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