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Champions Now: New York City Tabloid

I was posting some questions and observations about my Champions Now game on the Discord channel, but wanted to go into some more detail here.

We’ve just finished the second session, and there are a number of things that have jumped out at me as being impressive and interesting features of the system.

Some brief background on the game:

Our two statements:
The world is just coming to terms with the existence of super powers.
Paranoid political thriller: history is made by bad men (or is it?) in New York City.

Characters:
Ghost - turns invisible, turns desolid; stealth master. Has a very involved backstory involving being a former FBI agent who had infiltrated the mob. Now has been acting as a popular-on-the-streets/folk hero-esque vigilante in Brooklyn.

Doc Vanguard - Doc Savage expy, with a double life: as a celebrity science popularizer, and a secret life working for the governments “Create a Super Soldier” program (from which an unlucky test subject has become one of Doc’s hunters). Powers are a gauntlet (built as an Element Control with an electro net (entangle), stun grip, laser sword, and grappling hook, and a small VPP defined as “inventive genius”.

Force - neurosurgeon, who also has a connection to a (different) government black ops organization. Force’s player wanted him to have telekinesis powers, but with so many possible applications that we decided to make it a VPP. His psychological situation is that he is a pathological womanizer, and has as a hunted a superhero ex-girlfriend on whom he (presumably) cheated.

Sarge - ex-NPYD officer; gained his powers (very basic: super strength, flight, and laserbeams from his eyes) as part of a program in the NYPD designed to create “super cops” (they became known as the “Super Fuzz”, which is how we have referred to them in the game). The other three officers who went through this process, went rogue and make up one of his hunters (I stole from GURPS Super Scum to come up with the powers and general personality outlines of these characters, using Blaze, Domino, and Talon -- keeping their names from GURPS); the other hunted is the former chief of police, who was responsible for the project, and tried to have them all killed when it looked like they were becoming too autonomous. While the other three went underground and started to take action against what they saw as America’s overly militarized police force, Sarge decided to try his hand at being a “regular” superhero, with bad results: he’s become a kind of laughingstock of the NYC tabloids. It hasn’t helped that he has a significant addiction to alcohol and cocaine.

Sarge has the most straightforward powers, but, as may be inferred from the relative lengths of my write-ups here, the most immediately grabby situational elements, and so far those are what I’ve been playing “hot”.

We decided that the characters would be part of a newly formed, quasi-official NYC super hero team, with Ghost and Sarge wanting to be on the team in order to do super-hero stuff and Doc and Force there for perhaps more nefarious reasons as well.

The first session started with a lot of playing it cool, as they met in their official capacity as a team for the first time, met some of the supporting characters, and dealt with a PR snafu. We then switched over to playing things hot: breaking news that two of the former Super Fuzz gang (Blaze and Domino), working with two other “super villains” (the Noose and the Detonator, stolen from the V&V module Organized Crimes) had just broken Talon out of prison. (Without getting into too much background, the idea was that these three ex-Super Fuzz had become radicalized by their experience in the Super Fuzz program and their attempt to gain some independence was labeled as them becoming terrorists and forcing them underground. Talon had been relatively recently apprehended.)

Ok - this brings me to the first point I wanted to bring up: I can’t the exact quote at the moment, but somewhere in the Champions Now text Ron writes something like “if you provide situations and let the players proactively engage (through skills and power use) you’ll be surprised by how quickly they take the reins of the situation”. And I was surprised! I want to go into some detail because what is kind of interesting to me (especially in light of some recent discussions here at Adept Play) is that from the outside I think it might be hard to tell the difference between how we played this out (using player choices and meaningful rolls) versus a similar group using intuitive continuity.

I should say that when I threw this bang (the breakout), I had no particular desire for this to be seen as the “mission of the week”, but I was aware that at least a few of the players might see it through that paradigm. So I did try to emphasize that the game isn’t meant to work that way, and that they could consider any number of responses without worrying about having to “do what we’re supposed to do”.

Still, they decided they wanted to head to the prison and join in the efforts to track down the fugitives. A number of significant, player driven things happened which directly led to how the situation played out.

One, once they got to the law enforcement field command center that had been set up to deal with the breakout, they failed a presence attack on the US marshals in charge of the operation, which led to the Marshals trying to sideline them (not wanting interference from amateurs). However, Force, driven by his psychological situation, had succeeded with a presence attack on an NSA agent (there to liaison with the Marshalls, but whom had also been sidelined), and she offered to help the team out (with the understanding that they would return the favor).

Two, Doc used his “inventive genius” VPP to rig up a device that would track the energy trail from one of the bad guy’s teleportation power (Domino, originally from GURPS Super Scum).
Three, the combination of Doc’s device and the help of the NSA, allowed the team to track the fugitives to their safe house hideout. 

Again, from the outside, I can see this looking like intuitive continuity, but, if anything, I was going with the assumption that they wouldn’t really be able to track the fugitives and they’d end up being more reactive to the villains next set of plans.

The second thing I wanted to bring up (which I mentioned a little on Discord) was how great the Speed Chart works. 

The first part of the second session involved the players using their powers to do a thorough recon on the villains’ safe house. Along with successes in Security Systems rolls and Computer Programming, they players ended up with a good sense of where all the villains were located, as well as access to the safehouse’s security system (which included lots of video feed as well as control of some of the safehouse’s defense systems -- mainly knockout gas). This put them in a pretty good position once they decided to go in to try to subdue them -- wich is when we broke out the Speed Chart.

