Monday, September 13, 2010

Analyzing Hero System 6th Edition – Major Changes

I've been hard at work reading and analyzing the rules for 6th Edition Hero System. I've played Champions for a long time, and it has traditionally been what I consider to be my favorite roleplaying game, though I haven't played it a whole lot recently. I remember how pleased I was with the 4th Edition, and I played that for a long time. I wasn't too pleased with the 5th Edition; while it was not without its good points, it seemed "fiddly", and had twice as many pages without much improvement to the game. I played it a bit, but didn't really see it as supplanting the 4th Edition rules. Now the 6th Edition has come out, and I have to say I'm much more pleased. This seems like it really is an improvement to the game, something that could make me want to put away the old Big Blue Book of 4th Edition.

It should be understood that while there are substantial changes, the game was not "recreated" in the sense of 4th edition D&D, this is an evolutionary modification and most of the rules are still the same as 4th edition Hero System. So I think I shall analyze it in terms of how the system has changed. Since I was not that impressed with 5th Edition, never wrote an analysis of the 5th Edition changes and have many friends who never played 5th Edition, I shall compare the changes to 4th Edition Hero System, with maybe a few mentions of 5th Edition here and there.

For this article, I will be looking at the really broad changes to the game, those changes you would be likely to notice regardless of what powers or maneuvers your character uses.

First, since I will be using these terms later, I'll mention the major nomenclature changes.

  • Ego Combat Value is now called Mental Combat Value (MCV), and in general the word "Mental" replaces "Ego" when referring to mental combat, rather than your Ego characteristic. I think this change is great. I always felt that the use of the word "Ego" instead of "Mental" was a bit of Hero System-specific weirdness.
  • Disadvantages are now called Complications. I never had a problem with the old term, but agree that the new term is just as good or better.

Major changes I feel improve the game:

