Hero System Combat - Pros and Cons

The very first point-buy, class-free system I ever encountered, after years of D&D and Traveller, was Champions. We came to it relatively late, in the mid-80's, in it's third edition, but the game captured our imagination like few others had. The RPG community - when you're still in middle and high school at least - is pretty heavy on guys who soundly grok math. Give them a game that has as it's foundation a very arithmetic-intensive system and you're sure to find a receptive audience.

We played it as intended, as a super-hero game, and then delved into the alternatives that were offered in Fantasy Hero and Danger International. As fine a game as Champions was, those early iterations of FH and DI were rough around the edges, and showed some strain in the fabric of the system. Later iterations were subsumed into the generic Hero System and the rough edges were smoothed over a great deal. I think I was still playing when 4th edition rules were coming out, but took a long sabbatical from RPGs during most of the heyday of 4th and 5th editions.

I've since picked up the PDFs of most of the 6th edition materials - and am saddened to see just how low the company has been driven by the RPG market. Many of the books that would have been no-brainers in the past are now off the to-do list entirely, and they're reliant on Kickstarter to get some of the projects off the ground - quite successfully, but still.

That said, I wanted to give the game a fair shake, and have been reading through the books again, especially in light of the graduate-level coursework I've received at the hands of many of the authors that write for Steve Jackson Games, in the GURPS line of products. And the area of most RPGs that gets the most attention is the combat system, so that seemed like a good place to get my feet wet and see what's under the hood.

I will start with one thing that I find really quite attractive about the way that Hero handles skill level.

Very broadly, combat results are determined by comparing OCV (Offensive Combat Value) and DCV (Defensive Combat Value), and applying the results of a single roll of 3d6. OCV and DCV represent the kind of broad-based competence at combat of all sorts, reflective less of specific training than innate ability, whether that be from natural, supernatural or super-powered reasons.

For greater levels of nuance, especially in heroic games (as opposed to superheroic games, to use the common means of differentiating Hero System genres), you can buy Combat Skill Levels to grant specific bonuses to very broad ranges of activity (e.g. "with all Hand to Hand Combat") or to very narrow ones (e.g. "with Pistols" or even "with Revolvers"). In all but the most narrow of skills, these are very potent in their versatility, being used for offense, for defense, or even to increase damage potential for the blow (though the options are mutually exclusive, and each level of CSL can only be used for one bonus at any given time). This represents greater skill and training, which can allow the character to focus on accuracy, self-protection or the power behind his attack.

Finally, in heroic games, characters must be given Weapon Familiarities - inexpensive skills that grant them the ability to use weapons or weapon groups without penalty.

All of this leads up to a system that allows for the kind of Ultimate Badass character, who is just good at combat of any kind, regardless of the situation (high OCV and DCV), to characters who are much more realistic, with a fairly mundane ability to fight (normal OCV/DCV) but with specific skills (WF: Common Melee Weapons and +2 with Blades, Polearms and Two-Handed Weapons) that grant him flexibility in combat situations that fit into his training.

I'm still a little on the fence about the single roll to determine the outcome of combat - it feels a bit old-fashioned, and leaves the defender with limited ways to directly influence the outcome of an attack. It's a passive sort of protection that abstracts the bob-and-weave, the parry and block, and the give and take of the combat action a bit more than I prefer.

Another aspect of this is the way that hits are determined, with a base 11- to hit between two otherwise equal combatants (where OCV and DCV are the same). I've come to expect a realistic system will give equal fighters something more akin to a 1 in 4 chance of actually landing a blow, at best, so this feels like it might well be a design compromise intended to keep combat flowing quickly, and from bogging down with too many missed rolls - again, including an abstraction of a hit being 'the one that got through' out of a batch of attacks over the course of several seconds.

Which brings me to the area I'm currently having the most difficulty being forgiving about - the notion of character speed, and phases of activity. Turns in Hero are 12 seconds long, and a character's Speed determines how many actions he gets in that 12 second turn. Average humans have a Speed of 2, meaning that they only get to act twice in any given 12 second turn. This is remarkably abstracted, and includes the notion that some people think about things longer than others, that there's a certain level of hesitation amongst normal folk that wouldn't be there in heroes and superheroes, and the idea that an action on a phase is just the result of a number of different actual actions that culminate in an effect. It's not like you take six seconds between swings of the sword, but rather that only twice per 12-second turn do you actually attempt to land a blow, amongst all of the clash of blades, the hesitations and evaluations, the circling and the banter that's going on.

