Champions (3rd Edition)
“The SUPER Role-Playing Game”

HERO Games, 1986

By George MacDonald and Steve Peterson

8 1/2 x 11 inch perfect bound softcover, 138 pages

Supporting items in the collection

Enemies III: Monstrous Supervillains

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For over a decade, Champions was the name for superhero roleplaying, finally dethroned in sales by Mutants and Masterminds' d20 based system around 2010. Licensed games rose and fell, but Champions steamrollered along without either of the mainstream comic book settings. Champions hit a superhero sweet spot, using a 3d6, point-build rules system that provided plenty of options for players to manipulate in order to create superheroes that both suited their view of the character and allowed them to work the rules to dominate their opponents. Champions supported their game with a host of supplements, giving their setting breadth and depth.

The Setting

In a typical superhero game, a setting is less important than memorable characters: heroes, villains, and organizations. Champions provided a bad guy group in VIPER, a secret organization created by the world's most powerful men back in the 1940s to support their quest for world domination at the conclusion of the war. VIPER served as a source of endless goons, evil plots, and funding for supervillains. VIPER was opposed by UNTIL, an offshoot of the UN that battled terrorists and supervillains.

Character Creation

Champions used a moderately complex point buy system. Characters were described using eight primary characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Body, Intelligence, Ego, Presence, and Comeliness), all starting at the default human normal value of ten. There were also six figured characteristics: Physical Defense (calculated as Strength divided by five), Energy Defense (Constitution divided by five), Speed (one plus Dexterity divided by ten), Recovery (Strength divided by five plus Constitution divided by five), Endurance (Constitution times two), and Stun (Body plus half of Strength plus half of Constitution). As the figured characteristics show, Strength and Constitution were the most important characteristics for a hero, followed closely by dexterity, as will be seen in the combat rules.

Players started with a default of one hundred points to spend on their characters to modify their characteristics, buy skills, and buy superpowers. The rules expected this sum to be increased by taking disadvantages, or referees desiring higher powered characters might provide more points.

Rather than leap right in and begin calculating, the authors suggested visualizing the character before buying abilities to match that conception, almost certainly adjusting the hero's abilities downwards at the end of the process to bring him or her in line with costs. The authors also recommended paying attention to four core abilities: the character's mobility, their offensive capabilities, their defensive capabilities, and the hero's "flavor," the qualities that differentiated the character from other heroes. Conveniently, the superpower list was broken up into these four categories, which made it easier for players to set their characters up.

Instead of attempting to present a comprehensive list of powers, Champions provided a set of effects and made the players decide the specifics of how those effects were enacted. By way of example, throwing lighning bolts, blasts of flame, laser beams, concussive force or icy-cold blasts from deep space were all implementations of the Energy Blast power, and the in-game effects were the same. This system allowed players to conveniently base their hero's powers around a theme.

Superpowers were expensive. If a player wanted to create a character with meaningful abilities, the player had to be clever and accept some limitations. Character defects were the simplest approach, but too many of these and a character began to look more pathetic than heroic. Players needed to consider building limitations into the powers themselves. Basic limitations included a focus (the power was available through a device that might be taken away from the hero), a possibility the power might not always work, or a possibility that the power might never work under the wrong conditions. The biggest limitation to characters was built into the game system: most actions cost Endurance points in play, so characters could not keep fighting indefinitely. Another way to manipulate power costs was to adjust the Endurance needed for the power, or powers might be based off a limited battery that had different Endurance points from the character. A player might also reduce costs by bundling powers. One bundling option was Elemental Control, where all of the powers had a similar theme: the rulebook called this discount a bonus for having a good character concept. A slightly more esoteric possibility was the Multipower power, which discounted powers because they all drew their Endurance points from a common, set aside pool. The game discounted the costs for the powers because the character could not use all of her powers at full strength.

The authors advised that characters also have skills. The skill list was short (only twelve choices), and skills were cheap. This was to encourage character advancement through increased skills rather than enhancing their superpowers.

The Game System

As may be expected, the bulk of the game system concerned itself with combat. However, characters might be called upon to perform simple feats. The general system was to roll 3d6, trying to roll less than or equal to a target number of nine plus the relevant characteristic divided by five.

Combat

Champions took combat very seriously, with wargame-like attention to detail. It was strongly suggested that the referee use a map and figures. Movement was calculated in inches; characters who could fly had a turn rate that showed how many inches they had to move forward before they could turn, and there were notes on swimming, leaping, and gliding.

Combat rounds used a phased movement system, where the round was divided into twelve segments. An extra segment after the twelveth one was a recovery segment, where characters recovered their spent endurance and some of their damage. Most characters could not act on every segement: the number of segments they could act on (and which specific segments they were) was based on a character's speed score. In a combat environment, a slow hero was at a serious disadvantage, unable to act in many segments. Heroes were unable to adjust their powers, shift position, or do much of anything if they weren't active that phase, although apparently they were able to discard their next active phase to take a defensive action in an inactive phase. Since Speed was a fraction of dexterity, players who intended to act during combat needed to build their character accordingly.

The basic combat system was relatively simple: players rolled 3d6, trying to roll less than or equal to the target number. This was set at eleven plus the attacker's offensive combat value (OCV) minus the defender's defensive combat value (DCV). A character's basic combat value was their Dexterity divided by three, modified by skills, powers, and situational variables. To prevent these situational variables from getting out of hand, Champions limited their list to fifteen, and suggested referees be prepared to improvise.

Players might also choose specific combat maneuvers. There were nine basic combat maneuvers (fourteen if the character had martial arts): punch, haymaker, kick, block, etc. Most of these maneuvers gave a bonus or penalty to the OCV and DCV, and might provide a modifier to the damage roll.

