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On Herogames

posted Dec 6, 2011, 7:21 AM by Shane Harsch   [ updated Jan 5, 2012, 6:42 AM ]
Over on
RPGnet they’ve got a thread discussing the recent news about Herogames. I see a lot of "Hero is too hard" or "I don't like to do math" or "Hero missed the boat by not making a light version", and as a result that's why they are where they are.

I have to disagree.

Look around. How many other games have lasted, true to their core, for 30 years?

Answer: Very few.

D&D evolved all the way to 4th Edition. How does that compare to 1st Edition? Not even a little. Superficially, sure, but it is a completely different game.

Traveller went through multiple iterations before coming back to its original 2d6.

Perhaps Basic Roleplay, powering CoC has made it that long, Tunnels & Trolls, and Palladium but nothing else. Palladium is a very good example of a system that has stayed true to its core all these years.

My teenage self, sitting down to create champion after champion in 1983 was building 12d6 Energy Blasts with +3 OCV and a Stealth skill of 13- based off my DEX characteristic in the EXACT SAME WAY as I do today.

Herogames is facing a challenge they have faced before and many other companies face: what do you do after you have written everything? Sure, there are a couple of genres untouched by Hero (Cyber, Horror), but they have produced more genre books and support material than nearly any other company out there for an audience a fraction the size of Paizo's.

DOJ has demonstrated nothing but strong business acumen when it comes to managing their product responsibly, and I see the recent decisions to be no different. I think it makes perfect sense to go to a more product/project based approach for individual freelancers than to have staff writers at this point. Even the material that hasn't been updated to 6E doesn't require a full rewrite... 5E and 6E just aren't that different.

Introducing 5E and 5ER and 6E is what has allowed the company to stay around as long as they have. I imagine without those large ticket items, the company would not have been able to sustain itself.

What I also see here is this idea that if a game is no longer supported by a company, which isn’t the case here, that somehow the game is dead and cannot be played. I just don’t get it. Unless production of the game stopped and left it incomplete somehow, then perhaps that is true, but in most cases the game continues to work as it did when you were playing it (and having fun) while it was supported.

Gaming is a hobby. This means we pursue it because of the satisfaction we get out of participating in the hobby and not for pure consumer entertainment. A lot of arguments I see levied against many game companies stem from this consumer entertainment point of view. “People want to see X,” or “Why didn’t they do Y with the story?” or “Why aren’t the maps in full color at battlemap scale?” I think such products are great, and if one has a great story I buy it, regardless of system. But such products, which are at lower price points, are sold to less than one out of 5 players -- the GMs. So, if your playerbase was 50,000 then you would sell 10,000 at best at a price of $20, for $3 in margin and generate $30,000. If your playerbase is 1/10th of that you generate $3,000. You can’t run a business making that kind of money, you only succeed when you sell something to your entire playerbase on a regular basis and how much material can you really generate that can be sold to that group? Hero has covered all of the bases now, twice (5E and 6E) so now what... a 7E? Maybe people believe there are millions of players out there, a fact that simply isn’t true. The true size of the gaming population is elusive, but likely somewhere between 300,000 and 1,000,000. I know a lot of gamers and roughly 1 in 20 goes to conventions. Considering that GenCon comes to 30,000, not all of them roleplayers, I think it’s a fair guess. I wish there were better data, and that companies like Paizo and Wizards would share their sales numbers, but alas I don’t know.

Herogames’ direction makes sense, and I expect to see a lot of smaller publishers (meaning not Wizards and not Paizo) taking a similar path -- freelance produced material built around a solid core.

Everyone’s experience with Hero is different. Unlike most games, Hero is a toolbox - take what you like, use it as you will. I’m comfortable with the game in a way many people aren’t and my combats are fast, gritty, and fun. I run the game for people who have never played it before and can blend strong narrative with mechanics that allow players to feel as if they have succeeded based on their character’s abilities and not narrative or mechanical whimsey. When I run at a convention combine 2-3 social challenges, with time for roleplaying, with 2-3 combats that are structured as creatively as I can, and we get through that in 4-5 hours with people who have never played Hero before. I’ve run many games in Savage Worlds and Pathfinder (and historically 1E, GURPS, Rolemaster, Ars Magica, Gamma World 1-4, Unisystem, Warhammer) and few games come close to giving me and the players the options we get in Hero. We can go into what Hero does that other games don’t, but I think that is really more appropriate in another metagaming thread, but to say that the system doesn’t move fast, or that some specific mechanic in the game is broken is akin to saying that Hit Points are dumb. Hit Points are Hit Points, nothing more or less. You either like them or you don’t, but they aren’t “broken” and “improving” a core feature like that often changes the game in fundamental ways such that it is no longer the same.

