I’m a huge fan of the Hero System (a tabletop roleplaying game for those wandering souls who’ve found this blog without knowing much about tabletop RPGs).
Hero is not the easiest RPG to get into – the 5th edition billed itself as ‘the ultimate gamer’s toolkit’ rather than ‘the ultimate RPG’, and that’s a fair description. Hero is not the kind of RPG you can use fresh out of the box, but it gives you the tools to build your game, whatever it may be. Those coming to it from a more traditional RPG must cope with a new paradigm as they learn its approach (you can read something of my own journey to grok Hero System in my old reviews of the Fifth Edition (Revised) core book and the Fantasy Hero Grimoire).
I’ve never really used Hero for superhero games. This is partly because that genre doesn’t appeal to me as much as fantasy or science fiction, and partly because that genre uses pretty much the entire possibilities of Hero System.
Other genres demand the GM lay down some mechanical ground rules. Fantasy Hero, for example, might require the GM to consider how magic works in his or her world, and build a set of limitations reflecting that; lists of weapons may be pre-built (or drawn from supplements such as Hero System Equipment).
Since superhero origins, powers and sources of powers vary so wildly, there are no such mechanical limitations in a superhero game.
Hero is pretty smooth and simple in play, but the sheer number of options available in building a game are daunting. Character generation can be intimidating for newcomers, even with an experienced GM to help them. Many’s the time I’ve sat with players helping them turn a character concept into a character. Character templates help a little, but Hero System’s templates are designed to be jumping-off points for inspiration, still leaving much for a player to design (unlike GURPS templates, which often spend 80% of a character’s starting points, Hero templates may spend 5% to 10%). Even working quickly, the process can take me an hour or more per player if their concept is a simple one.
I have a small number of players interested in a superhero game. Some are players experienced in other systems, one is familiar with the Champions setting through the Champions Online MMO, others love superhero comics and movies, but have limited experience of gaming. Among these latter players is my 11-year-old son.
I’ve toyed with using simpler systems, such as Masks (based on the Apocalypse World Engine) or ICONS, designed with kids in mind. But in the back of my mind, I know Hero System (known as Champions in its superheroic form) is the way I really want to go, if only there were a way to get past the whole chore of explaining how the system works and custom-building each player’s character.
Enter the High Rock Press’s Champions Character Creation Deck and its expansion pack – a set of cards designed to make it easy for absolute beginners to build a superhero in seconds. The project was successfully Kickstarted in March 2018, with desks sent to backers in November. I didn’t back it – my copies are bought retail from Hero Games’ online shop.
High Rock, by the way, is Hero Games’ manager Jason Walter’s private imprint, and the cards are designed by him – while not an official Hero System product, the Character Creation Deck has design provenance.
The deck – compatible with both the Hero System 6th Edition and its dedicated superhero variant, Champions Complete, features three types of cards: characteristics, complications and powers. It’s intended to build 400-point superheroes, the Champions default, each with 75 points of complications.
Each card comes with a short, non-mechanical description on one side, and game mechanics on the other.
A player picks one characteristics card (there are 6, each worth 150 points), one complications card (there are 10 to choose from) and a selection of Powers cards totalling to 250 points – there are a total of 36, 10 of them worth 100 points, and 13 each of 50 points and 25 points.
The expansion deck adds a further 54 Power cards – 17 worth 100 points, 18 worth 50 points and 19 worth 25 points.
Each card is marked with an icon to help players make choices that will work with a core superhero theme: Brick, Blaster, Martial Artist, Speedster, Mystic, etc. Several are suitable for more than one theme, and some are marked as suitable for any hero.
Players aren’t required to pick only cards marked for their theme, of course, but keeping largely to the chosen theme helps ensure powers complement each other.
The idea is, frankly, brilliant. You don’t have to understand anything about how the Hero System works to choose a theme and build a character.
But do they work? Can you use them to build characters quickly and run a superhero game within minutes?
I decided I’d build a Speedster hero. I picked the Fast characteristic card, which gave me a selection of characteristics, notably high Speed (7) and Dexterity (20), and a high Endurance (60) and Recovery (15) – useful as Speedsters tend to burn through a lot of Endurance because they act so often. There are a few extra points of Physical and Energy Defence and some extra Offensive and Defensive Combat Values as well.
