Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Retrospective: Champions

Looking at its two-volume, nearly 800-page descendant, it's hard to believe that Champions could ever have been encompassed in a single, 64-page book. Released in 1981, Champions was not the first superhero RPG -- that honor goes to Superhero 2044, which debuted in 1977 -- but it was, for many years (and still is, according to some), the gold standard for the genre. The reason for that is simple: the underlying power rules for Champions, eventually known as the "HERO System," were "effects-based," which is to say, they provided mechanics for super powers on the basis of what they did rather than how they did them. This eliminated the need for multiple individual power descriptions for, say, throwing fireballs and projecting cold, as both were simply types of "energy blast," differentiated only by their in-game appearance and origin.

Well-written effects-based rules are very flexible and enable players and referees alike to create a near-infinite variety of powers. When I first encountered the game in 1982, when it was released in a boxed set, I definitely considered the rules of Champions to be well-written, covering pretty much every possible power I could think of. My friends and I enjoyed creating reams of superheroes and villains, doing our best to see if we could come up with a concept the rules didn't easily cover. We found a few, of course, but we also came up with ways to make the existing rules cover those marginal cases. It wasn't until we acquired supplements, such as Champions II (released the same year as the boxed set) and Champions III (in 1984), that we realized we were "doing it wrong" and had to change the way we handled certain powers and abilities.

I'm pretty math-impaired, so Champions was never a good fit for me, gaming-wise. Its points-based system always made me mildly uncomfortable, but its flexibility was attractive enough to me that I muddled through and enjoyed the game greatly anyway. Coming primarily from a background of D&D and D&D-inspired games, Champions really was a revelation to me. I admired how it compactly provided rules for almost anything you could imagine from a superhero comic book. I also thought its segment-based combat system, while a bit clunky, was nevertheless a very good emulation of the slugfests you see in those comic books. In short, Champions seemed to be, despite my misgivings, a near-perfect game, one whose rules had managed to capture exactly what I wanted out of a superhero RPG. My friends and I played the heck out of it for several years as a result.

Over time, as I mentioned, more and more supplements were released for the game and each one added to both to the game's depth and its complexity. After a certain point, I found complexity won out and I simply would have nothing more to do with Champions. My friends and I could have just ignored the supplements and perhaps we should have, but we were young and foolish and had a thing about keeping up with the latest releases -- too many years of D&D will do that to a person -- so we simply abandoned the game and moved on. Looking back on it, I think that was a pity, because we'd had a lot of fun with Champions.

I can't say I've kept up with all the ins and outs of Champions and the HERO System since the late 80s. Every now and again, my interest is revived and I take a peek at the Hero Games website. That rather quickly cures me of any residual interest I have in the game. It appears as if the game has gone down the road of becoming ever more exhaustive and "complete," providing rules for all those marginal cases my friends and I discovered years ago -- and many more we didn't even consider. There's nothing wrong with such an approach, I suppose, but it doesn't appeal to me, particularly nowadays. I like my games short and sweet, even if that sometimes means I have make things up myself, because I consider that part of the fun, just as I did back in 1982 when I first opened that 64-page superhero RPG.


  1. I think less is more when it comes to RPGs. I'm willing to bet that a beginner would have far more luck with Champions 2e than the current version. I had a similar experience with GURPS. The current edition is just too much, and I'm not sure what it does that my boxed 2nd edition can't do.

    D&D has obviously grown a ton over the years, but I'm willing to bet that the growth from AD&D 1e through 4e is less severe compared to other games.

    You could also argue that the rules for games like Warhammer, Magic, and the typical boardgame have become simpler over the years.

    1. Warhammer has simplified (except for The Old World) but Magic tried to simplify and it backfired so there was a decision to increase complexity from where it was previously. Boardgames I think come and go, I do think designs are getting more elegant as time goes on but the heaviest games arent necessarily the oldest.

  2. "The Gold Standard" indeed. I played this game pretty consistently for years and years. The rules haven't changed that substantially between editions, except that some broken aspects were cleaned up in later versions. Most of additional pages came from "Champions" moving to "HERO" and having to incorporate elements from their pulp, sci-fi, and fantasy ranges.

  3. I've never been a big fan of superhero games, but I've always admired Hero System ... but I doubt I'll ever get around to running a group of, say Fantasy Hero. The work I'd need to do to customize it for whatever world I'd create is just too daunting.

    On a sidenote, I've often thought character creation in Hero was a sub-hobby in and of itself, regardless of whether the character was actually played.

  4. In my "Age of Hero" installment of the "Days of High Adventure" column for The Escapist (to which James is also a contributor), I made the case that Champions/the Hero System represents the Old School Revival's best case, in the sense that players today are playing exactly the same way they did in 1981, and a player from that time could fit easily into a campaign today.

