The Gift

This post is a follow-up to the one I made in March titled “On My Way to Champions Now,” where I shared the two statements I’m using to set up a Champions Now game set in 1930s NYC. Those statements are:

  • Strange powers, wonderous technology, and two-fisted justice blaze in the shadows.
  • Fighting depression and supremacy in late-1930s NYC.

Following the game’s rules, I turned the statements over to my players along with a 3-Corners worksheet. I then asked them to interpret and respond to the statements without speaking to me or each other about their process. The intention here is to have them generate what Ron calls “the gift” – situations of play that, while grounded by the statements, build out the world in surprising ways and give everybody (GM and players alike) something to work with that propels us forward.

In speaking with Ron, I realized that it’s healthy for me to walk into the process with a few ideas of my own, so I generated a couple. First, I researched American white supremacist groups of the 1930s; I found the Silver Legion of America founded by William Dudley Pelley (who was a journalist, spiritualist, novelist, and screenwriter based out of North Carolina, but with a reach that extended as far as New York). Second, I created a villain using the two statements. The result is Orion. Based on Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby with a dash of Theodore Roosevelt, he is a socialite, sportsman, and big game hunter who feels threatened by and resents what he perceives as a New Deal-era uprising of the masses. Using a magic bow that he obtained on his global adventures, he now stalks the urban jungle of New York, preying on activists and other “troublemakers.” With that minimal prep concluded, I sat back and waited to see what my players turned up.

Spitfire

The first to respond was my friend Jen, who gave me the following within 24 hours of receiving the statements and 3-Corner worksheet:

My Initial reaction: I’m really excited about Spitfire. Her powers are simple but fun, and they certainly “blaze in the shadows.” I also find the name Spitfire very evocative and I’m having fun just thinking about the way Jen will player her. Also, Jen wasn’t super explicit about it, but I can see how the Great Depression affected Spitfire’s situation and think there is opportunity to create a WPA community of theater folks that she’d be invested in interacting with and protecting. As far as “fighting supremacy” – her stance against the patriarchy is pretty clear on that point. I’m not going to think too much about it right now, though, and will wait and see how it all comes together when she builds the character.

Justicar

Next up was my friend Dan. His initial response was to ask me, “What do you mean by supremacy?” My response was, “Who CARES what I mean by supremacy? Think about it for a bit, and generate a response to the statements based on what YOU think it means.” What happened next interests me procedurally because his initial worksheet prompted me to respond, which led Dan to revise his worksheet. While I feel good about it, this exchange leaves me wondering if I overstepped my bounds as GM more than Ron envisioned when he wrote the rules. I’m sharing the whole discussion below to get feedback on this question.

Here’s Dan’s first draft:

Here’s my email response to his first draft:

Howdy, Dan!

Thanks for the work you’ve done on the three corners thus far. I think ratcheting in on some specifics might be in order. I’ll ask some questions to elicit further responses:

Powers

Some questions that immediately come to my mind:

  • Which specific god or goddess of justice? (Answering that might suggest some specific power ideas, as well as costuming, behaviors, etc.) 
  • Does he actually practice magic, or is he imbued by magic from the deity that has chosen him as an avatar? 
  • More importantly, what does his magic actually DO, and what does it look like on the comics page?

Below are some very basic powers statements that I envision for well-known characters from the comics:

  • Example: Uses magic to shoot ankh-shaped golden blasts and to teleport through ankh-shaped portals; Golden helmet gleams and eyes glow with white light when he uses his powers. 
  • Example: Dresses like stage magician; Speaks words backwards to alter reality.
  • Example: Wields magical sword; Uses sword to travel dimensions and summon demons

Two more things I feel I should say about powers:

  • Champions Now is designed to emulate comics characters as they FIRST appeared in the comics from the 1930s through the 1970s. In short – they are more modest in terms of powers than most people remember or imagine. So, be cool, but be somewhat reserved. You’ll grow into greater power with XP.
  • Champions Now DOES have a Variable Power Pool effect that allows you to emulate any power that fits into your concept. I don’t recommend that you go that route, for a number of reasons. First, unless you’re very familiar with the rules, it’s going to take A LOT of math during game play to figure out what you’re doing. (This is Champions, after all.) Second, there is a real blandness that sets in when you say, “I’m a wizard and I can do anything.” You can make a wizard, but it’s much more flavorful to say, “I’m a wizard, and I learned this really cool teleportation spell that I can use for various effects.” A character like that might eventually build a Variable Power Pool as they grow into their powers, (and as you become competent with the system).
Person

Questions with a little bit of historical context:

  • What does it mean to have an unyielding sense of equality? (Is there a particular type of inequality that bothers him most?)
  • Is there anything about his socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, or regional background (or other aspects of his life situation) that accounts for his sense of equality? [I don’t need or want a full bio here – just trying to get a better sense of who he is and how that affects his values.]
  • Was he an undergraduate in archeology? A graduate student? A full-blown professor? Side note: Professors didn’t really lose their jobs during the Great Depression. They took salary cuts (between 15% and 40%), but even then they fared much better than industrial workers and farmers, who took the brunt of job losses during this time. In fact, professors were known to dip into their own pockets to cover educational costs for (or otherwise support) students who were in danger of being kicked out of school due to their inability to pay for their education. A professor with a 40% salary cut would still make much more than a day laborer. Given that information, how does that affect your character’s current situation?
Problems

