Though fans of Dungeons & Dragons have led the Old School Revival, many other tabletop roleplaying games from the 1970s and early '80s still have fans. One of the oldest, strongest and best loved is the Hero System - the all-encompassing Hero Games rules system founded on the landmark 1981 superhero RPG Champions.
More than one "High Adventure" columnist goes way back with Hero: I, for one, wrote a Champions supplement, and Monte Cook used to edit the whole line. As the Hero System approaches its 30th anniversary, I hope my fellow designers are holding up as well as it has. A huge new Sixth Edition soon hits the shelves, after September's launch of the Cryptic Studios Champions Online MMOG. Though originally a game of capes and tights, the "universal" Hero tabletop RPG now supports fantasy, space opera, post-holocaust and many other genres, down to and including lucha libre Mexican wrestling movies. Among the field's many universal systems Hero stands tall, and among superhero RPGs only the relative upstart Mutants & Masterminds holds equal mindshare. Hero's enduring success represents the Old School Revival's ideal, its best-case scenario - though if you know the game, this claim sounds as audacious as a Mexican wrestler.
For those familiar with RPG jargon, the Hero System is a high-crunch tactical simulationist design with point-allocation char-gen. If you don't know what that means, put it this way: The two-volume Sixth Edition rulebook has 775 pages. In many important ways, this game violates the old-school aesthetic, which prizes succinct rules sets and gamemaster improvisation. Succinct? The Hero System exhaustively compiles character stats, talents, perks, martial arts, super-powers, advantages, disadvantages, vehicles, bases, automata and every imaginable combat maneuver; meticulously defining, interrelating and point-costing everything with diamond-cut precision. Improvisation? Character creation can take an hour or more, and combat moves like a careful tax audit.
Faced with this four-pound universe, white-box D&D fans may snort to hear Hero fans called "old school." And yet! Revivalists seek to regain the lost brio of an earlier time, before the later encrustations of endless rules expansions and multi-book campaign settings - but Hero gamers are still playing pretty much exactly the way they did in 1981. The toolkit let them build anything then, just as it does now - and so they did, and they still do, using largely the same rules. Sure, there are more powers, and some names and costs have changed. But a first-edition Champions character basically works okay in a modern game. And a longtime gamer who last played Champs in the first Reagan Administration will feel comfortable playing any edition since then, assuming he can still toss the dice with his withered, arthritic hands.
Many longtime gamers, once they discovered the Hero System, never left. Hero Games partner and Sixth Edition designer Steven Long recounts the common experience of some early-1980s roleplayers who sought something "more" than D&D: "We'd all been playing D&D for years. We loved it - still do - but we recognized that RPGs as a hobby could offer more, and we were looking for whatever that 'more' was. We tried Traveller and Top Secret, but they didn't quite click. Then we tried Champions, and almost overnight it replaced D&D for us. The Hero System became our RPG of choice, and though we do occasionally play other RPGs it remains our favorite.
"To some extent I think this characteristic remains true of Hero System fans today (and indeed, I think you can argue the entire RPG industry is based on trying to offer people something 'more' than D&D), but ... these days I think the most common characteristics of Hero System players are creativity and a desire to express that creativity in ways that other games don't permit. Every time I try to play another RPG, I always end up thinking, 'This is too restrictive; I could do this in Hero in an easier, more flexible way,' and I've heard the same basic story from many fans over the years."
Ray Greer, one of the founding triumvirate of the original Hero Games in 1981, recalls the early Champions fanbase: "The game was easy to play - [once] you had a character, of course - and it promised a great deal. But you really had to work to get it. So what I found out about the fans early on was, they were the ones who didn't need extra material - not the best business model ever designed."
For the founding Hero partners, business models proved a perpetual jinx. While Ray handled print-buying and warehousing well enough, rules designer George MacDonald and business manager Steve Peterson struggled eternally to finish and promote new books. More than once, urgent cash flow problems drove Peterson to innovate (Hero was the first RPG publisher to sell e-texts of its products, snail-mailed on 5 1/4" floppies) - and also to improvise.