Critiquing Hero

This is a blurb I wrote on the Monkey House Games forum after Hero Games ceased operation. Basically I started off by saying that I grew to despise the direction the company had taken, and when I was asked about that, I wrote this:

I think it really boils down to these points:

1) Too meta and too much math

I lost faith in the fundamental rules system. I think that they’re too meta, and character creation requires too much math. Four or five years ago, my gaming group wasn’t really able to create their own characters — it takes too long to learn the rules, and much of what makes that process interesting — the trade offs that players make to get a good concept — just doesn’t happen if one is not fluent with the rules system. Add to that the fact that every edition the character point totals just kept increasing, and players were expected to buy more and more abilities lead to a character building nightmare. If you’re hard-core and you love the system, that probably works for you. If you’re a more casual gamer (as my most recent gaming groups have been), then it’s just an overwhelming system.

If you’re at all familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types, one of the distinctions they draw is between ‘iNtuitive’ thinkers and ‘Sensing’ thinkers. The former tend to favour abstraction and high-level concepts. The latter tend to favour concreteness and learn by perusing details. I happen to be on iNtuitive side there, but I’ve seen too many gamers approach Hero with a blank look on their faces.

There are certain types of powers that are just too difficult to get right, and when you get to areas like Vehicles or Bases, the rules just don’t seem to fit.

In my opinion, the game needed streamlining and simplification. Core Hero fans resisted this at every turn.

Now, I think that simplification was entirely possible: I think that Mutants and Masterminds is a much simplified version of Hero. M&M kept the best parts of Hero and threw out the worst of the complexity. Some people still think it’s too complicated, but whatever. And a lot of people hate the M&M damage system. I get that, too. But I think Hero needed to start moving in that direction, and I saw no evidence that it wanted to. I hoped that their light rules would have provided a path to a simpler core, but I don’t think they were willing to really simplify. Because I don’t think that anyone at the company really believes that the system needs improvement.

2) Too generic

Generic seems to be in the DNA at Hero. I get inspired by interesting campaign settings. The modern-day superhero Champions Universe is actually pretty well-done, with a rich campaign background, filled with legacy heroes, vaguely familiar big cross-over events, and a gaggle of recognizable Heroes and Villains. But beyond that, I hated most of their other settings.

I was pretty interesting in the Star Hero books (which apparently did not sell well). But I hated hated hated their Star Hero campaign settings. They were bland, and uninteresting. Speaking for myself, I found the absence of clear visuals really killed the settings for me. I could never tell what any of their settings looked like. Were we in the realm of shiny Enterprise-esque technology, or dirty, lived-in space barges like you’d see in the Alien films? What did the laser guns look like? What about cities on other planets?

Hero isn’t the only game I’ve had this problem with. I found it hard to get into Traveller in the early 80s because of its limited art (and what art existed tended to present a picture of an sf universe that looked very dated to me). By the late 80s, the Imperium setting for Traveller was very distinctive.

When I look at settings that have really inspired me in the past, I look at settings like these: Fading Suns (very powerful aesthetic feel), Shadowrun (again, strong setting flavour), and Castle Falkenstein (wow). Hero Games seemed to favour endless discussion about all the things you could do with its rules mechanics, and every time it ventured into genre or campaign territory, it got extremely bland. They had three different bland Star Hero campaign settings, three different bland Fantasy settings, and so forth. I wanted RPG products that inspired me and encouraged me to try to wrangle a group together to play in that campaign world. They wanted to lovingly explore all the options of their rules system. That didn’t inspire me. They even seemed to make a point of wanting to describe as many options as possible: Fantasy Hero, for example, goes out of its way to be agnostic about how to handle spell casting. They describe several different rules that GMs can choose to run with. I think an RPG is interesting when it makes choices. That just doesn’t seem to be the Hero Games way.

3) Poor quality products

The quality of their books started as merely average, and degraded from there. They seemed to be of the opinion that the value that their books offered was measured in how many blocks of text they make available. Thus, the attention they paid to things like presentation and layout was purely utilitarian. And over time, even their art suffered (hugely). Now, I think Steve is a fairly fluid writer, and since he wrote so many of the books, that’s not a bad thing. But as a line developer, he didn’t seem to care too much about presentation. I like to buy products that look more interesting than math textbooks.

In conversations on the Hero boards, I learned that a lot of the hard-core Hero fans believed that art was merely a nice-to-have quality in an RPG book — they wanted their blocks of text, and nothing else really mattered. I felt differently.

Now, I say that knowing full well that the V&V books have fairly basic layout. A key difference, in my mind, is price point. Hero products were priced comparable to, say, Mutants and Masterminds books. M&M makes beautiful products. Nice layout, great art, and colour! I’ll pay extra for that! V&V is both a little bit retro and cheap! Hero wanted M&M prices for a poorer quality product, in my opinion.

There was a PDF product I bought and thought: “holy crap! This is great!” It had a bit of a design sensibility; an interesting page layout. I was stunned. But then I noticed that it wasn’t a Hero Games product — it had licensed the Hero rules, and was published by an indie group. Perhaps if Hero had a more open license, we’d see more indie products that would have appealed to me and kept me interested in the original system. But for whatever reason, there were very few licensees.

I will give Hero a few points for some fairly consistent elements: they always did a good job on the table of contents and the index. But at the prices they wanted, I wanted a better-looking product.

4) Lack of consideration for diversity

This ended up being a big issue for me, although I’m very clear that the most vocal core Hero fans disagree with me on this. I believe, fundamentally, that the RPG industry needs to appeal to a larger audience than it traditionally has. And I think that, in order to do so, the industry really needs to sit down and take a hard look at the way it handles diversity. Hero Games, in my opinion, didn’t want to even think about that. To use a simple example, I disliked the editorial policy of using ‘he’ as the generic third-person pronoun. To me, this reads like going back in time two decades. Most publishers, these days, recognize the value of gender-neutral language. Steve Long includes a blurb in every book asserting that ‘he’ is gender neutral so that’s what he’s going to use.

That, by itself, would be ignorable, even though I think he’s living in the 60s. But I got tired of the increasing use of cheesecake artwork, and the number of times fantasy settings used the trope of “women-as-property” and crap like that. I additionally wanted better treatment of racial diversity (did all three of their Fantasy Hero settings have to fundamentally be “Fantasy Europe” settings?) and/or queer representation. Again, I think that M&M does a far superior job in this space. I think that V&V could do a better job in this area, but MHG has put out far fewer books to judge this by.

Now, I’ve had any number of Hero fans tell me that to even care about such things is to be far too serious about what is essentially entertainment. *shrug* I feel differently. I choose to spend my money on businesses who care about these issues and I saw many, many clues that Hero did not care about these issues. So, y’know: vote with my dollars.