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.

Changing one rule, as I’ve said a number of times in the past, is like trying to eat just one potato chip, or take just one breath. A rules change is a domino in a china shop; the consequences ripple through a supersaturated solution of possibilities causing all sorts of odd crystals to assume solid form. Especially when you’re talking about a combat system or subsystem, there are all sorts of knock-on effects on other parts of the rules.

It’s my full intention to comply with these restrictions. So most of this article, and the next, 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. This first part will deal with speeding up the combat; the second part will deal with some of the consequences of the changes made to achieve that speed, and how some of the savings have been invested to make other parts of the game easier for participants to visualize and take part in. Between them, they offer a very different Hero System, and yet one that is going to sound strangely familiar…

The pace of battle

There are things that the Hero System does extremely well. Combat is not necessarily one of them; though there is nothing inherently wrong with the resolution systems, it just gets slow with increasing numbers of combatants and with combatant SPD. In fact, my experience is that combat slows as a function of both factors.

The reason for this is simple. Like all action resolution systems, there is a necessary level of overhead per action to be resolved. In the standard Hero system, each character has a SPD characteristic, which specifies how many times the character gets to act in a 12-second turn, which is subdivided into segments of 1 second each. A character’s phases may be of different lengths, or may all be exactly the same – depending on whether or not they are an even divisor of 12. Not all characters will complete a phase in the same segment; instead, they will be sequenced more-or-less evenly throughout the 12 seconds – except for “Segment 12, Everybody Acts”.

[Side-note:] One of the earliest changes that I made to the combat system in my Champions campaign was to devise a more even distribution pattern to do away with that last item – but I don’t think there’s going to be room within in the 5K words limit to present the alternative table I created, and it might be considered to look too much like the standard table, anyway. In any case, it’s been rendered moot, consigned to the pages of history by the later changes which are the subject of this pair of articles, so there’s no point in considering it at this time in any event.

Too Much Overhead

Let’s say that we have a team of 6 superheroes on the one side, most with a speed of 2 or 3 (assume they average 2½) – but one has a speed of 6 and another a speed of 10. They are opposed by a team of 4 supervillains and a dozen hired goons. The hired goons have a speed of 1, two of the supervillains have a speed of 3, one a speed of 5, and another a speed of 11. In a twelve-second turn, that’s 2×2 + 3×2 + 6 + 10 + 12×1 + 2×3 + 5 + 11 = 60 actions to be resolved in a turn – plus once-a-turn overheads like recoveries, one for each character – call that another 6 + 4 + 12 ‘actions’ for a total of 82.

Too freakin’ many. It’s rare for even a large battle to last more than 2 or 3 full turns – but at (say) a minute to complete each action, those 2-3 turns are 82×2 to 82×3 (=164 to 246) minutes of play. 2.75 to 4 hours. And yet, 24-36 seconds, game time, is an unreasonably short time for such a battle to take place.

It gets worse. If it takes an extra ten or twenty seconds to resolve an action or decide on an action or look something up on a character sheet or any of a dozen other things, those 24-36 seconds can easily inflate to five or six hours!

Solution 1:

Part of the problem can be resolved simply by increasing the length of a turn, say to 1, or 2, or 4, or 5, or 10 minutes in length. But the combats will still take an unreasonable length in real time and all sorts of consequences would have to be dealt with – starting with the fact that a lot of other game subsystems assume that a turn is 12 seconds long and would have to be rejigged.

Solution 2:

A more likely solution would be to junk many of the different elements of combat in favor of a more streamlined resolution system. You have an attack roll, you have a success-or-fail assessment, you have a roll for damage, you have a damage-handling vs target defenses assessment, you have two types of damage (Stun and Body), and two types of damage (Energy and Physical) and then there’s NND and it just goes on and on. Junk most of that, and you can attack part of the real problem at its core: that 1 minute resolution time per action. Couple this with Solution 1 and you have a result – or so it might seem.

The fact is that all this variety exists for a reason, the simulation of a wide variety of superheroic abilities crafted by hundreds of fertile imaginations through the roughly 80-90 years that superhero comics have been published.

[Side-note:] Officially, the first superhero comic is Superman, in 1933. But even before Siegel & Shuster’s seminal creation, there were arguably others, Pulp-derived characters like Dr Occult (also 1933), Buck Rogers (1929), and Tarzan (1929) make the beginnings slightly fuzzy; similar characters were usually considered superheroic after superman debuted, and it can therefore be argued that these prototypical characters and strips make deciding the actual starting point a little fuzzier. The first comic published in the US was a hardcover book published in 1842, but The Adventures Of Obadiah Oldbuck bore little resemblance to the Superhero genre.

