On Monday, my partner and I played our fourth session of Champions Now. This is our fourth or fifth series of twosies together, games that have included PBTA (not my favorite for one-on-one), narrative OSR Trophy Gold, and (our favorite) Spire: The City Must Fall.
This time around, I am GMing and my partner is playing. Champions Now is incredible in this format. Reading Ron Edwards's 2011 essay "Setting and Emergent Stories" helped me see how Champions Now is the culmination of years of thought, and also gave me a toolkit for building narrativist play in setting-heavy games that I'm excited to use when playing Spire and others.
I'll say up front that we broke the rules around setting and situated our hero in the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender, rather than the real world.
The framing statements procedure worked beautifully to isolate the themes and dramatic situations that draw me to the show. After a few iterations, I settled on these:
- Bending—whether it is silly, terrifying, or wondrous, is an expression of your inner self.
- Seeking balance while roaming a wondrous, mysterious world wracked by war.
We paid the cost of breaking the setting rules in our first couple of sessions. My partner's hero, Tapeesa, a vinebender of the Foggy Swamp Tribe, did not come pre-loaded with an "ethnic, national, and economic background, age, gender, somewhere to live, and some current or working identity" that we could immediately act on.
However, we've discovered her in play, mainly through her Psychological Situation "Afraid of open spaces (Frequent, Irrational)" and her "Enrage: Witnessing ecological destruction (Frequent, 8-)." Tapeesa is a brave, principled character, willing to follow her righteous anger through to irrevocable action against ecological injustice and industrial colonization. But she is also in over her head, as likely to be thrown off balance by the situations she finds herself in as to bring them closer to equilibrium. An "Unusual Looks" Situation has also hammered home how her tribal background influences others' perceptions of her.
If the Now is an advancing wave-front, we've finally got our surf-boards under us and started riding the surge.
This latest session, I began to feel the various systems of Champions Now snapping into motion as I played Yutaka, a Fire Nation warrior-scientist with serious anger management issues. The question I posed while building him was: What if a character's 'balance' was an ever-escalating spiral of anger? Here he is:
- Public Identity: Director of Fire Nation's extraction program
- Unluck: 1d6
- Hunted: Fire Lord Ozai's minister to the Earth Kingdom (large org, includes benders, manipulative)
- Psych: The larger program outweighs small human costs (Frequent, irrational)
- Psych: Unable to abandon an objective, once committed (Frequent, irrational)
- Psych: Commander Kaori reminds me of the daughter I don't speak to anymore (Sometimes, irrational)
- DNPC: Myuki, the daughter I don't speak to anymore (Secret Identity as my relation)
- Enrage: Complications in Program (Common, 11-)
- Side effects: Destruction of one of his machines (Drain 2d6, Ego-based)
- Strength 2d6
- Presence 2d6
- Defense 10
- Body 11
- Speed 2
- Dexterity 11
- Intelligence 13
- Ego 13
- Security systems
- Wild blue firebending (Blast 5d6, explosion)
- Constrained to high effect: 3d6 or higher
- Stride through the inferno: Life Support (Hot environment, gas, radiation)
- Blasting obstacles aside: Tunnel (3 hexes, vs Defense 3)
We've noted that the game seems to work well in an operatic style, with characters loudly soliloquizing about their Psychological Situations, vulnerabilities to subsequent Presence Attacks be damned. Yutaka is particularly appropriate at this volume. He's a ticking time bomb, the embodied antithesis of sustainability: Obsessed with meticulously laying out a plan, prone to explosive and (because of his Tunneling ability) uncontainable rage when that plan goes sideways.
Our confrontation between Tapeesa and Yutaka occurred at the worst possible time and place: In the dead of night, in the narrow hallway of a cliffside Fire Nation jail crowded with pressganged prisoners who Tapeesa was trying to lead to freedom.
The physicality of the powers' impact on the environment was clear from the get-go. Tapeesa tried (unsuccessfully) to slam Yutaka back into the warden's office with her waterbender octopus arm so she could use a Pushed Entangle to freeze him inside.
Yutaka managed to keep his rage under control for the first half of the fight, slamming Tapeesa backwards into the wall with a reined-in Blast of blue fire. When I first reached for the Blast dice on my successful hit I intended to use 2d6, but a glance reminded me that even under control, Yutaka was constrained to 3d6 of exploding Blast. This meant his most conscientious attack still put vulnerable prisoners at risk and lit the hallway up.
After Tapeesa and the other prisoners flatly refused to follow his orders, Yutaka's Enrage was triggered and he became a comet of wrathful violence, Pushing for Piercing damage on every attack and (as Tapeesa nimbly sidestepped with well-timed Dodges boosted by Acrobatics) blasting charred craters into the walls of the prison with his Tunnel ability.
In the tense conclusion of the fight, Yutaka burned through the last of his Endurance and Knockout to unleash a gout of Pushed blue flame, while Tapeesa made the wise decision to show restraint and sacrifice an opportunity for a counter-attack to Dodge. With Tapeesa's Acrobatics, Yutaka's OCV was 4 and I rolled...a 5!
Tapeesa managed to avoid his Blast, but only just, and a burned-out, smoking Yutaka toppled to the ground.
Much as I enjoyed the tense tactical decisions of this conflict, what has stuck with me is how Endurance, Situations, Powers, and the combat system come together to create a martial choreography that is fundamentally revelatory of character: Yutaka's Situations (and his Life Support power) prevented him from seeing the ruinous side effects of his actions. Once his Enrage was triggered, he didn't even have the option of balancing the safety of innocents with his combat goals.
Yutaka's every move forced the question of protection vs victory to the center of Tapeesa's Phases. And offloading difficult, morally ambiguous decisions onto others through forceful action is a signature function of antagonists in comics. In the aftermath of this fight, Tapeesa's fellow escapees looked to her for guidance and safety, and she accepted the role of protector, leading the battered, ragtag band toward the heart of the Swamp. This character development would not have occurred had she faced an opponent with different Situations and Powers that pushed different questions.
Now that we have most of Champions Now's engines firing, it felt like every choice we made during this session added more propulsive power to the wave.