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Sunday, August 28, 2005

On reflection...

Here's another one I prepared earlier since today is the WFRP game (and some Flashing Blades too perhaps; we'll see eh?).

A train-journey back west yesterday gave me time to read HERO:GC more thoroughly, so I just thought I'd put up some remarks beyond first impressions.

Where to start, where to start? Seriously: I have comments to make about several aspects of this book, and faced with the choice between knitting the different ideas together into a coherent exposition, or ravelling them up into an even greater fankle, I find myself wondering which thread to lay down first.

At the beginning then. For all my gripes (does HERO have more gripes/GM than other rpg's I wonder?), HERO remains one of my favourite rpgs, and without doubt still the best rpg system out there. When all is said and done, this game has never looked better than it does in this edition. I have more HERO5 product on my gaming shelves than any other rpg; more, in fact, than any game ever except 40K (that's 15 books at 27cm wide btw).

Galactic Champions is definitely one of the more disappointing HERO5 supplements I have bought. What are my reasons for this? I think in essence they are twofold:
1. As much as I like superheroing in HERO, I'm not at all sure that I think that HERO is the best system for playing cosmic level games.
2. I'm not a great fan of HERO background material- the Champions 3000 universe in this case.
I'll take each in turn.

Cosmic-powered HEROes?
The underlying coherence of the HERO system means that one thing that cannot be said is that cosmic power levels break the system per se. No, my criticism is not directed there. Ironically enough it is directed at one of my favourite features of the 1d6/5pts core of the mechanics- big handfuls of dice. I have long been a fan of the idea that big dice pools are a good way of giving players a feel for high powered characters.

I mean, faced with a choice, and all things being equal, I'd always rather roll to hit then roll 14d6 for a martial strike, than roll 1d20 to resolve everything in one handy dice roll. I like that particular crunch. The problem with cosmic powered HEROes is, well consider Bulletproof, from the Champions 3000 team (HERO:GC, pp.47-50). With 70rPD/ED, this guy can soak 20 average Nd6 (23 SE Nd6). So we're talking about 30d6 before your attacks can start troubling this guy.

This makes perfect sense at the power level in question, but well: I know for sure that I'd always rather roll a 30d6 megapool for CC in 40K than for effect in HERO, especially GM'ing. This is a simple matter of how the different piles of dice generate results. This dicepool overload leads to, IMO, one of the poorer design decisions in the crunchy part of HERO:GC- Firedancer (op. cit, pp.52-54), an energy projector with 6 (count them- 6!) RKA (2-6d6), a 2d6KA damage shield, no normal attacks at all and... a 15pt (common, strong) CVK. WTF?!

OK, OK. It has to be said that this howler aside, Firedancer is a fine example of rpg superhero design that showcases nicely the strengths of HERO, those same old virtues of the days of yore. I could go on about this CVK thing with all the invective at my disposal, but it all boils down to this: as GM, I doubt I would consider ever letting a PC with nothing but KA take any CVK at all. It's just plain dumb, because the 'exceptional circumstances' which such a player would've had to plead to try to get this by me would inevitably have a habit of turning up all the damn time, or I wouldn't be doing my job properly as GM.

Looking at Firedancer as an NPC then, I have to conclude that all her KA are there to make life easier for the GM, by shrinking her dice pool, and also perhaps to make her, well, a bit more, erm... frightening? I mean, at this level, PC's expect to soak 20-30 normal BOD on a bad day, so that KA keep them honest, so to speak.

What I am describing here is a situation in which the system's logic is fine, but the dice required to exercise it in practice just get silly, so silly that, well, Firedancer has a CVK... No, to be more precise: a 4-colour cosmic energy projector with CVK (a perfectly reasonable character conception) is designed with a suite of RKA because this is:
1. easier for the GM to manage in play
2. a more genuine challenge to the PC's according to the system's logic in any case.
Cosmically powered superheroics, in other words, would seem to pose serious challenges to HERO's longstanding and justly maintained claim to be the genre simulation non pareil on its home turf- the comicbook superhero genre.

The Champions Universe
This is a place I've never 'been'. I joined an existing, and ongoing superhero universe when I first took to Champions, and as GM have always most liked the game because it gave me the system with which I could most thoroughly design my own universes. So what I know of the Champions universe I am essentially learning from HERO5.

And it seems a perfectly good universe to me. It has all the classic elements I've enjoyed adventuring in in other GM's universes, or designing into my own. It shows all the signs of being lovingly developed through years of actual play, as opposed, that is, to being sucked out of someone's thumb for the sake of another new setting.

Now at this point I could get all litcrit on Darren Watt's ass, but that would be to mis-state my point entirely. Meantime, any readers who are able could do worse than test what I'm on about by comparing the colour text in WFRP2:OWB and HERO5:HSB. The WFRP stuff strikes me as being better written frankly. More importantly though, its structure and layout make it, well, much more vivid and accessible, therefore a better bestiary, score it how you will.

Forget systems snobbery here: you can strip out all the mechanics crunch from the 2 bestiaries not to mention any lingering nonsense about generic versus particular in terms of setting, all of that conceptual nonsense. Grammer, clarity of exposition, lah-de-bloody dah, all of that can be ignored, all the commonplaces of effective technical exposition, etc, etc. At the end of the day, the Old World Bestiary snaps, crackles, pops, rocks and freakin' rolls; the HERO System Bestiary?- HERO's best yet for sure, but colour... honestly?- a good chunterin' fizz.

With which I certainly intend monstrously to smack my PC's just asap mark you! ;)
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