My last experience with the Champions Speed Chart is from 25 years ago (playing 4th edition), and, at that time, it felt to us (or at least to me) like a very cool idea that was crushing in practice: very much a metronomic ticking off of actions. The difference between that and what we have in Campions Now seems to me to be based not only on the Now Chart being streamlined (6 segments vs 12), but, especially, the work done in the text to help conceptualize how to think about the Chart (i.e., as panels in a comic book) and the emphasis in the text on the importance of mixing things up via reactive maneuvers and Presence attacks.

There were a number of key moments in the ensuing combat that hinged on that kind of mixing it up. For instance, the initial match-up between Ghost (invisible, desolid, martial arts) and Domino (teleportation, martial arts), both with identical Speed and Dex, which would mean that, all else being equal, Domino is going to get off his shot first. But Ghost makes a successful Presence Attack -- enough to attempt a “Ghost Grab” at Domino, who decides to burn his next action to Martial Dodge. Domino evades Ghost, but allowed for Force to hit Domino with an ego-based Blast (against which the Dodge wasn’t helpful), stunning him.

I’m used to these dynamic, twisty-turny exchanges from Sorcerer, but it was really delightful to see the same kind of thing emerge out of the Speed Chart. Although not quite the same thing, because the Speed Chart has a kind of tactile, toy-like quality that gives it its own flavor: really helping nail down the panel-by-panel idea.

One last thing to talk about: as mentioned, I repurposed villains from old sourcebooks and scenario books. I did this in part to save time, but also (and this may just be a rationalization) to avoid falling into the trap of designing the villains to too precisely oppose the heroes’ abilities. I felt by using the already existing characters as a frame for the NPCs in this game, I was adding an extra element of “spin” that I wouldn’t have had if I made them fully from scratch. Having said that, having seen the way the players took care of these guys, I am designing their next villain to hit at some of their weak spots --- because what fun is it if I don’t make them sweat a little?

Ok - there’s probably more I could talk about with this game (including what seemed to me like big red flags from Ghost’s player -- making a character designed to be impervious to any damage, who also had very few direct social/emotional ties to NPCs -- have so far turned out to be not an issue in play; or placing this in context of my long history with other super-hero rpgs), but I’ll stop there for now.
 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

... I think it might be hard to tell the difference between how we played this out (using player choices and meaningful rolls) versus a similar group using intuitive continuity.

Absolutely! I often refer to this via the many times I have been praised for my “mastery” into manipulating and leading players “so well, so invisibly” into extremely exciting and satisying climactic moments .... when of course, I was doing no such thing. (“I just work here, ma’am.”)

Their logic goes like this: since play did include rising action and climactic confrontations, then someone must have made it happen, meaning, imposed it, led it, forced it, and managed it. However, I'm saying that play potentially features those things due to other dynamics that do not involve magician's tricks or co-opting others' agency.

Intuitive continuity vs. Bangs cannot be assessed by looking at the mere structural product of plot (sensu lato) emerging. We aren’t talking about what we get but rather, how we do it. I maintain there is a difference in what you get, but that’s a subtler issue and people won’t see it just by looking for the presence of rising action and climactic confrontations.

Your point about the Speed Chart really makes me happy. A lot of my game design is based on bringing more reactive, contingent, and un-frozen action into play, and it was daunting to consider using this rickety old dinosaur instead. I thought to myself, “But we did have so much fun with it sometimes ... how did that happen?” and in actually coming up with the answer, decided to stay with it.

Regarding villains from the older RPG sources, I say, yes! You’ve probably seen my Comics Madness post Best with badness. I think you’ve hit upon a very important point about not creating villains directly as combat-matches to the heroes. A little bit of that goes a long way and it’s often better to see it evolve rather than try to front-load it.

I’ll look forward to more discussion about Ghost. As prequel, very briefly, “impervious to damage” is synonymous with “just asking for trouble” in Champions Now, which is very fun for everyone when it’s not a building contest, and Desolid in particular got a serious rules-revision.

 

We just had session 3 of the game: I do want to talk about some things from that session, but, before that, I wanted to go back and discuss some points/issues from character creation and prep for the game.

A little background first: there are 5 of us in the group, all guys, age range 38-42, including two sets of brothers. We played a lot of rpgs together throughout the 1990s, but haven’t played together since 2000. (Or, rather, haven’t played rpgs together -- lots of boardgaming going on among the other 4 especially). The last rpg we played together was a session of Legend of the 5 Rings, about which I remember few details, but, nonetheless, was the game that broke me as a GM and led to me giving up on rpgs for a couple of years. I had been the main GM in this group, and I made use almost exclusively of what I retroactively realized was intuitive continuity during our games, which the players liked (or said they did), but which I eventually found exhausting. Our most successful games were two solid runs of Amber, but we kept trying out various superhero games, with intermittent success/fun (3 of the 5 of us are big comic book fans as well, and the other 2 are fairly comics literate as well). One of those games was Champions 4th Edition, which we only sort of played, because we ended up ignoring much of the rules (including Endurance).

