Friday, November 11, 2016

Five or So Questions with Darren Watts on Golden Age Champions

Today's interview is with Darren Watts for his project Golden Age Champions, a setting book for the Champions superheroic game using the generic Hero system. It's currently on Kickstarter, waiting for you to check it out! Let's see what Darren had to say about his project.


Tell me a little about Golden Age Champions. What excites you about it?

Golden Age Champions is a setting book for Champions, the superhero game using the generic Hero System that's been around in various editions since 1981. Specifically, it describes the Champions Universe (the modern version of which I co-wrote with Steve Long back in 2002) of 1938 to 1950, but more importantly it teaches GMs and players about the genre of Golden Age superheroing. We go into extensive discussion of the tropes, the styles of play, and the kinds of stories you can use these building blocks to tell at your table.

The Golden Age is at the same time similar and alien to fans of modern superheroing. Many of your favorite characters were created then: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America. But the Golden versions of those characters aren't exactly quite the same as the ones you know. Many of the assumptions we make about how superheroes "work" were set back then, but again there are plenty of concepts that will be brand new to today's gamers and fans. There are hundreds of superheroes in the period you've never heard of, and some of them are downright boggling.

The book is also a lot about how to run historical long-term campaigns. I've run several for years at a time, starting well before the war and carrying all the way through and past it. How do superhumans go to war? How do simple characters grow and change over time? How do we play with these amazing, imagination-charged concepts that don't quite fit modern sensibilities? Indeed, how do we address the differences between then and today; both the social ones (the unfortunately-all-too-common racism and sexism, the ever-present shadow of the war) and the more technical ones (why do these characters keep splitting up?) that make for rough gaming at today's table?

For some background, can you tell me about the game system Golden Age Champions is a supplement for?

Champions runs on the Hero System, a generic point-buy system that first debuted in 1981 and originally created by Steve Peterson and George McDonald. It's famously crunchy, but most of the crunch is in character creation. It's designed with a great many "adjustable settings" so that it can simulate a wide range of genres and play styles. Most Hero books focus on a specific setting or genre, so it scores very high on the "simulationist" axis. There have been six editions over the years, and I was president of the company for the last two of them. 

The Champions Universe is the long-running fictional superhero setting for Champions. It's also the basis for the MMO Champions Online, who are the actual IP holders and our business partners. I've kind of been the keeper of continuity since I wrote most the 5th Ed Champions Universe back in 2002.

Tell me some exciting things about running long-term campaigns! What kind of information do you have in the book for GMs to make them happen?

Well, the first thing you have to do is get great players! Or teach them to be great, I suppose, but I've been very lucky over the years. Then, you have to get them invested in the setting, which needs to be both deep enough to hold their interest and yet open enough that they have room to contribute and take some ownership. In this case I follow Ken Hite's truism, "nothing is as interesting as the real world." World War II is such a fascinating period, and I try very hard to bring it alive for the players. In my campaigns we have a very strong sense of time and place, moving month by month through the war and letting the great narrative of the actual history inform everything we do.

With superheroes in particular, you have to be careful. Players coming to a GA setting are presumably at least somewhat interested in the war itself from a historical basis, which means among other things they want the setting to remain based in the historical reality. They want to see Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Berlin, etc. and participate in it all on some level. But with characters who are too powerful, there's also a strong pull to the question of "why didn't Superman and Green Lantern and the Spectre, etc., all just fly to Tokyo on December 8th and stomp it flat, and while they're at it take out Berlin on the 9th?" The tension created by those answers is interesting and fertile, I think.

How did you approach the sometimes-tough topics of racism and sexism in the era? Did you address any other issues like homophobia?

Well, I stay aware that I'm telling superhero stories, and so most of my characters are broad and the heroes in particular are idealized. But on the other hand I don't want to ignore the range of people's experiences or to whitewash history. My game includes female characters who show considerably more agency and breadth than most period comics (Wonder Woman as a notable exception!), and I have heroes who are POCs which were vanishingly rare in the period. As idealized heroes, we kind of default to an ahistorical sense of social justice because that's just nicer to play. However, we do talk about the sexism and particularly the racism that motivated a lot of the horror on all sides of the war (and the US was a terrible offender itself- one of the sample heroes is a nisei from California who is fighting for a country who is currently imprisoning his family.) As superhero stories do, we can also talk in grand allegory- the Atlanteans are terribly prejudiced against airbreathers, and "lander" is one of the nastiest words in their vocabularies. I haven't specifically talked much about homophobia in the book, but one character is clearly gay and again, in this idealized setting, his teammates know and help him keep it from becoming public.

[Blogger note: POC stands for people of color, just in case you didn't know!]

Can you offer some of the concepts you think will be new to gamers and fans today, to help players and GMs understand what they might be getting into?

I'm not sure there's anything "brand new" in either the rules or setting- I'm trying to reintroduce a quite old thing, actually, as far as the genre goes. If you've never been exposed to the sheer joy in goofy creativity of the period comics, then I hope to show you what's lovable about it. Comics at the time were initially intended for small children, and it took publishers a few years to realize the size of their adult audience- Captain Marvel was the best selling periodical at military PX's, beating out magazines like Time and Life


Golden Age Champions sounds pretty cool! There's a lot to think about in the world of superheroes, and it looks like Darren has done a fair amount of that. Check out the game on Kickstarter, and share this interview to spread the word if you like it!

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