Hero Game’s Policy on publishing house rules is both enlightened and occasionally maddening. They have no problem with people posting their own characters, or discussing their rules, or publishing house rules – provided that you don’t quote directly from their rulebooks and your rules don’t exceed 5,000 words in length. You can’t publish variations on any officially published Hero Games characters, or anything that looks like it came from Hero Games. And you can’t charge money for anything. There are more restriction, and exceptions can be made with the permission of Hero Games, but that’s the nutshell.

On the face of it, that’s a very user-friendly policy, and I commend them for it. At the same time, the inability to reproduce ANY of the tables or official rules is really constraining, and less user-friendly than the OGL of D&D 3.x. This article is intended to comply with those restrictions. Most of this article will be discussion and commentary, any rules will be contained in a colored box, and the total length of rules will be less than 5K Words – and in an attempt to ensure compliance in that respect, the article itself has been split in two.

In part 1, as you may recall…

I looked at introducing a 3.x Initiative mechanic into the Hero System and ditching the character phasing in the hope and expectation that this would break open one of the major bottlenecks in the Combat Subsystem. It was also anticipated that there would be a whole raft of bonus add-on benefits, like a more even distribution of the spotlight across the different players.

Normally, when I make a change to the House Rules (and especially changes of this magnitude) they will be tested in my Warcry campaign. This is a spin-off from the original campaign and uses the same rules structure. But, in this case, I was so confident that the change would be beneficial that I decided to implement parts of it in the main campaign immediately, even though less of the mechanics had even been worked out than were presented in Part 1 of this two-article series – and absolutely nothing was in writing yet. And it wasn’t just any scenario either, but part 3 of the epic five-part grand conclusion to the last campaign, the part where twelve years of plot and subplot connected together into one massive chain of circumstances and one inevitable final confrontation with the PCs arch-enemy and sometime ally!

I wrote in the introduction to the previous article on the subject that changing one rule is like trying to eat just one potato chip, or take just one breath. It usually doesn’t work like that. A rules change is a stone dropped in a still pond, ripples spreading all over the place until the entire pond is covered. A rules change of this magnitude is a domino trick; it necessitates other changes, which in turn beget still more changes, until either the chain reaction peters out or explodes, enveloping the whole system.

Many of the domino-changes resulting from this particular rules change were created on the spot during that first live test – though admittedly, I already had ideas on how to handle them or I would never have tried a live introduction like that. Most worked perfectly, and the worst-realized required only a slight tweak. Part one of this two-parter dealt with the mechanics of introducing the Initiative system; this part will deal with some of the consequences and fall-out, and how some of the speed gained has been reinvested in improvements to other areas of the system.

Turns and phases

The biggest impact with the change stems from the fact that characters now act once per turn, not once per phase. This had all kinds of knock-on effects. Everything from Recoveries Power Activation to Movement to END Batteries to Transforms to the Berserk / Enraged disadvantage had to change. There were other changes, as well, but they were a consequence of other changes that had been made – like a sub-subsystem that gave some skills a modifier based on taking extra time to work on the problem and verify results.

Heck, we’re still finding the odd domino here and there. For example, aiming is now a much bigger deal than it was, and the size of the bonus on offer for doing so is no longer proportional to the cost – a full combat turn of aiming. There are multiple possible solutions to this problem, but none have been chosen (let alone written up as rules), as yet.

What’s that? Oh, the guy in the back wants to know what the possible solutions are that I am considering.

  1. A straight, fixed, increase in the benefit for aiming.
  2. An increase to the benefit of aiming that is derived from the character’s Speed, possibly capped.
  3. A slightly more complicated idea in which the aiming bonus stays the same but an additional bonus gets added only to offset various negative modifiers like range, relative motion of the target, velocity of the target, size of the target, etc.
  4. Or replacing the concept of aiming and then using a separate action to fire, with a single new tactical option called “aim and fire” which enables a limited tradeoff between the character’s OCV & DCV (the Hero-system equivalents of To-Hit and AC).

Of these, (1) has the benefit of simplicity; (2) has the virtue of being most in proportion to the increased cost of aiming; (3) always sounds good but has proven to have occasional game-balance glitches in the past; and (4) is the most complicated but the one I am currently leaning toward. For the time being, I’ve implemented solution (1) but don’t regard this as a settled issue.

