GURPS and the HERO System have a slate of similarities. Both arose out of earlier games; GURPS is at its core an extensively revised and genericised take on The Fantasy Trip, whilst HERO came out of Champions. Each system has influenced the other – Champions drew inspiration for its point-buy character generation and its 3D6 resolution mechanic from The Fantasy Trip, and GURPS took the idea of character Disadvantages that get you points back and numerically rated Skills whose base value is tied to your attributes from Champions. Both games went through a process of rapid early evolution before attaining a stable state in the late 1980s, with the GURPS 3rd Edition of 1988 and the 1989 4th Edition of Champions/HERO remaining the standard versions of those respective games for the whole of the 1990s. And both games have gained reputations for being highly crunchy, especially in the wake of thick hardback new editions of the respective lines in the mid-2000s – since when, both games seem to have suffered a waning of their fortunes.
For this article, I am going to review 3rd edition GURPS and 4th edition Champions – both well-regarded versions of those respective game lines which are generally held to have marked the point before bloat took hold of both systems – and also take a look at how the future development of each game took them down what, in my view, are evolutionary cul-de-sacs, and what their current publishers are doing to try and correct for that now. I’m also going to look at a supplement for each system which I think exemplifies the strengths of the respective support lines.
GURPS Basic Set, 3rd Edition Revised
GURPS stands for Generic Universal RolePlaying System, but it may as well stand for Gfantasy Utrip Rintellectual Property Sworkaround. Once upon a time, Steve Jackson – the US one from Steve Jackson Games, not the UK one of Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy fame – was plying his trade for Metagaming, a small publisher. Along with charming pocket wargames like the original Ogre, Jackson crafted for them a new fantasy RPG system called The Fantasy Trip, which had an interesting publication history in that the game only became a full-fledged RPG with the release of its third product, In the Labyrinth.
The combat and magic systems, as well as truncated rules for character design, had slipped out from 1977 onwards in the form of Melee and Wizard, which could be played in isolation as arena combat games that could be played solo or against a friend; it was only when In the Labyrinth came out that support for a GM and non-combat activities and abilities were added. The system was rounded out by Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard adding further depth, and was supported by a range of both GMed and solo adventures.
The use of solo adventures reveals part of Steve Jackson’s game design philosophy – having enjoyed the various Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures, he had come to the view that the hallmark of a robustly-designed RPG system is that it should be possible to design, run, and play a quality solo adventure with it, rather than outright breaking as soon as you take the GM away. The combat system that debuted in Melee and was further developed in Wizard was designed to be playable with counters on hex paper, without a neutral player acting as referee, and therefore fit that bill nicely.
The Fantasy Trip had a brief commercial lifespan, but was very influential in its time; the fact that it was an RPG whose basic combat system could be conveyed in the space of one of Metagaming’s famously compact “microgame” presentations certainly made it stand out at the time. However, all was not well at Metagaming; relations between Jackson and Howard Thompson, Metagaming’s founder and owner, had deteriorated, largely over a clash of vision over The Fantasy Trip. Specifically, Jackson had dreamed of putting it out as a single boxed game, whilst Thompson wanted to keep it to a more modest format and thought that the product as finally delivered by Jackson was way too complex and went beyond the brief he’d given Jackson. Jackson quit to set up Steve Jackson Games, obtaining as he left the rights to Ogre, its sequel GEV, and the magazine The Space Gamer, which whilst highly regarded had become burdensome for Metagaming to produce.
Metagaming didn’t exactly cover itself with glory after Jackson left. Though continuing to focus on their microgame-sized wargames, they made the occasional effort to try and push The Fantasy Trip again, with one late product – Dragons of Underearth – being an attempt to design a sort of “basic” version of The Fantasy Trip which stripped it back to its simplest possible expression; C.R. Brandon at Sword & Shield has offered a pretty good overview of what that project was, and how it seemed to be awkwardly tied into an attempt to take the line into a much more wargamey direction.
Though it might have been a misstep, Dragons of Underearth at least had more dignity than A Fistful of Turkeys, a spiteful little parody product designed more or less entirely to mock the early trade dress and style of Steve Jackson Games’ first products. A game built mostly around the derisive naming of Steve Jackson as “Some Turkey”, it seems to been motivated by annoyance at Jackson horning in on the microgame market, and was presented as being from “Some Turkey Games” in a mockery of Jackson’s trade dress. This wasn’t friendly, good-natured ribbing either: it came about in the context of Metagaming attempting to file frivolous lawsuits to stop Steve Jackson Games reprinting One-Page Bulge, Ogre and GEV despite Thompson having signed over the rights to Jackson, as well as removing Jackson’s name from all their Fantasy Trip products and loudly attacking Jackson in the pages of Interplay, a new magazine set up immediately after the sale of The Space Gamer to Jackson in order to try and compete directly with The Space Gamer.
Jackson was not alone in facing Thompson’s wrath – Fistful of Turkeys also includes slams on other companies who’d produced microgames in the wake of Metagaming’s successes with the format. You had Game Demeaner’s Workshop, Dying Buffalo, Avalon Swill, “Crazy Lou” Turcchi, Task Farce Games, The Crassium, BSR, and Muggers’ Guild all mocked in its pages. Notably, whilst Turkeys was produced anonymously, you could have probably guessed that Metagaming were behind it because the nastiest slam they could think of for themselves was “Moneygaming”, which is the sort of insult that isn’t really an insult worthy of a fragile-egoed troll posting under a pseudonym. (“Huh huh, those dorks at Metagaming have earned so much money from their microgames, they must think they’re so high and mighty!”)
The “Moneygaming” joke would become funnier in retrospect by 1983 – but it would be Thompson himself who was the punchline. Even as Thompson had been alternating between serious attempts to destroy Steve Jackson Games before it could even grow on the one hand and petty razzing and insults on the other, Metagaming’s finances had been on the skids, and eventually the company collapsed. Whilst people have fond things to say about more or less all the companies spoofed in Fistful of Turkeys, it seems to me that Metagaming is remembered primarily for the Steve Jackson-designed material they put out, which I am sure must chafe Thompson no end.
Here’s where the genesis of GURPS lies; with Metagaming in smoking ruins, Steve Jackson approached Thompson to ask about buying the rights to The Fantasy Trip. Thompson demanded a quarter of a million dollars for it, and wouldn’t budge – despite this being both vastly in excess of the value of the property at the time and way more than anyone in the industry could reasonably be expected to bid for it. It’s an open question as to whether this price tag was motivated by spite towards Jackson or a wild overestimation of what The Fantasy Trip rights were worth, though given Thompson’s various unforced business errors, blatant grudge-holding against Jackson, and lapses into utter unprofessionalism, there’s nothing stopping both animosity and self-delusion being involved at the same time. Either way, Jackson passed on the price tag, nobody else seems to have bitten, and The Fantasy Trip as a commercial product was dead.
This didn’t slow down Jackson as much as you might think; whilst he could not use the name or existing text of The Fantasy Trip, there was nothing stopping him from simply writing a new RPG built on and revising the same principles as The Fantasy Trip and putting it out under a new name. In fact, both a name change and an extensive rules revision would have probably been in order anyway, because as well as having ideas for improving The Fantasy Trip Jackson had become interested in the idea of producing a system that could tackle any RPG genre or setting you could think of. That’s where you get the Generic and Universal bits in GURPS from.
GURPS follows the lead of The Fantasy Trip in terms of using a 3D6 “roll equal to or under your skill” resolution mechanic, having a limited set of core attributes, and having a point-buy character generation process. Its most obvious and up-front break from The Fantasy Trip is its abandonment of character classes; whilst The Fantasy Trip had characters be classed as either warriors or wizards, and changed the character point costs of different purchases accordingly, GURPS simply avoids classes altogether. If you want to play a fighter-type, you just buy the appropriate stats and features, if you want to play a wizardy-type (assuming that’s even an option for the campaign in question) you spend your points on that, if you want to plays someone who can fight a bit and do a little magic or some other bespoke concept you can do that.
The central character attributes in GURPS are Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Health – all of which except Health are the attributes in The Fantasy Trip – and as in The Fantasy Trip these start at a baseline average of 10. You can spend character points on boosting these, or get additional points by dropping them below the average, and they tend to be the most expensive spends in character creation simply because they have such extensive applications. For instance, your skill levels are calibrated against whichever attribute the skill is associated with, so boosting that attribute makes you better at all the associated skills – and since it’s a 3D6 system any increase in the attribute could have a major effect.
The Fantasy Trip mashed up character skills and advantages into “talents”, but GURPS separates them out into Advantages (factors and traits that give you an edge) and Skills (areas of competence you are trained in) and added in Disadvantages, as well as making Skills be based on a numerical total that can be raised with further spends rather than simply giving you a flat advantage. Advantages cost points, Disadvantages give you points back; to preserve game balance, a cap on the number of points you can get back from taking Disadvantages is usually applied. (The baseline assumption is that you are building your character on 100 points and can get at most 40 points back from Disadvantages).
