Review: Hero System 5ER

As part of an effort to assemble my various scribblings in one place, this is a review of the Hero System 5th Edition (Revised), which I originally posted to RPG.net in March 2005.

Over the past 18 months I’ve become increasingly impressed by, and devoted to, the Hero System. I’m a late starter – many Hero fans have been playing since its first incarnation, as the Champions RPG (1981); back in those days I was hooked on AD&D, Traveller and Runequest.

But since I bought Hero 5th edition, it’s become one of my favourites. While I’m no expert compared to the people who’ve been playing for more than 20 years, I can no longer class myself as a newbie, as I did in my review of the Fantasy Hero Grimoire.

I’m going to attempt two things in this review: to give an overview of the differences between the fifth edition and the fifth edition, revised (henceforth known as 5ER), which will be of more interest to established players; and then to review 5ER as if it were an entirely new product, which will be of more interest to those who don’t already play Hero.

So what does 5ER do that the unrevised 5th edition didn’t?

Well, the most obvious difference is that it’s chunkier. Far chunkier. The old version was an impressive 372-page hardback – thick enough for me to show a friend in awed disbelief – but the new one adds more than 200 extra pages, making it an intimidating 1.75 inches (4.5cm) across the spine. And the UK price (£29.99) is only £1 more than the previous oeuvre.

It isn’t size that matters, though, it’s what you do with it. And what DOJ/Hero Games have done seems intended to make it a lot easier for beginners to get into the system. The layout is clearer, the rules are clearer, and there are many more examples of rules in action. The FAQ file from the old edition has been incorporated into the revised version, so many of the thorny rules questions are answered in the book, and of course, the errata have been fixed.

Actual rules changes are very few – the only one I’ve spotted is that the way Extra-Dimensional Movement works (and its point costs) have been altered. That means that if you’re happy with your 5th Edition, you don’t have to upgrade. Let me repeat that: THE RULES HAVE HARDLY CHANGED – YOU DON’T HAVE TO UPGRADE. But for me, an extra 30 quid spent on a re-written version of rules I already own has been 30 quid well spent.

How I wish it had been available when I initially took the plunge. Hero System is hugely flexible, and the rules are relatively simple, but it requires something of a paradigm shift when you’re used to more typical RPGs. The process gave me headaches. 5ER is much easier on the brain.

The first thing that makes the new version easier to use is simple navigation: each section is marked on the edge of the pages, making it easy to find the bit you’re looking for. It’s a minor touch, but important in a book this big.

The next most obvious difference is the addition of a new 50-page chapter (Hero Genre by Genre), which gives capsule overviews of how to modify Hero System for its most popular settings (superhero, fantasy, SF, modern action and 1930s pulp) and two or three paragraphs apiece on minor settings (horror, post-apocalypse, Old West). The main settings list recommended power levels, character archetypes, sample characters and popular sub-genres. For more details, look to the relevant expansion book (Fantasy Hero, Star Hero, Dark Champions and so on).

So what about the other 170 extra pages? Well, it isn’t like you’re going to find a new page here and a new page there – we’re talking about a re-write of the entire book. The new text, while remaining crunchy, is largely devoted to making things clearer and providing examples for Hero newbies.

For example, there’s a new table in the character generation section which shows what kind of stats various different kinds of people would have. Old hands may already know this, but for newcomers it’s useful when designing characters to know that an Olympic-grade weightlifter would have a Strength of 14-20, and Hercules a Strength of more than 31.

There’s a very useful new appendix giving templates for characters/creatures of different sizes, from insectile to colossal, which draws together rules scattered throughout the old edition.

OK, that’s established (I hope) the main differences between old edition and revised edition. Let me change tack and review this as if it were a new product.

The physical side

5ER is, as mentioned, a huge tome. Hardback, 1.75 inches thick, and 592 pages. It is, according to Hero Games, designed to stand up to massive amounts of punishment. My copy hasn’t been around long enough to judge the truth of this claim over the long term, but it has survived three months of reading and two game sessions unscathed. The pages are of an unbleached, rough textured paper which feels flimsy but is apparently designed for strength. It tends to give the book a slightly grubby appearance, though. Printing is black and white throughout, and nice and crisp. The body text is big enough for me to read without my spectacles (your eyesight may vary).

