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.
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.