Sometimes, you’re just not sure who you want to be. Arrogant mage? Fledgling superhero? Hard-drinking private eye with skeletons in the closet? Blood-soaked warrior king of a barbarian horde? Ace starfighter pilot? Mutant vigilante? Luckily, you don’t have to decide. The mammoth Hero System 6th Edition can do all that.
The other week I got a huge pile of RPG books from Hero Games and DOJ Publishing. There was a lot of cool stuff in the pile (including some excellent Wild Talents books from Arc Dreams that I’ll get to in the coming weeks), but this one book really stood out. For one thing, it’s bright blue. For another, it’s huge. It must weigh 10 pounds. I had to dive into this thing right away to find out what it was all about.
Those of you familiar with the Hero System line are saying, “Duh, that’s the new edition of the legendary Hero System.” In my youth, my comic book related RPGing was limited to the Marvel Superheroes game — the one with that colorful table full of weird power ranks, like “Uncanny,” “Class 2000,” and so on. So I hadn’t been exposed to Champions, which is pretty much the original superhero RPG. The Hero System is a direct descendant (in a comic book kind of way — there’s probably a clone and an alternate universe version involved) of Champions.
If, like me, you’re not familiar with the history of Champions, that game was successful in the 80s, and the developers branched out into other RPG genres. At some point they consolidated all the new rules into a single system that could handle multiple genres. This “one system for many games” thing was edited and revised on an epic scale several times. Hero System 6th Edition is the product of 30 years of gaming evolution. Champions is still around, of course, as a “genre book” for Hero System, which I’ll explain momentarily.
That huge blue book is actually just the Character Creation book. There’s another 300-page book that has the actual rules for combat, movement, game mastering and other important bits. You need both books to play. In addition, there’s a third book, a smaller softcover called the Basic Rulebook, which serves as an intro to the rules and strips away some of the more complicated options.
But really, Hero System is all about options. These are the rare RPG books that are virtually pure crunch. Just rules, no flavor text or setting information whatsoever (that stuff is handled by the various genre books, such as Champions, which fills out the details of a superhero-inhabited world). It’s a huge framework upon which you can hang whatever stories, universes or characters you’d like.
The size of the book and the mathematical complexity of character creation can seem daunting at first. In truth, the actual rules are not especially complicated. If you start with the stripped down version in the Basic Rulebook, you can get a good handle on how the system works in about ten minutes. The big books just offer a huge number of options. Some of them can be a bit complicated, but if you learn new things incrementally, it’s not bad. I will admit that some sections could probably be written with more clarity (I’m still working on Power Frameworks), but there’s an example given almost every other paragraph, and that makes it much easier to grasp.
The key to Hero System’s versatility is a generic point-buy system. For example, if you want to create a wizard with a fireball spell, you won’t go looking for “Fireball Spell.” You’d just buy a Blast attack (which is simply a ranged attack that deals damage based on the points you spend on it), then describe it as causing fire damage. If your wizard casts it with a wand, it would have the Focus limitation (because someone could steal the wand, leaving you without your Fireball Spell). The sample character I created is an Iron Man type with a suit of powered armor. To create a cluster bomb attack, I purchased a Blast power with the Autofire and Area of Effect (explosion) advantages, then gave it the limitation of Charges — since he can only carry so many cluster bombs, he can only use it four times per day. So you can see how that same basic Blast power can be changed into a huge number of different powers with the clever use of advantages, limitations and your own imagination.
Hero Games offers pdf versions of their books in addition to the print versions (probably a good idea for game night — I wouldn’t want to haul this thing back and forth once a week!). You can buy packages with both books in either format, both formats, and you can purchase the Hero Designer program to streamline character creation.
These days, the trend in RPGs seems to be heading toward a smaller rules footprint, with simplified mechanics and less bookwork (not to mention math) on the part of the players. I’m glad to see old-school RPGs still thriving. When I was 11 or 12, my friends and I would have spent hours and hours just creating characters with a system like this. The complexity and vast number of options wouldn’t have scared us off. I’d like to think I’m not so different from 11-year-old me these days — I’ve already spent hours making up characters to learn Hero System. In fact, I’ve got a new contest along those lines which I’ll be announcing in a few minutes. Stay tuned!