5672 in-depth character profiles from comics, games, movies

DC Heroes RPG – New Rules – Character Design (general)


Game system: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game

Context

This is a technical article for the DC Heroes RPG. It has a few bits about character design that do not fit within the more specialised new rules pages on the subject.

For a list of all articles like this one, see the Guide to new DC Heroes RPG rules.


Index


Character Creation Paradigm

Commenter: Eric Langendorff

There are two paradigms involved in designing a character for DCH/BoH: the character’s paradigm, and the game’s.

The character’s paradigm can involve just about anything, and the character and other characters in his or her universe can describe them in just about any way (Example: “I can’t become visible without extreme effort.”).

The game’s paradigm, on the other hand, is centered on the abilities of a typical human being as described in the rulebook, with variations from those abilities being described as special Advantages, Powers, or other stats even if they are natural or innate to the character.

When actually making the character sheet, it is the game’s paradigm that dominates. It doesn’t matter what the character says, believes, or feels the power is, all that matters is what the ability does, even if this conflicts with the character’s own point of view.

This is often cited as the difference between a lower-case power and an upper-case Power. The former is the power from the character’s perspective, and the latter is the actual Power or Powers from the rulebook required to achieve the effects produced by the character’s described power.

The difference between game and character paradigm explains why various normal abilities of living beings are treated as Powers, such as insects having Shrinking. Such traits can be clarified by the list-created Form Function Bonus (called Innate in some writeups), which denotes a Power that is not a super-ability per se but rather an innate natural trait of that character.


Use of the Mayfair Attributes benchmark

The DC Heroes RPG includes benchmarks for the Attributes (in the Blood of Heroes: Special Edition book they’re the sidebars on p21 and following). We do not use them. These benchmarks:

  1. Often do not match the role of the Attributes in the system (i.e., the rolls where they are used as AV, EV, OV or RV)
  2. Often do not match the numbers in the Mayfair writeups for DC Comics characters

What is used as benchmarks are said Mayfair writeups for DC Comics characters. So for instance “Would Batman have been that persuasive ?”, “Could Starfire have done what this character did ?”, “Does that correspond to a higher degree of strength than what Hawkman usually demonstrates ?”, etc.

But writeups.org does include several discussions of Attribute benchmarks :


How closely do writeups.org stats stick to Mayfair stats?

DC Heroes has a tradition of “anchoring” stats to punctiliously ensure their coherence.

As Ray Winninger explained – “During much of my time working on DCH, I was a hardliner on stats. I personally rewrote most of the stats we published for two reasons: 1) I wanted to make sure that all the stats had a consistent voice and 2) I was maybe the only person regularly working on DCH who read almost *all* of the DC Comics in that era; when I assigned a stat, I could balance not only against other characters in that title but against the whole of the DCU.

”The Bierbaum’s Legion book was an interesting anomaly for us — it came toward the end of the line, I was already lowering my involvement with DCH and the Bierbaum’s LSH was one of the few DC Comics that I didn&lrquo;t read (for whatever reason). As I recall, I was putting a lot of work into the aborted Sandman project at the time.”

Furthermore, there were statting benchmarks that are visible when analysing stats, but are not the ones expressed in the game’s benchmarks. A clear one is Strength scores.

As Ray Winninger explained : “I tended to rule that an average man has a 2 STR, the average cop or gang member is one better at a 3 and most low level superheroes are one better than that at a 4. I made exceptions when they seemed warranted. I didn’t allow for any gender differences in my statting (i.e. I always assumed that women are equivalent to men).”

Ray further notes that he, in effect, shared Mark Gruenwald’s “people in a costume are Olympic-level athletes” rule of thumb when it came to STR. We assume that a very similar kind of “hierarchy” existed for other Attributes and Skills.

Writeups.org policies

Generally, we stick close to the Mayfair standards. If you take a writeups.org character’s stats and compare them to a very similar character written up by Mayfair, it will clearly be on the same scale. However, with time, different ways of doing things have emerged.

Here are the points where you will find significant differences between us and Ray. Admittedly the “significant difference” is usually one or two points, but heh.

