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Champions Now: One Perfect...Actually, screw perfect...One WILD Session

I’ve been fortunate enough to play six sessions of Champions Now with Sam and my brother Seth. I decided to refrain from writing a report until we’d seen the Now crest and crash a couple of times, and our last session brought our first arc to a conclusive, explosive end.

Our Statements are:

  • Powers are disruptive, shattering the status quo, showering the meek with mysterious gifts and forcing the powerful to find new, insidious methods of control.
  •  
  • We’ll never be in the big time and we’d never want to be. This is dirt roads and gutted engines right next to megacorps and industrialized cornfields. Small town, big problems in Wichita, Kansas.

Seth’s Hero is Cochise Thunderhawk (styled “The Wanderer” by Wichita media), a Comanche oddball with martial arts expertise, a spirit companion prone to playing solitaire and giving vague spiritual advice, and a range of mystic abilities including the ability to project shadow-monsters (Images) and always-on mind-reading (Telepathy). As you might guess from this last power, he’d really prefer to be by himself in the woods, but he’s been compelled into action to try to keep the law from coming after his family. One of my favorite details is that Cochise has never seen his spirit companion full-on, only out of the corner of his eye.

Sam’s is Lilith Rose, a trans Communist revolutionary with the ability to metallicize, merge with metal and morph her body into a menagerie of (often monstrous) shapes. Her dad (dependent NPC) is a former supervillain, The Maw, now a somewhat abrasive fellow with physical disabilities—the possible legacy of his former life—and a collection of storage lockers spread across town with who knows what secrets locked away.

Lilith’s Hunted situation was the primary antagonist for this session. By day, he’s Daniel Bloomfeld, Chief of Wichita PD. By night, he’s the Black Sun, a (more) fascist super-cop who I described visually as “What if Tony Stark forged a Batsuit.” His badge (Focus) is a nuclear, glowing blue, neo-Nazi black sun symbol, blue veins spreading lightning-like across his body.

My favorite aspect of (to use the game’s terms) ‘receiving the gift of this character sheet’ was building a DNPC for him: Catherine, his lesbian daughter and a queer-rights and Black Lives Matter activist who owns the leftist communal home Lilith stays at.

Playing Catherine has been a delight, exploring the positionality and nuances of someone with the best of intentions and experience with some oppression who is still economically privileged and trying (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to deprogram from her conservative upbringing.

(Character sheets for Heroes, Villains and Hazards are attached below.)

The session was a straightforward showdown. 

In the previous issue, our Heroes had fed misinformation to Wichita PD, giving away their position and setting up an ambush in one of Wichita’s rusted-out industrial districts, every third building a working car repair shop or metalworking outfit, every other building an abandoned factory.

Lilith and Cochise posted up at a run-down grain silo, Lilith three stories up on the roof to lure the cops in, Cochise in the shadows below setting up an ambush.

Unfortunately, Lilith failed her Security Systems roll, so they didn’t quite get the tactical advantage they wanted. The Black Sun entered the fray first, climbing the ladder to Lilith’s position. Cochise was still on the ground when Bloomfeld’s lieutenants, The Black Sun Knights, officers uniformed like him and armed with nuclear-powered taser batons plugged into their badges, emerged from the shadows and surrounded the silo, effectively splitting the Heroes and forcing them to fight on two fronts.

We are a long way from mastering Champions Now’s combat system. I still need to carefully count out the Phases by metronome, it still takes all three of us putting our heads together to keep everything straight. Still, this was the first combat where it felt like we were using all the instrumentation—Powers, Awareness, Special Effects, Maneuvers, environmental features, Situations, oh my!—at one time.

On the ground, Cochise used Concealment and his Martial Maneuvers to bring the pain to the three Black Sun Knights, but quickly realized their armor (Force Field) and nuclear taser batons (Severe) made just smashing them impractical. He shifted to projecting nightmarish illusions (Images) against Ben Olmstead, a Knight he’d already psychically hacked the day before. Ben suddenly believed he was seeing his fellow Knight about to strike his child (not Cochise), and tackled him off-panel.