Anyway, this example gives some indication of how fundamental a change the Initiative System really is – not directly (the direct effects were all dealt with in the first article), but through this more deep-seated and subtle knock-on effect.

Changes to Movement: Flight

By far the broadest changes have to take place in the movement system. Under the Hero system rules, a character with multiple actions can move, change his facing, then move again, while other characters get to react in something approaching a real-time system. It’s actually more akin to stop-motion animation. This is especially true for flight, which has a whole subsystem for dealing with character maneuverability – necessary because flight can involve some pretty high velocities, in terms of game scale [About 2000" per turn is equal to Mach One (an inch being the game scale of 2m) per phase.]

Actually, I had never liked the original way of defining Flight as inches per phase. It played hob with the consistency of the cost-effectiveness of powers when a character with SPD 2 could spend 10 points on SPD and get a 50% boost in their flight capabilities. The more Flight the character had bought, the bigger the free kick. Many years earlier, I had switched to the more consistent “inches per segment” scale – without changing the price. Characters who did not have an action in a segment simply flew at their speed in a straight line. It meant that they could almost certainly start each phase with a direction change, having more than met the requirements since their last phase of their Turn Mode, which is the number of hexes of forward movement that had to be travelled in order to execute a hex-side change of face.

Changing the purchase of flight to So Many Inches Per Turn for So Many Character Points was the obvious solution. It was easy to set a target by multiplying the character’s old Flight Speed by 12, and the price could be dropped accordingly. In fact, the price didn’t change as much as might have been expected because instead of purchasing “by the inch”, the power was adjusted to sell Flight in bundles of 5″ Flight Velocity at a time.

Of greater concern was that the whole interactivity of characters in flight would be lost. Handling a full 12-second turn of movement in one lump meant that characters who acted before the Flying character would be dealing with where the character was at the start of the Turn while the rest would be dealing with where characters would be at the end of their Turn. For small-scale movement like running or swimming, that was an issue but not a huge one; for larger-scale movement like flying it was going to be a major problem.

Tactical & Non-Tactical flight

Rather than searching for a global solution that probably didn’t exist, I started by restricting the scope of the problem. A lot of the time, even in Combat, Flight is all about getting from point A to point B and the full mechanics are unnecessary – even the ones that used to be there. The Hero System already differentiates between Combat Flight and Non-Combat Flight, by permitting characters to buy increased non-combat flight velocity; why not take that a step further and split flight mechanics completely into two separate sets of game mechanics? To make the differential clear, call one Tactical and the other Non-Tactical.

Non-Tactical Flight

 
 Excerpt from the Zenith-3 Campaign Rules: 

In Non-Tactical Flight Mode, characters simply divide the distance to be travelled in order to reach the desired destination by the maximum speed they can attain to determine how long it takes them to reach that destination. Acceleration to full speed is deemed instantaneous for convenience as is deceleration if the character is not entering a combat situation. Any non-combat speed multipliers apply to flight speed.

 

One of the big complaints that I have always had about the “Non-Combat Multiplier” in the core Hero Games system is that no rules are presented for transitioning between the two modes. It is for that reason that the above rules distinguish about entering combat at the end of a Tactical Flight. To be fair, though, I’ve never found the time to write any – there always seemed to be something more urgent to do. I have made some notes, though – and here they are:

  • Deceleration from Non-Combat speed to combat speed = 10″ per turn. Or perhaps it simply takes one turn for every non-combat velocity multiplier.
  • Characters exceeding their Combat Speed while in battle add +1 per 30″ or part thereof to their turn mode, to a maximum of 1/6 of their non-combat velocity multiplier.
  • Characters exceeding their Combat Speed while engaged in combat operations subtract their non-combat velocity multiplier AND their current turn mode from their DCV, their OCV, and any Perception checks relating to objects, people, or circumstances not travelling with the character.
  • Some of these losses may be offset by bonuses from velocity, others are in addition to such bonuses.

These don’t go far enough yet – I’d like something relating to the ability to assess a situation from a distance while approaching at high speed, for example, and some of them are too complicated – but the principles are there.

