Saturday, October 12, 2013

Champions System Review Part 2: 4th Edition

The Big Blue Book, and one of my all-time favorite RPGs.
Greetings, readers. Today I have the very real pleasure of talking about something I really love: Champions 4th edition. The year of this game’s release was 1989. I was in high school in Hot Springs, Arkansas at the time, and there was this huge book on sale at the local game store. I called it the Big Blue Book, and every time I picked it up, I found myself thinking, “Wow, there is a ton of interesting stuff in here.” Mostly the character write-ups of the Champions and the villains (especially the villain team in the adventure at the back, the Asesinos) are what drew my attention, which included a wide and diverse array of character types.

This was my first exposure to the Hero System, and at first it blew my young mind. Everything has a points cost. Some powers are restricted or outright dangerous to your campaign. Disadvantages (this was probably the hardest part for me to grasp), bases, followers. The differences between skills, perks, talents, and powers. The GM advice was also great – who can forget those examples with Blackfeet, Gobbler, and Nell the Generic Girlfriend?

Studying the characters in the book really opened my eyes to how building characters was a mini-game all of its own. I must’ve built over a hundred characters the first month I owned the book. And I knew I needed to find out more about this game, this system, this line of products.

A Legacy of Awesome

The thing I discovered about Champions 4th edition is that the big blue book was just the tip of the iceberg. There were tons of great products for this line. Every time I walked into the game store, I found something else that I eventually came to love. I’d say it all started with the big blue book, but the next step was Classic Enemies. Now I had two books featuring fantastic artwork, from the George Perez covers to the Pat Zircher interiors. And Classic Enemies included a ton of interesting characters as well, each one with a different power construction, a different way of building and using the mechanics of the game to mimic something right out of the comic books.

An absolutely unforgettable book for super hero gaming.
Book after book swiftly joined my library. Alien Enemies, To Serve and Protect, Mind Games, Classic Organizations, Viper! The list goes on and on and on. Nearly every single book that I picked up for the line made me laugh with joy at discovering new and interesting ways to use the game.
Champions in 3-D blew my mind again. So many awesome ideas for entire campaigns and story arcs spring from that book alone (with more outstanding artwork, both on the cover and inside). 

Champions of the North was a brilliant look at a different nation’s approach to superhumans, and expanded the Champions Universe at the same time (including the first link I saw with GENOCIDE). The Mutant File, High Tech Enemies, Corporations, Kingdom of Champions, Normals Unbound, and Allies (Zen Team represent!) continued to build and develop that world, a vibrant setting that seemed to leap right off the page. Crafted by future Hero System director Steve Long, Dark Champions started almost an entire mini-line on its own, with several outstanding products including Justice, Not Law and Underworld Enemies (crafted by the extremely creative mind of Chris Avellone). I could seriously write an entire review about any of the products I’ve mentioned here, and I still may someday.

A Style Like No Other

One thing that needs to be emphasized about 4th Edition Champions is that it was brimming with style. From the gorgeous full-color covers featuring art from well-known comic book artists like Perez, Ben Dunn, Storn Cook, Adam Hughes, and Dave Dorman to the beautiful linework of Pat Zircher, the artwork was extraordinary. 

But the style of 4th edition wasn’t just artwork! The content of the 4th edition line was full of life, full of enormous amounts of creative ideas culled from decades of comic book adventures. Just take a quick look at the different characters, tones, and adventure types you can find in Classic Organizations—ranging from the Cold War-era grittiness of Red Doom to the zany hijinks of CLOWN—for one example. 

My friend Scott Heine always blew me away with his amazing artwork for Mind Games, Alien Enemies, and To Serve and Protect – but it was the characters and the stories and the campaigns that are described by those products that really set my imagination on fire. Mind Games, for example, is an entire campaign in one tiny book. Scott Bennie’s brilliant VIPER sourcebook is, to me, the definitive approach to the trope of a Hydra-like organization of bad guys (at least from the 80’s).

If you like using this trope of bad guy, get this book.

Adding to the style of the line itself was that Champions 4th edition was blessed with some of the best 3rd party support the game’s ever had – Gold Rush Games produced the award-winning San Angelo: City of Heroes setting for it, along with a number of additional sourcebooks that expanded the setting. San Angelo, my friends, is one of the best superhero setting products ever, and its sourcebook line is also chock-full of high quality characters, storylines, events, adventures, enemies, and everything else you need to have a truly memorable game.

Also, 4th edition was the beginning of the “Ultimate” line of books that took a closer look at an individual character type, such as martial artists, bricks, mentalists, and so forth. Each of these books presented new campaign ideas, ways to use those powers, ways to build power sets, and much more. Each Ultimate book further expanded my mind with regards to game design and understanding how mechanics can influence the implementation of a tone and a style and a certain type of story.

Critical Misses

So, so, so, so bad.
This is not to say that Champions 4th edition had nothing but great books – there were a few products that simply weren’t very good, and one that is infamously bad.

For the “not very good” category, I’m going to list Murderer’s Row, Mystic Masters, Pyramid in the Sky, and Hudson City Blues. There’s not much to say here except that these books aren’t really that bad—they’re just not really /good/, in that their usefulness is, shall we say, questionable. Still, for a line that includes over 50 products, having only 4 (5 with the next entry, below) stinkers is a pretty good ratio.

However, there is one book that is just horrendously bad. Of course, I am talking about European Enemies. This book is so bad, my friend Michael Surbrook re-wrote nearly every entry in the book to make it work.

Again, if this is the worst thing I can find to point at for Champions 4th edition, I think that is another way of saying this edition was amazingly great in nearly every way.

Featured Creators

There are so many great creators for 4th edition, I had a hard time picking only a few to talk about.

