Though fans of Dungeons & Dragons have led the Old School Revival, many other tabletop roleplaying games from the 1970s and early ’80s still have fans. One of the oldest, strongest and best loved is the Hero System – the all-encompassing Hero Games rules system founded on the landmark 1981 superhero RPG Champions.
More than one “High Adventure” columnist goes way back with Hero: I, for one, wrote a Champions supplement, and Monte Cook used to edit the whole line. As the Hero System approaches its 30th anniversary, I hope my fellow designers are holding up as well as it has. A huge new Sixth Edition soon hits the shelves, after September’s launch of the Cryptic Studios Champions Online MMOG. Though originally a game of capes and tights, the “universal” Hero tabletop RPG now supports fantasy, space opera, post-holocaust and many other genres, down to and including lucha libre Mexican wrestling movies. Among the field’s many universal systems Hero stands tall, and among superhero RPGs only the relative upstart Mutants & Masterminds holds equal mindshare. Hero’s enduring success represents the Old School Revival’s ideal, its best-case scenario – though if you know the game, this claim sounds as audacious as a Mexican wrestler.
For those familiar with RPG jargon, the Hero System is a high-crunch tactical simulationist design with point-allocation char-gen. If you don’t know what that means, put it this way: The two-volume Sixth Edition rulebook has 775 pages. In many important ways, this game violates the old-school aesthetic, which prizes succinct rules sets and gamemaster improvisation. Succinct? The Hero System exhaustively compiles character stats, talents, perks, martial arts, super-powers, advantages, disadvantages, vehicles, bases, automata and every imaginable combat maneuver; meticulously defining, interrelating and point-costing everything with diamond-cut precision. Improvisation? Character creation can take an hour or more, and combat moves like a careful tax audit.
Faced with this four-pound universe, white-box D&D fans may snort to hear Hero fans called “old school.” And yet! Revivalists seek to regain the lost brio of an earlier time, before the later encrustations of endless rules expansions and multi-book campaign settings – but Hero gamers are still playing pretty much exactly the way they did in 1981. The toolkit let them build anything then, just as it does now – and so they did, and they still do, using largely the same rules. Sure, there are more powers, and some names and costs have changed. But a first-edition Champions character basically works okay in a modern game. And a longtime gamer who last played Champs in the first Reagan Administration will feel comfortable playing any edition since then, assuming he can still toss the dice with his withered, arthritic hands.
Many longtime gamers, once they discovered the Hero System, never left. Hero Games partner and Sixth Edition designer Steven Long recounts the common experience of some early-1980s roleplayers who sought something “more” than D&D: “We’d all been playing D&D for years. We loved it – still do – but we recognized that RPGs as a hobby could offer more, and we were looking for whatever that ‘more’ was. We tried Traveller and Top Secret, but they didn’t quite click. Then we tried Champions, and almost overnight it replaced D&D for us. The Hero System became our RPG of choice, and though we do occasionally play other RPGs it remains our favorite.
“To some extent I think this characteristic remains true of Hero System fans today (and indeed, I think you can argue the entire RPG industry is based on trying to offer people something ‘more’ than D&D), but … these days I think the most common characteristics of Hero System players are creativity and a desire to express that creativity in ways that other games don’t permit. Every time I try to play another RPG, I always end up thinking, ‘This is too restrictive; I could do this in Hero in an easier, more flexible way,’ and I’ve heard the same basic story from many fans over the years.”
Ray Greer, one of the founding triumvirate of the original Hero Games in 1981, recalls the early Champions fanbase: “The game was easy to play – [once] you had a character, of course – and it promised a great deal. But you really had to work to get it. So what I found out about the fans early on was, they were the ones who didn’t need extra material – not the best business model ever designed.”
For the founding Hero partners, business models proved a perpetual jinx. While Ray handled print-buying and warehousing well enough, rules designer George MacDonald and business manager Steve Peterson struggled eternally to finish and promote new books. More than once, urgent cash flow problems drove Peterson to innovate (Hero was the first RPG publisher to sell e-texts of its products, snail-mailed on 5 1/4″ floppies) – and also to improvise.
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.
What’s more, after three decades, this old-school game stands suddenly at the vanguard of an emerging trend: the perfusion of MMOG ideas and companies into the tabletop space. D&D’s 4th Edition couched its concepts in terms suited to an audience familiar with online games; CCP, publishers of EVE Online bought White Wolf Game Studio; and now the Champions MMOG brings new opportunities for Hero Games.
How is the company planning to welcome Champions Online players to the tabletop version? “We’ve got some new books in the works that we hope will be attractive to MMOG players,” says Long. “One, the Basic Rulebook, is a slimmed-down, easy-learning, quick-play version of the Hero rules – the essentials condensed down to 130 pages. Later this year we’ll be doing a new Champions genre book and a Champions Universe setting book, both in full color, the latter based on Cryptic’s take on the setting; it will be a great place for an MMOG player who likes the ‘lore’ aspect of the game to learn about the Champions Universe. Early next year we’ll publish a Champions Online RPG, a one-book game containing the Basic rules, pre-built versions of all the Champions Online powers, a summary description of the setting, and lots more.”
Long hopes to coordinate with Cryptic to cross-promote both versions of the game. “When we do the new Champions, we’re talking about a promotion where each book will have a code that you can enter into the MMOG to get some sort of unique item, like an action figure or a special cloak. Cryptic has been very supportive of the tabletop RPG and has really gone out of its way to help us promote it.”
Online players interested in trying pencils and dice should visit the Hero Games forums. “Hero fans have always been among the most friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic in gaming,” says Long. “Just look at the response that new players get on our message boards when they ask questions or want suggestions on what to do. Our fans know that there are likely to be some new players coming in from the MMOG (in fact, we’ve already had quite a few), and are ready to welcome ’em with open arms.
“Generally speaking, I think Champions is most likely to appeal to MMOG fans who want to exercise their imagination and creativity in ways that no MMOG permit. Champions Online is light-years beyond most MMOGs in terms of flexibility … but there are still limits. The guys at Cryptic can only program so much content, after all. And there are players who want to know what’s over there, or what happens if their character does so-and-so that the game doesn’t cover. Those are players who, whether they know it right now or not, want to give traditional RPGs a try.”
Meanwhile, early response to the Sixth Edition has been positive. Long says, “We started the process in February 2008, creating a special area of our message boards where the fans could post any suggestion they wanted about what should go in 6E, so the fans have very involved from the start. (Take it from me, the guy who had to read all 1,248 pages’ worth of posts in that forum!)” At GenCon 2009, “We took enough pre-orders for the 6E two-book set to break our previous single-product sales record. Now that the PDF of the books is in the fans’ hands, they’ve been discussing it extensively, asking questions, and looking forward to all the great books we have planned.”
Even after three decades, the Hero community looks to the future. Ray Greer also reflects on the past: “Back then, I was feeding dreams and making something I was proud of. The stuff looks pretty simplistic when you compare it to today’s books, but against the self-publishers of the day I can still hold my head up proudly. I’m still stunned at how much we did with so little. We were young and didn’t know we couldn’t do the things we did – so we just did them. And once a month I’d get a letter from a soldier, or a dad who connected with his kid, or a guy in prison who told us that he liked playing the good guy for a change – real people who got real value out of what we did.”
Allen Varney designed the 1989 Champions supplement Mystic Masters, and contributed to Champions in 3-D and Fantasy Hero (2nd edition), both 1990. He has written over 50 articles for The Escapist.