Up above against the night sky, The Red Star surprised The Black Sun by melting into the silo’s metallic roof when he tried to grapple her, landing a counter-attack that launched him across the gap between bins and cratered him into the metal of the roof. Unfortunately for her, this triggered his sonic crowd-control tech (Flash plus Aura), and his advanced armor (Force Field) meant he could shrug off the damage. He Pushed for a few extra hexes of movement and came back with a Move-Through attack that devastated the disoriented Lilith (Stun).

I’ve said before that Champions Now gives the lie to the idea that combat is somehow opposed to drama and emotion—this game’s combat is fucking choreography. This was the point where our two fights became one, with Cochise watching on helplessly as the Black Sun stomped Lilith’s ribcage into pieces (Destructive attack plus a Push for Piercing). On his go, Cochise used his knowledge of Chief Bloomfeld to trap him in illusion, hammering him with horrific images of injured children, and triggering a psychological meltdown.

As he looked down at Lilith, Bloomfeld saw his daughter Catherine, the violence he’d inflicted on his community and the city’s activists transferred now to someone he claimed to love. He hugged Lilith-Catherine to him, repeating “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry baby, I’m sorry.”

Meanwhile, Cochise was KO’d by a blow from the final Black Sun Knight, leaving him temporarily helpless to affect the situation above. Believing Cochise down and out, the Knight ran after his two allies to try to split them up, shouting “Guys, stop it! Your making your badges unstable!”

On her go, Lilith used her metallicizing powers to compromise the Black Sun’s armor, the gesture almost tender, describing her hands spreading through the plates and cracking them. The metal flaked away, leaving Bloomfeld as physically exposed as he was psychologically.

He missed his Ego roll to pull out of psychological freefall, but did make his Perception check to orient himself, coming a step closer to reality. And, believing Catherine dead and himself responsible, he made a surprise Grab attack, carrying Catherine-Lilith and himself over the edge of the silo in a final act of remorse fused with annihilation.

Below, two things happened very fast: First, Cochise moved to catch Lilith and the Black Sun (requiring a successful DEX check, then a Strength roll with Core cancelling out the Body damage inflicted by the fall). Second, the two Knights who’d been grappling overloaded their already unstable Black Sun badges, and an explosion set electric blue fire to the entire area, tossing the third Knight through the air like a rag doll.

Cochise took a Recovery phase, then snapped the unconscious Bloomfeld’s neck. He picked up Catherine and prepared to flee but, squinting through the flames, saw that the third Knight was still alive. Unwilling to have another death on his hands, he moved toward him. Sam and I excitedly reminded Seth that one of Cochise’s Psychological Situations was fear of fire. Cochise hesitated before the inferno, seriously considering just leaving the Knight, but made his Ego roll and, taking a deep breath, plunged into the flames.

Consulting the Hazards table, I told Seth to roll for Knockout and that Cochise was hit by Flash. Seth shouted “No he’s not! I have Awareness!” As naturally as breathing, I realized that Cochise, trying to find his way out of the inferno, would see his spirit companion full-on for the first time: an enormous bird, wings spread wide, showing him the path to safety and telling him, “You see? I said you would learn patience for these people.”

This capped a session (and a six-issue run) that left the three of us creatively fulfilled and deeply moved. It approached the possibility of a game being “beautiful enough to make you cry buckets and be glad you’re alive.” And this story and its thematic context emerged spontaneously, without any of us being able to take credit for the whole, from the three of us playing our individual instruments to the hilt.

Looking back, we realized we’d not only explored the thematic content of the Statements but also given one answer to Champions Now’s central question: What is a hero?

It is astonishing how much visual content the game's idiom-first procedures produce on a scene-by-scene basis. I wish Champions Now Wichita were a real comic book in the world I could takes snaps of and show to you, because somewhere in those final pages, between Cochise’s determination and struggle to challenge violent oppression, and the practice of mercy implied in not letting a sworn enemy burn, is a definition of heroism I can believe in.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Always good to see.

My comments or questions are easily anticipated. When or if you GMed "cool," what happened? Given six sessions, that's 12-24 more points for the characters; how have those points been used?

For more general interest regarding play as such (which is on my mind a lot due to teaching), what procedures were in operation regarding the overloading badges? Was it previously known to you as GM or imported into the situation at that moment?

noah's picture

Love those questions, Ron.

