[This post initiates a series dedicated to my opinions, recollections and personal impressions of classic systems and games.]
I first came to know HERO in the guise of Champions, and I became familiar with the cover of Champions 4e, AKA the Big Blue Book: I never managed to have it in my hands, but I remember it being discussed/advertised in gaming magazines. Skip one decade: an old friend of mine (a much better connoisseur of RPGs than me) had just bought the then brand new HERO System 5th edition (the 2002 unrevised version), and let me browse it with the promise “with this thing, you can build anything you like”. By then I was already more or less out of gaming, or at least, out of GMing, so nothing came of it. In my recent days of RPG revival, I managed to browse through some PDF editions of HERO materials, but I still have not studied (you do not read this stuff: you study it) or played anything. So, what do I know about HERO? Little. And yet, I am strongly convinced (a) that HERO is the most influential system after D&D, and (b) that its approach to “extras” is the most complete and elegant system ever devised in a game.
First, even though I am no historian of RPGs, I am inclined to think that (the first game to “champion” the HERO System) introduced or at least popularized the notion of point-buy character creation. Bear in mind that early RPGs followed the lead of D&D in building characters on random foundations: you rolled dice for your attributes, in some games you even rolled the dice for your class/profession. Where rules for background were available (place of birth, social condition, relations) they also involved rolling dice. Two prominent examples from my early days of gaming are MERP and Stormbringer. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, but it does presuppose a fair amount of flexibility, good nature, or at least fatalism on the player’s part. I seem to remember somebody who rolled a “beggar” (sic) on the profession table of Stormbringer, and was not exactly happy. Champions gave you some points and said: use them to build a character you feel like playing. Personally, I was exposed to the approach only in the early 90s via GURPS, but even then I knew that Champions was the precursor in this respect. Today, point-buy character creation is the norm, rather than the exception. In fact, I cannot think of one single system that endorses a purely (or even predominantly) random approach to character creation. The two most beloved universal systems these days, Fate and Savage Worlds, use rough equivalents of point-buy systems for character creation. In fact, all the recent editions of D&D had to reduce more and more the random component in the character generation. All of this began with the HERO System, so here I come to my first claim: HERO introduced the most fundamental innovation in game design (or at least, in the character creation subsystem) since the beginning of the hobby. For this alone, HERO has my fullest respect.
Second, the rules for power design. Here, again, HERO has been followed by countless systems, unbeknownst to many readers and players. The great insight behind HERO is that everything “extra” about characters, everything that goes beyond basic attributes and skills, has to be treated in a uniform manner in terms of character creation. Advanced technology, magic, psionics, cinematic martial arts: one system to describe them all. The trick, of course, was to describe them in the most abstract manner: anything that could do damage at a distance had a certain cost in points, anything that let the character fly had another cost etc. The source of these powers, the specifics, were immaterial. Of course, single instances of the power could be differentiated by limitations: if your death ray comes from a weapon, maybe it has batteries that can run out, if it is a gift from the Gods, perhaps not. This approach, if at times counterintuitive, has in fact the greatest expressive power (most of what you find in any kind of fiction can be replicated decently in HERO) and maximal consistency (one unified system). The appeal of this approach is such that one of the most acclaimed system of the late 90s, Tri-Stat, basically cloned it. Even GURPS came back to take inspiration from its older brother when in the 4th edition catalogue it included GURPS Powers: basically, a HERO-style toolkit adjoined to the old GURPS. Again, Fate and Savage Worlds were not entirely immune from this influence, I think. But none comes close to the elegance of the original model.
Funnily, the little I know about the actual game mechanics of HERO (the combat system, action resolution etc.) leaves me sort of cold. I find the combat system at the same time abstract and slow, two properties which one does not expect to go together. The emphasis on non-fatal (‘stun’) damage, which I guess originates from the superhero settings, is perplexing. But it might be me: I have read tons of Marvel and DC comics as a teen, but I have never really been into the notion of superhero RPGs. Also, from what I have seen, HERO rulebooks read much less leisurely than GURPS books (at least, less than good old 3e).
So, shall I buy the books? Would I play the game? I am not sure. I am wary of the mammoth-like Revised 5th edition, and of the 6th edition (two fat volumes that make GURPS books look like Penguin paperbacks in comparison). Not to mention the fact that the first volume of the 6th edition seems to be out of print, and is currently being sold at crazy prices, and when I say “crazy” I am not thinking “much beloved D&D classics”, I am thinking “well cut blue diamonds”. So if I managed to find a decent copy of the 2002 book, slimmer and cheaper, I might add it to my reference library and give it a serious try.