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DC Heroes RPG – Notes about Hero Points


Game system: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game

Introduction

Once the basic game concepts are understood, a significant part of the learning curve of DC Heroes is the use of Hero Points. HPs are a key part of how the system works and one of the most important numbers on the character sheet.

Hero Points were back then an innovating concept – though one predecessor is found in Victory Games’s James Bond RPG , also originated by Greg Gorden, the main designer of DC Heroes 1st Edition mechanics.

However, in an example of parallel gaming evolution, another of the big super-heroes RPGs of the 1980s, the Marvel Super-Heroes Role-Playing Game  had a similar concept with Karma.

Even decades later, Hero Points in DCH can be used to perform much of the same functions as narrative control tools in recent indie games.

The two important things to consider are the nature of HPs, and the pacing.


The roles of Hero Points

Durability

Hero Points, used to perform Last Ditch Defence and to boost RV, are a key component of the ability to take damage. The Resistance Value numbers, and the scores in Resistance Attributes, are the raw measures of durability but spending Hero Points represents the more subtle components of it.

They are an integral part of a character’s overall durability and can be viewed as a second sort of “hit points”, more granular and fluid than your main stacks of “hit points” (BODY, MIND and SPIRIT).

The system assumes that you’ll be regularly spending Hero Points to reinforce your durability – if not the fights are going to be shorter than intended.

Determination

HPs are reflection of the ability of a Character to get things done, to soldier through adversity and to make things work when failure’s not an option – say, because it would mean multiversal annihilation. The more HPs the Character has, the more she can impose her will on an hostile and indifferent universe through sheer exertion and resolution.

Focus

A Character who is driven toward excelling at certain things can achieve this using Hero Points. For instance, if saving children in danger is important to a hero, this will best manifest as a pattern of spending more Hero Points in those situations. This represents his focus and motivation in concrete game terms without boxing him into specific mechanics.

Luck

Though the previous points insist on effort and determination, Hero Points do not entirely map with exertion. That is, it is possible for a heroine to be very determined to accomplish something, yet not spend hero points – after all heroes tend to do everything in a very determined manner.

There’s a x-factor – Hero Points are not just willpower but a combination of determination and luck/fate/narrative flow.

Both aspects have to be present, and the character themselves only controls one – the other is in the hands of the writer or the player. DC Heroes thus has 2 main manners to represent luck – the dice (who have a much tamer role than in d20-based games, even with doubles) and making your own fate through Hero Points.

Narrative immunity

Narrative immunity is the difference between “named” or “face” characters, who have a recurrent role in building the story up, and “red shirt” or “faceless” extras who are here as a consequence of the plot rather than as a cause.

”Named” protagonists fare better than “faceless” extras even if they are objectively less competent – the aged academic will emerge relatively unscathed from the raging firefight while trained soldiers around him get killed, because the academic is needed to have the story progress later on but the soldiers are just spear carriers.

Hero Points are a currency that buys narrative immunity, often by boosting OV so as to mysteriously fail to get hit.

Tactical acumen

DC Heroes offers a large choice of effective Combat Manoeuvres, and beyond those PCs and NPCs make tactical decisions while fighting. A third element is Hero Points, helping represent how well a Character exploits enemy weaknesses or her own strengths in combat, reacts to surprise, coordinates with allies, etc.

The more HPs you have the better you can execute on your tactical decisions – and execution is more than half the battle. With low HPs, it is possible to make clever tactical decisions but fail to achieve results. Spending HPs helps get results as you execute with acumen, vigour and little hesitation.

Story flow

The decision to spend or not to spend HPs (and how much) is an important tool for the Players and GM alike to control the flow and ebbs of the story. For instance, an old genre convention in super-heroes comics is that the villains win the first round, but the heroes eventually rally and win the key battle through determination and heroism.

Since nobody’s game stats or dice rolls are changing much from one encounter to the next, this type of story flow is a result of HPs spending. In the archetypal story, the villains are spending HPs and the heroes aren’t spending much and get defeated, but eventually the heroes prevail because the villains run out whereas the heroes start spending more freely.

Likewise, a “the hero is having a rotten day where nothing works” story or a “the heroes have a big triumph against bad odds” story can be a direct result of saving HPs or spending them.

Narrative control

HPs can be spent by the Players to take more of a guiding hand in the story. This is the Altering The Environment rule (aka the “Hawkman and the beaker of acid” rule), which has been developed in the writeups.org article on Altering the Environment since this approach is more commonly accepted in modern RPGs.

This is linked to the concept of narrative immunity – within the limits of the genre, “named” characters get far more lucky breaks and suspiciously convenient coincidences than do Mook #7, F-ko, Bystander in Yellow Parka or Man With Beard in the extras listing.

