Hero System 5th Edition

by Steven S. Long

Cover image

Publisher: Hero Games
Copyright: May 2002
ISBN: 1-58366-000-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 360

Buy at Powell's Books

This is going to be a strange review. For one, it's not of either fiction or a typical non-fiction book; it's instead of a role-playing game rulebook. But it's not exactly a review of the actual game. It's also a review of an old version of that rulebook, which is no longer available since it's been replaced by the 6th edition. This may be one of those things that only makes sense to me, but hopefully it will still be entertaining.

I first started writing reviews of each book I read primarily to get myself both to read more books and to think more about the books I was reading, and only secondarily to share thoughts with other people. That proved wildly successful, drastically increasing the amount of reading I do and the depth at which I think about it. I've since started using the technique to increase my non-SFF reading and (not with a great deal of success so far) to increase my graphic novel reading.

I used to play role-playing games periodically, but more often I used to read role-playing games and build things in them without ever "playing" them per se. The rulebooks have been sitting unopened on my shelves for many years now, but some recent conversations with friends got me thinking about what I got out of reading RPGs. That plus the huge new line of Hero System supplements and some very nice sales got me buying RPGs again and wanting to read again. Having some public way to read and react gets me to make time to read. Hence, reviews.

This, therefore, is the first of what will hopefully be a series of reviews of RPG sourcebooks or rulebooks. These will be substantially different than most RPG reviews out there in that I'm not actively playing and generally don't intend to play any of these games. I'm instead reading them for ideas, for analytical structures to approach characters and world backgrounds, for detailed world-building without necessarily attaching a story, and for the intellectual enjoyment of watching how rule assembly is done. That's what the reviews will focus on. Just as with all my other book reviews, they're going to be reviews of whatever I happen to pick up off my shelves, so expect reviews of old versions of games or odd corners of RPG lines. Feel free to skip past these to more traditional book reviews; I promise I won't mind.

The first RPG I ever paid close attention to was Champions, a system for building and playing superhero characters in typical comic-book style plots. I started Champions with third edition plus some of the supplements (books I alas no longer have). Champions was eventually combined with a few other related games by the same company that focused more on skills and less on superpowers and turned into the Hero System, which, similar to GURPS, is intended to be a generic framework for building any sort of campaign in any genre as long as the player characters were heroes of some sort. Fourth edition (the Big Blue Book, my copy of which disintegrated within a few months like most others) took a huge step in that direction, trying to make the rule set more generic and less biased towards the Champions superhero setting. It also introduced several world books to adapt the system for other types of campaigns. But it was only with fifth edition, this book, that the process was really complete.

Hero System 5th Edition is therefore a toolkit. Unlike fourth edition, which still had quite a bit of the Champions world background in the main rulebook, it's now a pure toolkit. There isn't even a sample adventure or any complete sample characters other than a few animals and unpowered NPCs. It's intended either for experienced GMs or to be read in combination with one of the many supporting genre books. One of my complaints with it is that I think they took this too far: I understand not wanting to assume any genre in the core rulebook, but the lack of any completely worked examples and any sample adventures makes it unnecessarily difficult to wrap one's head around some of the aspects of character design and play if you're not previously familiar with Hero System.

The book contains both character design and the basic rules for interacting in an adventure, both in combat (the most detailed part) and outside of combat. Hero System has a heavy combat emphasis, so while you can use the rules without ever running a combat (particularly if emphasizing skills), that's where most of the rule detail is, and most of the character abilities are combat abilities. The combat sections are interesting as an attempt to model the sort of combat that one sees in superhero comics simultaneously with the sort of combat one finds in pulp adventure, fantasy, and science fiction, and I got some thoughtful moments from seeing what aspects of combat they add and remove for those two styles of fighting. But the heart of Hero System has always been in the elaborate and incredibly detailed character (and equipment and base) creation system.

While I'd read third and fourth edition multiple times, and had looked at part of fifth edition, this was my first time reading it all the way through. I was glad to see that what happened was the same thing that always happens when I read Hero System rules: I mentally started modeling my own fictional characters, and then stopped partway through the character creation section and started actually writing up the models, fleshing them out as I read.

