Review: Fantasy Hero Grimoire

As part of an effort to assemble my various scribblings in one place, this is a review of the Fantasy Hero Grimoire for Hero System 5th edition which I originally posted to RPG.net in January 2004.

I find myself in an unenviable situation for a reviewer. For reasons that will become apparent, this is an intensely personal review. While I have tried to be as objective as I can, I cannot be truly objective. I feel it is only fair – to both publisher and potential purchaser – to explain where I’m coming from before I begin the review proper.

I’m almost a complete newbie to the Hero System. Except for a very brief flirtation with the first edition of Fantasy Hero in the 1980s, I had no prior familiarity with the system until I bought Hero 5th Edition last summer. That experience – or lack of it – is going to colour this review. A lot.

One of the reasons I bought Hero 5th is because long-time fans of the system raved about its awesome flexibility: you can make Hero do pretty much any cool thing you see in another game, in movies or in books. In any genre. I bit their baited hook and discovered… terror. I think they’re right; this system can do pretty much whatever you want – once you wrap your head around it. And that isn’t easy for a newbie – no, siree. But I do believe in Hero System. I recognise its potential. I want to use it; I just want to know how.

The key concept of Hero System is Powers. The Hero 5th rulebook lists 65 of them, each of which can be modified by their own specific bonus effects or limitations, and by a whole list of general bonuses and limitations. These powers are defined in terms of game mechanics, not by what they are. A Ranged Killing Attack, therefore, could represent a longbow, a fireball, a laser pistol or a lightning bolt, or whatever else takes your fancy. If it’s designed to kill (or maim) at a distance, it’s a Ranged Killing Attack. What you call it and how it works is just FX – the colour of magic, as it were.

But you never buy just a power. There are scores of modifiers to turn it into exactly what you want. And that’s where my poor, tired brain begins to emit the tell-tale ozone smell of serious overload. In a system that can do pretty much anything, how do you make it do what you want? There are more than enough permutations and combinations to frazzle poor Bayes’s noodle. Despite the regular examples of different ways to combine powers and modifiers in the Hero 5th rulebook, I didn’t grok it. I saw Hero’s potential, I admired it, but I couldn’t get a firm grip on it. Hero 5th bills itself as “The Ultimate Gamer’s Toolkit”, and it may well be true – but to the uninitiated, it’s like being given a pile of logs and a set of carpenters’ tools and being told you can make anything you want. Without any prior knowledge of woodworking.

I’m no fan of superhero games, in which Hero has its origins (as 1981’s Champions RPG). I like my fantasy and my SF, with a few doses of good old 20th-century mayhem. What I wanted to know was how to convert this extraordinary system into something resembling a coherent magic system – or, better still, into several, since the kind of magic that works in a fantasy game doesn’t necessarily work in 20th-century Lovecraftian horror or as SF-style psi powers.

Which brings us, if you’ve waded through the prologue, to the Fantasy Hero Grimoire and the review proper. This is it, I thought. This is the book that’s going to tell me how to take the raw ingredients of powers, power advantages and power limitations and forge them into something manageable.

Well, the good news is that this book does exactly what I want. I still don’t fully grok Hero’s Powers, but I am coming close. I feel as though I am about to reach an epiphany, where all of it will make sense, and then I can use it as it was intended: as a roleplaying game, rather than as a means of masochistic mental torture.

So what do you get? Well, the basic premise of Fantasy Hero Grimoire is to provide a core magic system for Hero’s forthcoming Turakian Age fantasy campaign setting. The majority of spell effects will be familiar to anyone who’s done fantasy gaming under any other system. There’s nothing particularly innovative or outstanding about the spells themselves. But it does tell you how to do them in Hero System. In my opinion, that’s good. Take something familiar and show me how to build it, then I can go ahead and build something less clicheed for myself.

What Fantasy Hero Grimoire gives you is many spells (I haven’t counted, but it’s probably around a couple of hundred), divided into 12 basic areas:

Alchemy – making potions and the like.

Conjuration – summoning, binding, controlling and banishing spirits and/or demons.

Divination – finding things, looking into the future and the past.

Druidry – spells affecting nature, plants and animals.

Elemental – Earth, Air, Fire, Water and ‘lesser’ elementals such as Cold, Heat, Light, Darkness.

Enchantment – making magical items.

Necromancy – spells affecting life, death and undeath.

Sorcery – mind magic, illusions, deception.

Thaumaturgy – bending and transforming energy and matter, shapeshifting and the like.

Theurgy – divine (or infernal) ‘magic’.

Witchcraft – ‘lesser’ magic, combining various abilities of other schools.

Wizardry – spells that affect magic itself, or general magic that doesn’t fit elsewhere.

A three-page introduction discusses what Fantasy Hero Grimoire is (the default magic system for the Turakian Age setting), and what it isn’t (a generic discussion on how to build your own magic system, or replicate one from fantasy literature – those issues are discussed in Fantasy Hero), and the basic assumptions of the magic system.

Most of the spells are built with the same limitations. They all require a Magic roll to cast successfully; they involve incantations and gestures and, usually, some kind of focus – either disposable, like D&D’s material components, or durable, such as a wizard’s staff; and all have a penalty to the Magic skill roll of 10 per cent of the active point total (in other words, the more raw power a spell uses, the harder it is to cast successfully).

A further quirk of the Turakian Age setting is that spells are cheaper to buy (in game terms) than standard: your mage only pays one-third of the final point cost to learn the spell. This calculation is not figured into the final cost in the listed spells, presumably so that those not playing in the Turakian Age don’t have to keep multiplying the cost of a spell by three.

