Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game 3rd Edition

Review: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game 3rd Edition 
by Greg Gorden, Sam Lewis & Brian Reid, Ray Winniger with Thomas Cook, Bryan Nystul and other contributors.
Mayfair Games Inc.
Rating: ★★★★

This is an ancient game.   Published back in 1993, this game might seem strange to the new generation of gamers out there who are much more used to rules-lite games, but trust me when I say few games can approach the super hero genre and scale well enough to represent young human characters like Robin as well as godlike personalities such as Morpheus, the King of Dreams himself.  This game succeeds in that.  And that is saying a lot.  It doesn't mirror things in a realistic level.  Rather it captures how it feels in comic books and that is one of the best places where the game shines.

Once again, note the date of publication.  This is an out-of-print book which I personally wish more people can get a chance to play.  The game system was kept alive by the Blood of Heroes RPG, but given it no longer uses the popular heroes of the DC Universe, your fun mileage may vary.

The MEGS System
The game uses the MEGS system, which means Mayfair Exponential Game System.  The system has all measurements in a logarithmic scale, to allow them to be easily scaled up and down to represent threats and complications as appropriate in a scene.  The unit of measure for the scale is called APs ("Attribute Points") with each unit on the scale representing roughly double the previous unit.    So if a hero, for example has Strength at 8APs, someone with 9APs was roughly twice as strong as the first hero.    For a better written write up on how this system works across measurements of weight, speed, and distance, check out this wikipedia page.

But basically, thanks to this scale, having a group of players who are using characters based on the Teen Titans, for example, can be sent to challenge someone with a power level equal to Superman, and still be played with out the system falling apart.

Characters have nine main Attributes (three for Physical, three for Mental and the last three for Social/Spiritual stats), with these divided into three specific columns.   The first column represents the Acting/Opposing values (for example, Dexterity for Physical actions) while the second column represents the Effect values (such as Will for Mental Actions) and the last column represents the Resistance value (such as Spirit for Social/magical actions).  When a character tries to do anything, they usually cross-reference the Acting value against the Opposing value of the other character to get the target number for a two ten-sided dice roll.  The sum of the dice are compared to the target number (there's a chart to make it easier, but there's actually a way to mentally do it with just math) to see if you succeeded.  And for every three above the target number, you earn what are called Column Shifts, which can modify the success.   If you succeed, you then compare the Effect value to the Resistance value on the second chart and see the amount of RAPs you score.  Column shifts adjust these as appropriate, and the final value of RAPs earned are then applied to the appropriate Resistance value as damage.  Once that value is reduced to zero (because, yes, the game has three "damage tracks" to consider as you can be defeated physically, mentally, or social/spiritually), you are in danger of falling unconscious.

With this universal approach to the system, it can become very quick to grasp once you get past the initial hurdle of understanding it.  

It can sometimes boil down to Hero Points
To represent moments of great luck, heroic focus and the like, we have Hero Points.  Heroes earn Hero Points for doing heroic acts and for fulfilling subplots.  These points can then later be spent to increase the character's overall stats, or be used up during a game session to boost one's rolls.  (You are allowed to boost any four of the values for one round, but only up to double the rating.)  This allows those moments when Bat-man uses his Martial Arts to misdirect Solomon Grundy's punch, for example, or for Robin to use his gymnastics skill well-enough to dodge the super speed-empowered blows of an enemy speedster.

Genre Switches
Given the black and whiteness ideally explored in comics (although the game system does provide options for more grayer games), heroes are expected to never engage in Killing combat.  All attacks and strikes are assumed to be intended to just knock an opponent out, save for certain key attack types (such as edged attacks) and the player MUST declare they are engaging in Killing Combat to kill a foe.  Heroes who engage in Killing Combat automatically lose ALL Hero Points as punishment, which acts as a nice reminder of the cost of being a hero.  But again, the game does have small rule adjustments for those who want to run something less like Silver Age superheroism and something more like the Mature Reader lines that feature more violent anti-heroes who do embrace killing as a necessity.