  • The pricing system for characteristics was changed to remove the concept of secondary characteristics from the game. This is a big change, and is just a good thing. A well-known strangeness of previous versions was that purchasing STR and CON actually gave you more points worth of figured characteristics that you paid for the primary characteristic. This meant that, in some sense, these characteristics had a negative cost – increasing them could make the character cheaper! To deal with this, it was necessary to put limits on how many figured characteristics you could buy down, artificially limiting your character design. There were other minor drawbacks as well related to the fact that the "active points" of these characteristics were not equal to their "real cost". The one minor advantage of the old system was that it gave you a nice simple way to compute default values for your REC, END, and STUN, so that you didn't have to think about them. But in my opinion, the new system is far superior.
  • OCV and DCV are now characteristics, rather than being calculated from DEX. I highly approve of this, and in fact, had been moving strongly in this direction in my Champions house rules. When designing how a character will work in combat, it was cumbersome that base OCV, base DCV, and base Dex roll were all inextricably linked together. Sometimes I would want to make a character who was very skilled in combat, but not necessarily a great acrobat. You could do this with levels in OCV and DCV, which was OK, but levels and base CV are not quite the same thing. Other times, I would want to make a character who had been gifted with superhuman reflexes but didn't really know how to fight. There was no elegant way to do this (you would have to simulate it with a complication), but now it is easy. Also, it is quite normal to want a character's combat "style" to be more defensive or more offensive, and as mentioned above, having this be represented by setting your base OCV or DCV directly is more natural than buying levels in OCV or DCV. There is one tiny downside to this – Adjustment powers that affect your "agility" are more cumbersome to purchase, as adjusting DEX no longer adjusts OCV and DCV. But this is a very minor drawback.
  • The separation of OCV and DCV from DEX also has another potential benefit. An old Champions tradition is that superhero characters have much higher dexterity than their conceptions would indicate. If you wanted to be a slow, clumsy brick, you would have DEX 18, and if you were just average, DEX 20. Yet these would be considered quite high values for normal people. And superhero characters had normal, conception-appropriate values for other characteristics like INT and STR, so the high DEX was an oddity. The high DEX was actually a good thing for balance purposes. Some superheroes really do have good reason to have superhuman DEX. But if some characters had DEX 30 and others DEX 10, this meant some characters would have CV 10, others CV 3. This is way too much difference in a combat system in which even a few points of CV have a huge effect. Also, the high DEX meant that superheroes had a much higher CV than normal people. This isn't essential, but was part of the game balance and had some nice effects, letting characters do some fancy things and really feel impressive against ordinary mooks. The problem with the boosted DEX was that it also meant that superheroes had very high DEX rolls regardless of real conception. It was just weird that a superhero of average intelligence and average dexterity would have 11- in his intelligence-based skills and 13- in his dex-based skills, for no really good reason. With this new change, it is finally practically to really fix this strangeness; you can give superheroes abnormally high DCV and OCV but give them DEX on the same scale as INT. They don't do this with their sample superheroes, but I plan to with my campaign.
  • OMCV and DMCV (the mental combat values) are also characteristics. Not only does this have the benefits listed above for OCV and DCV, it also has point benefits. DCV and ECV used to have the same cost when you factored out the points of SPD given to you by the DEX. Now MDCV costs less than DCV, which is appropriate as it is less often useful. And in the past, EGO was expensive because it was a key statistic for mentalists, so characters without mental powers were really charged a lot for it even though all they wanted was to be strong-willed to fit their conception. Now characters who don't have mental powers don't even have to pay for OMCV, only characters who actually gain benefits from OMCV have to pay for it. There is, however, a drawback to the new system; mentalists can refuse to buy OCV and actually end up cheaper than non-mentalists, which is peculiar because mentalists are usually more effective than OCV-based characters, not less. And it sort of puts a high price tag on characters whose multipowers include both mental attacks and normal attacks, and thus need both OCV and OMCV. But overall, I like the new system.
  • The Comeliness characteristic has been replaced with the Striking Appearance advantage. This is interesting because I'd been thinking for a long time that if I wanted to rewrite Hero System, I would do exactly this. Nobody really cared about Comeliness too much, so it shouldn't be a characteristic. And the numbers had little game meaning anyway. It makes a lot more sense to either say "my character has average appearance" and forget about it, or to say "my character has an extraordinary appearance" and actually describe what game benefit you want to get from that.
  • The way that the base points for characters is described has been changed. In previous editions, a standard "250 point" Champions character was described as having 100 base points plus up to 150 points of disadvantages. Now such a character would be described as a 250 point character with 150 points of matching Complications. This works the same way, but better matches the fact that Champions players have always described such a character as 250 points rather than 100 points. Also, all powers and abilities which refer to the point cost of a character (such as Followers or Multiform) refer to this total cost, 250 points, rather than making a hard-to-remember distinction between base cost and total cost.
  • A longstanding complaint of mine has been that Champions demands that you take enormous numbers of Disadvantages, more than most character conceptions would naturally want to take, and more than most players or GM's would really want to use in play. 6th Edition has met this complaint straight on the nose! They directly acknowledge in the rules advice the problems of having to take too many Complications, and the recommended Complication points for a superhero has been halved, from 150 to 75.
  • There is now a rule that "background" powers and skills which don't really have any game effect, don't cost any points. I love this rule (just as I loved it where I first saw it, in 4th edition D&D). I have often noted that background skills, like being a master violinist, are way overpriced because they very rarely come up in play, and thought they should be far cheaper. Making them free certainly simplifies the situation! I also like how they mention that even skills with clearly listed values, like Bugging, can cost few or no points if the GM doesn't expect them to come up in the game. This is exactly what happens in real games. You are making some superhero whose background is that he was a secret agent, and you figure he ought to have bugging. But if you buy the Bugging skill, it is a waste of points, because it never comes up in your superhero adventures. But if you don't buy it, then there just might be one point every 5 years that you actually need Bugging – perhaps in some minor way – and you won't have it, even though it would be so cool to finally use your spy skills. The new suggestions are entirely on point to fix this problem.
  • The frequency concept for Complications such as Hunted has been greatly improved. In previous versions, you were supposed to make a random roll every adventure to see if the disadvantage showed up. I never played with anyone who actually followed that rule. First, the randomness would screw up your ability to create properly planned, believable adventures. Second, the hunters would show up far too frequently; the "medium" freqency would have them show up in more than half of the adventures! 6th Edition has done a great job addressing this. The random rolls are gone, and the recommended frequencies have been reduced. And the repetitive attacks by hunters are reduced even further by helpful advice that even when they do "show up", it doesn't have to mean they attack or directly interfere with the character, or even that they show up – it may just mean that the character's behavior is influenced by his knowledge of being hunted.
  • Another longstanding complaint of mine about Champions has been the ridiculous randomness of the stun damage caused by killing attacks. It meant they were just as good as normal attacks of the same point cost at causing stun damage – and better if the target's defenses were high. And they were certainly much more likely to stun the opponent. A rifle bullet could be more effective against a bulletproof superhero than an energy blast, directly contrary to the comics. This has been fixed in 6th edition by making the stun multiplier for killing attacks 1d3 instead of 1d6-1. They are still very random, but they are now clearly inferior to normal attacks at causing stun damage, with their advantage being that they cause more body damage. I still find the killing attack rules awkward in various respects, but I think this is an improvement.
  • Also, there is no longer a rule that you have to have at least one point of resistant defense in order to use your non-resistant defense against the stun damage of a killing attack. Now you can always use it. It was silly that there was a "magic cutoff" between having one point of resistant defense and having none – characters who took zero resistant defense were hosing themselves and not getting any points back in return. Now, it must be said that the old rule seemed like a logical way to prevent totally unarmored characters from shrugging off the stun damage from small killing attacks. But the truth is that the rule that you always take at least one STUN for every point of BODY damage already prevents this – and with the new killing attack rules, you don't necessarily expect killing attacks to cause a whole lot of STUN damage anyway.
  • Heroic Action Points. Champions is a very old RPG, and it did not have any form of "hero points" to give the players some sort of narrative control over the luck of the dice, save their characters from disasters, and let them rise to heroic occasions outside of the rather limited-purpose pushing rules. This became a noticeable omission when newer games had hero points, and Hero System didn't, despite the fact that the core of the Hero System has always been the sort of dramatic, cinematic adventures in which hero points are most appropriate. Well, now the Hero System has hero points! They are called Heroic Action Points, and they let you do a variety of things, most notably to retroactively modify your dice rolls. The rule isn't too sophisticated, but I'm not inclined to critique it. It seems like a perfectly workable rule, and it has been added to a game system that never had it before!
  • 4th Edition suggested restricting characters using active point limits on their attacks, and 5th Edition really took this to heart (their sample superteam, the Champions, seemed to have a 12d6 attack for every single character!). I was pleased to see that 6th Edition makes an about face, and has a very realistic discussion of the disadvantages of this approach, how it encourages sameness and discourages creative powers, how not all advantages that increase active points really count as boosting the combat effectiveness, how powers may be more or less powerful than their points indicate, and how the GM may be better off evaluating the real effectiveness of powers.
  • The Hero System has a history of good GM suggestions, and 6th edition definitely keeps up the fine work. Aside from the usual fine material about making campaigns and running games, I was impressed to find sections that explain how certain game mechanics really work and what they do to the game – just the sort of things I write about in my blog. There seems to be real understanding of the implications of various game mechanics, and even explanations of some of the weaknesses of the system and how you might work around them.

