Never play Champions with a GM who Hates Superheroes
Back in May, John Wick wrote an essay for the Gaming Outpost's "Listen Up" feature, entitled either "Hit 'em Where It Hurts" or "There's More than One Way to Kill a Champions Character" (the first title is given in the index, the second within the essay itself).
This essay was first brought to my attention in early October, when a poster on the Pyramid discussion boards referenced it as an example of the sort of thing we might expect from Mr. Wick's forthcoming "Play Dirty" column in Pyramid. Although at this point the essay was several months old, it inspired a fair amount of comment on the boards, both favorable and unfavorable (but mostly unfavorable).
When I first read the essay I was certain that it was intended as satire, in the vein of Jeff Freeman's late, lamented "Ack!" column on rpg.net, and that those who objected to the petty, bullying tactics that Mr. Wick "advocates" were missing the point. It seems I was alone in my interpretation, as none of the posters objecting to or defending the piece seemed to think it was anything less than 100% serious. Now, when somebody reads a satire, takes it seriously, and disagrees with it, that's no big deal. It happens to everybody, even Jonathan Swift. But when a number of people read a satire, take it seriously, and agree with it, that's another story. And when only one person thinks it's a satire, that person is probably wrong, especially when it's me.
Therefore, this essay is both an attempt to analyze Mr. Wick's essay and my apparently unique reaction to it. From here on in, I'll be assuming that the incidents related in the essay all really happened, and that the reasons he gives for engineering these events are honest and accurate. In short, I'll be reading it as if it were not satire.
An Overview of Mr. Wick's Essay
Mr. Wick's essay is basically a list of the various ways he's destroyed player characters in his Champions campaign. Not just killed them, mind you, but destroyed them: humiliated them, abused them, and forced them to betray their own ideals. Why does he do this? It's never entirely clear, but apparently he thinks that's the point of Champions. And maybe for his group it is. Maybe that's what they do. Each player pores over the Champions rulebook and tries to construct a 250 point character that the GM can't immediately hose. Then the GM has a villain mind-control them into killing their own grandmother on a red trolley car. That's certainly not what any group I've ever played with does, but, hey, everybody's different.
Mr. Wick seems to think that everybody wants to play Champions this way. He presents his list as a useful resource for other GMs, without so much as acknowledging that his methods are at all unusual. He never says, "My players enjoy this sort of thing, but if you start pulling stunts like these out of the blue, yours will probably walk."
The essay's central premise seems to be that a disadvantage, any disadvantage at all, is a fatal flaw, and that any player who takes a disadvantage for their character is essentially putting a noose around the character's neck and handing the GM the other end of the rope. Oh, and the same thing goes for advantages. And powers, skills, and the character's favorite brand of toothpaste for all I know -- although Mr. Wick restricts himself to advantages and disadvantages in this particular essay.
I shouldn't have to say this at all, but please don't conclude from the above that I'm somehow advocating the idea that nothing bad should ever happen to PCs as a result of their disadvantages. Disadvantages should make the character's life more difficult. They should force the character to make hard decisions. They should not, however, render the character impossible to play.
Having played in a few superhero campaigns in my time, I'm generally slightly disappointed if one of my disadvantages never comes into play. Similarly as a GM, I feel like I haven't done my job if every PC doesn't have most of his or her disadvantages come up at one point or another. Disadvantages are an intrinsic part of the character, and part of the fun for me is seeing how the characters deal with their weaknesses. That's "deal with" not "are inevitably destroyed by," which seems to be what Mr. Wick is looking for.
In order to illustrate his premise, Mr. Wick presents a series of examples from his own campaign: both detailed stories of how he ended the careers of various PCs whose players were foolish enough to take certain disadvantages, as well as more general summaries of how he uses advantages against the PCs as well. I'd like to examine each of these in turn, briefly, and consider Mr. Wick's actions as GM, with an eye toward working out exactly what he wants the reader to learn from each example.
The Parable of Malice
Malice's "sin" was that she had a family. Her player took the "DNPC" disadvantage to represent the fact that Malice had to care for her elderly grandmother. "DNPC" represents a very common superhero trope, and is commonly used to provide the hero with difficult choices to make. "I can't let the Green Goblin get away, but I can't let Aunt May find out I'm Spider-Man!" or "You see, Superman, I've just launched three missiles. Lois Lane is tied to the one flying due north. Jimmy Olsen is tied to the one flying due south. And the third is carrying a 30-megaton nuclear warhead toward downtown Metropolis!" When a player takes this disad, he or she is tacitly agreeing to be placed into that sort of situation.
