Friday, November 23, 2018

First Edition (Heroes Unlimited)

Happy Thanksgiving! Yes, I'm still alive (cue the usual apologies and excuses for dropping off the face of blog-o-sphere). In fact, I just had my 45th birthday which is...wow...so old, man. Too old to be working on re-imagining myself but, well, that's what I'm doing these days.

[it's going okay, just in case anyone is wondering]

As usual, there are plenty of thinks in my think-box that I should be emptying onto the internet, but this particular one is a beaut (short for "beauty") that I've just got to share it: 1st edition Heroes Unlimited. Wow.

But first: some quick background. I've related before that I was introduced to HU by some buddies who I met my first year in high school, namely Michael, Mike, and Ben. I don't know how they got into Paladium games, but they were longtime fans of comic books and anime (they also played Robotech) and Kevin Siembieda's comic book-based sensibilities probably appealed to them (they were all artists as well...Ben continues to persists as a starving artist-illustrator to this day).

I, on the other hand, had used TSR's Marvel Superheroes as my go-to supers RPG from 1984-1988, including both the original and "Advanced" editions. Moving to HU was more about finding a new group to play with than any especial interest in the system...despite the appeal of HU's granularity (which I've blogged about before) my actual experiences with the game were fairly mediocre. I did love (and hate) Rifts...but we're not talking about that today.

Anyway, I was able to borrow my buddies' copies of HU (and Robotech and Ninjas & Superspies, etc.), and the system seemed straightforward enough, but it wasn't exactly new to me. After all, I'd owned a copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness for a couple years (at least), though I hadn't done much more than make characters and run a couple encounters with my brother.

Many decades later, I picked up a copy of the 2nd edition of Heroes Unlimited and, somewhat surprisingly found myself disappointed with it. Not because of the failure to overhaul the system, nor because of the recycled art, nor even the substantial bloat on display (understandable in light of the rules additions that have occurred over the years of Paladium publications). No, mainly I was irritated that despite the increased page count (352 pages compared to the prior edition's 248 pages), the new HU failed to contain the sample adventure scenarios I'd enjoyed running for new players as a way of introducing the game. A few years later (circa 2012) I would purchase a copy of Heroes Unlimited Revised...the game I had owned and played as a teen...mainly to have access to these adventures.

Both of these are available as PDFs on DriveThruRPG, by the way. But there's an even earlier version of Heroes Unlimited that's not available for sale...the original, un-Revised version, which I've been trying to track down for the last year or so. I was intrigued, you see, by the snippets in the Revised edition's introduction that described the "original" version; the version that had started selling in 1984 and (three years later) was one of the few supers RPGs really "cornering" the market. This month, I finally decided to pull the trigger on a $13 eBay copy. It only arrived in my mailbox a couple days ago.

Wow.

At 155 pages, the original Heroes Unlimited is only two-thirds the age count of the 1987 Revised edition...and yet, in many ways it's a superior product. The layout is different...different from the cut-n-paste jobs of your usual Paladium product. Combat procedures come after character creation (including class write-ups). Insanity rules are at the end of the book...like an appendix or optional section...instead of being right up front. There's an index...how many Paladium products have an index?!

Sure there's some weirdness...character classes (i.e. "power types") aren't listed in alphabetical order, for example. And while I understand aliens being listed last (because they borrow powers from the types that come before them), why should robotics be listed first? And all the equipment being listed in the hardware character's section makes some sense, I suppose, but I prefer it in a "neutral" section of the book (since other characters use equipment, duh).

Still, there's an index (this fact cannot be overstated). And there are other thing the game gets very right. Siembieda's notes and explanations make more sense in this particular layout. Reasons...valid, insightful reasons, are provided for the use of random generation in chargen, and other aspects of the game, including the "one superpower per character" system. Have folks seen The Incredibles? There was a time when the majority of comic characters had but a single superpower (like the original X-Men) rather than a suite of superpowers (like Wolverine). But a "single power" can include a host of benefits (for example, "underwater abilities" or "stretching")...and HU does this, in its original format.

The power creep is extremely apparent when one compares the various editions. A physical training character in HU Revised has the ability to do a "power punch" for extra damage (though doing so uses one of the character's multiple attacks). In HU 2E the character actually possesses superhuman strength, doing incredible damage even with normal punches and throwing around cars and such. In the original HU? The physical training character simply benefits from having a few extra physical skills (like hockey!) to help increase his/her ability scores...nothing superhuman about it.

Batman in this edition of HU would simply be a  rich dude with a bunch of skills and a high level of experience...no genius with preternatural wit and vast repository of knowledge; no special ability to anticipate a foe's weakness or next move. You can do Batman with this game, but he'd be a very human vigilante. I find that I like this a lot.

Notice: no "Revised" on the title page.
Here, too, are Siembieda's notes on building characters using the notorious Paladium skill sets. Longtime players of Paladium games know which physical skills to take to gain bonuses to abilities, SDC, and combat (everyone takes "boxing," for example, because it gives an extra melee attack, in addition to its other bonuses). It's a twink-player's dream...and yet, Mr. Siembieda lays out this is the exact correct path to take: of course, crime-fighting heroes are going to study as many physical skills as possible, in order to boost their abilities! It goes hand-in-hand with the random dicing of attributes: not everyone is born with a fantastic set of genetic traits. Heroes are made, not born, and the smart hero will pursue rigorous courses to improve their body/shape before embarking on a career as a vigilante. Makes perfect sense!