  5. After D&D this was our most played and favorite RPG (Top Secret being a close 3rd). Our pre-D&D love was comics so I picked these rules up as soon as they came out. Again one booklet (like Holmes basic) covered everything. I found the rules easy to understand and we all had a blast making heroes and villains. This was probably the last RPG we all played as kids before we splintered into wargames and other things.

    Someday I'll play these rules again!

  6. I had the same set, and followed it through 5th, although I rarely play it now that the math-wiz GM and I stopped gaming together.

    Fun memories.

  7. I started playing Champions in the mid-to-late 80's, running a character I created but which was 'built' by my GM. For nearly a year of play I had no idea what the rules of the game were.

    The first edition I purchased was third I believe (the hardback with the George Perez cover illustration). While I followed the game through to 5th, the first one I bought remains the book I use whenever I play it.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Mearls, less is more. While it may remain the 'Gold Standard', it seems to have gone the way of becoming more and more complex as I've moved toward simpler and simpler. These days I would rather run Mutants & Masterminds, if only because its easier to do so.

    Still, as a huge fan of Superhero gaming, Champions will always have a special place in my heart and at my table.

  8. Champions has more crunch than my taste, but I need to give props where their called for. The various "complete" books actually tend to be fairly light on the rules and focus much more on being comprehensive write-ups on their topic. It used to be that I'd buy GURPS books (despite not playing GURPS) because they were such a fantastic resource on whatever they were about. These days, HERO fills that niche pretty well.

    I was, to say the least, shocked when I discovered this. When I first saw the complete books, I imagined them to be be vast tracts of math, best avoided by my poor brain. I picked up their Pulp book as research material and was blow away by the depth of it. They've pretty well sucked me in from there, despite my continued disinterest in actually using the system.

  9. I'm not familiar with the Hero or Champions rules (though I've often heard great things about the Champions game). How might it compare to the Marvel RPG that TSR released in the 80s?

  10. I loved the Hero system when I finally figured out how to play it around 4th ed. For some reason, 2nd ed never clicked with me and I was 'stuck' with Marvel Super Heroes, where even the Advanced version of the game was dead simple. Hell, I still remember FASERIP for god's sake. The new edition of Champions... well, it scares me. When they start breaking Hero up into multiple books, might be a fridge too far for me.

  11. Champions was the second rpg I had ever played, and I was hooked immediately. In Highschool we had a decent campaign going, I think we were using the second edition rules, which were awesome!

    The current system is like any new rpg, way too much content to read through so it's not as friendly to newcomers. I don't like that you have to pick up the main 600 page book plus the Champions book to play it.

    Jay, the Marvel RPG is great! I still have my copy. My gaming group in Highschool actually dropped Champions for a while and we used the Marvel rules. It was a great system!

  12. Definitely my top RPG in terms of play time. The earliest books were resolutely Old School in their encouragement to make it up yourself -- the "special effects" rule could be used to cover almost any special case you wanted. As James says, later supplements went back on that somewhat and encouraged powergaming (the Vehicle rules in particular encouraged abuse.)

  13. but we were young and foolish and had a thing about keeping up with the latest releases -- too many years of D&D will do that to a person --

    This is something I find interesting. Why is it that many years of D&D does that? 3rd ed was notorious for its flood of supplements, and 2nd ed was bad. But, was that which caused it? I kind of think you mean this is something you picked up earlier than 3rd ed, James. Care to elucidate a bit on that?

  14. Does it date me if I remember cruising the skies of Inguria with agents of the Science Police hunting down rumours of the infamous Dr Ruby?

    After Superhero 2044 we shifted to the original edition of Villians & Vigilantes, then onto Champions when it first came out. The nice thing is that over a quarter of a century later the rules really haven't changed, despite six separate editions. A Champions character of today is as familiar as those characters from the first edition.

    And whilst I believe I've tried every commercially published superhero game that has been produced since then, we keep going back to Champions. It definitely hits the sweet spot for superhero gaming (although DC Heroes did come close).

  15. @Atom Kid, thanks for the reply! On re-reading my original comment I should have clarified that I've played the Marvel one, but not Champions. I don't want to derail James post--but is there a significant mechanic or thematic difference (other than the Marvel license) between the two?

  16. This one never really clicked for us. I think the third time the GM redid the math on my character sheet I was full up on it. We got a lot of use out of V&V (which I still thin has the best shrpg art of all time )though.
    These days I use a lesser known system called BASH. It combines a lot of the flexibility of Champions, but is really, really stripped down.

  17. When it comes to "point-based" and "effect-based" systems, my guilty pleasure is the Silhouette system by Dream Pod 9.

