I don't often plug the Bundle of Holding in this column, but I think that today's release of two bundles of Champions/Hero System 4E material deserves a mention. As someone who is a big fan of comic books (moreso than I am a gamer, which is really saying something), super-hero role-playing games have always drawn my attention. I had played earlier editions of Champions, but they never really grabbed my attention. I think that it was because of the cover art by comics artist George Perez (a man who has drawn just about every major character from both DC Comics and Marvel Comics at some point) across the Hero System 4E line that drew my attention back to the game.
Part of the reason that these bundles are a big deal is that this marks the first time that any of these books have been released in a legal PDF form. For Champions fans faced with aging books that they cannot replace as new any longer, this is a big deal. From the view point of someone who likes to look at, study and comment upon gaming systems (such as myself) these bundles are a treasure trove of materials to show the development of the Hero System rules and the Champions setting. The setting books impacted the Champions Online MMO, as well as the development of the setting throughout the fifth and sixth edition books.
Hero Games has always had a rocky financial history, and at this point in its history Champions was being published by Iron Crown Enterprises. In fact, part of the reason why the Champions/Hero System 4E books were published was so that there would be an ICE branded version of the game. Line developer Rob Bell would bring together material from a variety of the earlier Champions books to create the first generic version of the game. The idea was also to consolidate the rules into one location, and with one interpretation. Champions powers were similar to, but different from, the spells of Fantasy Hero in ways that were just subtle enough to trip up GMs and players wanting to move from one Hero System variant to another. The idea with the fourth edition being that there would be one standardized set of rules implementations that could be used for all genres of play.
There are a couple of lines of books by third party publishers as well, including San Angelo: City Of Heroes. While I am a bit confused as to why books that had previously been available from publisher Gold Rush Games as original electronic format file are being offered as scanned image files, it is still good to see them. San Angelo is one of the high points of setting design for tabletop RPGs, and even people who are not fans of the Hero System rules should check out this line of books. One of my favorite things about San Angelo has always been that they designed the setting with the idea that player characters in individual groups should have an impact upon the setting. There are purposefully done "gaps" in the setting that are intended to be filled by the player characters. Rather than the best scientist in San Angelo (the city) being an NPC defined in the book, the idea was that if your play group had a scientist character in it, it should be one of the foremost scientists (if not the foremost) in the city.
This was a surprisingly revolutionary idea at the time, and one that you still don't see repeated much in settings for games. When I first picked up the book I was shocked to see this, but then I settled into the idea quickly. It made things so much easier for me as a game master. If your play group didn't have a character who could be a scientist, or engineer or whatever sometimes necessary specially trained individual, you could plug in someone from the setting, but it was nice to not have to push NPCs out of the setting in order to make room for player characters. One of the things that I liked about the setting itself was that it took a semi-realistic, less four color approach to things. In fact, comic writer Kurt Busiek said on the book's back cover that San Angelo was the closest that there would ever be to an Astro City role-playing game. That was pretty high praise for San Angelo.
A little known fact is that the Freedom City setting designed by Steve Kenson, and published by Green Ronin Publishing for their Mutants & Masterminds game, was originally intended to be a companion setting to San Angelo. This version of Freedom City never made it past the pitch stage, so the only version designed was the Mutants & Masterminds version now available.
While the Hero System rules have an emphasis on "heroic" or higher powered characters, the system works well as a generic system. Most role-playing campaign characters tend to be higher on the power spectrum anyway, which makes these rules a good fit for many campaigns. Like a lot of games of this era of game design, the Hero System front loads a lot of the game's complexity onto the shoulders of the players during character creation. There are a lot of options for character: attributes, skills, talents…and that is before even getting to the power creation rules.
Once play started however, the rules simplified dramatically. Things would be resolved by rolling under predetermined target numbers with a roll of 3d6. Everything that you went through creating for your character during character creation would be recorded on the character sheet, meaning that you didn't have to look things up during play. While for some, this front loaded complexity was a lot of work, but the ease of play on the back end smoothed out that complexity for some.
While I personally would never accuse any incarnation of the Hero System of being simple, the fourth edition rules were a vast improvement over the earlier Champions books, and other Hero Games RPGs like Justice Incorporated. Whether you call the Hero System rules simple or complicated just depends on how you feel about math and crunch in a role-playing game.
At one point, the Hero System 4E book vied with the GURPS rules by Steve Jackson Games for the "title" of the top generic system in tabletop role-playing games. While the groups that I gamed with at the time would play the Hero System from time to time, GURPS won out at our tables. Honestly, it probably could have gone either way for us, but the caliber and selection of setting books, and rules expansions, pushed GURPS over the top for us.
These new PDFs are all scanned images, of varying quality. The books published by Iron Crown Enterprises/Hero Games were black and white text with line art, which made the scanning easier. The Gold Rush Games and R. Talsorian Games published books feature more grayscale art, and the scans of them aren't as high quality, but they are still solid scans of the books.
Speaking of R. Talsorian Games as a publisher of Champions material, this bundle does include what I usually refer to as the 4.5 version of the Hero System, which would be the Fuzion-based Champions: The New Millennium game. While this is a controversial opinion, I have long been a fan of the Fuzion rules. I like how they combined the options and variety of the Hero System with the simpler approach of R. Talsorian Games' Interlock rules from games like Cyberpunk 2020 and Mekton. I ran more than a few super-hero games using the Fuzion rules, and I would do so even now. I think that a lot of the problems that came from the Fuzion rules were perception ones. Long time fans of Champions thought that Champions: The New Millennium would use the rules that they were already used to. I think that it is a fair criticism of the game to say that you don't like how the rules worked. Like the Hero System rules itself, the Fuzion rules aren't for everyone. Regardless, I am glad to see that they will find a new life in PDF form. Maybe the game will even get some respect from fans who can look at it with new eyes.
Regardless, it is good to see that these rules and supplements are getting at chance at new life. It means that players who might not have had the chance to play Hero System 4E before it went out of print, or those gamers who have only been around to experience the fifth and sixth edition of the game, can have a chance to experience this version of the rules, and also experience the richness of the setting, and look at how the Champions Universe developed through play and the publication of new supplements. For critics and reviewers, it is a chance to be able to also experience these games themselves, and be able to credibly and intelligently talk about them through direct experience and interaction with the rules. Either way it is a win/win situation.
As I usually say when I talk about older games, it is always good to see a part of the history of role-playing games become available again. The fact that these games can find new life through play, and help to contribute to an overview of the how games have developed over time in our hobby/industry are both good things.
If you end up missing out on the bundle at the Bundle of Holding site, the 4th edition PDFs are available at RPGNow as well.