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I'm interested in the HERO system. What does it do that other systems don't? What are its unique features?

I'm not so interested in a breakdown of the system itself (for example, all the stats), but in how it compares to other systems.

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7 Answers 7

Succinctly, the things that make HERO distinct:

  • The game uses only 6 sided dice, and with typical super-heroic games, each player will need about 15 to 20 dice for comfortable play.
  • Point-buy system for creating all "characters" in the game (including inanimate things that have character-like status during play, such as bases, vehicles, robots, and so on), where the costs for character aspects are, for the most part, rationally based on a very small set of core principles (5 point gets you 1d6 worth of effect; 3 points gets you an ability based-skill roll at the base value, 2 points get you +1).
  • Nearly all special abilities are, essentially, built in an abstract fashion. You purchase a game-mechanical effect, and then you describe the "special effects" the power will have during play.
  • The point-buy system includes ways arrange groups of power-purchases in coordinated ways (frameworks) and awards you for this coordination (through cost breaks).
  • Actions in the tactical turn are all valued at "how much of a phase they require" -- in this way, HERO is similar to games that let you have "one standard action, one movement action, and one minor action" and give you a way to trade one action type in for another: HERO has actions that are full-phase, half-phase, 0-phase, and no-phase (there is a subtle distinction between these last two).
  • Player activity is organized into 12 segments each round, a character's SPD determines how many phases the character has each turn, and thus 12/SPD determines (roughly) the number of segments that transpire for each phase of a player's activity -- this means that low-SPD characters take much longer (in game time terms) to hit someone than high-SPD characters... this level of turn-by-turn complexity is very elegantly handled by the phasing mechanism, and I haven't seen this level of detail in any other RPG (I have seen games that use "phased activity", but even with these games, typically the amount of time it takes me to throw a punch is the same time it takes you to throw a punch: not so in HERO).
  • Injury in HERO is classified into several types: all characters have several measures of health: BODY, STUN, END. Reducing BODY kills a character, reducing STUN knocks a character out, and reducing END exhausts a character. All attacks are either "normal" attacks (reduce STUN, mostly) or "killing attacks" (reduce BODY, mostly). In general, tactical use of powers and long-term tiring activity reduces END. The way in which injury is calculated is rational and clever.
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[Tangential FYI.] Burning Wheel is an example of a (recent) RPG that uses such phased action where faster characters get to act sooner and more often. I wouldn't be surprised if it was at least in part inspired by HERO's action rules though. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 23 '11 at 3:08

The Hero System is a generic point based systems that allows you to play nearly any genre with the same set of rules. It is coupled with a power system that allows a gamers to construct nearly anything in game terms from weapons, vehicles, to superpowers.

It requires some interest and skill in simple math. There is software that helps with character and power creation. The basic setup is that you calculate a base cost, increase by a percentage for advantages, and decrease by a percentage for limitations.

The Hero System's primary genre is superheroes, in the form of Champions (the original name of the game).

The use of the power system dependent on the genre. In Champions it is used for super power, in Fantasy Hero it is used for spells, in Space Hero it is use for technology, vehicles, and psionics. In low powered genres characters are more defined by the skills and advantages they buy rather than the powers.

The only other game of comparable scope is the GURPS system. Hero is better at super heroics and other high power genres, while GURPS is better at the low power end of the scale. But both have been developed to the point where it is a matter of preference which one a gamer likes.

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The Good:

  • You can do anything with Hero. Literally. A wizard throwing fireballs, a spaceship shooting lasers, and Superman's Heat-ray eyes are all the energy projection power. The system is written to be VERY vague for this reason. You apply the mechanics to your character, then supply all the story elements yourself.
  • The system is written with the intent that you can play any genre. Anything from High Fantasy to very Hard Science Fiction. Although the main focus tends to be on Superhero games.

