90s (H)ero (guest post)
Posted by Ron Edwards
An invited guest post by Steven S. Long! Ron asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking the baton and continuing the journey forward to look at how Champions/the HERO System developed in the Nineties, and I said I’d be glad to give it a shot. But before I do, allow me to issue a few caveats, just so the commenters have something to ignore. 😉
- This is entirely a personal recollection. I’m speaking only for myself personally — not for Ron, not from my current position as part owner of the HERO System, nothing like that. It’s just me talkin’ about “how things was way back when.”
- It’s been twenty-plus years since a lot of this stuff happened, and it’s not like I took detailed notes along the way during what were often some complex goings-on. So please forgive me if I get a date wrong or don’t arrange events in the precisely correct sequence. And as always, if you have knowledge of what I’m talking about, feel free to chime in with a comment.
- I’m writing entirely from my own perspective. This isn’t an attempt to write an objective history of Hero Games/the HERO System in the 1990s. All I’m doing is offering my own opinions, as someone who was involved (directly or indirectly), about what was going on and how the game developed. Reasonable minds may differ, as Internet folk are fond of saying.
So then, on to the meat of the thing. The 1989 release of the 4th Edition of Champions, both as Champions itself (the “Big Blue Book,” or BBB as fans often called it) and as a stand-alone HERO System Rulebook, combined with the resources Iron Crown Enterprises could muster, really invigorated the game, and an ambitious publishing schedule followed. The latter half of 1989 saw the issuance of such supplements as Scott Bennie’s Classic Enemies, Scott Heine’s Mind Games, and Allen Varney’s Mystic Masters. The latter, as an exploration of a specific “sub-genre” of Superhero stories/gaming, was particularly influential on me (and the cool Bill Willingham cover didn’t hurt).
But it was 1990 where I think things took off in a serious way for the HERO System, not because of Champions supplements (though plenty of those appeared) but because of the arrival of two highly-regarded, and for me influential, sourcebooks: Aaron Allston’s superb Ninja Hero and the 4th Edition version of Fantasy Hero, compiled by ace Line Developer Rob Bell. These were both what I as Line Developer ten years later would call a “genre book” — an RPG supplement that examines a specific genre (or sub-genre) for gaming and shows how to implement its common character types, tropes, and abilities using the HERO System rules.
Ninja Hero And Its Influence. It would be difficult for me to over-emphasize the importance that Ninja Hero had on the development of the HERO System going forward. When HERO gamers talk nostalgically about Aaron Allston’s work, they’re more likely to refer to Strike Force or other great supplements he did than “NH.” But the truth is that while Aaron’s Champions supplements were tons of fun, it’s Ninja Hero that truly left his mark upon the rules and affected how they’d develop for the next twenty years.
Ninja Hero was a “genre book” devoted to Martial Arts adventure, and Aaron’s love of kung fu movies comes through on every page. It had some significant rules material (primarily rules for creating new Martial Maneuvers, and additional explanations for some combat rules), but that’s not what makes it so important. Its influence lies in the fact that it was the first book to really show how to take the elements of the HERO System — the Skills, Powers, Advantages, and so forth — and use them to simulate various abilities and aspects of the genre. These included things like crafting a Limited form of Gliding to represent walking across the ground without leaving tracks, an elaborate construct using Drain to build the infamous dim mak “death touch,” and buying Damage Resistance to create the “iron skin” ability to withstand weapon attacks.
All of this hit me like a bolt out of the blue. When I first started playing Champions back in 1982 or so, it had immediately appealed to me because of the creative freedom and versatility it offered. No longer did I have to use whatever powers or spells the D&D books, the Traveler books, or the rulebooks for any other RPG I was trying back then told me I had to use. I could create powers and abilities that worked the way I wanted them to. I wasn’t restricted any longer. It was like being let out of a cage.
Ninja Hero was the first HERO System book to really grasp what that freedom meant and show gamers how to employ it to emulate — or simulate, if you prefer 🙂 — a genre and its elements. This was like taking my existing love of and fascination with HERO’s potential and turning the dial up to 13. I’d already been let out of the cage; now Aaron had thrown open the door to the prison and shown me the wide world beyond, full of infinite possibilities.
