It may sound strange or pretentious to say that a roleplaying game has a “philosophy,” but over the three decades in which the HERO System’s been designed, published, and played, a set of principles governing how the HERO rules should be created, perceived, and used has evolved. To help you understand the rules and get the maximum enjoyment out of them, here’s the HERO philosophy:
The HERO System rules aren’t designed to be “realistic.” Not only is “realism” difficult to define, it’s often not a lot of fun. Instead the aim of HERO is to simulate dramatic realism — the sort of “realism” you see in movies, comics, novels, and the other forms of fiction that inspire you to play roleplaying games in the first place. That means HERO allows for verisimilitude — a general likeness of or similarity to “reality” — but within the context of dramatic adventure and action. Thus, characters tend to be harder to kill than they “realistically” should be, they’re more likely to succeed at dangerous or outlandish tasks, and so forth. It’s all part of the fun of a roleplaying game.
The HERO System is designed to free up your creativity and let you create the type of character, ability, weapon, spell, or any other thing you want. This flexibility, this creative power, is the hallmark of HERO, the one thing that truly sets it apart from every other roleplaying game. For example, rather than having to use what Hero Games calls a “Lightning Bolt,” the HERO System gives you the tools to create a Lightning Bolt the way you think it should work. There’s information in this book and various supplements to show you how Hero Games would do it, if you want to know or want to save yourself some time and effort, but you don’t have to use that information if you don’t want to.
First and foremost, if you want to take full advantage of the HERO System’s flexibility and power, you have to do the work. You have to create the characters, the spells, the villains, the weapons, the campaign setting, or whatever else you happen to need. Most roleplaying games don’t require gamers to do that, but it’s the price to be paid for what the HERO System can do for you.
Fortunately, it’s not as much work as it might seem at first. For one thing, there are dozens of Hero Games supplements that have characters, spells, vehicles, weapons, and whatever else you need already created for you. If you don’t want to use them as-is, it’s an easy matter to change them to suit yourself rather than creating what you want from the ground up. But even if you prefer to do all your own work, the more of it you do the easier it becomes, and the larger your own HERO resource base grows. Many HERO gamers consider using the rules to create things as much fun as playing the game!
Second, the freedom and power offered by the HERO System bring with them the responsibility to use the rules in a fair, proper, and mature manner. Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure that the HERO System rules are as “balanced” as possible. “Balanced” means that the more effective something is the more it costs, and that roughly comparable game elements have roughly comparable costs (see You Get What You Pay For, below). However, no roleplaying game system can ever be perfectly balanced or totally “bulletproof ” (immune to misuse or mis-application of the rules). And that’s doubly true for a game as complex as the HERO System, with its hundreds of interlocking game elements that you assemble into characters and abilities.
Any attempt to make the HERO System “bulletproof ” would only interfere with its goal of being flexible and fun — it would prevent people who want to use it in proper, creative ways from doing so easily. Therefore HERO relies on you to use it with an attitude of fairness and responsibility. Sure, it’s possible to create a relatively cheap weapon that can destroy a planet in a single shot, or a character who’s far more powerful than other characters, or a superpower that no villain can resist. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. When you create characters and abilities, ask yourself if they’re reasonable, fair, and fun for the campaign.
To put it another way, having a car gives you the freedom to go places, and having a hammer gives you the freedom to build things. But having a car doesn’t give you the right to drive on the sidewalk, and just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean you should hit people with it. Both are possible uses of those tools, but they’re not proper or responsible ones. And similarly, just because you could design a campaign-breaking power using the HERO System doesn’t mean that’s a valid use of the rules. Consider the consequences of what you create before you introduce it into the game.
When you’re creating things with the HERO System or playing in a HERO System game, you should use your dramatic sense and common sense. Dramatic sense refers to that sense of what’s “right” and “wrong” in a story — a sense you’ve been developing ever since you started to read books and watch movies. It’s there inside you even if you don’t know it yet, and it’s one of your best assets as a roleplaying gamer.
For example, when a villain in a story starts to give a big, dramatic speech about his plans, your dramatic sense tells you that you shouldn’t just attack him. That’s not fun, or appropriate; the thing to do is let him complete his speech, then commence the climactic fight scene! Similarly, dramatic sense tells you that if one Player Character has a special or distinctive ability (or set of abilities), you shouldn’t try to out-do him at them — that’s his “shtick.” You should work with the other players and the GM to ensure that each character is unique and fun in his own way.
Using your dramatic sense also means you shouldn’t let the rules get in the way of creating a fun, exciting story. If the rules as written diminish the drama of the game for you, ignore or change them (either permanently, or on a case-by-case basis). For example, if it would be more dramatic for Professor Barnes to wake up right before the burglars escape with his new invention, let him — even if the rules say he wouldn’t get to take any Recoveries yet.
