Thursday, March 7, 2013

RPG review - Champions Universe

Champions Universe

Game Type:  Roleplaying Game
Author:  Steve Long & Darren Watts
Publisher:  DOJ dba Hero Games
Medium:  8.5” x 11” paperback, 160 pages
Price:  $21.99

            One of the most important questions about a game supplement is “What is the goal of this book?”  Champions Universe addresses this question on the first page of the Introduction.  The goal of this book is to provide both new and experienced GMs with a setting for their Hero 5th Edition superhero game.  If the GM does not use the standard Champions universe, he is encouraged to use as much or as little of the material in this book as a supplement to his own campaign.  This leaves the question; does Champions Universe provide a workable setting or workable elements to be used in your own setting?
            Champions Universe is divided into six chapters, with each chapter having subsections that are well delineated by headers.  The book has a comprehensive Table of Contents that breaks down the chapters, subsections, and further subsections.  A comprehensive Index is also included in the back of the book.  Between the Table of Contents and Index, there is no problem finding the section you want to reference.
            Chapter One discusses heroes from their first costumed appearance in the Champions Universe (in 1797) up to the 21st century.  A brief history is given, touching on several different eras, from the first hero during the Revolutionary War, to an esteemed Victorian England detective, to the heroes arising in the early 20th century Pulp Era.  The book continues with World War I and II, and then moves on to the more recent decades of the past 50 years.  Included in this section are 3 character write-ups, each from a different era.  Chapter One ends with a timeline of the Champions Universe that runs from circa 2 million BC to 2002.
            Chapter Two is the shortest chapter in the book.  This chapter gives the ‘campaign write-up’ for the Champions Universe setting.  The standard characteristic ranges are defined, along with the different types and sources of powers.  The demographics of the superhuman population, including differing power levels, are also discussed.  While this is a short chapter, it is a good example of how to define the base parameters of a campaign, answering many questions that eventually come up.
            Chapter Three is one of the meatier chapters for players to read.  This chapter discusses superhumans and how the world has reacted to their existence.  Primarily focusing on the United States of America, other nations are given a bit of treatment here as well.  Several organizations that exist due to the existence of superhumans are explained, including reasons for their formation and current outlook on superhumans.  Many organizations that exist outside of the realm of superhumans are discussed, including their attitudes toward superhumans.
            Chapter Three also delves into the legalities of the superheroes actions, providing a synopsis of police procedures to enhance your game.  The impact of superheroes on the media and technology is discussed.  Subcultures that are affected by the existence of superhumans are also investigated, whether they are a direct by-product of the existence of superhumans, or merely existing subcultures that feel the effect.  All in all, chapter three provides an excellent look into a world where superhumans exist, as well as providing plenty of character and plot hooks.
            Chapter Four takes a different look at the world from that of Chapter Three.  Whereas chapter three looked at concepts and ideas, chapter four moves to locations.  The chapter begins by looking at a few locations across each of the continents, giving a brief summary of existing superhumans and other major figures in the area.  After touching on countries across the continents, this chapter moves on into more detailed descriptions of a few of the cities in the United States of America.  Three cities, Millennium City, Vibora Bay, and Haynesville, Kansas, are all described.  Millennium City and Vibora Bay get a bit more description, but they are larger cities.  Haynesville is significant due to being the origination point of a famous WWI superhero, as well as being an area where superhuman powers were initially studied.
            Chapter Four also discusses other areas on Earth, such as Atlantis, the Antarctic city of Arcadia, Lemuria, and Monster Island.  Atlantis is described more than the other locations, providing a detailed history and current outlook.  The other locations are given a brief discussion, but enough detail that they could be used as a location in a game.  The chapter ends with brief dialogues on alien life and other dimensions.  While not long, these two subsections give a good description of their respective subjects, including threats that exist and plot hooks to use.
            Chapter Five takes a more in-depth look at major characters and organizations in the Champions Universe.  The threat levels of different villains are discussed, giving a good glimpse into the motivations of these potentially earth-shattering villains.  Unfortunately, character write-ups for the villains are not included.  The chapter then goes on to discuss three ‘good guy’ organizations: L’Institut Thoth, The Trismegistus Council, and Until.  The history and disposition of the organizations are touched upon, with Until receiving the most attention.  One nice inclusion is the write-up of an Until Urban Agent.
