Monday, May 31, 2010

Hero System (Champions) 6th Edition Review

Champions, aka the Hero System, is my favorite tabletop role-playing game of all time, and so I grabbed the new edition, updated my running game to use it, and never looked back. Other superhero games are great, but none seemed as worthwhile as Champions. A majority of my long-lasting RPGs have been Champions games.

Like a lot of things I like, the Hero System is neither beginner or newbie-friendly...but while it looks difficult, the rules have such internal consistency that it's possible to understand how several rules work if you understand one. Character creation is infinitely customizable; there's never a danger of two characters looking alike.

My typical reaction to most of the changes in 6TH Edition was, “well, it’s about damn time!”

One thing that I’ve yet to see receive any praise as long, long overdue was the system for Long-Term END Loss. This is one of those so-called “Optional” rules, like the Dive for Cover maneuver, that in my experience, are ultimately not-so-optional because they fill a need and can be used almost every story. If a hero flies to South America, how tired are they by the time they get there? How exhausted are they by the cross over the desert? I have no idea why a system with this utility took this long to add.

What I find most impressive, and kind of creepy, is that an overwhelming number of the changes made are things that I personally used in my game on a haphazard basis. For instance, I used something quite similar to the Long-Term END Loss system for a while, and speaking of perfect timing…the very day before I got the book, a player asked if he could get an “all or nothing” limit on his Increased Density. At the time, I ruled that unless it was a huge amount, all or nothing is a -0 limitation. Imagine my shock to see that very ruling, with my exact language, in print! It was things like this that led me to believe this is a revision done by people that actually play the game.

The distinction between the Barrier and Entangle struck me as genius, since it was always unclear to me where Entangle’s ability to create barriers ended and Force Wall began. Further, the solution to Absorption – to list it as points to absorb instead of rolled dice – was exactly the kind of elegant, outside the box solution I hoped to see more of in this revision.

Another definite improvement was the unlocking of characteristics. On the plus side, the unlocking of characteristics means that combat doesn’t stop for 2 minutes while everybody figures out how their SPD is lowered by a Drained DEX. This is actually genius, since Drain DEX and CON are the single most common Drains. In addition to speeding things up, the unlocking allows greater character customizability. When I saw this change, the first character I immediately thought of was Marvel Comics’ the Thing: a guy that is big and rocky and slow, but who is very skilled and experienced at scraps and fighting. He’d definitely have a low-DEX and a high OCV.

This actually reduces the importance of super-crucial attributes like CON and DEX, which depending on their value, can make a character playable or unplayable. The single most common mistake that beginning players make is to have a low CON, which means every attribute derived from that stat is pretty low too.

The switch from inches to meters was an interesting one, but I’m not sure what it really changes. It does make me wonder, though. When I game, I usually do it with maps. A combat without a map, for me, is absolutely unthinkable – combat, to my mind, needs maps in order to be clear. Is it a common experience for people in other groups to play without maps? Is that the reason for the change?

What I find interesting is that most critiques I have of the 6th Edition can also be applied to 5th. The reason is, I’m just disappointed that the new edition didn’t go far enough in solving very basic problems with the Hero System.

1. Hey goober…where are the superguys?

When are they going to stop pretending this isn’t mostly a superhero game?

The Hero System started out as Champions and is first and foremost about superhero gaming. I have no idea why this is even contentious at all. The assumption of superhero gaming is built into almost every element of the system: two different damage types, knockback, END costs for everything, the way only high ability scores impact skills, the unreal damage done by Martial Arts damage, the fundamental durability of living things, down to the very names of powers themselves, like “Telepathy,” and the fundamental notion of powers as something distinct from skills and characteristics. There are a million little examples, even in the current edition: for instance, the fact that Barriers are not assumed to be opaque unless otherwise stated, is a perfect example of thinking that is so idiosyncratically superheroic. De-emphasizing the game’s superhero roots so it’s trying to be GURPS is downright confusing from nearly every angle, especially since the game only really works as-is for superheroes and needs patching and optional rules for nearly everything else.

The Hero System is like Starbucks: sure, it’s great they offer salads and organic juices, but at the end of the day, their business is selling coffee. I figured if anything would cure the Hero System of this tragic delusion, it would be a giant push by a giant, superpopular MMORPG that even goes by the game’s original name of “Champions.” The people that prepared 6th Edition didn’t even change the name of the RPG back to Champions, so connection can be seen. Essentially, the people preparing 6th Edition squandered the highest visibility that Champions has ever received and ever will receive! With the push from the top-selling computer game that uses an abridged version of its mechanics, Champions could have been able to reach a wider audience than roleplaying games usually get. As the “Hero System,” it’s only bought by the usual suspects. EPIC FAIL.

