Hello again, everybody. So, being trapped at home for the last couple weeks I once again found myself picking through my books, which seems to be a running theme for me if you can remember a few of my earlier articles. Going through my shelves, I couldn’t help but stop on the one that houses my collection of superhero RPGs, my eyes coming to linger on a title that I’ve looked at recently but haven’t actually played for a few years now. If you recall, I’ve said in a previous post that my go to for supers is the old DC Heroes system by Mayfair Games, and don’t expect that to change because that has held true for quite some time a will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But every now and then it’s fun to put old standbys aside and play around with something different, and given that I had recently read a review about this particular title I thought I might put my own two cents in. So, let’s talk about the game that is Heroes Unlimited, and see if we can fix some of its more that apparent *cough* limitations.
Heroes unlimited is Palladium’s answer to the world of superhero RPGs and works just like all their other products if you’re familiar with them, using a version of their Megaversal system that was first developed in 1981. The idea is that having one system for everything would allow Palladium fans to use their characters across all their books should they wish to, but it’s a notion that just doesn’t quite work out all that well when put into practice. I could go into this more but that’s a whole other thing in and of itself, so for now, let’s just stick with Heroes Unlimited.
Heroes Unlimited carries the vibe that the creators said to each other, “What if we use D&D rules to play a supers game,” which in some ways works but in others fails horribly. Don’t get me wrong, you can tell that the writers had a deep love and affection for what they were going for, but with some of the choices they made about how the system was built, they just missed the mark. The game is currently in its third edition after first being published in 1984 I believe, and has improved in leaps and bounds since then, but still feels very antiquated and disjointed by contemporary standards.
For starters, creating a character is based straight off D&D for the most part, by rolling 3D6 and recording the values straight down the line of stats, adding on extra dice if you can manage to get a sixteen or higher. There’s a snag, though, as they’ve taken D&D’s six base attributes and replaced with like nine of their own, splitting a few into two different statistics when just renaming them and using one would have sufficed. They also followed the trend of having the attributes be damn near useless and just numbers on a page after you’ve rolled up your hero, with only a few being used to calculate attack bonus, defense, and hit points, and no difference or bonuses at all with an attribute score of eight through fifteen, a big ass gap in my opinion. This might have seemed best with what they were trying to do at the time, but with the coming of the open game license, this could easily be revised and reworked to something a lot smoother than what it is.
Next, we come to the way the game handles skills, which is another swerve where things get a bit thrown off. Most of this game is by and large a D20 style system, with combat, damage, and powers all settled with a roll the dice, add up bonuses, and get over a target number mechanic. For some reason they thought let’s make skill checks a roll under percentile system all their own, without ever really crossing paths with the rest of the game. Once a fight breaks out the game uses one set of rules, but when a skill is needed it diverts to a different set of guidelines that has no bearing on the previous, leaving everything feeling very disjointed and unconnected. I can live with that little quirk because I’ve played other systems that are like this too, but one thing that I can’t live with is how skills improve and grow. Every skill starts out with its own preset value and then increases at a standard, fixed rate, which all has to be looked up individually by flipping back and forth between pages of listings. This not only bugs me in an ease of use with the game book and system sense, but it ensures that every character with the same skill progresses at the exact same rate, becoming mere carbon copies of one another in a way. This adds up to just make characters less unique and boring, which will quickly cause the players to check out and not care.
We get a nice discussion on the nuts and bolts of combat next, and I have to say this is a section of the book that I actually like. Characters get a number of attacks each melee based on their combat style and level, with fights lasting until all the characters involved are out of actions and then a new round starts. This really works for me as it gives characters with a lot of experience or the appropriate combat training an edge, allowing them to shine with a blinding number of strikes coming at their foe to really bring the fight. You make your roll and add up your attack bonuses, with anything over a four scoring a hit. But if the target is wearing armor it can lessen the blow or even negate it all together, along with absorbing its own share of damage, which makes it a heck of a lot more useful than its D&D counterpart. A character also gets to attempt to parry hand to hand attacks as a free reaction and can attempt to dodge ranged ones by making an opposed defense roll against their opponent to avoid getting tagged. In all, I really enjoy the dynamic of the combat system that Heroes Unlimited uses, as I feel the give and take of attack and defense really engages both sides at the same time, instead of just a having a static defense score against an active attacker. One thing I will say is that some characters can have a boat load of hit points to whittle through, so some fights can go on for kind of a longtime, but beyond that, it’s pretty slick.
Next, we jump into the various Occupational Character Classes, or OCCs, and by extension the various systems of powers and equipment the game uses, and here’s where things just get jumbled and clunky. Heroes Unlimited works on a leveling system for its classes much like D&D does. Get enough experience points and go up a level to increase your badassness, should be simple enough, right? But each of the classes levels up and works completely differently from one another, with very few connecting threads running between them and absolutely no balance to speak of. There’re aliens, mutants, mutant animals, investigators, physical training specialists, wizards, psychics, cyborgs, and even more than that, with all of them feeling like their own microcosm of rules sets. It almost seems like a different person went through and wrote each of the different entries and then they all came together to try to make some sense out of it, but in the end just said screw it and through it all together. Superpowers work differently from magic, psychics are an island unto themselves, robots and cyborgs should be similar but aren’t, and physical training heroes can throw a wrench into an already convoluted skills system. It’s a confusing mess that can get frustrating to try and sort through and put it all together, especially trying to figure out how to relate everything to each other or if you’re new to the game, and that’s no fun for anybody.
