Wednesday, March 6, 2013

System Check: HERO 6e

 As I gain more experience with various systems, I figure it's only fair to take a look at them and share my thoughts on how I see them. I'm not a professional reviewer and this only my opinion, so feel free to agree or disagree with me as you will. While it's not the first system I had the opportunity to try out, HERO system's 6th Edition is the one I've had the most exposure to, having participated in two short campaigns and having GMed a third. For those unaware, HERO system is a point-buy system using only D6s (six-sided dice) and all abilities are built right from scratch. This allows for total and complete customization of characters, abilities, worlds, everything. That's right. EVERYTHING. In fact, one of the first things they'll tell you on the forums is that if you ask how to build something and don't get about twelve different answers, wait a little bit longer. This thing is versatile. I mean we're talking about a system where you can build caped crusaders of justice who rely on wits and fancy gadgets, steam-powered hulks of arcane design  and even sentient toasters with abandonment issues. So let's dig into this thing.

Blade Runner meets Bubble Gum Crisis
To be blunt, that versatility may also be one of it's biggest downfalls. This puts an abnormally high amount of work on the GM, as not only does one have to perform normal GMing duties, but the game also requires a ton of GM oversight. More than I for one am comfortable with. The game was originally built to simulate the 'Superhero' genre and everything that entails, from low-powered, street-level Heroes to cosmic Supers of epic proportions. In game terms, the exact point level you work with varies from campaign to campaign, as does the number range you work with. Without a campaign point of reference, it's impossible to build a character and know for certain if they are over or under powered. In fact, even when you do you need to be careful about balancing PCs against each other. Savvy min-maxers have plenty of loop-holes to exploit and can easily outpace those without that particular drive. And if the PCs aren't quite on par with each other, making a balanced encounter is all but impossible. Believe me, I've tried. On the positive end, though, the system itself is also incredibly modular. Fair sized chunks of it can easily be added or removed as necessary to simulate any number of genres. While the company itself has numerous source books for various genres, the third-party publishers make excellent use of this feature as shown in the images I've used.

What game is complete without Steampunk? 
The core rules come in two books, both written by Steve Long. Volume 1 is dedicated entirely to character creation and clocks in at 466 pages, cover to cover, while the second volume is the rest of the rules, at 322 pages. On the plus side, you really only need these two books to run campaigns in nearly any style you choose, while most of the first-party supplements have additional corner-case abilities that didn't make it into the main book. I can see how 2 hardcover books of this thickness can easily be daunting to the casual gamer, especially given how much text is dedicated entirely to character generation. Granted, there are systems with larger libraries required, but CharGen should probably not look like a dictionary. The rules are explained in fairly easy to read manner, though I did find the books to be incredibly dry reads. The hyper accurate index has been a total godsend, especially since it covers both books. I've also been informed that the latest published book 'Champions Complete' does a good job of streamlining the rules into a more palatable presentation.

The mechanics of this system are robust and cover nearly any situation. The benefit being that no matter what happens there's more than likely a rule covering it. On the down side, some may consider this to be rules bloat, leaving little to interpretation. As mentioned previously, the rules cover 322 pages of stuff. That's a lot to read through, and probably only the dedicated few are going to make the effort. On the whole, the rules are really flexible and the combat maneuvers allow for some pretty dynamic combat. Knockback is a particular favorite of mine in terms of combat features. It's somewhat gratifying to see something go flying across the battlefield, and you also avoid the 'Conga Line of Death' found in other systems.

Goodbye cruel world...
The system uses a 3d6 mechanic. Since this ends up in a 'bell curve' in statistical terms, you're looking at very average rolls most of the time. That means critical failure/success may never come up over course of a campaign, leaving things feeling, well, somewhat average. And the 'to-hit' mechanic for combat rolls has been likened to 'THAC0 only worse' by some people I've talked to. For instance, your to-hit roll is (OCV + 11) - (3d6) = DCV you can hit. This means you want to roll as low as you can. I hesitate to use words like 'easy' or 'difficult' to describe this, but it certainly is unintuitive for those not used to it. Then comes the damage roll, which is separated into BODY and STUN, each needing to be calculated separately with defenses and damage reduction accordingly. This roll you want high numbers for. Then if you're using the Knockback rules mentioned previously, you need to roll for that. That's total BODY damage rolled -2d6, so this one you want to roll low for. The reason I keep pointing this out is because it gets bloody confusing. So many times someone at the table will roll dice and wonder whether he should be cheering or not. Also of note: since BODY and STUN damage are both done by default on all attacks, you end up needing to track both on EVERY hit. It's nice to know that even if you're not actually wounding them, you at least knock them around a bit, but it can seem a bit bloated. I also had the hilarious misfortune of bludgeoning someone to death with an edged weapon due to this mechanic.

One point I do want to bring up that, I think, sets this game apart from any other I've seen is that it's actually quite easy to do Player vs Player events. In fact, at GenCon 2011, I got to take part in Dave Mattingly's Monumental Battle. Imagine this: several great monuments and wonders of the world rise up to duke it out in a no-holds barred last-man-standing brawl-for-it-all. A dozen players in a free-for-all elimination style game. How freaking cool is that? This is made possible because everything in the system is built on the same open-ended model with the same rules and point values.

For all my gripes with the system, I don't hate it. It's definitely not my system of choice however. While it is flexible, and can be seasoned to taste, it still comes off rather bland. Much like tofu. You can flavor it any way you want, but it still feels like HERO. Also, it's definitely an advanced game. The learning curve is quite high and the mechanics are unintuitive, leaving newer gamers feeling overwhelmed. My final verdict? It's playable, but I can't recommend it. 

Like it or lump it, Keep Calm and Stay Classy!


  1. Hero System 4th edition had tons of Style, the blandness really crept in with 5e and 6e in my opinion. I'll be the first to say that 6e's rules are superior to 4e (I love that Strength can now be a power without making me feel dumb for purchasing it that way), but 4e is where the game really shined from a style perspective.

  2. Agreed. IMO, 6e was an attempt by the author to define a completely balanced mathematical model for inherently messy and unbalanced genres. Hence the rules bloat.

    You forgot to mention that although it is possible to create a character using pencil and paper (plus maybe a calculator), it's become almost de rigueur to buy Hero Designer, the character creator software available from Hero, if you're going to be doing any extensive write-ups.