Game Review: Hero System (Fifth Edition, Revised)

HeroSystem by Brandon Blackmoor

 

It’s no secret that I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Hero System (what used to be called Champions, back when it was a role-playing game rather than a collection of rules). The core game mechanics are elegant, the power construction system is flexible and functional, the skill system is playable, and the overall system is admirably scalable. You can run nearly any genre or power level using Hero System, and—for the most part—the game system is self-balancing. It permits the players to focus on the game, rather than on wasting time tweaking the rules. The rules work without getting in the way.

Perversely, the greatest weakness of Hero System is that it attracts exactly the kind of players which want to tweak the rules: the kind of players who revel in game mechanic geekery rather than in role-playing. Historically, this was the source of the majority of complaints about Hero System from people who were not themselves players. Those who did not use Hero System in their games would encounter a rule-tweaking, mechanic-fiddling, mini-maxing, minutiae-obsessed Champions player, and draw the obvious, albeit incorrect, conclusion: that this was the kind of game play that Hero System was best suited for.

This historical context is important to keep in mind when one reads Hero System: Fifth Edition, Revised, because it explains a great deal about the book—primarily its size. The original Champions games were slender, saddle-stitched tomes. When Champions 4 was published in 1989, the rules of the game were organized and clarified, and the default setting for the game was fleshed out and made so that a potential player could buy the book, become familiar with it, and begin play almost immediately. No other books were required, and this was one of the great attractions of Champions: although it could be used to run any kind of game in any genre, it came with a default setting that made the book a self-contained and playable role-playing game. At 286 pages, it was also much larger than any previous edition of the game, which gave rise to its nickname of the “Big Blue Book”. The size of Champions 4 was due in no small part to the mini-maxing rule-players who had plagued the game since its early days. Champions 4 clarified nearly all of the areas of the game system which had previously been abused by the mini-maxers, but this clarification came at the cost of additional pages. For the most part this was a good compromise, and Champions 4 was widely regarded as the best multi-genre game system ever published at that time.

Unfortunately, the 1990s were not kind to Hero Games. A serious of unfortunate business decisions, combined with the advent of collectible card games, resulted in hard times for the game publisher. Fortunately, in late 2001 Hero Games was resurrected by DOJ, Inc., a company formed by Steven S. Long and Darren Watts, among others. Long was responsible for the re-write of Hero System when Hero Games was still owned by Cybergames, and this 2002 edition of Hero System was the first book published by DOJ, Inc. dba Hero Games. The fledgling company was strapped for cash, so there were no frills: Hero System, Fifth Edition was a bare-bones, ashcan cover, hardback reference book with few illustrations. Yes, it was an ugly, ugly book, but Hero fans were happy (and lucky) that it was published at all.

It was also the largest version of Hero published to date: weighing in at nearly 400 pages (374, to be exact), Hero System, Fifth Edition made the “Big Blue Book”; look scrawny by comparison. However, this increase in the book’s girth is even more drastic when one realized that Champions 4 included 130 pages of setting material which was absent in Hero System, Fifth Edition. No longer could one simply buy the book and play it. Furthermore, the once-elegant game mechanics had become burdened with endless lists of complications and special cases, in a vain attempt to forestall abuses by the mini-maxers and rule-players. Even so, fans of the game adopted the new version of the game with a passion, and they supported the resurrected Hero Games with their time and their money. Hero Games rewarded them by publishing book after book of the best role-playing supplements ever created. From the content, to the interior artwork, to the covers of the books themselves, Hero Games created a product line which any gamer would be proud to own.

And so it was that the announcement of Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised (or “H5R”) was met with great anticipation by all Hero fans. At last, the flagship product of Hero Games would be updated with the same care and quality that had become the hallmark of Hero Games’ products. Or so we thought.

Physical Attributes

Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is, in most respects, the worst book the new Hero Games has ever published. Not only have the flaws of the original Fifth Edition not been rectified, they’ve been made even worse. It retains the hideously ugly ashcan cover of the Fifth Edition, which pronounces to the world, “It took every resource we had to push this book out the door, and we could not afford even the simplest artwork, nor even attractive text.” This was acceptable when the reinvigorated Hero Games was a new company, desperate to get its first book on the game store shelves. Now it’s simply an embarrassment.

What’s worse is that the paper quality and printing quality are perhaps the worse I have seen in a role-playing game in the last fifteen tears. The paper is coarse, grey, lightweight, and simply repulsive to touch or look at. Each of its 592 pages (!) is an exercise in unpleasantness. The first thing anyone who opens my copy of Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised says is, “Jesus, how old is that book? And what’s it printed on, newsprint?” It is not, in fact, newsprint: the standard basis weight for newsprint is 30#, while the paper used for Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is 45#. In comparison, the paper used for Hero System, Fifth Edition was 55#. You can definitely feel and see the difference. One minor saving grace of the repugnant paper used in Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is that it has a slightly higher rag count than the paper used in Hero System, Fifth Edition. This is a good thing, because otherwise it wouldn’t hold up to even casual use.

Aside from the poor quality of the paper, the printing itself is visibly substandard. The “black” ink actually ranges from 30% to no more than 75% black (see photo). Between the light grey paper and the medium to dark grey ink, do not try reading Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised in anything other than very bright direct light.