Incentive

HPs are what you can give to Players to reward the type of behaviour the group wants to see – good role-playing, interesting Subplots, characters with a backstory and a personality, etc. Admittedly, being rewarded with brownie points is artificial, but you get better results with browie points and an exciting game than with just an exciting game.

Experience and fame

These are aspects that mostly concern NPCs, but looking at DC characters in the rulesbook leads to the conclusion that having a lot of HPs is tied in good part to being a super-hero with lots of comic book appearances – itself an expression of popularity with the readership, experience, name-recognition, reputation and the like.

Leaders and gadgeteers

For some characters such as leaders (with the Leadership Advantage) or usual gadgeteers/artificers, HPs are also a measure of their effectiveness in these fields.

Experience points

HPs also serve as xp. More about that later.

Character creation points

More about that later.

●●●

With experience one can tell while reading a super-heroes comic book who is spending Hero Points and how – which is a sign that Hero Points do a good job at reflecting the source material.

Hero Points are an important component for people doing writeups, helping understand uncommonly bad or good performance – they’re very good in that role and reading stories using one’s Hero Points Sense often makes a surprising amount of sense.


Hero points as character creation points

The Designer’s Notes of DC Heroes 1st Edition explain that character advancement was tied to Hero Points as a way to slow how quickly characters improved. This was meant to model how comic book characters tended to improve their abilities gradually. Having just one currency is also simpler.

For most gaming groups this is going to work fine — DC Heroes is a well-designed game — but some might have different needs.

Starting allotment

Character creation points are more valuable than your everyday HPs, and the rational strategy is to spend every character creation point.

However, starting the game with zero HPs is unheroic – even beginner heroes have some level of narrative immunity, determination, acumen, etc. and newly-created characters are not necessarily beginner heroes.

A lack of heroic stature during the first few games made more sense in the 1980s, when the “humble beginnings” theme was dominant in RPGs due to level-based games such as Dungeons & Dragons . Things have evolved, and being a powerful hero right off the bat is much more common now than then.

Thus, decoupling character creation points and starting hero points might be the best approach for some groups.

In this approach, unspent character creation points do not become HPs – they are kept for future character advancement. Multiply this remainder by 5 and put it in a pool for future character growth.

Suggested starting allotments

Furthermore, everybody start with a HPs total that matches the desired status of the characters at this point of the campaign.

Thus, if the characters are meant to be roughly equivalent to the 1960s Teen Titans, or the 1980s Uncanny X-Men, or the current JLA or Avengers… just parse relevant writeups and have the Player Characters all start with a comparable HPs total, because they are supposed to be heroes.

Here are numbers in the back of the third edition of DC Heroes since those are sufficient to gain a sense of scale :

Young, beginning street level hero with major potential (Early Robin (Tim Drake)) 20 HPs
New hero but with skills, powers and roots making them a big player (Steel) 50 HPs
Well-known but Young Turk hero (1990s Wally West or Starfire) 60 HPs
B-list but tough and famous hero who has been around for about a decade (Guy Gardner) 70 HPs
Well-established, omni-competent young leader associated with major heroes (Nightwing) 90 HPs
Veteran, established, JLA-level but still B-list (Aquaman, Green Arrow, Hawkman) 100 HPs
A-list, famous, unbeatable hero (1990s Batman, Green Lantern, 1990s Wonder Woman) 150 HPs
Holy Trinity (Superman, 2000s+ Batman, late 2000s Wonder Woman) Up to 200 HPs

Hero points as Character Growth points

Having Hero Points and experience points be the same currency was meant to create a tension – the spend now or hoard for later dilemma. This works fine for some groups, but others find it problematic.

Pitfalls

The potential problems to look out for include:

  • One or two Characters are saving their HPs for Character Growth, which forces the others to spend all their HPs to win battles as they carry some comparative dead weight.
  • Most or all Players are saving their HPs for Character Growth. Either the GM has to dial the opposition down compared to what a “normal” challenge would be, or the Players are in for a long string of defeats. Which is probably not what the gaming group is after.
    And later on another problem arises – the Character Growth rules are not calibrated for Characters who funnel most of their HPs into that.
  • Most comic-book super-heroes do not strongly progress in their abilities – most stories do not evidence RPG-style experience or “levelling”. When Character Growth is evident in the source material, it is very different from story to story.
    Some books are about young heroes with lots of potential who progress far quicker than most experience systems allow for but with long plateaux, whereas some books have heroes who never gain a single AP beyond their starting stats. Compare “young mutant heroes who are training hard to use their powers and become skilled adventurers” vs. “ the most accomplished martial artist on Earth, who wants to retire and become a fisherman/a peaceful teacher”.
    And some stories feature steady progression over the decades – for instance the average strength level of the Thing.
  • The Character Growth strategies often seen in comic books are different from those used by most players. Comic-book heroes often round out their abilities, pick new Connections and Languages, demonstrate new minor skills, etc. They tend to sprinkle Character Growth here and there with a strategy emphasising the long term.
    In contrast, Player Characters tend to funnel their precious Character Growth into their key assets because this is objectively more efficient, even though the Character Growth rules try to counter that.