Each spell follows a standard format of presentation. After its name (which is often fanciful – what D&D would call ‘Entangle’ is ‘Selgar’s Spell of the Leafy Shackles’), you get some useful game data in quick and easy format – area affected; casting time; casting procedure; duration; range; magic roll penalty; endurance cost – then a text description of the spell and its effects, often including some kind of back story (“This spell was invented by XYZ, the demented/gifted apprentice of ABC during a time when FGH…”). Then, indented from the body text and set in italics, are the game mechanics: the Power, Power Advantages and Power Limiitations used to create the spell in game terms. That’s the bit I’ve really found useful.

Then you get various options to customise the spell. This is, perhaps, a rather disappointing aspect of the book because each spell’s ‘customisation’ is the same, with a couple of individual exceptions: you basically get the point cost for a stronger version of the spell (more points in the base power), a weaker version (fewer points in the base power), one that doesn’t need a focus, gestures or incantations; the apprentice version (add a bad side effect for failure); the Master’s version (automatic success) and so on. Every one of these options is repeated for each and every spell in the book, and often takes up more column-inches than the individual spell description. This works fine as a reference for the particular spell and, I must admit, reading a few of them helped me understand how this Power/Advantage/Limitation thing worked – but I only needed to read a few examples. I am undecided as to whether the ease of reference of having these options repeated when I look up a particular spell outweighs the waste of space when I finally understand how they work. On the whole, it’s probably a good thing: when I finally get to grips with this system sufficiently that I’m prepared to GM it, my players will not have had the advantage of my months of mental gymnastics; the instant reference of spell options will make it much easier for them if I choose to use the Grimoire magic system ‘as is’.

However, as I read and absorbed this book, I found myself coming to a realisation: the Magic roll penalty is too harsh and the extra cost to avoid it is too light. This is what is known in design-based RPGs as a point break. And, if you use the system as is, it’s one helluva point break. Tip to Hero players: if your GM uses this magic system as is, always buy the “Master’s Version” option of the spell for anything but the most trivial cantrip.

Here’s why in ‘dramatic’ terms: some of the spells listed in this book have Magic skill roll penalties of -18 or more. OK, these are serious muthas of spells. They’re the kind of spells you aren’t going to want to cast all that often, but when you do you really, really need them. Since we’re talking in dramatic terms, you’re probably not going to get access to these spells easily, by paying character points and spending a couple of weeks in a library; no, you’re going to have to go on a quest or something. But when you need it, you need it.

Since Hero System uses a 3d6 system and defines Skill levels as Competent (11-), one of the best in the World (18-); and one of the best of all time (20-), then one of the best wizards of all time is going to have sod-all chance of casting a spell with a skill penalty of -18. A 3 always works, so he’s going to have slightly less then a 1-in-200 chance of it working – the same as someone with mere familiarity (8-) with Magic. Oh, mighty mage indeed. Best buy the “Master’s Version”, then it always works. Alternatively, buy enough points in Magic skill to become a demigod of magic… though that may not fit your character concept.

Here’s why in metagame point-break terms: let’s take Selgar’s Spell of the Leafy Shackles (the D&D ‘Entangle” spell, remember?). It’s got a skill penalty of -5. If I have a ‘very skilled’ mage (say a Magic roll of 14, as defined in the Hero 5th Core Rules), then I succeed in casting ‘Leafy Shackles’ on a 9 or less — 37.5 per cent of the time. The spell costs 8 points to learn (3 points, given that Turakian Age spells cost one-third the usual amount). For 9 points I can have the Master’s Verion, which always. No need to roll at all. (And, in the Turakian Age, this still also only costs 3 points – it’s free!)

Now, there are ways around this problem. Spells can be made one-shot (for the time when you really need them), or you can reduce the skill penalty (which is pretty arbitrary anyway). You can even increase value of the limitation of Requires Magic Roll (though that’s a pretty scary change to the rules, given how other limitations are weighted).

Is this issue a flaw int he system presented in this book? Yes, I think so. Does it bother me? No, not really. I didn’t buy this book to play in the Turakian Age, or use its magic system. I bought it to learn more about what Hero System can do, and how to do it. The fact that I’ve spotted what I consider to be a flaw makes it very useful to me. I can, I hope, avoid that pitfall when I design my own magic system.

I don’t know what an experienced Hero GM/player will make of this book. Hopefully one of them will post their own review. All I know is that I won’t use it for my own games, and it’s been worth every penny I spent on it. If there’s anyone else like me, trying to come to terms with Hero System, this is an invaluable resource. And, if you don’t mind a standard out-of-the-box stereotypical magic system, you won’t have any extra work to do.

I have plenty of work in front of me, however. I want something different – something, of all the RPGs I’ve played, only Hero has come close to providing. I want the magic of Earthsea, of Deverry and Deryni, and of the Belgariad, where a wizard can change the world by will and by word.

Hero System can do this using what it calls ‘Power Frameworks’. This book doesn’t cover them. They aren’t part of the Turakian Age setting, though they are discussed in the Core Rules. The trouble is, you need to really know the system before you start using power frameworks.

And this book, though it be flawed in my opinion, will be both my guide and my warning. It’s been a revelation, and I’m glad I bought it — it’s going to save me a lot of blind alleys as I try to turn the Ultimate Gamer’s Toolkit into a coherent game. The game I want.

Now you understand why I said at the outset that this was a very hard review to write.

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