Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby gentleman john » Sun Jul 17, 2011 9:11 am

As I climb the shelves of my game collection, we come to the elephant in the room.

The HERO System

Introduction

The HERO system. There's a lot of weight behind those three words, both literally and metaphorically. If you ask gamers of a certain age what their experience of superhero RPGs was, more than likely the first words out of their mouths will include "Champions". The HERO system has been around - in one form or another - for thirty years. It has spawned 6 editions, countless supplements and is still going strong. Now, I try to review it in just a few hundred words. Take a deep breath, aaaand …

The System

As far as I know, the HERO system was the first set of RPG rules that totally eliminated random factors from character generation. According to its creators, the prototype rules consisted of a set of tables complied during lectures. There were two reasons for this. First off, the creators of the HERO system wanted to be able to create the characters they wanted for their games, not just the characters that somebody else thought they should play. Secondly, their lectures were very boring. While I can believe the first reason (a complaint endemic amongst gamers), anyone who was bored enough to design even 1e Champions during lectures must have had a lecturer worse than Ben Stein explaining the Laffer Curve.

At first, when it was published, the game was known as Champions. It wasn't until its 5th edition that the game became known as the HERO system. By this time the game had mutated from a single paperback pamphlet to a multi-genre monster of a game that could stop bullets. However, it still had the same basic engine at its core.

The game, whatever you care to call it, is based around a host of primary and secondary characteristics. The primary characteristics cover aspects of a character ranging from physical strength to appearance, while differentiating between facets of a character that some games prefer to lump together. The secondary characteristics are derived from the primary characteristics and cover attributes that are mainly combat-based. Again, there is a lot of granularity, with minor differences between characteristics being very important. All of the characteristics are alterable, however, going with the concept of customising your character. For example, you want a thin man who has a high endurance? No problem. A bruiser who is good for one punch but that's it? Go ahead. You can do it.

Characters are fleshed out with skills, advantages and disadvantages. Skills are based on characteristics, but can be altered by spending more points. Advantages and disadvantages tweak characters even further. Then, you have the powers. In the HERO system you do not have a power defined for every occasion. Instead, you have list of effects-based powers. These powers are then modified to reflect exactly how you, the player, want your power to be. For example, some SHRPGs will differentiate between being able to shoot jets of flame from your hands or being able to shoot jets of water from your hands. Not so with HERO. They are both Energy Blasts, but modified to reflect how the player sees them. Even two characters that appear to have similar powers may not be all that similar on the character sheet.

This barely scratches the surface of the HERO system, however. You can create gadgets, vehicles and bases, all using the same systems for creating characters. You can create power frameworks to mimic any setup. Want all your powers based around a single theme? There's a system that does that. Want to have a pool of spells that you can change on the fly? No problem. You want your powered armour to be able to fly and shoot lasers, but you want to reflect the fact that you have a limited battery? That's fine with us.

This ability to customise characters comes at a price, however. Yes, the HERO system is very complicated - but only during character generation. Learning the best way to create your character on the least points is almost a game in itself. In play, however, you hardly need the rules. Everything is there on your character sheet. All you need are 3d6 and you're good to go.

The only real rival to the HERO system is GURPS. Both are complex. Both try to span a huge range of genres. Both succeed. The difference is that HERO is effects-based, while GURPS is rules-based. In GURPS you have to find the exact ability, skill or whatever that you need. In HERO, you take the basic concept then bend it to your will. Personally, I prefer HERO because all the work is up front.

The Games

The HERO system has spawned a lot of games. There were four editions known as Champions, then two editions of HERO up to the current 6th edition. About Champions 2e, there were a number of genre games that spun off from the main rules. These games were optimised for the genre they emulated, but were all compatible. The games included Justice Inc (for pulp games), Fantasy Hero (for FRPGs), Danger International (modern day action) and Robot Warriors (mecha). For 3rd edition, the designers made the choice to drag everything back under one system with a core book and genre books. This philosophy was adhered to and, by the time of HERO 5th edition there was a genre book for just about anything you could think of. Unlike GURPS, there were no licensed settings; not that you needed them!

On The Shelf

Champions 2e, 3e, 4e, HERO 5e and a metric shedload of the other bits and pieces. I never bought HERO 6e, and I never will. I like my systems simpler these days.
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby Blood axe » Sun Jul 17, 2011 2:55 pm

Great stuff! Thanks for taking the time to do this. How about Icons? :D
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby gentleman john » Sun Jul 17, 2011 3:03 pm

Icons is on the list. I was debating whether to do it or Underground first. However, seeing as you brought it up, it will be the next one I do.
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby gentleman john » Thu Jul 21, 2011 7:55 pm

Due to popular demand, I bring you my review of …

ICONS

Introduction

Icons is relatively new. In fact, it's the newest superhero game in my collection. I know I have missed out some that have appeared since then, but there is only so much space on the shelves in the games room. However, despite being about a year old, Icons has attracted a lot of attention. Enough of the rambling. On with the review.