From issue #1, the Black Sun's badge was expressed as a Focus, and over our six-issue run I'd been having a lot of fun 'drawing' it (and the Knights' badges) as striking, eye-catching, and unstable. Those visual currents culminated in a 'toothy' Special Effect (Blast plus Flash) when the two Knights turned on each other.

This was a unique output of CN's Special Effects procedures, in that it felt like the explosion wasn't 'imported' or imposed, but a logical outcome of the visual behavior exhibited by the Black Sun's Focus in the previous five sessions. I leave it to my fellow players to tell me if the explosion felt 'imported' to them, but from my perspective it felt unremarkable and inevitable.

In response to your second question, I'd say we spent a good half of the previous 5 sessions playing cool. For instance, our first pages found Lilith working her fast-food job and going to the bar afterward for a drink, while Cochise's first page found him hitchiking into town and going into a gas station to ask for a glass of water.

Sam and I have discussed (Sam's memorable phrase) 'rabid dog conflict-seeking play.' And all three of us have been struck by how little need there is to seek conflict in CN. You (meaning any player) just has to be ready and alert for when the temperature spikes.

(I'm realizing now that this is inevitable because all characters are responses to the Statements - ethical and ideological and metaphysical and and and conflicts are baked into the Now from the very beginning.)

This meant that many of our panels in issues #1-5 saw characters talking to family or housemates, walking to battle after concealing the car, or skulking around downtown Wichita to spy on the cops. All drawn with the same detail and verve as the magma-hot panels in issue #6, and all with instrumentation (Presence, Skill Checks, Unusual Looks) available when needed.

On Points, I wasn't paying as much attention to how Seth and Sam were spending them, though I know they ended up with ~20 each. They did buy a hideout together (small hideaway beneath a grain silo) in issue #5, which I imagine will continue to grow in narrative weight as the series goes on. Hopefully they can jump into the comments and respond!

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks! You used the Hazard procedures too, because when something happens that creates a dangerous environment, you build any Hazard as needed.

It is very difficult to present (or teach, in a class environment) what I mean by "needed." I have not yet managed to articulate the idea behind this game design in a way that resolves the following knot of confusion.

  • "Whatever happens next must obey the in-fiction causal procedures, requiring separate and specific rules for fire, radiation, et cetera, and preferably, its potential to occur should be known and noted prior to play," vs.
  • "Make up whatever happens next however you want" (with euphemisms like "for a good story," or "interesting," or "the flags told me to," or similar).

I regard both of these as fully broken - outright flawed play, not "style" - and furthermore, actually to be the same break hiding behind a false dichotomy.

Whereas I'm designing here for play in which something unexpected to anyone can happen, which is plausible rather than an ass-pull, and which may proceed via known rules-of-engagement. If a person is used to the false dichotomy as the bounds of play/design, then my notions are a bit terrifying - control vanishes, whether front-loaded because you made it all up a while ago, or tap-danced because you can spitball however it turns out.

In trying to discuss this, too, I find myself working backwards conceptually, in that my ability to articulate it comes from Sorcerer, but the fact is that I knew how to play and design Sorcerer from having learned the principles from first-generation Champions.

The destruction of those principles in 1989 at the advent of the Hero System and 4th-edition Champions ranks high in the key historical concept failures for the overall hobby culture. A lot of those events occurred simultaneously: the concentration of distribution into Alliance, the role of venture capital in RPG companies (TSR led the way in 1986), the big push for RPG distribution in Europe, the periodical model for supplement sales in the stores ...

Dreamofpeace's picture

Regarding the false dichotomy you mentioned, I think I get how "make it up however" is broken, but I'm unclear exactly why the first approach is. Is it because there's no room for improvisation?

Ron Edwards's picture

Improvisation is a red herring, as I think we've discussed before. Or perhaps, as a term, it is applied too widely across too many things to be helpful. We shouldn't use it unless we spend a lot of time defining it, and in this case, I don't think that's necssary.

The real issue is control. The first bullet point refers to preparing to such an extent that outcomes during play merely track to different, known paths of the next events. That is one method of control, includinga variety of tune-able subtechniques; the second bullet point is the other, with its own little library.