Human STR

Slightly lowered STR scale for scores of 02 to 04. STR 04 is pretty damn strong, and most cops and gang members are not depicted as being that much stronger than an ordinary person. Having more adventurers pegged as a 03 also ensures more nuance and diversity in strength scores, rather than the “if you have a costume, you have STR 04” old rule of thumb.

This also means that if female characters are depicted as less strong than male characters, they will have a STR score reflecting their performance in the source material. Since we have a primary source -based approach.

Supporting cast

Competent supporting cast (say, many post-Crisis versions of Lois Lane) are ranked on the same scale as heroes, whereas Mayfair stats for supporting cast usually cap them under a sort of glass ceiling.

Mediocre costumed characters

Conversely, Mayfair stats tend to have superhumans and costumed adventurers as being automatically better in every area than ordinary people. Since writeups.org features a lot of obscure, low-powered, less impressive characters we’ve relaxed that one.

It’s OK to have costumed characters with mediocre INF, AUR, INT, etc. if this is how they perform in the source material. We still assume that superhumans and costumed adventurers tend to start at 04 or more, but if they don’t perform that well then it will be reflected in the stats. This is also true of Skills.

The tight fist vs. the cookie cutter

Writeups.org entries often have an extra “does the Character really need these scores to perform the actions in the material” self-editing pass when finishing the entry.

For instance, a character may be given a cookie-cutter WIL score as the statting process begins, but if it turns out that the character never performs any special deductive reasoning or other WIL-related action, and there’s no implication that they might do so proficiently, then the writer will likely consider lowering the WIL score from the cookie-cutter one.

Thus, generally, writeups.org has lower stats than Mayfair because we have more obscure characters who are less impressive and less skilled than the flagship characters in Mayfair’s rulesbooks.

And these two ones

  1. The “Superman has a DEX of 10” benchmark — see below.
  2. The “Mental Attributes three-cards monte” benchmark — see below.


Are the character writeups done using a points budget?

Some of the homemade characters are, but that’s about it.

The published characters are strictly based on what’s in the primary source , without any concern for points budget, cost-effectiveness, game balance, etc.. And many homemade characters were simply written up and eyeballed by the GM as fitting the desired power level for the campaign. Not bothering with points seems common among those with a long experience with the system.

Some contributors who use software or a spreadsheet to create characters do indicate the point cost in their article. This is just bonus information, not an indication that the character was built using a budget.

Occasionally the points cost for the character is specifically given without Equipment, Pets, Sidekicks, Rituals, etc.. This is usually because the points cost for these is provided separately so players can use them right away.


The matter of Superman’s DEX

Superman is a super-important benchmark in the DC Universe – and beyond since many characters in comics are clear Superman equivalents. This is doubly true since, generally, Superman has the maximum level of power and few entities surpass him in his strong suits.

However, Superman’s level of power has varied over the last three decades. Furthermore the official Mayfair stats for Superman is a sort of idealised, archetypal Superman. For instance he retains his “Man of Tomorrow” abilities such as WIL 20, Scientist: 10 and Charisma (Persuasion): 15, which were not apparent in most post-Crisis eras.

The immense DEX in the official stats — 15 — is problematic, since in most takes Superman is not depicted as being nearly impossible to hit and having nearly every punch connect with any opponent short of high-powered super-speedsters.

Thus a standard assumption when benchmarking characters interacting with Superman is that Superman has a DEX of 10. This is a sort of murky middle ground. He often seems lower than a 10, sometimes seems higher. And it assumes that when Superman is acting with extraordinary speed and precision, he’s engaging his Superspeed Power.

This assumption is stated when it directly comes into play. Or when the writer is not using it and is portraying an ideal Superman with a DEX of 15 (such as the Universe AZ writeups).

However, it plays a “stealth” role in nearly every entry about high-DEX characters in the DC Universe. For instance the Wonder Woman (Diana of Themyscira) (Gail Simone take) entry has her with DEX 12 and Martial Artist: 13, which means something different if Superman is benchmarked as being about 10 (which is the case here) rather than a 15.

If you are convinced that Supes’ DEX is 15, a lot of DEX scores (like Wonder Woman‘s) need to be increased… which in turn means that they will cease to align with every other character’s DEX scores.