I'm not sure how many fiction writers think about their characters the way that I do, but if you write characters who have unusual abilities (of any sort, definitely not just superheroes), and you have any RPG experience, I wholeheartedly recommend using something like Hero System that has a generic modeling component. The more your character is like the complex and somewhat fuzzy abilities of SF and the less like the more straightforward and widely explored superhero abilities, the more familiar you're going to have to be with the rules to model them, so it's not for everyone. Having a friend with a lot of Hero System experience definitely helps. (For those not familiar, this is because more nuanced abilities require using power modifiers extensively, and using power modifiers correctly and figuring out which ones to combine is an art that one gets much better at with practice.) But what you get out of it is a wonderful focusing exercise that both forces you to think about the specific details and implications of what your character can do, and also prompts thoughts about what other abilities may be related and what possible additional effects you may want to add or have them grow into.

It's quite uncanny how well this works, and a lot of that is due to the comprehensiveness of Hero System and the length of time that it's been under development. A lot of people have put a lot of thought and playtesting into modeling abilities, finding possible interactions and modifications, and determining how they work together. The system also distills and documents an impressive amount of accumulated convention about what abilities commonly come together or tend to be linked. And all of that is laid out in a clear and structured way, which if you tend towards systematic thinking like I do, is a wonderful spark for creativity. I will sometimes just think through what a character of mine can do and then page through the sections of skills, powers, and abilities, looking for anything that catches my eye as being possibly related. I almost always find something I hadn't thought about.

As a game, I think the biggest drawback of Hero System is that it's math-intensive and combat-intensive. The math-intensive part can make combat slow and character creation a chore (at least unless you buy Hero Designer, a Java program with an ugly interface but absolutely amazingly comprehensive functionality and beautiful output that does all the hard work of keeping track of character creation for you and showing you the available options), although there are rules for simplifying if you want. The combat focus means that it's the best at describing abilities that do something conceivably combat-related, and weaker at other things (although there are supplements that try to help with that). I've played it before, although not since fourth edition, and I like it, but I like numbers and tactical simulation combat in games. It's weaker if you want a storytelling system; it doesn't provide a lot of help.

But the reason why I keep coming back to it isn't for the gameplay. It's for the construction toolkit. It's the RPG equivalent of Legos, only more so. Once you're familiar with it, you can build almost anything, and the process of building provides enormous opportunities for seeing new connections and possibilities. When used for that purpose, you don't have to worry about the math and can ignore point balance and other issues and just explore the toolkit for ways things can fit together and more closely model your mental image of a character, fleshing out the character and getting new ideas as you go.

Fifth edition has now been replaced by sixth edition, which looks like it has some fairly substantial changes in how some parts of the toolkit are put together. I will be reading (and reviewing) that at some point in the future. But based on the changes from earlier editions to this one, I'm fairly certain you could buy sixth edition and get the same benefits and the same features as I find in fifth.

The biggest drawback of this book is that while there are individual examples, there are no complete characters and no complete adventures, which makes it hard to see how everything fits together. It's much easier for people with prior Champions experience to fill in the blanks. If you're coming to this cold, you're going to want a friend with Hero System experience or will want to get at least one genre book, even if you don't end up using the genre material, just so that you can see some practical examples of how things can be plugged together into a larger, coherent whole.

Another drawback is that, perhaps because of the awkwardness of stripping out the specific genre context, the organization and flow of this book seemed odd. I know the system well enough that I always knew what it was talking about, but it felt like the book talked about concepts before introducing them and presented them in an order that was awkward to understand. I'm not sure how well this is going to work for someone new to the system without friends to help explain. My memory is that the earlier editions flowed better. Hopefully 6th edition fixes this.

As is likely going to be the case for most of my RPG reviews, I can't specifically recommend you buy or not buy this book, since I have it for reasons that are rather strange from the normal RPG consumer perspective. But if you're interested in what sort of toolkit comes from 18 years of thinking about how to model any heroic character, and in using it to clarify and explore the capabilities of a character of your own, I find Hero System endlessly useful.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-08-20

Last modified and spun 2017-04-29