I got inspired by David Artman in a prior thread
to dig up the Hero System 5th edition rulebook from the stacks. I've read it and earlier Champions books over the years, but never played it. Now I'm curious about your thoughts as to what this game is good for.
Because this is the Internet, I'll use an extra paragraph to clarify that I don't do passive-aggressive bullshit: the above question is genuine, I'd really like to hear if anybody has experiences with the system and what it does well. I'm myself mostly puzzled by much of the game text - the mechanical complexity is a non-issue, but I'm struggling to discover what is appealing about the game in comparison to others. I can sort of almost see intriguing possibilities in creating really out-there character concepts and playing them, but then the system doesn't quite get me anywhere after the chargen, at least as far as I can see. I'd like to hear from people who've played imaginatively fresh and exciting games with this system, to get a sense for the style and emphasis of successful play. If you've got e.g. links to inspiring and instructive actual play reports, I'd like to read up on how the game is being used in practice.
By coincidence I read the "Champions Universe" setting book a while back, as well as the "PS238" setting book, both for the Hero System. Both are superhero settings, and both books felt pretty pointless to me off-hand. This is to be expected of a licensed property like PS238 - those books are always just endless stat blocks for the licensed characters. However, the Champions Universe book surprised me in that apparently it's a pretty recent tailor-made setting for Hero System, specifically built to highlight the game's possibilities. Perhaps I'm not getting the literary qualities, as I did not see many interesting ideas or any over-arcing themes in it; it was just a big mishmash of superhero cliches. I've never thought that I didn't "get" superheroes as a genre, but perhaps I'm just not enough into it to appreciate this stuff?
Regarding the rules system itself, it is largely as I remember it. Here's the broad strokes, and I appreciate it if any expert wants to correct my understanding:
- The Big Promise of the game is that it can tally up the advantages and disadvantages of individual player character concepts in terms of GM-directed adventure roleplaying and realize any two character concepts in a mechanically "balanced" way. Thus you can allow players to make "any character they want" without having to worry about GM-fiat needed to maintain the fun.
- The concept of balance as advocated by the game pertains to the idea of adventure roleplaying: the game is going to be about GM-created adventures that the player characters participate in, attempting to e.g. foil the plans of a supercriminal by cleverly using the strengths of their own characters to their advantage. We need player characters to be balanced in terms of operative strengths (particularly tactical fighting strength) because the plot arcs are going to involve a lot of fighting, and all player characters should be able to "contribute". (I'm misusing the quotation marks all the time because I'm not quite sold on this traditional rpg theory myself - for certain types of rpg composition these are solutions in search of problems.)
- A big part of character creation is the development of disadvantages for your own character. You get extra points for purchasing powers for the character by taking on disadvantages: the basic presumption is that the "best" character is one who has nothing or no-one weighting him down, a particular sort of superman. Here it is important for the creative work to understand that the best character you can make is actually one where you yourself accept and embrace the "disadvantages" of your character; by choosing them well you can end up with a whole bunch of character-building points essentially for "free", by taking on disadvantages that represent the way you honestly were planning to play anyway. For example, if you really want to play a vampire character, speaking of the fiction of the game, then you won't mind that your character'll be fucked up by sunlight, which is something that would give you extra points for other things. After all, that's what being a vampire is about!
There are many things I don't think I understand here, though. They're not mechanical things, but rather fundamental matters of creative agenda - what this game is for. For instance, to give an idea of what is confusing me:
- The effect-focused rules take great care in ensuring that the guy who punches hard pays the same number of character building points for his punch as the laser-beam guy pays for an equivalently strong laser-beam, but there is very little benchmarking here to tell me what these numbers mean. Is, like, 5d6 damage a lot in comparison to something real or fictional? Given a setting, how strong should something in that setting be in Hero System terms? HeroQuest does a lot of similar things, but in that (the earlier editions, anyway) I have very clear guidelines of what level of power e.g. "2nd level mastery" represents in the fiction. How do I decide how many dice worth of energy blasting my character should have? Should I just look at what the other players are making and build off that, or what? Should I play a few sessions to find out that the X number of dice I bought is too much or too little for what I had in mind?
- Does the GM cheat on the dice or scene framing to railroad an adventure's plot towards his preferred conclusion? The game text is totally focused on this monolithic vision where it's already assumed that I know what I'm going to do with these detailed player character builds the system enables. I don't know, though, as I haven't played the game and don't know what it's good for. Should the GM set up villainous characters with the same build points the PCs get and then possibly have battles to the death with no fudging? Or is the messing with build points for the benefit of the players, and the GM should have a plot ready (informed by the disadvantages and such of the PCs, of course) to execute with the necessary amount of fudging? Or should I prep a campaign setting with benchmarking (see the above point) and then just let the PCs run around and encounter whatever, whether stronger or weaker than them?
- I don't want to get into a GNS argument with anybody who isn't comfortable with the Big Model, but if you know your stuff, feel free to tell me about the creative agenda possibilities here in technical terms. I can sort of see a potential for snowflake simulationism (that is, a game where the joy is in creating and expressing a detailed player character), but what role does the Big Promise of the game serve in that - what use do I have for balance between characters? On the other hand, I can see a whiff of physical simulation where the joy is in finding out whether the Hulk or Thor wins in a fistfight, but... the physics and especially the benchmarking is so arbitrary, you know, so how do I know whether a hand grenade should do 4 dice or 5 dice or however many dice of damage?
I'm still in the process of reading the 5th edition book through, and I might read "Fantasy Hero" next in my spare time reading slot, so maybe a vision solidifies at some point. Right now, though, I'm mostly confused by this stuff. Clearly the Big Promise has seen a huge amount of work put to it, but I'm uncertain about what type of game I should imagine myself playing with this. What do I do with the fact that all the player characters are fairly balanced in terms of how hard they punch? Run a tournament circuit?
I'll close by saying that the most inspiration I've had for the game so far has been that it might be interesting to develop some entirely off-the-wall custom superhero campaign set in a world where the player characters are the first public superheroes. Something relatively gritty in social terms, without a lot of genre veneer. Probably low-ish point buys, and most importantly, weird '80s characters with somewhat elaborate background mythology and their own advance-planned friends and foes. For example, I'd see the Super Trucker
, one of my favourite lame superheroes, as appropriate here. (I especially like the idea that this peculiar hero has his own villain in Highwayman, the man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a demon-infested truck. It's like this truck insanity steals over what was supposed to be a sane story.) Perhaps we could spend a session or two developing the character backgrounds and counting build points, after which the game could be played along the lines of Sorcerer
or such vanilla narrativistic games? I've no idea if this is even in the ballpark of what the Hero System does, it's just what's been swimming in my head while reading through the endless power-lists. I'm not even sure if I'd be seriously rooting for the Super Trucker to triumph against anything, or if I just want to laugh at weird superhero concepts. Also, maybe this would work better with the entire hero team built on the same theme with each other instead of each individual having their own brand of weirdness to contribute. Monomyth, as it were.