I should mention something on superpowers really quick before we move on, as they are probably going to be the most common thing used to set your character apart. There are a good amount of them to choose form but one thing that bugs me is that they are broken up into minor and major categories, with no real crossover possible if you roll really crappy to see what your character can choose from. Minor powers might let you do one thing, while a major power will cover several effects under a single heading. I’d like at least a little customization here, with the option of dropping out and plugging in some different effects. Given the title of the game, you’d think that would be possible, but sadly we’re left with what they gave us.
Okay, so here’s the question, is Heroes Unlimited even worth playing after I’ve so brutally trashed it? And the short answer is no, not as written. It’s bloated, lacks focus, and it’s very confused about what it wants to be in terms of calling itself unlimited but being very constraining. The long answer, however, is yes, there’s some good fun to be had here. But it’s going to take some work on your part if you’re so inclined to do so, but luckily, I’m here to help you.
First off, let’s take a quick look at the attributes. Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot to change here, but if you’ve ever played older editions of D&D the static nature shouldn’t be all that new to you. I’d probably throw in a little mobility by giving a player a couple of points to play around with every third or fourth experience level or so, but otherwise, there’s not much else to do here.
The skills are next, and here’s where I’d make some big changes, because I absolutely hate how they’re written as is. I’d probably go ahead and the start the players out with the base value for each skill listed in the book but I’d immediately dump the increase in fixed increments idea. To switch it up, I’d give everybody something like twenty or twenty-five skill points per level to distribute as they saw fit, putting them wherever they wanted to make the character truly their own. Not only does this make everyone feel more in control, but it also ensures that each character is more unique and individually skilled, which is always better than cookie cutter characters that all work the same in my opinion.
Combat is quick and relatively easy once you get the hang and flow of it. Don’t touch it, it’s fine as is.
Okay, let’s talk about the classes next, and see if we can sort through that tangled mess together. To begin with, if I’m not running a straight magic or psionics style game I’d dump the wizards and psychics altogether, there’s just too much to work in and keep track of along with everything else that’s going on. Use them by themselves or pit them against each other, but otherwise, nope. After that, I’d really look and see what kind of game you wanted to run, and then narrow down the class options based on what’s prudent to that theme. Want to run something where all the players are trained super soldiers and cyborgs fighting against robots, then use those classes, or if mutants and crimefighters are your thing, just focus on these. For an easy standard if you’re unsure, go with physical training, mutants, experiments, and hardware, and if you’re feeling really frisky toss in the mega-hero for the heck of it. These should be more than enough to cover your bases and your players tastes, but if someone really wants to pay something else then go for it, but the point is to make it easy and manageable for all involved.
I’ll touch on powers again before we wrap things up, and I’ll see if I can’t make this a bit more flexible and fluid. I’ve already mentioned that superpowers are split into two categories, with one being minor and the other being major respectively. Minor powers might do anything from giving you laser vision to super strength, while major powers would be like altering your body into fire to allow you fly, shoot fiery blasts, and control temperature and heat. I really feel this is kind of broken the way it is, especially if your character can only choose, and is limited to, the minor powers. What I would do is let characters with minor powers choose from the major power list too but have each aspect under a particular power category count as a single minor power. Here’s and example. Say you have one minor power and want your character just to be able to turn into fire and do nothing else, but unfortunately there’s no option in the minor category that allows them to do so. Just let the player take alter physical structure fire with only that one part of the power as their choice, leaving behind the flight, shooting flames, and so forth. It may not be how the game is written but I think that it works a lot better and opens things up for more diverse options, which always makes things more interesting and keeps the players on their toes.
To put a bow on it, Heroes Unlimited can be a good time if you’re willing to overlook its faults and put in a bit of fine tuning and modification. As it sits, it’s a clunky, crunchy system that hasn’t aged all that gracefully, and the classes drastically need trimmed down and focused in on. It does have a nice combat system that works pretty well, though, with a back and forth that keeps players engaged even when they aren’t attacking, and I wish D&D were more like that. Some of its supplements are actually really fun to take a look at too, with Century Station having some interesting ideas and Villains Unlimited packed full of some really nasty NPCs to throw at players. If it’s more powers you want, they have Powers Unlimited volumes one thru three also, which adds a ton more options if you take my advice from above. I think the system could work best in lower powered street level or team style games, similar to how the X-men were first portrayed before everything got over-bloated with world smashers and the like. Although, with the mega-hero class as a base, a big badass villain would be a lot of fun to throw against the characters, seeing their eyes fly wide when a single punch floors one of them outright. Heroes Unlimited is definitely not going to be for everyone for sure, and might just be a nostalgia lovers thing in the end. But I’m used to dealing with systems like this and more than capable of reworking them to do what I want, so I might just have to put something together for a quick game or two now. If you check it out, don’t say I didn’t warn you about what you were getting into, but if you slog through the mess there’s still some good stuff to play around with. If you ever give it a whirl let me know, and have fun saving the day, gang!