Monday, March 3, 2014

Forging Heroes

Back to the blog list.

I was thinking of penning my thoughts on David M. Ewalt's book, Of Dice and Men (one of the few non-game tomes I packed for the journey and the only one I've found the chance to finish), but I'll save it for another day. I will say the book was a good, quick read and it gave me a newfound appreciation (or at least cooled any leftover ire still harbored) for WotC and recent D&D issues, including the whole D&D Next thing (I've really lost track of that, by the is 5E coming along these days?). I've even got a little soft spot for Mike Mearls (who I've badmouthed before on this blog) least as a human being and fellow gamer. But the last week or so I've not been thinking (much) about Dungeons & Dragons, or sword and magic style adventure games.

I miss Heroes Unlimited.

Which is absolutely silly, of course. Hard to miss a game you've hardly played.

[we'll get to that in a moment]

My son is very much into superheroes at the moment; can't really get enough of them. This is what comes from being exposed to such at too tender an age by a terribly nerdy father. Not that he wouldn't be exposed anyway...ever since I was a child, the images of Spiderman and Superman and Batman have saturated toy stores and graced everything from t-shirts to backpacks to coffee mugs. Heck, I remember (as a child) there being a cheapo yellow air mattress in our house with an illustration of "Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman" on it, circa 1979. Comic book characters (or their marketing, at least) have only seen to have grown more popular with the years...especially with the advent of the successful live-action films.

But having a father who knows the characters and the stories...and can relate them in depth...means that my kid has a walking font of knowledge on tap for any of the images he sees. The last couple days, for instance, our waking hours have been filled with playing "Iron Man" (or more often "Tony Stark"), with D as the perpetual hero and papa as "Tony's Amigo" (Rhodey).

[my son actually has a steel trap memory, especially for proper names of characters and places. It was a source of amusement to my wife over the weekend that he just couldn't seem to remember Rhodey and would most refer to me (whether in the 3rd person or directly) as "Tony's Amigo." 'Hey, Tony's Amigo, should we go fight some bad guys?' This from the kid who has no problem remembering other supporting cast people (my wife was "Pepper") plus secret identities like Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Peter Parker, etc. as well as all numbers and manners of super-villains and super-powers]

So we've been playing superheroes a lot (and building a lot of secret HQs with Legos...when not building taco trucks, anyway), and blowing time watching old cartoons on YouTube, and it has of course put superheroes on my brain. Plus I've had the chance to watch the trailers for the upcoming Captain America and Spiderman films, which really gets me juiced. Well, the Captain America one anyway.

[that's a blog post for another time...maybe later this morning if I have a moment. I like the new J.J. Abrams style/old school look of The Amazing Spider-Man, but I'm a little burned out on the web-head at the moment. Plus Electro was never high in my rogues gallery of villains]

Anyway, getting back into a "gaming state-o-mind" combined with superhero overload is having the usual effect of getting me to comb the internet for the latest-greatest superhero RPG and also turning my brain to what I'm starting to feel must be my absolute favorite in the form of Heroes Unlimited. The fact that I have such a soft spot for a game I've hardly played...especially when it's rules/system are (IMO) an absolute heaping, steaming pile should tell you a couple-few things: 1) HU does something (for me) that other, better written games do NOT do, 2) I've found something tremendously dissatisfying in a lot of RPGs (since I've owned or read or played so many of the genre), and 3) nostalgia is at least partially in play.

But isn't the superhero genre (comics and film) always a bit about nostalgia? Certainly the movies that are making millions these days are doing so (for the most part) by telling stories already tremendously familiar to longtime fans. Sure, there are younger folks going to these movies to be wowed by special FX, or perhaps wanting to learn about a little-know hero, but for a geezer like me I'm at least as interested in how they intend to tell the stories I already know: what will be the "modern twists," what will they mash together and adapt, what will be recognizable, how "faithful" will they be to their subject matter. For a fan, these things are at least as important judgments/critiques as things like acting and editing and plot and's what sets the superhero genre of film apart from most other genres (save perhaps from the adaptation of a previous long-running serial...whether we're talking TV or book series).

