Values and families, not necessarily family values

My other Gauntlet game! Unlike the Cosmic Zap session, running Champions of any stripe in a convention setting is no picnic for prep. But the hardest part is not the character construction … it’s the fact that the players will not have the necessary buy-in and sense of “let’s do this” per interesting item or opportunity that’s inherent to each character. The net effect is that the GM/preparer must be constantly pointing out to them what they can do.

Take that problem and square it regarding the characters’ interesting motivations and possible priorities. Even with the best of intentions and fully competent, even inspired play, the players simply are not going to be able to play fully intuitively, in the sense of expressing and seeing their own creations come to life. If you’re not familiar with Champions, then I won’t be able to convince you that this effect is a quantum more important than for any other role-playing game.

All that said, the three players were heroic in adopting and owning what they were handed. I had made sure to leave out the heroes’ gender and associated identity, real names, socio-ethnic background, sexual preference, and anything but one key-but-vague background point to start from. The players did a good job of filling that in and adapting it to the immediate situation I gave them, involving anti-discrimination legislation in Hartford, Connecticut.

I’d also provided them with the two opening statements, which I think you’ll see are just right for a game like this:

  • Superheroes are public figures who represent and reflect important values, whether establishment or alternative.
  • Hey, you mixed family in my politics! Well, you mixed politics in my family!! (we set it in Hartford because Jim, the first player to respond to my email, is very familiar with it)

Part 1 (below) includes the starting conversation, some opening moments including my first disruptive “and then!” move, and a few segments of combat which are mostly about the players getting used to their characters. Part 2 , which followed a brief real-life break, shows what happens just past the learning curve: first, the combat goes poorly for them as they try a bunch of stuff and run into either bad luck rolls or a wicked confluence of effects; but then, in a pretty classic but also genuine moment of “we must work together,” and with the advantage of tweaking the villain’s Psychological Limitations and Enrages and whatnot quite hard, coming out ahead.

What I’d really like you to do is check out those characters I made for it. The heroes are 200 points, the minimum in the rules as written, and I think that value is really good, almost supernaturally so. The disadvantages in particular really “pop” and I love the simplicity each hero is forced to have, even the relatively complex ones. Points-wise, there is so much to do and so many places for each to go, as a function of play. I’d posit Ruby Ray as almost the perfect iconic hero build example.

Another point: I played horribly. Meaning, due to hassles with my printer, I didn’t have the information readily to hand as we played, not daring to deviate from full screen. So I totally forgot really important things, including The Which’s side effects disadvantage, until Jim reminded me, and the side effect for The Domain if its Mind Control was broken, and a number of other things which would have been a lot more fun for the players, I think.

Not having Ruby Ray in play also hampered me more than I thought, as it rendered Killer Coil pretty much superfluous and I forgot her action at least once. I really liked that character, too, but she suffered in execution, ultimately lacking “voice.” Also, originally she was going to be stretchy, and for some reason I went all cyber Doc Ock with her at the last minute of prep instead, which in retrospect diminished my sense of inspiration for her per moment of play.

I do say with pride that the crucial Enrage, Ego, and Limitations which defined Devour and the Domain were played fairly, so that yes, Devour would definitely have attacked Anybug and likely maimed or even killed him, without recovering from that Enrage at the right moment. And it all went south on The Domain almost as if all three players had looked at the build and gone after the weak spots with ball-peen hammers.

It showed me very clearly that my attention to villains as built on more points, with higher ratios, is well-spent. Yes, they’re tough, yes, they hit harder, yes, they’re full of surprises … but find the Power Limitations that have to be in there for that high ratio, and even better, match them to the Psychological Limitations which all good villains will have been spouting off about, and you have a chance.