The naming of Mental Attributes is a difficult matter

During the 1990s, the DC Heroes community discussed the fact the Mental Attributes do not quite seem to play a role that corresponds to their name and to Mayfair‘s statting practice or benchmarks. When one concentrates on the actual role these stats play in-game, the conclusions are:

  1. INT has little to do with “intelligence” (a hopelessly vague term anyway) or education but expresses perceptiveness and mental speed and agility, being an AV. The one exception to this is some Skills (Scientist, Gadgetry) being Linked to INT. An absent-minded professor should certainly not have a high INT in game terms — these skills would have better been Linked with WIL.
  2. WIL has little to do with “willpower” (in the sense of resolve and mental endurance) but expresses analytical and deductive intelligence – the ability to draw conclusion from clues, being an EV. The one exception is the link with Green Lantern rings, which is a problematic rule even without bringing in the role of WIL and is better handled by different rules.
  3. MIN is a much more logical stat to measure “willpower” in the sense of mental toughness, being a RV.

Ray Wininger also noted in an unrelated RPG.net discussion that the naming of Attributes in DC Heroes was a weak point of the system, and confusing.

Thus it will sometimes seem that a game of three-card monte has been played by Mental Attributes between writeups.org and Mayfair. What Mayfair would have called INT gets used for WIL, what they would have used for WIL gets used for MIN, and INT is based on what INT does in the game.

Not every single writeups.org contributor uses this approach. And there are entries that are old enough to have been drafted before a consensus was reached. We’ll clean this up as we go, but this’ll take forever (and some authors prefer to stick with the Mayfair approach).


Notation for Links

The usual notation for Links is an asterisk — for instance Artist (Musician)*: 04 — and the usual notation for a Mystically-Linked trait is a (ML) — for instance Regeneration (ML): 02. Instances of Half-Linking and Double-Linking are noted (HL) and (DL), though these are rare.

Links were used abundantly in the official material, since they are a convenient way to have coherent scores. Writeups.org tends not to use these and to prefer evaluating the APs of each Skill and Power based on the material.

Links remain used for:

  1. Homemade characters (as a price break scheme).
  2. Some characters who are known to have a skill but never use it on-screen (say, fighting game characters whose background implies non-combat skills).
  3. Characters where tying a score to another score reflects how they operate.


“Building up” vs. “building down”

Super-hero stories are full of people who are stronger under certain circumstances. The typical example is an aquatic character who gets stronger when immersed in sea water. A common reaction to these is to model them in DC Heroes terms by “building up” – that is, assuming that their strength on land is the baseline and giving them an ability that increases their APs of STR, BODY and perhaps other scores when immersed.

Experience strongly suggests that it is cleaner to “build down” — that is to assume that the maritime strength is the baseline and that the character suffers from a penalty on dry land. The main reasons for this are:

Tools

There is no Power clearly intended to do that in DC Heroes. The nearest neighbours are Power Reserve and Enchantment, and that is not quite what they do – both are heavyweight, very flexible Powers meant to circulate additional APs among abilities as needed. If one just wants to increase a Character’s STR by three and BODY by one when wet, using Power Reserve is the equivalent of using Force Manipulation to model a baseball bat – and there’s the issue of how to adjust the huge BC and FC of Power Reserve.

The Energy Absorption → Power Reserve → client Power chain is a bit closer, but whereas Power Reserve was a cannon to kill a fly, this chain is too specific to one application.

Scale

Building up also runs into a weakness of DC Heroes – linear addition of APs. When in DCH 3 + 4 = 7 and not 5, very high scores can quickly ensue without control. As noted in our FAQ, this is a bug that was somehow missed during development and linear addition should probably not exist.

The joy of loss

Building down, on the other hand, does have tools. The main one is the Power Loss Limitation in Blood of Heroes:Special Edition, with a pricing scheme that generally produces intuitively correct point breaks. Power Loss can be employed for most simple needs about a character having bolstered abilities under certain circumstances — again, by flipping the reasoning and stating that the character is weaker in some circumstances.

Remnants

Writeups.org includes characters who are built down and some who are built up. The second category usually is older material written before this consensus emerged.