The System

Icons is the creation of Steve Kenson, the man behind Mutants and Masterminds. With Icons he has managed to create something that simultaneously manages to pay homage to the old school Marvel Super Heroes while using the mechanics of the Fate system. While this may sound like a hellish mash-up, it actually works.

Action resolution is a sawn-off version of Fate that use the d6-d6 mechanic rather than the 4dF. The d6-d6 mechanic has become popular since the advent of Starblazer Adventures and is very simple. Roll 2d6. One die is the positive die, the other is the negative die. Subtract the positive die form the negative die and add the result to your ability score. Compare the final result to your opponent's ability score. The difference from that is your effect. As with Fate, there are points to spend to alter the result of dice rolls. In Icons these are called Determination and are supposed to represent the force of your character's will. Determination can be regained by having negative Traits. If you (or the referee) invoke a negative Trait, then you get Determination back. There are positive Traits, but these are things you can spend your Determination on.

The twist that Steve Kenson has put into the mechanics is that the referee never has to roll the dice. This is left in the hands of the players - literally. While this can make villain's attacks rather predictable in their effects, it does mean that it is up to the player whether or not he spends an action in defence. After all, the character's defences might just be good enough.

If action resolution is new style, character generation is definitely old school. The default way of generating characters is by random roll, in a manner very similar to that in the original Marvel Super Heroes. Players roll for a character origin, which gives bonuses to the rolls for abilities and powers. Rolling certain powers allows you to take "bonus powers" that go with the original power. Yes, these do take up an available power slot, but they do go well with the parent power. Character also get skills to back up their abilities. While the power list is not very large and the powers are quite generic, this is not a drawback. In fact, the whole system is so reminiscent of MSH I have been tempted to dig out my old Ultimate Powers Book and use that as inspiration for characters. However, I am merely following in the steps of Mr Kenyon, given he did the same for M&M 2e. I can count the number of games with Prehensile Hair as a power on the thumbs of both hands …

Icons also provides rules for creating teams and - guess what? They are very similar to the rules for creating teams in MSH. The main advantage is that creating a team in Icons allows you to pool your Determination in a "One for All! All for One!" style mechanic. There are no rules for creating devices, but Icons doesn't need them. After all, a device is merely another way of having a power. There are still disadvantages to having a device, but those are entirely up to the player and the referee.

I have not run Icons as much as I would like to, but I can say that my experience with it so far has been fantastic.

The Games

There are plenty of 3rd party supplements for Icons, as well as official support from Adament Entertainment. Because Icons is covered by the Fate OGL (or something incredibly similar), there is more than enough stuff out there to keep a gaming group busy for a long while. And if you're an old TSR grognard like me, then you might just find a new lease of life for those old adventures.

On the Shelf

And in my book bag, on my laptop and on the gaming table.
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby Blood axe » Fri Jul 22, 2011 12:49 am

Theres a few Icon adventures out there, and some "Hero Packs" with dozens of statted out heroes/villains. Good stuff. Thanks!
To defend: This is the Pact.
But when life loses its value,
and is taken for naught -
then the Pact is to Avenge.
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby gentleman john » Fri Jul 22, 2011 8:52 pm

Round about 100, just from a simple search.
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby seneschal » Mon Jul 25, 2011 4:51 pm

Before Icons came BASH. Any thoughts?
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby gentleman john » Mon Jul 25, 2011 9:22 pm

Not one that is in my collection. If somebody else wants to chime in and tell us about it, please go ahead.

Menawhile, the next on the list is going to be Underground. But that must wait until after I come back from my loooong weekend in London. I'm only going to get one chance in my lifetime to see Yuri Gagarin's space suit! However, the hotels here charge £5 ($8) for an hour of internet, and my dongle is inclined to drop off the network - oo-er Missus!
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby gentleman john » Sat Jul 30, 2011 12:35 pm

Having recovered from my recent trip to London, here's the next in the series of occasional reviews …

Underground

Introduction

It is debatable whether Underground is really a superhero RPG. Conceptually, it's a combination of Aeon Flux and Marshal Law with illustrations done by Geoff Darrow. The heroes are half-insane, genetically-modified war veterans who carry enough weaponry to eliminate a tank. However, they are out to change the world for the better by taking down the corrupt government that created them. Maybe we'll let this one ride?

The System

Underground is based on the Mayfair Exponential Game System, as used in the DC Heroes RPG and Blood of Heroes (which is just DC Heroes with the serial numbers filed off). The system, however, has been simplified and scaled down. While DC Heroes had to cope with Superman at one end of the scale and John Constantine at the other, Underground does not have to go that far. Hence, the range of characteristics used has been cut down in size and made more granular. Also, instead of having to consult table after table to work out what is going on, Underground tries to use a simple "roll, add, beat difficulty" model that is closer to those seen in RPGs like Cyberpunk 2020.