Sam's picture

I have tried to write out this comment and failed to do it, so I'm just going to let it be messy. I really want to describe how we did what we did, because I think that the play that I am now used to with various groups of people would be considered extraordinary or impossible to my past self/many people I have played with in the past. This also applies to the Trollbabe game we launched into as a group right after, where all this shit is on my mind throughout play. 

The most vital component I can distill is sticking with what is happening. This must be action oriented, meaning that internal states (of characters) are important and informative, but they are secondary when we come together (out of our individual minds) with our different inputs to say together what is happening. This means that we have actions of characters and other entites that can take actions (weather, cool landscapes, etc.) and not plans/schemes or what ifs. This also seems to mean that we identify conflicts because they are already upon us, rather than trying to predict them or plan them or orchestrate them, and in the case of a robust system like Champions Now made transforming rules text into rules simple. I don't think we ever devolved into long debates. 

The second component that has taken me a long time to come to be comfortable with (Circle of Hands has taught me this) is having patience. Being willing to get there, trusting that it is quite likely that you will get there, not worrying about not getting there, (there being to some kind of interesting conflict, to whatever immersion means to you, basically getting to the or one of the reasons you play) is vital for playing characters faithfully rather than falling into the trap of pushing frantically towards the state you desire. Let it come organically, never force it. Sometimes it will not, that is ok, sometimes play with be complete shit. Where was the there I wanted to get for Champions Now? It was precisely the place we got organically in the last session we played, and I only really got there in this last session! I had a lot of fun the whole time, felt a lot of things, but this was the session that got me there. 

The third, that I may have already stated, is to stick to the actions of individual characters (and other things that effect the world), not to themes or genre, ever. I think that it is imperative that each character played is played as a character, not used as a tool. 

The last, which came to me playing Trollbabe, is to honor failure and success extremely precisely (in the case of Trollbabe, thinking about what it might mean to fail/succeed at the Trollbabe's goal) without EVER thinking of an outcome as good or bad based on genre or other expectations. I can point to several successful outcomes in Trollbabe that led to heartbreak and misery for the Trollbabe, and one failure that resulted in a peasant effectively becoming the god-king of an entire region, and during both, I felt the urge to push the success result into the "good things happen" realm of outcomes or the failed result into the "bad shit has got to happen now, show them what you've fucking got" realm of outcomes. I can expand on this more if it is vague, which I think it is.

To the other players in our group, please tell me what you think. 

noah's picture

Sam, I am nodding along with almost everything you say. Over the past year, learning "to honor failure and success extremely precisely" (which is intimately connected with "sticking to what is happening") has transformed the way I play. It's made play so much more enjoyable, so much less demanding, to the point that being a player in a PC role feels scarier to me than being a player in a GM role. It's learning to see what is obviously in front of me in any given fiction (the Now) and to just let it go (What's next?).

Seeing you put these principles into practice in the last session of Trollbabe was inspiring. Your excitement was palpable, and it made for amazing results.

In both games, I've found it instructive how the clarity of both the rules and how authorities are apportioned prevented murk and its associated dissatisfactions and resentments.

In CN, Seth cutting off my description of Cochise getting hit with 3d6 of Flash by the blaze wasn't a disagreement...it was a spirited reminder of how his character worked. In TB last week, you telling me my Trollbabe couldn't take a romantic interest as a relationship because she would die before our next adventure wasn't a creative dispute...it was a valid use of your authority to honor something that was obvious to you in the fiction. Was it sad? Only in the way a good story is.

I think the one difference I'd note between our experiences is the why of play for me. I've spent a lot of my life putting extremely high aesthetic demands on my creative activities. And (again only for me, your comment was helpful in articulating this to myself), it's resulted in emotional exhaustion with a medium and burnout in my creative practice. In this activity, I'm trying to stay close to the simple-stupid reasons I participate, and usually they're as straightforward as "It's fun," "I like watching other people's imaginations in action," and "I want to see what happens next!" Not to say I don't want to get there. Fuck yes I want to get there. But if we had had to stop playing CN at issue #5, I would still have been plenty satisfied.

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