These are diverse problems that likely happen to different groups. For instance the last two are about genre emulation, which is not an important objective in many campaigns. And for most of these problems “talk about it” is of course the best solution. Still, if the system doesn’t fit your preferences, change it ! It’s a game.

Specifically, the GM should inform the players of the system’s assumption of frequent Hero Point expenditure, and then explain how the players will be repaid for their additional efforts via the Standard Awards system.

The players who invest more of their HPs in play will in turn be given higher Standard Awards at the end of the scenario to reflect their increased participation, particularly in the Roleplaying and Miscellaneous categories.

It can be helpful to frame this as a reward that will replenish the HPs the players use rather than a punishment for those who hold back. The GM should also take the overall spending pattern into account when determining how to distribute that Standard Awards.

If some players spend a moderate amount of HPs throughout a scenario while others hold back until critical moments and then spend a large amount of HPs in a short time, but both types are spending roughly the same total amount, then their Standard Awards should be equivalent.

Splitting the tallies

The simplest change is simply to not allow spending Hero Points for character advancement and having a second currency – experience points. It then becomes possible to tinker with Character Growth without affecting everything else in the game.

Such tinkering allows for :

  • Campaigns with fast advancement (the heroes are young star potential, or start as normal people and quickly develop their new powers, etc.).
  • Campaigns with slow advancement (to emulate most super-heroes).
  • Campaigns that reward certain things more or less (better rewards for Subplots in an old-school X-Men or Teen Titans game, or better rewards for combat in action-driven campaigns).
  • Campaigns with caps about maximum AV, OV, EV and RV (to ensure Character Advancement that expands the Characters’s breadth rather than focus on their best trick – but remember to raise these caps from time to time).
  • Etc..

The double bang approach

This approach is to require that HPs be spent in play before they can be used as Character Points (CPs) to improve the character’s stats.

To balance the doubled benefit of HPs with this rule and to keep character advancement at the intended modest level, it is advised that a conversion rate of 15 or ⅓ be used. Example: Wonder Woman uses 5 Hero Points to boost her OV while Dodging an attack. These HPs are then converted to 1 CP which can be used for character growth at a later time.

In addition to the game-mechanic benefits, this also works to thematically tie advancement to the character’s efforts. The character becomes more capable when they strive to go above and beyond their normal abilities, first by accomplishing the tasks that earn them Hero Points and then by using the Hero Points to earn Character Points for purchasing new or increased abilities.

There are a few situations in which that conversion should not take place. If a player spends Hero Points to purchase a Gadget, she should not get Character Points for those HPs as she has already received a permanent advancement of sorts by virtue of having a new Gadget.

The HPs spent on other elements related to the Gadget such as the Gadgetry and Wealth Checks should still be converted to CPs.

If Leadership is used to bequeath HPs to another character, it should be decided at the time of transfer who will get the Character Points for those HPs. The Character with Leadership may decide to get the CPs for them immediately or for the receiving Character to get them once he has spent those gifted HPs.

This can be seen as either representing the character with Leadership becoming a more effective leader by gaining experience commanding people or the receiving Character developing greater competence due to his leader’s guidance.

The GM should also decide how strictly the Character Points are connected to the abilities the Hero Points were spent on. The simplest approach is to allow CPs to be spent freely once they are earned.

In more realistic Genres the CPs might be restricted to the general category the HPs were spent in or even only on the specific stat or stats boosted by their use.

For example, if a Character spent HPs while making an attack with a melee weapon, the resulting CPs might only be useful for increasing the stats generally used is such attacks (DEX, STR, Weaponry, or Martial Artist) or even the specific stat enhanced by the HPs (if the HPs were used to increase the AV of the attack, then only Weaponry or DEX would be eligible for improvement).

In either of those more restricted cases, the GM should also allow CPs to be spent on developing other related abilities that might not have been directly connected to the HP use.

A Character who spends HPs to publicly stop a threat might be able to use the CPs earned during that effort to buy Local Hero or be allowed to purchase a relevant Connection after using HPs to boost a Legwork Check.


Pacing Hero Points use

Managing HPs can be one of the trickier challenges for a DC Heroes game group, even if everybody understands the multiple roles HPs play.

This is not so much a matter of individual management skills – some players will cleverly and efficiently spend their points, some will be clumsier and less disciplined, and that’s how it goes. Problems usually arise because of people aren’t quite on the same page about how much they are expected to spend. Examples :

1/ Not being on the same page about the consequences of defeat. In some stories, such as traditional heroic fantasy, losing a confrontation probably means death – perhaps even a TPK. Some gory and violent super-heroes stories follow similar conventions. In such stories, it makes sense to fight to the last breath and the last HPs.