The characters are much closer to human levels of ability. In the game, the player characters are genetically-modified soldiers who have returned from the front line. The powers possessed by the characters are modifications intended to make them better soldiers, and range from simple body augmentations to psionic abilities such as being able to blow up objects by thinking at them. Unfortunately, the modifications tend to drive the poor sods who have them insane. Hence, the military have conditioned the players using a virtual reality simulator based on Silver Age comic book tropes. While this allows the PCs to use their powers without being driven mad by the consequences (mostly), it has had other effects. Most obviously, when the veterans return home after the war ends in a stalemate, they are confronted with a corporate-run American dystopia that is the antithesis of what they have been fighting for.

Character creation is points-based, with the players allocating points to abilities, powers, skills and psychiatric treatment. As mentioned before, there is a psychological penalty associated with having superpowers in the game. Even using a power can cause mental trauma. As a result, most veterans are one step away from being psychotic nutjobs kept under permanent sedation. Points allocated to psychiatric treatment do alleviate this, but only so much. Military experience is randomly generated, and "mustering out" benefits accumulated to determine what equipment your character starts with when they are de-mobbed.

So far, so bleak. However, the game does include a mechanic to allow the PCs to try and fix what is wrong with the world. A campaign setting is meant to have statistics that reflect the state of the society - such as corruption, taxation, health care, etc. When PCs gain experience, they may try to influence society by spending their experience. Of course, this is not as simple as it sounds as influencing one campaign stat will influence another two in different ways. So, PCs have to be careful of the consequences and not just change things willy-nilly. Still, allowing PCs to affect the campaign in a greater way is a good twist to the game - albeit one that has been underused by my players in the past.

As well as the main rulebook, Mayfair Games produced a number of supplements for the game detailing guns, gear, more powers and settings such as Democracy City (the theme park that Washington DC has become) and Steel Deep (a lunar prison colony). While these were in no way essential, they did add significantly to the game's options.

To sum the game up: Underground is semi-realistic cyberpunk superheroics with a social conscience. Not for the faint-hearted or the munchkin.

On The Shelf

Yes it is. One day I do want to get it out again.
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Re: Gentleman John looks at ... Superhero RPGs

Postby gentleman john » Sat Jul 30, 2011 1:08 pm

And because it's been a while, here's another one.

Champions: The Next Millennium

Introduction

Did you know that RTG and Hero teamed up to produce a superhero RPG? You probably blinked and missed it. Most people did, or saw it and left in disgust. The RPG was Champions: The Next Millennium. Its core system was Fuzion, which went on to power a number of small RPGs and gathered a reasonable fan-following. But what about the game that sparked it all off?

The System

C:TNM was an extension of the Champions campaign background for the Hero System. It came somewhere between Champions 4e and Hero 5e, and was an attempt to expand the appeal of the Hero system in the dark days after ICE dropped it.

The game is set in the early 2000s. At the end of the last millennium, a being with unbelievable powers appeared over the USA and challenged all comers to battle him for power. Virtually all the world's heroes (and some of the villains) joined forced to defeat the being. They succeeded - but at the cost of their lives. Only a dozen of the hundreds who joined in the battle actually survived. Even worse, when the being was defeated it unleashed a wave of energy (known as the Wildstrike) that swept the world, creating new superpowered beings. These Wildstrikers are the core of the next generation of superbeings, and there is no-one to show them the ropes.

C:TNM was the first Fuzion game. The Fuzion system combined aspects of RTG's Interlock system and the Hero system in an attempt to be a modular, but generic, set of roleplaying rules. Characteristics and powers were based on those in the Hero system, but were streamlined into packages with costed options. Action resolution was as in Interlock (roll, add, beat), but could use 3d6 or 1d10 depending on the referee's desires. The general advice was that 1d10 resulted in less predictable but more reliable results, while 3d6 gave results the other way around.

As with both the parent systems, character generation was points-based. However, the Lifepath system from Interlock was brought over. Unfortunately, it was not fully integrated with the character generation system. As a result, you could roll lifepath events, but totally ignore them for your character - which raised the question of "What's the point?" There were also some options that were missing from the core rule book that did not arrive until the supplements, gadget construction being one of them.

So, mechanics-wise the game was limited, possibly even crippled. If you really wanted to be creative, you needed a copy of Champions 4e to work out the powers, which negated one of the reasons for buying C:TNM. Even the writers must have come across this, because it was impossible to build some of the NPCs using the C:TNM rules as written. However, the writers did attempt to make up for this by the background material that was included in the books. The writers had a vision for the world, and they stuck to it. Ultimately, there were three books for C:TNM that detailed the campaign city (a rebuilt San Francisco), worldwide organisations and major NPCs. There were promises of a fourth book that would detail Europe in the C:TNM setting, but the line folded before it could come about.

While I did run C:TNM, I only ever used it as an introduction to the fully-fledged Hero system. The game was flawed by its lack of flexibility - a serious defect for a so-called generic game.

Other Games

There was one spin-off from C:TNM: a ziplocked boardgame called Wildstrikers. This was an arena fight between superpowered characters, pure and simple. It added nothing to C:TNM and never resulted in anything else.

On The Shelf

Currently relegated to my archive collection.
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