None of the Complications cards really grabbed my attention for a Speedster, so I picked one that seemed OK, without any particular ties to NPCs: Mutant. This gave -75 points of mutant-related complications – a Negative Reputation, a Social Complication, Distinctive Features (Mutant), a mild unspecified Physical Complication. All in all, I felt that this was rather over-egging the Mutant pudding, but so long as the complications come into play, it’s effective enough. These are, after all, off-the-peg characters, not custom builds.
(Complications cards, by the way, are marked as worth -25 points on the front face, and at first, I thought you were intended to pick three and select 25 points of the complications listed on the back. However, the instructions that come with the deck are clear: pick one, and apply all its tightly focused complications.)
Powers immediately exposed a flaw: there is only one Power in the care deck specifically for Speedsters (Running, a 25 point Power card). I cracked open the Expansion Deck to see if I could find at least one 100-point card – to my relief, there was one: Speedster Tricks, which brings Battering Ram (a power designed to improve HTH damage on Move Throughs and Move Bys), I Think I’m Gonna Be Sick (a Drain affecting an opponent’s DEX and CON), and Rain of Punches (an Area of Effect HTH damage boost representing a… well, a Rain of Punches).
I finished off with some 25-point Speedster powers from the Expansion Deck (Jack Rabbit adds some running and leaping, Super Running II allows running on any surface built as limited flight), and go for some general 25 point superhero skills (Danger Sense and Acute Senses).
I still needed to spend another 50 points, so rummaged through the deck until I found something that grabbed me: Themed Weapon (Flexible), which was built as a multipower allowing swinging from a line, a ground strike area-of-effect attack, an Entangle and a damage boost. It also has 3m of Stretching, meaning I may be able to hit someone who can’t reach me. I decided this weapon is a bullwhip, and that gave me a character name: Whipcrack.
I put Whipcrack into Hero Designer (both print and PDF versions of the cards come with Hero Designer prefabs) to discover Whipcrack was 6 points short of the 400 target points. Since he had no skills, I used the spare points to give him Acrobatics and Breakfall.
All the colour of the character – appearance, background, secret identity, typical quotes – is left to me to flesh out.
All in all, I think the experience wasn’t perfect, but it was good. In less than 5 minutes I have a usable Champions character.
However, I note that Whipcrack is likely to rely heavily on his Area of Effect attacks and his Battering Ram power (which comes with +6 combat skill levels) – I have only the levels from the Characteristics card (6 each). This is not something a Hero System beginner is likely to realise.
I’m also having a little difficulty reconciling a fast whip-wielder with a battering ram ability, so I’ll probably rename that power when I think of a suitable name. Since Whipcrack doesn’t have a lot of Physical Defence, I’m likely to use it more as a Move By than a Move Through, so maybe Lash will work.
Since the character complications don’t have any particular moral guidance, this character will work as either a hero or villain (and I’m happy to use him as the latter when GMing).
Download the character sheet for Whipcrack (PDF).
I enlisted the aid of some gaming friends in Bahrain to help me test them in a live-tabletop environment. Their gaming experience varies from beginner to experienced, and they have very detailed knowledge of superhero comic books, but none have played Hero System before; most have only played fantasy games.
Could we design characters and run a short game in one four-hour session?
Indeed we could. However, with new players a weakness of the cards is demonstrated. People picked cool cards for their powers and abilities, and were able to flesh out backstories and explain their heroes.
But most didn’t realise they needed to boost their offensive and defensive values to make those powers effective in combat. In other words, there was little intent behind the designs than “that looks cool”.
This is not necessarily a weakness. I went over the character designs later – I’d used Hero Designer to record the varios card choices – to refine the characters for a second session. In the end we used the characters for a short, four-session campaign.
For a one-off, I think it’s important the GM provides some advice on the character creation process, even with the cards, suggesting a player may want better combat values (or doesn’t need them so high).
All in all, this is considerably easier than explaining to players how Hero System works and working with themm to build custom characters from scratch, even using templates.
It would be nice to see cards like this for non-superhero games – a Fantasy Hero set, for example – but given the differences between settings, and the overwhelming dominance of superhero games among the Hero fanbase, I think this is unlikely.