On the other hand, in more Silver Age -ish super-heroes stories, getting defeated and captured during the adventure is very much expected, and losing a fight means very little. The story just continues and the GM does the villainous mastermind’s gloating speech to the captured heroes before triggering the funky death trap.

Having kept Hero Points in reserve is no big deal – in fact it’s probably the best strategy.

2/ A related issue is that many players are very competitive – they NEED to WIN EVERY BATTLE. Most super-heroes stories are on a different page. The heroes are probably going to win in the end, but encounter some setbacks and near-defeats and inconclusive clashes along the way.

In the first approach one spends a lot of HPs to win everything, in the second one spends more conservatively.

3/ As those familiar with auctions can attest, seeing somebody bidding on something can activate a primitive “must beat them to it” reflex and result in grossly overspending. HP management can seem a bit adversarial – the players are spending points, the GM is spending points, the one who spends the most tends to win. Bidding wars may ensue.

4/ Some players realise that always delivering a master blow ladden with HPs early on during the fight is the most rational strategy.

The important thing is to recognise such patterns before they can affect the quality of the game, rather than draw broader conclusions about the game system, the players or the GM. Discussing them will certainly help. Many groups go a bit beyond that and set a cap to the number of Hero Points that can be spent during any given Phase.

Hero points per session

An alternative approach that may fit the needs of some groups is to have a small Hero Points budget per session, rather than a total that carries from one game to the next like a bank account. This removes the long-term aspects of HP management and make them a more immediate, more intuitive currency.

A close variant is to have a budget per adventure (one adventure can span multiple sessions), though the advantages of this approach are less clear-cut.

This approach can fit the needs of people who are new to the game – some of the more complex aspects of HP managements are taken out of the picture as people concentrate on learning to use them.

Such an approach also allows different Characters to have HP pools of different sizes. This facilitates certain types of games, such as :

  • One Character is the hero and the other are his sidekicks (Doc Savage and his assistants, Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, etc.)
  • Some Characters on the team are powerful in a straightforward manner, and some have more subtle abilities – being planners, detectives, strategists and the like rather than brawlers and blasters. Having these characters acquire an Advantages that increases their per-session Hero Points pool (whereas the other spend the points on their Powers, Attributes, Skills, other Advantages, etc.) handles this.
  • One Character on the team is the inspirational leader (with the Leadership Advantage or a variant thereof) like Captain America, and gets a bigger pool to represent that. He’s going to spend those points to the team’s benefits so there’s no balance issue.

Hero Points pools as a separate currency

Here is an approach that features a pool of Hero Points for the session, as above, plus a split between Hero Points and Experience Points.

Hero Points can be purchased as a pool, while the Standard Awards provide Character Points (CPs) for advancement — including increasing the level of the Character’s HP Pool — instead of Hero Points.

As the CPs are now going directly to advancement and not also replenishing the HPs expended in the last scenario, it is suggested that the Standard Award be reduced to ¼th of their normal amount, after all other calculations have been made.

In this arrangement Hero Points are purchased as an Factor Cost 02 Attribute that provides a pool of HPs equivalent to its AP level. The pool starts with the full Hero Point amount at the start of each scenario, with leftovers from the previous scenario dropped at the advent of the next one.

Characters with Leadership can purchase Leadership Points (LPs) at Factor Cost 01; LPs are kept as a separate tally and can only be used for Leadership transfers to other characters who can then use them as standard HPs. Characters with Leadership can still transfer their Hero Points normally.

Characters can use either Hero Points or Character Points to pay the HP fee for a new Gadget constructed during a scenario. If HPs are used the Gadget only lasts until the end of the scenario. To make the Gadget a permanent part of the character’s equipment, the player must spend CPs equivalent to the HP fee.

The player can wait until the end of the scenario to spend the necessary CPs, and can include CPs earned during the scenario for this purpose.

If the Character does not have the total necessary HPs or CPs to build a Gadget, the GM may allow them to spend all of their current CPs and use enough HPs to make up the difference. The Character must then apply any future CPs earned to the Gadget fee until it is paid in full.

For example, if a Character is building a Gadget that will cost 75 HPs and he only has 50 HPs and 50 CPs, they may spend 50 CPs and 25 HPs to build the Gadget now and their next 25 CPs will automatically go toward paying the Gadget fee debt.

The player can also use a combination of CPs and HPs if necessary, though this requires them to cover the remainder of the fee in CPs at the end of the scenario.

For example, a Character with 50 HPs and 50 CPs constructs a Gadget with a 75 HP fee. She uses 50 CPs and 25 HPs to cover the fee during the scenario and must spend the first 25 CPs she receives at the end of the scenario to finish paying off the Gadget fee.


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