I went to college in Reno and somehow, I have no idea how, it turned out that Champions was very popular there. I fell in with a couple of guys who had been playing the game even before the rules had come out, and for the first time got to play instead of GM. Champions became more or les the official game of our science fiction club, Ad Astra, and was popular enough that I used it to raise attendance at the meetings. I would run a Champions game at the end of every meeting, and you could only play if you came to the meeting. The tactic worked too well, as I had 20 players in the game that followed. For those of you that have ever played Champions, let me assure you that trying to run it for 20 players at once was a real experience and really got me thinking about how to be a better and more efficient GM.

As an undergrad, our biggest Champions project was a shared world which we called Earth-7. There were several of us who ran the game, and we each took a different city in the same world, allowing characters to move around and interact from one city/campaign to another. I had LA. Personal relationships heated and cooled – you know how it is in college – but Earth-7 remained a gravity well around which we all circled. I was still a GM far more often than I was a player, mostly because I enjoyed it, but I did finally get a character up past 100 experience points in James Mueller’s Earth-7 game. That was Manhunter; he was the son of Fiacho, a master criminal from the Champions Universe, and his only power was a devastating eyebeam, backed up by some martial arts training and a lot of skill. Manhunter had some interesting mechanics, a fun back story, and an effective role. I remember him fondly indeed.

My great failure as a Champions GM was that I could not seem to sustain a campaign beyond about 4 1/2 months. Now that I look back, that’s pretty much one semester of school, but perhaps that was just a coincidence. Anyhow, after graduation I finally managed to break that record with a new Champions game set in Europe. Earth-7 had pretty much become James’s baby by then and I wanted to play in a world which I could drastically alter once play had begun – something that was obviously problematic when you were sharing said world with other GMs. I was also able to create a central storyline and make the heroes very important in the setting, which was hard to do in a shared world. The game ran for 9 months and I was very proud of breaking my record. I still have notes for that campaign sitting in my old computer files.

It was during this time, and in the year or so that followed after I moved to Vegas to run a bookstore, that I began writing projects for Hero Games with an eye towards publication. I did a couple of articles for Adventurer’s Club, no big deal, but spent a lot more time on “Blades,” which was originally a bunch of bad guys and their magic swords scheduled for “Organizations Book IV.” Those of you who are old time Champions hacks will know that there never was an Organizations Book IV, though not for lack of trying. At the time I was working with this guy named Monte Cook, who was the editor for the Hero Games line at Iron Crown, another company which had partnered with Hero because Iron Crown had printing presses and Hero did not. There just wasn’t enough money to rationalize another Organizations Book, Monte eventually decided, so he sent my material back to me with playtest notes and suggested I seek out third-party companies who published Champions material. Instead, I completely rewrote the book and it was published by BlackGate for their cyberpunk/Highlander mash-up, Legacy. That was my first respectable RPG publication, and I remain pretty proud of it, even if no one ever played Legacy.

The next and larger project I did for Champions was a sourcebook based on the Tarot and inspired by Scott Bennie’s wonderful Viper sourcebook. TAROT: Agents of Destiny was a massive book with 70+ characters, a large collection of equipment and vehicles, and multiple adventures. Jerry Grayson did most of the art for the book, but I was told at one point Hero was commissioning a different artists to do the 22 Major Arcana characters, which I thought was something of a shame and which suitably ticked off Jerry, who felt like he had slogged through dozens of boring Wands, Cups, Swords and Staves only to be denied the reward. But then Hero Games and ICE parted ways. While this was a good thing in many ways, as Hero Games had not been in control of its own destiny and ICE had not paid many freelance creators, this also meant the bottom fell out of whatever budget Hero once had. TAROT was put on hold and never did come out, even though the manuscript and art was complete.

I became somewhat disenchanted with Hero and Champions after that. There were a lot of other games out there to experiment with, and in Vegas I had players willing to try whatever I threw at them. I ran a Dark Champions campaign set in my city of Victoria, but it died at the 4 1/2 month mark (again!). Time passed and life went on, I moved back home for a little and then back to Vegas to get married, and this was a time when Vampire and its relations were the game everyone wanted to play. Then D&D 3E happened and that led to Mutants & Masterminds, which is just so much easier than Champions and arguably even more fun that I don’t expect to ever run or play the game again.

At least on the tabletop. Champions was always a fairly intimidating game system to learn. Even Ken Hite, who managed to rave about it, acknowledges that he has never bothered to actually learn how the game works. He just lets everyone else at the table learn the rules, and they tell him what to roll and when. The latest edition of the Hero System is just getting crunchier and crunchier, which is great for the people who are devoted fans, but lousy for introducing new players. I have seen far too many eyes glaze over for me to ever try to teach Champions again. But this is exactly what makes it perfect for an online game, because now a computer can do all those mechanical things for you, and you can just play. You can fire your energy blast, and let electrons do the heavy lifting. It’s a perfect match, in my opinion. Champions has a solid setting, a long history, and much personal appeal for me. I’ll be one of those players who sticks with the game for a long time just because I recognize it. It’s comfortable, familiar, and fun at the same time.

I haven’t kept in really good touch with all the old Champions gurus, despite writing on Rogues Gallery (the Hero Games zine) for several years. I bumped into Bruce Harlick at the first GenCon West, but that’s about it. How wonderful it must be for all the Hero Games folks to see their world made into an exciting MMO. Bruce is pretty much responsible for Foxbat in the first place (I’m not entirely sure; there are conflicting origin stories), and Steve Long has labored for years to make the Champions Universe as strong as he possibly can. Now those heroes, plots, adversaries and even the innocent victims are there for millions of players to experience in a way they never would have. I read that Steve is working on a new edition of the game meant to capitalize on the MMO. It’s going to be even “grainier” than ever; a decision I can’t say I understand, but it’s not my game. All I know is that Champions is still going to be making eyes glaze over, only this time it will be from spending too much time staring at a video game, instead of from trying to understand how to allocate the points in your Variable Power Pool.

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