    When I played Battletech, I so enjoyed making 'mechs and vehicles, I push the limits of that the system could handle! I was also unsatisfied with many of the limitations and conversions within the different BT systems.

    The reason why I call Silhouette my "guilty pleasure" is because I find the paperwork slow and really tedious, but I somehow enjoy it! Even with it's vehicle design system (the reason I got into the system), I could save myself a lot of time and effort by not calculating the Treat Values (default RPG method), but I still like to make them wargaming compatible - that, and I'm a huge technical geek! @..@

  18. think less is more when it comes to RPGs. I'm willing to bet that a beginner would have far more luck with Champions 2e than the current version. I had a similar experience with GURPS. The current edition is just too much, and I'm not sure what it does that my boxed 2nd edition can't do.

    This is a point I debated on the SJ Games forums to no avail. Not only the staff is indifferent to the problem but much of the fanbase is actively hostile to any idea that a ready to run version be done for any of the major genres (fantasy, space, or horror)

    The staff says that none of their freelancers as an interest to write it and sales of GURPS don't warrant a major staff effort. Munchkin sales dwarfs GURPS sales.

    This is a problem with many point based games. The problem is of presentation not design. It is ok in my book to have HERO 5th edition or GURPS 4th core books. But my god man have a 64 to 128 page ready to run rulebooks that allow folks to use your system to run one of the major genres.

    Otherwise your fanbase will steadily become a group of hardcore grognards.

    Now GURPS has done Dungeon Fantasy which is successful. But it still doesn't have all the esstential elements and also you can't just pick up DF 1 and play GURPS.

  19. Does anyone remember when 64 pages was a respectable rule book size?

    Gamma World 1e and 2e were way better games, despite being positively tiny by today's standards.

    Marvel FASERIP is also little.

    Yet somehow, these books got the job done.

  20. I've probably played more sessions of Champions than every other RPG system combined, but there's no way I'd touch the game in its current incarnation. The publisher and main designer loves high word counts to an almost fetishistic extent. (For at least a couple of years, his year-end "state of HERO" type essays would dwell on how many words the company printed that year.) Probably his years in law school are the cause, but for crying out loud, who the heck wants to buy and read a very thick college textbook for an RPG?

  21. Next to AD&D, Champions was by far my favorite RPG. We played the hell out of it and created countless characters...far more than we ever actually used.

    My one gripe was the d6 based system. Having to roll 18d6 for damage, for example, was a bit unwieldy.

  22. @Rob Conley: I think you're probably right on all counts there. Easily the most "successful" thing I've done (in terms of positive reader feedback) is my "Final Frontier" package for GURPS Lite, 3d edition. 32 pages of GURPS Lite, plus another 14 for Trek-specific foundation. It's a little sad for me, long-time GURPS fiend, to feel the best thing to happen to the line in recent years was GURPS Lite.

    To meander back towards the post, I came to Champions about the same time James did (just before 3e box), but left apparently much earlier. I ended up bouncing back to it several times (4e, the Big Blue Book, as a fanpub writer; then 5e, the Big Black Brick, as a reviewer/semi-historian) but not to play, just to read.

    Um, what? Coherent? Oh. No, sorry, none of that here.

  23. First edition Champions, with the wrap-around cover and the "Making Of" blurb in the back admitting that it started as margin notes during a boring lecture. ;)

    Stronghold! Dr. Destroyer! Foxbat! Mechanon! VIPER! Turtle armor! Gargoyle eating microphones!

    and I still can't help but read comics and try to stat out powers in Champions terms.

    I'm not as enthusiastic about point-based system as I used to be. But original Champions is still one of my favorites.

  24. I am also of the less is more school of role playing and every time I attempted to learn the HERO system in its fifth incarnation my eyes would glaze over and I'd be left scratching my head, finding it somewhat incomprehensible. Despite all that, I did give the new 6th edition a look and I have to say that even though it is a 780 page beast of a game, it is a beautiful and elegant beast, much better laid out, written, and easier to understand than its previous edition. Of course, one still has to devote the time to read all those pages much less remember all of the nuances and I expect that most readers of this blog would rather get down to the business of playing rather than spend so much time just learning the system.

  25. So is the edition pictured in James' original posting the 2nd? That's the one I played way back in the day, and I never knew for sure which edition it is.

    Actually, I should say that I sort-of played Champions back in the day. Mostly, we just made characters 'cause it was so fun. We ran the game a lot less of the time. But I have some very fond memories of Champions. I too sometimes think about checking out newer versions of the Hero System, but it's just too much for my taste.

  26. @Akiva: The picture in James' post is the first edition. I know, because I have a copy sitting on my shelf. :)

    Mr. Varney is right, though, that, despite the bloat, the system is virtually unchanged from what it was at the beginning (as are many of the players). The bloat is primarily from lots of extended rules commentary and patching covering a myriad of corner-cases that have caused the game text to snowball over the years. That, and to a lesser extent, the multi-genre goals of HERO.