Too… many… changes !

In practise, such characters tend to either have a few scores well-handled by Power Loss, or a lot of small changes impacting multiple aspects. For the second case, we strongly suggest considering Alter-Ego. If once immersed the character becomes not just stronger and more durable but also faster, healing more quickly, having a more regal countenance due to their enhanced vitality, etc. writing all of this will soon be confusing.

Having two character sheets — an Alter-Ego — is going to be simpler, and lets you fiddle and introduce small differences to your heart’s content. For us on writeups.org, it is certainly a cleaner way to present the information. For gamers around a table, it does require a more involved pricing scheme if the Alter-Egos points budget do not fit cleanly into the standard allotments, though.


“Effect-based” vs. “descriptive”

This is a decades-old distinction between two types of super-hero role-playing games. To use a simple example, an effects-based RPG might describe something as a 12d6 Ranged Killing Attack No Knockback, whereas a descriptive RPG would describe it as Flame project: 14 or Fire Generation (Monstrous).

Descriptive games have the advantage of being much more concrete. We can reasonably assume that Flame project is a Power that involves shooting fire. They have the drawback of requiring longer lists of Powers ; for instance DC Heroes has Flame Project but also Energy Blast, Laser Beam, Mental Blast, etc.

However, effect-based vs. descriptive should be understood as points on a line rather than as two islands. For instance our writeups for DC Adventures (an effects-based system) use the preferred approach for that game, which is to “wrap” effects in two kinds of description so they’re not too abstract.

Likewise, there is such a thing as going too far into the descriptive direction in DC Heroes. An example of this discussion was had during the writeup of Armor (Hisako Ichiki), pictured below:

Armor attacking Ord and Danger

As can be seen, Hisako psionically  surrounds herself in a sort of force field. It protects her and enhances her strength and some of her combat abilities – a sort of virtual power armour . A descriptivist will see a force field, and since DC Heroes has a Power called Force Field will be tempted to base the modelling of Armor around the Force Field Power. Since it‘s a force field.

People can certainly model her that way, though that will likely require a lot of strange kludges – we’re not one-true-wayists. However, close your eyes and imagine that Hisako doesn‘t surround herself with a might-enhancing force armour, but achieves the exact same effects by turning herself into a blue oni demon with a large moustache (and horns).

The stats then write themselves – she’s a normal girl who has a monstrous Alter-Ego, which is a much simpler and cleaner approach. Yet… we’ve only changed the visuals !

In other words, do not get too focused on the descriptions and how well they match the names in the rules book. Descriptive games are cool (we sort of like DC Heroes), but are best used by constantly asking oneself “OK, but what does it actually *do*?” — the effect — when modelling. So as not to get trapped on the surface of things.


“Substitutive” vs. “additive”

Examples

This is a system design issue that often arises for Gadgets and Artefacts. It’s easier to explain with two examples.

  1. The Bunisher (a well-armed baker) has a bulletproof vest written in the old Mayfair style, with /BODY/ 05. It’s italicised BODY, so it’s substitutive.
  2. Rad Sonya (a radioactive barbarienne) has a chainmail bikini with Skin Armour: 01. It’s an RV bonus, so it’s additive.

Both approaches are present in the game. They both work. And they both can produce silly results.

Due to a sartorial quid pro quo, Spider-Man’s Aunt May ends up wearing the Bunisher’s tactical vest. She’s now just as capable as he is of withstanding hails of (small calibre) bullets, kung fu fighting and vicious switchblade assaults. May Parker’s ready to rumble in the Bronx, folks.

Superman borrows Rad Sonya’s chainmail bikini because his own costume is being dry-cleaned. The cold yet curves-friendly metal raises his RV one Column, from 18 to 19, with its Skin Armour Power. “Why didn’t I wear this spiffy little number when fighting Mongul ?”, ponders Superman.

(This is reminiscent of the saga of firearms AVs and the defensive powers stackability quandaries, incidentally.)