*ahem* Back to the subject: I perhaps misspoke a moment ago when I said I've "hardly played" HU over the years. It really depends on what you define as "play." Certainly, I've spent less time gaming with others around a table compared to other games, even compared to other Palladium games, like Rifts. But I've spent many hours poring over the HU books and making characters and running mock battles with the HU system, both of which can be considered forms of play. I would certainly consider the time spent as "playing" (as opposed to "working")!

Adventure included for solo play!
I also miss the aspect of play where I tried to model comic book characters in the HU system.  I've written before about how I love the granularity of a game that does everything from Misty Knight and  Colleen Wing up to something a little less than Thor, without the points-buy modeling nightmare of something like Champions or GURPS. With Heroes Unlimited, it's perfectly possible for one dude to randomly roll up Iron Fist while another to end up with the Juggernaut or some other uber-mutant; I really like and appreciate what others might consider a total lack of "game balance." Yes, you can create a wide discrepancy in chargen (via random roll) using Marvel Superheroes also but A) the end result is likely to be less cohesive than the power types of HU, and B) low-powered heroes in MSH really lack the granularity to distinguish themselves and the ability to be hugely effective (except using the limited metagame mechanic of karma).

Character creation is hugely important to a superhero RPG, much more than other genres of RPG in my opinion. Avatarism (something I'll be discussing in a later post) is a strong part of the genre...not just considering the question of 'how the existence of superheroes change the fantasy world,' but how (specifically) your character's unique set of superpowers change/affect your character's life. As I've also written before, the superhero genre is often the place of wish fulfillment: What would my life be like if I could teleport to work instead of having to take the stupid bus every morning? How would my crime-fighting/world-saving second life impact my own family/friends/relationships?

Heroes Unlimited, of course, doesn't delve (much) into these latter questions (unlike, say, Aberrant or With Great Power). What it DOES do, is give a very specific manner of easily creating very specific and enormously detailed characters...right down to origin, possible oppositions (for heroes on-the-run from the corporations that created them), education levels, and gadget budget. What HU does do is it gives you a chance to become really anchored in the avatar of character with very little input needed from the player in question. I get to make choices but I don't have to come up with much straight out of my head.

For some folks this may feel pretty darn constricting...but as with B/X D&D, sometimes a constraint of choice can help you free your imagination for other things much more important to actual play, like your character's motivation and behavior in-game.

ANYway, I dig on it. And I miss it. Certainly I don't miss my frustration with the game system, both as a GM and a player (I think I've described my one miserable time attempting to play...if not, I won't relate the story here. Suffice is to say the GM was a real prick), nor the mainly useless skill list, nor the length of time it takes to calculate all the damn stats and bonuses characters have. But I find myself wishing it would have been good to at least bring the book down here (to Paraguay)...perhaps to tinker with, perhaps to simply blow some free time modeling various comic book characters.

Lately (and by that I mean "back to November") I have been thinking a LOT about a different type of game design...something even more radical than indie, story-now type games. But the superhero genre is still one that benefits (I think) from a more old school approach to least in the aspect of character creation. At least for long term (think "comic serial") play.


  1. According to a leak from Barnes & Noble, D & D Next will be called Dungeons & Dragons (No Next) and be released in August just after Gencon at $49.99 for the phb. B&N wil sell it for about $38. The assumption is the other 2 core books will also retail for $50. I think I have enough RPG books that I will not be making that purchase.

  2. Ah man, we played the hell out of HU back in the day, combined with Ninjas & Superspies! GREAT times!

  3. @ Lloyd: thanks for the update!

    @ Anthony: Yeah, my friends did that in their long-running HU campaign...years before Rifts made cross-pollination mandatory.

  4. The Heroes Unlimited GM Guide also has some pretty cool adventure scenarios in it.

  5. @ Matt:

    Yep, I've got a copy of it and it does add a lot of extra meat (both adventures and overall world advice in a HU campaign). Just would have been nice to have this in the core rules.

    Recently had a chance to pick up the old "Revised" HU (the one with the cover pictured above) at a used bookstore, and was surprised at how much more complete and useful it was in this regard from the more recent 2nd edition game. "Revised HU" is the version I grew up playing (in high school) but I'd forgotten how good it was. I think 2nd edition is much better if you already have a copy of Revised.