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Feature: Here There Be Heroes - Exploring the Champions universe

In 1974, quite a few years before computer role-playing games allowed players to traverse dangerous dungeons with a keyboard, Dungeons & Dragons was born. Co-created by venerable game designer Gary Gygax and released through the Gygax-owned Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., D&D equipped users with pen, paper, and several multi-sided dice. Users were forced to bring their own imagination to the literal table as DMs, or Dungeon Masters, led them through treasure-filled tombs and dragon-infested valleys, transforming mothers' basements and comic book shops into the most fantastic of locales.

Fantasy geeks were able to get more than their fair share of D&D. TSR released several character manuals, sourcebooks, and constantly devised new settings -- and honed familiar ones -- to keep players enthralled with the game. Comic book readers, however, yearned for a different type of fantasy, one that would allow them to leap tall buildings in a single bound and potentially move faster than a locomotive.

In 1981, Champions was born. Substituting capes and cowls for swords and scrolls, Champions was a superhero RPG published by Hero Games. Created by George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, Bruce Harlick and Ray Greer, Champions appealed to players like Jack Emmert, the future Chief Creative Officer at Cryptic Studios.

For Emmert, a superhero RPG was a dream come true. "Dorks like me sat around a table and rolled a lot of d6s -- which stands for six-sided dice -- and battled evil on a tabletop with a [Game Master] and the whole nine yards," Emmert reminisced during a recent media event held at Cryptic Studios. Tables were spread across a large conference room in an area Cryptic had designated for publishing operations. With platters of food and bottles of soda to one side, Champions character posters adorning every wall, and journalists clustered around every table discussing games and gaming culture, it was easy to imagine Emmert and other self-professed "dorks" whittling away hours (and days) in rooms like this one, reveling in time spent with fellow crusaders.

"For those of you who remember back [in 1981], that was during the heyday of pencil-and-paper role-playing games," Emmert continued. "D&D hit in the mid-70s and established a medium, a form of entertainment, which had never existed before. It was only a matter of time before someone said, 'Hey, wait a minute - if you can come up with a set of rules for a fantasy-themed RPG, we could do something for superheroes, for the world of comic books.'

"A couple of guys got together and created Champions in 1981. It was an RPG bestseller at that time, blowing through a couple hundred thousand units. RPGs sold incredibly well back then, before computer RPGs had really kicked in."

So enthralled with the medium and particularly Champions that Emmert, lead designer on the successful superhero-themed MMO City of Heroes and its diabolical City of Villains parallel game, led the charge to not only create a Champions MMO, but to buy the entire IP.

"Champions has been published in dozens and dozens of books. I have every one," said Emmert. "In fact, right now there are 29 books in print with more coming out every day. We did not license this. I love Champions, so... we bought it. We own Champions lock, stock and barrel. I did that because I love it, it's a tremendous IP, and it has a great fan base. I knew the people who owned the IP, so I said, 'Look, I wanna buy it.' We worked [a deal] out in under a month, and now we've got it. It's the number one superhero RPG. There have been many versions of superhero-licensed RPGs, such as DC and Marvel - none have outsold or outlasted Champions."

Just as every adventurer needs a dungeon and every wizard a tower, so do heroes need a city to protect. In Champions, that city is Millennium City, a technological marvel that was a byproduct of a tremendous battle across the city of Detroit. In July of '92, Dr. Destroyer, the world's chief antagonist and all-around bad guy, invoked the penultimate comic book cliché and set a asteroid's flight path directly for the city. To cause distraction and perpetuate panic, Destroyer also released a swarm of supervillains to distract the world's governments from the asteroid's impending impact.

Enter the heroes. Ravenwood Academy, a prestigious school outside of Detroit, was temporary home to a group of teen heroes who accidentally stumbled upon Dr. Destroyer's secret lair, which was nestled deep beneath the city. The discovery provoked a tremendous battle which saw 12 superheroes become casualties, but the threat against the mad Doctor had been neutralized -- or so the world thought. Cornered by heroes seething at the loss of their comrades, Dr. Destroyer disappeared in a brilliant flash before uttering, "If I'm to fall by anyone's hands, it will be mine."

Comic book fans can probably picture a full page dedicated to the mad Doctor, his hands bent like claws, his head thrown back, and "HA HA HA!" covering almost every inch of the dark and stormy background.

It seemed that Dr. Destroyer had been defeated, but that didn't help Detroit: the battle had left the city devastated. Intent on wiping the slate clean of rubble and ruin, President George H. W. Bush enacted a Millennium Project that resulted in Detroit being rebuilt as Millennium City, a shining spectacle of technology and wealth.

Despite its shiny new aesthetics, the golden city still had a dark side: supervillains roamed the re-paved streets, eager to prey on overly-optimistic inhabitants who believed Millennium was now a safe place to live. Luckily, one man dedicated his life to ensuring that safety within the marveled metropolis was more a reality than an ideal.

Clad in glistening ivory armor with blue plating and electricity zipping through its crevices, Defender is Batman to Dr. Destroyer's Joker. Like Bruce Wayne, Defender's alter ego, James Harmon IV, is a wealthy and intelligent man who sought to do something monumental with his life. "His grandfather explored deepest, darkest Africa; his father was in WWII - but James Harmon IV hadn't done anything that fantastic," explained Jack Emmert. "When he saw all the destruction in Detroit, he committed his abilities to the Millennium Project cause. Eventually he used his wealth and abilities to form The Champions, the greatest team of superheroes in the world."

Allying himself with other heroes made Millennium City's populace sleep easier at night, but did beg a question: where did all of these heroes come from? Did brave men and women simply decide to wear masks and beat up the world's legions of villains? Like any good heroes, the Champions universe boasts origin stories filled with science, magic, and Nazis, the perfect ingredient to any super heroic formula.

