Monday, August 20, 2012

Rediscovering DC Heroes

I never really grokked DC Heroes. I remember when it came out about a year or so after Marvel Super Heroes. One of my friends got it we looked at it, played around with making a character or two, and then we pretty much let it go. People then and now have varying opinions on the system but in my view it had three major problems: Champions, MSH, and AD&D.

Regardless of the mechanics we already had Champions and liked it for our "serious" superhero game which mainly consisted of us making up new characters and then running around beating up Viper agents and villains from the Enemies books - there was not a lot of plot in our games back then.

MSH was still pretty new but it had a lot of support and that system was a lot of fun mechanically. It was easy to just jump in and start playing with a pre-made hero and making your own - while not the sub-game that was Champions character creation - was pretty fun too with random rolls and a lot of on-the-fly imagination required.

Then there was the fact that most of our RPG time went to AD&D anyway. That's just how it was back then. A day off from school meant scraping together some money, cutting a Domino's Pizza coupon out of the back of the phone book, arguing over what to order, and hours and hours of AD&D most of the time - at least we had some focus back then! We also had a lot more time, but it took a lot for a game to break into our regular rotation. DCH never did.

Additional considerations: I was more into Marvel comics - between the Avengers and the X-Men I was not at all interested in Superman and Batman. Also, Teen Titans? I hated that name and I was unfamiliar with the characters, instant turn-off - they should have focused on the Justice League.

Later in college when the 2nd Edition came out one of that group tried to fire it up - this was around the time of the big Keaton Batman movie - and got all of one session out of it. I remember hating it and wanting to get back to our regular games. We played a lot of GURPS in that group and compared to that it was not intuitive. We also played a lot of Champions which also had a bright new edition about that same time and became our standard set of rules for the next couple of years.

The funny thing looking back is that the rules are not any more complicated than Champs or AD&D or even GURPS. Even MSH isn't necessarily in a different class other than one key area: MSH used one big bright colored table. DCH used two tables, with a lot of numbers in them, and no real color. I think that was a bigger factor than I like to admit, and likely not just for me. Rolling up success and degree of success into a single roll made the game feel like it was an order of magnitude simpler when it was up against the to-hit roll/damage roll mechanic of most other RPG's at the time. Even though DCH still only used one actual die roll, you had to check two tables, and I think that really held it back. Plus colors are friendlier than numbers when you're going to have a whole table of them. Compare:

Find your stat, roll your dice, tell me what color you get.

Find your stat, find their stat, roll your dice, check for column shifts, now look at the second table and find your other stat, find their other stat, look at the number, shift up or down, now tell me your final result. 
I think this was one of the barriers to DCH becoming more popular - it looked like a more serious game (yes back in the 80's more charts = more serious game)  and most people did not take superheroes as a "serious" game. Now I know it had to have some success as there was quite a bit of material for it but I still think Marvel was the more popular game for most of its run. I know it was locally - didn't know anyone who played it regularly during high school and college. Even at local conventions you might see a Marvel or Champions game but I don't recall seeing any DC games.

Regardless of this prior experience, I have somehow ended up with copies of all 3 editions of the game. I decided to give it another look and started with the 1st edition. I have to say I think it's a pretty good game, and after my comments above I think we can rule out nostalgia as a factor here. I think the mechanics work well and of course the one thing everyone says about the system is that it handles a massive range of powers - I see that and agree. I think it shares a quality with Champions in that it looks complicated when looking over the rulebook but in play it's really not all that complex. I'm going to try it out with the Apprentices in the very near future to test this theory and I expect to be proven right.

Also, this was a damn fine boxed set: intro booklet that actually shows the mechanics - player book with the system and character creation rules - DM book with advice, a universe guide, maps to bases and cities, lists of gear and gadgets, and a big batch of character stats - a striking and well-done 3 panel DM screen - cards with character stats for a bunch of DC heroes - and stand-up counters for all of these same heroes - that's a huge batch of awesome in one box! How did I not like this? I wonder how much something like this would cost now? I'm guessing it would have to come from Fantasy Flight and would cost a lot. Just flipping through it makes me want to put the kids in front of the TV for a Justice League DVD viewing followed by a multi-hour session of this game!

The stats for the game were elegant as well. Physical/Mental/Spiritual on the horizontal, Action/Effect/Resistance on the vertical - that may be the finest way of doing these things that I can remember. It's intuitive, it helps the player remember what these stats mean, and it looks good on the page. Also, I was a fan of the Tri-Stat system's concepts, and I have no doubt that here we see some of its origin. 

Now I am sure there are some clunky bits in there somewhere. I'v heard some negative things about the gadget rules, and actual play tends to reveal the sharp edges of any system, but it looks much better than I remember as I read through it 20+ years later.  Plus I do have Second Edition, and Third if I need to start tinkering.

A lot of the fun to me in a DC or Marvel game is in being able to play the iconic heroes. Sure, I like making my own just as much as anyone, but I have Champions/ICONS/V&V etc etc for that. Sure, I could play the Amazing Aluminum Man in Marvel New York and have him join the Avengers, but why not just play Iron Man? If I'm going to have all of the background (or baggage) of Metropolis or the Watchtower then let's play the characters who belong there! A long-term campaign might be different but for the games we tend to play I think the brand-name heroes will work just fine. Plus there is the appeal of handing out the cards - "here, you're Superman, you're Batman, and you're Green Lantern - let's go."   

I've run on quite a bit here but the net result is this: we're going to give it a try, and of course I will report back when we do.


Jay Murphy said...

If you are using the word "grok" I am onboard!

Adam Dickstein said...

You and I had a completely different initial take on this game. My group and I loved DC Heroes, even though we acknowledged its flaws outright.

We had not yet discovered Champions when DC Heroes entered the scene and when we finally did see it no one bothered looking at it. Art in a Superhero game mattered ALOT to us in those days, comic book fanatics that we were. You've seen the original Champions cover, right? Yeah, this had a cover by George Perez. George Perez!!! Interior art by Perez, Garcia-Lopez and many other favorites of ours at the time.

MSH was viewed as too silly by our group. The basic game really turned us off. Back then we saw it as a game for kids and it didn't interest us. Also, many of us were more DC Fans than Marvel Fans at that point.

Unless forced to play D&D, I was already long past playing it on a regular basis. As I was the primary go-to GM for both my School group and my Summer Camp group, I didn't run D&D except one campaign of my personal hack/homebrew. Our standard games of choice were Star Trek, Star Wars (homebrew mix of Traveller and Space Opera) and Villains & Vigilantes. Our other favorite pastime was trying new games.

The timing on DC Heroes was perfect...Superhero game with great art, sharp graphics, lots of cool pieces in an awesome box, new rules we hadn't tried yet...SOLD.

I miss our Justice League Earth campaign. So freaking fun. One day I'll have to resurrect it somehow for DC Adventures/M&M 3E.

infornific said...

You might find this site useful if you aren't already familiar with it -

Doc Savage said...

DC Heroes 2nd edition fixed flaws of 1st: relative power costs and adding advantages/disadvantages to make 2 characters with same stats still different. Played the heck out of it! Alsoenjoy 2ndedition Champions. MSH I only use if I have to entice a non-RPGer with a simple-to-learn system.