Monday, May 9, 2016

Superhumans I Have Known (and, on occasion, been)

I ran my first superhero RPG (V&V) sometime in early 1982. By the end of that year, supers took up approximately 90% of my gaming, a trend that would continue for the next twenty years. Most of this was Champions, but I’m not here to talk about rules today. This time around, I wanted to talk about some of the more memorable characters I’ve encountered over the years. I may also mention a few of my own PCs I’ve had fun with.

Your Radioactive Pal
My very first Champions character was Spectrum. He was kind of, sort of, a Wildfire knockoff, in that he was a guy stuck in a containment suit who flew around and blasted stuff. Unlike Wildfire, he wasn’t trapped in an energy state. No, Spectrum was just highly radioactive. Poisonously so. Hence the containment suit, which was bright yellow, with black highlights and a prominently displayed radiation warning symbol on the right chest.

Thing is, Spectrum wasn’t particularly angst-ridden. In fact, he was downright friendly and good natured, a very dedicated hero. Over the years, I played him in multiple campaigns, and he generally ended up in some sort of team leadership role. Eventually, I kind of outgrew him, but I still have a lovely Denis Loubet pencil sketch of him on the wall.

The Psychic Punk
Fury was created by one of my friends from high school. He was a very powerful psionic, whose origin was pretty much lifted from Stephen King’s Firestarter. He was also totally played by Billy Idol. Fury refused to adopt a secret identity, but would happily wipe the memory of it from the minds of people who learned it by accident. One of his more interesting features was that as he burned Endurance, he would go temporarily blind. Despite their differences, he and Spectrum were buds. Throughout more than a few early campaigns, the team of Spectrum and Fury formed the core of whatever team they were on (we often recycled characters back then).

Yeah, I’m not kidding. That’s what his player named him. And honestly, he’s only here because he’s connected to a fairly entertaining story. My first supers game was V&V, and I ran a game for a couple of months. Voltron was my best friend’s V&V character. He had Invisibility and a Lightning Bolt and that’s about all I can tell you about him.  When I discovered Champions a few months later, I dropped V&V like a piece of gold kryptonite. My friend didn’t approve and his passive-aggressive “conversion” of Voltron to a new system remains the only 100 point Champions character I’ve ever seen (he refused to take any Disadvantages, because the V&V version didn’t have any.

(In his defense, he came around shortly thereafter, and became a hardcore Champions player for many years.)

The Prodigal and Naga
These two were a cute idea. Basically, they were adult versions of Jonny Quest and Hadji, as superheroes. The Prodigal was a super-science gadgeteer, Naga was a full-on psychic, and they were accompanied by BANDIT XI, a cybernetic bulldog. Like I said, it was a cute idea. I think the campaign died like many back then, due to too many ideas, but they were a lot of fun.

This guy. God, I couldn’t stand him. A friend who fancied himself a writer decided he wanted to join our game. He had the brilliant idea of playing a guy with superpowers who wasn’t particularly interested in being a superhero. For one thing, he was in his sixties and he’d only had his powers (an array of psionic abilities) for a few months. For another, his natural reaction when confronted with a supervillain was to try to tell the guy off or (maybe) chuck a rock at him. In short, Sage was the perfect example of how NOT to make a PC for a supers game. And yet, he was kind of endearing. Memorable, if nothing else. To the player’s credit, he did better with subsequent characters.

Clifton Edge
Clifton was the first of many characters I would encounter from one of my more…imaginative players. As these things go, Cliff was downright normal, being a cyborg of the Six Million Dollar Man stripe. The oddity was in his origin. You see, Mr. Edge was a millionaire high-tech inventor. He’d developed a set of cybernetic prostheses, but THE GOVERNMENT wouldn’t let him test them on a volunteer. Undeterred, he crashed his race car, causing himself life-threatening injury and had his doctors secretly graft the cybernetics on his broken body.

Given that this same player would later provide us with Cap’n Stretchy, Captain Wombat, SHABOOM (see below) and Danger Man (ditto), Cliff was downright mundane by comparison.

Oh boy. And here I thought Clifton Edge was out there. SHABOOM took it to another level. Have you ever seen the Firesign Theater movie “J-Men Forever”? It’s a collection of re-dubbed and re-edited Republic Serials. As 70s stoner humor goes, it’s pretty OK. Anyway, one of the serials subjected to this treatment was “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” which turned the titular hero into “The Caped Maniac,” powered by the magic word SHABOOM.

(SHABOOM stands for Sneaky, Hateful, Arrogant, Bigoted, Obnoxious, another O for doubly Obnoxious, and Mean.)

