Friday, October 8, 2010

Hero System 6th Edition – Key Changes

Last article I described the major changes in Hero System 6th edition, changes that were general in nature. This article I'm describing changes which are specific, but which are likely to affect many characters or come into play in many adventures, or otherwise are pretty likely to be noticed.

Key changes I feel improve the game:

Elemental Control is gone, replaced by the limitation "Unified Power". This is good, because Elemental Control was really just a random way to save points if you had certain specific powers and certain special effects, and clearly didn't belong within the logical Hero System framework, especially the 6th Edition view of that framework. The Unified Power limitation causes adjustment powers which affects one of your powers to affect all of your related powers. This seems like a very minor limitation (drains vs. specific powers are really rare), so Unified Power still looks like a random point break. But it is a much simpler, small rule, and is a more blatant point break, easily banned by the GM if necessary, so I think it is a great improvement. The one small advantage to Elemental Control was that it tended to give a point break to Energy Projectors, who were overpriced compared to Bricks and Martial Artists. But I think the other point cost changes in the system have already addressed this issue.

The rule that combat skill levels can be used to boost damage is now a general rule, not limited to hand-to-hand attacks in heroic campaigns. I've already been doing this for quite some time; it is more fun and not unbalancing.

The rules are clear that pushing can only be done in heroic situations, not just any time you have the extra END to spend. I've always used that rule in my games, I think this is was a fairly common interpretation. But the 4th Edition rules weren't really specific about this.

Sense-affecting powers (like Flash, Invisibility, and Darkness) are now much cheaper (usually half cost) when they only affect non-targeting senses (i.e. when they don't affect sight). This is great, making powers cheaper when they are less useful. Actually, the truth is that affecting non-targeting senses is usually far less than half as effective unless you have some sort of devious power combo; but half price is much better than full price!

There is a rule for untrained skill rolls! Previously, there was no real rule for what happens when you need to make a conversation check and you don't have the skill. This issue occurs in certain other game systems as well, and leads to a common problem. The general solution for the lack of a defined skill roll was that characteristic rolls be used. But characteristic rolls are quite high compared to the pitiful 8- roll for a familiarity in the skill. Unless the GM was really on top of this, it was all too easy for characters who were familiar with a skill to end up less capable than characters who were totally untrained, because the GM would say "make a driving roll" if the character had the skill, or "make a DEX roll" if he didn't. Even a DEX roll at -3 would be better than the 8- for a familiarity. With the new rules, an untrained character has 6-, fixing this problem. However, it does present a small trap for the unwary GM. Mathematically, the 6- roll works fine. But it means that whenever a character tries a skill roll which an untrained person should have a decent chance of succeeding in, the GM needs to give a huge bonus (like +5). Since Hero System skill rolls are presented as an "absolute" ("13-" instead of "+3"), GM's who don't know the mathematics well may have a tendency to ask for unmodified skill checks. This can result in situations in which ordinary characters are treated as comically incompetent because they routinely miss their skill checks by 5 or more.

The VPP rule explicitly allows you to buy a control cost for more active points than the real cost, so you can have a variable power pool with 30 real points that allows powers of 60 active points. This is something I have always allowed and used, it is mathematically logical (it is as if you bought a 60 point power pool and declared that 30 points of it are fixed in place). This is very useful in practice when you want to create a VPP of attack powers, something quite common. With attack powers, you usually only want one power in the pool at a time, and trying to create an interesting power with advantages and limitations didn't work because the limitations only saved you real points, and you couldn't do anything with these real points. Now you can buy up your active points and have more options for playing around with your VPP.

5th Edition merged Public/Secret ID into a new, more general complication called Social Complication. I like this idea, and the new symmetry of having physical, psychological, and social complications. There were definitely some complications that were hard to represent properly before. Most notably, "subject to orders" was previously represented as "watched by military", which isn't really the same thing.

Martial arts are now fully effective when used with weapons. In previous editions martial maneuvers gave only half the damage bonus when used with weapons, so a fencer would get the same combat penalties for performing an offensive strike as a hand-to-hand fighter, but would only get half the damage bonus, and thus fencers would avoid this maneuver most of the time. This change evens the playing field.