Advantages tend to be reasonably expensive in terms of points, and likewise Disadvantages tend to give you back a reasonable number, because they all represent fairly major situational edges or liabilities. For the most part, they work on a simple package deal basis – you pick the item off the menu provided, and you pay/receive the listed number of points – but some are a little more bespoke. (For instance, having a Reputation – good or bad – costs a highly variable number of points depending on what group you have that reputation amomg, how often you’ll be recognised by them, and how intense it is.)
Up to five extra points can also be clawed back by giving your character Quirks – little personality tics that don’t have a game mechanical effect but provide an excuse for colourful roleplaying. That’s enough points to be worth putting thought into your character’s personality, but not so much that characters become obnoxiously quirky by default just for the sake of min-maxing.
Skills round off the character, and as mentioned when you purchase a skill it starts out at a value relative to the appropriate ability – usually Intelligence or Dexterity. Exactly where the skill starts out depends on how difficult it is – so an easy IQ-based skill starts out at your IQ score, whilst a very hard one would start out at IQ-3. That first purchase costs 1 point; boosting the skill by a level costs 1 more point, then the next 3 advances each cost 2 points, and further boosts cost 4 points each. (You can also just spend a half-point to start out the skill at a level below the starting cost if you really want to.)
That first point or half-point spent on a skill is usually decent value – all the skills have defaults which you roll on if you lack training in the skill, and they are substantially worse than the roll you would make if you have even baseline training. Beyond that, the thinking behind how high to buy attributes versus skills becomes complicated. Buying up attributes is expensive because boosting them affects all the related skills, including defaults, whilst buying up skills is comparatively cheap, which would suggest that best practice is to get your attributes at (or close to) the level you want them to be at when you create your character and use XP to fill in gaps in your skills later on.
It’s also worth noting that as GURPS is a 3D6 system, not all skill boosts are born equal. You get an awful lot of bang for your buck on XP spends at the hump of the bell curve – when your skill total goes between, say, 8 to 13 – but past the peak at 10/11 you start getting into diminishing returns. At 10 you’re succeeding 50% of the time, at 11 62.5%, at 12 a nose under three quarters of the time, at 13 a touch over four-fifths: from there on the benefit of adding each additional point is quite small. On top of that, rolls of 17 and 18 auto-fail, regardless of skill level, with the result that there isn’t any point pushing a skill that high unless you’re desperate to get some insulation against situational modifiers.
The combat system is one of the more scaleable parts of the game – there’s a very simple basic combat system, and a set of advanced optional rules directed towards enabling a robust hex-and-counter combat system descended from The Fantasy Trip. (In fact, as with The Fantasy Trip the combat system preceded the full RPG in the form of GURPS Man to Man.) The rules are rounded off with basic details of equipment and vehicles, and simple systems for magic and psychic powers riffimg on The Fantasy Trip model of spells being bought like skills. The influence of Tunnels & Trolls creeps in when you note how wizards use Strength points to fuel spells, rather wrecking the classic concept of the wizard as being physically fragile but magically potent – indeed, many setting-specific magic systems for GURPS would abandon this system to use something else instead. That said, as a system offering a baseline model for how you could do magic in GURPS, it’s handy to have.
The 3rd Edition Basic Set gives you a chance to test drive the system with a solo adventure, and in early releases it also had a fantasy adventure intended to be run by a GM. However, the Revised set cut the adventure in favour of adding a rules update. Over time, the truly vast line of 3rd Edition GURPS supplements had hit the point where a wide swathe of them were adding in similar Advantages and Disadvantages and Skills in the name of emulating the particular genre or setting involved, and it became apparent that some of these could do with just being put in the Basic Set so that they didn’t have to keep reprinting the same stuff over and over in different supplements. By providing these as a little appendix, they could preserve the page numbering in the rest of the book, thus ensuring all the page references in older supplements stayed good.
For the most part, the additions in the appendix are good calls, but I find that it points to the future bloating and overloading of the game line. Later on in the lifetime of 3rd edition, Steve Jackson Games put out a two-volume Compendium, collecting together a dizzying mass of character generation features and additional rules that had previously been spread across the supplement line. As optional extras you could dig into and derive what you needed from but otherwise leave on the shelf, I didn’t mind the Compendiums. Where I parted ways from GURPS was when you started getting this creeping assumption that the Compendiums constituted core rules, a tendency which peaked with the release of 4th Edition GURPS as two fat hardbacks in the mid-2000s with the Compendium material folded into the core.
That, for me, tips the 4th Edition Basic Set into decidedly un-basic territory as far as I am concerned. The fact is that for any GURPS campaign you are going to need to make a call on what Advantages, Disadvantages and Skills are appropriate and what are unavailable or unnecessary. This is particularly true of skills, where having an unnecessarily huge number of them means that it becomes a huge chore to actually pick which ones you want, as well as making it correspondingly more difficult to be good at stuff unless you have the precise skill the GM thinks you need for the task at hand.
The 3rd edition Basic Set Revised boasts of having over 130 skills; that is too many to implement all at once, but a reasonable number to pick through and filter out those which you consider to be either inappropriate to the genre or otherwise not appropriate for the campaign. GURPS 4th edition has over 300 skills in the Basic Set, which makes that job massively longer. Bear in mind, too, that you will need to repeat the same exercise for Advantages and Disadvantages, as well as considering which genre or setting-specific stuff you want to add in from whichever supplements you are using!
By my reckoning, the 3rd Edition Basic Set was more or less the right size for the job – expansive enough to give you the options you’d want to handle a wide range of genres without overwhelming referee and player alike with choices. The appendix in the revised book is handy, but the stuff in there is already feeling a little niche; going further than that overwhelms with crunch what is, at its heart, a really nicely simple system.
Although Steve Jackson Games has produced GURPS Lite to offer a free rules-light taster of the system, it rather falls between two stools – it’s got 60 skills, for one thing, which means that it’s way overengineered for what is supposed to be a “light” system, whilst at the same time it’s so clearly pitched as a free sample rather than a complete game in its own right that it feels a little underwhelming. On top of that, there’s too much of a gap – the jump in complexity between GURPS Lite and GURPS 4th Edition is huge, and there isn’t enough to help people gear up from one to the other gradually.
Recent attempts to provide handy entry points have had mixed fortunes. GURPS Discworld had a new edition lately, with the GURPS Lite rules baked in, but seems to have suffered commercially due to distribution issues and a lack of public awareness. Steve Jackson Games also seemed to think it was a remotely commercially sensible decision to give the hardcover, triple-A, full colour treatment to another self-contained powered-by-GURPS game in the form of GURPS Mars Attacks! – an IP so absurdly niche that when I first heard the product mentioned I thought it was a joke. Predictably, it tanked, leaving behind the distinct impression that Steve Jackson Games have lost all sense of taste or perspective when it comes to assessing the zeitgeist.
Perhaps the most promising recent project was GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, a complete game in a box which, with its focus on classic dungeon exploration and combat, seems set to bring GURPS back to its Fantasy Trip roots. However, despite successfully funding on Kickstarter, the project has run into a bunch of snags and delays – way more than I’d have expected from a company whose core business is producing boxed games, truth be told – which means that when the game ships to backers Steve Jackson Games will have made an overall loss. It is far from certain that the game will sell well enough after that to non-backers to recoup the sunk costs – especially considering that the market isn’t exactly hurting for fantasy RPGs with a dungeon focus at the moment.
Now, this isn’t to say that the 3rd Edition Basic Set is perfect – just that the reforms it got weren’t the reforms it needed. For one thing, some of the attitudes expressed in the book are a bit dated; it fails the test the guys on the System Mastery podcast like setting, for instance, in that the rules for seduction overtly assume that people are only ever going to flirt with people of the opposite sex. In fact, it goes even further than that, by having the rules for attractiveness (treated as a weird quasi-Advantage discussed alongside ST, IQ, DX and HT, rather than just making it into an Advantage) specify that attractive people get boosts to their reaction scores from people of the opposite sex, because they want to bang the attractive character, whereas they get penalties to reactions from people of the same sex because they resent them as a competitor.
Now, firstly and primarily that’s an absolutely pathetic view of how people interact with each other in society – it’s real “speak for yourself, you insecure fucking jackass” stuff. On top of that, though, it’s also a significant breach of the “Generic” and “Universal” parts of the GURPS philosophy: it makes assumptions about sexuality and human interactions which are far from universal and surely don’t apply to all genres. What about settings where people aren’t filled with spiteful resentment at other people’s attractiveness? What about settings where heterosexuality isn’t the norm? The mechanic feels like a spot rule thrown in on a whim to handle a particular situation which was then made a core rule without thinking about whether it really needed to be one; a new edition which shaved off such weird little wrinkles and exceptions would be a significant improvement.
This isn’t the only instance where GURPS isn’t actually as Generic or Universal as it likes to think it is; whilst it can handle a dizzying number of settings, the underlying assumptions about How Stuff Works tends to be rather consistent from setting to setting. For instance, the science skills are very narrow and granular, which means it’s difficult-to-impossible to play a scientist character who is a whiz at all the hard sciences. That’s fine for the purposes of playing a realistic or gritty sort of game, where you wouldn’t expect people to be high-level experts in a whole bunch of different fields – however, it’s a big problem if you want to run a more pulpy or cartoonish game, in the sort of genre where the wild-haired professor who’s the go-to character for all sorts of science issues is a classic staple.
