Champions Now is the most confounding product I have reviewed to date. I’ll start with my ratings (this product definitely warrants multiple ratings) based on my direct, personal experience, and then if you’re interested you can read my detailed explanations below. [Note: People have told me that based on the text below that my overall rating should be 3-stars, and they're probably right. I gave it an overall 4 stars because it's hitting my sweet spot right now. Anyway, on with the show...]
The system mechanics – if you’re an experienced Champions player looking for a simpler, faster system that hearkens back to 80’s style of the first few editions of Champions and your players already know Champions too: ***** (5 stars).
The written text of this book: 0 stars. This is the worst-written RPG book I have ever read in my 40 years in the hobby.
The system mechanics – if you are unfamiliar with Champions or the Hero System and you’re looking for a medium-crunch, point-buy superhero system: *** (3 stars). The mechanics are great, but you’ll have to wade through the terrible writing to learn them.
The system mechanics – if you yourself are familiar with Champions but you want to GM it for a bunch of players who are not (which was my experience): **** (4 stars). Manageable, because your players will have you to explain things after they get frustrated reading the horrible text of this book.
Art and Design: ** (2 stars). The design and layout are fine, but there’s very little art in the book itself, and some of it is not up to Hero Games’ standard, imo. Also, the cover art is very un-dynamic and uninspiring for a superhero roleplaying game product.
THE WRITTEN TEXT
Let’s start here since it shades everything else about this product. The writing is terrible. It reads like a master’s thesis by a way-too-full-of-himself grad student. I feel bad saying that because I don't know the author personally, and I assume everyone is a nice person trying to do their best. But the writing style and much of the content really detracts from the excellent mechanics.
Most RPG rulebooks introduce a mechanic briefly, give some examples, and then explain it in more depth without overwriting the explanation. The author here so desperately wants you to know what HE thinks about everything that he writes pages and pages (and pages) of often unclear verbiage telling you that and then sort-of half-baked explaining the rules before actually telling you what a given rule is. This is just bonkers to me. I want to know what the rules are in as clear and concise a manner as possible. I don’t care what you think about them. Save that for your blog, man. The extra pages could have been used to include villain character sheets, more artwork, or an introductory adventure, all of which would have served your readers better.
The author of this book is excessively in your face with his opinions and views on how the game should be played, and it reads poorly because of his writing style and how redundant so much of it is. I assume the inspiration for this was Aaron Allston’s classic “Strikeforce” book from the 80’s. While Allston did write some excellent advice on playing and GMing superhero games, his writing style, while not dry, was practical, concise, and clear. The writing in this book is none of those things. Honestly, if you’re looking for that type of material, you would be far better served getting a copy of “Strikeforce” on DriveThruRpg or wherever and reading that and skipping all the non-mechanical text in this book.
The author also includes a lot of parenthetical opinion commentary on superhero comic books that doesn’t need to be in the book. Some of it I agreed with, some of it I didn’t, but 95% of it is completely superfluous to explaining the rules of the game or how to play it. Again, save that kind of material for your blog.
THE SYSTEM MECHANICS
If you are looking for a medium-crunch, point-buy superhero system that is fast and flexible and fun, I think these rules are awesome. There are a few things that I’ve house-ruled (the author is WAY more into Luck and Unluck mechanics than I am, and I don’t really care for his rules for them), but very few. The game plays exceptionally well as-is, and I LOVE how much faster it is to build a villain or run a combat than it is in 5e or 6e Champions (which I have played and enjoyed and have no problem with). I’m just at a point in my life where a simpler and faster – but still crunchy (I don’t want rules-light, I just don’t want rules-heavy anymore) – system is what I’m looking for, and this absolutely fits the bill.
Something else that I really appreciate about this book is that it is a superhero roleplaying game system. It’s not trying to be a universal RPG system, and I think that’s fantastic. That is absolutely perfect for my needs. The author sets out to write a simpler, superhero-focused, Champions game with its roots firmly planted in the three editions from the 80’s, and to his credit he has absolutely succeeded in terms of mechanics.
The only non-mechanical writing that I both agreed with and found helpful for new and old players alike is the author’s take on special effects. In Champions, if you want to shoot bolts of fire from your hands, you buy the Blast power and define it as a Flame Blast or whatever you want to call it (you can further fine-tune it, and make it crunchier, with Advantages and Limitations applied to the power, which is something that makes character creation a lot of fun). “Fire” is the special effect, “Blast” is the mechanic.
The author of this version of Champions wants the special effects to have additional mechanical effects when it makes sense. If a group of villains are standing in a pool of flammable liquid and you shoot it with your Flame Blast, it should cause the liquid to ignite and do your fire damage to everyone in the pool. A GM has to be careful to not let the players (or his villains) get away with too much “extra” mechanical benefit from special effects, but this is absolutely my favorite way to run Champions because it leads both you and the players to be more creative with your combat actions and makes battles less generic and more memorable.
But otherwise, the only downside of this ruleset is the terrible writing of the book itself. There are parts of the book that are confusing to players not already familiar with Champions, and my players were all as turned off the over-pontificating of the text as I was. If you’re new to Champions and are confused about something, don’t drive yourself to frustration trying to figure it out from this text. Find someone who is already an experienced Champions player or go to roleplayinggeek.com or the Hero forums and ask questions of people who already know how to play.
ART AND DESIGN
The design and layout are good, up to Hero’s usual standards. I think the book would have benefitted from more and better artwork that would inspire new players’ imaginations and get them excited about playing in the genre. And one of the great things about previous editions of Champions is each sample hero and villain having a good illustration showing you what they look like. Except for a couple characters, this book lacks that, which is unfortunate and surprising given the author is trying to go back to that 80’s well. Readers would have been much better served by more artwork and less of the author’s views on how games should be played.
When I first saw this book, I was puzzled by the cover. It’s a nice painting, but it’s just a not-very-striking character in an undynamic pose with some dim scenes in the background that aren’t superheroic and don’t really make any sense without context. Unfortunately, the author provides that context in the book itself. It’s a villain character he created, and he explains the character’s backstory, which is fine, but then goes on about the process of how the illustration itself came together and how proud he is of it and how clever he thinks it is to put a villain on the cover. Again, this is just taking up space that could have been given to actual game content and should go on his blog.
Also, putting an undynamic illustration of a visually dull villain on the cover of your superhero game is not a great way to use your cover to drive sales. Look at the George Perez cover to 4th edition Champions. Holy cow! That has both a great villain and a great hero battling in a dynamic, colorful illustration that screams “Superhero games are awesome, and these guys get it!” This cover does not do that and is sadly a wasted opportunity to hook potential players’ interests. (Especially since the inspiration and style of play being invoked is classic 80’s Champions, which is not about grim-and-gritty or dark, deconstructionist superheroics – you could certainly use these rules to play that way, but that’s definitely not the default. Such a weird choice.)
I’m giving this book an overall 4-star rating because ultimately I think these are great medium-crunch, point-buy rules for superhero gaming, and if you can get through the bad writing (or you actually like it – everyone’s opinions are different) I think you’ll have a great time playing this game. I really do hope it will attract enough of a player base to result in more products being published for it (some adventures for busy adult GMs would be excellent!), I just hope they’re not written in the same style as this book. Recommended, but with caveats.