2. Adjustment Powers.

The Achilles Heel of the system is and always has been Adjustment Powers. If anything called for a revision it would be them, and it’s interesting how the section on Adjustment Powers in 6th Edition bloated out to a whopping three times larger than any other power category. The worst is that a crucial element of how they work remains undefined: how many points are required to lower or raise a Power? How much does a single unit (damage point, etc.) cost in active points? I usually solve this with a house rule: record the cost of each individual unit. For instance, an 8d6 Blast with Armor-Piercing would cost 8 points (7.5 rounded up) to lower per damage class. This is something so crucial to quick resolution of how these powers work, but it’s not even on the character sheet!

3. Mental Powers.

One of the first lines that Hero System zealots will parrot at you as a strength of the game is how you buy game mechanics first, and define what something is afterward. And to the game’s credit, it does work that way…except, y’know, for Mental Powers, which are treated separately, on an island from nearly the entire rest of the system. They have different rules for perceptibility, line of sight, and competing rolls…all because they have a distinct and uniting special effect. They even use a totally different characteristic to determine hitting! And there are two different versions of a power depending on whether it is mental or not: Images or Mental Illusions. A more elegant system would have brought them together by now. Something like the “attack vs. EGO,” “Invisible Power Effects” and “No Range Modifier” power advantages from 5th Edition were a step in the right direction.

4. Movement Powers.

No matter how you slice it, movement powers in Champions are so distanced from any real-world measurement of speed, to the point where I’m not even sure what a movement value really means, even in comparative terms. With lots of supergames, it’s pretty clear. In DC Heroes, if you have 10 APs of Superspeed, you can move the distance of 10 APs per round (which has a real-world distance). In Mutants and Masterminds, a Speed of 4 indicates the ability to move at 250 miles per hour. To figure out something as crucial as real-world speed requires a calculation that isn’t even a part of the regular system. This is a really big problem because the distance a character can move in a given time is one of the few occasions where knowledge of a long-term result outside of combat is more important than in-combat, “on map” results. Finally, there are so many variables, noncombat multiples, SPD, and inches – sorry, meters – of movement that the characteristics are meaningless.

5. Create any hero! Except the ones that the rules don’t like.

It is a bug that is desperately spun as a feature that in the Hero System it’s really hard to instantly kill or transform anything despite the fact that tons of fictional characters and devices have these ability. This is an example of the system telling fiction and the players how the world works instead of the other way around. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a GM, I know some things just shouldn’t be available as gamebreakers. But even if something is too abusive or powerful to allow player characters to have, a way should exist to create it where it can exist under GM control. Another example of the rules making awkward a concept that is intellectually easy to grasp would be characters that are just plain immune to something. I hardly see how having a PC or NPC that is just plain immune to fire, radiation or electricity is so game-destroyingly broken that there is just no way to do it under the normal use of the character creation rules. The Immunity power in Mutants & Masterminds did this very classily and elegantly and didn’t require insane uses of active points.

6. As before, Mimics, Shapechangers and “photographic reflexes” characters remain awkward to represent.

I always thought one of the reasons that Shapechanger and Mimic character concepts were a base archetype in the main Mutants & Masterminds book was a direct diss to their greatest competition – that this game can create with such ludicrous ease what is so awkward and difficult in the Hero System. Sure, in Champions there is a way to have Muscle Mimics and Shapechangers, but still. In practice, “on the ground,” they’re downright unplayable, especially for new players, since it involves a VPP, and designing powers is not always possible off the cuff. Even the most fervent Hero System partisan must admit that character creation is not the quickest thing in the world to do. Because skills can’t be placed in VPPs, and for good reason, the Muscle Mimic or photographic reflexes character remains the one power set that Champions just can’t reproduce under normal circumstances. This is a direct example of the rules and system interfering in character concepts that are very common in fiction.

As a Champions GM, I had to discourage a new player – naively under the delusion the game can live up to its promise and do anything she imagined - from creating a power-mimic character. I hated to do it. I hated to tell a player “no,” especially to a character concept so very basic to comics…but better to do that, than having her spend 5-10 minutes every combat assigning and building points for new powers, while a more experienced player stood over her shoulder and helped her figure it out. Does that sound like fun to anybody else? I had an epiphany when I realized that a VPP is suggested as a solution for any area the system can’t do well. To those that say the VPP solution to mimics works just fine, I ask you this: when was the last time you saw a Mimic character in your Champions game?