Since then, they’ve played D&D5e a couple of times, and are very into a number of D&D branded/themed boardgames. Whereas I got back into role playing via discovering games like Sorcerer and Burning Wheel at the Forge c. 2002. 

This could potentially look (from the outside) like a situation fraught with anxiety (wanting the gaming to recapture our old fun; wanting to have a good experience with a game that had been a problem in the past), though, for me, I had enough experience with successful role-playing (much of it from Ron’s games, especially Sorcerer and Trollbabe) that I was pretty sure it would all work out if we just followed the rules. And it did, but I’ve still ended up being surprised by how well it is working out so far.

Still I was a little more wary going into character creation than I would have been if I were running this for, say, the guys I’m currently playing Sorcerer with.

Wary about what exactly? Well, wanting to encourage and validate the players’ take on the statements, but at the same time worried that character creation would be driven by “bad habits” of the past.

Character creation was done over e-mail and chat, which was not the best method (for us as a group, I mean, for a number of reasons; mainly, a few too many missed/mixed signals that could have been sorted out instantly during a discussion in real time), and 3 of the 4 players ended up coming up with and then throwing out a character before settling on the one they decided to play. There was a pattern to the “rejected” characters: an initial concept that seemed to be built defensively (an alien prince with no ties to anyone on Earth; a shut-in hero who interacted with the world only through his robot dogs; a homeless psychic with amnesia and no social connections). As I said, I wanted to validate the players’ choices and work with their suggestions, but in my attempts to ask clarifying questions and to push them back into using the “triangle” approach they each decided to come up with new characters. I think this may be where e-mail failed us and where a video call with us actually filling out the triangles together would have been much more fruitful. (I certainly didn't mean for them to reject the characters, and am kind of sad that the guy with the robotic dogs didn't make it into the game).

Of the second batch of characters, I did think that Ghost still had a couple of red flags that suggested he was being built completely defensively: one, the Desolid power (saying, to me, “I don’t want you to be able to touch my guy”) but also a very convoluted backstory involving being a former FBI agent who had infiltrated the mob, faked his own death (in the process gaining super powers), and had a new identity as a circus acrobat. He had set up his Hunteds (perhaps subconsciously) to be focused on hunting for the presumed dead former-FBI identity, rather than on his new superhero identity (which I didn’t realize at first, but when I did also struck me as saying, “don’t touch my guy”).

However, so far the red flags have not really turned into anything like a problem in play. For one thing, Ghost’s player has really embraced and engaged with the current events in play (which are mostly drawn from one of the other character’s sheets). For another, his very defensive play of Ghost in the field (lots of sneaking around in order to best get the jump on the villains) is handled really well by the system, through use of skills like Security System, his Invisibility power, and the way that plays off the villain’s own perceptive powers/abilities. Smart tactics plus some lucky rolls led to the whole team having a big advantage against the villains during this combat, and it really felt (to all of us, I think) that that advantage was earned and not simply given via intuitive continuity/fiat.

Now three sessions in, looking at Ghost’s situations with an eye to updating them on the “Now”, those things which looked defensive or hard for me to engage with at first are starting to pop. Or, rather, now that the characters are in motion, I have more ideas about how to bring in those situations.
 

Ron Edwards's picture

Wary about what exactly? Well, wanting to encourage and validate the players’ take on the statements, but at the same time worried that character creation would be driven by “bad habits” of the past.

Wariness is good, and I think that you’ve done the right thing by having it be only wariness rather than overreacting and shifting into problem-solving and controlling their contributions.

I agree with you about the habits or expectations that people bring in. I have two “story of me” anecdotes to add as my form of agreement.

One is an on-forum mock prep that we did at the Sorcerer forum, long, long ago (before it was Adept Press!) at the Forge. As we moved through character creation, and I was talking about “this is how I’m focusing my mind on prep,” I shared my suspicions about the three players: that one would go into hyper-analytical dark avoidance mode based on writing an internal Gene Wolfe novel in their head instead of playing; that one would go into Scooby Doo style investigation and “team up to stop it” mode based on playing Chill or Call of Cthulhu, and look to me as the GM for all the horror and Sorcerer-ness to happen; and that one would go into just-blast-it and weird!-more-weird! spasms based on reading Unknown Armies over and over. The participants (by forum) stared at me in shock: he nailed me! How did he know?!

In that case it was useful to share my suspicions, keeping in mind that the whole discussion was hypothetical and based on learning “what goes through Ron’s mind when we get ready to play Sorcerer.” In an actual game, however, I’ve found that over-processing at this step is a bad idea, especially trying to fix any such perceived things through exposure and re-education. Even when you’re right, it’s a bad idea.

What does one do when those suspicions seem especially strong, or when you see the player’s first contribution really dodge away from what you know the game is built for? Putting aside the limitations or effect of the written venue, you did it right: to stay focused on the statements + three-corners rather than trying to negotiate and vet the next part, of points and builds.

Ron Edwards's picture

... I was pretty sure it would all work out if we just followed the rules. And it did, but I’ve still ended up being surprised by how well it is working out so far.

... so far the red flags have not really turned into anything like a problem in play.

... those things which looked defensive or hard for me to engage with at first are starting to pop. Or, rather, now that the characters are in motion, I have more ideas about how to bring in those situations.

That leads to my next anecdote which is plural, much more general over many years and experiences, about teaching biology at lots and lots of different levels and topics.