We Got LOTS of Powers 
The main book offers a LOT of powers to choose from, and these can be modified with the Bonuses and Limitations system to further tailor the powers.  For example, a typical power is an Energy Blast, which can represent everything from a blast of force from one's hands to an explosion of energy from one's mouth, etc.  But if you wanted to represent something like Darkseid's Omega Beams, which act like heat-seeking eye blasts, you can purchase your Energy Blast power with the appropriate Bonuses to do so.  These overall make the power more expensive to buy, but nicely allow for such variety and personalization.

Skills do still exist
And yes, they have APs ratings too.  Some Skills act to enhance one's natural talents, so their ratings are added to one's APs where appropriate.  While others replace them to represent the Skill allowing you to go beyond your usual limitations.  Batman, for example, might have only the appropriate endurance of a healthy man, but thanks to his Martial Arts training that is many magnitudes higher than his actual Body rating, can use it to replace his Body rating when he takes a hit.  

As do Advantanges and Drawbacks
The game takes these things into account, so being Famous or having a Secret Identity can help or hinder you when appropriate.  Rather than be a stickler for keeping track of "power points" or "ammunition" for example, characters with powers that supposedly have limited stores of energy (like say Green Lantern) might have a Disadvantage to represent this, which kicks in when the player happens to roll very badly.  The same is used to represent certain Weaknesses (such as Superman's vulnerability to Magic and Kryptonite).

Subplots are present
Players are encouraged to come up with subplots for their characters to explore (for example, Batman might have a subplot regarding his need to find time to visit his parents' grave) and these many be stories that last only for one game session.    In many ways, this can be used as a way for the player to say, "I want to explore this facet of my character's concept too."

Wealth, Gadgetry, and Magic
The game system also has interesting systems for Wealth, Gadgetry and Magic and these three are still tackled using the MEGS approach (so a character with Wealth at 4 is twice as rich as the guy with Wealth at 3) and nicely integrate these with Skills and Advantages whenever appropriate.

Hero Points are also spent for Gadgetry and Magic since these two, given the system's approach, mechanically allow you to "create new powers" for your character.  Batman's gadgets, for example are mechanical representations of existing powers (Bat Call: Animal Control power, Rebreather: Sealed Systems power, etc)  Magical spells also act in the same way.  So to balance it out, the need to spend Hero Points is part of the equation.

But this game is OLD, will finding books be a problemIt might.  While I can mention many legal and illegal ways that exist as options, I will state that the fan-love for the system is so strong that one can still find many online resources that you can use to enhance your games.

Writeups.org is filled with TONS of character write-ups and these are not limited to just comic characters.  Wanted to run a game based on H.R. Giger's Xenomorph Aliens and pit them against the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  This site has their stats.  I am serious.  This is a fantastic resource that is sure to keep your gaming life using the MEGS alive and well.

An online free character builder exists too, to help you handle what may seem like frightening math at first for character creation.  The game system gives a Factor Cost Rank for everything on the character sheet, so you  can compute on how many points it will take to increase certain powers compared to others.   After all, the power to run very fast (Running) should not cost the same as the power of Super Speed.

All in all, even for a very old system, I feel this still captures a lot of what I felt made comics magical: the freedom to embrace challenges and tackle opponents far greater than yourself, and the capacity to go all-out and try to save the world.  

Rating Breakdown:Concept: While newer comic-based systems do exist, such as Margaret Weis' recently ended Marvel Heroic RPG line, I always enjoyed how the MEGS system of this game has been very versatile and easy to grasp.  It, for me, captures the joys of a comic book world and encourages players to be the hero.
Crunch: The math might frighten some players, or the charts might turn some people off.  But trust me, they become very easily to embrace once you're used to it.    In my games, I even tell the players to focus on their sheets and leave me to handle all table work.  (I'm not good with math, but I love it!)
Layout: The book is nicely laid out, and I love the shoulder charts which give you a glimpse of the various heroes and villains and where they'd stand on the chart.
My favorite part: The AP system.  It is a real ingenious way to represent the huge scale of comic book action without making things unwieldy.  I know some will hate how it abstracts things, but I prefer my comics to be dramatic than real.
What I wish was better: I guess I would have loved to see this system find a way to tighten up somehow.  I don't know if its possible though, but given the power lists, each character sheet literally needs to be referenced to various pages for every Advantage, Power, Skill and the like.  
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