That’s not the only problem

Here’s another problem: in combat, a player’s share of the screen time is directly proportionate to his character’s Speed, plus the time that he spends being a target. Excluding the latter, that means that in the example given in the previous section, the character with a SPD of 6 will be doing things three times as much as those with a SPD of 2, and twice as much as those with a SPD of 3, while the character with a SPD of 10 will have five times as much as the former and more than three times as much as the latter. Or to put it another way, and ignoring the character with a SPD of 6, the player whose character has a SPD of 10 will have as much screen time as all the other PCs – put together. Meanwhile, the rest are twiddling their thumbs.

And, in the variant rules…

…this problem is even worse. These rules are intended to facilitate characters of the power level of Thor, Superman, The Hulk, The Flash, and so on. Characters who can do the things that most characters can do in the comic books – and not characters who are on a par with most members of the Legion Of Superheroes in the 60s (1 power each), the original X-men of the 60s (1 power each), or the original Teen Titans of the 60s (kids who were barely teenaged, and who usually only had one or two weak powers each). That means that some of them have some very high stats – DEX of 200+, for example. That, in turn, gives SPDs of 20+, or it did until I changed the formula for calculating SPD. That doesn’t mean that the standards have changed – the average human still has a SPD of 2, maybe 3. It just means that the top end has shifted. In most ways, this is an improvement, since it provides more scope for variation between characters, especially those who specialize in super-speeds; but in terms of a fair allocation of screen time, it’s a total disaster.

In an effort to maintain some semblance of sanity at the gaming table, I imposed a maximum SPD for flesh-and-blood of 12 (machines could get up to 24, no more). It wasn’t enough. During the most recent rewrite, we decided to scrap the entire SPD subsystem and replace it with something we knew worked reasonably well.

A 3.x solution: Turn-based combat

It was with a certain wry amusement that I read Johnn’s articles about speeding up combat in his Pathfinder campaign, ‘My Group’s Time Thief Revealed‘ and ‘Fastest Pathfinder Combat Ever‘, because I turned to the 3.x system to speed up combat in my superhero campaign.

Initiative
 
 Excerpt from the Zenith-3 Campaign Rules: 

In-game activities take place in an Initiative Pass or Turn lasting 12 seconds.

In an initiative pass characters act in initiative order which is determined by ranking the results of initiative rolls for each character. A character’s initiative = d20+SPD. Ties are settled by SPD. Initiative is generally rolled at the start of combat and persists throughout that combat, but the referee may require a reroll whenever her feels circumstances dictate one.

 
Surprise
 
 Excerpt from the Zenith-3 Campaign Rules: 

At the commencement of battle, when one side is ready for a fight and the other is not (for any reason), the GM may declare the other side Surprised. Those characters who are not surprised then participate in a special, extra Initiative Pass which occurs prior to the commencement of the first normal initiative pass.

 

 
There are some extreme/unusual circumstances where one set of characters may get multiple surprise passes, especially if they have surprise and do nothing to alert those surprised to the presence of enemies. Under some unusual conditions, the GM may also specify a certain roll that has to be achieved by the character before they come out of surprise. Both are rare and not worth detailing here.

There are also some special abilities that permit the character to always act in a special initiative pass in advance of the usual one unless they push. Again, this is a refinement that doesn’t need to be specified right now.

Pushing
 
 Excerpt from the Zenith-3 Campaign Rules: 

Pushing can occur in one of two ways: through the expenditure of a Heroic Action Point, or without such expenditure. If the character employs a Heroic Action Point then their action takes place at the normal time within the Initiative order. If the character does not employ a Heroic Action Point their actions are relegated to a special initiative pass exclusively for characters who are pushing in this manner, which follows the regular initiative pass (when necessary). Villains have an equivalent set of alternatives.

 

 
Heroic Action Points were something Ian Gray and I came up with to act as a genre-promoting game mechanic. In a nutshell, you get them for being heroic and doing heroic things; you can lose them for doing un-heroic things (doesn’t often happen) or for deliberate villainous actions. We were modeling the idea on Drama Dice from 7th Sea and didn’t realize that Hero Games were going to include something by the same name in Pulp Hero as optional rules. When we have time to put our heads together on the subject, we’ll come up with a different name because the HAPs in these house rules bear no resemblance to those in Pulp Hero, which more closely resemble the way our rules handle Luck. (I think he may have also lifted some ideas from the dice game FATE, but I’m not sure).

