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?  


  1. Never tried the hero system. At this point I don't think I have time to try it either... Oh well..

    I think everyone should have time in the spotlight, but I'm not sure that is something that should be built into the mechanics so much as suggestions in the DMG on how to give each player spotlight time and ways to encourage players to move from a more reactive to proactive style of play.

    That's not to say that there can't be a mechanical benefit to it, say like Aspects in the FATE system. That is a way for players to say, "Hey I want something interesting to happen to me at this moment." That could work.

  2. I haven't played the Heroes system because a) creating a character was so complicated that someone else had to do it for me and I felt no emotional investment; b) I don't care much for the comic book world; and c) the rules are just too, too complicated for my poor brain. But I hear enough about it from Patrick who doesn't care for it either.

    I do want to say though that I still prefer points-based systems. I have no problem buying "hindrances" or using negative traits to boost positive traits (regarding creating personality complications). In NWoD, we can utilize virtues and vices of our own selection (no purchase necessary). You can still play your character as you will, but those features are useful to help craft a character. Many people like to think of their "great" qualities only instead of what might make them interesting, which is their weaknesses.

  3. I know some people like ultra crunchy systems like Hero, but personally, I find it way too complicated. I would highly recommend if you play with an internet connection. If you specify, say 5b6 (instead of 5d6) on a damage roll, it will automatically calculate body damage.

    We use 5th edition in our weekly game (don't know how that differs from 6th). Our GM basically approves everything. Considering how overpowered/freeform the character building is, it doesn't feel too constricting. We're all mutants in a post-apocalyptic Seattle (think Robocop with areas of wildlands with people standing around burning 55 gallon drums to keep warm).

    On your specific question about involving players, our GM really makes an effort to build story around the characters. One character's sister was kidnapped so we were trying to find her, but unfortunately, the player just had to move to North Dakota.

    Now that he's gone, my character was taken by aliens in the last game and exposed to some as of yet unknown power. It will be an opportunity to introduce some weird alien presence into the game (I'm fine role playing any sort of negative effects of alien control if that's where the GM takes it). Paranoia is a big component of our game (nobody likes or trusts mutants).

    I think for a generalized rule set, I've been really impressed with Savage Worlds. It's way less complicated, but also has a generalized system of spells (spells/powers are a particular effect like ranged damage, armor, flying instead of having 10 different fancy names for a ranged damage spell). Your skill is the dice you use, and you need a 4 or above. So, skills are d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12. If your skill is 10, you roll a d10 and try to get 4 or better.


  4. @Mike: I tend to agree with you that game mechanics designed to aid spotlighting are probably overkill. Creating a playstyle that encourages player involvement is part of game mechanics though. Different systems do this in different ways. Points that allow a player to boost a character's chance of success at an attempted action are an example of that. So are character flaws or hindrances.

    @Anna: Do you think it takes a certain player maturity or mentality to adopt a character flaw or hindrance? Whenever I've played a system with hindrance mechanics, I've enjoyed it. But I have played with players who clearly wish that their characters could succeed at everything they attempt, and they chafe and backpedal when confronted by the possibility of failure in-game.

    @Patrick: It sounds like your GM has made a real effort to connect the campaign with your characters. I think that kind of involvement is a win for both players and GM. It's easier for the GM to create adventure content (as some of it is provided by the players) and it's more rewarding for the players because they feel more immersed.

  5. @Keith. Tough question. Short answer "yes." I think that it depends on the player's approach to the game and what they want out of it. If they just want to release some stress and aggression and smash things, they don't want hindrances or vices or other challenges. They want to smash things. That's probably the CRPG mentality. Another group is the one that compensates for their own lives or frustrations by being someone they are not. They are using the RPG to truly escape from something...and it's hard to blame them. RPGs are escapism. But I think that may be a reason they balk because they may not want the reality they are trying to escape to enter the game. But I think that as long as the player doesn't bring his negative issues into the game, then there's a way to get around that through GM salesmanship and emotional intelligence. If you know your players, you can address their concerns. I firmly believe that communication is key. But again, this is assuming that you actually know your players's hard if you're playing a cold game with strangers you don't know.