There is no more Package Bonus – you don't get a point break for basing a characer off of a standard template. I didn't particularly object to the package bonus, but this changes seems reasonable, why reward characters for being standardized and penalize creativity. The main justification for the package bonus was that you got a point break for having to buy useless skills, but 6th Edition has fixed this problem by specifying that useless skills no longer cost character points.

Find Weakness is gone. I didn't hate this power, but I never used it either. I found it way too extreme; one roll would determine whether you were devastating or impotent against the enemies. And the game mechanics for how the power worked were rather fiddly and didn't seem to match any power of any character in any genre I was familiar with. It was sort of a funny Hero System-specific gimmick, and I won't miss it.

Many powers and modifiers have been broken down into much more detail, allowing characters to be crafted more precisely. Examples include how you can now use invisible power effects to make something inobvious instead of fully invisible, or how the value of the Linked limitation depends in more detail on exactly how the linking works. These changes are individually small, but overall, I like the breakdowns and added power modifiers, they usually make a lot of sense, and they increase the richness of the character creation system, which is at the heart of the Hero System.

A lot of rules sections are much larger than the corresponding sections in 4th Edition, and in a good way. A lot of things which were unclear before are now explained. Examples of expanded rules sections, include perceivability of powers, constant powers, Adjustment Powers, and Mental Powers, but there are many others. I think a lot of work has gone in to making the rules more clear and comprehensive, and I found the expanded rules sections enlightening on many points.

Key Changes about which I am positive, with reservations:

There is a big new rule, the Multiple Attack rule. Finally, there is a way for a character to make multiple attacks simultaneously – to shoot a gun in each hand, or to trip a foe and headstomp him without letting him get up in between. The maneuver is quite powerful but requires a high OCV and gives you 1/2 DCV. I put the maneuver as a positive because it lets you do something that you just couldn't do before, and sometimes wanted to do. But I have reservations about whether I'd really want to use or allow this maneuver in a game. First, I feel like the characters who would thematically most want to use this would be highly skilled characters fighting minions – but these are exactly the kind of characters who would really hate being reduced to ½ DCV and wiped out by counterattacks from all the remaining minions. Second, it seems like a new way to beat on the poor fools who have been knocked prone or otherwise reduced to ½ DCV. It is bad enough getting auto-hit by normal attacks when you are on the ground, but potentially taking triple damage from a massive multi-attack seems just cruel.

Missile Deflection is gone, replaced by a rule that anyone can block ranged attacks based on special effects. And the rules for Block are nicely expanded. The key to my commentary here is to understand that I'm always thinking of Block as an alternative to Dodge. And the truth is that if your OCV and DCV are equal, Block is only slightly more effective at avoiding a single attack than Dodge, and has many more limitations. It does let you go first next round, but only in certain circumstances. So I feel that the ability to Block isn't worth that much, since you could have just dodged instead. So I am quite happy that Missile Deflection no longer costs a large number of points. And I think the new block rules are swell. My reservations are two. First, since I never really used Block much at all, I'm just not that excited by all the page space spent on it. Second, under the new rules, you can only block range attacks (i.e. Missile Deflect) if you have an appropriate special effect. My opinion is that if you think Block is useful enough to devote all that page space to, why isn't it useful enough to cost at least one point to be able to block ranged attacks? It seems tempting to say "Oh, my character carries around a trash can lid just so he is eligible for this extra combat maneuver".

The Grab rules are much more detailed and better described, and make a lot of sense. A character who is grabbing someone is now at ½ DCV; the -2 DCV penalty only applies if you miss. The grabbed characters have -3 OCV, which seems rough, but the grabber is still ½ DCV against their attacks. If you grab one target, you are ½ OCV against other targets. There are scary optional rules about letting super-strong grabbers really dominate weaker opponents. It is clarified that most martial maneuvers aren't allowed when grabbed. My only reservation is that some aspects of the new rules seem even more favorable to bricks and less favorable to martial artists, and I had already thought that grabs were too good for bricks and not that great for martial artists.