The fact is that GURPS is unabashedly biased towards a more realistic style of gaming (which it is quite good at delivering), which means that it will handle some genres – and some particular treatments of those genres – better than it does others. If you had to have a 4th Edition of GURPS whose core books extended to over 500 pages, I’d prefer it was because Steve Jackson Games had provided lots and lots of dials to tweak the baseline assumptions of the game, ranging from simple and pulpy to gritty and realistic – but you don’t really get that, and on balance I will take the slimmer Basic Set that does one particular style of game quite well over a bloated one that builds too much on the foundations of what had formerly been quite a tight little game.
Ultimately, with either the 3rd or 4th Editions of the Basic Set, the key to GURPS is as much about what you choose to ignore as what you choose to embrace, and you have to ignore far, far more in the 4th Edition Basic Set before you strip it down to the set of tools you’ll want to use for a particular campaign. And as far as supplementary support goes, 4th Edition has a long way to go before it hits the sort of extensive, high-quality coverage that the legendary 3rd Edition supplement line attained…
The 3rd Edition supplement line ranged from broad overviews of genres (like GURPS Horror) to in-depth looks at specific subjects (such as GURPS Vehicles) to treatments of specific fictional settings (like GURPS The Prisoner) and even conversions of other RPGs (like GURPS Traveller), but one thing they generally had in common was a really nice combination of passion and erudition on the part of the designers. Any game line as large as the GURPS one will have occasional duds, but the 3rd Edition softcover supplement line was very consistent, reasonably priced, and most importantly tended to be written by people who had great insights into the subject matter at hand, as well as an infectious enthusiasm for it.
GURPS Illuminati from 1992 is a great example of this; penned by Nigel Findley, it focuses much less on system-specific information in favour of giving what is still, 25 years later, the definitive discussion of conspiracy-themed gaming. Conspiracy theory has become weaponised lately, with Alex Jones and his Infowars crew having become major boosters of Donald Trump and Trump himself making passing references to hostile globalist forces reminiscent of conspiracist literature, but it’s also undeniably a great source for campaign ideas. It was also natural that Steve Jackson Games would tackle the subject in a GURPS context eventually, since the Illuminati card game had been an important product line since the company’s early years, and made it very evident that a lot of the SJG crew were in that segment of geek culture that really embraced the Illuminatus! trilogy.
The supplement also came along at just the right time to hit the zeitgeist. The X-Files hadn’t started yet, but the preceding year’s Vampire: the Masquerade was very much based on a paranoid vision of the modern world infiltrated and manipulated by vampires, and 1992 also saw the release of Over the Edge, a game of conspiracy and high weirdness. GURPS Illuminati‘s back cover blurb that presented the book as offering a world where everything in the Weekly World News– style supermarket tabloids was true was influential in and of itself – the exact same elevator pitch applies to subsequent games like Pandemonium: Adventures In Tabloid World or Tabloid!, one of the supplements to TSR’s Amazing Engine.
Rather than giving a canonical account of the world-controlling Conspiracy or competing Conspiracies, GURPS Illuminati instead offers suggestions and support for playing two different types of conspiratorially-themed campaigns. The first is what Findley refers to as an Illuminated campaign – one in which super-powerful conspiracies or one mega-conspiracy run the world from behind the scenes. When applied to modern-day Earth – which the supplement tends to assume as a baseline – the end result looks a lot like the sort of power structures you develop in the card game. The second type of campaign supported here is a more realistic take – conspiracies exist and play a significant role in the campaign, but they don’t have the delirious weirdness and vast power of their equivalents in the Illuminated campaign.
For both campaign types, additional pointers are offered both in terms of how such a campaign could progress, and in respect of how conspiratorial themes can be explored in other genres – whether you are talking Illuminated big-C Conspiracies or more modest plots. Naturally, genres like espionage or cyberpunk lend themselves especially well to this sort of premise, but Findley has a good go at coming up with ideas for as many genres as he can.
If the book has a weakness, it’s an over-reliance on the whole Discordian/SubGenius/Robert Anton Wilson complex of stale in-jokes, like the whole “Fnord” thing. The original joke in the Illuminatus! trilogy was that “Fnord” is nothing more than a nonsense word is that people were brainwashed into not seeing, so that if people started noticing it about the place that was a sign that their brainwashing was starting to breakdown. However, in the hands of people who think that the best way to perpetuate a Discordian of anarchy, creativity, originality and free thought is to parrot decades-old jokes thought up by other people over and over again, “Fnord” has become a catchphrase of obnoxiousness. Like people who shit up any discussion of Paranoia by parroting the in-jokes and Computer-speak of that setting, people who say “Fnord” and other Discordian in-jokes a lot are convinced that they are being funny when they really aren’t – they’re just being tiresomely dull. SJG do this a lot, and whilst thankfully they don’t let free with this awful tendency as much as they might have in GURPS Illuminati, they do it more often than I’d like. The grand irony is that whereas originally “Fnord” was a meaningless word, it has kind of acquired a meaning; it means “the person trying to evoke humour with this word is a jackass who should spend less time on Usenet and more time at comedy clubs if they really want to learn how jokes work”.
That gripe aside, GURPS Illuminati exhibits what made the best 3rd Edition GURPS supplements great: good research, enthusiasm for the subject matter, and sound ideas when it came to how you could make a fun game experience out of the topic in question.
Champions 4th Edition
The history of the HERO System is essentially the history of Champions, with a brace of other games along for the ride. Once upon a time, back in 1981, you had a first edition of Champions come out, with a brand new rule system which combined the use of 3D6 as a resolution mechanic and character points in character generation that The Fantasy Trip had pioneered with a refreshingly flexible system for designing your own superpowers.
A couple of more editions followed, along with supplements adding new superpowers and optional rules and other games using different tweaks on the same system. Fantasy Hero, as the name implies, covered traditional fantasy RPG territory, whilst Star Hero took on sci-fi and Justice, Inc. is one of the earliest examples of a game specifically looking to the two-fisted action heroes of 1930s pulp fiction (like Doc Savage and The Shadow) for inspiration. Such games would typically look to the current Champions core book for basic principles and then fork off and amend as needed for the genre in question, so earlier iterations of the HERO System are sometimes referred to as being the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd edition based on which version of Champions was the current one.
Now, whilst GURPS was one of the first generic RPG systems to be overtly marketed as such, but it wasn’t the first. Chaosium putting out the genreless Basic Roleplaying pamphlet in 1980, followed by the Worlds of Wonder boxed set which combined the pamphlet with a set of little genre books showing how it could be adapted to different genres, had beat Steve Jackson Games to the punch when it came to putting out a truly generic product. Moreover, several publishers effectively had “house systems”, where the same basic system premises were repeated across different games. You could make an argument, for instance, that D&D qualified as the first house system, because many early TSR RPGs deployed the same general system ideas with ample tweaks and alterations for the setting and game emphasis at hand.
To my mind, the distinction between the house system approach and a truly generic RPG is that the house system approach involves a restatement of the core rules in each core book, and is much more amenable to changing those rules to fit the needs of the game in question. The generic RPG strategy, however, calls for a single, central statement of the core rules, which genre-specific implementations can add parts to or declare particular bits off-limit for the genre in question but can’t change.
For its early years, Hero Games took the “house system” approach, with little differences cropping up here and there in all their games, That’s because more or less everyone else applying a game system to multiple genres was taking that approach: although Chaosium had dipped their toe into the generic RPG model with Basic Roleplaying and Worlds of Wonder, the boxed set didn’t last long – its most interesting pamphlet, Superworld, was spun out into its own game – and they soon found it more convenient to just integrate those parts of the Basic Roleplaying booklet rules that Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer respectively used into those games’ core rulebooks, with the two games – and subsequent releases using the system like Pendragon or Nephilim – all evolving in their own directions based on their specific needs. (It wouldn’t be until the Big Yellow Book presentation of the system that they’d return to treating it like a generic RPG.)
GURPS, however, changed everything; with its rapid development in the mid-1980s and an impressive early line of supplements, it put the generic RPG model on the map and by 1989 everyone was sitting up and taking notice. By that point in time, Hero Games had formed an alliance with Iron Crown Enterprises, makers of Rolemaster and MERP; having struggled with production and distribution costs, Hero Games had gone into the deal with the intent that they’d do all the creative work of producing their products, whilst ICE would handle production and distribution, but fairly soon this turned into a quasi-merger, with ICE exerting editorial oversight over Hero Games products in part as a result of the former management of Hero Games drifting away to pursue other opportunities.
There are sensible reasons why ICE would have wanted to get that editorial control, mind, beyond simple egos. For one thing, all those Hero Game products where associated with ICE, both in the minds of the public thanks to having the ICE logo on them and, perhaps more importantly, in the minds of the industry due to ICE distributing Hero’s products. For another, ICE were clearly enthusiastic about Hero Games’ products and wanted to actively promote them, and to give them their due went above and beyond the call of duty in that – as well as advertising Hero Games’ products alongside their own, ICE even dual-statted some of their products for the Shadow World setting, putting in Fantasy Hero stats alongside the Rolemaster ones. That being the case, ICE clearly had a strong interest in quality control when it came to Hero Games material – after all, with the relationship between the two companies so close, a bad product would reflect poorly on ICE as well as Hero Games, and a product which bombed with the distributors could hurt their business severely.