Steve (the player) decided this was a perfectly acceptable starting point for a character, and thus SHABOOM was born. Meek Willy Watson, who operated an adult bookstore, only had to speak the magic word to transform. He played him for obnoxious laughs, though he did have a semblance of motivation to do good (mostly so people would leave him alone).

And, while we’re on the subject of Steve…

Danger Man
Steve liked cartoons. A lot. He was into anime before anyone else I knew, but he didn’t really discriminate. If it was animated, he was into it. This included the classic British kid’s show “Danger Mouse.” Danger Man was his tribute to the show. Basically, his superpower was being both indestructible and unflappable (though, clearly, he’d been injured at least once, why else where an eyepatch?). He had defenses for weeks, with Damage Reduction and Regeneration, and a Recovery in the mid-double digits. In short, even if you dropped a bomb on him, he’d shake it off, get up and keep going.  Or, as we occasionally did, have him hold a bomb and drop him on a villain lair, without a parachute.  Good times.

Black Dragon
He’s another of mine, and honestly, kind of a “white savior” trope in the style of Iron Fist. Basically an American kid who fell in with a kung fu cult in Hong Kong under control of the Dragon Master from the Champions Universe. See, in the CU, we have Dragon Master and Green Dragon, so I decided to connect them and make up dragons for the other colors. Black Dragon was the lone good guy. Yeah, I know how it looks now, but he was fun to play and the Dragon Legion showed up in a bunch of my games.

So this is where the guy who played Sage made good. I was running a game set on a variant of DC’s Earth-2, where most of the JSA got killed off in something called The Degaton War, back in the 70s. Thought the heroic legacy was still basically intact. Anyway, my friend, realizing that Sage was a terrible PC for a supers game, relented and came up with a character completely devoted to heroism. The creation of a ten-year-old paraplegic genius, Hero-Man was a superpowered android as well as a father figure for his creator. Powers-wise, he was basically a low-rent Superman. Appearance-wise, well, if you put him in a Superman costume and no one noticed his hair was black (instead of the greying of Earth-2 Supes), he was pretty much a dead ringer (a fact he once exploited as the payoff to a long-running plot gag that yielded an 18d6 Presence Attack). I later resurrected the concept as Hyperion, who I’ll talk about in a bit.

My wife’s first Champions character. Photograph was sort of a cross between Natasha Romanova and Danielle Moonstar: a super-spy who could extract someone’s worst fear and project it as an illusion. She looked like Death from the “Sandman” comics and talked like Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny.” She was a lot of fun in the right setting.

Beamer (the Boy with EMR)
OK, he’s mostly memorable (maybe entirely), because he was created and played by Aaron Allston during my brief stint GMing Champions for a group that included him. He was a blast to have at the table. Beamer was a kid who could do all sorts of tricks with his body’s electromagnetic field. The rest is kind of blurry, since we only played a few times.

Dark Rider
So, I moved to the Houston area and had to come up with an entirely new gaming group. I answered an ad at a game store and ended up with Dark Rider’s player. When I met him, I was so desperate to get a game going, I probably would have said yes to Charles Manson. As it was, this guy was no psychotic killer, but he was two tons of problem player in a half-ton truck and Dark Rider, the manifestation of all of it. The character was a grim loner type, who wore all black biker leathers and a full-face helmet. He was a powerful psionic. Like, world-beater powerful, something I hadn’t paid enough attention to when I was doing character approvals, because I really wanted to get a game going.

Thing is, the reason why he was so freaking powerful on a starting character budget was that the player had some very idiosyncratic interpretations of the character creation rules. Where the rule for the costs of powers states that you always round ½ points in the favor of the player, it makes a rather explicit exception for buying characteristics.  DR’s player didn’t see things this way, and he gave himself DEEP discounts on his characteristics via the Power of Rounding.

In the first adventure I ran, Dark Rider defeated the menace from twenty miles away without leaving the office chair he was sitting in, by dint of powerful Mind Scan and Ego Attacks. It was brutal, it was not in the least bit exciting or interesting, and the other players basically sat there and watched (yes, the one good thing that came with him was a group of players looking for a GM). It was at this point I took a good look at his character sheet and noticed his creative accounting. I asked him to fix it and made sure to add a dollop of Ego Defense to any villain I wanted to keep around for more than a turn.  Eventually, he chafed under my insistence on playing by the rules and left, but by that point his guys had become my guys, so I call it a win.

My wife’s second character, Rainn Randall, heir to a magical ring that bestowed the energies of elemental fire upon her (her grandmother had been Sea-Witch in WWII). She brought an interesting perspective shift to her team (The Alamo Defenders), being a practicing pagan, a pacifist, and the only woman on the team. She had a notoriously successful team up with La Belle Fantom, a New Orleans-based NPC heroine that showed the boys up something fierce.

