Title: Champions, 4th edition
Authors: George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, and Rob Bell
Publisher: Hero Games
Year: 1989
286 pages

Product Rating: 2 (**)
Game Play Rating: 4 (****)

Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2000 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John

         The 4th edition of Champions is designed as a universal system usable for a wide range of genres, plus a sourcebook and campaign book for comic-book superheroes. It represents the merging and re-working of several genre-specific games that were based on earlier editions of Champions. Like any system, there are genres which it covers better and worse than others: although not neccessarily the genres one might think...

Material

         The Champions book is divided into three separately-numbered sections: the 216-page Hero System rulebook, the 60-page sourcebook on the comic-book superhero genre, and the 70-page _Champions_ campaign book with heroes, villians, and a sample adventure. At the start, there is a detailed 3-page combined table of contents for all three books, and also an individual table of contents at the start of each section, but there is no index. It has comic-book style illustrations ranging from fantasy to superheroics.

Mechanics

         The mechanics are based mainly on rolling 3d6 (three six-sided dice added together), trying to roll less than your skill or other number. The "to-hit" roll in combat is to roll less than 11 + your offensive stat ("OCV") - the target's defensive stat ("DCV"). Tasks based on raw attribute (like "Dexterity") are roll less than 9 + (attribute/5). There are further exceptions in some cases: like contests of strength and attempts to intimidate, which use comparing Nd6.

         Thus, it lacks a real "universal" mechanic, which makes it a bit harder to learn than some other systems. With some practice the type of roll is pretty easy, and stats like 9+(attribute/5) are written on the character sheet.

         Another difficult-to-learn bit is the damage mechanic. For blunt/crushing damage, you roll a number of six-sided dice ("Nd6") and count them up two ways: The total of all the faces is the "STUN" (i.e. non-lethal) damage, while the "BODY" (i.e. lethal) damage is +1 for every die between 2 and 5, +2 for every "6".

         It takes a fair bit of practice for this to come naturally. In superhero games, damage can easily be 15 dice or more, so combat can be very slow to run until the players master this. It usually works to roll, then group the dice into sets adding up to "10". After this, scan for "1"s and "6"s.

Character Creation

         Character creation is point-based, using a single pool of "character points" (75-150 for heroic PC's, vs 200 or more for superheroes). Really there are two separate aspects of character creation. First there are attributes, skills, normal advantages, and disadvantages. Then there is the Powers meta-system, which is used for superhuman powers, magic items, etc.

         The basic character creation is very detailed but still fairly straightforward. Making a character without weird powers takes time, but is simple in principle. There are 8 main attributes, 6 secondary attributes, plus a host of skills and also "perks" (i.e. social advantages like rank and wealth) and "talents" (i.e. inborn advantages like Perfect Pitch).

         If you like detailed characters, the system is excellent. There are 59 skills, but many of them are general categories. For example, Combat is a single skill: you can tailor it to include all combat (8pts per +1), or specific categories like all dodging (5pts per +1) or just pistols (3pts per +1).

         There are some problems of balance, but for normal human characters they aren't major. There are a few tricks to save yourself a few points here and there, but they don't make a huge difference. A 150pt heroic character can maybe save 10 to 20 points by optimizing. This includes getting the right break point numbers in attributes and buying enough Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution for your figured stats.

Powers Meta-System

         The Powers meta-system is extremely flexible and useful, but it is also extremely complex. The idea behind the meta-system is to provide a framework to give consistent costs (in character points) for powers of similar usefulness. Thus, a wizard's lightning bolt and a superhero's plasma beam do the same damage - so they have equal basic cost. There are 64 basic powers and 61 power modifiers. Each basic power can have several modifiers: notably advantages (like "Area Effect" so the plasma beam can hit several targets) and limitations (like "Charges" so the plasma beam can only be used 4 times a day).

         The meta-system tries to cover everything from telepathy to faster-than-light travel. Considering the magnitude of the goal, I think it works surprisingly well. However, there are naturally going to be weak points and problems. The details of these are far too numerous to go into. The long and the short of it is this: In order to use the full Powers meta-system, the GM really needs to be an expert in it. Developing this expertise takes a long time. If you start GMing fresh, be prepared for a lot of problems before you get your feet.

         Used well, the meta-system provides an enormous amount of flexibility in characters which is not equalled in almost any other game. Used poorly, it causes lots of confusion in both the GM and the players, as well as unbalanced characters.

         The universal feature about the Powers system is that it calls for the powers and effects to be clearly defined in terms of exact game effect, range (in meters), and so forth. The system can be used to handle nebulous powers (via "Power Pools"), but it is clumsy in practice by requiring calculations during play.

