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FAQ – Answers from the designers


Game system: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game

This article is made of people. More specifically, it is a compilation of answers to common questions, coming from the designers of the system, Ray Winninger and Greg Gorden.


A fireside chat with Ray Winninger

This is curated from discussions with the DC Heroes RPG community that runs WORG, and rpg.net discussion threads.

1/ Many people find it weird that Knockback Damage is Killing Combat. Is it OK to make it Bashing instead?

RW: “I agree that it doesn’t represent certain comic books very well. The original intent was to make some of the more powerful heroes think twice before unleashing their full fury on lesser characters—when Superman punches a burglar, he’d never think about hitting with his full EV. Perhaps Killing damage from Knockback is best classified as a ‘Genre Rule.’ “

2/ Aren’t Critical Blows and Devastating Attacks a bit weird? Can Robin really take down Godzilla by kicking him in the nuts?

RW: “That’s a possibility, though I think I prefer the idea of raising the Hero Point costs for increasing AV/EV, etc. or maybe even charging Hero Points to launch Critical Blows and Devastating Attacks. DAs and CBs are necessary to explain a lot of the odd outcomes that happen in the comics.

“They’re also important for gameplay reasons—they prevent players from feeling completely helpless when facing a vastly superior foe. (‘I’m only Hawkgirl. What am I supposed to do against Brainiac?;’ the comics have certainly depicted the equivalent of Robin kicking Godzilla in the nuts on more than one occasion). Still, the intersection of Hero Points, Critical Blows and Devastating Attacks is one of the idiosyncrasies of DCH (maybe its equivalent of the Daredevil Problem).

“(If I remember correctly, the rules outlaw Devastating Attacks when playing some Genres, no?)”

Writeups.org note: They do indeed. The discussion then veered toward whether doubles and HP spending were sufficient to explain those occurrences, rather than special attack rules, and how most of the weird cases happened due to the low OV of targets with Growth, but Ray unfortunately had to leave.

Oh, and for fuller context here is what Ray calls the “Daredevil Problem”, which is about TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG system:
RW: “Suppose DD comes up against five average street thugs robbing a jewelry store. In the comics, he cleans their clocks without breaking a sweat — under normal circumstances, there is virtually no chance he’ll lose or suffer any real damage. In MSH, though, he has a tough time. Those thugs each have 40 Health (Good in all four of their physical stats) so DD has to successfully hit each of them twice in order to render them all unconscious — that’s ten successful hits in all, which will probably take him 12 rounds to achieve. (If he’s lucky, he can shave a round or two off with Stuns and Slams).
“That’s ten to 12 rounds that the remaining thugs get to beat back at him. DD is still overwhelmingly likely to win this battle, but he’s likely to sustain noticeable (if not significant) damage before the encounter is over. Things are even worse if you pit him against five assassins from the Hand (in the comics, he can easily handle 2-3 times this number).
“Similarly, DD battling the thugs is a long, drawn-out battle (usually lasting ten full rounds or more), while such an insignificant encounter should probably end quickly. The same problem plagues the Punisher, Black Panther, Elektra or any other “street-level” character. Sure DD can always spend Karma to win such a battle faster, but it doesn’t seem right that he should be forced to tap his precious Karma reserve for such a nuisance.”

3/ Are, say, Skin Armor and Force Field supposed to stack?

RW: “When I wrote the 2nd Edition rules (which are essentially the same as the 3rd Edition rules) my intent was that multiple powers that *add* their APs to AV, EV, OV or RV don’t ‘stack.’

“In other words, a character with APs of both Force Field and Force Shield can add only one of those powers to his RV, not both. That’s certainly the way I’d run it if I was GMing. If we had seen this problem crop up frequently in playtesting I would have written it into the rules. Additive powers are already a little dicey – allowing multiple adds runs too much risk of abuse.”

Writeups.org note: Ray then added that he would apply the same rule to multiple characters stacking their Powers. For example, if a character projected Force Field to protect another character with Skin Armor, the other character would use the higher of the applicable Powers rather than both.

As a more forgiving alternative suggested by DCH community members KalEl and Mike Winkler, the GM can mitigate abuse by adding the highest applicable Power normally and then adding the others using AP math.