Some questions:

  • How specifically is his marriage mixed? What’s his ethnic/racial/cultural background? What’s his partner’s? 
  • Tell me more about his partner! Who are they? What’s interesting about them? What do they do? [In Champions Now you get points for your DNPCs “Disadvantages” – which are called “Situations” in this version of the game.]
  • Given what I said above about professors during the Great Depression, is he still a professor that got laid off? If so, why did he get laid off? Is there a rivalry there of some sort?
  • Do his powers cause him any problems? If so, what?
  • Does who he is and what he believes cause him any problems? If so, what?
  • When the campaign starts, he’s already been doing the hero thing. What DOES he do heroically? And has what he’s done caused him any problems? If so, what? (Has he made any enemies? Developed a specific reputation? etc.?)
Final Thoughts

As you think about the above questions, keep the following points in mind.

  • Give yourself permission to build on, modify, or completely scrap anything that you’ve already come up with.
  • Work it enough so that a HERO emerges. Developing more specifics as I suggest above should bring you to the point where a hero (with a codename, costume, flavorful power set, and reason for being) appears on the page. This should be born from your imagination, not from some list of powers in a rulebook, so don’t wait until we build the character mechanically to come up with a strong concept.
  • The statements are what the campaign is about (both visually and thematically). It’s not window dressing, it’s what we play about.

Well, that’s that! I’ve probably said too much. I look forward to seeing what more you come up with!

Here’s Dan’s second 3-Corners worksheet:

My initial reaction: Again, I’ll have to see how it all comes together when we build the character. The professor-in-support-of-struggling-students angle will generate some Depression-era threads to pull on, and his protection of innocents angle is no more specific than what Jen offered, but somehow Justicar seems less hitched to the statements than Spitfire. It sort of feels like genre tropes are preventing Dan from taking the statements on their own merits and honoring them on their own terms. I’ll keep this observation to myself, though, as I don’t want to interfere with Dan’s process more than I already have. Besides, I’m genuinely curious to see how Justicar (as informed by both Dylan and Ma’at) respond to notions of fairness and equality. Crafting situations that revolve around the Communist Party of the United States, which was notably active in the 1930s, seems like a fun thing to do.

Silver Specter

Next up was my wife, Lauren. Again, our process was different because completing paperwork (like the 3-corner worksheet) is not something she would get to on her own – not due to a lack of interest, but simply because paperwork doesn’t come easy to her. That being the case, I pulled out the worksheet on a long car ride and asked her to respond while she drove. I recorded what she said without comment and was careful not to steer her in any particular direction. She came up with the following:

My initial reaction: I’m really excited about this character. Part of it is that Lauren approached Depression and Supremacy much as I was envisioning them when I wrote the statements. She’s actively (proactively, even) opposing groups like the Silver Legion of America and doing her muckraking best to expose crooked slum lords and politicians. I imagine that Lauren will go for the Detective Work skill during character creation, which will significantly reduce the likelihood of a villain like Orion leaving a trail of murdered victims before the heroes have a chance of catching up to him. I’m also excited about the powers. They’re visually cool and unique, and should present some very interesting options in terms of Special Effects and the like. I also think they’ll be fun, challenging, and satisfying to build. Finally, I love everything about the person behind the mask.

Major Shocker

Finally, I sat down with my friend Mike and walked him through the 3-corner worksheet in the same way that I did with Lauren, which produced the following:

My initial reaction: I appreciate that Mike riffed off of the “wonderous technology” and “two-fisted justice” angles presented in the statements, but I’m left wondering a little about how he intersects with the depression and supremacy angles. I don’t see much in terms of the Great Depression here, which is fine if we have the supremacy angle covered. Part of me thinks that Mike read “supremacy” and thought “gangsters dominating and oppressing hard-working, decent people.” If so – I’m TOTALLY fine with that. However, it’s entirely possible that Mike conceived of Major Shocker without paying much attention to the two statements. Indeed, I wonder if genre tropes are getting in the way here, just as I suspect is the case with Justicar. If so, I wonder how much that matters. I mean, if Mike produced a character that I can make work with the statements, does it matter if he didn’t really consider the statements (at least not consciously).

Final Reflection & Request for Feedback

The questions and comments that I’ve made about my good friends’ good efforts are shared less to expose their strengths and weaknesses, and more to open up my own approaches and thinking to critique. Based on my comments, am I intruding on the process too much or too little? Am I prepping too much or too little beforehand? Am I engaging my players in ways that promote good play, or am I exhibiting habits that would do otherwise? I’m also posting this to test Champions Now‘s rules with a group of players who’ve never encountered them, and (if I do it right) to provide an example of how they work. So, if you’re inclined, feel free to comment on the above or anything else the post brings to mind.