So when 1989 rolled around and ICE and Hero were looking at sprucing up their various game lines – the year also saw them put out a version of the Rolemaster 2nd Edition boxed set with somewhat nicer production values and evocative new cover art than the previous box – they pondered what to do with Champions and the other HERO System games, and they realised that there were ample reasons to use a 4th Edition of Champions to pioneer a generic RPG approach for the HERO System. All they would need to do is bring the various rules together, harmonise them, update them as necessary, and viola – instant core book for a new generic RPG. Thus, the 4th Edition HERO System was the first version of the system to get its own standalone generic rulebook, which in effect was a straight reprint of the rules section from Champions 4th Edition (the Champions-specific information having been presented in separately-numbered sections of that book).
ICE and Hero Games had several good reasons to do this. Firstly, and probably primarily, there was the GURPS bandwagon; they may have figured that this approach was a low-risk approach to tackling it, since if the standalone HERO System book bombed they could just let it die and Champions, which had always been the biggest and most popular HERO System game, could just chug along unaffected. On top of that, though its early editions had been quite slim Champions had had various new options for powers added in the major supplements Champions II and Champions III, and bringing this all together was handy for longstanding Champions fans. ICE and Hero Games also thought that harmonising the HERO System games would have the beneficial effect of making it easier for people who played one game to pick up one of the others (since there wouldn’t be unforeseen pitfalls and screwups arising from things working differently between the different games).
The HERO System has just as much of a reputation for crunchiness as GURPS, and it well deserves it, though like GURPS it front-loads most of its crunch into character generation. It’s also character generation where it shines, thanks to the sheer flexibility its system offers. For one thing, more or less any character attribute can be boosted by spending character points on them – not just your core attributes, but also the various stats whose baseline figures are derived from them. (So, for instance, if you want a character who has super-Speed without having super-Dexterity – DEX being the stat that SPD is derived from – you can absolutely do that.)
On top of that, the game offers a sensible list of skills that you can purchase reasonably cheaply (as with GURPS, whose skill system shows a lot of influence from Champions), but which are limited enough in number that it doesn’t become a headache working out which you need to arrive at the character concept you were aiming at. In addition, the system suggests the idea of “Everyman Skills” – a set of skills that everyone in a particular setting can be assumed to have Familiarity with, meaning they succeed at a roll of 8 or less on 3D6 without any training, so whilst you don’t have a great chance at success at such skills, you’re at least not hopeless. (Incidentally, the skills pass the System Mastery test, as they noted in their episode on it – the Seduction skill doesn’t waste any words in making baseless assumptions about the gender of the person you’re using it on.)
When you get into special abilities as opposed to mundane skills, you actually get these in two flavours. You have Talents, which work much like GURPS Advantages in the sense that if you buy them you get a flat benefit. Their capabilities are fixed, and they are intended to represent little edges – ranging from exceptional luck to stuff which is more explicitly and obviously supernatural – which go beyond typical human norms but aren’t on the scale of full-on superhero powers. Talents originated in Justice, Inc. as a way to represent the extranormal capabilities of the pulp era heroes, but obviously they’re also very handy to have in a superhero game to model more low-key and subtle powers.
The most justifiably famous part of Champions character generation – and by far the most complex – are the full-blown superpowers. To develop a Power for your character, you are essentially invited to act as your own game designer: you pick the effect you want the Power to have and set its baseline magnitude to get a base cost, add on various advantages like area effects and whatnot and then multiply the base cost by 1 plus the number of levels of Power Advantages you tacked on to get the Active Cost. This figure is relevant because for many Powers to activate them in play you need to spend a number of Endurance points based on the Active Cost, which makes combat a bit more nuanced than just spamming your most powerful Power.
Superpowers in the comics often have limitations – they might be bestowed by a superscience gadget, for instance, or only work when your character has transformed into her Magical Girl form, or can’t be turned off, or whatever. You model these by picking Power Limitations, and then work out the Real Cost of the Power – the number of points it takes to buy it – by dividing the Active Cost by 1 plus the number of levels of Power Limitations you took.
That’s a rather complex process, but contrary to far too many other games it’s complexity with a purpose: by breaking power generation into choosing the effect, setting the magnitude, adding advantages and then working in limitations, Champions delivers a system which allows you to create more or less any superpower you see in the comic books – which means the HERO System can also model any special power or fancy bit of super-equipment you find in much other genre fiction.
In fact, equipment presents an interesting wrinkle. Some character resources like secret bases can be designed on a character point basis, and in fact any particular bit of equipment you have could be modelled as a Power. In fact, for “Superheroic” campaigns (as opposed to “Heroic” campaigns where full-blown Powers aren’t available), if you want your character to have a piece of equipment consistently available to them you can’t just have them go pay money for it – you also have to buy it with character points.
This sounds wacky at first, but there’s actually two good reasons for it. The first is fairness – why make someone pay character points for a super-gadget that does a particular ranged attack but then let someone just buy a gun that does the same thing (or even works better) from a gun store any time they like? The other is genre emulation – whilst in Champions as in the comics it’s absolutely fine for a PC to grab someone’s dropped bit of kit and use it momentarily, how often do you see Wonder Woman use a bit of kit she confiscated from a supervillain several issues later? Superheroes only rarely add new bits of gear to their ensemble for an extended period of time, so it seems fair to treat it like any other aspect of character development and charge points for it. (Irksomely, things like the weapons table in the core book don’t provide the Active Cost and Real Cost of the various weapons provided, which would speed things up a lot; later supplements, thankfully, would correct this.)
Once you have gone through the full character generation process, provided you have noted everything down (and the 4th Edition Champions/Hero System character sheet is really nice on that front), actual play is easy. The fiddliest bit is keeping track of the Endurance cost of actions in combat, and recovery of Endurance at the end of a round, and that only gets especially tricky when you’re dealing with a superheroic-level game. The designers’ notes even give a throwaway house rule to use if you really can’t be arsed with Endurance – simply make everyone pay the full Active Cost of their Powers rather than the Real Cost, effectively making Power Limitations unrewarding and worth taking only for flavour and simulation purposes, and you’re good to go. Dropping Endurance from heroic-level games is in principle even easier, because you don’t have Powers that use them, but you’re warned that in practice it can mean combats end up taking forever.
Even then, the Endurance mechanic is one which at least serves a purpose: it allows for a combat where participants must choose whether to hold back some of their power, using it to less than its maximum extent so as to conserve their energy, or use the full extent of their power in order to get the job done, which feels very appropriate for superhero stuff – once you get your head around the mechanic, the HERO System really is a nice way to emulate that.
If, as a player, you want to limit the extent you worry about Endurance, you can – just buy powers which don’t use it, buy up your Endurance score with character points, or give your powers which would otherwise use Endurance a set number of Charges. Charges represent the number of times you can use a Power per day before you have to rest to re-memorise your spells, go home to pick up more ammo clips for your gun, or whatever. By default, powers based off Charges have their Endurance cost waived. (If you want to make a Power cost both Charges and Endurance, you can, and that increases the Level of the Limitation even further.) Cunningly, Charges is a Limitation which can actually become an Advantage – if you decide to have a ludicrous number of Charges, such that it would be really unlikely that you’d ever run through them all, Charges counts as an Advantage and will therefore increase rather than decreasing the cost of the Power accordingly.
The above is a nice example of several aspects of Champions: it shows how flexible it is, it shows how the designers have clearly thought things through and given you a lot of options, and it exemplifies how mastery of the system unlocks all these different options for you. It certainly helps illustrate how natural a partnership the team-up of Hero Games and ICE was, since ICE’s work also rewards system mastery, and that philosophy was taken by Monte Cook and made a cornerstone of 3E D&D. That said, I prefer the type of system mastery offered by Champions because it offers system mastery with a purpose, just like the game has complexity with a purpose.
The system mastery aspects of power design in Champions are a consequence of the extreme flexibility it offers, and with that flexibility comes freedom. Rather than doing the D&D 3E thing of throwing in “trap options”, the system mastery learning curve in Champions is less about character optimisation than it is about novelty; you may need to do a bit of reading to work out how to model a particular power in Champions, but odds are you probably will be able to do it, and because you use less Endurance if you use a power at a more modest level than it was designed at, it’s harder to get stuck in a trap. If you find that a Power demands more Endurance of you than you expected when used at its maximum extent, then, you aren’t completely screwed. That said, a kind referee can and should allow you to tweak your character design if you find you’ve gone down a very suboptimal route.
Speaking of referee oversight, a very refreshing aspect of the HERO System is the way it trusts players and referees alike to work together, and the freedom it gives to design Powers in light of that. Often games become complex because they throw in all sorts of restrictions in the name of fine game balance that make assumptions about what individual groups will and won’t accept at the table; what’s overpowered bullshit for one group may be all part of the fun for another, and often attempts to patch rules to stop people “breaking” them shut down all sorts of cool, fun options in the name of shutting down one ridiculous and abusive option.
