Friday, April 15, 2011

H is for Hero System

Champions, the first Hero System role playing game, was released in 1981 at the Origins Game Fair. One of the first individuals to purchase the game was game designer and magazine editor Aaron Allston who quickly reviewed the game for The Space Gamer magazine in issue 43. By issue 48, The Space Gamer was featuring articles about Allston's Champions campaign, as he became one of its biggest advocates. His review was very positive, but it also contained a fair amount of constructive criticism. In particular he criticized the overly combat oriented nature of the rules set:

There is nothing on "extracurricular" characteristics of the superheroes -- there is no way to determine professional skills or wealth, for example. In the comics, Dr. Mid-Nite can use his medical skills to aid a badly wounded comrade, but in CHAMPIONS the injured soul must be rushed to the hospital, as there is no way for characters to be doctors. There is no way to see if the character is a playboy millionaire or a struggling science student. In short, within the scope of the rules, you can create Iron Man, but not Tony Stark, The Huntress, but not Helena Wayne.

To a certain degree, Allston was perfectly correct in his criticism. The skill list of the first edition of Champions, on pages 10-12, was sparse. It included only the following skills: Acrobatics, Climbing, Computer Programming, Detective Work, Disguise, Find Weakness, Lack of Weakness, Luck, Martial Arts, Missile Deflection, Security Systems, Skill Levels, Stealth, and Swinging. There is a complete and utter lack of professional skills in this list. This is also true of the second edition of the game. While the second edition improved the layout of the rules, clarified many rules descriptions, provided sample characters, and eliminated the sub-par Vic Dal Chele artwork from the product, Allston's critique could still stand.

Hero Games quickly released a series of related role playing games -- Espionage and Justice Inc. -- which had a more "street level focus" and thus had more "granular" skill and "perk" lists. Since these games dealt with Spy Stories and Pulp Adventure, and the heroes were more "human" than the superheroes depicted in Champions, these games included rules for knowledge skills, science skills, and the like.

The third edition of Champions still neglected these "secondary" skills, but most GMs had already begun to incorporate them into their games as the "Hero System" released more and more products. Eventually Hero Games released Danger International -- a serious update of Espionage -- Fantasy Hero and Star Hero proving that the underlying Hero mechanics could be used with any genre.

With the fourth edition of Champions -- the edition I believe is the best -- the skills and perks systems from the various offshoot Hero System games were incorporated fully into the Champions rules and the Hero System became truly universal.

But there were still players who -- like Allston early on -- wanted more granularity in the rules set. It wasn't enough to have rules for medical skills, there needed to be rules for flash light illumination, or the ability to moderately adjust the temperature in the room for heat/cold based characters. Some fans wanted every little minute detail to be codified in some purely mechanical system -- and thus the Hero System 5th Edition was born...and eventually a 6th edition.

All of the rules sets are good. I don't think any are sub par. I do think that they level of granularity and the ever increasing pressure to mechanically represent every last detail of the character has become a bit of an obsession for the rules and for some Hero players. I remember when the Hero players began to post on the Green Ronin boards about the Mutants and Masterminds skill system. Steve Kenson wanted the "ultra-skilled" characters like Batman or Mr. Fantastic to buy "Super Attributes" that implied that the character was equally proficient in all skills related to that attribute. I thought Kenson's proposal was magnificent, the former Hero players -- and some d20 players -- dissented. They wanted each skill to be purchased separately and the level of proficiency to be paid incrementally.

The fans of the granular won out, but ought they have. Is it really necessary for a rules set to have specific representation of knowledge skills and/or professional skills? Can't a character write a robust background for he character and have the GM rule, using judgment and common sense, how that background affects a situation?

Do we really need to have players roll dice to see if their Nobel Prize winning Physicist character understands string theory? Or is it better to have that be an improved/acted out scene that the GM can plan for and leave clues using the assumption of player proficiency rather than leaving it to arbitrary die rolls?

Table top role playing games aren't computer games after all. The reason we have mechanics for combat is to avoid "I shot you didn't" Cops n' Robbers situations. They prevent arguments by providing a buffer between the player and the Game Master. They minimize the perception that the GM is just out to get you.

With non-combat/non-contested attributes, like wealth or education, are those things to be quantified or things to be incorporated into narrative?

For me, they are best things left incorporated into narrative -- unless someone is trying to outperform someone else. One might need mechanics for a duel of wits, but one doesn't need mechanics for "training."

All that aside, and the Hero System can easily be run without the skill system bogging things down, the Hero System is one of the great additions to the gaming hobby. It was one of the first games to use point build characters. It incorporated war game techniques and role playing game mechanics in a wonderful fashion, and was the first system to fully emulate the superhero genre while allowing full design control to the players.

Some of the best Hero System products are (in no particular order):
1) Champions -- 4th Edition
2) Danger International
3) Justice Inc. -- partly written by Aaron Allston
4) Fantasy Hero -- for 5th Edition Hero


Eric Lytle said...

Yet another RPG that is older than I am.

Alex Osias said...

Hero is awesome!

Blue Tyson said...

Wow, haven't seen that cover in a long time. And originally saw it as a photocopy!