It might surprise some that some of the most revolutionary advice for game masters would be tucked into a supplement for Champions back in 1988. Aaron Allston's Strike Force pushed a lot of young game masters into new directions with just a few pages of his talking about what he did in his home games. In music there's a concept where an album has an influence on the stream of music that far outstrips its commercial impact. An album like The Velvet Underground & Nico is a commercial failure, with low sales and songs that challenged the existing radio airplay establishment, however it is one of those albums that caused listeners to go out and want to make their own music.
Except for the commercial failure part, Strike Force is the Velvet Underground & Nico of game design. Outside of the obvious choices like Dungeons & Dragons, I don't think that there are a lot of game books that went on to have the impact that Strike Force would have on games and design. Where "every" listener of The Velvet Underground & Nico would go on to start their own bands, so did every reader of Strike Force go on to become GMs, and a lot of them (from the testimonials in the new edition) would go on to make their own games.
Don't get me wrong, Strike Force is far from the only role-playing supplement to have the Velvet Underground effect, it is probably the most archetypal example.
Unfortunately, Allston's Strike Force book went out of print a long while ago, most likely during one of the many passing around of ownership of the Hero Games IP, which added extra impact to the book because it became one of those things that you either had to be there for to get the lessons, or you had to play in a group with a GM who had a copy, and used its proscriptions in your group's games. Things like blue-booking worked their way into the lexicon of game mastering terminology, but often through second or third hand sources. A few ideas were snuck into successive Hero Games or Champions rulebooks, but not always properly attributed.
Allston was in talks with Hero Games to bring the book back into print, in an updated form, when he passed away. It seemed that the book would never come back into print. However, now, it has finally come back to gamers as Aaron Allston's Strike Force from High Rock Press and Evil Beagle Games.
Bringing a classic back into print, particularly one that more people have heard about than actually read first hand would be a daunting task for anyone. Do you live up to the reputation of the book? Can you live up to the reputations of the book? When you factor into this the fact that the book's creator had died, the whole prospect of a new edition becomes even more of an uphill battle.
Luckily, the new book lives up to the expectations and reputation of Allston's original book.
So, those of you coming in after the previews, and who are among the many who never saw the original book, you might be wondering what was so important about this book and why it is still important now. I've long said that one of the biggest problems with the advice in role-playing games is that they never really address one of the bigger problems that gamers have at the table: communication. A lot of campaigns have fallen apart over the years due to issues with communication among gaming groups. Simple things like knowing how to discuss expectations on the part of not just the players, but the game master, and the types of stories that will be addressed during a campaign, often don't get discussed by a group until things have reached a point where it is probably too late to fix troubles. Sean Patrick Fannon's section in the new book greatly expands Allston's original section and give a lot of much needed advice to GMs and players. From basic questions like "How many sessions will this game be?" to more complex ideas like "What sorts of themes will this campaign explore?" and "How violent will this game be?" are all talked about. Today, doing this might not seem like it is as revolutionary of an idea as it was back in the Eighties, but there are still groups that struggle with communications issues, so discussions of these sorts of things are still needed.
This crosses over neatly with the seminal idea of Allston's called Blue-Booking (this section expanded by Steve Kenson, the man who has probably contributed something to most of the major super-hero RPGs of the last couple of decades). Blue-Booking is sort of like having an adjunct play-by-post game that runs parallel to the campaign that is happening at the table. Blue-Booking is cool because it can allow for players to go into side stories about their characters, giving depth to their characters as they explore things that they are unable to work into the main game. It can also allow for stories that might be awkward to handle with the entire group, like romantic subplots. The concept can really open up character development in your games.
Interspersed throughout the book are also a number of testimonials from game designers ranging from other Hero Games creators to creators of other super-hero games to other role-playing game designers and publishers. One or two of the testimonials, unfortunately, focus more on the person giving the testimonial than on Allston, but with most of them you get to see the impact that the man and his writing had on the development of others as both GMs and designers. They are very heartwarming in places, and for those who didn't get to experience Strike Force the first time around, it can demonstrate the importance of the book. We don't get a lot of lasting tributes to the importance of seminal game designers, but Aaron Allston's Strike Force is one of them.
Even though I never played much Champions, I had Alston's The Circle and M.E.T.E. and The Blood And Dr. McQuark supplements for the game and I used to use them for NPCs and background in my own games back in the 80s and 90s. This meant that a little bit of the Strike Force universe was able to sneak into my games, even if the players didn't know that it was.
Oh, and not to downplay the direct playability of the book, there are also updated Champions write-ups for the Strike Force heroes and villains, as well as the Strike Force world, so that others can walk in Allston's worlds. However, even if you don't play Champions/Hero System, there is still a lot of useful material for super-hero games. For those of us who are fans of the genre, we don't get a lot of universally applicable supplements, so it is good to see them, and good, solid guides to being a game master are never unappreciated. One thing that Aaron Allston's Strike Force did that few other things have done in a long time, is make me interested in picking up the Hero System and giving it another try. I guess that I'll be looking for a copy of Champions Complete during convention season this year.
Also, if you're interested in Strike Force from an historical angle, be sure to check out the original version in PDF, along with the "Strike Force Archives," literally thousands of pages of files, notes and backstory for the development of Allston's games and worlds.