Then there's the adventure. Did you catch the whiff of nostalgia earlier when I talked about the starter scenario in HU Revised? Okay, it's pretty dumb. The "Crime Masters" (a trio of super-crooks) have kidnapped a bunch of civilians in an adventure aptly titled The Mall of Terror. All things considered, it's pretty silly: they want $3 million or they'll blow up the mall (and the hostages), and it's up to the players to do something. The scenario is all of three pages, including the villain write-ups and illustrations (which consume most of the space).

Welp, in the original first edition HU the Crime Masters are also present, but the adventure scenario has changed completely. It is called Betrayal and comprises ten pages plus a three-page comic that acts as a "prelude" to the adventure. It's no mindless slugfest in a mall or shoot-up in a stuffer shack; instead there's complex machinations, multiple factions (including an organized crime syndicate, a police force faced with internal strife, the general public and PR complications of a "licensing" super-types, plus the Crime Masters), multiple "missions" (a jewel theft/heist, an elaborate ambush, and a potential hideout siege scenario), as well as numerous NPC personalities (not just villains to punch) all of whom have their own backstory and motivations PLUS the seeds to grow a long-term campaign.  It's pretty darn cool and utterly missing from later editions.
                                 
Look, I realize I'm foaming a bit at the mouth here. Original Heroes Unlimited is not a perfect game, nor even one I'd be willing to play without modification (there were good reasons for revising some parts of HU). But it's far more complete and far less cringe-worthy than most Paladium games. And the style in which it's written and laid out is just so much more methodical and logical and coherent than later Siembieda games. For me, it adds another piece of evidence to the thought that has been recurring in my brain lately: 2nd (and later) editions of games are mainly...if not only...of use to people who are already familiar with the first edition. Most first edition RPGs I've come across are simply better...in terms of design, focus, and coherence...than their descendant games. I'm sure there are outliers, but I just think it's very difficult to re-write a game without incorporating a bunch of conceits and assumptions inherited from its original format...which limits the accessibility of second (and later) revisions to the new player/reader.

Anyhoo, I'd certainly judge that to be the case with regard to Heroes Unlimited. There are so many interesting tidbits to it, I'd really like to do a "deep dive," multi-post series exploring its various pieces and moving parts. Don't know if that'll happen any time soon (it's the holiday season, which means lots of traveling for Yours Truly), but I think it would be fun to look at...perhaps post notes on how I'd clean up the messier bits.

[despite the fact such a series would be, I suppose, an "unauthorized derivative work" of Palladium's copyrighted material, my reading of copyright law is that it would still fall under the "fair use" doctrine...thus shielding me from potential litigation (something that, previously, has always made me hesitant to do serious analysis of Palladium books here at Ye Old Blog)]

All right, that's enough blather for now. Hope everyone's having a happy one!

[yes, I know Thanksgiving was yesterday...I only got around to finishing my post this morning]

8 comments:

  1. Had a blast playing Heroes Unlimited back in the day! Loads of fun! We combined it with TMNT and Ninjas & Superspies, even a little Beyond the Supernatural.

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  2. I saw a copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness at my local game store a week ago, but didn't quite feel like paying $35 for it without assurance of players.

    And I completely agree that superheroes are one of the few genres where character building makes just as much sense as character creation.

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  3. F all that! Try Graphic Novel Freefrom Supers RPG ONLY on DriveThruRPG. I got inspired by M&M because they had too many rules SO I went with NO RULES.

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    1. @ Eldrad:

      As a guy who's owned (and played) the Sketch! supers RPG for years, I can certainly understand the appeal of something "rules light." Heck, despite its bidding mechanics, Capes is pretty damn rules light as well...and I've tried my own hand at designing such, using nothing but a deck of ordinary playing cards.

      But "no rules?" That's just me and my kids dressing up in capes and running around the house fighting imaginary goons. That's fun on occasion, but lacks the oomph I need for a tabletop game.

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  4. Hero System 5e Revised for making up guys

    I really don’t know what system to play. Playing is never as fun as making up guys.

    I also started at Marvel. Still an excellent fun flavorful system.

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    1. @ Scott:

      Creating characters can be a form of play in and of itself, but if actual play is lacking, a game is a "no go" for me.

      I loved playing Marvel back in the day, but it had a couple issues. I've only ever owned 4E of the Heroes System and it put me to sleep every time I tried reading it..literally! Never made it past page 20-something without dozing off.

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  5. Now you're making me want to track down an original copy, too. I only got to play HU a couple times as a kid, but loved creating characters when I was bored.

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    1. @ Pythor:

      I picked up my copy on eBay for $13. Totally worth it as a collector/connoisseur of Palladium RPGs. The newer editions (Revised and 2E) are both available as PDFs on DriveThruRPG and run about the same.

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