But that’s not all there is to Non-Tactical Flight – it also applies during a combat situation. In essence, if no-one is trying to impede the flight and there is no prospect of anyone doing so, there is no need for the full tactical ruleset to be used; the character simply flies as far as they can to wherever they are trying to reach.

The referee must judge each situation, based on his knowledge of what is occurring, to determine whether Tactical Mode is required.

Flight-Space: separate aerial combat

When it is required, the GM can invoke Tactical Mode. This divides the motion of the flying character or characters into smaller slices. Tactical Aerial Combat may require the use of Flight-Space.

Unfortunately, the flight-space rules have not yet been written up formally – another task that has slipped through lack of time. The following rules are from my notes and will eventually be cast into formal rules; they’ve been tested and work.

The speeds with which characters travel in flight are very different from those employed by ground-based characters, and it may be necessary to employ a completely separate tactical display in order to track that motion. For compatibility with the ground-based scale of the other characters, flight-space should be a simple multiple of the basic scale – it might be 5″ to a hex or 10″ or 100″ – whatever is needed. I have found it convenient to look at the flight speeds of the participants and use some common factor as a secondary multiple.

For example, if one character has a flight speed of 60″, and the other has a speed of 45″, they have common scales of 3″, 5″, and 15″ in common. These are the factors of 45 that are also factors of 60.

Sometimes, this is not possible, or the scale that would result is so close to normal that it is worthless in this context. For example, if a third combatant had a speed of 64″, none of the factors for the first two would fit. The best approach to employ when this occurs is “accumulated error”. If the scale chosen were 15″ to a hex, then after 4 turns, the 64″ character would have accumulated a full +15″ error, and could therefore move an extra hex – with an additional inch left over towards the next extra (each turn at 15″ scale, the character moves 4 hexes, since 4×15=60. That leaves 4″ left over per turn, which adds up to an extra 15″ hex after 4 turns). I would also consider 5″ and 10″ scales, using this approach.

The advantage of this approach is that turn mode scales along with every other aspect of flight – it’s a maneuverability restriction based on flight speed, after all.

Flight-time

Having determined the scale to use for the map and hence for the movement, it becomes a simple matter to determine the way in which the movement in flight is to be subdivided – it is the character’s maximum flight velocity divided by scale, rounding down.

50″ at a 10″ scale would divide the movement into 5 steps of 1 hex each. This is rather too small to be useful. The real problem here is the scale; 10″ is too large. 5″ would be a better choice, permitting 5 steps of 2 hexes or 2 steps of 5″. Of the two, I would opt for the first.

The Initiative score of the character with the highest initiative is then divided by the number of steps to determine the base initiative values for these slices of flight. The nearest value to the initiative total of the flying character is then adjusted so that it falls on the phase the character acts, and the same adjustment is then made to all the others to determine the actual “initiative values” of the slices of motion. This overlays movement in “flight-space” onto the passage of “flight-time”, distributing the total movement throughout the turn. During those steps of flight-time which do not coincide with the character’s initiative total, the character can do nothing but maintain their flight and maneuver; they can’t attack or activate any other powers or do anything else. If they need to do so, they either have to spend one of these pieces of flight-time hovering in place, having misjudged their flight, or they have to have previously deferred an action with a specific trigger (“I’m holding my action until I’m in position to do X” – grab the object, push the button, or whatever). These adjustments should always be subtractions except when it is the flying character who has the highest initiative total.

Let’s look at this step in the process in action. Suppose the character with the highest initiative total has an Initiative of 36. The flight is to be divided into 5 slices. That gives a flight-time step of 7 – so the slices of flight happen on initiative scores 7, 14, 21, 28, and 35. If the flying character had an initiative total of (say) 18, the nearest time slice is 21; and 21-18=3. So each of these initiative scores is reduced by 3. The flight takes place on initiative scores 4, 11, 18, 25, and 32 – or, more properly (since higher initiatives go first), 32, 25, 18, 11, and 4.

The result is that the character is moving throughout the turn; their flight has been distributed across the entire initiative pass.