Admirably – and astonishingly for a game of its vintage – Champions and the HERO System don’t do that. The rules section does flag some Talents and Powers as being worth additional referee scrutiny, tagging them with little spyglasses if they could potentially be more useful than they at first look and little “STOP!” signs if they are potentially game-breaking in a way which a referee might want to say “Nah, actually that doesn’t exist for the purpose of my campaign’s universe”. It never says that you shouldn’t take those things if everyone’s cool with it, though, and the fact that is willing to offer these things with a caveat rather than arbitrarily saying “OK, that’s too good for a PC to ever have” is a real feather in the system’s cap.
Once you get past the HERO System rules section in Champions 4th Edition, you get to two sections of Champions-exclusive content. The first such is the Champions Sourcebook, a section that’s simply a big fat chunk of advice on how to implement the HERO System for a superhero campaign. This includes some rules details, including notes on important parameters to set for a Champions game in terms of power maximum levels, how high up to buy your defences, and so on and so forth, but it’s also got some great bits of game philosophy in there.
For instance, there’s a really nice discussion of power-gaming and rules exploits in there where the writers point out that you totally can use the HERO System rules to make utterly broken characters, and in fact give you a selection of character concepts that make a total mockery of it, specifically for the sake of pointing out to players that whilst you can make such a character if you want to, they’d be absolutely miserable in actual play. This demonstration very effectively sucks the joy out of such system exploits by pointing out how hollow a victory they really are.
Another bit I quite like is the segment in the GM advice section called “How To Ruin Your Campaign”, giving ten pitfalls that even today GMs would be well-advised to avoid. The Sourcebook is also loaded with tools to help referees prepare and set the parameters of their campaign, including worksheets and forms to fill out to help establish expectations; such tools are still underutilised in RPGs to this day. In these respects and others I consider the Sourcebook to be genuinely ahead of its time.
There’s only two things I have to complain about in the Sourcebook. The first is the way they refer the player type that uses rules exploits to get absurd advantages as “The Rules Rapist”, but that’s just a random throwaway line – it’s tasteless and crass and tossing “rapist” about so freely isn’t cool, but I can buy it as a momentary lapse of taste. More sustained is the way the game suggests working in a mounting campaign of nasty IC consequences against player characters who behave in a more murderous or otherwise evil way than the campaign is set up to support, because it’s presented as a way of using IC sanctions to deal with what is basically an OOC problem.
Such tactics are never sensible. Firstly, it isn’t your place to “punish” your friends, even if you’re the referee, for behaving in a way you don’t like – either get it resolved or ask them to go. Secondly, if you respond to IC actions you find OOC unacceptable in an IC way, then the person you are trying to punish in that manner can just construe it as being all part of the fun – after all, if it weren’t meant to be part of the game, why are you reacting it within the game?
Now, to be fair to them, the writers do say that before you take any of these sanctions, you should talk to the player in question and say that if their character doesn’t behave in a less reprehensible fashion, these sanctions may occur. Personally, though, I would go further than that: you need to have the conversation with that player and resolve it in that conversation. If you and the player and the group are both happy to run an angle where the player character is a heel and that’s having IC consequences for them, then it’s all good – you can wheel out those sanctions and everyone can have fun playing through them. On the other hand, if the player is not happy having the IC consequences occur, or if you’re not happy with having such a nasty player character in your campaign, then it’s time to either change the campaign or ask the player in question to retire their character or sit out.
Essentially, my position is that if you don’t come to some sort of agreement with the player in that conversation, or if the player flat-out keeps doing exactly what they were doing despite being called out on it, then there’s no point doing the IC sanctions – at best you and the player have incompatible expectations of the campaign, and at worst they’re being an asshole and not engaging in good faith. Either way, neither of you are going to be best served by the player continuing in your campaign with the same character doing the same thing, so unless you are willing to entirely change the parameters of your campaign (or cancel it and play a different one), either the character’s behaviour has to change, a new PC with a new personality needs to be brought in, or the player has to go.
That wrinkle aside, though, the Sourcebook is excellent. I think the thing I like most about it is the tone it’s written in; it’s perfectly pitched to provide very clear explanations of its concepts without ever talking down to the reader, and also invest the reader with enthusiasm for the subject matter. The rest of the 4th Edition Champions book also has this tone come in from time to time, but in the Sourcebook it comes into its own, not only showing you what the writers consider best practice but also filling you with the conviction that you can do this, which is an aspect of providing GMing advice more RPG rulebooks could do with embracing.
The last section of the core book is the Campaign Book, providing a set of pregenerated superheroes and supervillains and some sample scenarios. This is helpful for providing something that the corebook badly needs, and doesn’t really have enough of even with this section, and that’s worked examples: like I said, the equipment section should really have included the Active and Real Costs of the various items in it, and similarly the Powers section could have done with a bunch of worked examples of classic superhero powers to give a leg up to novices to the system.
The actual Champions superhero team themselves are nothing special (though they get points for including a black woman in the lineup (Quantum), and not drawing her in the infamous buttboob pose as memorably parodied by Kate Beaton), but as samples of character design they do highlight some nice things you can do with the system. Similarly, the various NPCs and others described in this section are a useful source of ideas, and reverse-engineering their powers is a good way to quickly figure out how the system works. (The whole “Charges opts you out of Endurance” thing is something I only worked out from that, for instance.) I personally wouldn’t use the Champions in a campaign as PCs – part of the fun of this game is designing your own powers, after all – but they make a nice set of NPCs to act as a benchmark to compare characters with.
Still, I’m left feeling that including even more worked examples would have been helpful. On balance, I like Champions 4th Edition, but I am glad that I obtained it by buying the recent Bundle of Holding offers that give you the entire game line in PDF format; the massive numbers of 4th Edition supplements seem to have mostly focused less on expanding an already expansive system in terms of rules and more in terms of giving you worked-through frameworks to use the system to accomplish particular things. (Dark Champions, which I will tackle below, is a particularly good example of this.) Certainly, having big stacks of pregenerated NPCs and the like to work through makes it far more likely that I will GM Champions than I would have been were I coming up with everything by hand myself.
Champions 4th is fondly recalled by players of the game as the Big Blue Book, and is for a certain constituency where they got off the bus. In its time, it was a great success; of all the editions of Champions, it’s had the longest lifetime and most extensive range of support. The approach taken with the game line even had a knock-on effect on ICE’s own flagship line, Rolemaster; in 1995, as well as putting out a deluxe hardcover reprint of the Big Blue Book with some character generator software bundled in, ICE would unveil the Rolemaster Standard System, a new edition of Rolemaster which seemed intended to give it the HERO System approach – providing a single core system to handle all genres (with its core rules also providing the main toolkit for the genre the system was most commonly associated with – in this case, fantasy), with supplements to take it in various different directions rather than all being intended to be used together.
However, shortly after that Hero Games and ICE parted ways – fortunately for Hero, because it meant they got out well before ICE’s 1997 financial crisis arising from the collapse of its distribution network. Hero Games’ next partnership was with R. Talsorian Games, where they got caught up in a project to create a hybrid of the HERO System and the Interlock system that powered Mekton II and Cyberpunk 2020, the idea being that it would combine the flexible and diverse power-design of HERO with the much-loved Lifepath mechanics of Interlock.
As part of the Fuzion line, Hero and R. Talsorian put out a new Champions game entitled Champions: The New Millennium, which also advanced the Champions setting by shifting the timeline forwards and setting the game after an apocalyptic mass battle which saw most of Earth’s heroes and villains killing each other off, simultaneously meaning that new superhumans could stand up and take their place and excusing Hero Games from having to convert all the old iconic NPCs to the new system.
You can probably guess what happens then, right? You know what happens? Do you know what happens when a publisher takes a much-loved, classic RPG which is still pretty popular and gives it a completely different system? You know what happens, Hero Games, when you also take a setting you had spent quite some time developing and your fanbase had become used to, and then do a complete scorched Earth job on it? Do you know what happens, Hero Games, when you don’t learn GDW’s lesson and you do a total Traveller: the New Era job on your most important game line? You know what happens, Hero Games?
That being not the List of Jericho, but the List of Game Companies Who Needlessly Shattered Their Fanbase With a Huge Edition War. Whilst other Fuzion games did get some traction, Champions: The New Millennium can’t really be spun as anything other than a disaster, with longstanding fans showing deep distaste for many aspects, from the abandonment of the HERO System to the smashing of the setting to the art style going in an annoyingly Rob Liefeld-esque direction (the cover art focuses on Quantum showing way more cleavage than she ever did in previous editions).
In the end, only two supplements came out for it – both in the same year as the core book was released – and whilst the core book did get a reprint in 2000, Hero Games ultimately would walk away from New Millennium and retcon it out of existence. In fact, it represents a rare instance where a game company not only decided that a new edition had been a terrible mistake, but one where they actually reverted to the previous edition, putting out new 4th Edition products for the next few years rather than throwing good money after bad on New Millennium. (Ironically, some years later R. Talsorian would be in much the same position – after Cyberpunk v3 became a commercial disaster, R. Talsorian seems to have decided to retire the line, and whilst you can still buy Cyberpunk 2020 books from them you can only get Cyberpunk v3 and its supplements in PDF.)
