John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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A Long Essay About Gaming

There is a new edition of The HERO System out, promising to be the first in a long line of new HERO releases. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

A little background is in order, perhaps. Back when I was living in Richmond, HERO System was what I used for everything, because it is the most precise system for creating exactly the world you want, exactly the characters you want, and simulating combat and hazards with great precision. And while it has a reputation for being a bit awkward, it really isn't -- once you get used to it. Even when I was writing for White Wolf Games, I still ran my games in HERO.

HERO System is the perfect set of rules for "playing the system," as it were. Figuring out the right combination of modifiers, advantages, and disadvantages to achieve the desired result becomes part of the fun of the game.

"Okay, these guys are low-level grunts, so they're easy to hit ... therefore, it's probably worth the -4 OCV to take an upper-body shot in order to increase my chances of getting a 'head' or 'chest' hit location..."

"Hmm ... this guy is a heckuva martial artist, so I don't want him hitting me with one of those flying side kicks ... I'd better put all my skill levels on defense..."

"Let's see ... this stun gas only does 2d6, but there's no defense against it and it lasts for four phases ... which means most characters are pretty much going to lose 28 Stun. Normal characters will be laid flat out, and heroes will either be out or woozy..."

Anyway, back in the early '90s, the HERO System (and its evil twin brother, GURPS) was starting to make inroads towards becoming the One System to Rule Them All. While AD&D still had (and always will have) the attention of more casual gamers, many hardcore RPG grognards such as myself had long since pooh-poohed it. AD&D was seen by many as a good starting ground, but the old rules made so little friggin' sense that many players quickly got frustrated with it and went searching for something else.

Also, AD&D was very limited in nature ... there was no way it could do science fiction, pulp adventure, spy-vs.-spy, or really any other kind of genre other than the good old-fashioned dungeon crawl. HERO (and GURPS) was specifically designed to be universal in application -- one set of rules that could simulate anything, with just a bit of tweaking. In terms of flexibility and sophistication, HERO just stood head and shoulders above anything that had come before it.

Unfortunately, as Apple was to computers, HERO was to gaming. The creators of this innovative and potentially great system continuously shot themselves in the feet. Supplements were few and far between, generally of mediocre or low quality, and very often badly implemented the company's own rules. HERO System also meant just about only one thing to many people: CHAMPIONS, The Superhero Roleplaying Game. People who weren't interested in superheroes generally didn't bother to pick up HERO just for their budding science fiction campaign. And Hero Games didn't really do a lot to shake that image. CHAMPIONS was the only game for which they published supplementary material. There were never any Fantasy Hero modules; not once was there a setting published for Star Hero; Justice, Inc. had two modules published for it, back around 1986, both of which were excellent, and both of which were impossible to find.

Then, back around 1997 or so, Hero Games just sorta fell apart, as far as I can tell. Around the time I was writing for White Wolf's short-lived Street Fighter series, HERO seemed to just sorta stop. The last HERO supplement I bought was The Ultimate Martial Artist, a competent but basically redundant remake of Ninja HERO ... and after that, there was nothing. I had a few abortive discussions with Bruce Harlick about writing HERO stuff, but neither of us pursued it very far. After getting burned one last time by my work on Technomancer's Toybox, I had pretty much decided that writing for game supplements wasn't worth the aggravation ... and I wasn't convinced that HERO was going anywhere.

I often nursed pipe dreams of buying out Hero Games and giving it a major overhaul, basically as WOTC did with the third edition of D&D. It was and still is a great system, if they would just take up the gauntlet and go! An infusion of cash, some heavy duty marketing, and decent product support could have made HERO a force to be reckoned with.


WOTC did a little thing called the "Open Gaming License." Separating the "d20 System" from Dungeons and Dragons and allowing pretty much everybody who wanted a crack at it to play with it, has suddenly made d20 the de facto generic system that HERO and GURPS both long advertised themselves to be -- while simultaneously doing away with that "company shooting itself in the foot" problem. HERO System supplements can only be put out by Hero Games. d20 supplements can be put out by anybody who is willing to abide by the conventions of the OGL.

There are d20 supplements out the wazoo!

Most of these are basically generic D&D modules, it's true, but not all of them. Spycraft is making a good shot at setting itself up as the industry's first major superspy game (not the first one at all, just the first major one), and it's a d20 product. There is a d20 version of Deadlands; about five swashbuckling fantasy d20 games of varying quality; the venerable Traveller is being recast in the d20 mold sometime this year. I expect that within the next five years, just about every new game that comes out will use the d20 system.

A lot of people worry that all d20 games will feel basically like D&D with different window dressing. I'm told, however, that the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu and the upcoming d20 Modern, by replacing character classes with the "strong hero, fast hero, tough hero, smart hero, (etc.)" and "profession template" concepts have gone a long away towards changing d20 from "D&D with variations" into a more genuinely universal system.

All this suggests to me that, as much as I love the HERO System, even a new edition and a boatload of promised new releases may simply be too little, too late. Even I, a longtime HERO fan, am probably going to use d20 for just about everything in the forseeable future for one important reason: players.

My current group consists of jamesbarrett (a.k.a. "Frisk") and Camstone. Frisk likes D&D; he always has and always will. He likes choosing from a list of options, rather than having to build everything from scratch. He likes having a solid framework to move around in; for both running and playing, he likes having a premade kit to just grab and go ... and D&D and d20 provide that for him perfectly. He says that all his HERO System characters "feel the same" to him, because he has no idea where to begin when trying to come up with a character from scratch -- whereas with D&D there are a handful of strong concepts ready made, you just grab one, customize it a little, and go.

Camstone is a relative newbie in the world of gaming, and is still getting a feel for the relatively simple rules to D&D. Giving him a 200-page HERO System rulesbook and saying, "Here you go, create a character," is probably a recipe for "Okay, I'll get back to you," and never hearing from him again. :) He does have a life, after all, and doesn't have time to spend it learning new and complex game systems.

If I had a group of players who already knew and liked HERO, and were interested in doing things like deciding if it was more appropriate for a given character concept to get "+5 levels with hand to hand" for 15 points or to invest those 15 points in martial arts maneuvers (for instance), then I would be interested in and excited about a new edition of HERO. Right now, however, I'm skeptical.

-The Gneech
Tags: dungeons & dragons, gaming
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