Ninja Hero had one other thing that really resonated with me: a wealth of real world information translated into HERO System terms. Plenty of books had done this with guns, vehicles, and the like, but NH did it with martial arts styles and other such things. Like most great RPG supplements, it taught me something I didn’t know while providing me with endless hours of fun.
Why is all of this so important? Because, at the risk of sounding like an immodest jackass,* I soon became the most productive freelancer working for Hero Games. That influence became even more central when I ponied up most of my life savings and, with my business partners, bought the Hero Games assets in 2001. Anything that had a strong influence over my views of how to use and develop the HERO System rules thus had strong influence over how the game evolved.
(Lest you think I’m exaggerating or puffing myself up, from 1993-2013 Hero Games published about 145 Champions/HERO System books, including the 5th and 6th editions of the rules. By my rough estimate I’d say that I personally wrote about 70% of those books, and pretty much 100% of the books that significantly developed or contributed to the HERO System rules set. From 2002-2012 I also edited — which often meant significantly rewriting or reworking — any Hero Games book I didn’t write, and as HERO System Line Developer my philosophy about the rules and how to present them held absolute sway. So based on numbers alone, I think I’ve had a bit of an effect on things. 😉 )
I began writing for Hero Games about a year after NH appeared, when they put out a call for martial arts articles for the latest issue of Adventurer’s Club, the company magazine. That led to more articles and a bit of work on one supplement. Based on that, I said, “Hey, I could write a whole book!” And I did.
That book, released in early 1993, was Dark Champions: Heroes Of Vengeance. I’d originally pitched it as a genre book like Ninja Hero, using the subtitle as the title. But the company, knowing how its bread was buttered and what most appealed to its fans, had me rework it as more of a Champions supplement.
If memory serves, I was told to look at Allen Varney’s superb Mystic Masters, a Champions sub-genre book published in 1989, for inspiration and guidance. As much as I love Mystic Masters, I largely ignored that advice and looked to Ninja Hero for what I wanted to do. And that dictated the end result: long descriptions of how to emulate action-adventure genre conventions and abilties using the HERO System rules; lots of information about real-world subjects like organized crime and guns. In the years since I’ve been told by several people I admire that Dark Champions affected them much the same way Ninja Hero affected me, and it’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten about my writing.
(To give Mystic Masters its due, I do remember it introducing me to a HERO System concept that had never occurred to me before: using a Multipower to represent one power a character could employ in multiple ways. Prior to that I’d just used Multipowers for collections of powers, usually attacks, of different types. MM represented many of its Doctor Strange-like spells, such as the Lights of Luathon, with Multipowers to reflect the many ways a mystic could cast them. In time I adapted that methodology to guns and other abilities, but MM’s what gave me that idea.)
(Department of Irony Department: my inspiration for writing Dark Champions was that I was currently playing a gun-toting vigilante character in the local ongoing Champions campaign, and I was frustrated by the fact that (a) there was basically no material in print regarding those sorts of characters and style of play, and (b) that my knowledge of crime, law, and related subjects kept tripping me up because the GM didn’t share it. I wrote Dark Champions in large part to get gamers to run more of the types of games I wanted to play in. But in the 22 years since then I’ve never gotten to play in a Dark Champions campaign. In fact it’s been far too long since I got to gun down any criminals, and the withdrawal symptoms are settin’ in….)
Dark Champions was an immediate success. It sold out its first print run and earned a second (unusual for RPG supplements, even back then). The company asked me if I had any more material for the genre (I did — two books’ worth, in fact), and began rebranding a lot of Champions supplements for Dark Champions. In some cases (as with Chris Avellone’s brilliant Underworld Enemies  or Ed Carmien’s excellent adventure Hudson City Blues ) this worked out well. But choppy editing quality and a lack of vision about what Dark Champions was resulted in a rather… uneven… product line.
(Gaming Industry Aside: by the time I started working on Dark Champions, Rob Bell had vacated the HERO System Line Developer seat to go to law school. So my editor was the new Line Developer, a fellow named Monte Cook whom some of you may have heard of. Years later, when I went to work for WotC and met him in person, I mentioned that he’d been my first editor in the RPG industry. He jokingly replied, “I’m sorry.”)