I was often frustrated by my colleagues insisting that the students were “arriving all wrong,” which is to say, not in precisely the frame of mind that the instructors would find most convenient or, frankly, would automatically validate them (the instructors) as such wonderful and great professionals. The excuses and bitching were detailed and endless: the students didn’t know this, didn’t know that, expected the wrong things, believed wrong things, said stupid things, didn’t respect them or the class, et cetera. The profs’ long-standing, internalized, and un-reflexive response was to “hammer harder” – stricter grading, hostile surveillance, hectoring, and pickier and more legalistic testing. The students’ predictable and obvious cultural and collective response, to cheat better, to find all the ways to get by with minimal risk (and engagement), and to strike back with bad reviews, just infuriated the profs more. And if you think that these instructors’ “professionalism” would keep them from being vindictive and passive-aggressive, think again.

I saw it differently. The students arrive the way they are. Our job was to have as many of them to emerge in as better a state as possible. The key was to say to them, “I am making no claims that this is ‘right’ or even ‘good for you,’ because you have no reason to believe it, maybe even reason to think otherwise. Stick with me until two weeks in – then tell me what you think.” I also assessed early and often – i.e., they did work, I graded it, they tried again, and did better because the grading made sense to them.

I see a similar point in role-playing, as a hobby culture. I don’t go so far as to say “well anyone can sit down with anybody,” any more than I’d say that any random scoop of people is ipso facto a biology class. I do, however, say that people may overcome truly outrageous internalized blinders or bullshit if they begin with “let’s try this thing” as the first principle, rather than being slammed with “do it this way, it is better, it is perfect.” They are entirely right – and the typical instructor is wrong – to think that they have no reason to trust this system or the people who are pushing it on them. They have to experience how it will work this time, and it is up to them to decide (as I would say, to realize) that, when the system is not nonsensical or abusive, they may have been blocking their own chances to see/enjoy the activity.

Ron Edwards's picture

This account connects in my mind with Alex’s post Tales from a recovering I.C. immersionist, especially in his comments that distinguish between these:

  • Knowing your character as a fixed and entire entity before play begins, so that you can “wear” him or her with confidence in any situation that might come up in play, and be “in” character without having to readjust or reconsider who they are – basically, always being sure. This is an ultra-thespian concept: I think of it as an idealized form of Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares. Add to this the nuance or condition when the GM has a similar expectation, desire, or ideal, i.e., to know each player’s character in exactly that way, for the same reasons.
  • Beginning a character as a sketch that will be filled in, or better for our current topic, “inked” only as we begin and continue to play. This includes several processess I could break out in detail, but for now, which vary regarding who is asking and who is answering “stuff” that solidifies who this character is (as well as associated people or things). To clarify, as well, I’d like to stress that I am not talking about merely quantitative details on the character sheet, and that one may have this attitude or take this approach with games which require immense character-making effort.

Rather than hijack Alex entirely into this discussion and to keep focused on your (Jon’s) Champions Now game, I want to point to the principle of “you must change,” the last chapter, and that the mechanics of change in this game apply equally to clarifying what we’re already looking at and to literally changing/improving something into a new forms. In other words, any change on the sheet, say, “my guy gets a new power” is always about how we see and use the character, but it’s wide open in terms of what actually has happened in the fiction.

Therefore, for one character, let’s say we’re looking at many sessions of play and a ton of points that have been incorporated on the sheet by this point – and in this case, all the changes represented literal in-fiction changes, as his or her powers are now much modified through purposeful effort and dramatic events. Whereas for another character, the initial presentation may, retrospectively, be extremely sketchy, and almost all the “change” was non-literal in the fiction, but extensive in terms of what “we know now.”

Regarding the content of the third session itself, the second session had ended in the middle of a combat, with Ghost (high Dex, Desolid, martial arts), Doc (Doc Savage expy with a power gauntlet and a “gadgeteer” VPP), and Force (VPP defined as “super telekinesis”)  setting up an ambush for one of the villains, the Detonator, who was trying to escape through a secret tunnel. Meanwhile, Sarge (flight, eye lasers, a little bit of super strength) was chasing down the Noose (villain with high Dex, Speed 5, martial arts, and a 4d6 Entangle), who had escaped in a speedboat. Stormstress (NPC hero on the team) was helping out Sarge. Both fights played out in interesting ways.

First, the attempt to ambush the Detonator: I had built Detonator with a ton of defense (heavily armored suit with the focus limitation) and one big attack power -- an area effect Blast/Entangle (representing getting trapped by debris) with the strike advantage -- but low Speed (2). Ghost, Doc, and Force were in some ways able to run rings around him, but they really couldn’t penetrate his defenses. They were able to pen him in, so he couldn’t escape, but they were having trouble taking him out. Eventually, they figured out that their direct attacks weren’t going to get through his armor: so, Force then changed his VPP to a mind control attack and had Detonator get OUT of his armor.

