Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Champions System Review Part 3: 5th Edition

Greetings, readers! My apologies for taking so long since my last post – I was doing some additional research on today’s topic and got caught up with more work to make sure the Accursed setting gets everything together the right way!

In addition, I need to make sure and let you guys know I’m co-hosting the Gamer’s Tavern podcast with Darryl Mott (the Abstruse One at AICN Tabletop). The podcast is going quite well so I want to invite all my readers to come over and have a listen as we talk about all things gaming.

Without any further ado, let’s get into the meat of today’s post—part 3 of the Champions System review, focusing on the 5th edition of the Hero System.

As always, this review is from my own personal experiences, and your mileage may vary!

My personal journey with 5th edition is a long one—it’s fair to say that the majority of the games I’ve played of Champions have taken place in this edition of the game. I played a ton of 4th edition, of course, but 5th edition is where I got the most actual play of the game.

One of the best Champions games I was a part of during this period of time was the Vendetta Rhapsody campaign, GM’d by my good friend Grady Elliot. Grady structured the campaign like a mix of champions and dark champions, and I definitely remember how challenging the battles were—but the development of the characters and interaction with the world were even better.

A Look at 5th Edition

There are two names you need to know when it comes to the Hero System 5th edition: Steve Long and Darren Watts. Darren was the president of the company and basically its outward face, injecting a ton of passion for superheroes and fun into everything he touched. Steve was a writing machine, producing nearly all of the line either on his own or leading a team of additional designers on over 60 products. Where Darren brought passion and energy, Steve brought precision and production—he generated tons of content and tightened up the rules system, which is no small task. Steve’s background as a lawyer helped prepare him for this task!

The core book for 5th edition was a huge, thick tome—famously, it was considered bulletproof. It didn’t just look like a textbook, either—it was crammed full of the new rules system for Champions. The rules for 5th edition were quite extensive and well-balanced overall. The system on the surface did not differ much from 4th edition, but there were several changes that became evident with an in-depth look. I believe that 5th edition’s ruleset was superior to 4th in a number of ways, but there were few revolutionary changes. Most of the additions to the game rules involved adding considerable examples and clarifications to help players learn how to define their character’s abilities.

One of the most important things to note about 5th edition is that it was by far the most comprehensive and in-depth look at the Hero System ever made. The product line is immense and spans over 100 different products and over a dozen individual settings. Much like an earlier edition of Champions mingled with Autoduel, 5th edition had a crossover with the Guardians of Order superhero RPG, Silver Age Sentinels.

A True Hero Indeed

Without 5th edition, there would be no Hero System as we know it -- in the late 90's, the property had fallen into the hands of a company called Cybergames and was languishing there until Darren Watts got the ball rolling sometime in 2000 to put together a new incarnation of Hero Games. By 2002, the core books were released for the system and 5th edition was off and running. This edition of the Hero System would last eight years, until it was eventually replaced by sixth edition in 2010.


5th Edition won tons of awards for the core book and for other books in the line. The line gained recognition from all corners of the gaming industry, and could be found on bookshelves across the country. Lucha Libre Hero, Champions Battlegrounds, Dark Champions, Pulp Hero, and many others have all been nominated for or have received individual awards as well.


5th Edition suffered from some bad luck, especially with regards to its personnel. Andy Mathews was the art director for 5th edition for over seven years until his untimely death in 2008. Well-liked and a prolific gamer, Andy is greatly missed. Around 2003, writer Allen Thomas was hired to work on a number of books for 5th edition. There are many rumors surrounding Allen’s tenure with 5th edition, ranging from why he was hired (some say it was his proficiency with Indesign) over other well-known contributors (like Bob Greenwade and Michael Surbrook) to why he left (rumors claim it was due to a severe writer breakdown). Whatever the truth, Allen was no longer part of the team for 5th edition in 2006.

Creators Spotlight

Let’s take a quick look at the major names for this edition.

Steven Long

As mentioned above, no one defined the writing of 5th edition more than Steve Long. He wrote a huge chunk of the line by himself and even more as part of a team of writers.

Darren Watts

Darren is the true heart and soul of 5th edition, the architect of saving the line from falling into obscurity, and the tireless champion of passion and fun for the game. Darren’s love for the Hero System is obvious to see, especially in products like Lucha Libre Hero.

Storn Cook

Storn’s cover art and black and white interiors stand out as being high quality and helping to define the overall look of many of the line’s better-illustrated books.

The Fraim Brothers

These two artists provided some excellent covers and interior artwork that was always nice to see.

Michael Surbrook

Michael Surbrook is a big contributor to 5th edition, having written the two Asian Bestiaries and Ninja Hero. Michael also holds the record for writing the most articles for Digital Hero of any individual contributor!

Jason Walters

The “silent partner,” Jason Walters helped Hero Games succeed with 5th edition and provided key support to the line over many years.

Dave Mattingly

During 5th edition, Dave Mattingly was the director of the official online magazine for the line, Digital Hero.

Another awesome cover by Storn Cook.