7. Lots of people are math-illiterate. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

I’m a mathy sort of guy; I took Calculus I and II in college and I was a “mathlete” in High School. I have periodically worked as a math tutor. I’ve often been alarmed at a world where most people are math-illiterate and seemingly proud of it, where even counting change is difficult for many. I don’t find the very basic elementary school math the Hero System requires to really be a problem at all. However, a stock critique of the Hero System is that it requires a lot of number-crunching, and it is an absolutely undeniable fact that character creation does take longer in this game than others. This critique keeps on popping up over and over and over and over. If so many people keep on saying it, if so many people bring it up, shouldn’t the people that design the game take the hint, realize there may be a problem, and do something about it? Maybe do something so character creation doesn’t take so damn long? So adjustment powers have an effect that results in quicker resolution? So figuring out your character’s actual speed in a meaningful real-world measurement doesn’t require an unintuitive calculation? So it’s possible to play a mimic or shapechanger for anyone but advanced players?

At the end of the day, that’s the biggest problem I’ve got with the 6th Edition: because it can’t acknowledge there might be something to the critiques, it doesn’t feel the need to do anything about them. Tweaking the cost of adjustment powers and their adders doesn’t change the basic problems. It really feels like the people that wrote 6th Edition didn’t think there were any basic problems with the game. Hero System fanboys and advertising copy go on about how “any hero is possible,” but game designers should know better than to drink the Kool-Aid, and strive to repair the real deficiencies that exist. The original Champions was not handed down on golden plates by archangels. Basic, fundamental things about it can and should be fixed. That’s the review of the 6th Edition Hero System in a nutshell: it didn’t go far enough.


Anonymous said...

Great review, and thanks for your honesty. IMO, Hero is the best system out there, even though I've never played it. But I've never played because the people I play with don't want to be bogged down in mindless counter-intuitive math and rules that get in the way of the game.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I missed this when you first posted it. I go by Hyper-Man on the herogames forums. Your review is pretty spot on. The only way I've seen to make mimics work is to have a VPP of Multiforms (a broken combination if used for anything else). Good stuff.

Laz said...

Hello, great review. We have a Kickstarter for Champions Complete going on right now that may spark some new interest in Champtions:



Anonymous said...

"...Drain DEX and CON are the single most common Drains." Single? Hee hee

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M. Kenneth Adams said...

Let's see...

#1 - HERO System is just for superheroes.

Totally disagree. I have run far more Fantasy HERO and Star HERO campaigns than Champions campaigns. Far superior to GURPS. If you use the Hit Location and Knockdown rules, it works brilliantly.

#2 - Adjustment powers

Yes, they are complicated. This is inevitable, you're adjusting other people's ability scores and powers on the fly. Your "house rule" is a pretty clever, though its really more of a book-keeping trick than a rule. I don't really understand your confusion though, since your "house rule" requires you to be able to answer the great mystery of how many points a DC costs, and you clearly figured it out.

#3 - Mental powers

Mental powers are different than most powers. Also, Images and Mental Illusions function in completely different ways -- an image is just a hologram, it can't hurt you, while Mental Illusions is like Freddy Krueger stuff, where the Illusionist can kill you with your own brain.

#4 - Speed

Uh...what? This makes you look kinda dumb, dude. You have a 24m Non-Combat Running and a 2 SPD. That's 24m every 12 seconds, or 2m/sec. In a minute you run 120m. In an hour you run 7200m, or 7.2km, or about 4.5 miles. How is this hard, "mathalete?"

#5 - No Immunity

Yeah, you ever notice how in comic books Superman is "invulnerable" and "can't be hurt" right up til Doomsday shows up and punches him to death? You can make a superhero who is "immune" to anything, but you can almost make a superhero who can hurt a guy who is "immune" to anything. HERO works on the "always a bigger fish" philosophy. Just like all fiction does eventually.

#6 - Mimics can't be done!

No, mimics are hard to do for novices, though a way to make them easier is to prepare notecards with powers likely to be duplicated ahead of time. More importantly, what makes mimics so rarely seen is that mimics are really expensive because they're game breaking. They can be done, but they can't be done easily by players because a character who can have all the powers of everyone else at equal power levels is, naturally, more powerful than all those characters, which means an effective mimic has to be more powerful than the party as a whole, which doesn't work if you want "game balance." But nobody says you can't play HERO with some players starting with more points than others.

#7 - They should make HERO easier for dumb people!

No. The cost of HERO's utility is its complexity. HERO doesn't need to be popular or accessible. Its okay if most people don't play HERO. Let Dungeons & Dragons be the game for the masses.