Darren Watts once told me that Hero is not “huge” or “detailed” in order to define how your game is run. The detail is there so that if you want to know how something can be done in the rules, they’ve already had the arguments so you don’t have to. Do you have a better way of doing something? Great! Do it! Want to wing it and make a judgement call that’s appropriate for the character in that context? Awesome!

I played in two Hero campaigns, sci-fi and fantasy, run by a great GM that had never run the game before. He knew the core mechanics and what the key difficulty thresholds were. When he ran the game he applied those principles without knowing the rules and most of the time he was right. More importantly, he was never so wrong that someone like me who knew the rules was bothered by his judgement. That’s one of the great things about the game - you can run it as rules light or heavy as you want, but the framework is there when you need it.

There is no other game on the market that lets me run a Fallout game, my own fantasy campaign with three unique magic systems (one of which supports improvisation), Half-Life, Marvel vs. Left4Dead, and Cthulhu. Some of you might ask why I wouldn’t just play Call of Cthulhu, Mutants & Masterminds, Pathfinder, and Darwin’s World. In the case of CoC or M&M you might be right, those would be good systems to play for those games. But Pathfinder doesn’t have 3 unique magic systems and doesn’t support improvisation. Darwin’s World isn’t Fallout and the effort necessary to make it so is at best the same necessary to make Hero fit that mould. If I am a pure consumer, willing to play with whatever published materials are presented me, then those are appropriate paths. But step off those paths and I have nowhere to go. I couldn’t run my fantasy campaign in Pathfinder without completely writing new magic systems from scratch, something I don’t have to worry about in Hero.

Hero isn’t for everyone in the same way that changing your oil isn’t for everyone. Some people enjoy doing their own thing and creating their own materials and others are happy, skilled, and excellent gamemasters running published adventures appropriately in the context of all of the source material. Hero serves the former and leaves the latter to be supported by the freelancers that have a passion for producing such materials like Steve, Darren, the folks at Blackwyrm games, and me. If that means a small print-run for 500 people, so be it. That is the the hobby. Those are the fans that go to conventions, and based on the games run at cons, Hero is doing better than nearly everyone:

GenCon 2011:
D&D 4E          357     17% (includes RPGA events)
Pathfinder RPG 279 13% (includes PFS events)
Hero System     112 5%
Call of Cthulhu 101 5%
Shadowrun 97 5%  (includes SR Missions)
Star Wars 79 4%
Savage Worlds 72 3%
Ubiquity 55 3%
Alpha Omega 50 2%
Misc            10-37   17% (e.g. Eclipse Phase, 7th Sea, GURPS, AD&D, The One Ring, M&M)
Small           1-9     27% (e.g. FATE, Dark Heresy, HackMaster, Hollow Earth Expedition, NSDMG)
Total Events    2134

So please, this change at Hero isn’t doom and gloom, nor is it a revolt of the fans that they somehow messed up the product with 6E, which is the same thing that was said about 5E, and 4E before it, and therefore their product is somehow broken and unwanted. The fanbase is a specific size, the game industry is not a growth industry, and when you finish a product like 6E what more is there to do?

If Craftsman or Kobalt sell you a complete automotive toolset, how many more are they likely to sell you over the course of your life? None. My uncle, a race car mechanic, has had the same toolset for over 20 years. Sure there are tools here and there he needs to buy, but he is unlikely to shell out thousands of dollars for tools again. Having seen the evolution of Hero from 1E to 6E I’m not sure there is much left to do. Would I buy an updated Ultimate Skill to 6E... probably, but I already have the 5E version of it and none of that content is different so... is full color glossy worth it? Probably not.

The Hero crew has been a great guiding force for me. I can’t say however that they will be missed, because they aren’t going away. Hero lives on, as available to play as it ever has been. Who knows, maybe something wickedly creative will come out of all of this.

Thank you.