Major Changes about which I am positive, with reservations:

  • The characteristic costs were changed around. Some of the old primary characteristics had to be changed due to the removal of the figured characteristic concept, but it is interesting how they changed. STR was not made cheaper at all, despite the fact that it used to give you enormous numbers of figured characteristics. DEX had its cost adjusted appropriately to 2 for the removal of the SPD benefit, but got no discount at all for losing its most important function, providing CV. CON was reduced appropriately reduced to cost 1 after losing its figured characteristics. BODY was adjusted to 1 for losing its Stun benefit. EGO now costs the same amount if you want only the Ego roll and DMCV benefit, but costs more if you also want OMCV. Finally, the cost of REC, END, and Stun was just flat out chopped in half. Why I think this is positive: While it may be odd that no-range STR is as expensive as ranged Blast, Bricks get all sorts of combat maneuvers and benefits that energy projectors don't have, so this seems plausible. DEX is a skill stat just like INT, and also gives you some extra combat benefits, so it is reasonable that it costs more than INT. Mentalists are really, really effective, so charging them more for their EGO is not a bad idea. People rarely bought up REC, END, and Stun very much, and they were a bit pricey compared to Def. That isn't the case anymore! My reservations: Ego rolls are fairly rare, and I always felt EGO was too expensive for non-mentalists, so I think EGO should be cheaper. STR is now more fairly priced for bricks and fantasy warriors, but is now overpriced for characters who don't use it for their combat attacks. Stun was a bit pricey compared to super-efficient point expenditures like increasing your PD, Dex, or STR, but it was actually quite reasonably priced compared to most expenditures, like buying skills or life support, so I'm not all that excited by making it just as dirt cheap as the other optimum ways of increasing your raw combat power.
  • The minimum cost rules are gone, or rather are relegated to a note that the GM can optionally impose whatever minimum costs he thinks are appropriate. This is good because there are many perfectly valid power constructions which require less than the minimum points from a power, and the minimum points rule was just getting in the way. My only reservation is that there are a few cases in which having a power at all gives you some fixed benefit, and now that benefit can be had for really cheap. For instance, 1" of flight lets you walk on air, and 1" of teleport lets you escape from grabs automatically. But the minimum cost rule wasn't the mathematically correct solution to this problem anyway, so this really isn't much of a reservation.
  • The new rules have a number of sidebars about "Toolkitting". These are suggestions for how you might want to change the game to create house rules to address certain problems that might crop up with the regular rules. I think it is great that the game openly admits that its rules may have imperfections or need to be changed based on the situation, and encourages the use of house rules. I'm certainly a big fan of house rules! And I like the suggestions for what to do, many of them are fairly sensible. My only "reservation" is to note that many of the suggestions are pretty vague, and suggesting that you might want to solve a problem is not the same as actually having rules to fix the problem.

Major Changes I am neutral about:

  • The entire system for measuring distance has been changed from "game inches" to meters. Actually, I quite like getting rid of "game inches", that was confusing. But the change could have been to use the term "hexes", and instead they switched totally to "meters". I view this as a stylistic change, neither good and bad. Measuring in hexes is better for tactical combat, measuring in meters is better when you are playing without a map. It is more pleasing to read everything being described in meters, but the tactical rules are still the same underneath and are easier to play with hexes. As a side note, I find it interesting that D&D 4th edition made the exact opposite change – from feet to squares.

There are no major, sweeping changes which I dislike. They seem to have done a pretty good job with 6th Edition!