Saturday, January 15, 2011

I Blame Captain America...

One thing I absolutely love about Heroes Unlimited (sorry, folks...just gotta' keep talking about this) is it's three tier system for physical strength. In HU, there are three distinct levels of "strength" a character can possess: human, superhuman, and supernatural.

Human strength...physical strength that is un-augmented and limited by the frailties of the normal human body...has an absolute limit of 40. It includes characters who have lifted weights and 'roided themselves up, as well as the strength of bionic characters that still possess some fleshy parts (and thus have to be wary of the strain on their puny, human systems). Human strength can be divided further into "normal" (P.S. up to 16), "strong" (P.S. over 16), or "extraordinary" (which is for those folks with bionics or high levels derived from certain superpowers).

Superhuman strength is just that: strength greater than the capabilities of a human. Robotic strength, alien life forms, super-powered strength, and that unrestricted by the human form (for example, characters that can turn their bodies into rock or metal) all are capable of superhuman strength. Superhuman strength has no maximum limit to it, and is considerably stronger in terms of lifting/carrying capacity. Spider-Man may be a skinny guy but he has superhuman strength.

Supernatural strength is comic book terms this is the might of Thor or Hercules or the Hulk in what would otherwise be considered a "human-sized package." Thor can bench press 100 tons, even though he is physically on-par with Luke Cage or so. Supernatural strength does exceptionally more damage than human and superhuman strength, and the carrying capacity is much greater as well...though for truly comic book level strength still requires some house rule adjustment.

But we'll get to the criticism in a second; first thing is to give credit where credit is due. This multiple tier approach to strength is great, and my favorite approach to the subject in any superhero game I own (and I own a LOT). White Wolf's Aberrant was pretty good with its physical strength of plus mega-strength power (not a two tier system, per se, but two separate systems that operate in tandem together. The Thing and Cage might both have Strength scores of 5, but different Mega-Strength scores, whereas Spider-Man and Cage have the same Mega-Strength but two different starting Strength scores). Unfortunately, Aberrant fails to mimic comic convention weirdness, doesn't do Iron Man, and has a tough time with granular, street level heroics (like The Cape).

[ I type this, the Steelers have managed to take the lead over the Ravens despite being completely shown up and dominated by Baltimore in the first half. Looks like my feverish ranting had some merit]

Most superhero games simply equate physical strength to being a single scale...perhaps, it goes from 1 to 100, but it is absolute in its measure. Cage is stronger than Hawkeye by a lot, but hasn't a chance in hell against the Thing, who will eventually succumb to Thor in a battle of physical might. The problem with this is when one ties the strength score to melee attack effectiveness...for example, Super World or Villains & Vigilantes. Mutants & Masterminds avoids this, but is such a wuss when it comes to super strength anyway (a starting character with STR 10 and the ability to live 50 tons does no more damage than the STR 20 bruiser that can only lift 6 tons...and spends a heckuva' lot more "power points" for the privilege) that it hardly bears mention.

But all is not rosy in the HU world of superhero strength, and I put the blame squarely on Captain America.

I find Captain America to be a fascinating character, admittedly more so with the Marvel Ultimates imprint. Here's a character, whose only real superpower is his ability to be the perfect human fighting machine...he is cited as being at the absolute peak of human potential in strength, agility, endurance, and durability. In game terms, I take this to mean "max human stats;" after all, if another human had the possibility of achieving a higher level of ability, well, then that would show Cap had NOT actually met the maximum human potential, right?

So what is the maximum human potential for strength?

Now THAT is an interesting case. After all, there have been plenty of legendary strongmen over the years...guys like the Mighty Atom who was able to prevent a small prop airplane from accelerating by tying it to the hair on his scalp. The current world record for an unassisted dead lift is 975 pounds (held by Benedikt Magnusson), which would seem to be a good baseline for figuring "maximum human strength."

With Heroes Unlimited, a character with maximum human strength (40) can dead lift 1600 pounds. A normal human with EXTRAORDINARY physical strength (still not superhuman) and a strength of 40 can dead lift 8000 pounds.

[on the flip side, the only way to have a character like Thor, capable of dead lifting 80 tons or so, would require a physical strength of 320, well outside the range of any character rolled up in Heroes Unlimited]

HU has the right idea with its tiers, but the carrying/lifting amounts exhibit too shallow a range to exhibit all the possibility of comic book heroes...which hinders its ability to do what it does so well (granular heroic role-playing).

The problem is especially pronounced if you try to model Captain America using the "super-soldier" class (an otherwise excellent option for characters as diverse as Wolverine, Black Widow, and Cap). None of the options for boosting the 98 pound weakling's strength can be taken without increasing it to at least "extraordinary range;" easily putting the character in the same class as Spider-Man (who can pick up and toss a VW Bus without breaking much of a sweat).