For example, a character with BODY 10, Flame Immunity: 08, Force Field (Self Only): 05, and Skin Armor: 07 might have an RV of 18 versus a punch (BODY 10 + Skin Armor: 07 + 1 AP for Force Field), an RV of 15 versus most energy attacks (BODY 10 + Force Field: 05) and an RV of 19 versus heat-based attacks (BODY 10 + Flame Immunity: 08 + 1 AP for Force Field).

4/ Why did Batman drop from a DEX of 10 to a DEX of 9 in the third edition?

No, it can’t be the broken back thing – that occurred later. The matter is important though – Batman’s DEX is a hugely important benchmark for practically all the street-level physical fighters in the DC Universe. Ray Winninger’s recollections about that were :

RW: “I changed Batman’s DEX to 9. The trend in the comics, at the time, was toward a grittier, more down-to-earth Batman.

“As I recall (and over a decade later, the details are hazy so I may remember this wrong), the change was made for two reasons: a) to reduce the number of thugs Bats could comfortably Multi-Attack when expending maximum Hero Points, and b) I seem to recall that a comic in that era cleanly established that Lady Shiva was a more capable martial artist than Batman (though Bats would still win the fight due to his experience, superior intelligence, etc). Rather than raise Shiva’s Martial Artist skill to the very problematic figure of 11, I decided instead to lower Bat’s DEX/MA to 9.

“Beginning with Morrison ’s JLA run, I would have reset the scores to 10.

“At some point, I think I concluded that 10 should remain the absolute limit for most “street-level” Martial Artists. Karate Kid, from the LSH, would be an obvious exception to this general policy; there are undoubtedly others.

“I temporarily lowered Batman’s value to 9 during the era in which DC was trying to define him as a bit grittier and more down-to-earth than the pre-Crisis Batman. These days, I’d definitely restore it to 10, where he’d be joined by Lady Shiva, maybe Cassandra Cain, maybe Deathstroke.”

Writeups.org note: Ray couldn’t remember why he thought that a 11 was such a problem (it’s been 20+ years!), and we never really found this column to be a breakpoint. As such, the writeups.org scale has the Morrisonian Batman at a 10 like Ray intended. But it also has the ultimate, best fighter in the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe at Martial Artist: 11, at least during those eras where they clearly are better than a version of Batman who clearly is operating at Martial Artist: 10 and DEX 10.

Note that many old bat-villains are benchmarked against estimates of Batman’s DEX *when the story occurs*. Thus we entirely concur with Ray that there were eras when Bat had a DEX of 09 or even lower. Frex many versions of Batman in the 1940s and the 1950s are pegged at DEX (and DEX-based Skills) 07, since he’s a run-of-the-mill two-fisted masked mystery man during these stories.

5/ Who wrote the stats in the otherwise excellent 2995 Legion sourcebook?

RW: “Definitely not the Bierbaums . I don’t recall who wrote them—certainly not me as I never read a single issue of the Bierbaum’s LSH. They never looked quite right to me either.”

6/ Was DC Heroes RPG material used by DC writers to write comic books?

RW: “Absolutely true. I had a series of lengthy conversations with all sorts of DC writers and editors when compiling the game stats and rules for DC HEROES. I personally worked with : Mike Barr, Andy Helfer, Denny O’Neill, George Pérez, Alan Moore, John Byrne, Neil Gaiman, Marv Wolfman, JM DeMatteis, Steve Englehart, Paul Levitz, Mike Grell, Dan Jurgens, Paul Kupperberg, Jack Kirby (!), Roger Stern, Jerry Novick and (undoubtedly) several others I’m forgetting.

“In most cases, we’d have a quick phone call and then I’d prepare detailed questions and the folks from DC would answer them. (For example, ‘With maximum effort, Superman can lift-circle one-a tank, an apartment building, a skyscraper, an aircraft carrier, the moon, or more.’). In other cases, we collaborated much more closely.

“I had a series of lengthy conversations and back-and-forth with Alan Moore on [the] Watchmen [sourcebooks] , Paul Kupperberg and I co-wrote the Doom Patrol sourcebook , etc.. Lots of the DC folks we worked with wrote original blurbs for us for the 2nd edition of DCH.

