Friday, November 16, 2018

Heroes Unlimited - Reaction

I'm not going to lie. This was a tough one for me. It was 350 pages, all very dense, and all written in a . . . difficult style. Half technical and half stream of consciousness. Dry, but not systematic. And it did the one thing that above all else marks rpg writing as amateurish - it told me what the game was not.

There's a whole section, about so-called "Mega-Heroes," where the author seemed to resent having to write it.  Once again, the quote says it better than I ever could:

"Personally, I feel this type of "Mega-Hero" can get awfully stale very quickly and tends to submerge roleplaying. A pitfall I had hoped to avoid."
 Dude.  It's your book. You can do whatever you want with it. In fact, as near as I can tell, you coined the term "Mega-Hero." If you don't want to include them, you don't have to. But if you do decide to include them, for fuck's sake, have fun with the idea. I mean, they're called mega-heroes. Like, they're beyond even superheroes. So far beyond, that the word "super" doesn't suffice to describe them. They're mega.

If you're not going to use that as an excuse to indulge in an orgy of excess, then what's the point?

Then again, Heroes Unlimited did seem to make the same mistake a lot of older rpgs do in confusing balance with scale. With mega-heroes, specifically, the complaint seems to be that the only way to make them challenging is to put them up against similarly powerful mega-villains, and to that my answer is "yes, of course, what's the problem?"

For example, if you had a game about mice, ordinary mice, not super-powered or magical or technologically enhanced, just regular mice, then within that scale a cat would seem ludicrously overpowered. "What, you want to play a character who can kill any mouse in a single blow, who is nearly invulnerable to all mouse attacks, and whose stealth and sensory abilities practically guarantee them victory under almost any circumstances?"

And yet, if you wanted to roll up an ordinary housecat as your D&D character, people would think you were messing around. Because something that is too powerful on one scale, becomes too weak on another. So terms like "power-gaming" and "hack and slash" (both used in the Mega-Heroes section) only make sense relatively. And to take that asymmetry for granted in the text itself, the very thing responsible for establishing the scale of the game and the context in which things can be balanced or unbalanced, is sloppy. At best. At worst it's absurd.

Here, it's kind of absurd. Mainly because so much of the rest of the game is carelessly balanced. For example, a level 7 magic spell will allow you to transform yourself into any animal for 20 minutes per experience level. A level 8 magic spell will, for 8 minutes per experience level, give you 20/20 black and white vision, 100 feet darkvision, and a host of other minor sensory abilities, the most impressive of which is a 75% chance to see the invisible, the least of which is a 70% chance to identify plants and fruits.

This is exacerbated by the truly baffling number of things this game leaves to chance. For all of the mega-heroes section's griping at overpowered characters, it's perfectly possible for a mega-hero to roll 4 minor super powers (say, enhanced sense of taste, adhesion, extraordinary physical beauty, and clock manipulation . . . which is exactly what it sounds like) and a regular old non-mega-hero to get two major powers, like say immortality and the ability to transform oneself into a living ball of plasma, impervious to most forms of matter and energy and capable of melting your way through solid steel.

For all my complaints, though, my impressions of Heroes Unlimited were not entirely negative. I liked the way it provided character creation rules for nearly every type of comic book superhero imaginable, from aliens to mech-suit pilots to genetic mutants to well-trained superspies to stage magicians-cum-vigilanties (yes, that got a sub-heading all to itself). And despite the near-guaranteed absurdity of the results, there is something thrilling about random generation. I imagine it's a lot of fun when the dice hit the table and you frantically consult the appropriate tables to see what fate has in store for you.

Overall, I'd say Heroes Unlimited is, by the book, so sloppy as to be unplayable, but that it has the elements necessary to make for a perfectly adequate super hero game, with a system that is simple enough to learn quickly, but which has so many arcane exceptions and corner-cases that you never quite lose the romance of discovery.

Call it backhanded praise, if you like, but 20 years ago I would have loved it.


PS - Okay, the Universal Kitchen Sink setting is definitely happening, but I'll probably need a couple of days to create the document.

The contribution from Heroes Unlimited could be nothing else but Clock Manipulation. When I first saw the name of the power, I laughed, because I thought it would be lame. Then I thought about it for 3 seconds and came to the conclusion that obviously it was not what I thought it was going to be, because who would include that. Clearly, the word "clock" here had to be some metonymy for time more generally. But then I actually read the power description and . . .

Nope. It was exactly what it sounded like. Control over clocks. Not entirely useless, granted, but still a pretty disappointing result if you rolled it up on the random table.

And yet, I kind of like it. Not as a superpower, obviously. Probably not even as a player-character option. Like, if one my PCs  asked for the ability to manipulate clocks, I probably wouldn't even charge them character points.

However, if we take it as a mystic practice. As the basis for an NPC religion. I think it has potential. Clocks are a very potent symbol, and even if manipulating them doesn't lead to a lot of useful adventurer-scale abilities, it might yield some fascinating meaning as a form of meditation.

So that's in, now. A cult which holds the secret of Clock Manipulation. They believe that their ability to influence terrestrial mechanical clocks offers insight into transcending the greatest clock of all - the celestial wheel of karma. As above so below!

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