Friday, October 30, 2009

OK, So Why Heroes Unlimited?

‘Cause sometimes you want “gritty.”

Regardless of what Kevin Siembieda says (or anyone else, for that matter) Heroes Unlimited is a good…not a great…game.

Yes, its combat system can be painfully clunky. Yes, the skill system is simply painful, possibly the worst of any RPG still being published. Yes, despite its title the powers are surprisingly “limited;” much more so than other superhero RPGs (Marvel, Aberrant, GodLike, etc.). The game has obvious, glaring flaws.

Equally obvious is the amount of love and attention lavished on the game. Three editions and more than half a dozen supplements issued multiple times in support of the game, Rifts may be the flagship and Robotech the licensed money-maker, but Heroes Unlimited is definitely the third leg of Palladium’s product tripod…much more than Palladium Fantasy, Beyond the Supernatural, Advanced Recon, Mechanoids, or anything else.

So why, why do I own this game? Why, in fact, did I purchase the 2nd edition last year after selling HU a few years back (at the same time as I dumped Rifts)?

Well, the dumping was a fit of madness brought on by my culling all the “weak games” I never intended to play again. Since that time I have purchased several new Superhero games (Aberrant and its brethren, Capes, GodLike, With Great Power, etc.) as well as retaining Marvel and Advanced Marvel. However, what I have found over the last several years is that Heroes Unlimited does one thing better than any of the others…hell, it does something I’ve yet to see emulated in ANY other superhero game.

It does gritty, street level superheroes better than anyone else.

When I say gritty, I’m not just meaning “dark and dirty,” I mean “granulated.” If I want to pit Hawkeye versus Cyclops in a fist fight using Marvel, they’ve got pretty much identical stats (Typical strength, Good or Excellent fighting)…who wins is going to come down to whose holding more Karma and who gets better, luckier rolls. And there ain’t much difference between them and Kraven or the Beetle or…well, you name it.

Heroes Unlimited doesn’t do hugely powered individuals real well. All right it does better with the latest edition and the introduction of the Mega-Hero as well as some of the Unlimited Powers books…but you really have to work at it. In the past, my Palladium buddies (Michael, Mike, and Ben…man, they loved ALL that Palladium stuff in high school and middle school!) got so fed up with the Revised edition’s wimpy “major powers” that they created their own list of “mega-powers” to better emulate the comic book characters they loved…call it the Fantastic Four/Silver Surfer List.

Anyway, I’ve come around to the idea that not every superhero game needs to be Four-Colored or Silver Aged…in fact, I prefer games where heroes are at the mercy of bullets. The Green Arrow of the Longbow Hunters series (set in Seattle, no less!) is NOT easily modeled with Marvel (considering he skips the fancy doo-dad arrows). The Wild Cards (originally based on BRP’s Superworld) are also not well represented in other superhero games. Neither are Daredevil and his usual rogue’s gallery (Kingpin, Stiltman, Elektra, Typhoid Mary, etc.).

But for me, the comic series that really needs Heroes Unlimited to do it right is the Marvel Ultimates imprint. And I mean The Ultimates themselves, specifically (the “Ultimate” version of the Avengers). I read the Ultimates' comics and I can’t help but think “man, these writers must play or have played Heroes Unlimited!” Truly...I’ve taken the time to go through the Ultimates comics (at least the first two “seasons;” the best of the bunch in my opinion) and I can pretty much make each character fairly simply using only the 2nd Edition game rules and the first two Powers books.

Mr. Siembieda has made it abundantly clear that they will try to milk legal money out of anyone posting character conversions on-line, but just in case anyone wanted a starting point, consider these options:

Ultimate Hulk – Mega-Experiment

Ultimate Iron Man – Hardware: Analyst

Ultimate Giant Man – Imbued

Ultimate Thor – Mega-Immortal

Ultimate Wasp – Mutant

Ultimate Captain America – Super Soldier

Ultimate Black Widow – Super Soldier

Ultimate Hawkeye – Weapon Master (missile weapons)

For other “street level” characters of the Marvel Universe:

Luke Cage – Experiment

Iron Fist – Special Training: Ancient Master

Falcon – Invention

Moon Knight – Special Training: Hunter/Vigilante

Daredevil – Empowered

Elektra – Physical Training

War Machine – Robotics

Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier – Special Training: Secret Operative

None of these characters (with the obvious exception of Hulk and Thor) have world-shaking, cosmic power. All are fairly vulnerable to each other IN THE COMIC BOOK UNIVERSE and thus model very well using Heroes Unlimited. Which to me is very cool.

Of course, that does nothing to make HU any more playable or any less a mess. But I have my own set of tweaks that can certainly improve…most notably cleaning up the Experience point/advancement scheme and importing my own version of Marvel Superheroes RPG’s “karma” rules. Oh, yeah…and updating the various types of super-strength powers to allow actual Marvel scale characters to be evoked.

[by the way, I’m going to take a wild guess that most people who play HU have come to the same conclusions as me as to why and how playability can be gleaned from this train-wreck of a system, and I’m also guessing that those who continue to play it have probably made similar tweaks themselves. For all those individuals that have never played Heroes Unlimited…’cause you were scared of the rumors perhaps…I’d just like to say that the game DOES have potential especially for someone looking for a REAL “old school” type superhero game with levels and randomness and crunchy combat. The thing just needs work is all]


  1. Chello!

    Just noticed that you had this post up (I'm haven't been following you all that long, maybe a month or so!).

    I ran HU at a con this past February...I made random pre-gens that ranged in power feom say, Dazzler-level to Cap to Superman and Wonder Woman. Wow. The villains I used were almost as varied. I had a "Nazi" super-soldier (Swartz Alder or "Black Eagle"), a Mega-Hero "Hulk"/Brick, and a trio of "shooters" (think Deadshot).

    When all Hell broke loose (since the PCs never do what you expect), it was interesting to see how the varied power-levels played. The "Superman" and "Cap" players double-teamed the Mega-Hero (Hammer and Anvil style), the sword-wielding Wonder Woman type went after the super-soldier, and everybody else went after teh shooters. Iw as surprised that a disparate group of 8 strangers (well, my wife and my GM filled out the ranks) actually went to the right job w/o prompting, merely through role-playing.

    Anywy, I rambled on to say, that, yes, I agree with you, though. HU does seem to handle gritty quite well and way better than Champions (blasphemy!), Marvel, or M&M. V&V might be better, but they is probably just nostalgia speaking! :)

    ((The only reason I say better than Champions is that I think C draws out combat too much or is even too deadly at gritty level...for a game, that is.))

  2. @ Anthony: Thanks for reading!

    That's totally cool that you ran HU at a con...sometimes I find it hard to believe that anyone still PLAYS heroes Unlimited anymore, though Palladium still seems to be putting out books for it. The games I've run and run-in have never seemed to go that well, but perhaps it IS a matter of having more players in the game (to "average out" the power levels).

    "Dazzler-level"...that's about the coolest phrase I've ever read.
    ; )

  3. Heroes Unlimited is a glorious mess of a game with unexpected charm and infectious enthusiasm throughout. Love it. The GM Guide is great.

  4. Combat is hardly clunky. It's about the only super hero game I know of where what a defender does actually has an impact on combat.