Following these troubles, Hero Games got bought out not once but twice, eventually ending up in the hands of a consortium headed up by Steven S. Long. Long had started out as a Champions fan before being taken on as a freelance writer for Hero Games, with the Dark Champions supplement detailed below being one of the feathers in his cap. An early priority for Long was the creation of a new 5th Edition HERO System rulebook – and here’s where things get bogged down for the HERO System itself.
The 5th Edition HERO rulebook is fatter by far than either the standalone 4th Edition book or 4th Edition Champions; the cliche about it being thick enough to stop bullets was repeated often enough that Hero Games eventually embraced it and tested it out. As well as having the dimensions of a phonebook, it’s also cited as being as dry a read as the phonebook too, which I consider to be a huge shame when contrasted with the flavourfulness of the 4th Edition book. This, combined with the lack of genre-specific pointers, made it a huge, unapproachable pain and understandably put off a great many people. An extensive rewrite was attempted to make it more palatable – as well as providing brief notes on adapting it to particular genres – but this just made it even more offputting, the revised rulebook weighing in in at almost 600 pages. A later 6th Edition was so huge that it was split between two books.
For a game where the whole core system was provided, with all the flexibility and options you could possibly ever want, in just over 200 pages in 4th Edition, this is just ludicrous. Fortunately, Hero Games have finally gotten around to correcting this by starting to release standalone rulebooks for specific genres – Champions Complete is, I understand, only about 240 pages long and has everything you need to play Champions, which is only a shade longer than the rules section in 4th Edition. Still, with such a wealth of support material for 4th in my possession thanks to my Bundle of Holding PDFs, I see little reason to upgrade, and I suspect I’m hardly alone in that.
Dark Champions: Heroes of Vengeance
Another reason not to upgrade to later editions of Champions is that 4th had some great supplements. True, it also had its stinkers, but it had a large enough portfolio that you’d expect a few misfires here and there.
Dark Champions is a particular gem of the 4th Edition line. Released in 1993, when the line was pretty mature and a decent idea of best practice was established, it had been penned by Steven S. Long. In stark contrast to the dryness and excessive crunch of Long’s takes on the HERO System core rules, Dark Champions is stuffed with flavour and atmosphere, and provides both a lot of setting support and excellent details on how to adapt the HERO System in a particular way.
Specifically, Dark Champions is all about supporting “street-level” Champions games. If played as a superheroic-tier game, this would cover superheroes living in the shadows, without the glitz and glamour of more socially-embraced supers and often facing gritty, disturbing foes. Long also gives pointers on running it as a more heroic-tier game, where Powers if available at all are bought in the form of gadgets and gizmos along the lines of Batman’s bag of tricks and otherwise wits and weaponry are the heroes main tools and their opponents are often more realistic figures like organised crime groups. Spiderman is perhaps the most superheroic type of figure you could expect to see in a superhero-tier Dark Champions game, what with his clashes with press and authorities alike, whilst the hero-tier is optimised for characters like the Punisher; Batman sits right on the cusp between the two campaign styles.
This is a type of supplement which the Champions line had been crying out for. Having originated in 1981, Champions tended to be optimised for the style of the Silver Age or Bronze Age-style super comics the designers were fans of – exactly how Silver or Bronze your personal take on Champions was largely depended on how much you brought real-life issues like drugs and racism and whatever into the mix on the Bronze side and how much you focused on more fantastical scenarios and themes on the Silver side. Supplements to handle other eras and trends in superhero comics were a natural addition to the line – as well as this one you had Golden Age Champions, for those who wanted to play a campaign of patriotic black-and-white morality focused on good old-fashioned Nazi punching – and it is a credit to the HERO System that it was able to be adapted in this fashion.
By the time Dark Champions had come out, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had been out for 6-7 years and the darker, edgier wave of superhero comics they had inspired was still going strong; the timing was perfect for a Champions treatment of it. In some respects, the more gritty and realistic subjects dealt with by the book put it at risk of pandering to common prejudices about crime and deprived communities; there’s a big emphasis in the book on ethnicity-based organised crime communities (to be fair, that was a major feature of American organised crime at the time and still largely is today, though some of the threatening artwork used to depict these groups veers close to racial caricature), and some of the NPC designs and other ideas seem a bit dated in retrospect.
For instance, Jihad is a Middle Eastern terrorist, but despite the name isn’t an Islamist – she’s more of the secular socialistic uniform-wearing type in the Yasser Arafat mode. On the one hand, presenting a villain called “Jihad” whose main agenda is exterminating Israel is pretty insensitive, though on the other hand the depiction is somehow far less racist than many depictions of Middle Eastern terrorists we see today.
That said, although Long does have these occasional lapses, for the most part he actually has a surprisingly sensible take on this sort of subject matter. All too often, the edgy, violent, gritty street-level comic books of the era degenerated into controversy for controversy’s sake and unrestrained, insensitive edgelordery, the whole “for mature readers only” thing actually acting as the cover for deeply immature takes on serious topics.
Long, for his part, is actually much better than that, which is why the book’s few blunders like Jihad stand out so much. For one thing, decades before it became a standard thing for game companies to advise referees to discuss potentially-triggering subject matter with their players and show sensitivity in how they were handled (or for edgy designers to loudly express distaste for such advice out of some reactionary, Gamergatey impulse), Long seems to have understood the point. He takes great care to point out to the referee that street-level superhero comics often deal with subject matter like rape and drug addiction which, precisely because of their realism, could very well be issues that your players have strong feelings about, and rather than riding roughshod over those feelings you should check where your players’ red lines are and not just brush past them just for the sake of being super dark.
Long also appreciates that there’s many different takes you can have on a street-level superhero campaign – that some people would want to play heroes who retain high ideals despite working in a dark and gritty setting and facing viciously pragmatic foes, whilst others would want to take the full-on Punisher route, and he gives advice on how you discuss setting the bar. Whereas mainline Champions characters have codes against killing so often that there’s an honest-to-goodness Code Against Killing disadvantage that the game more or less assumes that player characters will take by default, Dark Champions talks about whether you want to have characters with far weaker codes, or no such codes at all, and how to handle it if you take the bloodier path.
Similarly, in handling the interactions between vigilante heroes and the law Long shows a good deal of nuance. As well as detailing several ways they can interact, from licensed auxiliaries to completely unsanctioned menaces, he details what the police might do in response to them. I’m especially impressed about how he avoids wholly buying into the assumption implicit in a lot of the source material he’s dealing with that going rogue and operating outside the law genuinely is the right thing to do. Whilst much vigilante-themed fiction can play into a right-wing fantasy like this, Long realises that to some groups, full-on vigilantes are villains, not heroes, and generally doesn’t assume that the player characters are actually in the right. (And why should he? He isn’t at your gaming table and he doesn’t know what you’ve done.)
In the service of providing a more realistic take on the superhero genre, Long even produces material which could also be useful to non-grimdark Champions campaigns. There’s a whole chapter on superheroes and the law in which Long outlines a hypothetical way the legal system might adapt to the existence of superhumans, which could be just as useful for generating plot in less grounded superhero campaigns. His methodology involves interweaving real-life US case law and legislation with plausible-sounding fictional cases, and if you have any interest in law at all it’s a fascinating take on the subject.
Long’s research really shows, though, in his takes on various organised crime groups. Although he does lead with a caveat that he has changed some details for the sake of making them more gameable, these still remain some of the most in-depth and informative discussions of the Mafia, the Yakuza, and other such cliques in an RPG context, as well as offering a range of interesting street-level adversaries, from the Moriarty-like Master of Crime to Card Shark, whose playing card-themed gang could fit into any take on Batman from Adam West to Christopher Nolan.
In system terms, Long gives a detailed discussion of the sort of parameters you should set character generation at for a street-level campaign, including pointers for each type of Power and examples of suitably-built Powers for the streets. You also get an extensive variety of guns described for the Punisher-types out there, thankfully with their Active and Real Costs calculated for you to speed things up for the superheroes buying them.
Dark Champions stands out as a brilliant example of how a game supplement can offer an entirely new mode of play without building extra layers of cruft onto the core system, simply by showing imagination in how it applies that system and giving you an example to follow. Of course, it’s a strength of the HERO System that it is possible to find exciting new possibilities in it in this way.
Where Do They Go From Here?
It’s fair to say that the fortunes of both GURPS and the HERO System have waned from the 2000s onwards. Both still have their passionate adherents, and that fan community seems likely to sustain itself for a good while yet – but they no longer have the share of the spotlight that they used to. Steve Jackson Games has remained a significant player in the industry, but mostly through the good health of its boardgame and card game endeavours, including the goldmine that is Munchkin. Hero Games, meanwhile, operates under greatly constrained circumstances, though considering the long time they spent yoked to first ICE and subsequently R. Talsorian Games it seems like that they have rarely been in a position to stand on their own two feet.