What happened to Malice, though, takes this a step farther. Some might say a step too far. To simultaneously be rendered helpless, have your identity exposed, and to have someone you feel responsible for die as a direct result of your humiliating defeat, is a pretty hefty "punishment" for taking a 25-point disadvantage.
It's hard to tell what makes Mr. Wick happier: that Malice "retired" from being a superhero, or that no one in his game ever took the DNPC disad again. This latter fact indicates to me that there may be some disparity between what the GM wants from the game and what the players want. Clearly, the players aren't willing to let Mr. Wick do that sort of thing to their characters' friends and loved ones. If his intent was to stop anyone from ever taking that particular disad, then he succeeded. Of course, if that were his intent, he could just as easily have disallowed DNPCs to start with.
As a side note, I wish Mr. Wick had told us more about the player's reaction to this turn of events. Was the player happy to retire Malice, or was the character no longer fun to play after being so completely and publicly humiliated? This story also serves as an example of why Mr. Wick's advice probably won't work for most GMs. I know that if I had a villain do something like that to one of the PCs in my group (as they have on occasion), the player's response would not be, "I don't think I wanna be a superhero anymore." It would be more like, "Okay. If that's the way Carter wants to play, we're going downtown." (I'll have more on "Jefferson Carter" later.)
The Parable of Scrapper
Here, Mr. Wick lets a player create and run a character so abusive to the spirit (and letter?) of the rules that it ruins the game for the other players. There's a "happy" ending though, as Mr. Wick has an NPC create an illusion to deliberately trigger the character's Berserk disad, so that he attacks his teammates and innocent bystanders.
I have no objection to the GM setting up a situation where a character's Berserk disad comes into play. As a player or as a GM, I'd be disappointed if there was a character in the group with Berserk who never lost control and almost killed a teammate. Otherwise, why does the character even have the disad? The way Wick did it is sort of cheesy, but that's not the issue. What's telling here is that Mr. Wick let this player run a character that he found unacceptable and that diminished the enjoyment of the other players just to teach him a lesson. I can't help thinking that it might have been easier on everyone involved if he had simply disallowed the character and explained why. But maybe that's just me.
The Parable of Paladin
This one started off so well. The concept of a hero and a villain who unknowingly have a relationship in their secret identities is classic comic book stuff, and great for roleplaying. You have internal conflict, external conflict, issues of secrecy and trust, what happens when one of the people involved figures it out before the other one, how do the hero's teammates react, and so on. Mr. Wick decides to punt all that and just mind-control the hero into beating up his girlfriend because he has a Psychological Limitation that he won't hit a woman.
I really don't know what the point is here, other than "If you can't think of any other way to hose the PC, just mind-control him into doing something antithetical to his entire personality." I mean, come on, why not just mind-control him into going down to the subway station and putting his tongue on the electric third rail? I'm sure he's got a psychological limitation against that, too, even if it's not written on his character sheet.
The Lesson of Luck
Here's where I start veering back into my conclusion that this must be satire. Simply put, Mr. Wick says that bad things should happen to a character because he or she is lucky. This is absurd. Is the reader really expected to take this seriously? Granted, there is a bit of sophistry were he tries to justify this bizarre and contrarian interpretation of what "Luck" means by asserting that anyone who takes the Luck advantage must be "selfish" because he or she could have spent those points on something that would help his or her teammates. I guess anybody who buys any sort of defensive power or skill that isn't "Usable by Others" must be selfish, too. This is the only place where Mr. Wick tries to offer any rationalization or justification for his GMing techniques. Perhaps this indicates that even he finds this bit hard to swallow?
The Lesson of Find Weakness
PCs who indiscriminately use Find Weakness might accidentally kill an opponent. So they might. All well and good, and a reminder for players to be careful with their attacks.
What I don't get is why Jefferson Carter has to be involved in this. Find Weakness doesn't require any foreknowledge, does it? Also, wouldn't the PCs start to get maybe a tad suspicious if this happened more than once? "Gee, we hit him in that spot right under his breast plate, just like Mr. Carter said, and it killed him." "Yeah, just like last month when we accidentally killed those two guys by shooting their oxygen tanks like he told us to." "I wonder how come he always knows what their weaknesses are?"
If this happened often enough, I think most of us would at least save up some experience points and buy a STUN-only attack. Of course, knowing Mr. Wick, he'd turn around and introduce a bunch of villains with a Fatal Vulnerability to STUN-only attacks.
The Lesson of Immunity
And this is where Mr. Wick finally breaks down and cheats. There's this fatal disease, see, that affects all superheroes. But it's all right, because there's a cure. Oh, but the catch is if you have Immunity then you're immune -- to the cure. Neener. Neener.
This is just nonsense. You wouldn't let a player get away with having a power like that, so why should the players let the GM get away with it?