“A lot of the material we created and compiled was used for DC for a long time after DCH gave up the ghost (and may still be in use). I know that my Green Lantern sourcebook  was used by several of the writers who have written GL in the intervening years.”


A fireside chat with Greg Gorden

This section is an enhanced summary — in our own words — of Mr. Gorden’s design notes in 1985. So yes, “fireside chat” is a metaphor.

There was some hesitation in publishing those, but most people nowadays are probably not going to own the first edition of DC Heroes .

1/ Are APs a base-2 exponential system?

Mr. Gorden actually based APs progression on a logarithmic scale — namely decimal exponents of 1,000 (1,000 raised to the .1, .2, .3, etc.) rounded up to the nearest convenient number.

Practically this is not hugely important, albeit it explains the 125, 250 and 500 effect unit multipliers for 7, 8 and 9 APs (rather than 128, 256 and 512). But mathematically, the approach is quite different. Presumably, Greg Gorden was specifically looking for an elegant progression to represent a thousandfold increase.

Thus, technically, one more AP is not exactly doubling (the multiplier is roughly 1.995), but ten more AP is precisely multiplying by 1,000.

2/ Is Batman really that strong?

Mr. Gorden wanted Batman to be markedly stronger than an Olympic weightlifter with a STR of 04. Batman being at the high end of 04 seeming tepid, he opted for a 05 though the upper range of 5 APs of weight is 1,500 lbs.

Though this isn’t mentioned in his design notes, we assume that this decision meant in turn that humans could have a BODY of 06. 06 is proportionate to a STR of 05 but makes them remarkably resistant to small weapons.

The decision was made since Mr. Gorden did not want Superman to have a STR of 100 (back then, Superman had a STR of 50 rather than 25). With the post-Crisis scale, where Superman has a STR of 25, this suggests a new scale with greater granularity – doubling with every two APs rather than with every AP – but this was never adopted for DC Heroes.

In such a scale adding one AP would be a multiplier of 1000.05 – that is 1.4125, which as you’d expect is close to the square root of 2 (namely 1.4142). See our “double scale” DC Heroes RPG system article.

You can also refer to our Human STR and BODY in the DC Heroes RPG system article for more about scale, and Batman’s impact ‘pon it.

3/ What about exploding doubles and Hero Points?

While working on the game Mr. Gorden was impressed by the role of lucky breaks, “blows of maniacal intensity”, sudden surges of willpower, etc. in super-hero stories. By contrast the normal distribution of 2d10 is fairly tame. Thus, exploding doubles reintroduce the possibility of freak events (see our short articles about probabilities).

However, super-heroes can also produce these effects more-or-less on demand, which hoping to roll doubles doesn’t simulate. Hence Hero Points to make one’s own luck (see our article about Hero Points).

Having Hero Points also behave as experience was inspired by how little super-heroes seemed to progress in abilities from “session” to “session”. Back when Mr. Gorden designed DC Heroes, in the early- to mid-1980s, the dominant RPG paradigm was still constant progression of the characters’ abilities, whether through gaining level or raising skills

Thus, a “trick” still seemed necessary to explain why super-heroes did not fit this RPG logic.

4/ Why were Column Shifts added to the game?

The first reason is that differences in power on the newly-created DC Heroes logarithmic scale seemed to matter much more at the low end that at the high end. An action hero with DEX 07 will utterly dominate a brawny thug with DEX 03 in a brawl, whereas a four-APs difference matters less between fighters with a DEX in the double digits. With increasingly broad columns, this effect is baked in.

Mr. Gorden was also concerned about high Action Attributes (DEX, INT, INF) overshadowing the Effect Attributes, which they did in early development versions of the game. Column Shifts mean that high Action Attributes and high rolls still play a role, but bring it under control so that having a high Effect Attribute is also important.

5/ Why were Subplots added to the game?

Tales of the Teen Titans vol. 1 #50 . The series was hugely popular back then, and this issue focused on the wedding of Donna Troy and Terry Long and the private lives of the various Titans and related characters.