Second, I had built Noose the opposite of Detonator in a way: high Speed (5), high Dex (14), martial arts, but no real defense and only one power - a 4d6 (40 point) entangle (his lasso). He also had 3d6 of luck. Sarge’s Eye Laser attack pretty easily blew up the boat Noose was escaping on, so I figured that was a good time to roll Noose’s Luck - he got a core of 3 on that roll, and I said that that meant a good samaritan in a speed boat came over to help Noose out of the water. Noose responded by kicking the civilian into the water and stealing his boat. Stormstress (the NPC hero) went to rescue the civilian, and Sarge flew in and landed on the boat, facing off against Noose, and managed to make Noose hesitate with a Presence attack. But with such a differential in Speed (Noose’s 5 to Sarge’s 3), Noose was able to recover quickly, lasso Sarge with a core 4 entangle, and martial kick him off the boat before Sarge could do anything else. Sarge was then floating in the water, tied up, trying to keep his head up. We decided that based on the special effects, Sarge could still use his eye laser beams (Noose’s lasso was around his torso/arms), though with a penalty to hit because of lack of mobility, which he used on the boat -- blowing this one up pretty easily, too. Noose started swimming back to shore.

Sarge spent an action trying to undo the entangle, but didn’t make any headway and then decided just to fly back to shore to cut Noose off. Again, we decided that based on the special effect of the entangle, Sarge could fly, but his maneuverability would be compromised.

By the time Sarge got back to land, he had burned a ton of Endurance, and was down to 4 endurance left. He was still tangled up. Noose got out of the water and started in towards Sarge. Sarge decided to use his 8d6 Eye Laser blast, at full strength: this meant that the first 4 points came from Endurance, but that he had to roll 2d6 Knockout to make up for the difference. And --- he missed, and ended up rollin 11 for Knockout loss. (I didn’t have Noose dodge here because he had a 14 to 12 Dex advantage, and Sarge was still limited in his mobility by the entangle.) Noose was also down to almost zero Endurance, but he had enough left for a martial kick, which easily landed against Sarge’s entangle DCV of 6. He had a massive damage roll and ended up knocking Sarge out. He got into yet another speed boat (unlike the “lucky” speedboat, this one’s existence had already been established in the game), and took off. But Sarge used his action to recover from being Knocked out, and managed to get one last shot off -- which hit the boat, making it three boats he had destroyed (this was kind of comical, though also helped establish the stubborn persistence of both Sarge and Noose). At this point, Noose was down to near zero Endurance and was out of any reasonable escape routes. He surrendered to the NYPD who had, by this time, shown up on the scene.

Both fights were interesting and exciting and showcased different parts of the system. The players are getting a sense of how the game works, and are realizing that simply trying to go toe-to-toe with villains isn’t going to cut it. They succeeded, but they have a sense of how easily certain parts of the battle could have gone against them, and also a sense of how much they were aided by their proactive skill use during their reconnaissance. 
 

This quote from Noah’s post really resonated with me: 

... Endurance, Situations, Powers, and the combat system come together to create a martial choreography that is fundamentally revelatory of character

It also made me realize that I hadn’t quite described the end of the Sarge/Noose face-off correctly: for one thing, Sarge tried for another Presence attack against Noose as Noose pulled himself from the water and closed in with Sarge. This Presence attack failed, notably because of penalties from trying the same kind of thing again and now being at a disadvantage due to the entangle. So - both Sarge’s player and I had some major choices facing us: for Sarge, should he put all his effort into a final Eye Laser attack, even though he knew that he was out of Endurance and would be spending Knockout -- and that, with Noose’s high Dex and the penalty from the Entangle, he’d be at 8- to hit. And once Sarge went ahead with that choice -- taking the risk -- I had to choose whether or not Noose would burn an action to dodge, guaranteeing he wouldn’t get hit, or simply trust to Sarge rolling badly. And while the odds favored Noose not getting hit, I was weighing the fact that if Noose did get hit, because he has very little Defense, he’d most likely be taken out with that one blast. All of these decisions led to us getting a very strong sense of both of these characters inner lives; a strong sense of “what are they all about”: Noose refusing to flinch as he moved in on a dangerous foe; Sarge refusing to give up even at the expense of potentially taking himself out. And we all had a very clear picture of what this looked like in our “comic”.

noah_t's picture

I'm glad that sentence resonated with you, Jon!

I am very curious to watch how different Situations interact with the Powers, in my own Champions Now game and in your future AP reports.

What interests me (in both our reports) is how damn expressive it is when characters decide to make a risky, foolhardy, or otherwise non-optimal play in this game. I'm wondering, now, if a character built to be consistently one step ahead of their opposition will feel similarly expressive when they make keen, well-executed plays. Killer Coil from the book seems built for this approach.  

Noah_t just expressed something that I have wanted to my players to embrace:

What interests me (in both our reports) is how damn expressive it is when characters decide to make a risky, foolhardy, or otherwise non-optimal play in this game.

Yes! I can see how this is a property of the game and I am frustrated that my players so often choose not to do that. They seem to restrict themselves to the optimal response. I constantly have the feeling that the  game would be a lot more alive if players chose the non-optimal. It's like lingering fear of the the deathtrap dungeon. 

In my experience playing the game, doing things that don't appear to be the best tactical choice produce the greatest moments of "yeah!" or the trouble that is fun to get out of.

In a recent Champions Now game, my hero spotted a protester pulling a gun. My hero was too far away to half move and use martial arts, so I embraced the need to push limits. He charged in, pushing running, and did a move through at -4 to hit the guard who was the likely target of the protestor. He dived through the air, yelling "Noooooooooo!" and succeeded at a 9- attack roll. Seeing my action and the implication that I was on her side, the protestor discarded the gun and backed off. 