What it really comes down to is that I need to run some sample combats - maybe I'll try what +Vaclav Tofl is doing with his GURPS gladiatorials, only with Hero System combatants - and see just how it all shakes down in the thick of the fight. It may be that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, and the sacrifices being made to the gods of expediency and abstraction aren't the wonder-killers I'm making them out to be.


  1. There actually are 3 combat maneuvers that give a defender an active roll in Hero System, Dodge, Block and Dive for Cover, all 3 are abort-able, meaning that as long as you haven't already acted that segment you can sacrifice your next move and get the bonus.

    This really can make for an interesting combat. In a heroic setting I remember playing a character who was out classed in OCV by his opponent but was able to win the fight by using his better speed to keep his DCV much higher than normal with Martial Dodge and keep a free attack he could use to do some damage.

    When you add in some of the optional rules abilities like Fast Draw, Presence attacks and Martial Arts from Martial hero you get a really good system. It just depends on what you want to simulate.

    1. Yeah, an earlier draft delved into the options available to a defender to extend his defenses. I'm just coming at this from a heavy immersion in GURPS mechanics, where the ability to respond to an attack is assumed, so this definitely falls into the category of low-level systemic differences.

      I'll look into the options presented in Martial Arts to see how many of them help flesh things out further for me.

  2. Also remember that GURPS and Hero come at things from a different philosophy. Gurps was designed to be a very gritty and more realistic combat system. Hero was designed to be more cinematic in feel.
    As the person pointed out above there are defensive maneuvers. 3 of the basic ones were listed above. There are also additional maneuvers that you can purchase as part of a Martial Arts discipline.
    Also there are options available to make combat more varied and dangerous. One popular thing that people use in Heroic level games is Hit Locations. With this you roll to hit, Roll again to see where and then roll damage. So you may hit, but actually end up hitting someone in the leg for little damage that is mitigated by the targets defense that is directly subtracted from the damage.
    I would recommend using Hit Location for your Gladitorial Test runs, it will make the contests much more dangerous.

    1. I'm pretty sure that I'll be using all of the optional rules, Tasha - certainly hit locations, probably things like bleeding and injuries as well, and outside of the arena, long-term endurance loss.

    2. Before you go full bore on using _all_ the optional rules, you may want to consider that they aren't necessarily all designed to be used together, or represent different nuances along a spectrum, or to configure the system for different power levels.

      Also, specifically on the subject of options that affect lethality, using too many or the wrong ones for the level of lethality you are aiming for can be counter productive and risk hosing the PC's far more than the NPC's.

      I've put together some advice documents over the years vis a vis lethality options; they are collected here:


      Also, I put together a campaign worksheet that has a toggle chart of either / or options that fall on either side of the heroic / superheroic cusp; its about 1/3 into the document. Options on the right will pull the campaign closer to heroic / gritty / realistic, options on the left will pull it towards superheroic / non-lethal / cinematic.


    3. Thanks, Shrike - that saves me a great deal of trouble in going through the assorted PDFs and collating all of the options and their viability. Lord knows we have seen the same thing in GURPS, with some switches directly contraindicated by others, and some that just don't belong together if you're trying to crank up either realistic lethality or cinematic badassery.

  3. I picked up HERO briefly (first Champions in maybe 1988) but also Fantasy Hero and Robot Warriors as well. I don't play it anymore (neglect rather than dislike, and all of my old RPG games got gone somehow, somewhere, from my parent's house) but if you wanted to take it for a spin, I'm game.

  4. You will be, of course, welcome Doug. I want to get a fight in the GURPS arena under my belt first, and then I'll investigate the tools from the GM's side of the screen.

  5. As to the passiveness of OCV vs DCV, you are not taking into account the Abort concept, which allows defenders react to attacks for defensive purposes.

    Beyond the "free" options of Dodge, Block, Dive For Cover, and Roll With Punch, there are also a nice collection of purchasable maneuvers that open that up further, and many power constructs can be aborted to also.

    Further, held actions, options like suppressing fire and covering, triggered abilities, and so forth also exists.

    I can honestly say that the HERO System offers one of the most defender-friendly interactive combat systems I've ever encountered, and I've played a lot of systems.

    Actual game play using the HERO System with a crew that knows what they are doing will put the lie to the OCV vs DCV static-ness you dislike. It gets pretty crazy at times, in fact.

    1. I look forward to putting the system to the test in a very thorough way. Any particular gotchas to look out for?

      And how do you explain the time between phases - I know that the bonuses and penalties from your last maneuver continue to be in play until your next phase, but is whatever is occurring during that time just abstracted out?

  6. I look forward to seeing your Hero blow-by-blow combat example.


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