            After the ‘good guy’ organizations, Chapter Five gives the same treatment to seven villainous organizations.  The groups discussed are Argent, The Circle of the Scarlet Moon, DEMON, Eurostar, The Institute for Human Advancement, PSI, and VIPER.  This section touches on the groups’ motivations and history, as well as current outlook.  However, there are no character write-ups provided here.
            Chapter Six is the longest chapter in the book, totaling in at 42 pages.  But there is definitely a reason for it.  While the rest of the book is a good primer on the Champions Universe for the players of a game, this chapter should be reserved for the GM’s eyes only.  Chapter six opens with a few brief possible specific campaign settings, ranging from non-superhuman police to a school for ‘gifted’ youth.
            But the real meat of Chapter Six comes under the subsection “The GM’s Vault”.  This section gives details and plot hooks that players of a campaign shouldn’t know, including plot twists to common knowledge.  The way this information is presented is very well defined and organized.  The information is presented in the order it is presented in the earlier chapters.  You are given the page number, the subject discussed, and the additional information.  This additional information ranges from character write-ups to surprising plot twists, to affirmation of rumors.  I don’t want to divulge any spoilers here lest a player is reading this review.  Suffice to say, this section provides a wealth of information and tools for the GM to utilize.  Chapter Six ends with a short adventure that serves as an introduction to a villain that the heroes can battle time and again over a long-running campaign.
            My impression of the book is positive.  The setting information was not a chore to read, it was well organized, entertaining, and informative.  The book provides a lot of information and takes a good look at how superhumans would affect a world, as well as how the world would react to the existence of superheroes and villains.  The way the material is presented, with the GM’s section separated at the back, really makes it handy for the GM.  He can let the players read the appropriate sections without giving away secrets on the same page.
            The character write-ups that are included in the book are all well done, though no ‘big name’ characters are included.  The Until Agent, Viper Agent, DEMON Brother, and Minuteman Robot are the more well known concepts that are written up.  Other write-ups are there to fill in additional information about parts of the setting, as well as to provide antagonists and allies when using the section.
            The art ranges from gritty realistic to black and white four color comic book style.  I think that most of the art is good, with a small portion being less appealing, but this is a matter of personal taste.  One thing that isn’t arguable is that the art is used well.  It is placed in appropriate areas where it actually fits what is being discussed.  You do not see a picture and wonder why it is on that page after you read the section around it.
            One thing that might be a surprise in a setting book is the low number of maps.  There are only a few maps, and those are not the most useful ‘in-game’ maps.  The maps that are included consist of continents with the countries lined in and the map of the Hero Universe.  This is literally a map of the Hero Universe, indicating the regions where different alien races reside in comparison to the Galactic Core and the location of the Earth.  Appropriately enough, the Earth is not part of the Galactic Core.
I really only have two negative comments about this book.  First, it would be nice to be able to let a player take the book home without worrying that they will look at the GM section.  In an ideal world, the GM section would be a separate booklet that comes packaged with either the GM screen or along with the Champions Universe book.  Of course this would entail extra cost and other potential issues, so I’ll just rely on player-GM trust.
Second, the book references Champions in a couple of places.  Champions is the superhero genre book for Hero 5th Edition.  Now these occurrences are minimal and easily worked around by extrapolating from the context.  For example, Hot Sleep chambers are one area where Champions is referenced.  From the context of the section, you can determine that Hot Sleep chambers are specially designed prisons that neutralize a villain being held in them, most likely by keeping them unconscious.  Even if that is not exactly what they are, I still have enough to go on to create my own version.
In answer to the question, “Does Champions Universe provide a workable setting or workable elements to be used in your own setting?”  I respond with a solid “Yes”.  Given the low amount of actual Hero 5th Edition rules versus the amount of setting material and discussion, it would be very simple to take the setting, either in whole or in part, and include it in your own game, whether you are playing Hero 5th Edition, Silver Age Sentinels, Blood of Heroes, or any other superhero roleplaying game.  Champions Universe is an excellent resource to add depth to any superhero campaign.

Playability: **** (easily used as is or as a plug-in to an existing campaign)
Game Mechanics: ***** (does not introduce new mechanics, but uses Hero mechanics well)
Character Creation & Advancement: *** (plenty of character plot hooks and options presented)
Setting: **** (one of the better treatments on superheroes existing in the world)
Presentation: ***** (entertaining to read, well laid-out, excellent reference sections)

originally written 11/12/2002

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