Even in a game based on dramatic realism, common sense is often just as important as dramatic sense. Common sense helps preserve the verisimilitude by keeping you from using the rules to break the “feel” of the game and the setting. Nothing ruins a game faster than applying the rules “by the book” regardless of what common sense says. If you’re setting up a murder mystery scenario and your common sense tells you a character can kill someone by shooting him with a small pistol, then let him, even if the rules say he can’t possibly do enough damage that way to kill the victim with a single shot. Similarly, your martial artist character might have a Kick attack that the rules say is powerful enough to smash through a bank vault door. But common sense tells you that people can’t kick through vault doors; it’s an absurd idea, even in a world of dramatic realism. Ignore the letter of the rules and follow their common sense spirit. (But of course, in some genres, such as Superheroes, your dramatic sense may trump that and tell you that characters can kick through vault doors... if so, have fun!)
One aspect of the freedom the HERO System offers is customizability: you can alter the rules, or use optional and variant rules, to make the game play the way you want it to play. There are many examples of this discussed throughout 6E, but you can certainly go beyond that if you want. For example you could alter the cost of some Characteristics, add Skills to the Skill List (or take some off it), combine two Powers into one, or rule that characters don’t get Post-Segment 12 Recoveries. It’s all up to you!
Customizability is particularly important for the HERO System because different groups play the game very different ways. Some groups favor combat, some prefer social interaction; some rely on cooperation between Player Characters, others feature competition; some focus on character conception, while others emphasize character construction and maximum points efficiency. None of these ways are wrong; the important thing with the HERO System is to have fun, however you define “roleplaying game fun.” But it means the 6E rules, which are balanced and “fair” for the average gaming group, may be unfair or easily abused by your group if your playstyle isn’t “average.” If you see that happening in your game, you should “tweak” the HERO System until it suits the way you like to play. It’s not that the tool is broken — it’s that it needs a few minor adjustments for what you have in mind.
One of the most important general principles underlying the HERO System is you get what you pay for. That’s a shorthand way of saying several things.
The first is that for the average gaming group, the rules as written are reasonably “balanced.” This means that if Ability X and Ability Y both have a more or less equal effect during the game, they should have a more or less equal cost. Of course, any game element in the HERO System can be overwhelmingly powerful, or next to useless, in certain situations. But overall, during the course of a HERO campaign, abilities of equal cost should be equally effective. (And as mentioned above, if you find that the rules in 6E aren’t “balanced” for your gaming group due to your preferred style of play, change them!)
But the idea of “balance” extends beyond adding up the numbers on the character sheet. Player Characters should not only be “balanced” against one another, they should be properly “balanced” against the setting they’re a part of. This is where the GM comes in. Ideally he designs villains that are challenging, creates adventures that give each character an equal opportunity to shine over the course of the campaign, and adjusts the world to suit the nature of the campaign and what the players want to do. For example, if the campaign is fast-paced Superhero fun with lots of over-the-top action, the GM might reduce the defense and BODY of buildings, vehicles, and objects so they’re easier to smash through or throw at other characters, and reduce the damage caused by firearms so heroes can ignore conventional opponents. On the other hand, if the Superhero game is supposed to be dark, grim, and gritty, objects might remain as they are, while guns become even deadlier.
Because roleplaying games tend to involve a lot of combat and action, HERO System elements that feature prominently in those situations — Attack Powers, defenses, and the like — tend to receive more detail and to cost more than abilities which have little or no effect in them. For example, a mere 1d6 worth of Blast (5 points) is equal to or greater than the cost of being Immortal, of being financially Well Off, or having an Eidetic Memory. It’s not that those three abilities are valueless; in fact, over the general course of a character’s life they’re probably much more valuable than a Blast 1d6. But they have little, if any, impact on combat or other situations where the rules need to tell you a lot about the options involved and where a character’s abilities need to be balanced and effective. Thus, they don’t cost very much; in the long run they don’t have much impact on the game, and so shouldn’t cost a lot of Character Points.
Second, the “you get what you pay for” principle means that, generally speaking, characters should only have to pay Character Points for things they actually use during the game that have an effect in the game. 6E1 31 discusses this further, but what it means in broad strokes is that you don’t have to pay Character Points for every single little thing a character knows or can do.
If a character wants to have an ability that has no significant effect on game play — such as an obscure Background Skill or two that defines his job or personal interests — often the best thing for the GM to do is just to let him have it for free... or, if the GM thinks the ability will only rarely be useful, to reduce its cost to more accurately reflect its utility.
The opposite point is equally true: if a character uses something a lot in the game, or has an ability that can be very effective in some situations, he should probably pay Character Points for it. (One general exception is when all characters get the same thing for free, such as a game where no character pays Character Points for weapons or armor.)
While “balance” is an important concern in any roleplaying game, and particularly in the HERO System, don’t get too bogged down in juggling numbers (unless your gaming group enjoys that). The HERO System is a game, not a tax return, so if the numbers start to get in the way of your fun, find a way around that (for example, by using “pre-built” powers, gadgets, and spells from Hero Games supplements). On the other hand, if part of your group’s enjoyment of the game is tinkering with the numbers and squeezing every drop of efficiency out of every Character Point spent, that’s great too.