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2 responses to “Values and families, not necessarily family values”

  1. Champions-Now One-Shot and Anybug

    I had a great playing the Champions Now one-shot at Gauntlet Con. It was an interesting group: Ron Edwards was running the game, with one experienced Champions player and two newcomers to the game. Champions Now (and I would say most superhero RPGs) is challenging to run as a one-shot game: One appeal of this genre involves spending time designing a character with special powers, a backstory, and a style . . . and with that kind of time investment the player is probably going to want to play the character and develop a narrative arc. But this one-shot experience with the game was successful on multiple levels. A few thoughts:


    I love the way the game is set in a very real place in the current world. This device allows the game to reverberate with real-world issues, and it adds a heft to the game. The backdrop of a political event (the signing of civil rights legislation involving sexual orientation) gave the players something to latch onto and to immediately incorporate into their character development.


    We were dealing with pre-generated characters, and in my case, I was able quickly to dig into a few juicy suggestions of a back story that became central to the scene that unfolded. My most significant disadvantage had to do with my aged grandfather (with a mysterious past), and I decided bring him in Anybug’s van to the historic signing. And that decision was then connected bizarre transformation that brought Devour onto the scene. I also liked then the frought decisions Anybug had to make concerning how to deal with the grandfather-turned-monster.


    The idea that the superheroes are free to work through their own sense of morality makes for extra complexity that is provocative. This would definitely be something that could be used for a mini-campaign or campaign to add more grit and layers to the stories and to character relationships.


    Ron has streamlined the mechanics in Champions Now. I felt like I was getting an understanding of how those mechanics worked (and how I could play with them in the game situation) as the one-shot rolled along. But there is a learning curve here: I think such a learning curve is almost necessary given the genre of game. With all those special powers and skills, there needs to be some level of complexity to deal with all that.


    One thing that works very well in the mechanics: The breaking of combat into different phases, with different characters getting to act in different beats, works so well with the comics genre. That is, the beats turn into different comics frames, and the players were diving into the idea of putting speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and visuals into their actions in a way that was satisfying. And this also made the combat so much more than combat: There was narrative development and character development that was occurring as we worked through the action beats.


    Finally, the ending of the combat was satisfying to me as a player. One of the advantages of the one-shot is that the willingness to take a risky action or to sacrifice is easier for the player. So the dramatic moment towards the close where Anybug turned off the power pack and made himself completely vulnerable in order to make a last-ditch appeal to Devour/grandfather was terrific. I’m not sure if I would have so willingly made that decision in a campaign or mini-campaign, but it was one that I dove into in the one-shot.


    I am interested in seeing how this game will play out with different generations. There is something that seems “golden age comics” about Champions Now, but there is also some real contemporary stuff going on in both the setting and in terms of the core defining statements (Superheroes are public figures who represent and reflect important values, whether establishment or alternative; and Hey, you mixed family in my politics! Well, you mixed politics in my family!!). Both of those statements were core to my character development and gaming experience with Champions Now, and that success makes the game exciting and provocative. If I have the chance, I’m hoping to see how the high school club I sponsor will react to the reloaded superhero genre it brings to the table.

    • Thanks for commenting! I’ll

      Thanks for commenting! I'll pull out a couple of disconnected phrases to riff on.

      I was pleased and surprised at how fully this group embraced the thought and speech balloons, especially since the conversation at the beginning of the session disparaged the former (as is very common nowadays in comics fan culture). I don't think that's retro – after all, we still have extensive thought balloons in modern comics, they just happen to be drawn with corners, disguised as captions. Their function remains the same, operating as inset-panels … and Champions is the only superhero role-playing game that grasped that in full. (using the actual thought-balloon gesture and prop/instrument in the original With Great Power … comes close)

      Perhaps as a related point, I don't want to make too much out of your term "golden age," but I do want to stress that newsstand comics were almost always highly politicized and contemporary, and there never was a "dumb fun age" of comics. They were exciting and provocative, and especially so during the phase that directly influenced the authors of Villains & Vigilantes, Champions, and Marvel Super Heroes. When they weren't (which was brief), and why not, is a matter of known but unappreciated comics history,

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