That action had a bunch of nonoptimal choices: buring extra endurance when we had barely begun to face the super villains who were also presnet -- and accepting a poor chance to hit. 

When I did this, I remember feeling the niggling worry of having my hero embarrassed by failure, but I set that aside and, this time, it paid off. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm thinking that the optimal/non-optimal distinction ish't really the key concept.

Alan, I do get in your example that you chose a maneuver that wasn't the most likely to succeed given the modifications to your to-hit roll, but on the other hand, the whole point was to stop anyone from getting shot, and that did turn out to be the best, least harmful tactic toward that end.

For both Noah and Alan, let's see if we can tease out a good example that shows either "the good" that you're talking about (or in Alan's case, wants to see more of), or "the bad," which I modestly think is not too bad or often absent in Champions Now.

My position is more or less that the big point here - about heroes' actions as self-expressive - can stand, i.e., be good, regardless of optimal vs. non-optimal in terms of some specific metric like to-hit percentage. I think the presence of this "good thing" is due to other variables or dynamic aspects of these rules.

noah_t's picture

AlanRB's observation struck me as accurate and evocative of the experience of GMing Champions Now:

It's like putting out a bunch of toys and watching to see what kids do with them. (And the GM gets to be one of the kids too!)

Alan, I would be curious to hear what factors you think account for this property of the game.

Reflecting on my own experience, particularly in contrast to PBTA games, I'd partially attribute it to the mechanical symmetry between GM and players: We all get these sheets with dramatic, scary, and zany stuff on them. Then there's the procedures for "The Now." And, oddly enough, I think the mechanical minimalism of 'everyone else' is also a factor: I don't have Situations or Powers, all these authorial instruments, for bystanders or goons or Hazards or DNPCs. I find myself switching into a more directorial stance when playing them (with the players getting a great deal of authority through the Presence rules).

In response to Ron's question:

It occurs to me, rereading my comment, that I may have blurred 'sensible or prudent actions' (a property of characters in the 'shared imagined space') with 'tactically optimal actions' (an exterior behavior of players at the table in a 'gamist' stance).

As an example of sensible or prudent actions being expressive: Tapeesa's effective, Dodge-and-Acrobatics-heavy style in the hallway fight was both revealing of her approach to adversity and reflective of her Waterbender training.

As another: Say I was playing Yutaka and began to change my approach. I didn't go all-in on my final attack, maybe used my Tunneling powers to get some space between me and Tapeesa so I could Recover, then used Tunnel to set up a surprise attack that might cancel her Dex and Acrobatics advantage. These choices would feel equally expressive: After the smoke cleared, I'd want to sit back down with my Villain sheet and think about how this sudden cunning reveals a new side of Yutaka's Situations, or maybe requires an entirely new Situation.

Ron, you make a good point about my heroes action not really being "non-optimal."

Now that I think of it, the mostt exciting sequence that happened in our CN game, was in session nine.

Laz (the Spur) went into the Technion building and pretended to sign up for their "self-improvement and get a job" program. Detective Work had linked Technion to the disappearance and brainwashing of residents of the tent city that The Spur lives in. They recognized him and he was captured. 

Meanwhile, Lord Kelvin and The Mariner, worry because he hasn't showed up for a rendevouz. Finally, the Mariner contacts Pandora, a sorceress, one of his Hunteds. She's been trying to recruit him, so it's not a fight-on-sight relationship yet. They know she's been watching them with magic, so they ask her to find The Spur. She bargains and the Mariner offers an unspecified "favor" in the future. When they locate The Spur, Pandora offers to transport them to his rescue (amazing things one can do with 80 pt VPP!). The Mariner offers another favor and steps into the teleport spell. Then Lord Kelvin hesitates and asks how they get back. He ends up owing a favor to Pandora so she will watch and bring them out.

This produced a quick in and out  rescue of the unconscious Spur from the brainwashing chair.

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Comment: in this I see The Spur expressing his psych situations of naive and also "values based on mythology of the American West." He's off being the lone detective, without doing the party-think thing of ensuring its done as a team.

Likewise, Mariner and Kelvin both offering a villain favors is a dramatic choice, not just tactical.

 

 

 

I think what I liked about that sequence was the surprises. It was an example of The Now being tied together by the actions of the players. The Spur's player made the decision to go to Technion without any hint from me, it just made sense to him based on the factors in play. And I was surprised when the Mariner contacted Pandora and again by the subsequent deal making! I realize that, as GM, I've completely stopped having an investment in how the things I prepared show up in play. It's like putting out a bunch of toys and watching to see what kids do with them. (And the GM gets to be one of the kids too!)

Ron Edwards's picture

You've hit your Sorcerer moment. I call it that based on my experience about 25 years ago, when the game was in active development but close to a sense of completion. We had played four or five sessions in this case, and for the next session, I had listed the various named characters and groups, and drawn a couple of arrows here and there as reminders for things. I set my mind into "prep mode" in terms of what I'd make happen as a session climax or would strive to "get them to" ... and stopped. I didn't want to. I just wanted to play all these characters, and I knew which ones would be more proactive than others. I even knew that I didn't want to tap-dance and improvise any content just ahead of players' actions either. I realized that the system would hold together and things would happen ... if we simply committed to what we had and what we knew, and played.

