Thursday, July 11, 2019

Inelegant Design

A bit of a divergence from more recent topics, but...

My kids are always asking me to play with them. This is, of course, a great blessing...I'm sure there are many parents out there who'd give their eyeteeth for children who preferred their attention to that of their friends or (worse) screens/devices.

It is, also (again, of course), annoying at times: not only are there other things that I want (or need) to do, but it bugs me that they sometimes seem to lack the capacity for amusing themselves. Growing up, my brother and I invented many games and pastimes to amuse ourselves without the need for parental supervision or inspiration...even before we'd discovered role-playing games. Imaginative play came easy (naturally?), whereas my children want direction in how to play. Lacking direction (and/or parental participation) they most often default to wanting some sort of screen entertainment: a video game or television to simultaneously stimulate and soften their brains.


All of which is simply a precursor to this: my son is interested in my game design "work," and has asked me on multiple occasions to create a "superhero game." I haven't had the heart (or patience) to explain to him just how many supers games I already own and are available, all of which are lacking in some capacity. But I keep telling him I will (eventually) get around to it. One of these days.

So it is that I've been looking at Heroes Unlimited (again) for the last 30 hours or so. This would be the original, un-Revised version that I've blogged about previously. Again, I've been struck by the real design sensibilities on display here: there is reason behind all of Simebieda's madness that simply isn't explained in later editions. Again, I'm frustrated by the gross editing errors, typos, and information left out...not to mention the sheer clunkiness of a system evolved organically in play. And reading the Revised and 2nd Edition books this morning, I again am struck by how much the game has changed ("evolved" as Siembieda writes) through its various updates. And not for the good.

And yet, and yet: the sheer monstrosity of HU, of its inelegance...I finally start to see something of the appeal and of why the game has had such staying power over the decades. As I struggle to search the various entries for even basic information (like how much SDC a particular power type starts with, or exactly how many hand-to-hand attacks a character should receive), I am forced to parse out various systems and discrepancies and make decisions ("rulings") about various aspects of the game...I am, in struggling to understand and grasp the game's concepts, in the process of learning and developing a degree of expertise with the system.

RPGs are difficult beasts to grapple with the table that is. Running an RPG, managing the players, the rules, the pacing and's a tough juggling act. And yet, streamlined "rules light" design (no doubt intended to excise complexity in aid of playability) ends up making games feel, well, less game-like and more like regulated story-telling...and the more simplified, the more this is the case.

Which, for me, isn't what I want out of a fantasy adventure game. It just isn't.

However, the other thing I do not want is a game where the system IS the game: where the real "play" is in crunching the numbers of the various in-game currencies in order to actually get to play itself. This includes any game that has point-buy/build systems (GURPS, Champions, MektonZ) or anything that has excessive character building through "option selection" (any D20 game or any version of D&D post-1988). I want to get to play without the extra prep of "building" and once play starts I want players to be "in the moment," un-worried about how their character might develop over ten plus levels.

So here's this monstrosity of a game called Heroes Unlimited, full of these clunky, unbalanced character classes, non-unified systems, often ugly aesthetics, and inelegant design. And yet I can randomly generate something like 50 different character types right out of the box, not counting differences in ability scores or power selection. Assuming I have some a decent grasp of the comic book genre (even with a limited, non-nuanced perspective), I can run a game right out of the box. And even without adjusting the rules I can tailor the game play to many sub-genres of supers play, incorporating nuance (the issues of vigilanteism or incorporating modern day politics, for example) as opposed to simple, four-colored action. Its asymmetry, unburdened by toolbox aspects of later games, makes it ripe with the potential of "Advanced" play.

In that way, it really does earn the moniker "Unlimited."

Jut something I'm musing on this morning: the features of inelegant design. Cheers.
: )


  1. I would say post 2001 D&D. I'm not sure 2e D&D is a exercise in option selection. Even if you use the kits from the complete book you are adding only two maybe three steps from 1e. Select a kit, pick non weapon proficiencys, then maybe assign thief skill point, pick an optional specialist mage or cleric domain.

    Then again I am a 2e defender who thinks it gets a bad rap due to the late era splat books.

    1. Seconded. A lot of the complex stuff in the core 2e books is entirely optional, or almost so.

    2. Sorry 2E folks...I meant to write "post-1990" (I was thinking 2E was first published in 1988).
      ; )


    Try this game. You and your kids won't be sorry.

    1. @ Eldrad:

      Mmm. Maybe you missed the paragraph about "rules light" games falling outside my sphere of interest at the moment.

  3. I posted this on a Heroes Unlimited FaceBook page last month and didn't get any responses of merit. I'm re-posting here just because you brought up the topic:
    I’m browsing through HU1 revised and after reading the chapter on magic-based heroes I’m surprised at how limited the wizard and magician are. Their spells are generally weak and capped by level in duration (4 melees per level) and damage (1d6 damage per level). A mutant with an energy expulsion power can easily outlast a wizard’s small number of spells per day (8 spells per day at level 1) and the versatility of knowing over a dozen spells doesn’t help when the majority of the spells have minor effects that can be easily bypassed or just plain ignored with a successful save. The wizard has some additional abilities like astral/psychic projection, mystic senses, and summoning a familiar, but these don’t seem to be very action-oriented, especially for a super-hero wizard.

    **Does anyone in the group have any practical experience playing a HU1 revised wizard or magician and can you tell me how things worked out in actual play?**

    I’m not interested in hearing about how things were changed in HU2, I’m specifically asking for input about the original edition.

  4. Back when I played HU Revised, I don't recall ever seeing a spell-casting hero. My buddies always used characters that had super-powers (mutants, experiments, aliens) as these were judged to be more powerful (and thus optimal)...well, except for one guy who used the Ancient Master type. I, of course, used a bionic (since I love cyborgs), though I also ran an android and a physical training dude at one point. Maybe a magic weapon guy in there somewhere? This was back in the day before HU2 or the Powers Unlimited supplements.

    No, straight wizards were considered nearly as worthless as stage magicians...though they weren't bad for villains (if they could conjure golems and zombies and such).

  5. Villains & Vigilantes (the second edition, 1982) is my 'go to' supers game, though I had to swap the combat table around so that a '20' was the desired target and a '1' the traditional epic fail as the mechanics were reversed from 99% of other d20-based games.

    Random character generation, levels, power vs. defense combat table, a power mechanic, and a decent set of core adventures/supplements illustrated by Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham!

  6. You said that rules-light makes games less gamelike and more storylike but I find it to be the opposite. Simple rules means moving through game phases quicker so you can tell more story together.

    Story is what emerges, not what the referee or the system puts in.

    (By the way I don’t use “referee” to be a hipster. It is the word that best reflects my DM style.)

    1. Is "referee" a hipster word these days? I would have thought there'd be some other new hotness for the term GM.

      I actually had a chance to play this "rules heavy" game recently; I'll try to blog about that this week.
      : )