Mega-Scale is a new advantage that lets you create powers with immense area, range, or speed, at a cost that is large but not overwhelmingly huge. I like this idea, it makes it straightforward to buy certain powers that were awkward to buy before, such as the power to fly at the speed of light, or turn an entire city into zombies, or purchase a spaceship with guns that fire millions of kilometers. This acknowledges that in many cases, once you pass a certain amount of scale, increasing the scale of a power is largely for color and shouldn't cost an overwhelming number of points. After all, a sleep spell that covers an entire battlefield is enough for any combat use, increasing it to cover an entire county is probably just something you do when making some special magic ritual for storytelling purposes. However, while I think this is useful, I have reservations about the cost structure. I think the power is great improved over the 5th edition rules, in which it was absurdly cheap, but had annoying little limitations that often forced you to create a multipower for it. Now the cost is much more satisfying. But the cost system is still really weird. The first strangeness is that there were already ways to logarithmically increase the scale of powers, and megascale isn't integrated into the existing system. This is most obvious with area effect; you can get an area effect of 4m radius, or pay more for 8m or 16m; but once your power is 64m radius, you can just decide to make is 4000m radius for the same cost. This probably won't hurt the game balance if the GM is careful not to allow abusive megascale constructions, but it sure is weird. What is really odd is how megascale works with movement powers. Say you have 60m of teleport. It you buy megascale on top of it, you pay a staggering number of points to be able to teleport 60km. Or you can buy a small teleport with megascale in a multipower and be able to teleport anywhere on the planet for a handful of points. Megascale is a clear example of just how arbitrary the Hero System point costs really are; mega-scale is either very expensive or dirt cheap. And in particular, even if the GM and players are trying hard not to abuse the rules, it still isn't obvious which way is the "right" or "fair" cost. The planetary teleport multipower seems unfairly cheap, but if you use the megascale rules totally "straight up", then characters with large amounts of combat teleport pay far more points in order to have the same amount of noncombat teleport, and this seems pretty unfair the opposite way.

Key Changes I am neutral or conflicted about:

The ability to use EGO to defend against PRE attacks is now an optional rule. I don't have much opinion on this either way. In any case, if you really wanted your strong-willed but quiet character to resist PRE attacks, you could buy PRE with the limitation "only for defense".

Haymaker is substantially changed. First, it now gives a fixed damage boost of +4d6. I think this is good as it matches the way martial maneuvers work and reduces that massive benefit of haymakers to super-strong bricks, although my reservation is that it is weird and awkward that characters of ordinary human strength gets such an overwhelming benefit from the maneuver. The second change is a more of a clarification. A haymaker takes extra time between launching it and landing it, and if the foe moved out of range it would miss – but what if they just moved to a different place in your range? Now it is specified that if the foe moves at all, the haymaker misses, even if you have stretching or can otherwise still reach the target. I like this clarification. Third, and most importantly, any power can now be Haymakered, even if it is ranged! I like this because in the past, Bricks were much better at performing finishing blows or damaging inanimate objects than Energy Projectors, and now this evens the playing field. My big reservation is that I have never liked the Haymaker rule and never use it in my games, I don't like how it is far more effective than a regular attack unless the opponent has the correct meta-game knowledge of how to defend against it, in which case it is totally neutralized. So I'm not really thrilled that far more characters can now use it!

Flashes were changed in 5th edition to give you twice as many dice for the points, but the effect lasts for segments rather than phases. I can't decide if this change is good or bad. It means that 5 points of flash defense doesn't neutralize almost all flashes completely, and makes it more straightforward how long flash lowers your DCV and Perceptions, and makes flash slightly less devastating, and doesn't give as much penalty to low SPD characters. But what you really care about with Flash is how many phases you are affected for, and now that varies based upon arbitrary meta-game considerations: the segment your foe goes on compared to you. And the idea of a delaying your action when you are flashed to a later segment in which you are unflashed seems odd and slows the game down.

Breakfall lets you stand up as a zero phase action. Hmm, I foresee a lot of characters with breakfall skill. This rule isn't bad, it has the advantage of creating a way to ignore the prone effect, makes people with breakfall skill feel more distinctive, and gives breakfall a benefit even when you are knocked into obstacles. But in practical terms it makes me uneasy in two ways. First, I find the ability to delay people by knocking them prone feels appropriate, but don’t much care for the ability to reduce them to ½ DCV just long enough for your friends with reserved actions to annihilate them. The new breakfall rule takes away the first part without removing the second, I'd rather have it remove both or neither. Second, this is one of those rolls you have to make a lot but won't likely fail very often, and my experience with activation rolls is that such rolls can be somewhat of a nuisance.