An entire zone of how to prepare and how to play fell away like a dead skin, and I finally realized why my preparation for playing Champions all those years had sometimes worked and sometimes failed.

I've articulated this several times in my games, especially Trollbabe and Circle of Hands as far as specific explanation and instruction go. Its latest version is at the beginning of Chapter 8 in Champions Now. However, explanations and instructions only have the goal of someone experiencing it and knowing it through actual practice. Until then, it's just, "yeah, I get it, uh huh," which may be sincere but is not sufficient.

We haven’t played again since my last update (our next session is scheduled for next weekend), but I have been working on updating the Now. For our first session I went with what seemed to me to be the most immediately and most straightforwardly grabby situations off of the characters’ sheets (in this case, having Sarge’s Hunters active in a big flashy way), partly because this seemed like a good way to start things off, but also because, at that time, prior to starting play, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with most of the other situations on offer. As I mentioned in comments above, some of the Hunters/DNPCs on the character sheets were part of (arguably) overly Byzantine backstory (which was probably legitimately inspired by the second of our two statements, though also struck me as being, in places, driven by a kind of defensiveness), and I didn’t quite know how to bring them into play. Now, though, looking at those same elements, I’ve got too many ideas on how to use them: since now our heroes are in motion and are doing things, it’s much easier to come up with reactions by those NPCs to what they’re doing rather than to come up with ideas for what the NPCs are doing in a vacuum.

One thing I think I want to do, though, is have my GMPC Stormstress quit the team or at least take more of a support/background role. Now, this is probably a case where I should have just taken the advice in the book and not had a GMPC, but I talked myself into it because (a) it seemed like a good fit for the theme/story (specifically, the idea that a quasi-official government team formed at least in part for PR would have at least one woman superhero on board) and (b) the character was inspired by (though not directly implied by) things from Sarge’s Situations and Problems corner. And, to be fair, my reasons for wanting to drop the character don’t really have to do with the problems suggested in the text (i.e., the players have not been looking to this character for cues). The problem is that it’s just much more fun for me as a GM to play the bad guys, to get into their mindset, and do what I can to beat the heroes, and that it is somewhat jarring to have to switch back to playing “against” myself every few segments. (I think if we were all more experienced with the game, I might have one of the players take over for that kind of character, but they’ve got enough to keep track of with their own characters). This speaks to the strength of the fighting rules: you’re supposed to play it hard, and, as I’ve noted, doing so is a powerful way to reveal/express character.
 

Ron Edwards's picture

These are clearly related points, right? Given four hefty-details heroes, and some play under your belts, the Now from all their stuff is booming into activity. It’s much more about how this or that person or organization will do now that this has happened, rather than a bunch of independent disconnected actors showing up randomly to announce how important they are and what they want.

I just experienced that as of session 3-ish, very definitely moving into session 4, with the Depths game. All the characters and groups already on paper just filled out into proactivity. The transition from “what the hell am I gonna do with that?” and “this is a huge hole, what do I put in it?” into “this person jumps into doing X, this group goes into overdrive, this must happen, this person is driven to arrive with their priorities firing,” is extraordinarily marked for this game. It’s easy to add and beef up things too. The thin cast list just doubled in size with interesting, active people who fit perfectly and now seem as if they had existed all along.

Given that, it’s no wonder that the GMPC’s limitations (as GMPC, not Stormstress specifically) have become apparent. For one thing, if she’s not utility (thus boring and annoying), such that you’re really treating her as a player-character, then that’s 20% more complicated whatnot in the Now. For another, having her around means they don’t have to “take care of the civilians!” as – I submit – it is very difficult to play such a character without her being convenient to such ends. And as you point out, “playing villains hard” is a specific cognitive task and it’s best not to have another, somewhat opposed task at hand at the same time.

I do think GMPCs are possible, but if I were to do it again any time soon, it might be for a two-player group so that he or she doesn’t become “just a cog,” but a corner of a new dynamic. I can speculate about other things that help them to contribute fully positively to the experience of play, but that will have to wait for new tries with different eyes from my old ones. I don’t mind admitting that my old eyes were often self-indulgent, leading to just that much of a chance for an Author Sue and a little too much TMI. I totally know that my interest in playing Stormstress specifically might have had something to do with her interesting lightning bolt, so um, yeah.

You know, I want to say, “Of course it was clear to me, that’s why I linked the points together,” but actually I wasn’t conscious of that when I wrote my comment, though the connection is very clear when you point it out. (I will give credit to my subconscious).

 

The point that having a utility GMPC around the rescue the civilians undermined a potential opportunity to further turn up the pressure on the players is well-taken.

 

Here’s some further prep that I’m doing for this game (which ties in with your comment on my Sorcerer post of the importance of the GM adding a “pinch” of their stuff to what the players come up with):

 

As I mentioned, so far for the villains and NPC heroes in this game I’ve drawn on characters from old GURPS and Villains and Vigilantes modules. I did that partly for convenience and partly to provide some extra “bounce” (avoiding the temptation to build the villains too directly in opposition to the heroes in terms of powers/capabilities).

 

However, now that I’ve seen things in action, and have gotten a sense of how the system works and how effective heroes can be, I decided I wanted to get a little nastier with the next villain I brought in, and build someone with powers that might lead to them having a harder time if they approach it the same way they did this first combat.