*sigh* ...sometimes it appears to be all about upping the power ranges, aka "Rifts Bloat," which I hate and is both antithesis to the potential of the game and the stated values of its designer/author. But if Palladium only appeals to munchkins, I guess munchkin value is the proper fan base to play to...

Fortunately, the HU Gamemaster's Guide makes it abundantly clear that GMs are free to play-about with the actual lifting/carrying capacities of the various classes of strength. UNfortunately, Palladium's irritating internet policy makes the posting of house rules outside their forums to be an iffy prospect to post my totally excellent house rule changes to strength. At least in reference to Palladium's Heroes Unlimited.
; )


  1. My group is currently using Marvel SAGA for it's Super's campaign. While not as 'granite' as some of the other systems we find it lends itself to storytelling and the free wheeling of a Super's campaign, where even the least of the characters can sometimes, if the cards are right, do the truly outstanding.
    On a side note, if you dig Ult. Cap check out Ed Brubaker's run on 616 Cap, especially Bucky's current run as THE Captain America. For a die-hard Cap fan like myself who anticipated loathing it, it truly is a great run.
    As always great blog.

  2. I, too, prefer HU despite all the warts. I ran a game at a con about this time last year where the 8 pre-gens ran the range from Dazzler to Superman/Wonder Woman in power scale.

    The players, only one of whom had played Palladium before, where surprised at how well it all worked, because of the bad press that PB gets (power creep, etc.). I try to be a good Megaversal Ambassador. :)

  3. JB I've been struggling with strength and a real life comparison for B/X. The maximum for most weight lifters is too huge for the normal ability score range. I have discovered that the norm range for grip strength in pounds divided by 10 is 3-18 across all adult males with an average of 10. Not sure how this can apply to superheroes however... goodluck.

  4. mayfair's dc heroes, the M&M-derived DC adventures, (and the lazy-ass variant i posted a week or so ago) adopt a non-arithmetic progression--doubling each time or so once the superhuman starts.

    Marvel Superstrong (100 tons) is like a 12 or so in both, Superman is like 20.

    maybe you knew that.

    seems to work ok, and is actually not far off the (tryna remember)...remarkable (1 ton), incredible (spider mannish), amazing (50 tons), monstrous (75-85), unearthly (85-100) progression of TSR's Marvel Superheroes

  5. Good to see HU getting some positive comments, One of my favorite campaigns ever was a Heroes Unlimited game I ran years ago, my players still talk about how much fun they had (and they were all die hard D&D players at the time).

  6. One mention about the power levels in HU. When HU was first released it was meant to be a lower powered supers game, with "Daredevil" level characters being the norm and the "megabricks" not being so "mega." Part of the reason was so that the "normal guy" heroes could run with the "paranormal guy" heroes. (and, just to save argument Batman is NOT a normal guy hero by any stretch of the imagination, his psychosis alone is a major super power. :) )). Problem is, that things got a bit strange when Darth Siembieda decided to interface HU into the Rifts Megaverse as well as introduced the Powers Unlimited series of splats (very very unbalanced books).

    One thing that bothered me with the three-tier Physical Strength system is that, although lifting power was different from one to the other, damage bonuses and other modfiers remained the same. A small house rule I introduced with the Human, Superhuman, and Supernatural strength values is that for damage, thrown ranges and other strength-based modifiers I added a x2 multiplier to superhuman, and a x3 to Supernatural.

    So... if your normal damage bonus was, say... +6 and you could throw a spear 20 meters. If you were superhuman, then those values shifted to +12 and 40 meters, and the same with superhuman (+18 and 60 meters), The changes aren't really enough to be gamebreaking, but they do give a bit of boost to compliment the additional lifting power

  7. @ Nachtwulf: the "Revised 2nd Edition" HU DOES provide an alternate method of doing damage with supernatural strength (though being an "SDC world," it's not as much as Rifts). Here's how *I* do it:

    - I don't distinguish between "extraordinary strength" and human strength (and damage is the same).
    - Superhuman strength adds the total PS value to damage rather than PS >15 (so a character with "superhuman" strength of 10 would still add +10 to damage...the same as a normal human with PS 25). I use different weight classes for superhuman than HU2 does.
    - Supernatural strength uses the damage as listed in the rulebook but adds the entire PS, *not* PS >15. I also use different weight classes for SN strength.

    It took me a looong time tinkering to find PS house rules that I could live with (with regard to HU2). Unfortunately, even tweaking this doesn't deal with some of its other failings.