Character damage was tracked via Stun (for non-lethal hits that would eventually knock a hero out of the fight) or Body (for lethal damage). Typical damage was from the attacker's Strength score (for a blow) or the power of her Energy Blast. The value of this score was divided by five to determine the number of dice rolled; the result was the amount of basic Stun dished out. Typically, a defender also took one point of Body for each damage die rolled, but this was gently modified: damage dice that rolled ones did no Body damage, while damage dice that rolled sixes did two points of Body (in addition to their stun damage). A character's Physical Defense score (Strength divided by five) was subtracted from both Body and Stun damage for normal attacks. (A character used their Energy Defense score in the same way against Energy attacks.)

Some attacks were classified as Killing Attacks. These rolled fewer dice (generally, the attack value divided by fifteen), but the resulting damage was all Body. The Body damage was multiplied by 1d6-1 (minimum value of one) for Stun damage. Killing attacks had increased effectiveness because they ignored normal defenses, but could be reduced if the target had armor, a force field, or the Power Damage Resistance power.

Stun damage served to knock heroes out of the fight. If a hero took more Stun damage than his Constitution score in a single attack, he was helpless until he took a full phase to recover. If a hero took enough Stun damage to drop his Stun score to zero or less, he was knocked out and helpless until the recovery phase at the end of the combat round. The more negative his Stun score, the slower his recovery and return to activity.

Body damage was lethal damage. Should a hero's Body score be reduced to zero, he needed help (and as the authors point out, in the comics, it should be easy to bring an injured hero back). If Body isn't brought back to a positive number, the victim lost another Body point each round; death occured when the hero was at double his body score below zero. Once more, the authors point out that even dead heroes often recover eventually.

While physical and energy attacks used the same system, Champions also had Presence attacks, where a character could stun their opponents by the power of their reputation and their shocking appearance. Presence attacks had players roll a die for every five points of Presence, comparing the score to the defender's Presence score. Successful results ranged from the target hesitating up to completely cowing the target into surrender or fainting.

Comic book combat being what it is, an important feature of Champions was the Knockback. Energy Blasts, some combat maneuvers, and killing attacks could produce a knockback. The attacker would roll an additional 2d6 after a hit. If the result was less than the Body damage actually received by the target, he would be knocked back by the amount of Body damage done, less the 2d6 amount. The victim would receive additional damage for striking objects, or just 1d6 damage for every scale inch knocked back. There were modifiers to these rules based on the mass of the victim, the type of attack that hit, or whether the target was bracing himself to avoid being knocked back. To accompany rules about Knockback, there were rules on the material strength of objects (so you could be smashed through them, or use them as weapons to smash others). As for more conventional weapons, guns and the like could be constructed as superpowers: after all, they were ranged killing attacks and followed the same game mechanics, so why not?

Recovery

At the end of every round, after the twelvth segment, heroes recovered as many Endurance and Stun points as their Recovery attribute indicated. Figures could also use a phase to recover by the same amount, at the price of being defenseless (DCV of zero for that segment). Here was another hidden advantage to a Killing Attack: Body did not recover quickly, and reduced Body points also reduced how much Stun a character could sustain. Under normal circumstances, Body recovered at one tenth the Recovery rate, per day. Needless to say, in the comics, there were all kinds of excuses to recover body damage more quickly.

Experience

Characters were expected to develop and grow in Champions, but slowly. Experience points could be spent just like the points used for character creation, but the rules suggested a low rate of one to two points earned per adventure.

The rest of the book

Champions came with four simple adventures and fourteen characters fully statted out. These could be used as heroes or villains (except one, who was only suited to be villain). The initial rulebook was thus sufficient to get a group up and running without much help.

Summary

Champions was the result of several competing design maxims. One was to be flexible: the world of superheroics is one of constant invention and a good set of rules needed to be able to accommodate all kinds of powers and situations the designers may not have considered. Opposing this was the need for simplicity: too many special case rules and the system could become unplayable or merely turn off new players. A third was the need to provide exquisite detail for combat that could handle short matches between superheroes and normal people as well as extended slugfests of superhero vs. villain. Fourth, Champions strove for balance: characters built on the same point basis should be as closely equal to each other as possible, to prevent one kind of hero from dominating the whole game.

We found much to admire in this game. Using a limited number of effects combined with customized descriptions was a clever solution to bringing a wide variety of potential superpowers into a workable framework. It's clear from all the various formulas that the designers worked very hard to establish play balance for virtually every feature of the rules. It's also easy to see after this reading that the pleasure in playing this game lay not just in role playing, but in the chess-like calculations in character design, to try to work the rules to not just bring your character to life, but also to see how your character stood in combat. We understand why Champions deserved its place as the premier game of superheroics for so long.

A Personal Note from the Curator

Champions intimidated me for a very long time. As a very occasional player, the rules were a near complete mystery to me: OCV? DCV? Kill vs. regular attack? Body and Stun damage? The character creation system was impossible to figure out while the rest of the group was clamoring to get started—it was easier to describe a character and let somebody else build it, but it was dreadfully disappointing to discover the character was so much weaker than the original vision. It was also frustrating to play: my characters never had enough speed to suit me, spending too much time in melee being a punching bag. Bad die luck and the DCVs of my opponents made my attacks failures, which only added to my frustration. Champions is no game for the uninformed or unlucky. I was pleasantly surprised to find the rules far less complicated than I suspected, and I truly enjoy seeing the contrasts between the Champions system and other superheroics games. I will probably never run this game myself, but it's very nice to see what the excitement was all about.

—RAD
April 16, 2011.

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