Although the increasing perception that their systems are crunch-heavy may have worked against them, that surely isn’t the whole story – after all, Pathfinder is regarded as being quite crunch-heavy and it’s doing absolutely fine. That said, I think it’s possible that high-crunch may work against a generic RPG system more than it does a system with a specific genre or setting. If an RPG tied to a specific setting has additional crunch, much of that may be connected to aspects of the setting that it’s modelling; conversely, if a generic RPG is very crunchy, that gives people the impression (rightly or wrongly) that it’s crunchy all the time in all contexts.
I think a larger part of it is that there has been a radical transformation when it comes to the generic RPG space. For one thing, games like Savage Worlds and FATE have successfully eaten into GURPS and HERO System‘s market share by providing better support for particular play styles, in a much more approachable fashion – even the FATE Core rulebook is slimmer by far than the core GURPS and HERO rulebooks, and Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition and FATE Accelerated Edition are massively smaller.
However, a greater shift in the world of generic RPGs has to do with the fact that the most successful of them have been distributed for free and associated with the biggest brands in the industry. After 3E D&D hit, and particular once D20 Modern got its own System Reference Document, the various D20 SRDs effectively became freely-distributed generic RPGs. On top of that, with the fad for putting out RPGs on an OGL basis hitting a bizarre level, and taking into account the fact that game mechanics simply aren’t that well-protected as far as intellectual property goes, and the end result is an embarrassment of riches.
There is, quite simply, a great many free RPGs out there both of a generic and genre-specific nature, and since the OGL SRDs made it big people are much more willing to try them out than they used to be. As a result of that, I think it’s become much less viable to sell an RPG product which is solely based on rules without a compelling setting attached – which is exactly the prospect you have when you are dealing with a generic RPG rulebook. This creates a major disadvantage for the producers of generic RPGs.
Savage Worlds manages by making its core book thin, cheap, and cheerful, and hooking people in with fascinating setting supplements – a bit like the approach that GURPS took with 3rd Edition, except with a much slimmer core book. FATE has got where it is to day pretty much by embracing the OGL approach, with the FATE SRD freely available and the system making its name with setting-specific works like Spirit of the Century and the Dresden Files RPG; the FATE Core main rulebook, as well as being a smaller and thus cheaper prospect than the core GURPS and HERO System books, was enabled by a very successful Kickstarter campaign, possible only because of the groundwork put in by Evil Hat in establishing the system.
What needs to happen to rekindle the flame of these systems? Well, I’ve already outlined above how I believe the respective games took a wrong turning, so let me double down on that. First off, let me tackle HERO, because that’s easier: I think Hero Games are doing exactly what they need to do already by putting out complete-in-one-book genre-specific games powered by HERO. Yes, it’s a bit of a step backwards, a return to the game’s roots, but the idea of a separate HERO System rulebook might have been right for the late 1980s, but it doesn’t have that much pull now.
Part of the problem that HERO has is that it’s far more well-known for its system than its setting. Champions Complete is a good way to get that system out in front of people, because superheroes is what it started with and to be honest, superheroes is what it feels most natural with. On top of that, Champions as one of the longest-running superhero RPGs out there has a fairly extensively described setting that they can riff on – a setting which, thanks to being the basis of the Champions Online MMO, even has some visibility outside of RPG circles, which is a major advantage.
Whilst Hero Games aren’t in a position to put out an extensive support line for Champions Complete nearly as long as that for 4th Edition, the fact that the basic principles of the system have remained pretty consistent over time means that they could do a decent job of selling PDFs of the 4th Edition line to customers of the new version – or, indeed, push the PDFs as a “classic Champions” range for those who never made the jump from 4th Edition, or those who haven’t given HERO a chance because they came along too late to pick up 4th Edition and found the later editions off-putting. (This is, after all, exactly how they sold me on the 4th Edition Bundles of Holding.)
Fantasy Hero and others feel like a more difficult sell; for instance, I know next to nothing about Fantasy Hero‘s setting, and in fact I have no idea whether it even has its own setting, and since I’ve been paying attention to RPGs for coming up to 24 years that’s kind of a problem. With so many fantasy RPGs out there at all crunch levels, with so many excellent settings associated with them, it’s really, really hard to sell people on looking into yet another one unless it’s got a really eye-catching setting involved. HERO‘s Power design system, despite all its merits, isn’t enough of a sell – every fantasy RPG claims it offers a unique magic system, after all. Either Hero Games need to really tease out what’s exciting about the Fantasy Hero setting and put that front and centre, or they need to avoid investing too much effort into the line. The same is true of pretty much all their other lines – really, it’s always been Champions that has been the shining star of Hero Games and everything else has been second fiddle.
Now, the nice thing about all of the above? It’s pretty much what Hero Games are doing right now. I doubt they are moving enough product to be a full-time job for many of them, but they’re staying active enough to keep their community happy and get themselves in the public eye, and the recent Bundle of Holding has done a sterling job of attracting people who passed them up previously. It and products like Champions Complete may not succeed in elevating the HERO System‘s profile to the level it used to enjoy, but if these strategies don’t work, I have no idea what will.
GURPS is much tougher: not only do I think Steve Jackson Games took a wrong turn with 4th Edition, not only do I think that they are going the wrong way about promoting the line now, but I’m also not sure there’s actually a good solution for promoting it in the future.
Let’s talk about the past errors first. The custodians of GURPS should have been much, much more conservative about what they allowed to be added into the core rules. The presentation of the Compendiums was, in this sense, a significant mistake: rather than being a set of core books that people were expected to use extensively in all campaigns, they should have been treated as a source of specialist tools – with the understanding that you wouldn’t want to use every tool for every job, and in fact you should only be using those tools which the campaign specifically demands.
Part of the tragedy of GURPS‘ current reputation for being heavy on the crunch is that much of the crunch wouldn’t be used in any typical campaign – it’s rare that you’re going to be using all the rules in the 4th Editon Basic Set in a single setting, but because of the way it’s presented that isn’t apparent at first. (That’s particularly the case for those used to the old 3rd Edition way of doing things, where the genre-specific rules for stuff were largely farmed out to the genre books rather than being dragged into the central core.)
In addition, the 4th Edition line’s emphasis on glossy, full colour hardbacks as the pillars of the supplement line feels like an error. Yes, people love a fancy book, and such production values are increasingly demanded in the RPG industry. However, I think a sneaky aspect of the 3rd Edition line’s success in the past came down to the very fact that its softcover supplements – simple layout, recycled black-and-white-art, and all – offered cheap and cheerful quality.
For a comparatively modest price, you could get a sourcebook which, whilst basically presented (though in line with the usual standards of quality at the time), offered top-notch writing on the subject at hand, often in such a way that even if you weren’t a habitual GURPS fan it still offered a decent treatment of the genre or setting in question which was useful for whichever RPG system you actually wanted to deploy for that purpose. Back when I was in school and my pocket money was limited, I remember that on my occasional trips to the local RPG store I’d often come away with a GURPS supplement – not because I played a lot of GURPS (quite the opposite, I pretty much never played it), but because it offered good reading and useful insight, and because I could pretty much always afford it even if I’d decided I couldn’t afford the fancy Planescape boxed set I’d originally intended to buy.
The hardcover strategy, combined with the fact that GURPS simply isn’t stocked in as wide a variety of friendly local game shops any more, plus the decline in brick-and-mortar RPG shops in general – these factors in combination have killed the “impulse purchase” value of GURPS, and that’s a problem for the line. I think Steve Jackson Games massively underestimated what proportion of their sales came down to those impulse purchases, and that’s been to their great detriment.
Luckily, of course, there is now an RPG publishing format which is ideally suited to this sort of impulse purchase. With the 3rd Edition supplement line as enormous as it was, you’d think that it would be perfect for conversion to PDF and sale in that way. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Steve Jackson Games have been doing – except they’re following a questionable strategy there too.
The big problem with SJG’s PDF strategy is that they are not putting their PDFs where the customers are. Platforms like DriveThruRPG are dominant in roleplaying PDF sales for a very good reason – anyone who is anyone in the industry tries to sell their products there, and as a result if you get your PDFs there then you can redownload them all from the same account, which is extraordinarily convenient for you as a customer. And precisely because there’s so much stuff on DriveThru, there’s really very little reason to browse elsewhere – for many customers, if a PDF isn’t on DriveThru, it pretty much doesn’t exist, because going looking on other storefronts for a product is more effort than just finding something else to fill the same niche on DriveThru.
The major absence from DriveThru is Steve Jackson Games; in fact they’re pretty much the only major RPG publisher I can think of who don’t sell their stuff there. Likewise, they stay clear away from the Bundle of Holding, which by now has become a significant platform for getting people to pick up RPG PDFs they might not otherwise have given a chance and seems to offer a natural format to sell GURPS material – just package together some thematically-related 3rd Edition supplements and badaboom, instant Bundle. (The exception has been the GURPS Traveller line, but that was by arrangement with Far Future Enterprises, the owners of the Traveller IP, to whom rights to the products reverted after the end of their licence with Steve Jackson Games, so SJG didn’t get a penny out of those Bundles.)