Critical Hits

There are several shining lights of fifth edition that I want to single out for special mention here. These books were all of high quality overall, and many (such as Tuala Morn and Lucha Libre Hero) gave me the same feeling of excitement and vibrancy that I felt from many 4th edition products. Ninja Hero, the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Speedster, and especially the Ultimate Skill all provided some excellent expansions of the main rules and some really interesting ways to push the Hero System to the next level of creativity and elegance. Villainy Amok, PS238, and Fantasy Hero were all excellent additions to the game and are of great use to any Champions fan!

Critical Misses

Most of these are not terrible products (certainly not on the level of European enemies) and simply suffer from being entirely forgettable. There isn’t much more to say about these products except that they have the same issues as many other products in the line, including some poor quality artwork, bland setting information, and low-quality graphic design.
  • Everyman
  • Dark Champions: The Animated Series
  • Champions of the North 

A Word from the Editor

I want to take a moment here to mention that my personal feelings about Fifth edition are deeply involved with this particular blog post. For example, many of the main creators of 5th edition (such as Steve, Darren, and Jason Walters) are all friends of mine, and I have often described myself as a Hero System fanatic. That having been said, I feel that Rogue Warden deserves my most unbiased and honest opinions, especially with regards to presenting the information as accurately as possible. To be clear, I've done a ton of research on this particular topic, but there are some things mentioned here that are, at best, rumors, and cannot be entirely corroborated. The overall tone of this blog is not meant to be harsh or hateful--quite the opposite, as I do indeed love the Hero System.

However, I am not blind to its flaws, and Rogue Warden would not be doing any service by ignoring or failing to mention that 5th edition ran into a number of serious snags along the way. With all this having been said, let's take a look at some of the issues that plagued this edition:

All Substance, No Style

While 5th edition produced over 100 products, there were not many standouts due to a number of factors. Low production values, bland writing, and an uninteresting setting unfortunately led to a perception that this edition’s overall approach was quantity over quality.

The Steve Long Edition

Steve Long’s dominance of the writing for the line was both a blessing and a curse for 5th edition. His blessing, of course, is that he produced an amazing amount of content for the line. However, Steven’s particular style was very dry, and (especially for most of the setting books) ended up making for very bland reading. The effect of this approach meant that the Hero System line as a whole ended up feeling very homogenous. Nearly every important project was headlined by Steve, and this led to the direction of the game being nearly one-dimensional. Although 5th edition produced more content for the Hero System than any other incarnation, there are only a relative few standout books, especially compared to the wide variety of exciting, interesting, and fun to use products from 4th edition.

Vulnerability: Bad Art and Graphic Design (x2 effect)

If there’s one thing that I can point to as one of the downfalls of 5th edition, it is the artwork and graphic design. Unfortunately, 5th edition is chock-full of terrible, awful artwork. There are some pieces that work (mostly from the Fraim Brothers and Storn Cook) but overall, nearly every book has some artwork that simply makes the reader either feel confused (“Is this the guy that the text is describing? I really can’t tell.”) or displeased. It is truly a shame, since most of the books for 5th edition are not bad books—they deserve much higher quality artwork than they received. On top of that, the graphic design for the line—and for this, I am mainly talking about the covers and trade dress—doesn’t help the books stand out. On a shelf, the 5th edition line looks like a set of textbooks for a college course, not just in size, but also in the presentation. There is little to draw a customer in and make them realize just how cool and exciting and interesting the system truly is.

Erasing the Past

One of the true shames about the effects I just described above is that they compound on each other and actually cast shadows onto other parts of the system as well. When 5th edition left behind the well-developed world and characters from 4th edition, it lost a ton of interesting stories, characters, tropes and themes that had been created by a vibrant group of game authors. Unfortunately, the bland writing and poor artwork failed to bring much of the replacements developed for 5th edition to life. The headliner team of the Champions were nearly entirely replaced (leaving Defender intact, which was a bit confusing to fans of 4th edition – why keep him and not the rest? Why not just reinvent the entire team?), the Champions universe was reinvented (losing a lot of the fun, flavorful elements from before), and the rest of the setting was developed along those lines. This resulted in the 5th edition Champions Universe feeling like a very grim, depressing, and ultimately uninteresting place (with some exceptions, notably Dr. Silverback).

Third Party Publishing

The 5th edition of the Hero System enjoyed considerable support from third party publishers during its run, adding some of the best products for the line.

Blackwyrm Triumphs

Blackwyrm Publishing made significant additions to 5th edition, beginning with their award-winning character books, the Algernon Files and continuing with one of the best superhero settings ever written—Scott Bennie’s Gestalt.

In addition, Michael Surbrook published his own animepunk campaign setting Kazei 5—a setting so complete and thorough in its exploration of cyberpunk tropes that there was no need for any 5th edition Cyber Hero product.

And the Rest

A special mention here goes to Adventures into Darkness by Ken Hite; a fun look at comic books as if they were written by H.P. Lovecraft!