The Bad:

  • The system is/was not intuitive. I never got that "aha" moment where the system made sense to me like in other games I've played.
  • Like Aramis said, the jargon is somewhere between heavy and oppressive. Which made it harder to "get" the rules (see above).
  • A Fireball can be Energy Blast or a Killing attack. It confuses me that almost any power I can think of can be implemented in multiple ways, and then you add in the plethora of power options and power limiters, and you now have more options than my brain can keep tabs on and understand.

Other:

  • Heroic/Superheroic. Based on what the DM decides, you can play either Heroic or Superheroic. Heroic games tend to be lower power, and very straight foward, equipment-wise. Superoheroic games tend to have much higher point allowances, but everything needs to be bought with character points (or used for a very short time).
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The Hero System is unique less for its individual mechanical choices (d6 only, 8 primary and 10 figured/secondary stats, scads of powers, speed chart) than for the culture of gamers it has created, and the mode of separating color from mechanics. This is both a boon to players who learn the jargon, and a barrier to mastering the game.

Take the following two powers:
Electro Bolt: 2d6 RKA-E, Gestures, 6 charges.
Zip Gun: 2d6 RKA, Gestures, 6 charges

This tells us it's a "2-die Ranged Killing Attack, which requires gestures to use, and can be used 6 times per session". The Electro Bolt, however uses Energy Defense (the E) while thezip gun is physical. (The Gesture is pulling back the "hammer.")

The game charges you for the primary effect; you define the "special effects" including what the basic power source is and what it looks like in use.

The most noted innovation

While it's no longer innovative, Champions, the first Hero System game, may have been the first pure-point-build system released, and certainly was the first to be commercially successful with it.

Bases and Vehicles as Characters

The second most notable innovation is that of buying bases and vehicles the exact same way as characters. Both of these are later additions to the core rules, but use the same concepts, modifers, limiters, powers, and such, so tie in perfectly. they add some special rules for internal space, and don't have all the same attributes as characters, but generally, they work close enough that even novices can move from character generation to vehicle generation.

Also, several various "secondary character" elements all share the same rate for purchase: 1 of your points gets 5 for them, and 5 points of yours can buy 2 of them. You want 4 goons with 30 points, it costs you 14 points (30/5=6)+(5+5). It's the same for vehicles, bases, robots, and computers.

Several standard options are given in the core rules for play style.

In Superheroic games, all gear items one uses more than one session have to be paid for with character points, wealth is discouraged, and characters are encouraged to be pretty widely and wildly divergent. The attribute limits are usually turned off for this mode.

In Heroic games, characters are encouraged to be more stat and skill focused. Gear can be bought with cash rather than character points and kept. Point totals are lower, and powers generally have to match one of a few allowed sets of special effects.

There are several specialized flavors in between, and even "normals" games have been run with no issues.

The Culture of Hero

The Hero System's been under one editor's thumb for at least 20 years now. It's had a strong net presence since before the internet, having had numerous WWIVnet-distributed fan-made software aids by 1992...

The Hero System "culture" throws about a couple dozen acronymic abbreviations pretty regularly, and due to small space on the sheets, using them is extremely useful. They are used consistently, and their use hasn't changed since 1982...

This stable and yet flexible backbone, plus a happiness to allow fans to discuss and play on the nets since the late 80's, has resulted in huge piles of fan contributions, especially setting books for which Steve Long knows there is no chance of a license. There are excellent, professional quality even, adaptations for a wide variety of settings, including Star Trek. If it has a strong fan base, odds are some hero player has posted some adaptations to run it.

Plus, the Hero Forums have always been filled with people willing to help you get your adaptation right... note, help, not do for you.

The Hero System culture also includes disads being based upon the GM's interpretation of just how much of a limit they will be, and that, if they don't cause problems, they aren't disads, and thus are worth nothing. (The same is true for advantages, in a lesser sense... if you're the stranded son of the Galactic Empire's biggest megacorporation's majority shareholder, but have no access to that wealth on earth, it's just back story. If, however, you're able to use that to get the "nifty item of the week" via Acme Interstellar Goods, it's a gadget pool.)