The GM can also dole out extras any time he feels like it, for good roleplay, for making the entire table laugh, or whatever. I’m not going to go into all the rules surrounding them, it’s not only off-topic but it would use up the 5K limit on them alone. They can be used for all sorts of things, something else I’m not going to go into, here and now.

When it’s your turn
 
 Excerpt from the Zenith-3 Campaign Rules: 

A character’s action consists of three parts: 1 Movement action, 1 Attack action, and 1 Utility action. These may be performed in any sequence desired by the character but they must all be completed before the next character’s initiative round begins.

A movement action may be the character moving, operating a vehicle, or using a movement power. An attack action is any activity or use of a power that is intended to cause damage or directly inconveniences an enemy, this includes any combat maneuvers with a damage-to-target element such as move by or move through. A utility action is an action that does neither of these things, but may activate some defensive power or specify the performance of a defensive maneuver, use a sensory ability, or any other activity that meets these requirements. A character can choose to substitute his attack action for a second move action or can choose to forgo performing any actions to recover Endurance equal to the character’s REC or STUN equal to 1/10th the character’s REC.

 

 
Ian and I debated whether there should be two actions in a character’s phase or three. In the end, I gave in; I wanted characters to have to choose between moving (which carries its own defensive benefits) or employing a ‘static defense’ or a non-movement non-attack action as their utility action. The jury is still out on this minor phase of the rules; we’re trying them his way, and if they aren’t good enough then we’ll try it my way.

The other thing worth mentioning is that our rules don’t actually say “1/10th the Character’s REC” at the end. We have two recovery stats, once high and cheap (REC A) and one low and expensive (REC B). The first is usually used for STUN and END recovery amounts, the second for BODY recovery amounts. The Official system uses one stat and one-tenth of that stat for the same purposes; I simply wanted to make them independent of each other to forestall characters buying extra of one “only for the purposes of” increasing the other, which a couple of early characters did.

Deferred Actions
 
 Excerpt from the Zenith-3 Campaign Rules: 

Characters may specify a trigger event for part or all of their actions, eg “I wait until the third bad guy passes my hiding place”. This temporarily defers the action until either the trigger event takes place or everyone else has acted, but does not change the character’s initiative value.

At the end of the Initiative Pass, any character who has not acted may choose to either use his action or continue awaiting the trigger event. Note that if the trigger event does not occur prior to the character’s next opportunity to act (in the next Initiative Pass) the character is assumed to have lost that action. Players may not attempt to ‘logic’ their way past this rule; ‘if nothing else happens before I can act again,’ or any variation, is not a valid trigger event.

 

 
Another rule that we considered and decided not to implement used up the character’s utility action watching for the trigger event.

Recovery Phase
 
 Excerpt from the Zenith-3 Campaign Rules: 

Each character automatically receives 2 Stun recoveries and 2 Endurance recoveries every 12 initiative passes. Both recover REC in the appropriate stat. These can be taken on any initiative pass but with no more than 1 of each on any given initiative pass. These recoveries occur after all actions have taken place in a pass. The powers Major Stun Recovery and Major Endurance Recovery give extra recoveries that must also follow the above rules.

 

 
The above might not be terribly clear without further explanation. Characters start combat with 2 STUN recoveries and 2 END recoveries. They can use one of these recoveries at the end of any Initiative Pass in what is known as the Recovery Phase. They have until the start of the 11th Initiative Pass to use all four, at which point the character’s ‘hope chest’ is refilled with 2 more recoveries of each type. Unused recoveries are simply lost. There are certain powers which we’ve added to the system that give extras to the number of recoveries.

Another area of the rules we’ve added converts excess STUN damage to additional BODY damage – making it plausible for one normal human to beat another to death in a reasonable time frame.

The consequence of these rules, in combination with those in the previous section, is to force characters to stop and rest in battle. Why a d12? I wanted to use a dice to count Initiative Passes. A d20 gave too few recoveries, Combat and skill checks had been changed over to a d% system so d10s were out, d6s are used in combat all the time, and d4s give too many recoveries – that leaves d12s and d8s. Which one to use was a bit of a toss-up, but we’re used to using a d12 to count segments in a turn. If 12 Initiative Passes prove too many, we can either try the d8 or increase one or both recoveries, or make it 4 recoveries but player’s choice of how to use them – so the d12 gave us more flexibility to tweak the system.

Some Additional options not trialed

Along the way, there were a number of other ideas that were either set aside for later consideration or junked altogether.