Scott Bennie

Scott’s work for superhero games in general and for Champions specifically should never be overlooked. In 4th edition, Scott’s work includes Classic Enemies, Day of the Destroyer, Champions in 3-D, and Viper. These books are all chock-full of fun, and Scott seems to understand that sense of style that 4th edition was able to capture extremely well.

Steve Long

Steve’s work on 4th edition Champions includes the groundbreaking Dark Champions, which basically spawned a little mini-line of its own. He also worked on the Ultimate Martial Artist and Ultimate Mentalist, further expanding on the strengths of the Hero System, and Watchers of the Dragon, an expansion linked to the Ultimate Martial Artist.

Scott Heine

Mr. Heine created some truly landmark books for 4th edition, starting with the amazingly creative Mind Games. Check out To Serve and Protect to see another awesome example of a player character superhero team and how it operates!

Pat Zircher

Pat’s amazing artwork defined the early Champions 4th edition books.

 Above: Just a few examples of Pat Zircher's awesome linework.


Mike Surbrook

I've interviewed Mike on this blog before. While Mike didn’t write any physical books for Champions 4th edition (he would end up authoring some great stuff for 5th and 6th edition), he led the charge on getting Champions supported on the internet. His site, Surbrook’s Stuff, nearly single-handedly sustained the Hero community in the 90’s.

He also wrote a Digital Hero product that was highly influential for my own career—the cyberpunk anime setting, Kazei 5. I’m planning a full review for this setting concentrating on the big book that it came out with for 5th edition Champions in the future. Kazei 5 heavily influenced the creation of my own Hero System setting, Shadows Angelus.

Pat Sweeney

Pat authored San Angelo: City of Heroes, which I’ve mentioned several times on my blog as one of the best superhero settings ever made. Pat clearly knows what makes superhero settings fun, and he added something truly special to the Champions line.

Pat Bradley

Normals Unbound and Atlantis are good books for the 4th edition line. Normals Unbound has been mentioned here before as one of the best supplements of all time! Pat also organized the Champions APAzine, Rogues’ Gallery, for many years.

Adventurer's Club and Champions APAzines

The 80’s and 90’s were a wonderful time for gaming magazines (especially TSR's house magazines Dragon and Dungeon), but there were others that were awesome as well. Some of my favorites were Autoduel Quarterly and, of course, the official Champions magazine--Adventurer’s Club!

AC had several decent issues and a handful of really good ones featuring work from guys like Aaron Allston, Ben Dunn, Steve Long, and many others.
However, Adventurer’s Club did not survive the 90’s, alas. It did have some spiritual successors, most of them driven by just one man: Dave Mattingly.

Dave is not only a friend, he’s a fellow gamer, and his enthusiasm for the Hero System is infectious. Dave was the guy in charge of three different iterations of Champions APAzines, starting with Haymaker! (still running strong), EZ Hero (which was replaced with…) and Digital Hero, the official Hero Games e-zine. Digital Hero started out in 4th edition as simply a way to publish books for Champions in an electronic format, but by the time DOJ took over the Hero System, it instead became the de facto replacement for Adventurer’s Club.

Dave went on to found a great third-party publisher of Champions books, Blackwyrm Publishing.

It should also be noted here that Michael Surbrook, in addition to his awesome work on his Surbrook’s Stuff website, is by far one of the most prolific contributors to Haymaker!, EZ Hero, and Digital Hero.

In addition, there was Rogues’ Gallery, a collection of Champions articles that included content from Aaron Allston, Steve Long, myself, and many other Hero authors. Rogues' Gallery was originally created by Aaron Allston, then taken over later by Hero System author and enthusiast Pat Bradley.

In Closing

My opinion is that 4th edition Champions was the game’s high-water mark – the overall quality of the writing, the artwork, the trade dress, and production values reached a peak in this edition that wouldn’t be seen again until 6th edition. In addition, 4th edition Champions is, IMHO, by far the best version of the game when it comes to presenting a unique style and tone. While 4th edition had some small issues with presenting mechanics of the rules and a few problem products, it had an all-star collection of creators—writers, developers, and artists—that brought the game to a pinnacle of excellence.

Speaking strictly about 4th edition, I could point to the hard work of folks like Scott Bennie, Dave Mattingly, Michael Surbrook, Sean Patrick Fannon, Scott Jamison, Pat Zircher, Steve Long, Allen Varney, Rob Bell, George MacDonald, Bruce Harlick, Steve Peterson, (not to mention Monte Cook, who edited several products of this line!) and many others that made this edition of the game so exciting, memorable, and triumphant.

Thanks for reading part 2 of my Champions system review – check back in with me later when I go over the 5th and 6th edition of Champions and the Hero System!


  1. Great set of articles. Champions is still my favorite system after all these years.

  2. Yeah, baby. Champions! Thanks for this review and a trip down memory lane.

  3. Actually, I did write for 4th Edition. "Kazei 5" was initially a 4th Edition product. Also, Steve Long okayed the "European Enemies" rewrite.

    1. Oh, and "Kazei 5", when finally published in book form, came out for 6th Edition.

  4. It was indeed an impressive looking tome that a friend purchased. I had 3rd.

  5. Champions before it turned into a set of law books...good stuff...a shame they turned themselves into fetishists for word count over substance. I hope they recover. Champions Complete, and taking Steve Long off writing, seems a step in the right direction, but I'm afraid it may be too late to regain ground lost to M&M and others.

  6. Champions 4th edition is what got me back into RPGs. That cover so caught my eye I was hooked.

  7. Any chance you have a copy of the old DOS-based HeroMaker software? I've been trying to find it for several years now.