The Drawbacks

Jargon: The Hero System is full of it. Even in the rulebook.

blank slate: since it allows doing almost anything, it's often hard to narrow down the choices.

heavy rules scare newbies and make it less portable. Really, it's only about 100 pages of RPG rules, and 300 of powers... with lots of advice, and lots of special case rules that are little more than common sense written down to prevent rules lawyers

Rules Precision: The rules are very precise. This, more than anything, has bloated the books. It also scares people when the rulebook is written like a law text...

History: it's got a long history of being in the middle of the second tier... which means a lot of people who won't like it have tried it, found they didn't, and many of them say, "HERO SUX"... there is a built up negativity to it. Further, prior to 4th edition, every genre book was a standalone game, with slight rules variations; since 4th ed, it's been Core and Settings. I've seen people who say "Justice, Inc was Awesome!" also say "Champions Sucks" not realizing they are actually the same rules engine.

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Two elements that set HERO apart are its detailed point-build system and its speed chart.

HERO allows you to create characters, powers, and items in a fully detailed, customized way from core principles and to your exact specifications — even more than other point systems like GURPS and other custom systems like Wild Talents. If the ability to build exactly the thing you want is very important to you, HERO is good for that.

The speed chart breaks each turn down into 12 phases. Based on your character's SPD stat, you'll get a number of actions each turn based on those phases; someone with SPD 3 acts on 4, 8, and 12. This allows for timing-based strategies and keeps combat going in a regular way without "rolling for initiative."

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The point about phased ordering within a turn is a very good one, as it certainly adds flavour to the game during play. It also tends to "band" the game along genre lines: the game works out far better when all the characters involved in an encounter have roughly similar Speed (SPD) values, especially with respect to slow player characters trying to function in an encounter where all the others have higher SPDs. –  Viktor Haag Feb 22 '11 at 18:34

It's huge. The core rules for Hero System 6th Edition come in two volumes, the 466-page Character Creation and the 280-page Combat and Adventuring. It's complicated and mathful, and is a game you really have to commit to.

It lets you customize your character down to the last iota. Not only is it point buy but it's effect-based. You just buy the effect you want the power to have, and then you get to determine the special effects. For example, you don't buy "web shooters" or "lightning bolt," you determine what specific things you want these to do. Your web shooters might entangle and extend your reach; your lightning bolt might be direct damage of X amount with range Y. That the power is a web or lightning is a special effect you just decide on, the only thing you buy is the actual game effect. Therefore there is no "lightning bolt" power and one character's lightning bolt might be fundamentally different from another's (I bought "extra damage to robotic stuff on mine!).

It's multi-genre. They have books out for fantasy, heroes, street level heroes (Dark Champions), ninjas, post-apocalyptic, scifi, and pulp.

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Since everyone is mentioning GURPS, GURPS is nowhere near as complicated - I think GURPS got that rep back in AD&D 1e days because it was so much bigger than D&D then but now GURPS is less complicated than other games like D&D 4e. The two GURPS 4e core books are 200 pages lighter than Champions and about the exact same size as the D&D 4e PHB/DMG together. –  mxyzplk Feb 22 '11 at 14:26

The Hero System also has customizable disadvantages.

If you want your Wicked Witch character to take damage when water is splashed on her, you can. If many people know this, the disadvantage is worth more points.

If your character has an irritating 10-year-old sister who gets kidnapped every random Tuesday, you have a Dependent Non-Player Character, that is incompetent, and is active on a roll or 8-. I think that's worth 20 character points. If your character lets her get killed, you and the GM work to turn that into 20 points of psychological disadvantages.

If the character is monitored by government agencies or hunted by enemies, that is worth points depending on power and frequency. One edition of Champions described a campaign where all the characters' Enemies made their appearance rolls for the weekly game. The GM crated a scenario where all the characters were summoned to a Congressional hearing, and halfway through the hearing, all the Enemies attacked.

The GM does have the responsibility to ensure all the disadvantages are actual disadvantages; he should probably restrict the total disadvantage point value.

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