Artwork: Entirely B&W, and mostly line-art. Quality variies between acceptable and satisfactory – nothing awesome, but nothing awful. A nice touch is the use of B&W versions existing Hero book covers as full-page illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, such as the Dark Champions cover, showing a gunman bursting through a window, introducing Combat and Adventuring.

Overall: It looks as though Hero Games have had to balance presentation, durability and affordability. Presentation drew the short straw. It’s a good effort – just be aware that the wow factor of this book lies in its size, not its appearance.

The Contents

Introduction (18 pages): Two pages of Hero history, followed by basic game concepts, core mechanics (3d6 skill rolls) and a brief overview of character creation and combat (do not skip this if you’re a newbie), a sample filled-in character sheet, then a seven-page glossary. Since Hero, as befits its 1980s origins, is given to acronyms and abbreviations, the glossary is your friend.

Character creation (320 pages): Hero is a points-based design system, intended to be utterly flexible. You can create what you want, from an inch-high flower fairy to an extra-dimensional intelligent space amoeba. That’s why this chapter is so big.

Hero breaks characters down into three basic types: normals, heroes and superheroes. Normals and heroes use the same rules; superheroes have a couple of differences – most notably, where normals and heroes can pay money for equipment, rather than character points, superheroes have to use their character points (of which they have many). The reasoning is that superheroic equipment is as much part of the character as innate powers (after all, where would Batman be without his utility belt or the Batmobile?). Normals and heroes have limits on their characteristics which are expensive (in design point terms) to exceed; superheroes don’t.

PCs are generally either heroes or superheroes. You can play normals, but you have very few points to spend, and it’s generally considered something for experienced players rather than novices.

With your character points, you buy characteristics (there are eight primary ones, including strength, intelligence, dexterity and body, and six derived ones – such as speed and recovery – which you can top up with extra points), skills, perks, talents and powers.

Powers are the key to Hero. 231 pages of character creation are devoted to them. They’re what turn your bundles of characteristics into the flower fairy, the giant space amoeba, Rocket Man or whatever. And if you’ve never played Hero before, they’re going to hurt your head.

The main things to understand about Powers is that they’re described in terms of game mechanics. You decide what they represent. For instance, the Power Ranged Killing Attack could be a longbow, a lightning spell, a revolver, laser rifle or venom spit. It’s up to you to decide, within the limits of the campaign. To turn the power into what you’ve decided, you then apply various modifiers to it.

For example, if your Ranged Killing Attack is a revolver, you’ll add the modifiers Obvious Accessible Focus (people can see it, and can snatch it from you), Real Weapon (it has to be cleaned and maintained) and Limited Charges: 6 (you have six shots before you need to reload).

If it’s a lightning bolt spell you’ll probably want the modifiers Incantations, Gestures and Requires Magic Skill Roll, and you may like to add Extra Time (if you need some preparation before unleashing the spell), Requires Expendable Focus (if you need a material component) and so on.

There’s no getting round it – to use Hero effectively, you have to understand how to use Powers and Power Modifiers. There is a learning curve: I’d say it took me about a year to get to grips with it fully by reading the 5th edition, but I never had the opportunity to play in someone else’s Hero game first. That’s the hard way – if you have a GM who knows the system, it’ll be quicker, and 5ER will also make things quicker. But be aware of the learning curve.

Character creation rounds off with Disadvantages (which you can take to get more points to spend), a sample character (Randall Irons, a 1930s pulp hero) and four pages of generic NPC characters.

Combat and Adventuring (86 pages): The chapter covers spotting (the use of senses and perception rolls), moving (getting close enough to hit), striking (how to hit) and hurting your opponent (damage rolls). Various optional rules follow, together with sections on healing, special attacks and an example of combat (a clash between a superhero and a supervillain and his lackeys).

The default level of Hero combat is cinematic. PCs are expected to be able to take a fair bit of punishment and survive, and to pull a few flashy moves. Optional rules allow you to downgrade the combat towards gritty realism or upgrade it to four-colour pazzazz.