Also, Comstar Games produced Traveller Hero during this period—possibly the only license that actually works with 5th edition’s trademark minimalist cover design practice.

Jason Walters Interview

During my research for this post, I got a chance to talk to Jason Walters, current head of Hero Games. Jason was very gracious to allow me to present his answers here on Rogue Warden.

RW: Can you tell me more about why the 5th edition Champions Universe moved away from the setting established by 4th edition? For example, Champions of the North, the Mutant File, PRIMUS and DEMON, and VIPER are all very different in 5th than they were in 4th.

JW: Some of the changes can be attributed to the fact that Steve Long and Darren Watts (and, to a far lesser extent, other Hero authors such as Allen Thomas and Dean Shomshak) were simply different people than George McDonald, Steve Peterson, and their immediate circle of authors and designers. And the new Champions Universe products were tried out on entirely different and new playtest groups which had their input as well. (I belonged to Darren Watts' Masonic Street Irregulars.)

Thus, we had different tastes in comic book authors, watched different movies, had alternate views on how a super hero setting should operate, liked or disliked different characters, and so forth. It's understandable. For example, one reason C.L.O.W.N. didn't find its way into the 5th Edition Champions Universe was that Steve Long didn't find characters like Slapstick and Merry Andrew to be particularly funny. (I'm pretty sure Stan West wouldn't agree, but I'm with Steve on this one.)

Another factor was the need to update the Champions Universe a bit. All superhero universes need to be periodically updated, and the Champions Universe was certainly no exception. And it never pays to constantly walk over the same ground. People get bored with that.

Additionally, when a new creative team takes over an intellectual property as large and diverse as the Champions Universe -- particularly one created by a large group of designers with different thoughts, goals, and perceptions -- it's often easier (and better) to "reboot" the setting to some extent rather than keep trying to herd all those super-cats.

RW: On a similar note, can you tell me more about why the Champions themselves changed so much between 4th and 5th editions? (Losing Seeker, Solitaire, Jaguar, Obsidian, etc.) I had heard a rumor that there were some IP copyright issues involved with some of the characters.

JW: As far as I know this isn't true. I'm not aware of any copyright issues pertaining to these characters at all. Steve changed the team from 4E to 5E for two reasons. First, he didn't like most of the characters on the 4th Edition team, and didn't want to continue them. Second, he wanted iconic NPC heroes whom he felt were better examples of common comic book archetypes - and that newcomers to CHAMPIONS would find more useful.

RW: Can you tell me what you think was the biggest triumph for 5th edition? What about the biggest regret?

JW: IMO the biggest triumph of 5th edition was the sales numbers for the core book: roughly 30,000 individual copies sold in physical and electronic formats. That's a lot for a small roleplaying game publisher, and something Steve and Darren can always be proud of. Also, under Darren's stewardship, Hero Games released over 100 new products and was turned into a popular MMORPG. Not too shabby.

I think we all regretted our inability to consistently get high quality artwork into the books. We tried of course. Very, very hard. But Hero Games had a very small budget, and was trying to get 10 to 12 books published a year at one point. So the quality of the artwork often suffered.

RW: Can you tell me more about the rescue of Champions and the Hero System from Cybergames?

JW: I'm not going to go into great detail on that due to confidentiality agreements and my own sense of professionalism. Frankly, there's a lot about that time which will never be told... at least not in print! 
A great cover art piece by the Fraim brothers.

However, I will say that Cybergames were way ahead of its time in what they were trying to do. Namely, they eventually wanted to sell RPGs in electronic format to an online audience. RPGNow, DriveThroughRPG, e23, and so forth have proved that they were on the right track, generally speaking, but the technology just wasn't there in the late 90's. And they'd decided that the best way to accomplish their goal was to literally buy every company whose products they would sell. This turned out not to be such a great idea.

That's how Hero Games ended up in semi-limbo: Cybergames had bitten off more than they could chew half a decade before the technology or customer base existed to chew it. And that's why they were willing to sell the IP to us. Think of it as an excess, rather than a lack, of vision on their part.

RW: There are a lot of rumors about Allen Thomas’ tenure with the company (particularly the ending) – is there anything you can tell me on the record for the blog entry?

JW: As you know Allen Thomas was and is a tremendously talented author and game designer. We enjoyed working with Allen and feel that he created some superb products for us. Unfortunately, sales fluctuated some during his time with us, and we eventually felt it wasn't financially viable to keep him on staff. We were very sorry to let him go, since he did great work, but sometimes business doesn't go the way you want it to.

In Conclusion

The 5th edition of the Hero System is not a bad line at all – there are many strengths that were brought to bear upon the game line during this period. It does have many flaws and some very unfortunate setbacks, but it is important to remember that 5th edition made a huge contribution to the overall popularity and exposure of the Hero System.  The line provided immense support for the game, including the revolutionary software Herodesigner that is nigh-indispensable for making characters for the system. Constant releases and excellent communication with the fanbase were the hallmarks of this edition, and its creators have reason to be proud.