The one physical attribute of the book which is not a disappointment is the binding. The book lays flat when opened, and the pages are firmly attached to the spine, and remain so even after months of regular use. This is a marked improvement over the binding of previous editions of the game, particularly Champions 4, which was notorious for having pages detach from the spine.

h5rpage160_tnContent and Organization

At 592 pages, Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised dwarfs every previous edition. With so much more content, one would expect that new sections had been added, or that many entirely new Powers had been created, but this is not the case. A few Powers and Talents have been modified from their Fifth Edition versions, but for the most part the additional 200+ pages are filled with special cases, exceptions, and other mechanical minutiae spelled out in excruciating detail. Will this prevent the game system from being abused by mini-maxers and rule-players? Of course not. What it does is make the game more difficult than ever for new players to learn. It reminds one of the Task Force Games product Star Fleet Battles, which used a game system with more exceptions than it had rules.

At first glance, the organization of the book appears to compensate somewhat for its ridiculous length. Each section has a printed tab at the margin to assist one finding one’s place (see photo). This is a nice touch, and it’s helpful. The index is also quite complete, which is a feature sadly overlooked in many role-playing games. It would have been nice if, when an entry has several page numbers listed, its primary page were distinguished from those pages which merely mention the entry, but this is a small complaint. Overall, the index is exhaustive and accurate.

This is a good thing, because the organization of the book itself leaves something to be desired. There is a section for Advantages, for example, in which each Advantage is listed alphabetically. Unfortunately, a great many Advantages are not listed in this section at all, or are listed under a name other than that of the actual Advantage. The Powers section suffers from the same lack of organization. If it weren’t for the excellent index, Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised would not be usable at all.

Character Creation

Aside from the physical and organizational flaws in this particular presentation of Hero System, Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised retains at its core what has made Hero System (and Champions before it) one of the most enduring role-playing games of all time.
Character creation is point based: each character has a number of “character points” which may be used to purchase “Characteristics” (e.g., Strength, Dexterity, Charisma), “Skills” (e.g., Disguise, Gambling), “Perks” (e.g., Contacts, Favors), “Talents” (e.g., Ambidexterity, Danger Sense), and “Powers” (e.g. Energy Blast, Flight). The number of points which may be used to build a character may be increased by adding “Disadvantages” to the character (e.g., Overconfidence, Watched By The Authorities). The number of points, the number and type of permitted Disadvantages, and the type and power level of Powers are all determined by the Game Moderator, based on the genre and setting of the specific game to be played. Guidelines for all of these values are provided, and are relatively straightforward. It actually sounds more complicated than it is, and the author has done a good job of explaining character generation with clarity and precision.

There are some wrinkles to Hero System character creation which can cost one either more or less points for the same amount of effectiveness, particularly in the realm of Characteristics, and the game does not provide explicit advice in this area. However, the modifiers and the costs for Characteristics are not complicated, and one can quickly perceive where a few points may be saved. Unlike the more egregious uses of “mini-maxing”, this simple exercise in cost-effectiveness is both straightforward and obvious, and it quickly becomes a matter of habit for experienced Hero System players.

Power Creation

With very few exceptions, it is possible to approximate any conceivable super power, magic spell, or high-tech gadget using the Hero System power mechanics. However, this unlimited flexibility comes at a cost: the most complicated part of Hero System, by far, is its power creation system. It is unlikely that a novice to the game would find it comprehensible without a great deal of trial and error. Fortunately, there are copious examples for the Powers themselves, as well as a number of example characters in the back of the book. For even more examples and ideas, one can take a look at other Hero System sourcebooks such as the excellent UNTIL Superpowers Database and the Fantasy Hero Grimoires. Another aid which makes Hero System character creation much easier is the Hero Designer 2.0 program, which is a reasonably-priced Java application (which means it will run on Windows, Linux and Mac). Hero Designer is frequently updated, and technical support provided on the Hero Games Discussion Forum is always prompt, if not always helpful. There have been several attempts to create a user-friendly character creation application for Hero System: Hero Designer is without question the best of the lot.

Conflict Resolution

Combat and skill contests in Hero System are resolved using similar systems. Combat is resolved by the attacker rolling three six-sided dice (3d6) and adding them. Generally speaking, if the attacker rolls 11 or less, the attack hits the target. The target number is adjusted up by the “Defensive Combat Value” of the target, and down for the “Offensive Combat Value” of the attacker. Combat maneuvers and circumstances may further affect the target number, but the core game mechanic is consistent for all types of combat, including mental attacks.

Skill contests are also resolved using 3d6. However, the target number of the skill is increased for each separate skill by putting more character points into that skill (either during character creation or during play, when the character is rewarded with “experience points”). As with combat, circumstances may further affect the target number.

Genre Adaptations

Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised has no default setting, but it does contain a small section which devotes a half-dozen pages of hints for each of seven major genres (e.g., superheroes, martial arts, pulp), as well as a few paragraphs for less popular genres such as post-apocalyptic games and westerns. These sections do an adequate job of conveying the general idea of how one would adapt Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised to run an actual game, but do not provide enough detail to do so. Anyone who wants to run an actual game using Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised would either have to spend significant amounts of time creating a setting, or they would need to purchase an additional sourcebook such as Hero Games’ Valdorian Age fantasy sourcebook or Gold Rush Games’ award-winning San Angelo: City Of Heroes.

Conclusion

There is no question that Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is an essential part of every gamer’s library. The book suffers from serious flaws in organization, editing, and presentation, but the core system is the best extant game system for role-playing, bar none. I hope, along with many other long-time fans of the game, that Hero Games will someday correct this edition’s flaws, and that Hero System, Sixth Edition will proudly take its place as the flagship of the Hero System game line. Until then, this book has a place on every gamer’s bookshelf.

 

 

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