I suspect that part of the problem here is Mr. Wick's incorrect interpretation of the Immunity advantage. No Champions character has just "Immunity." You must be immune to something -- a specific poison or disease. Immunity to Rattlesnake Venom. Immunity to Smallpox. If you want your character to be immune to rattlesnake venom and smallpox, then you buy Immunity twice -- once for rattlesnake venom, once for smallpox. Characters who want to be immune to all disease or all poisons (maybe the character is a robot, and is immune to poison and disease because he's completely inorganic) don't buy the Immunity advantage, they buy the Life Support power.
What Mr. Wick has done is created a disease that's fatal to anyone who is immune to anything. If you're immune to rattlesnake venom, sorry the vaccine won't work on you. Immune to small pox? Sorry, won't work on you either. How is that possible? What's in this cure that anybody who's immune to any disease or poison is "immune" to the cure? Is it simply a mixture of all known poisons and diseases?
(Here, incidentally, I present a bit of free advice to Champions GMs that should apply to just about everybody, regardless of your agreement or disagreement with the controversial Mr. Wick. Always make your players describe their character and his or her powers, skills, and so forth without using any game mechanics. Always try to do the same with your NPCs.)
A few words about Mr. Jefferson Carter
As a player in a superhero roleplaying game, I'm well aware that there is a single person who controls all the information I have access to, who makes the decisions for all the people I meet, all the villains I fight, and basically everybody except me and a few of my close friends. That person is the GM. I don't think it's necessary for there to be a single NPC within the game world who fulfills all the functions that the GM has in the real world. John Wick apparently does find a need for such a person and his name is Jefferson Carter.
Carter is an evil mastermind who "runs" all the superheroes and all the supervillains in the campaign. Why? In Mr. Wick's words, "Because he can." "Because he can" is not a reason. There are any number of things that Carter can do. Why does he choose to do this one thing in preference to the many other things he could do instead? There can be no answer to that question, because Jefferson Carter is devoid of anything resembling human motivation. He's not a character, he's a plot device. He's the Killer GM inserted into the game world. Professor X is secretly the Kingpin, and he's read your character sheet.
The Parable of Mr. Fabulous
This is different. Here, in contrast to the previous parables, Mr. Wick shows up that in addition to killing off or "retiring" heroes in a demeaning, degrading or dehumanizing way, he can also just have them shot in the head by a two-bit punk in a botched convenience store holdup. Okay, that's a bit unfair. Mr. Fabulous did die a hero, and investigating his murder did eventually lead the heroes to Carter. Perhaps significantly, this is the only case where Mr. Wick explicitly tells us he discussed the situation with the player beforehand.
So what makes Mr. Fabulous different? Well, he must not have taken any disadvantages or advantages of which Mr. Wick disapproves. We know he had the very popular Psychological Limitation "Code Against Killing", but we can only assume that he had no other Psych. Lims or DNPCs, since he did not share the ignoble fate of Paladin or Malice. He must not have been immune to any toxins or diseases since he survived the Immunity Plague. He wasn't "lucky" enough to ever find himself alone and surrounded by dozens of enemies or targeted by the mob. We know that Find Weakness is inconsistent with Code Against Killing in this campaign, and the possibility of his going Berserk under certain conditions is almost too ridiculous to mention. The moral of this parable may just be that if you're a good boy or girl, and you don't take any of those bad disadvantages or advantages, then when you die your death will only seem random and pointless at first.
If Mr. Wick really is completely serious in this article, if he does not as I first suspected have his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, then what he presents here is a blueprint for a certain type of superhero campaign. This campaign is set in a world where it's stupid to be a superhero, where even the bravest, wisest and noblest heroes are unwitting pawns of a spiteful madman, where every life is a tragedy and every weakness a fatal flaw. It's a twisted, nightmare reflection of the normal superhero world -- it flatly rejects the basic assumptions of the genre. I'm not saying that such a setting has no value, either as fiction, or commentary on the superhero genre, or indeed as a roleplaying game if that's what the players want. I suspect that playing a superhero in such a world would become less than fun very, very quickly. I'm certain that it's not what most people look for in a superhero roleplaying game. If you take Mr. Wick's advice seriously, and if you plan to follow it, I'd strongly advise for your sake and that of your players that you make sure everybody knows going in to the game what kind of game it's going to be.
Ultimately, then, I think my strong negative reaction to this essay stems from Mr. Wick's apparent hostility toward the player characters and the superhero genre as a whole. I can't imagine myself enjoying the sort of campaign he advocates here, either as a player or as a GM. Nor can I imagine that most people would. Strangely, this never seems to have occured to Mr. Wick.
© 1999 Steven Howard.