Behind the Mask: Six editions of legacy can't be all bad

Before we get into today's discussion on the merits of Champions Online's lore, I want to do a quick brief on the pet pass and the Demonflame update for those not hounding the forums. Demonflame is a little under a week away on PTS and about two weeks on live; you can get the skinny from Poz here. The pet patch is currently on PTS, and it's not bad, but it still needs some work. If you're interested at all in bashing out pets I strongly advise getting on PTS, going to the boards and dropping some feedback. A few other things have been tweaked too.

This week on Behind the Mask, we're going to talk about lore. I'm not talking about the game's lore, although I'll cover some of that too. I'm talking about the book lore! I finally gave in and picked up the PDFs (you can buy them from the Hero Games website), and I browsed through a lot of the lore content. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Most of the content in Champions Online consists of parodies of comic and MMO culture, and those elements dilute the serious and interesting lore content that is available. If you've read the lore entries that you can find throughout CO, you'll find that most of them actually sound kind of cool. Unfortunately, that lore is scattered and doesn't show a lot of the big picture.

Fortunately, I blew a ton of cash on PDFs (including even the rulebooks) to get a good sense of the game's lore.
Before we begin, I think the number one book to grab if you're interested in the CO lore is Champions Universe. This book is full of info on various hero and villain groups, and it gives a good sense of the game world. Most of the info I'm going to be talking about comes from either CO itself or this book.

The next thing I'd like to suggest is that you, the reader, keep an open mind about the game lore when you play. Champions' lore is mostly serious; the lighthearted tone the game takes does not do the conflicts in the PnP lore justice.

Lastly, some of what I state here might not be canon. Since Cryptic owns the entire Champions franchise, it may decide the game lore invalidates some of the book lore. I'll be honest, I like the book versions better. If you're a roleplayer, you will definitely want to keep this in mind; even people who are trying to be true to the lore may be using lore from older books or from newer books instead of the game.

Origin of superpowers

This will probably blow your mind. I know it blew mine. It's probably the craziest thing about the Hero Universe. All powers in the Hero Universe, including mutant powers and even super-tinkering (such as the powers of Defender, Juryrig, Dr. Destroyer and Foxbat) are the result of magic influence.

Put simply, in the Hero Universe, most superpowers are simply impossible. Energy projection and regeneration simply can't work in the CO universe (or our universe) in any superhuman way. Before you get too upset and post an angry comment, Marvel Comics uses an even more ridiculous handwave by claiming mutants are the result of divine genetic tinkering and draw on the powers of hyperspace in order to use their powers.

Super-technology is also derived from this same magic gene. In the real world, humanoid combat robots and hand-held laser guns are really implausible. The shape of a humanoid is kind of unsuitable for withstanding bullets or fast movement, which is why our modern armored vehicles are tanks. The shape of the tank is more compact and better at absorbing hard hits. Robots are able to compete on the same level (or even outclass) modern tanks because the creator imbues latent magic into his device. The same goes for most implausible super-science in the Hero Universe.

This magic is possible due to an event at the dawn of the Second World War, when a group of German mages looking to grant victory to the Axis Powers instead made a royal screw-up. They commanded numerous places of high magic, and the resulting power unleashed latent magic energy into the world. This allowed mutant powers to manifest, and that same year, the first superhumans gained powers. It also increased the overall power of mages across the world.

Powerful or especially talented normals may even have the "magic gene" as I like to call it. This means that a character whose only power is to accurately shoot guns while moving may very well be effectively a mutant. Fortunately for everyone, this magic gene does not radiate magic, neither do any superscience devices made using it. I personally think this is sort of handwavey. It'd be nice to get some official word why magic items like wands and focus items radiate magic, but superscience objects imbued with magic energy do not.

UNTIL, UNITY, PRIMUS, and Bureau 17 are not all the same thing

When I first played CO I pretty much labeled them all as "good guys, boring" and continued with my questing. Actually, I also dumped MARS (who are police officers) in the same boat as all of these other groups.

According to the lore, UNTIL, or the United Nations Tribunal on International Law, was created in 1963 in response to the superhuman phenomenon sweeping the world. It was ratified in 1965 after the first Qularr invasion, but the USA did not sign the treaty and refused to allow UNTIL agents within its borders. This is a recurring issue throughout the Champions timeline. UNTIL created its own superhuman force, called UNITY, in order to better police international acts of super-powered terrorism.