Fantasy Hero And “Genre Books”
Besides Ninja Hero, the other 4th Edition book that really exerted an influence over me was Fantasy Hero. A quantum leap of an improvement over the first Fantasy Hero (1985), which was a stand-alone game with its own tweaked version of the HERO System rules included, FH was the first genre book I really took notice of as such. (NH was a genre book, but since no one in my group had any interest in running Martial Arts games it became “a book of cool abilities to buy for my Champions characters”). The way it discussed the different types of Fantasy and how they’d function in gaming/HERO System terms affected not only my gaming writing, but the way I tend to analyze genre fiction. Its influence is more subtle, and less rules-oriented than NH’s, but still plays in to my view of “simulating” genre elements and real world information using the HERO System.
The Ultimate Line, And Beyond. Heading into the mid-Nineties, the main vehicle for general Champions/HERO System rules development was the “Ultimate” line of supplements. Around this time TSR began publishing a series of class-specific guides for D&D 2nd Edition — The Complete Fighter, The Complete Cleric, and so on. Aaron Allston wrote some of these, and he suggested to the Hero Games guys that they do something similar for superhero archetypes. The idea had appeal, and the company planned an ambitious product line. It assigned most of the titles to freelancers who (as far as I know) had never written any RPG books before but had good ideas on a given subject. In the end, though, during the Nineties the company only published three Ultimate books — The Ultimate Martial Artist (1994) and The Ultimate Mentalist (1995), both by me, and Dean Shomshak’s The Ultimate Super-Mage (1996; PDF only). Numerous problems (briefly discussed below) prevented the others from seeing the light of day. It wasn’t until I took over as HERO System Line Developer in the 2000s that they finally got published (though often in very different form than originally envisioned, and I never got around to one or two concepts, such as The Ultimate Gadgeteer, for various reasons not pertinent to this discussion).
Eventually — around 1996 or 1997, I think, I don’t recall for sure — the decision was made that enough material had been generated since 1989, and the owners wanted to make enough changes to the rules, that it was time for a new edition — the Fifth. Given the amount of writing I’d done for them over the past several years, especially on rules-related issues, I guess I was a natural choice for the task of writing the book, so they offered me the job, and I jumped at the chance. After a lengthy meeting or two with Steve Peterson to discuss the outline and various rules issues, I got to work and had a final manuscript ready a few months later.
But there was something else going on — something, I think, that ultimately not only failed, but contributed to Hero’s slide into a moribund state during the mid-late Nineties. That was the Fuzion system, the rules behind the “Champions: New Millennium” product line that attempted to reboot the entire Champions Universe to be more like the Image comics that were so popular at the time. Fuzion began as “Instant Hero,” an attempt to boil the HERO System down into a very short, simple rules set that gamers could use to introduce other players to HERO. (Somewhere along the way one of us who was involved in the initial reviewing of Instant Hero joked that the idea was “cheesy,” and as a result Instant Hero quickly earned the in-house nickname “Mozarella.”) In theory the idea wasn’t a bad one, but I thought it diverged from the core strength of the HERO System and wasn’t particularly in favor of it (though I certainly didn’t hate it; if nothing else it showed some interesting game design work).
Instant Hero by itself never saw publication because in 1996 Hero Games severed its publication/distribution arrangement with Iron Crown Enterprises and formed a similar deal with R. Talsorian Games. The Hero and RTal guys, who’d been good friends for a long time, noticed a lot of similarities between Instant Hero and RTal’s “Interlock” system and decided to merge them to form a distinct rules set — Fuzion. While Fuzion’s roots in the HERO System are obvious, it very much was not the HERO System. (Among other things, the Champions: The New Millennium rulebook included a simpler character creation system that offered little of the flexibility and freedom the HERO System did.) That, combined with the fans’ misperception that “this was the HERO System 5th Edition,” made it a no-go as far as most long-time Champions fans were concerned. Hero Games produced three or four Fuzion-based books before various factors precluded any further use of Fuzion for Champions.
Hero’s financial difficulties eventually resulted in the sale of the company to a company called Cybergames. Despite extensive plans, Cybergames never published anything, and in late 2001 my partners and I bought the Hero Games assets from it. The rest, as they say, is history. 😉
*: “At the risk??!? What do you think you’ve been doing for the past twenty years, Long?” — the entire Internet. 😉
Next: The book that wasn’t there