It assumes the use of a battleboard and miniatures though, like all such systems, you can make do without them at the expense of tactical precision. It’s often said (though I haven’t found it so) that Hero combat is rather time-consuming, so there’s even a panel giving several ideas on how to speed it up by taking shortcuts.

The Environment (18 pages): Deals with such things as falling, hazardous environments (radiation, chemicals and so on) and with breaking or repairing machinary, equipment and buildings. There are a couple of pages on hiding and concealment, and three pages on animals (which only gives three sample beasts: the black bear, the lion and a heavy warhorse).

Equipment (44 pages): Equipment, like characters, is built using design points and Powers. As noted earlier, superheroes do have to pay points to have equipment, as its really just an expression of their superhero powers, but heroes just have to pay cash. The chapter covers creating automatons (which could be robots in an SF setting, or golems and zombies in a fantasy setting), computers, vehicles and bases, and weapons and armour. Rules for vehicle combat and explosives are found here. Since heroic-level games don’t really need to go through the whole design process there are a selection of prefab vehicles and weapons in table form, from archaic weapons and armours, through modern firearms, and a selection of modern vehicles.

Hero System Genre by Genre (52 pages): Each of Hero System’s major genres is given an overview of several pages, ranging from two pages for the as-yet-unpublished Pulp Hero to 14 pages for Champions, the superhero genre in which Hero has its origins. Each gets a campaign overview and guidelines, conventions of the genre, suggested level of play (heroic or superheroic), and suggested points values for beginning characters, and each has sample characters. Five minor settings get three pages of notes between them.

Gamesmastering (14 pages): Has some good, if not awe-inspiring, advice on the Noble Art. Most of it boils down to common sense. It’s well written, and may prove useful for a beginning GM; I couldn’t say – I’ve been GMing for more than 20 years. Perhaps the most useful sections are on using PC disadvantages as part of the game (something that applies to any design system with disadvantages), and a handy list of GM Dos and Don’ts. The most important bits of advice for someone who’s GMed plenty but is new to Hero are the sections on participating in character design and on pacing character growth – after all, when the system can do pretty much anything you can imagine, you may want to try and ensure what the players design fits in with the overall concept of the campaign.

Changing the System (9 pages): Gives you an overview of the thinking behind Hero System, suggests ways you may like to adapt rules to fit particular genre, and finally tackles the biggies altering the rules in the book to fit your game. It’s interesting that the example of changing the rules (in which the GM considers all the possibilities of affecting game balance and so on) ends with the GM deciding that the rules work perfectly well as written and a change would be detrimental. Hubris on the part of principal designer Steve Long? Maybe – or perhaps he’s given what you have his best shot, and can’t think of any ways to improve the rules he’s written.

Concluding Notes (21 pages): The story of how Hero came to be, suggestions as to where you can take it, a four-page appendix covering the issue of differently sized characters and creatures (extremely useful), character sheet to copy, and a 13-page index. The index will be your friend – learn to love it.

Conclusion

Hero is a very flexible system with a steep learning curve. It’s capable of modelling just about anything you want it to, but you have to be prepared to do the grunt work of learning how to use Powers and Power Modifiers. Whether you choose to put in the graft is up to you – I did, and I’m reaping the benefits of what I’ve found to be a wonderful system.

It’s also an all-in-one book. Yes, there are genre supplements (such as Dark Champions or Fantasy Hero) and rules supplements (such as The Ultimate Martial Artist or The Ultimate Vehicle), but these are really just specific applications of the rules you find in 5ER. They make your life easier and suggest new ideas, but don’t change the core rules any. That’s impressive – all you need to play is your campaign notes and one (admittedly hefty) rulebook, and you’re ready to rumble.

Awarding the Scores

Style: 4 – If I were going purely on production quality, this would be a 3, as I think even Hero Games would admit they’ve sacrificed presentation for content. However, it’s well written and clearly organised, with many examples, and that earns 5ER the bonus point as far as I’m concerned.

Substance: 5 – And if the reviewing rules allowed, I’d give it a 6. It’s a hugely crunchy book which gives you the tools to model any genre you care to imagine. I was bowled over by the potential of Hero 5th; 5ER makes it easier to turn the potential into reality.

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