Superhero Dogfights: Blue Max

A further refinement is possible and has proven very successful. There is a board game called Blue Max which does a great job of simulating WWI dogfights. Different aircraft have different maneuvers open to them at different speeds; these go well beyond the simple hex-side facings of the standard Hero System (I’ve reproduced a small portion of the maneuver chart for the Fokker D.VII to give you some notion of what I’m talking about, it matters). The numbers beneath each maneuver are maneuver number, direction of maneuver, and the number of hexes of movement the maneuver counts as, ie the minimum speed you have to be travelling in order to execute the maneuver. If it’s in brackets, the aircraft loses an altitude marker.

By selecting the appropriate scales, Blue Max becomes compatible with the Hero System. What you want is for the character with the greatest speed to move four scale hexes in each time slice. Then you – as GM – can select an appropriate aircraft to reflect the relative maneuverability of each character. And let rip the dogfight!

Changes to Movement: Running

Running faced similar difficulties to Flight, but without the alleviating prospect of being able to change the points-cost ratio, since running was an inherent, free ability to all characters. Ultimately, it was decided that (in general) it was good enough for a character to complete all his ground movement in the course of his action. This abstraction is a compromise with reality, but one that was deemed an acceptable price for the benefits of the Initiative system. So we simply multiplied all ground movement rates by 12 (they used to be measured as inches/second and not the inches per phase of the Hero System, for the same reasons given when initially discussing flight).

Sidebar: Setting more realistic movement rates:

Ground movement rates in Hero System are a fixed commodity – everyone moves at 2″ per phase unless they buy a restricted increase. Another change made in the House Rules I use is to provide a more realistic set of movement rates. These were determined by (1) setting values for the “average man”; (2) getting values from a copy of Guinness World Records for the best ever achieved by a human; (3) Determining the difference between these rates; (4) solving a set of linear equations using these two points, plus 0,0. AGIL 10 (by definition) is human average; AGIL 25 (again, by definition) is Olympic / Elite Athlete level. There were a number of refinements to the system, especially attempts to incorporate a continual narrowing of the performance improvements possible.

The latter came from my knowledge of Formula 1 racing. A bare-bones budget will get you to within a few seconds a lap of the front runners; each additional second will cost a million dollars a year, until you get to the same basic rate as the front-runners in seconds; then it’s $1 million per tenth of a second, then $1 million per hundredth of a second, and so on. This is an oversimplification, of course, but the principle holds – it gets progressively harder to achieve the next smaller improvement in performance.

Changes to Movement: Vehicles

And the same change was made to vehicle movement, though the option is reserved for implementing any of the flight subsystems such as Tactical Mode if it becomes necessary. In general, that only happens when the vehicle interacts with characters on foot.

But there is one additional refinement possible:

The Chase – Dukes Of Hazard style

Blue Max can operate in 2D just as easily as in 3D. Instead of losing an altitude value, the vehicle loses half it’s current speed in performing the maneuver. The results (in private testing) have successfully generated Dukes-Of-Hazard style chase sequences, with burnouts, rally-style cornering, and lots of drama.

Changes to Movement: Swimming

Swimming rates were initially generated in the same way as running, and adaption was also handled in the same way. The big difference is that a character can sacrifice 1″ of horizontal movement for 1/2″ of increased depth. A bigger question, and one that’s been hanging around for too long, is how long characters can hold their breath – especially when doing extremely active things. I’m still trying to find a satisfactory answer to that question – not only for the Superhero game mechanics, but also for 3.x.

Other Knock-on effects

I’ve collected a number of other consequences to the change in the system here, together with some indication of the resolution. Some of them were quite unexpected!

Power Activation

A power that doesn’t activate right away, or that doesn’t deactivate immediately after shutting it off doesn’t have a huge impact when we’re talking about a character getting multiple actions in a turn. In fact, you can have two versions of the resulting limitation, one measured in segments (seconds) and the other measured in phases.

Well, that doesn’t work so well. A couple of different solutions were tried but didn’t work as well as desired. I was even contemplating removing this power limitation!

Then I finally made my “spot the blindingly obvious” roll; the solution is to measure the delays as negative adjustments to initiative, and multiply the old delays by 5 for the phase-based modifier. So a power which used to deactivate in 3 seconds now deactivates three initiative numbers after the character makes the decision to shut it down; a power which required an extra phase to activate now activates 5 initiative numbers after the decision to activate it. If the delay is so great that the result is in the negatives – 4 phases is a delay of 20 initiative numbers, and if the character acts on Initiative 13 that would yield a -7 activation – then the extra is carried over into the next Initiative Phase. So 7 numbers after the highest initiative acts in the next phase is when the power would finally activate.

