Friday, July 16, 2010

My Long and Sordid Relationship with the HERO System

I do not believe that I have mentioned my history with the game Champions.  Despite finding Villains & Vigilantes terribly interesting, V&V was not the supers-game my group played the most.  My friend John bought the 2nd edition of Champions (the boxed set expansion of the original hand-produced game) in 1983 (or maybe 1984) when we were in Middle School.  I recall thinking how much uglier it was than V&V which had Jeff Dee's infectiously enthusiastic art.  

However, once I started reading the rules, I was blown away.  Seriously.  I now find the basic design of Champions (and pretty much all point-buy systems that feature extra points for disadvantages) deeply-flawed, but I wouldn't pretend for a moment that I wasn't amazed at the time.  And it really was revolutionary.  Younger readers may not grasp it, but the idea that you could build anything -- any power, any skill, any device, any-fricking-thing -- with those basic rules was just mind-blowing.  Like 2001: A Space Odyssey mind-blowing.  

And let's recall that this book was all of 80 pages long.  The current edition of the HERO System is so bloated that it is published in two bloody volumes like a god-damn encyclopedia, but the original game, however much it isn't old-school in most ways, hewed much more closely to the classic design-length of the Basic /Expert Dungeons & Dragons Books (which only came out the year before the 1st edition of Champs and clocked in at 64 pages).  Those 80 pages -- well, it really was revelatory at the time.  You mean that I can buy Energy Blast and call it a Lightning Bolt or Power Blast or freakin' rocks falling from the sky?  Awesome.

Less immediately apparent, but potentially more meaningful were Disadvantages.  Now, recall that in a game like D&D, you would never want to have something about your character suck (unless you were one of those damn role-players who thought it was great fun to act out your PC's faults and make everyone else sit and listen to you whinge like a second-rate Elric or a third-rate Hamlet and screw over the party because "it's what my guy would do!"  And yes, that was me at the time so I have no reservations in making fun).  V&V made you take a weakness, but you had the option of ditching it if you didn't like it and losing one of your powers, so the idea that "sucking was to be avoided" was maintained.  But in Champions, you wanted to suck.  Sucking at something meant you got more points to buy your Lightning Bolt / Power Blast / Freakin' Rocks.

Lord, the seductiveness of that idea.  And the unforeseen consequences.  Because, it quickly became apparent that there was a game in picking out Disads; one that could definitely be won or lost.  The game was to pick Disads that didn't actually -- you know, disadvantage -- your character (note: we did not ever play the game like John Wick.  Would never have occurred to me).  I don't think that i ever saw a guy with Vulnerability, for example; it was hard to game that one since it outright hurt you.  But Hunted by...?  Oh yeah, that's the one.  After all, is the GM really going to spoil his adventure by having one of your stupid Hunteds showing up out the blue?  And if he does...what, you just get extra screen-time as your arch-foes show up and let you beat them up.  Even better were Psychological Limitations.  Ah, the beauty of the Psych Lim in the dawning days of the Iron Age.  "Likes to Kill"?  That's a  disadvantage how exactly when that's what you plan on doing anyway?  Damn, I recall making a Rorschach-knockoff called "the Harbinger" who actually maintained a blacklist of people who needed killing.  Top of the list? Madonna.  And yeah, I killed her.  Geez, that's, I mean, "Grim n' Gritty".

The central problem to all of this is that taking a Disad makes your hero objectively more competent than one without whether the Disad ever actually means anything or not.  And so character creation became this whole separate game in which you tried to come up with Disads (and Limitations) that made economic sense: that is, you got the most benefit for the least cost.  Now, I've mellowed a lot on the subject of economics over the years, but not in terms of character creation, or, as it became known, "efficient character builds".  

Goodness how I grew to hate playing Champions.  I found myself just recycling the same characters over and over again, rather than face the task of efficiently building something new.  I had friends who loved that game.  Some call character creation in such a system a "mini-game", but I don'.  It took me more time than actual play.  To me, it was an entire separate game that I had to play before I could play the real game.

I know that I have written about how Truth & Justice opened up indie-game design ideas to me and showed me how old-school isn't that far removed from indie.    I still recall confronting T&J and trying to absorb that idea that Disads don't make you more powerful, but give you meta-game power when and only when they actually cause some kind of inconvenience.  I don't think I can actually express how revelatory that was.  It was on the same level as my initial exposure to Champions but utterly refuting that first apocalypse.  As the years go on, it just seems more and more...well, I hesitate to use the word "correct", but it sure as hell feels that way to me.

And yet...

And yet, the pull of Champions is strong.  And I keep finding it creeping up on me while working on Heroes of Industry.  For example, I have been grappling with powers that seem objectively less good than others and how to handle that.  It's come up a lot while working on Body Powers such as Growth, Shrinking, and Density Increase.  I even went so far as to type up a whole new mechanic where you could substantially limit a power and get an extra rank for it.  Thank god that Tim Kirk of Silver Lion Games, a guru on super-hero gaming, talked me out of that.  

I find it kind of fascinating how these things work.


  1. I sort of share your ambivalent feelings about Champions. I think the effects-based design of the HERO System is genius, but I do find it to complicated to my tastes, these days. I do think a structure can be used in a rules lighter game.

    I'm surprised to hear your group would never take a vulnerability. You never had any Supermans, Martian Manhunters, Aquamen, Werewolves by Night, or the like? Sounds like it was a more "gaming" crowd than a "comic book fan" crowd?

  2. I think that T&J has an effects-based game somewhat hidden underneath it's language. But - and this is the important point for me - without extra points for Disadvantages. That's a large part of what makes it ideal for me. One of the goals for HoI is to make all of that more clear.

    I found it very interesting that the 2nd edition of Mutants & Masterminds made moves in that direction by turning some Drawbacks (aka Disads) into Complications (which work exactly like in T&J). Too bad the rest of the game got more complicated rather than less.

    Sounds like it was a more "gaming" crowd than a "comic book fan" crowd?
    No, we were all big comics-fans, but one of my friend's older brother was a cut-throat gamer, who taught us all that we needed to play the chargen game smarter. Also, it was the 80's and we were all playing Wolverine and Rorschach and loading up on Psych Lim, Hunted, and Berserk. :)

    Actually, come to think about it, I did play a werewolf for a long-time and I think I did have a Vulnerability to silver. But I don't remember any other characters with that.