Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Hero System — Initial Impressions
Real life is what happens when you commit to blogging. Events arise, and your priorities are shifted. January and February have "shifted" rather radically, but my hope is that this week is the last of the major disruptions. On with the blog!
My friend and GM Dave has relaunched his Avergene campaign using the Hero System rules from Hero Games. We had been using D&D 4th Edition rules, and decided as a group to try something new. A new system means that players enter the game on a more even footing. As in the early days of playing RPGs, it's more likely that the GM is most familiar with the rules. One of the unique aspects of D&D 4e was how much of the game rules was delegated to the players. Character powers created exceptions to the base rules, much as the cards in Magic: The Gathering did. Managing character "builds" is best handled with the character builder software, especially at higher levels. In contrast to that, the Hero System rules are largely in the hands of the GM in the form of a toolbox for the type of game the GM wants to run. The rules contain everything plus the kitchen sink. It's up to the GM to define the tools useable in his or her game. As a side note, I suspect that this was one of the intents of the designers of 4e, but that it wasn't articulated clearly, thus leading to players building characters with every possible combination of options available. A recipe for confusion and disaster, in my opinion.
Unfortunately, it seems that Hero System is really no better in this regard. While the GM is free to define guidelines, the variety of options and the potential implications of their selection are open to abuse and/or misuse. I've used the LEGO analogy before. In Hero System the GM limits character options via a point total (analogous to saying, "you have 200 LEGO pegs to work with, and you may choose from 2x4, 2x6, and 2x10-peg bricks.") In general, what "bricks" you work with, and their characteristics are left entirely up to the player. Dave's approach to this is logical: Tell him what capabilities you want your character to have, and he points you to the appropriate game mechanic. The flavor of the game is something he has established, so we're choosing campaign-appropriate options. However, without hands-on experience with the game mechanics in play, it is very difficult to prioritize the components of the character. Literally everything is purchased, from abilities like Strength and Dexterity, to skills like Lockpicking, and personality complications like being unreasonably annoyed by tall people. There are some basic guidelines for creating ability-centric versus skill-centric characters, but players are mostly on their own. Dave worked closely with each of us to create characters that reflected what we wanted to do in-game, and provided lots of tools and guidance in the form of Google Doc character sheets and an Obsidian Portal wiki for the campaign with rules summaries and interpretations (house rules). Thus, a very GM-centric approach to the game, in contrast to the 4e player-centric approach.
When we were kids, playing army or superheroes in the backyard, much of our time was spent arguing about what our "characters" could and couldn't do. "My guy shoots you with his laser!" "I make a mirror force-field and reflect it back at you!" That's still the core of RPG character creation, except that with an established game structure, characters aren't usually able to fabricate powers and defenses on the fly. You will have strengths as well as weaknesses. In 4e D&D, the compromises are pretty apparent, and in some cases built in to the class. In Hero System, it is much less obvious. Action resolution is based on rolling three six-sided dice (3d6). There is a complex calculus of offensive and defensive values that affect combat rolls. In 4e I know what the basic modifiers are, but in Hero System — as with character building — there is a bewildering array of options. As a new player, I depend on having a GM versed in the mechanics. The pattern of the Hero System mechanics is more difficult to recognize, and so it will take longer to learn to play the game. My coping strategy at this point is to play as a very casual player, that is to query the GM about how to do things during the run of play, and start with a very basic "menu" of actions. The stuff I understand my character can do. I'm self-limiting my choices so that I don't have to involve the GM in each and every action choice, thus slowing the game for the rest of the table. All of this is part of learning a new system, and I've tried to take it in stride. But, in the back of my mind, there's a voice shrieking, "Does this have to be so complex?"
Choosing a rule set for a campaign or play group is a major challenge. Groups of players have different tastes in play style, sometimes within the group itself. I appreciate the effort that Dave has made to ease us into Hero System. He's made it a lot easier for the players, but it's clear that it has taken him a lot of effort as GM to do so. It's a labor of love in this case. Dave has a very colorful campaign world in Avergene, and he likes the fact that Hero System is generic enough to realize it. He doesn't have to alter Avergene to fit rules flavor, as he did when we were using D&D 4e rules.
I plan to continue reporting on my Hero System experiences. It's clear that for a group of players interested in the game mechanics of character construction, combat resolution, and for GMs who are looking for rules "crunch" to form a foundation for their campaign "fluff", that Hero System has considerable virtue.
Considering the Experience
With all the activity in the RPG community and industry, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. I do think that for many of us, playing RPGs is an offshoot of the backyard adventures that we used to pursue. Everyone comes to the table with a little bit different priority. Some to tell stories, others to showcase their capabilities, others for the dynamics of the communication itself (argument and debate.) We play RPGs to be recognized in some way. The mechanics of a good RPG should support that. WotC game designers have talked about wanting to create a game that "shared the spotlight" of recognition around the table. I think that's a noble goal both for game rules and for gaming groups. How do your favorite game rules allow players to share the spotlight, and what about the groups you play with?