The simulated sense group rule. When you buy an enhanced sense, you can say what sense group it is part of (such as sight or hearing) and it gains some of the benefits of the natural sense in that group, for free. The biggest effect of this rule is that enhanced senses which allow you to ignore sight-group flash, darkness, and invisibility cost more than those that don't, since senses based on sight get Targeting for free. This is good, because the ability to ignore sensory attacks is often the primary combat effect of an enhanced sense. On the other hand, the rest of the rule just seems awkward. You have to pay a bunch of points to make your mystic treasure sense ranged, but the ability to "smell" treasure is ranged for free, this just seems arbitrary to me. It seems like this whole rule would be more naturally replaced by limitations or advantages when you buy senses that are more more or less affected by sensory powers. Another point I should make is that it seems like it would be very common to imagine some sort of special vision that is affected by sight-based flashes but not affected by sight-based darkness or invisibility. The simulated senses rule doesn't cover this, it assumes flash and darkness/invisibility work the same way.

Dive for Cover makes you prone, and you suffer extra knockback if you try to dive for cover and fail. This makes sense if you think of the maneuver as literally diving to the ground to escape a grenade blast or an exploding car, and that sort of thing certainly happens in the movies. On the other hand, I'm somewhat skeptical of the literal interpretation. When you are diving from a grenade, you want to land prone because being prone inherently protects you. It seems a little odd that under the Dive for Cover rules, you run 8 meters, then decide to fall prone even though it doesn't protect you in any way under the Hero System rules. I liked the idea that Dive for Cover could be used to simulate the fact that it is difficult to hit fast-moving superheroes with area effect attacks. But the maneuver is rather difficult to use in superhero combat (they can just throw another area attack next phase), and the changes just make it even less effective. But perhaps I'm asking too much of the maneuver, and should just consider it to be designed to simulate characters trying to avoid single massive explosions by running away, leaping, and landing on the ground.

Key Changes I feel are detrimental:

The cost structure of combat skill levels has changed in a negative way. In 4th Edition is was noticeable that combat skill levels in highly limited areas were too cheap and versatile skill levels were too expensive. In 6th Edition, the cost of versatile skill levels was made even more expensive and the cost of limited levels stayed the same. Now a skill level in all combat costs 10 points! This means that the ability to gain +1 in OCV or DCV costs as much as buying both +1 OCV and +1 DCV! The combat level does allow you the option of increasing damage, but this is a small benefit compared to doubling the total combat bonus. Yet a level that applies to your 3 favorite maneuvers you use almost all the time is still a measly 3 points. Basically, 6th Edition increased the cost of levels in all combat or all h-to-h combat so that "1 level in martial arts" could now cost more than a level in 3 specific martial maneuvers and less than a level in all hand-to-hand combat. Inserting this new level is logical, but the specific way the costs were changed is not.

Also, the cost of mental combat levels was changed to work differently from physical combat levels, to match the fact that +1 OCMV is cheaper than +1 OCV. So gaining +1 in one mental attack is now half as expensive as +1 in one physical attack. This makes no sense. It isn't clear whether OMCV really should be cheaper than OCV, but if it should, it would be because it covers fewer powers. Once you are restricting your level to only a single power, +1 to hit is +1 to hit, it should cost the same to get +1 with a single mental power as it costs to get +1 with a single physical power, as they are both equally useful. Certainly it isn't like mental powers are weaker than physical powers – quite the opposite, at least for mental blasts.

The killing attack STUN multipliers for hit locations were NOT changed, even though the general STUN multipliers for killing attacks were changed. This means that killing attacks do far more stun damage if you are using the hit location rules. I find this very puzzling, especially since a few pages later in the rules is a discussion of how it is a problem in heroic campaigns that killing attacks tend to knock foes out instead of killing them. It is as if the hit location rules (indeed, almost all of the optional combat rules) were simply copied verbatim from the previous editions without being re-edited.