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9 responses to “The Gift”

  1. Thank you Aldo for so generously sharing your process of developing the foundation for your game of Champions Now. I’ve no real connection to comics and/or superheroes and every time I try to read and understand Champions Now I fail miserably.
    I especially appreciate how you support the players in character creation by providing them with an environment that. I know from experience how difficult it can be to “just follow the instructions” when it comes to character creation.
    I’m looking forward to see your game get under way and to continue learning more about how Champions Now works from your posts.

    • Thanks for the reply, Helma. I’m glad the post(s) are proving useful in terms of illustrating how Champions Now works. As far as providing my players with an environment: do you mean the campaign’s focus in terms of setting and themes, or do you mean the social environment and the nature of the dialogue therein?

      If the former, that’s really generated by the game’s rules themselves, which is something that I really appreciate about Champions Now. Back in the day, I would say: “Let’s play superheroes! You can make anything you want, and I’ll work with it!” The strength of that approach is that the diversity of player contributions has the potential to generate a really robust setting. The drawback is that players would often generate material that didn’t cohere in any sort of way, and my attempts to stitch it all together would sometimes stretch credibility. Either that, or players would workshop to make everything cohere during a session zero, which resulted in a type of blandness that would sap my inspiration. Champions Now’s two statement approach provides a center for players to bend towards as they think about their characters motivations and powers. However, the rules’ insistence that everybody work on concepts in isolation guarantees the diversity of contribution to world building that is so exciting in superhero gaming (and superhero comic team books).

      Anyway, thank you for your interest! I’ll post the character sheets (with commentary on the build process) for these characters once they’re done.

  2. I give a similar kind of guidance for players when we’re developing characters for Champions Now. In your place, I might have answered the question about the meaning of “supremacy” with my desired definition. One thing I’ve learned from writing the two statements (and a start sheet for The Pool) I like the result better if I first consider what are the key elements that inspire me about the idea and then do my best to be clear about them in the two statements.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Alan. I definitely felt the temptation to be clear about MY desired definition of “supremacy,” but I wanted to avoid the “sameness” that doing so MIGHT produce and am willing to explore the diversity (and possible incongruency) that could result from a less-guided approach.

      In this particular case, a group of dedicated anti-fascist characters would be cool (and easy to craft situations for), but I thought it might be more rich and exciting to have an anti-fascist or two working alongside heroes with different motivations and ideals. So many of my favorite superhero comic books involve the heroes working through such differences as they stay (or try to stay) focused on a common goal, and I’m hoping that the two-statement approach can strike that balance of anchoring the team while providing a rich spectrum of character motivations, orientations, and personalities.

      I’m not entirely convinced that the two-statement approach has achieved the hoped for effect yet (and I won’t know until the game hits the table, so to speak), but I’m feeling pretty good about it right now. If it DOESN’T work, I’m going to have to ask, “Why?” It might mean that I need to craft more effective statements, but it might ALSO mean that there is no-substitute for a more-guided approach. In any case, I look forward to finding out how this goes!

  3. I held off from commenting, even though asked directly, because I don’t want to interfere as “game author.” I’ve learned over the past few years to dial this effect down more than ever. When Person X wants to conduct preparation and play of a game I’ve written in their own way, well, I really should not sit on their lap and start opining.

    However, because he did ask me directly, Aldo and I chatted a little by voice, and once I said my piece out loud, it didn’t sound too interfering and I decided it was OK to share it here.

    Briefly, when I am helping others prepare for Champions Now, especially if they have not played before, then I provide very little feedback or critique about the three-corner step. Ideally it should just be what it is, and all refinement or specifics or better understanding should arrive during the next, numbers-oriented step. So the initial image can look scribbly and sketchy as long as there is some content in each corner.

    For example, here’s Nope, a character I played with Aldo last year. There’s nothing you can get from it about “can she do this, can she do that,” but there’s enough to spitball a mental image of her doing something about something, much like the promotional ads/announcement for an upcoming character.
    Nope

    All that said, disclosure: I fail at this exact distinction more than I’d like. It’s easy to get sucked into the dark side of character-building for exactly the same reasons for doing so re: world-building. But anyway, as described above, that’s what I try to do.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Ron, both in-person and on the site. As it happens, my process for this campaign involved both levels of GM feedback and critique: some to a lot (in the case of Dan) and little to none (for all the other players).

      In the end, I think it went fine all around. Dan didn’t seem put off by my feedback, and the other players created fine characters without my early meddling.

      That being said, I DID have more fun (as a GM) in those instances where I held off, as allocating points to build the characters was more of a dialogic act of in-the-moment discovery than it had been when things were more bolted down in advance.

      Anyway, the characters are mostly built at this point, so my next posts will involve presenting the results.

  4. (this is after the video was added) The video presentation nails so much, and I am much more excited about, for example, the three-corner work for Spitfire than I was upon reading it alone. Your self-critique regarding Dan’s character really hits me as well because what you’re describing is almost a built-in quagmire for superhero role-playing.

    I’m looking forward to the play accounts.

    • I’m curious – the quagmire being my GM intrusions, or the concerns that I had about the default approaches that my players might be bringing to the game? Or all of it? 🙂

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