 

So, we have on deck one of the Hunters from Doc Vanguard’s sheet: a character the player described initially only as “super with a grudge against him for experiments on him” which were done as part of a government project to make super soldiers. The player also came up with a real name, Gus Harbor, but wanted to leave the other details (including powers) as a surprise, as we decided that initially it appeared that the experiments had failed and that Gus didn’t get any powers, and it was only later that he discovered them (and discovered he had negative side effects from the process as well, leading to the grudge).

 

Here’s what I've come up with from that:

 

The Sponge

Person: Gus Harbor, ex-Marine. White guy of Scotch-Irish descent in his late twenties. Has a young family. Had volunteered for a super soldier program. It seemed to go wrong, leaving him with…

 

Problems: ...significant cognitive and memory problems secondary to the experimentation, and a tendency to become overly reactive to intense emotional displays from people around him. He was no longer able to function as a Marine, or as a husband/father, and so has ended up working low level jobs in the food industry (although that, too, has been a struggle for him). He has developed a specific grudge against Doc Vanguard, and blames him for everything, though he can’t always remember what “everything is”. He also doesn’t really have a good sense of his…

 

Powers: He can soak up people’s energy which, in turn, causes him to grow in size. He can also leech off their capabilities, turning opponents into twitching, gibbering messes.

Here’s how he’s statted up at this point:

Situations:

Physical limitation: amnesia and cognitive fogging (15)

Hunted: the DOD group responsible for the super soldier project (large, ext, manipulative - they’re still keeping tabs on him and would want to pull him back into the fold and use him when they discover he had powers) (20)

Hunted: General Kursk (one, super, manipulative - this is Doc Vanguard’s other Hunter, his Russian counterpart; Kursk has also been keeping tabs on Gus Harbor with an eye towards using him against Doc in some way) (15)

Psych Lim: hypervigilance (a lot, irrational) (20)

Psych Lim: doesn’t trust authority (sometimes, irrational) (10)

Side Effect: 6d6 Mind Control when in presence of someone else acting on an irrational or meltdown Psych Lim; causes him to act as if he also had the triggering person’s psych lim (30)

Unluck: 1d6 (5)

Villain/Experience Bonus (20)

Total: 135

Characteristics

Strength 2d6

Presence 2d6

Defense 12 (2)

Body 13 (30)

Speed 3 (20)

Dex 13 (20)

Int 11

Ego 12 (10)

Total: 74

Skills

Stealth (5)
Total: 5

Powers

Soak It Up, All the Way Up: Drain 5d6 with transfer, and Growth 5 levels (constrained: can only use Endurance towards Growth up to the amount taken from the Drain; and has to Grow whenever Drain is used until he reaches maximum Growth; cannot voluntarily reduce size until he reaches max growth) (83) (what this looks like is that when he starts to Drain endurance, he also starts to grow in an uneven, misshapen, kind of grotesque fashion, noticeably throwing off/pulsing with “weird” energy)

Permeable Skin: Force field 10 levels, 20r (constrained: only at relative level of Growth) (33)

Leech: Weaken Dex 2d6 (burnout mild), Weaken Ego 2d6 (burnout mild) (32)

Total: 148

(I’m not completely sure that those constraints are exactly by the book.)

So, in some ways, Sponge is similar to the Super Fuzz villains we’ve already seen: all of them are products of government sponsored super soldier type experiments. But whereas that experience ended up radicalizing the Super Fuzz team, turning them into “terrorists”, the effect on Gus is much more psychologically/personally destructive and his reaction has been to attach the “blame” for his condition to a specific person (Doc Vanguard) rather than the larger system in which Vanguard is (perhaps) merely a cog.

 

Ron Edwards's picture

Sponge looks a bit wimpy from here, more or less just a big target. Partly it's because I'm not seeing the Elemental Control that strikes me as necessary:

Elemental Control: Energy Sponge, 25 points, 25

  • Transfer 5d6, 50 points, 25
  • Growth x5, 50 points, Constrained to use absorbed Endurance, Constrained to hit maximum, Involuntary (total: with Drain), 25 divided by 3 = 8
  • Force Field x10, 50 points, Constrained to follow Growth, 25 divided by 1.5 = 17
  • Weaken Dexterity (30) + Weaken Ego 2d6 (20), 50 points, Burnout (mild) 25 divided by 1.25 = 20

= 95 total

(note that this build gave me room to increase one of the Weakens; I chose Dexterity)

This would toss you 53 more points to use as you will, which is a lot!

One route might be more straightforward effectiveness, via Dexterity and, since he isn't Vulnerable to Drain/Weaken, some Special Defense against it might be good going the other way. Another would be to provide an entirely different dimension to his activites with contextual skills for what he might be up to when he's not expanded.

You have plenty of room for wholly new powers with freaky modifications too, since as I have him now, his ratio is only 112.8 which is low for a villain. Why not a little Reactive Flash backlash assigned to Missile Reflection - no more easy potshots that way.

 

Thanks for the suggestions (and the savings from the Element Control) - I'll think on this some more and see what I can come up with to make him a little more formidable with those extra points,

Ron Edwards's picture

Wait, I screwed up, Drain and Transfer can’t be in the EC. Revise accordingly, it’s still less points.

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