Thursday, September 13, 2012

[Gaming Library] Aaron Allston's STRIKE FORCE: A Must Own GM Resource

At the Origins convention in 1981 Hero Games released what would become one of the best selling super hero role playing games of all time, a game that is still around and which has served as the IP behind a  computer MMORPG.  That game is CHAMPIONSand it is one of the great games that the hobby has produced. 

CHAMPIONS has a large and active fan base, though it does seem to have dwindled a little between the 5th and 6th edition of the rules.  That dwindling may soon find itself reversed with the recent release of CHAMPIONS: LIVE ACTION and upcoming release of CHAMPIONS COMPLETE.  I've been of the opinion the past couple of editions of CHAMPIONS and the HERO rules have become a little bloated, and it seems that the designers behind CHAMPIONS COMPLETE agree as their upcoming rulebook is only 240 pages in total.  While much can be, and has been, written about the CHAMPIONS game, there is one supplement for the game that transcends the game itself and is one of the best "how to run a campaign" supplements ever produced...for any game system.

When CHAMPIONS was released in 1981, Aaron Allston worked for The Space Gamer magazine which was then a publication of Steve Jackson Games.  Steve Jackson returned from the Origins convention with news of the game and asked Aaron to review the game for the magazine.  Aaron did so and his positive review appears in issue 43 of The Space Gamer.  This article was quickly followed by a "proto-Strike Force" article entitled "Look Up in the sky..." in issue 48


In the article in issue 48, Allston describes how he came to be a CHAMPIONS player and game master -- he would later become one of its premiere contributors.

The superhero campaign of CHAMPIONS which I run, which is successful enough that it's been thrown out of TSG playtest sessions (it was crowding out all the other games), began as an irritation. Steve Jackson came back from Origins with the news that some new company in California had nabbed the name CHAMPIONS; I'd hoped to use CHAMPIONS on a personal game project.  I could review the Hero Games offering if I wished.  Wonderful.
 Looking over the rulebook, though, I was impressed.  The game appeared clear and coherent after a single read-through and seemed to faithfully simulated the four-color stuff of comic books.  Extensive solo playtesting ensured almost immediately, with the heroic Lightbearers waging a running war with the criminal mastermind Overlord.
In the end, Overlord's munitions-running scheme was wrecked; the Lightbearers disbanded, with one member dead and two others unwillingly allied with the villain; and I had chosen to run CHAMPIONS on a regular basis.
 There is a good deal more to the article in which Allston shares with potential players and game masters some guidelines and some pratfalls that might happen as one plays a super hero campaign.  How does one exactly acquire a super hero secret headquarters anyway?  One can see the foundations for the book STRIKE FORCE in the article, and Allston provides a nice glimpse into what can contribute to the running of a successful game.  As good as the article is, it pales in comparison to the CHAMPIONS sourcebook that Allston wrote based upon that early -- initially merely a playtest -- campaign.



Aaron Allston's STRIKE FORCE is one of the better campaign sourcebooks ever written.  It has a very simple arrangement.  It begins with a section on campaign use.  This section is not a how to plot an adventure section, as by 3rd edition CHAMPIONS had a pretty good chapter on that, rather it was advice for dealing with very specific problems.  This chapter covers the following:

  • The "Character Story" -- discusses how to help players develop the character stories that they dreamed up when they initially created the character.
  • Simulating the Comics -- discussed how to keep the players behaving in a four-color fashion.
  • The New Player
  • Aging the Hunteds -- How to make "Hunted" behave like real world constant interactions rather than as a mere random roll done each week.
  • Listening to Your Players
  • Ground Rules
  • Translation Follies
  • Types of CHAMPIONS Players -- The Builder, The Buddy, The Combat Monster, The Genre Fiend, The Copier, The Mad Slasher, The Mad Thinker, The Plumber, The Pro from Dover, The Romantic, The Rules Rapist, The Showoff, and The Tragedian.
  • Character Conception Checklist
  • How to Ruin Your Campaign
If Allston had written no other sections than the "types of players" and "how to ruin your campaign" sections of the sourcebook, this would be an invaluable resource.  Allston's breakdown of player types builds upon some of the discussions which had been going on in Different Worlds magazine and other places in the game-verse, but his clear description of the varied motivations of players is spot on and extremely useful.  Between STRIKE FORCE and Robin Law's book on Game Mastering Rules, you have almost everything you need to run any game successfully...if you follow the advice that is.

In addition to the overview on Campaign advice -- generic campaign advice -- Allston then continues providing an invaluable tool by giving us a look into his own campaign in the subsequent chapters of the book.  We are given an "Abbreviated History" of the STRIKE FORCE campaign, which can be used as an example or as an outline for one's own campaign.  He provides the full roll call of the STRIKE FORCE and SHADOW WARRIORS teams as well as Independent heroes and a number of Villains from the campaign.  This is followed by a detailed history of the campaign -- both his real world work and the in game history.  In the history, Allston shares some of the storytelling challenges he faced and how he overcame them in play.

If you can find a copy of the book, I highly recommend it.
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