Heroes is one of those fascinating throwbacks to the gaming of yesterday that simultaneously entertains and horrifies the modern gamer in equal measure. Dave Millward, the writer, recently re-released the game to mixed reviews - though I got the feeling most of the disgruntlement came down to the price of the game! Heroes has accumulated a reputation that means copies have gone for substantial sums of money on internet auction sites (I have seen mentioned of $200). Is it worth the money?
What is it?
Heroes is an oddly shaped rulebook that doesn't quite conform to any normal paper size. It contains 80 pages of typewritten content in a thick card cover, as well as a 4 page gazetteer of the Ouesterlands and a (roughly) A2-sized map of the campaign area on thick paper. Produced by the Tabletop Games & Nottingham Model Soldier Shop in 1979, it features cover art by the legendary John Blanche (of Games Workshop / White Dwarf fame). Another artist (initials NJK) provides a scattering of illustrations throughout the interior. Proclaiming itself a "Role Playing Game Set in the Dark Ages", Heroes is a role playing game set in an alternate Earth-style Dark Ages setting.
The pages primarily keep to a single column interspersed with tables. Occasionally, a table falls to the side of the text. The typewritten text remains legible throughout, though line spacing is pretty tight. Some tables come boxed, others in columns without constraining lines.
First and foremost, Heroes isn't just about the individual adventures of a bunch of characters. Heroes places emphasis on the way the characters interact with each other and the populous environment that surrounds them. In many ways, it feels like - in D&D parlance - you've skipped the red and blue boxes, heading straight into the business of land ownership and long term investment opportunities. Millward clearly used this system to run his own games over a time - and he indicates that the system, as written, received 18 months of play-testing before publication in this volume.
The game provides a core setting and starting point on page 2, the prosperous port of Triente in Translavonia. The port has changed hands over the years, but has become increasingly independent over time. Nobility, criminal and religious parties vie for control, and the characters find themselves somewhere in the middle.
This background ties neatly into most of the system, which ties heavily into the business of social status and wealth. Choosing a Character starts by finding your birthplace, determining your 'class' (or more precisely career) and then your birth position in the family. Your land of origin influences your weapon training, while your class determines your initial wealth, social status, special knowledge (skills) and attribute base value.
Individual Attributes have a big impact on the system, and these you determine both through the random throw of a dice and your class base value. Heroes uses two 10-sided dice to generate either percentile values or numbers from 1 to 10. The game assumes that you use a black and red dice, with the black as tens and the red as units - and the colour matters in some sections, so you need to make a call on your own variant colour choice (so, if you have a yellow and a green die, you need to make a declaration which will be your 'black' die and which your 'red'). The individual attributes outlined for initial character generation are:
Strength Value (SV)
Personality and Charm (PC)
Berserker Potential (BP)
Missile Shooting Ability (MA)
Close Combat Value (CV)
I spent most of my time reading this book having to return to and review this page almost constantly as none of those abbreviations, bar IQ, means very much at all when you start getting into the thick of the system. A single additional letter would have made all the difference for my recollection, along with avoiding the abbreviation of the ability, value or - later on - rating.
That's another thing... Something that really bothers me about the whole Heroes system is that organisation varies wildly and attributes come off worst. While most get generated on page 10, you determine Personal Appearance on page 14, Social Rating on page 16, Superstition Rating on page 57, Health Factor on page 76, Constitution Factor on page 75, and I don't have a clue where Wound Points. Wound Points have rules for healing them and losing them on pages 77 and 80, respectively, but nothing about how many with which a character starts.
While most of the attributes probably make sense without explanation, Berserker Potential warrants a mention. BP represents your ability to control your baser instincts and a lower value is better, in terms of self control, than a high one. BP ties into different experience in the game around appetites and combat, more often than not with failure to keep control having an adverse reaction.
A character accumulates Personal and Combat Experience Points (PEP and CEP) in the course of play, and these have a varied level of influence on the game. CEP really only matter in personal improvement - you increase CV, MA and AV with them. SV you can only improve by spending CV on a 3 CV for 1 SV ratio - so, there you're spending CEP indirectly. PEP, on the other hand, equates to more general personal experience - in terms of how the player runs the character, how they interact with the world around them, and how they get on. PEP and Social Rating have a direct link such that you can improve SR by expending PEP, but also lower SR when you lose PEP. The book doesn't really go into how tight that association between PEP and SR can get - but it does feel like you might lose social standing from declining PEP without ever having spent any of the experience to get a SR increase. For example, dealing in slavery will cause the loss of PEP, as does not dating, staying in poor accommodations, and not drinking enough alcohol (and small beer - the watered down stuff - doesn't count) - which in turn equates to a loss of social standing.