Realising that he needed something to help Gamemasters run stories like this rather than endlessly focusing on combat mechanics, Mr. Gorden came up with the Subplots mechanic.

6/ What is the history of the Mystic Link?

Originally, the Physical, Mental and Mystical Powers were organised in more rigid categories, each with its own list of Powers. This resulted in an array of Mystical Powers that were very similar to Physical and Mental Powers, and the Mystic Link idea was a way to eliminate this redundancy.

Mystic Link was also the product of a discussion with Bob Greenberger at DC Comics, who asserted that pound-for-pound magical abilities were better than other powers in the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe, because they were backed by the power of magic.

To model this imbalance, Mr. Gorden wrote the first edition Mystic Link mechanics, where the Link itself could be Pushed, resulting in a source of additional APs of power as long as the magician could afford the Hero Points to Push.

This specific role of the Mystic Link was dropped when the second edition was published.

7/ What is this joke about forks about?

The Gadgetry rules in the first edition were serviceable (if somewhat clunky) for extraordinary inventions and super-tech, but completely fell apart when trying to build more ordinary items. The designers were well aware of it, and warned the players against using the rules of the game in general to model mundane, everyday situations as they were geared toward more four-colour  pursuits.

Mr. Gorden’s favourite way to explain this was what happens when attempting to build something as tepid as a fork using first edition DC Heroes Gadgetry rules – a long endeavour requiring Hero Points even assuming a professional engineer, and producing a fork that needs to be “recharged” after every meal.

“Building a fork” thus became a shorthand to poke fun at the first edition Gadgetry rules, which were fixed when the second edition was published.

8/ The saga of firearms Action Values

Originally, Greg Gorden wrote firearms with some verisimilitude. From context we assume that this was because of his previous work on the James Bond 007 RPG published by Victory Games . This broke apart in DC Heroes and he modified his initial drafts. The two main changes were :

  1. In the first edition firearms ended up doing Bashing damage after Mr. Gorden ran a test where a bunch of thugs with guns, high rolls and Team Attacks killed Batman in three Phases. Killing vs. Bashing damage was since revised, and a common modern take at writeups.org would be that thugs don’t get to do Team Attacks in the first place unless the story calls for it.
  2. Firearms originally had an AV bonus (from +1 to +7) to represent accuracy and volume of fire. This did not work at all (why doesn’t Nightwing carry a machinegun just in case for the nice bonus?), so firearms were set to have a fixed AV that would benefit a thug but not a hero.
    This is a compromise solution, and modern usage (at least at writeups.org) is to completely drop the AV – no firearms-using character ever benefits from it, and thugs do not appear to be more accurate in comics when they have better weapons. Plus, if the goal is to avoid Batman being shot full of holes in three Phases, increasing the mooks’ AV with guns is counterproductive.

And this is how DC Heroes ended with firearms that all have the same accuracy, at least as far as most writeups.org stats are concerned. This is sometimes called the “it’s the man, not the weapon” rule, and is supported by most comics, action movies, video games, etc.

9/ How much information did Mayfair have about Crisis?

Mr. Gorden asked a flurry of questions about what the DCU would be like after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and used DC’s answers to explain how the universe worked, stat up the characters, etc.. Thus, when we state — for simplicity’s sake — that the first edition represents the pre-Crisis DC Universe, this is not technically accurate.

This becomes clearer when one starts working out the details to stat certain pre-Crisis characters, such as Wonder Woman’s opponents.

What information existed at DC about the post-Crisis DCU whilst Mr. Gorden was working was clearly limited, though – the Monitor wasn’t even named, the Great Scale Compression had not been decided yet, the redefinition of Superman by Byrne and of Wonder Woman by Pérez isn’t mentioned and presumably didn’t exist yet, etc..

Generally, this was a version of the DC Universe that was closer to the pre-Crisis DCU than to what actually emerged from the Crisis and the subsequent period of uncertainty and odd fixes.

A very similar situation occurred in 1989, when Mayfair obtained exclusive information from DC Comics about the Reign of the Supermen story arc for inclusion at the back of the third edition book. What was actually published by DC featured versions of Steel, Superboy, the Eradicator and the Cyborg Superman that were different from the early draft explained to Mayfair.


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