For instance, one year the Heroes failed to ready a new product in time for an important show, the popular annual California gaming convention Dundracon. "Even with Steve, George and I deferring our pay, we couldn't make payroll, so we had to do something," Greer says. "We put our heads together to come up with a new product. Out of that came 'the Adventurers Club' - a sheet of paper that promised the inside scoop on what we were doing and a membership card. I sold 118 pieces of paper for $20 a pop to fans who believed this would be the coolest thing ever - and after the show we had to make it a reality. My membership card still has the number 6, because that weekend I felt like The Prisoner." Over the following year Hero produced eight issues of an Adventurers Club newsletter, which eventually transformed into an in-house magazine.
"The fans believed in us, so we did our best to live up to it," says Greer. "What success we had flows from that. Lots of companies had good ideas and bright staff; we had something special. We really tried to spend time chatting with [the fans], even though it took a good deal of energy. They liked us and we liked them. And because of that, we got gaming groups that felt more connected to us and represented us at shows before that idea was popular. During the mid-'80s at Gen Con, if you look at the program books, we had more game sessions running than any other game system save a TSR title - a point of personal pride."
Like most startup RPG publishers in the 1980s - not to mention the '90s and '00s and forever - Hero had a stressful history. Fans were loyal but too few. The hard-pressed partners eventually licensed the game line to Rolemaster publisher Iron Crown Enterprises, where first Rob Bell and, later, Monte Cook edited the line. But after a few years ICE itself gave up. Steve Peterson spent a fruitless decade promoting a Champions computer game - the only game that made the cover of Computer Gaming World (issue #93, April 1992) but never shipped. After a long, decrepit stagger through the late 1990s, Hero went dormant. Peterson went into computer game marketing and is now an independent consultant in San Francisco. George MacDonald is a Senior Product Manager for Yahoo Games. Ray Greer worked briefly at Steve Jackson Games, then fished herring and smelt on a skiff in San Francisco Bay; he's now a massage therapist in Silicon Valley, where his clients include several game company executives. "I don't work in the industry any more, but sometimes I work on the industry. I get to use those [Hero] stories as examples when I get stressed startup execs doing too much navel-gazing."
As the century turned, the Hero Games properties somehow wound up owned by a mysterious dotcom startup, Cybergames. In the 2001 bust, Cybergames disappeared as quickly and silently as it had emerged, and all things Hero seemed lost.
...Until Steve Long and fellow gamer Darren Watts managed, as a Hero gamer might put it, a post-segment-12 recovery. A North Carolina attorney, Long had been a leading Hero freelancer in the latter Iron Crown days. In December 2001, helped by silent partners, Long and Watts purchased the Hero System and immediately commenced a spirited rejuvenation. A doorstop-thick Fifth Edition, huge new genre books, campaign supplements, a quarterly magazine and dozens of e-texts - Hero poured forth millions of words annually, produced mostly by Long himself, a wunderkind who routinely writes 10,000 words a day.
In design terms, it has been a Golden Age for Hero - except it's happened during the cataclysmic decline of the commercial tabletop RPG business. Though its core fanbase remains loyal and happy, Hero Games has, like every other tabletop company large and small, fought a rearguard action. But once again, as has happened often in Hero's history, a benevolent power flew in.
In late 2007, Cryptic Studios had made significant progress on Marvel Universe Online when they suddenly lost the Marvel license. About four minutes later, Cryptic purchased the Champions Universe campaign setting from Hero Games and announced Champions Online. Hero retained rights to the Hero System rules, and Cryptic licensed back to Hero the right to publish setting books for the paper RPG. The long influence of paper RPGs on electronic versions continues.