Heroes has a strong sense of a war-gaming heritage. Setting Up Incidents suggests that players and umpire need to agree a method of time keeping for the game, and recommends using the period of a week. For each week, a player notes a specific main activity their character plans to indulge in - e.g. practising with a weapon or teacher, healing, working, begging, carousing, travelling, or cutting purses. The umpire then uses the rules to determine the outcome of the activity and any incident that arises. And this game has a lot of rules, formulas and tables. If you want to work out whether something happens without too much uncertainty (i.e. not depending solely on role playing), Heroes has it covered. The bulk of the book has methods for handling:
Applying for official office
Dating and relationships
Personal upkeep, income and taxation
Travel and movement
Occurrences and incidents
Stuff that happens in Bawdy Houses, including drinking, gambling and brawls
Crime and punishment
Mounting an expedition, as well as major and minor campaigns on land and sea
Taking up a role in the Church
Ships and piracy
Merchant venturing, with rules on trade and commerce between towns and regions
If you have ever gone to one of the PDF role playing sites and thought about spending a dollar on a product that provides a random encounter list or a new supplements dealing with an obscure social encounter, Heroes probably got there first in 1979. In fact, it got there, provided several pages of tables on handling it, and broke it down into a convenient formula.
The list above takes up the bulk of the book, from the teens through to page 75. You then get a short set of rules around wounds, health, healing, doctors, and finally combat. Combat really isn't key to this game - and the author states that small and large scale conflict will get coverage in the later supplements 'Berserker' and 'Shield Wall' - neither of which saw publication. As two-thirds of page 78 contains an illustration, combat accounts for 2 1/2 of the total 80 page rule book, most of it made up of look-up tables. Deduct your opponents CV from your own, then compare on the Casualty Table to determine the chance of a successful hit. If you hit, the opponent - if a non-hero - gets a saving throw based on armour and the impact type of the weapon to survive. For a hero, determine hit location to discover if it might be armoured, then deduct Armour value from Wounds, with some possibility of special wounds like taking someone's eye out or shattering their knee cap.
The book and the Ouesterland Gazetteer provide background details on the regions in the map, the rulers, some of the key personalities - like nobles, clergy, and invaders, and the breakdown of Triente society - like the quarters of the town and official posts. The back of the Gazetteer has a matrix of trade goods with their value, availability and amount available broken down by source, for those keen on the mercantile lifestyle, or wanting to figure out how much the characters might get from protecting a merchant train or robbing it! The map shows a large area of coastal territory - the Ouesterlands being a miniaturisation of Dark Ages southern Europe. The hexed map provides locations for towns, roads, waterways, mountains, forest, marshes, castles and villages, with names for many.
My Thoughts in Summary
I'm intrigued and oddly excited about what Heroes represents. As a role-playing game, it lacks much of the trappings you'd associated with one today - while you have attributes and skills, you get no details around using them actively in play other than as part of some calculation or equation. However, you do get a lot of systems, details and ideas about handling the kind of day-to-day situations many games never even consider. As a tabletop game, you'd struggle to run this face-to-face, but it would probably work well for someone planning on running a game by forum or mail.
If you strip away the system, I can see value in using the setting, the map, and many of the basic systems - like the rules around acquiring official posts, investing in trade, and the like. In this respect, it reminds me of the default game from the original Traveller black books, where you made your name in the world through planning out exploits over the long term rather than weekly acts of daring-do down some damp and foetid hole in the ground. Instead of just role playing a character and their petty lives, Heroes offers ways and means to raise your game up to the meta level, considering your future as a land holder, on the battlefield beside your King, or running your own merchant company.
I'm certainly not suggesting that you run out and buy this game for an unreasonable sum of money - it isn't that great. As a game published in 1979, it has historical value for those inclined to bother with that sort of thing. Some of the ideas and crunch could be applied to your own game to cover those mechanics your own system doesn't account for or even consider. Unlike Disc-Continuity, which I reviewed recently, there is some sort of game here that you could play right off of the pages, but it still isn't ideal and you couldn't run it without much consideration, preparation and purpose.
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Cool review! Love reading about these old products from the early days of our hobby.