Problematique

Of course, both approaches usually work fine. For instance :

  1. A power loader exoskeleton  (like the one in Aliens) is accurately represented by /STR/ 08. The motors are providing the same strength for any operator. The same is true for any self-powered piece of equipment, such as cars or lightsabres.
  2. A lever could double or quadruple anybody’s strength for certain tasks, as per Archimedean physics. As long as it has enough BODY and length, of course.

If a Gadget or Artefact is always used by the same Character, both approaches can work fine. The numbers are tuned to work for this Character, and so they work.

The issue is when one writes a range of Equipment, Gadgets and Artefacts that :

  1. Aren’t self-powered. For instance swords rely on your strength. And non-powered body armour relies to a significant extend on your durability, fitness, pain tolerance, etc.
  2. Are going to be used by a wide variety of Characters. Thus, this is mainly an issue in Weapons Locker type articles, where it is expected that *any* Character could use this gear without producing absurd results.

Solution

The various experiments trend toward the following :

  • A clean way for Equipment, Gadgets or Artefacts to add to an operator’s score.
  • With a clear ceiling, so the object doesn’t bolster persons who manifestly outshine it.

The main issues are the cleanest way to convey this ceiling, and pricing issues (due to different logics between Power Loss maths and Gadget/Artefact maths).


Strength of Human Characters Addendum

A flaw commonly noted with the STR scores in relation to the weight AP benchmarks is that lifting strength of human characters scales up much more quickly than it should. Two common fixes include:

  1. Divide the base weight in the AP Benchmarks by 2 so that 0 APs of weight equals 25 lbs. This would move each current benchmark up by 1 AP; For example, the weight and examples currently used for 4 APs weight would now be used at 5 APs weight.
  2. Human characters subtract 1 AP from their STR for lifting purposes. Thus, a STR 04 human can only lift 3 APs without Pushing.

Another approach would be to limit human characters to lower STR ranges appropriate for their lifting power. However, this has generally not been done for two reasons.

  1. It would compress the range of APs in human characters even further in the Attribute that already has the most limited range.
  2. More importantly for most players, it would require adjustment of many pre-existing scores of characters with human strength

The above fixes are usually much more convenient, assuming that the gaming group in question is concerned about this issue in the first place. Many are not, especially since the need to know precisely how much weight a human character can lift may not arise that often in play.

You can also check our article discussing human STR and BODY scale. And going for a double-scale DC Heroes game fixes the issue.


Weight classes for Character creation

DC Heroes doesn’t impose a tight control on character creation. The players assumed to be reasonable persons who share a common goal. They are also assumed to have discussed the power level and sort of characters they’re going for.

This makes it easy to abuse the system, for instance to reach sky-high EVs on a small budget. Or to exploit Powers, which do not generally come with anti-munchkin  language.

One possibility to coordinate on the desired power level is to set rough caps for EVs and RVs. It’s crude and there will be innumerable exceptions, but it’s numbers and numbers are nice.

AVs and OVs aren’t mentioned since they don’t vary that much by power level. You can use our Hand-to-hand combat scale article if you want guidelines. Keep in mind that Weaponry AVs are often 1 AP higher than unarmed AVs at an equivalent power level.

A Marvel Universe-centric scale

Class Caps Examples
Low street level, cinematic. EV cap 06, RV cap 05. AVs/OVs will likely cap out at 06 as well. Not-over-the-top action movie.
High street level, cinematic fantastic. EV cap 09, RV cap 06. Over the top action movie, elite vigilantes such as Daredevil.
Urban super-heroes. EV cap 10, RV cap 08. Spider-Man and his classic foes.
Avengers assemble ! EV cap is 18, RV cap 14. Big-time super-team, but not the biggest guns among it.
Biggest guns. EV cap is 24-ish, RV cap is 17-ish. The toughest folks in the setting, like Thor or the Sentry.

The EVs and RVs listed are chiefly for Physical Combat. But they apply fairly well to other EVs and RVs, such as social or perception assets. Howbeit, those tend to cap out earlier. Frex, INT, Gadgetry and Scientist usually top out at 14 or 15.


Sharing

The links to follow us and/or subscribe to our monthly newsletter are at the bottom of this page.

Compiled, formatted, edited, etc. by Roy Cowan and SĂ©bastien Andrivet.

Subscribe to our newsletter!