The USA didn't really create a unified superhuman policy until 1980 when it passed DOSPRA, which is essentially the Superhuman Registration Act with a lot less hero-vs.-hero controversy. That's not to say that metahumans didn't dispute DOSPRA, but the USA didn't really enforce it. Instead, heroes were encouraged to work within American law.

Under DOSPRA, registered heroes are sanctioned by local law enforcement or the FBI, acting effectively as deputy police officers for the duration of the sanction. Some heroes are even granted a permanent sanction, which is submitted for annual review.

DOSPRA also started keeping records of captured supervillains, so when they inevitably escaped, their capabilities were known. However, only registered superhumans were allowed to dig up information on known supervillains, which encouraged heroes to register. Still, DOSPRA had (and has) little teeth, and even some big-profile heroes like Defender refused to register. The Black Mask, the world's oldest superhero legacy, is another example of an unregistered big-name hero.

In 1986, the USA finally formed PRIMUS, its own superhuman law enforcement agency. I like to think of PRIMUS as an arm of the FBI, but officially PRIMUS was (and is) its own organization with its own bureaucracy. It's worth pointing out that the lines are blurry as to who handles what, as heroes deal with the FBI in-game in order to take down a few superhuman threats in Westside. I generally assume it's kind of a big mess, with a lot of jurisdictional disputes.

In 1992, Dr. Destroyer laid waste to Detroit. Because UNTIL was unable to dispatch agents to America to deal with the threat, there was a massive public outcry. One year later, the US signed the UNTIL treaty after heavy pressure from the American public. Some time afterward, foreign UNTIL agents used this access for espionage purposes, straining US relations with UNTIL.

Superheroes on a global scale

All we see in the help text about the global superhero community is that China has a superhero team called the Tiger Squad. We don't hear much else about any other country in the world. Most of our RP backstories just guess at what the rest of the world is like.

In North America, the big hotspots for superhero activity are New York City, Northern California, Vibora Bay, and of course, Millennium City. The Desert zone in CO seems to cover a huge stretch of terrain between Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (it's not geographically accurate with the real world). In Mexico, Mexico City is the main superhero hub, while in Canada, Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver are the main centers of superhero activity. The Canada zone in CO seems to be in northern Vancouver.

In South America, superhuman activity is relatively low. Many superhumans work for criminal cartels, and Colombia is one of the larger hotbeds of metahuman activity. Still, there are many do-gooders in South America, including the superhero El Dorado, a Brazilian champion who works to fight supercrime as well as poverty and injustice.

Europe is the second largest bed of superhuman activity in Champions, with Great Britain at the center. Most of Europe follows the standard model of a few superteams and a large number of independent heroes. Some governments, such as Russia's, employ superheroes in government positions like the FSB.

Asia is a hotbed of superhuman trouble. The Middle East's conflicts in the book aren't consistent with real-world current events (because the real events are so recent), so as players we probably need to extrapolate. There are many heroes on any given side of the various struggles, such as the recent Iraq war (which probably included UNITY agents) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. It is totally reasonable to have superheroes who fought with or against UNITY during the Iraq war or in Afghanistan.

The rest of Asia varies widely. China has the world's largest superteam, the Tiger Squad (though some supergroups in CO dramatically dwarf its size). The Tiger Squad is a nationalist superteam, and China has strict laws against any non-Tiger Squad metahumans operating within its borders. Japan, with its large emphasis on fantasy culture (many adults read Shonen Jump in Japan), is enamored with the idea of superheroes, including non-Japanese ones, and has one of the most pro-superhuman cultures in the world. The rest of Asia, such as India, Korea, and Southeast Asia, are not really covered. There are named Hindu mystics in the lore, but not much else. Feel free to improvise on a Korean hero who mutates into a siege tank and shoots people with 120mm strike cannons.

Africa is fairly devoid of superhuman activity, but there are a number of African mystical heroes, and VIPER has a strong presence in Cairo. The Serpent Lantern zone is in Africa, as I understand it (feel free to correct me on this, lore nerds). Australia has a strong anti-superhuman sentiment, and there are very few active there.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg, guys. I'm not trying to be a walking billboard for Hero Games, but the lore is pretty outstanding.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
This article was originally published on Massively.