Another character from the Alamo Defenders game, this was that player’s first RPG character. Force was a fairly mild-mannered guy with strong telekinetic abilities. In that campaign, he was notable for romancing La Belle Fantom, and having a monumental throwdown with a villain named Force over rights to the name. Years later, he was revived in Justin Davis’ “Fair City” campaign, where he started off much the same, then took a turn to the cocky, arrogant, and recklessly violent. Evil, even. Turned out, he’d been kidnapped by his counterpart from the Evil Universe. Only the GM and player knew this at the time; the rest of us had to figure it out via roleplaying clues. It took about six months to fall out and it was AMAZING.

Oh, man, Charon. This was in a campaign I was actually playing instead of running, so I got to see this stuff from that side of the screen. Charon claimed to be the figure from Greek myth. Claimed. Thing was, he was basically a happy-go-lucky, vaguely Mediterranean brick. Nothing about him said “Boatman of the Dead.” He talked like one of the “Wild and Crazy Guys” from that old SNL sketch. He was, frankly, kind of a joke.

Then, about six or seven sessions into the campaign, he got captured by Arnim Zola (yeah, really). He was very well-secured, his strength completely nullified. At that point, his player looked at the GM and said, “It’s time to drop the mask.”  He then proceeded to describe, in horrible detail, exactly how the flesh melted away from Charon’s body, revealing a bloody skeletal visage.  The skeletal form was a horrifying engine of destruction, and it broke Zola’s captivity with ease (also the dude’s mind). It was exactly the sort of unforgettable moment that makes me love gaming so much.

The Mighty Man-Frog
Another player I met through an ad at a game store, this one turned out great. His first character in one of my games was The Mighty Man-Frog, an amphibious take on the Silver-Age Batman.  Seriously, he had an array of frog-themed gadgets, vehicles, an underwater lair, and was notably deadpan. Pretty sure he even smoked a pipe. My one regret is I never got to saddle him with a sidekick named “Toadie, the Toad Wonder.”

Slapstick, The Crime Fightin’ Clown
Another character from Force’s creator. This one was for “Meridian by Moonlight,” my attempt at a Dark-Deco animated style game.  Slapstick was basically a guy with good fighting skills and clown gadgets (pies, joy buzzers, etc.) who was sworn to take down The Mob. Why not?

Probably my favorite personal character, I created him for the “Fair City” campaign. His full story goes on for quite some length, and is detailed here, but suffice to say, I’m quite fond of the old “Warrior, Poet, Lover”, and he deserves a mention.

Hyperion (HYPER-10N)
I’ll finish up with an odd one. A character I made for a convention game, based on an old PC from one of my campaigns, but played in such a memorable fashion that I have to note it. Oh, also, the player was my son.

Hyperion was a re-hash of Hero-Man for an ICONS game I was running. I needed a brick, and I always liked the conceit of the hero who was secretly a robot. I even listed that as one of his Complications.  My son was playing in this game and it was his first convention session playing with adults, so I included him with my boy in mind, in that he was 1) powerful, 2) easy to play. Little did I guess how he’d grasp the subtleties of the rules as quickly as he did.

Here's the situation: the heroes were basically fighting a Cthulhu analog as he rose from the briny deep. They were beaten down, out of options, and (more importantly) out of Determination, the currency ICONS runs on. They were talking among themselves, trying to figure out what to do when the boy said, “Wait. I know how to beat him. I’m going to fly as fast as I can and slam into it with everything I’ve got. It can’t kill me…because I’M SECRETLY A ROBOT!”  This admission earned him a point of Determination, which he used to perform a stunt combining his ranks in Strength with his Flight speed. I ruled that he would suffer half the damage he caused, almost certainly tearing off his outer covering. He hit, the Elder Horror went down, and his secret was exposed.

Also, he got quoted in the next edition of the rules. Thanks, Steve!
So anyway, that’s that. Nearly 3000 words of remembrance and appreciation, all from memory. I thought about looking through some old campaign logs, but I figured if I couldn’t actually remember them, then it wasn’t worth it.  Here’s to making new ones.


  1. The Prodigal and Naga sound great to me. I've always wanted to run/play in a supers campaign but I could never get one off the ground. Thank you for sharing all of this.

  2. Seems to me that this list proves how tricky it is to get players to get the right tone of a supers game.

  3. WQRobb, you're absolutely correct. In my experience, supers is the easiest genre to break if everyone's not on the same page.

  4. I would love to see the write ups of some of these characters, particularly the Prodigal and the Naga. Been watching Johnny Quest online lately. Glad to have you back.

  5. Three mentions! I feel so special... Those were some great games. I still trot them out when my friends start swapping war stories.