Act in unused Healing Phases
This would grant an extra partial action phase – attack, movement, or utility – if the character chose to use it, at the cost of one of the standard STUN or END recoveries specified in the previous section. This was junked for good reason: first, it would not have made a big difference in outcomes but would have made for massive inconvenience; second, it would have conferred an extra advantage to characters who bought the major Recovery powers; and third, it was potentially unbalancing in the hands of characters with enough END or STUN that they could afford to pass up a recovery.

Heroic Action Point for an extra action in a surprise round
The idea was that a character who spent a Heroic Action Point would be able to recover from Surprise quickly enough to act in a round in which they were surprised – but only after the last of the characters who weren’t surprised had acted. This was set aside because we think it might devalue surprise too much – but if surprise proves too powerful, it might make a late comeback.

Heroic Action Point to increase STUN recovery when resting
Actually, the rules as used to date don’t give any STUN recovery when resting. This didn’t seem right to me, in principle; and private testing suggested that a minor STUN recovery when resting, as an alternative to an END recovery, was both necessary and would not overly prolong combat. So I have added the appropriate rule above, and will be adding it to our House Rules when I’m done. So this option is one that has only just become possible – and that has been set aside until the impact of the minor recovery is assessed.

Randomized Axis Of Battle
Picture any superhero fight from the comics and you will see the characters dancing around all over the battlefield. The ‘attacks’ that are resolved as part of an Initiative Pass represent several feints, manouvers, attempted attacks, and ducks, bobs, and weaves. Under consideration at one point was a rule that stated that at the end of an initiative pass, any combatants in immediate proximity (adjacent hexes) who had been in battle with each other during that Initiative Pass should have the axis of the line connecting them rotated one hex-side about the slower (lower SPD) character. Overall position would not change by more than one hex, so if the roll indicated a location for the faster combatant two hexes away from their position prior to the randomized axis check, the slower character would move into the space being vacated by the faster character and the position of the faster character would then be adjusted relative to the new position of the slower character. Manouvers would permit characters to ignore the axis of battle to focus on some external orientation.

In principle, this all sounds good, but it was thought that in practice it would bog combat down too much. It remains on the list of items to revisit at a later time, especially given the solution to the problems of movement under the new rules (discussed in part 2).

The effects

So, let’s look at the effects of these changes. The downsides are obvious: Domino Changes to other rules, especially movement rules, and a new system for people to learn. Balanced against that are a quintet of seriously-significant advantages:

Faster Combat

In place of the 82 actions in a turn (to quote the example offered earlier), we now have one per character – 5+12+4=21. And those turns are now (on average) taking significantly less time – some take only 10 seconds, others 20, and about 1/6th still take the full minute. Overall, I would assess the average as being between 25 and 30 seconds a turn. The combination makes for serious time savings at the table – a combat turn (a full set of Initiative Passes and Recovery Phase) would now be 21x(25 to 30)/60 = 8.75 to 10.5 minutes of play – and not the 82 minutes mentioned earlier.

Slower Combat

At the same time, it takes more turns to complete the battle than the old average of about 2.5 – Five to Ten of them. That means the average fight is now lasting about a minute-and-a-half, game time. A big fight might last several times that long, 6-10 minutes in game time. These are still not completely realistic, but they are a lot closer to the mark.

Overall, combat has sped up significantly. Official System Benchmark: 82×2.5 = 205 minutes. New system: 21×7.5 = 157.5 minutes – and that’s while players are still learning the new system. In the long term, I expect it to drop below the two hour mark to somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes, real time. But even now, that’s almost a 25% improvement – which is 25% more gameplay every day.

More Tactical Battles

The new rules put a premium on exerting force where it will do the most good. When you only have one action in a combat round, there’s more pressure to make it count. At the same time, you have to remain flexible. This trend is further reinforced by some of the flow-on effects of the changes, to be discussed in part 2.

Reinforced Genre Flavor

Fights tend to be a lot more evenly balanced, with both sides taking rather more damage than previously. Even a weak set of opponents can last long enough to injure a much stronger character. The ebb and flow of battle is more noticeable. At the same time, the action feels faster, because your turn in combat rolls around much faster and more often, increasing the drama of the situation. The whole thing feels more like a comic-book donnybrook.

Equal Spotlight Time

Well, more equal, anyway. A character with a high SPD may act first, but he doesn’t act more often – so each character receives a nominally-equal share of the spotlight. Some abilities still take longer to resolve than others, but in general, things move along far more quickly.

In the pulse-pounding conclusion:
The knock-on effects to the rules, and some additional combat mechanisms to elevate the game experience even further.

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