Combat

         Combat in the Hero is also fairly detailed. By default it assumes you are using a scale hex-map. There are a variety of maneuvers to choose from. Lastly, each character has 3 different sets of points to track: for stun, wounds, and fatigue.

         The 4th edition pretty much assumes that you are familiar with a hex-map. For example, no blank map is included. Of the 13 tactical maps included in the book, 8 have a hex-grid overlaid (at varying scales) but 5 do not - including the map for the main combat example. Luckily, the specifics of the hex-map are not very important. Ranges are quoted in scale inches (where 1'' = 2 meters), but you can use a square grid or open space without much difficulty.

         Initiative is handled by a somewhat complex phase system. You have a "Speed" (SPD) attribute which is 2 for an average human and 4 maximum for normal humans. Superheroes can have SPD 6 or even up to 12. This is the number of actions in a turn you get. The actions are spread out according to a chart which spreads their actions out over 12 segments of the turn. Example: Anne (SPD 3) and Bob (SPD 4) person face each other. Bob goes first, with the full sequence being: B,A,B,A,B, then both act on the last segment (with who goes first being determined by Dexterity).

         The combat maneuvers are a strong point. The 10 basic maneuvers are simple enough to be easily summarized in a mini-chart that is included on the character sheet -- but still give a balanced and flavorful range of options in combat. Martial arts lets you buy additional maneuvers.

         The default damage system is somewhat low-lethality to normal humans, but still fairly sensible. No matter who you are (assuming you are human), swords and guns are dangerous -- but it will generally take at least 2 shots before you are down and dying. There are optional rules rules both for more comic-book-ish features like knockback (i.e. flying across the room after being shot), and for more gritty/realistic features like bleeding and hit location.

Sourcebook

         The 60-page sourcebook on the comic-book genre includes a number of essays on GM-ing along with various play aids to help keep track of everything. Most of it is pretty high quality, I think. There is advice on things like keeping atmosphere and comic-book conventions, but also specific advice on which optional mechanics to use and how to play-balance characters. It includes a number of GM play-aids like checklists and so forth.

Campaign Book

         This is a set of 8 superheroes and 24 supervillians/thugs, along with a 20-page sample adventure. While they are reasonably well written, the basic character concepts are not terribly original or interesting (especially compared to mining real comic books for ideas). The adventure is only passable: it is a fairly thin plot which strings together several actions scenes. Rather annoyingly, it includes several maps of the areas where combat takes place, but no little care was taken about including a consistent scale or hexgrid background for these maps.

Conclusion

         The Hero system is a solid system for a wide variety of genres -- although this book only gives background material for superheroes. The default rules system can be used well for modern action-movie and thriller genres, pulp adventure, swords-and-sorcery, and low-level semi-gritty superheroics (i.e. DC's Batman up to Marvel's X-Men, say). The general caveats I have are:

  1. The rulebook is very poorly written in general. It often uses concepts before explaining them, or hides new rules within explanatory text. The problem is such that I hesitate to recommend this book unless you know someone who can teach the system to you, or unless you are particularly good at learning rules systems.
  2. The literal rules call for a fair amount of bookkeeping: with each strike having to record not only separate Stun and Body damage done, but also Endurance (END) used by the attacker. END can be skipped or simplified in practice, but this would be a house rule.
  3. As I said above, the Powers metasystem is particularly complex. The rest of the system might be poorly written but can be adjusted with a bit of practice. Learning the ins and outs of the Powers metasystem is really an difficult skill that must be cultivated over time.

         As a universal system, it works quite well. It is adaptable to a wide range of genres. The main genres that I see it having problems with would be:

  1. Gritty genres like horror or police drama

    These are characterized that it is fairly easy to kill in a single hit (often easier even than in reality). This takes some modification to the damage system, but can be addressed using simple house rules.

  2. High-level superheroics and/or old-style "four-color" comic books

    At the high power levels, the number of dice thrown becomes really unwieldy -- i.e. 18 dice rolled with each hit, which have to be counted up two ways. Moreover, the Powers meta-system is clumsy at handling fuzzily-defined and often inconsistent powers of old four color comics. This is more difficult to handle because it is built into how powers work.

  3. Low-level adventures like genres where the PC's are ordinary children caught up in adventures

    At very low levels (at or below human average) the system can be very grainy. For example, the skill system has that skill 11 is a minimum professional skill. There is only one rank of skill below this, which is a "familiarity" (= skill 8) that is bought for 1 point. Detailing lesser skills and distinguishing low attribute levels would require significant modification.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Mar 15 14:44:40 2006