If you don’t know me, or don’t listen to my podcast – or do, but don’t know anything about Hero System – this probably doesn’t seem like a particularly remarkable revelation. Well, allow me to elucidate. The entire gimmick of Metagamers Anonymous is a focus on immersive play in tabletop RPGs: strong characterization, powerful story development, immersive game worlds, and a play experience that permits participants to fully engage with these elements. Rules play a very important role in this process; they must be complex enough to allow potent customization and individualization of characters and provide a strong sense of simulationism, but intuitive or streamlined enough to minimize distractions during the actual play experience.
Hero System is not these things.
So why did I do it? Simple. It has the potential to be a lot of fun. Characterization and depth is, after all, largely in my hands as a participant in the game scenario, and although the rules of the Champions game system are not simple or streamlined and generally focus on simulating a pulpy, comic book style of reality, they are certainly crunchy enough to allow mind-blowing customization opportunities. And besides… one of my regular players really wanted to try his hand at running it. So I said sure… but only for a few sessions.
One basic assumption of the Champions framework, unsurprisingly, is that you are already a hero. Unlike D&D and similar gradual build systems, you aren’t assumed to be a noob with a few lingering questions which end of the sword goes into the other guy.* The power level established at the beginning of the campaign is essentially similar to the power level you can expect to retain throughout play. Advancement is very gradual, because it kind of isn’t the point. Hero System games aren’t particularly unique in this approach; a lot of very pulpy games have similarly glacial advancement concepts built into the core mechanics. That isn’t to say that you can’t run them however you want… just that the most obvious approach is thus constructed.
But sometimes you want to play the guy who aspires to be a hero and hasn’t figured it out yet… and that’s what I did. My PC is a university professor with a tragic past who would like to put a serious damper on the local crime rate, but he doesn’t exactly consider himself superhero potential. He’s got some interesting abilities – which aren’t precisely geared toward stomping out evil wherever it may be found – but it has yet to occur to him to apply them to this goal. Instead, he studies supers… trying to figure out how he can help them do what they do. He’s really kind of a fun character, though not particularly useful in a fight… which, by the way, can take hours in a Champions game.
System aside, this started me thinking about a fundamental archetype that’s rife with possibilities: the hero in the making. This is the guy who doesn’t think of himself as a hero, or even a potential hero, but longs to somehow do what heroes do. Maybe he has a tragic past, or maybe he’d like to atone for something… maybe he’s just anxious to do something cool or important with his life. He could be a hero-worshipper, or he could be someone who looks at heroes as dangerous and unpredictable elements of society. In a fantasy world, maybe he’s the simple moisture farmer… er, stable boy… who dreams of greatness or is forced to flee when his family is killed by stormtroo- uhh… death-eaters. Or Nazis! Everyone hates Nazis, right? Not very fantasy, I suppose… But I digress.
The point is… This concept is certainly not limited to a superhero game. Consider playing the girl who just wants to get that big story for her pending deadline, or that dealer in space salvage who just tries to stay a step ahead of the galactic police. Or the kid found that dusty old book in his uncle’s attic, nestled between the Egyptian deathmask and that statue of a tentacled monstrosity. Be the guy who doesn’t realize his own potential, even when surrounded by heroes.
You’ve probably heard of the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s classic extrapolation of the iconic tale we see in Star Wars or The Hobbit, where a simple, regular guy goes on to greatness. This is, of course, a classic theme in fantasy RPGs. And for a good reason; it speaks to us as regular Joes, dreaming of the possibilities of a more exciting life. Sure… sometimes it’s fun to be Batman or Indiana Jones, a fearsome pirate or a mighty samurai, a seasoned character who can kick some serious ass. But it can also be fun to be the dude from Kick-Ass, whose damn near the plucky comic sidekick in his own story. Or the kid in Constantine who just wants to learn how to be… well… Constantine. (Poor kid.) Try it.
He may not know it, but my guy’s destined to be a superhero. Or get splattered hanging out too close to the action. Either way, it oughtta be a blast!
*Obviously I’m not talking about 4th Edition, here, wherein your average 1st-level PC not only knows which end of the sword to use, but can generally stomp a neat hole into anyone who expects otherwise.
Orryn Emrys, the Prismatic Dragon, is the director of the Prismatic Tsunami web community and the host of the popular Metagamers Anonymous RPG podcast. Learn more at http://www.prismatictsunami.com.