Written in conjunction with the fine folks over at Dyver's
This is a love story.
Sometimes a mechanic just grabs me. (No. Not that kind of mechanic, a game mechanic.)
It's not the presentation, the setting or the subject but the way the game approaches what it does and how it applies itself.
It' about loving a design, loving the way all the parts just fall into place and work.
I need to go back in time a bit to get this started.
It’s around 1994 or 1995, I'm in college my friends and I play 2nd edition when we can. I'm in the now defunct Rhinebeck used book store prowling for old rpg books. Sitting there on the front table is a copy of “DC heroes 3rd edition.”
The cover features Batman, Doomsday, the Joker and most prominently Wonder Woman. It’s an odd shiny cover the production values look good. My attention however, is mostly drawn to a small white mark down sticker that said “$4.98”.
I figure, “Price is right why the hell not and It will likely give me some ideas for Marvel.”
So I snatched it up.”
To be clear I don't, and never have read comics. It's one section of Geek culture that missed me completely, but I did have friends that read comics and we used to play FASERIP marvel superheroes every now and again. That was and is my extent of comics knowledge, just what I could absorb via osmosis from my comic loving friends.
At the time I had no idea that Mayfair games was in it's death throws, or that this game was part of a hot intellectual property debate, or that TSR had just sued Mayfair over “role-aides” and that the company burnt a lot of resources in it's own legal defense. I had no idea I was holding what was basically a RPG corpse.
Once I got home, I opened the book and started reading.
“One: Attribute points are the basic form of measurement in the DC heroes RPG. Everything including Time, Distance and Volume is measured in Attribute Points.”
Such a simple statement yet it covers so much ground. It was the first time I had seen a game that took its setting and everything in it and tied it (no lashed it) to the mechanics. The game was written as if one never could have existed without the other.
Forget how many pounds your character can lift, now it's how many AP's. Since AP's measure everything simple formulas can be applied to in game problems.
You want to know how far your superhero character can throw a car? Subtract the weight in AP's from the characters strength. The resulting number is the distance in AP the character can throw a car.
Your strength 10 superhero can toss that car up to 150 feet.
My next thought was, “How does this communicate heroic scale?” Attributes which are also AP are exponential so a hero with a strength of three is 2X as strong as someone with a strength of two and so on. Each AP covers the range of measurements from its base up to the next AP for example 7AP of time covers the range from 4 minutes to 8.33 minutes, 8AP’s of time covers the values for 8.33 up to 16.66 and so on.
So on a more heroic scale a character with a strength of 20 can lob that same car 28 miles, because that hero is just that much stronger than your comparatively tiny strength 10 hero.
You want to know about distances and timing out actions in game events?
How far can I fly with my flight power of eight ? Thats a quarter mile in 0 AP of time which is 4 seconds. How long will it take for my character to fly to that hospital a mile away then? Remember we only have 10 minutes before the bomb goes off! A mile is 10 Ap of distance and you can fly 8 AP worth of speed, so if you haul ass you can get there in around 16 seconds which is 2 AP of time For the record you have about 8 AP of time left before ..BOOM..
Tell me exactly how far your strength 17 fighter in AD&D can toss a sack of potatoes? It’s an easy question for a gm; the answer “far enough.” Here however, I had something that could tell me exactly and without question. The designers had managed to quantify the world in a very applicable way. Right now It might not seem like much. In today's world where many games have moved to a much more abstract design model it might not even seem necessary It may seem unnecessary and too “crunchy.”
At the time I was blown away.
Actions are determined using Acting, Effecting, Opposing and Resisting values based on the character's and the target's attributes or powers. The acting values and opposing values are referenced on a action table to see what number the player must beat on 2d10, with doubles exploding. After a success is rolled the gm looks at the result chart where the effect value is compared to the resistance value to determine how many AP are earned as a result. (called unsurprisingly Result AP's or RAP’s)
Sounds like a lot, and there are some more fiddly bits to it. Things like rolling well to earn column shifts on the result table as so on. The system takes a bit of mastery on the part of the Game master.
In spite of that it works extremely well in play. Seeing as everything is AP's those result AP's can be anything. Information gained in an interrogation, amount of a wall kicked down, how far you threw the Joker, how hard that punch was, whatever.
Another small almost forgotten blurb can be found on Page 89 in a box text blurb titled “altering the game environment.”
This text states, “The game master may allow the players to spend hero points to alter the game environment to suit their fancy.” Then goes on to give an in game example about a player spending points to “find” a beaker of acid in the lab that he then throws in the bad guys face.
This is a good place to restate that I had been playing a lot of D&D at the time and had the mind set, “If the Gm did not say a thing was there then it was either hidden or not there at all.”
The idea that the players could have an idea then spend some resource to insert their idea into the games environment was totally new to me.
In other games If my character was in an orc camp I could ask, “Does my fighter see any torches laying around?” and the Gm could say yes or no.
That interaction is completely different than saying, “How many hero points would it cost for me to find a torch sitting near the fire pit?”
In my mind it was a paradigm shift. More to the point It’s an idea that I have since lifted to greater and lesser degrees for every game I have written.
At the time, DC Heroes was the single most eloquent merging of setting, subject and system I had seen. It still is. Much Like the Amber dice-less system had a few years before it opened my eyes to a new way of looking at game design. It was not separate systems for character creation, then combat, then the world, it was one unifying system that encompassed and unified all of that and not only remained thematic it bolstered the theme.
Sure there are warts.
It's point buy character creation system, which is open for abuse by taking extraneous character limitations for points. I'm not sure all of the fiddly math bits and examples included in the game text are necessary and at some points definitely occlude the real greatness of the system. The gadget section is almost useless. I think the usability of the book overall is weak.
I loved it.
So what happened?
I've only played it once. Once in 20 years.
Like a cast off note to an unrequited love, it has sat neglected in a box for all these years. In fact to write this I had to climb into my attic to retrieve my yellowing copy.
This is a system that is hard to sell to players who are used to D&D and it's ilk. By the time I got my hands on it our group were all into D&D and had moved on from the idea of playing comic book characters.
I thought about porting things into it. I quickly gave up on the idea because what makes the game great is how well it ties the world to a super heroic level of game play. Running a fantasy style game with this would be like hunting deer with a howitzer. Explosive, and only fun once.
When it finally did get played we had a good time, but it was the same good time we have with Deluxe Car Wars, Super Mario, or Paranoia. It's the fun of looking back on what was cool then, how RPG's used to be written and how things were. I don't think any of us ever considered making it a regular thing.
For me it remains my favorite game that I never really got to play. It remains influential in how I look at game design. It remains one of the measuring sticks I hold any new system up to.
It remains that one system that absolutely grabbed me.
Thank you for reading.
DC Heroes 3rd edition was published by Mayfair games inc. 1993
Copyright: DC Comics.
Game design credit listed as: Greg Gorden.
Editorial duties and 3rd ed revision Credit to: Bryan Nystul.
The system was known as the "Mayfair Exponential Game System" or MEGS. I never knew that until the past few years, to me it has always been "DC Hero's 3rd edition".
The Game system in it's most current form was published by Pulsar games under the title "Blood of Heroes" ISBN-13: 978-0966528039