Generally speaking, there’s no need to obsess over the “accuracy” of what you create. Rather than fretting over whether you’ve built a particular ability, spell, power, or the like “correctly,” do your best to figure out how to build what you want with the HERO System rules (or, if necessary, have the GM build it for you). Then let it work the way you want it to; don’t worry about whether you’re “right.” It’s your game, so however you want to do it (or the GM wants you to do it) is “right.”
One foundation of the HERO System is this: the rules are distinct from the special effects of an ability. You can read more about special effects on 6E1 120, but in short, the term refers to the appearance and manifestation of an ability. For example, in many roleplaying games characters have the power to project lightning bolts from their hands. There’s a rule for this that defines what a Lightning Bolt is — how it functions in game terms (how deadly it is, how far it reaches, and so forth). That same rule doesn’t define a Fireball, or a Radiation Blast, or a Sonic Beam; it only applies to a Lightning Bolt. In short, the rule and the special effect are the same.
But in the HERO System, those two things — rule and special effect — are separate. HERO doesn’t have any rule for “Lightning Bolt.” Instead, it has several game elements that describe different ways to injure or harm a target at a distance. You pick the game element(s) you think define how a “Lightning Bolt” should function in game terms. In other words, you create your own Lightning Bolt, and you decide how it works. Another character may have a Lightning Bolt power that works differently. And a third character may use the exact same game elements that you used for your Lightning Bolt to build his Fire Arrows spell.
The HERO System refers to this as reasoning from effect. First you choose the special effect for a power or ability. Then you decide what game effect that ability or power should have. Then you build the power or ability with the game elements that provide that effect. As you read through the rules, don’t assume that a particular special effect applies to a game element just because of how it’s presented. Each game element has to be put where it makes the most sense based on common conception, but that’s not a restriction. For example, Stealth is one of the Skills in the game because for the vast majority of characters being sneaky is a matter of skill and learning. But a character could buy Stealth defined as “a magic spell I cast that makes me sneaky,” while another character is a ghost and buys Stealth because he’s transparent and semisolid , which makes it easy for him to hide. Both of those are valid uses of Stealth, even though neither is an ability the character learns and practices.
The HERO System uses 3d6 for Skill and Attack Rolls. This creates a “bell curve” of probabilities that helps characters succeed at the difficult tasks they encounter during their adventures. It allows for some predictability and reliability, since numbers near the low and high end of the range are much less likely to occur than numbers in the middle. (By comparison, a single-die system, such as rolling one twenty-sided die, has an equal probability of any given number occurring.) On the other hand, a bell curve also means that bonuses or penalties to rolls can have a significant effect.
With a few minor exceptions, the HERO System doesn’t have any “absolutes.” There’s no guaranteed way to hit another character with an attack, no foolproof way to avoid an attack, no total immunity to any phenomenon or type of attack. This is for two reasons. First, absolutes tend to unbalance roleplaying games and create problems during play. Second, even in the adventure fiction that inspires roleplaying game campaigns, “absolutes” are rarely absolute. When one supposedly exists, often the whole point of the story is for the heroes to find a way to avoid or bypass the “absolute”... which means it wasn’t really an absolute after all.
The 6E rules often use the phrase, “in the GM’s discretion,” meaning the GM has authority to allow an optional rule, choose between two rules, or the like. The intent there is to bring to the reader’s specific attention one of the key philosophies of the HERO System, which is that the GM can change any rule as he sees fit. He can make a rule work differently, get rid of it, replace it with a variant rule, or whatever else he wants to do. Just like HERO relies on the players to create their characters with responsibility and maturity, it relies on the GM to adapt the rules to suit the setting he’s created and the type of campaign he wants to run. While we think you’ll enjoy the game the most as it’s written in this book, ultimately the written rules are just guidelines and suggestions. Change them to suit yourself — to make your games more exciting, dramatic, and fun.
As you read and interpret the HERO System rules, keep two important principles in mind.
First, just because something isn’t explicitly forbidden doesn’t mean it’s allowed. No game designer could think of every possible permutation, combination, interpretation, or use of the HERO System rules, so situations may arise in your game that the creators of these rules didn’t foresee. While it’s usually safe to assume that something which isn’t forbidden is allowed, the final decision is always up to the GM. If he doesn’t want to interpret or use the rules the way you want to, his decision governs.
Second, just because something is explicitly forbidden doesn’t mean you can’t do it (with the GM’s permission). Even when the rules say you can’t do something, the GM can relax that restriction if he feels it would be justified to do so. For example, the rules say you can’t apply the Attack Versus Alternate Defense Advantage to the Entangle Power. But if a player came up with an idea for an AVAD Entangle the GM felt was a good one that didn’t unbalance the game, he could allow the player to buy that power for his character.
The last and most important philosophy of the HERO System is this: the rules are designed to help you have fun. If a particular rule makes the game less fun for you, that rule isn’t working well for you — so change it. Similarly, ignore “letter of the rules” arguments in favor of interpretations that make the game more enjoyable.