Simple, elegant (not the same thing) and it retains the full flavor of the original modifier.

END Batteries

This is a new problem that I recognized for the first time while writing these articles. With characters acting less frequently, there is less drain on these than there used to be; and at the same time, they may not get to charge up as quickly. The entire costing structure for this advantage needs to be reassessed. Are END batteries now more cost-effective than they used to be? Or less? Or are there more subtleties involved? I haven’t had time to look into this yet. I mention it here purely to bring the problem to the attention of anyone seeking to duplicate the Initiative concept in their Hero System campaign.

Transforms

Transforms used to wear off after a certain number of phases. It was a simple matter to change this to turns, but it did require some adjustment of the costs. (The House Rules we use have a different points scale to the regular Hero System so there’s no point in being more specific here; this is something that each GM will have to adjust for themselves).

Berserks or Enraged

The change means that there are fewer opportunities for these to activate than there used to be; and similarly, there are fewer opportunities to recover. These are currently still rated on the d20 scale (which replaced the default 3d6 scale early in the House Rules); adjusting the percentages accordingly should compensate without the need to change the value of these disadvantages.

Flash

The whole concept of Flash attacks needs a little readjustment. These used to blind a character until they had achieved a sufficient number of flash recoveries at the rate of 1 per phase (resistance, which reduced the target number needed, could also be bought). When a character could get 5 actions in a turn, a flash of target of 6 took them out of the fight for just over a turn.

There are two obvious options: simply substitute the term “Turn” for “Phase” (and consider increasing the price accordingly); or have flash operate for so many initiative numbers (and consider reducing the price accordingly). This is something that has not yet been decided. The second option is less likely to require a price adjustment, but I find the first a little more realistic since it can leave characters blinded for minutes at a time at reasonable cost in terms of numbers of dice.

Whichever way Flash gets changed will also impact the cost-effectiveness of Resistance, so that will need changing as well.

The Wrap-Up

Changing the combat system so fundamentally has had a number of unexpected flow-on consequences, but the advantages are clear. Nor are all these additional changes for the worse; there have been some positive flow-on effects, especially in three areas: Tactical Flight; Chases; and Tactical Vehicle Movement. Some granularity has been lost in some areas, but that’s an acceptable price to pay.

So, what do I hope GMs reading this will get out of it?

Firstly, those who run campaigns using the Hero System may get direct benefit from it. But there are some wider metagame points to be made, and I’m hopeful that there are lessons here for all GMs regardless of the game system they are using.

  • Rules from other systems can be flown into a set of game mechanics to achieve some desired alteration – the trick is to look for the chain reaction of unexpected consequences of doing so, and make those adjustments as well.
  • The more widely-read the GM – that is to say, the more game systems the GM has experienced – the broader the palette of rules solutions.
  • House Rules in general can permit the campaign to go places and do things that the unmodified rules may do poorly or not at all. But there are lessons for all GMs in the experiences I have described herein.
  • Playtesting House Rules is absolutely essential. Make sure you do it adequately – the number of times you can get caught by something that looks good on paper is astonishing. Just have a read of my older post, The Woes Of Piety And Magic if you want a real object lesson to study!
  • And, lastly, the concept of a Game System Playtest Campaign can be a useful tool to keep in your armory.

There are a lot of things the Hero System does well. A lot of them can be done better, but that’s neither here nor there – they are a more than adequate baseline on which a campaign can be founded. But there are also a few things that the Hero game mechanics do poorly, or barely adequately, and combat execution is one of them; in theory, it works well, but there is an exponential rate of decay with rising character SPDs accumulated over an encounter, and inherent inequalities within the system. From a metagame perspective, anything that performs that badly should be replaced – but this has always been deemed too close to the heart of the look-and-feel of the Hero System to be contemplated. Our experience with the Initiative system shows not only that it’s possible, it delivers a blueprint for doing so. Some detail remains to be filled in by individual GMs who are still working with the Base System, but that’s true of any House Rule – and making those changes will help you learn the ins and outs of the change.

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