"People theorize that people of myth such as Hercules were just people with power," said Emmert. "There was even a revolutionary hero called the Black Mask, whose title and real name have been passed down from generation to generation. However, it was in the 1940s when superheroes burst onto the scene in great numbers. Certain numbers of the Nazi hierarchy brought together mystics in the hope that they'd tap into magical energies from other realms in order to further the Nazi cause. What they actually did was open up a rift through which magic poured into our earth for the first time in thousands of years. All the sudden people started showing tremendous abilities and powers."

An inundation of intrepidness is just what Millennium City needs. Once believed to be defeated, Dr. Destroyer has reappeared -- but is it the same maniacal man, or has an upstart decided to resurrect a symbol of terror?

"Dr. Destroyer had disappeared, but a new figure appeared just recently calling himself Dr. Destroyer," said Emmert. And in fact the game is about unraveling the mystery of Destroyer's identity. He doesn't claim to be the other or new Dr. Destroyer; he just says he's Dr. Destroyer. He's committed a series of random crimes and attacks across the planet that no one's been able to figure out. We don't know who he is. His powers appear both sorcery- and technology-based; the original Dr. Destroyer was a powered armor guy. Nobody knows what's going on."

Whether old school or new blood, Dr. Destroyer is not alone. Gesturing to a colleague positioned at a computer, the projection screen at the room's front flared into life, showing a hunched, green creature with four arms and curved yellow horns. If She-Hulk mated with Mortal Kombat's Goro, this might be the result.

"This" is Gromn. A loser criminal down on his luck, Sydney Potter decided to volunteer as a test subject for an alleged common cold cure. Already a walking disaster, Sydney's luck grew exponentially worse the moment he walked into the laboratory.

"They accidentally shot him with the wrong serum, a variant of a super soldier [formula] that had been in development," explained Emmert. "He broke out of his restraints and, in crazed mania, crashed into a shelf full of chemicals which all spilled on him. So he's burning and in a rage, races outside in the middle of a thunderstorm and gets struck by lightning. Now singed, Sidney then tumbles outside the gate into a drainage ditch filled with toxic chemicals. Hence, Gromn was born."


Our next villain is a bit more normal, if normal means someone not injected with the wrong serum, struck by lightning, and ensconced in toxic ooze. The projection flickered for a moment before unveiling a lanky, long-chinned, grinning young man in a poorly-tailored yellow and brown fox-bat hybrid costume.

"Ah, Foxbat," said a smiling Emmert. "Freddy Foswell was an incredibly wealthy young man whose entire life was spent reading comic books. When his family's fortune dried up, he did the only thing that made sense to him: he became a supervillain. However, Freddy, because his entire way of being cultured and educated was through comic books, he only way he knows how to act is as if he was a supervillain straight out of the comics. He comes up with these crazy plans that actually work. He's a fun, light-hearted villain to contrast against Dr. Destroyer's darker nature."

Light-hearted Foxbat may be, but his weaponry is deadly enough. Foxbat wields a Ping Pong gun capable of firing balls modified as explosives, smoke or even glue.

Evildoers like Foxbat and Gromn are capable of flying solo, but many villains in Champions prefer strength in numbers. "The Champions universe is filled with organizations," said Emmert. "Back in the 1930s, a bunch of English noblemen decided to form a secret society called The Unholy Order of the Serpent. They went throughout the world to collect artifacts of a serpent god who had gone by various names. The god helped guide their fortune because he wanted to return to our plane of reality. Eventually some adventurers foiled The Unholy Order, however the children of the Order's founders all came together and created a new organization in the 1970s called VIPER."

Resembling a smaller version of Transformers but spray-painted green, VIPER willingly follows the serpent god's every command. Believing they are dominating the world to protect it from itself, VIPER launched its first attack on Green Monday, August 22, 1962, targeting banks and government buildings all around the globe.

Not all Champions villains are victims of limited culture, experiments gone awry, or malevolent snake gods. In fact, many villains aren't human at all. Our next slide depicted lithe, humanoid reptilians once capable of altering their physical forms. "The Lemurians are an ancient race of psychic beings," said Emmert. "They waged war searching for immortality against another people called the Imperions. That war doomed their city state, which sank beneath the waters. However, using magic, they were able to survive."

After assuming the shape of humans for doubtlessly sinister purposes, the Lemurians pleaded with their gods, the Bleak Ones, for their original forms. The Bleak Ones granted their request but rescinded their ability to morph. The Lemurians now roam the earth, searching for an ancient technology that will assist their cause of world domination

Organizations such as VIPER and the Lemurians are too widespread and bent on chaos to be handled solely by superheroes. "In the 1970s, the United Nations finally recognized that they needed to form a force to deal with superhuman activities across the planet, something greater than any single nation's ability to respond to such happenings," said Emmert.

"They formed the United Nations Tribunal on International Law: UNTIL. UNTIL in the 70s was especially needed because that's when countless alien invasions ravaged the earth. UNTIL was the first line of defense. They began crossing swords with VIPER, their primary foe to this day. Only after the battle of Detroit did the US government allow UNTIL to operate on US soil. They're now an active part of the Champions universe."

Will Defender, UNTIL, and other Champions such as Ironclad be enough to keep VIPER, Gromn, the Lemurians, Foxbat, and other villains at bay. Nope -- and that's where you come in. Evolved from a pen-and-paper RPG that promoted unique custom characters, Champions Online grants players the ability to create every aspect of their own superhero, from their specific super powers to the color of their laser beams.

What kind of hero will you be? Plan ahead -- Champions Online releases for PC and Xbox 360 in 2009.


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