Champions: The Role-Playing Game, released in 1981, was one of the earliest second-generation RPG’s to take advantage of the lessons learned from DND and Traveller. The game rules and point buy character generation system were designed first and foremost to simulate superhero combat from the comics and did so brilliantly, with a logarithmic scale for attributes (STATs) and powers allowing characters at vastly different power levels to easily be handled within the same rules set. Unfortunately, Champions also rapidly became another example of what Ken Pick has referred to as the “monster game carcinoma” that plagued the 80’s, with release after release after release of supplemental rules, campaigns, modules, screens, expansions to other genres, etc. for the system. (Like Ken, I thought the Magic Card Extinction Event had nearly made the disease extinct for science fiction games, but Mongoose is well on the way to reviving it for Traveller.) There were so many things to purchase that to this day the books occupy several linear feet of bookshelf space in my study (second only to my collection of chess books.) It has often occurred to me if I had purchased Apple stock with all of the money I have spent over the years on books for my various hobbies my wife and I would be sitting on a tropical beach somewhere sipping a frosty libation even as we speak. (Amusingly, the Apple stock price chart also requires a semi-logarithmic plot.)
Unlike Dungeons and Dragons or Traveller, however, Champions never became an extended, cherished campaign in our group. In part, our desire to return to one of our true first loves was the first sign of an issue my gentle readers will remember from earlier posts, the group’s evolving need for a less-complex and speedier combat resolution system. (A Champions melee takes much, much longer to resolve in the game than it does to read about it in a graphic novel or see it on the movie screen.) However, another reason became clear during play: my players could not accept the ‘catch and release’ aspect of the superhero genre, where villains return again and again to plague the heroes.
A common convention of the superhero genre is the concept of “code vs. killing”, where the hero always attempts to capture the villain and being him to justice rather than simply whacking him in the street as an example to his peers not to violate Wil Wheaton’s law. The code goes back to Superman, whose code vs. killing is one of the character’s defining principles. While admirable, in conjunction with an inefficient criminal justice system and poorly designed prisons (apparently due to a congenital and widespread unwillingness to recognize the actual level of danger superpowered villains pose to society), the failure to kill the villain nearly always results in his return to his life of crime at a later date. The ‘catch and release’ concept, where the recurring villains become familiar foils for the heroes and in some cases (like the Joker and Batman) come to actually define the heroes, is a wonderful literary device for episodic storytelling. Sadly, RPG players do not see their game as a graphic novel. Players raised in the hobby on a steady diet of monsters to kill for XPs (followed by the ritual looting of the lair) despise having to defeat the same villain over and over. It seems inefficient on their part, and insincere on mine. An occasional vigilante hero NPC makes a nice contrast to the remainder of the PC heroes and allows a GM to explore concepts of justice vs. law in his campaign; an entire swarm of player characters who encounter villainous NPCs and terminate them with extreme prejudice (as mine came to do) take a superhero campaign down dark and implausible roads where a GM or his players should not wander for long. And so, we did not.
During our brief Champions runs, no NPCs drew the ire of my vigilante player characters like the NPC’s with mental powers. Part of the issue was the point buy nature of Champions, where players would skimp on mental defenses to optimize the character against other physical threats. Naturally, when an NPC appeared who could take advantage of this weakness in combat he was never given an opportunity to do it twice. No one likes having his or her mind read, influenced, or controlled. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the epitome of nonviolence, once said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” (It is doubtful he was actually referring to mental powers, but the sentiment is clear enough.)
Mental powers (and the fear and loathing they usually generate) are a common theme in science fiction of all kinds:
“Also, I can kill you with my brain.” — River, to Jayne in the Firefly episode “Trash”
“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Luke Skywalker
“Your mind, to me, is an open book: full of big print and lots of pictures!” — Maldis, Farscape
“We are everywhere for your convenience.” — From a Psi Corps advertisement (Babylon 5)
“Of course I’m a threat. Why? Did you think for a moment that I wasn’t?” — Emma Frost (powerful telepathic villain originally with the Hellfire Club and now with the X-Men.)
Surprisingly, in spite of the evidence above, mental powers (referred to in Traveller as psionics) are a popular part of most Traveller campaigns. In the Official Traveller Universe (OTU), the Zhodani (an offshoot of humanity) are a major interstellar government whose entire society is structured around the employment of psionics by the nobility and the government. As you might expect, in the OTU the Zhodani have fought five interstellar wars with the Imperium in the last 500-odd years. The antipathy of the Imperium towards the psionic Zhodani confuses the Zhodani terribly, because they only use their powers for good. Just ask them. (Of course, the Zhodani also started all of the wars.)
The love Traveller players have for psionics in their campaigns fascinates me. A game whose gearheads pride themselves on complex and intricate technical design sequences for weapons, vehicles, and starships (literally, to the point of being a game within a game) and whose players passionately argue the finer points of game technology back and forth in the forums at excruciating length has at its core in the OTU mental powers even more magical than faster-than-light drives, reactionless drives, lasers with light-second weapon ranges, or starships without heat radiators. The players of my murderous Champions vigilante group are happy to have billions of NPCs with psionic powers in the Traveller game universe with them as long as a few of the PCs have psionics as well.
Does that seem right to you?
As TV Tropes points out, the more powerful and dramatic the psychic powers, the ‘softer’ the sci-fi. Inclusion of psionics is one of the key elements that push Traveller firmly into the category of space opera rather than hard science fiction.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Space opera frequently produces lighter and more entertaining stories than hard, accurate science fiction. As one of my players once said about Cyberpunk 2020, “I don’t come to our game to enjoy grim and depressing worlds where everyone is out to screw us over; I’ve got real life for that.”
Remember one of the key lessons of our GM school, though: Always think through the consequences for your campaign universe of the things you include in your campaign background, and define their limits carefully. The details you generate during your thought processes will give depth and reality to the campaign it might lack otherwise. And psionics, just like nanotechnology, will turn your campaign into grey goo if you let it.
As promised, here are the psionic house rules for my campaign:
Savage Worlds Traveller House Rules 5.0 beta: Arcane Background: Psionics
The section on psionic technology is a reflection of those thought processes in my own campaign. I like to think that it helps explain why there have been five wars with the Zhodani instead of just one. (Of course, the Imperium has technically lost three of the five conflicts, drawn two, and won none. Well, at least the Zhodani aren’t like these guys.)
The dust has finally settled a little bit around here following my heart attack four weeks ago. I’ll try to pick up the pace a little on the posting.
Finally, never forget: if you don’t see the fnord, it can’t eat you.