The reason SJG have stayed out of these venues is simple: they have their own sales platform in the form of Warehouse 23, which also sells PDFs from other publishers, and putting their own material on DriveThru would undermine Warehouse 23 and thus hurt one of their revenue sources. That’s fine in principle, but in practice more or less every single publisher who has a significant amount of material on Warehouse 23 also has the same products up for same on DriveThru, meaning that there’s no point going to Warehouse 23 for RPG PDFs unless you specifically have already decided that you want SJG stuff.
Now, as far as confirmed GURPS fans go, that’s fine – they’ll totally go to Warehouse 23 to do that. But as the line’s recent difficulties have shown, the existing GURPS fanbase isn’t enough – they simply aren’t buying enough product, and as per SJG’s regular reports to stakeholders GURPS continues to be a poorly performing range. It’s particularly brutal if you check their reported top 40 products by dollar volume; not one single GURPS product has appeared there since 2013’s report, when the first volume of the 4th Edition Basic Set scraped its way into 39th place. Not only does GURPS get massively outperformed by much of the unaccountably popular Munchkin range – including Munchkin variants so niche as to be outright absurd – but it even gets consistently hammered by games like the core set of Illuminati, a cult game that hasn’t had a new edition for nearly 2 decades and hasn’t had a new supplement for a good many years either.
That being the case, it’s obvious that to the extent that SJG are keeping GURPS alive, they are doing it out of love rather than it being where the money is – but for it to be viable for them to even give it the limited attention it is currently getting, it needs to do better. And to do better, it needs to reach out beyond its existing fanbase, who might be keeping it alive with their love but just aren’t exerting the spending power by themselves to make it happen.
This is where I think the lack of visibility of both their physical products and their PDFs is really killing them; with so many great games out there in both formats, you can’t just set up your personal boutique and expect customers to come to you, you have to go where the customers are, and as far as PDF and print-on-demand sales are concerned the customers are found on DriveThru. I don’t know for sure that putting the 3rd Edition line on DriveThru in PDF and POD format would lead to additional sales and a rekindling of interest in GURPS – but I do think that if it were attempted and failed, that would be a compelling sign that GURPS itself doesn’t have that much of a future.
So, where from here? I think it’s fair to say that products like GURPS Dungeon Fantasy and GURPS Mars Attacks! were mistakes; Mars Attacks! is too niche of a franchise to spearhead a GURPS revival, and certainly isn’t a prominent enough one to merit the expense of a hardcover full-colour physical book, and Dungeon Fantasy is an attempt to bust into a genre which is already exceptionally well-supported by many different games. Any time a major RPG publisher’s strategy for their flagship gameline can be summed up as “I know! Let’s compete directly with Dungeons & Dragons!“, I think they need to stop and have a long hard think about what the fuck they are doing. Small presses can put out their OSR labours of love because they don’t have high overheads; Pathfinder became a viable competitor to the point of being able to momentarily knock 4E D&D off its shelf because of a very, very specific set of circumstances.
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy has none of those advantages going for it. It’s based off a line of PDF releases for 4th Edition GURPS which has been popular with the fanbase but, aha, yet again we see that what the GURPS fanbase likes might support some minimal PDF supplement but isn’t enough to stop a full-fledged physical product from making a loss. It’s stuff like this that makes me think that SJG are a little too caught up in their own little bubble with their fanbase, failing to recognise that what their hardcore fans really like and enjoy might not necessarily be what is best for the long-term health of the game line. That sort of bubble could explain why they thought that Mars Attacks! was remotely a good idea, and also can help explain why excessive crunch became such a major feature of the line, with 4th Edition being a product built from the ground up on a basis of preaching to the choir.
Their best recent idea has been the updating of GURPS Discworld, because that’s a major franchise with an enormous number of fans and has a proven track record as a GURPS release. Unfortunately, it ended up being yet another loss-making project, because the sales just weren’t there. It is possible that the Discworld fanbase balked at the price of the fancy hardcover version compared to the 3rd Edition-powered softcover, or possibly didn’t like the idea of buying a new edition of a product which they’d already bought in great numbers back in the previous version – but a major issue seems to have been the near-total lack of marketing, with many gamer Discworld fans apparently not knowing the new game was even out there.
The fact is that GURPS Discworld should have been a success; you’ve got an officially licensed product for one of the best-loved fantasy franchises out there, with a massive fanbase who time and time again have shown themselves very willing to buy pretty much any Discworld tie-in product offered on the market. The previous edition sold excellently, and enough time has passed that there’s surely a whole new generation of Discworld fans who would have picked up the RPG like a shot had they known about it.
You would think that, especially with a newly expanded marketing team, SJG would make the effort get out there and really engage with the fanbases of settings they get the RPG licence for, making it a point to get out there among the fans and build hype and ask questions and generally push the product and raise awareness. It doesn’t seem to have happened, or at least not enough to actually shift units.
If anything, SJG had better hope and pray that this was a marketing failure… because if this wasn’t a matter of the Discworld fanbase being unaware of GURPS Discworld, it’s hard to see the failure as anything other than a rejection, which in turn would suggest a flat-out rejection of GURPS (since it surely isn’t the “Discworld” part of the equation that turned them off). If the GURPS name itself has become commercial death, that puts the game in a really bad place.
So much for criticising what SJG are doing and have done, what about what they should do? Well, to my mind one very viable route would be to give up – stop making new GURPS products, keep in print only those products that make a profit in print, and put the entire product line out as PDF and offer POD for those products it isn’t profitable to do traditional print runs on – and do that via DriveThruRPG, where the roleplaying PDF customers are. Let it effectively become a source of passive income, with perhaps very occasional PDF products put out if staffers or freelancers happen to pen something of a decent quality on their own time, and concentrate the business on the product lines that are actually making money.
This is a drastic course of action, but it isn’t like SJG haven’t done it before. Aside from their aggravating DriveThru aversion, this is exactly what they have done with all their other RPG lines – neither Toon nor In Nomine have had anything new published for them for years and years, but they’re at least still available in PDF. As much affection as SJG in general and Steve Jackson himself has for GURPS, given its consistent under-performing they must surely sooner or later hit the point where they’d be better off just evergreening it like this, and with new POD options easier than ever they can do it and still keep the books available to the fanbase – and even make available books that have been out of print for ages.
As I said above, I believe in this day and age a solid set of rules aren’t actually enough to sell an RPG, simply because so many good rules can be got for free these days. As such, I think if SJG want to do anything new and substantial with GURPS, they are going to have to restrict themselves to products with a significant draw factor. That means not just putting out a genre book written by someone people don’t know – get someone who’s really known and celebrated for the genre in question to do it. A good example of this is how they got Ken Hite to do GURPS Horror; Ken, as we know from products like Nightmares of Mine, is perhaps one of the best people to listen to in discussions of horror in an RPG context. Get someone who already has a fanbase to write your genre books, and make sure the enthusiastic members of their fanbase know about it and are boosting it, and you’ve got the kernel of a viable product there.
Likewise, when it comes to setting books they need to be really selective. Licensed RPGs come with all sorts of strings attached, so there’s no point licensing a setting unless the terms are favourable and the setting is a proven draw. As far as original settings go, make sure they have a draw factor – either some aspect to them which really makes people sit up and say “Wow!” and generates a buzz, a bit like how Blue Rose‘s unusual emphasis on romantic fantasy drew attention, or connect it to a major name with a fanbase behind it. Steer clear away from doing GURPS versions of other RPGs, unless the fanbase for that game already is showing a desire for a distinctly different system take on that particular setting which happens to play to GURPS‘ strengths.
And above all, if there’s a pre-existing fanbase for the product you are looking at (and if there isn’t, think twice about doing it), go to that fanbase and market it there. Join their communities, befriend them, market the idea before the book is even written. That is what SJG have dropped the ball on; consistently, they’ve expected RPG fans to come to them rather than going to where the RPG fans are, consistently they’ve expected the fanbases of existing franchises to come to them out of natural curiosity, or hoped that the IP owner of the franchise in question would do their marketing for them, and consistently that’s failed. Go. To. Where. The. Customers. Are. And if you can’t justify investing personnel time on doing that, you can’t justify doing GURPS as anything other than an evergreened legacy product for its existing fanbase.
So much for playing at business consultant – what about for my own personal gaming? Would I use either of my preferred editions of these games to run or play a game? Well, it depends on the genre. I genuinely think that HERO works best out of the box for superhero stuff, and would certainly consider playing or running Champions, but it would need to be with a group who were willing both to invest the energy into learning the system together and also willing to be patient as we went up the learning curve; it’s a credit to Champions 4th that I consider it to be a rewarding learning curve to get up.
As for GURPS, the 3rd Edition certainly feels like a much smoother game than HERO, and better optimised out of the box for more low-powered, realistic games. I would certainly consider using it to run a setting that has an existing GURPS supplement for it and doesn’t have a more flavourful bespoke system for its purposes, because the setting supplement is likely to be golden. I’d also consider getting a GURPS supplement for a genre of game I was about to run even if I didn’t intend to use GURPS with it, simply to see what sort of ideas and analysis the supplement offered.