    The real bloat that's affected the game is point bloat. In 6th ed., a standard superhero is build on 400 points. In the original Champions, it was 200. Detail has predominated over the effects-focus, so there's simply way more stuff upon which players need to spend points.

    Anyway, when I encountered 1st ed. Champions in junior high, it was definitely a game-changer (no pun intended). It was like nothing we'd seen, and it was my Gold Standard RPG for quite some time. Granted, back then V&V was easier for our 11-year-old brains to tackle, so technically we played more of that. :)

    I will always have a soft spot for HERO, but many, many years of playing 5th ed. has just burned me out. Much like 3.5 (which I did love), there's just too much handling time and man-hours needed to run HERO.

  27. I loved "Champions," too. I have the edition pictured above as well. That's actually the 2nd edition. (The first looked very similar, but was printed in black and white I understand. I've seen it for sale on eBay from time-to-time, but don't own it myself.)

    I first bought the 2nd edition boxed set in 1984, if I remember correctly. At the time, I remember the big selling point of the game was being able to create characters by allocating points (enabling players to create exactly the characters they wanted), rather than rolling dice to generate random numbers (or, in the case of its contemporary competitor "Villains & Vigilantes," randomly generating the heroes' super powers as well).

    The main problem with 2e in my mind was that character creation was so time consuming (as other posts above already mentioned). And then there was all the math, which put off my friends. Also, the layout, typesetting and artwork in that 2nd edition was quite poor, even by the standards of the day. On top of that the publisher, Hero Games, released only a few supplements, most of which were very thin (a couple were only 16 pages long). "Stronghold" was my favorite, closely followed by "Champions II."

    That all changed when Hero Games partnered with Iron Crown Enterprises around 1985. That saw the release of a 3rd edition rules (a trade paperback with no box, the cover of which featured super heroes swinging across a pier in San Francisco). A few more supplements trickled out for that, too, though they were mostly forgettable. Like "The Circle and M.E.T.E" organizations book.

    The 4th edition was initially released in 1989. That's the one with the George Perez cover art. That's probably my favorite. A flood of supplements poured out for that version over the next 5 years or so.

    The 5th edition was released in 2002, by Steve Long's own company after he and a partner bought the rights to the game outright. I thought that the "Champions" sourcebook by Aaron Allston for 5e was excellent. But I have been disappointed by some (but not all) of the other supplements I have purchased for 5e, including "Teen Champions" and "Dark Champions: The Animated Series," both of which seemed more like long strings of potential villains stat'ed out than the genre surveys they purported to be.

  28. Not to be a pedant, but the image above is the first edition from '81 (I just checked my copy downstairs). The revised edition (they hadn't started numbering yet) came out in '82 as a boxed set. It was the same cover but, iirc, colored a bit differently and with a newer Hero Games logo (depending on printings). The included rulebook was B&W inside and out.

    Third edition is the one edition of Champs I don't own. I need to rectify that.

  29. Started with Superhero 2044, moved onto Villains and Vigilantes, then the Marvel (original and advanced) games before I finally gave in and tried Hero. Haven't used any of the others since then.

    First edition was the best, and I actually preferred their old method of putting out expansions to the rules rather than complete new editions. I stuck with fourth until about a year ago when I finally made the plunge. Found it a bit overwhelming, and to be honest, from what I've read of the 6th, I doubt I'll bother with it. I'm happy with the 5th edition, even though I actually think 4th was more than satisfactory.

  30. Champions saved me from dropping out of gaming. I had just got into it about a year previous with 1E AD&D and Gamma World. I got really bored with it then a friend of mine got the 1st Edition of Champions. I borrowed it and it fascinated me with the point-allocation system. When 2E came out I got it, then 3E and finally I hit my stride with 4th Edtion. I spent a good 8-10 years playing Champions and that BBB got a LOT of use (it's the only game book I completely wore out - Half-Price Books wouldn't even take it off my hands). I bought 5th Edition but never got to play it due to my moving to OKC.

    Now I look at 6th Edition and I'd like to take the plunge but 1) the pricetage is a bit steep and 2) I'm not sure I like the way they changed the basic system.

    I also know about the perceived "complexity" of the system but it's always been easy for me (and if a math bonehead like me can get it, anybody can). However, I'll be using Marvel Advenced with my grandsons, as HERO is kinda daunting to a 5 and 7 year-old.

    Still, maybe down the road they'd be interested in HERO if I can find a used 4th or 5th Edition copy on eBay or somewhere. I want them to experience the fun I had way back when (and who knows - it might even help their math skills).