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Skip Navigation LinksHERO System>Anatomy of a HERO
Anatomy of a HERO
Following is a breakdown of the elements of a HERO System character.
NOTE: Some sections below are shaded grey, like this paragraph. These are passages where I go into minutia or a high level of detail. They might be interesting to some people, but most readers can safely skip them without missing the overall point being discussed.
CHARACTERISTICS
Characteristics describe basic attributes just like they do in almost any game. Characteristics are broken into two groups, Primary and Figured. The essential difference between them is that Primary Characteristics start with a base of 10 points, where as Figured Characteristics have a variable base determined from various Primary Characteristics.
PRIMARY CHARACTERISTICS
The Primaries are Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Constitution (CON), Body (BODY), Intelligence (INT), Ego (EGO), Presence (PRE), and Comeliness (COM).
FIGURED CHARACTERISTICS
The Figureds are Physical Defense (PD), Energy Defense (ED), Speed (SPD), Recovery (REC), Endurance (END), Stun (STUN).
PD is based on STR, ED is based on CON, SPD is based on DEX, REC is based on STR and CON, END is based on CON, and STUN is based on STR, CON, and BODY. INT is used to determine Perception (an innate ability), EGO is used in mental Combat, and PRE is used for Presense Attacks (mentioned later). Comeliness does almost absolutely nothing.
Common Objection: Characteristics Everywhere
Yes, the HERO System could stand to loose a few characteristics, or gain some depending on your personal opinion. For instance, COM is practically useless out of the box, while the Power Mental Defense acts like a Characteristic if you buy even a single point of it (and thus IMO should just be a Figured from the get go).
Regardless, with the modern trend towards fewer characteristics in RPG's the HERO System does look a little chunky in that area. This basically distills down to a preference decision however; if you like the granularity that more characteristics offers to differentiating characters and for basing task resolutions on then it's a good thing. If one prefers a more simplistic, abstracted model then it is a bad thing.
Common Objection: Meaningless Breakpoints
Also, yes Characteristics have some meaningless breakpoints. There isn't a measurable difference between a 10 PRE and an 11 PRE and so forth. Yes, since it's a point based system and Characteristics are laced with well known "sweet spots" Characteristics tend to polarize on various numbers that you'll see again and again on character sheets. Players eventually figure out that #3 and #8 are nice cutoff points for most characteristics thanks to the HERO rounding rules, and unsurprisingly you'll see a lot of 13's, 18's, 23's, 28's and so on.
However, this isn't unique to the HERO System. All games that don't tie mechanics directly to characteristic attributes have meaningless breakpoints of some sort. It's a trade off between a tightly coupled characteristics model (like White Wolf where 1 dot = +1 die), and looser coupled models (like D&D 3e where every other point = +1/-1 modifier), to largely arbitrary models like the HERO System, where individual characteristics have different increments that matter for different things.
Personally, the programmer in me wishes the HERO System characteristic model was both more orthogonal and more tightly coupled to mechanics. I'd actually prefer a setup where one character point bought one characteristic point, and each point had a measurable effect. But, I'm probably in the minority on that.
Common Objection: Rolling Point Recursions
Yes, due to the relationships between Primary and Secondary Characteristics there are some odd point recursions that can be easily exploited.
Part of this problem is carry-over from the breakpoint issue discussed above, but for the most part this is just pure mathematical idiocy on the part of the original game designers that has been carried forward.
Recursive STR
The primary culprit is Strength (STR), which costs one point per point, but influences a tremendous amount of secondary abilities. Every 5 points of STR doubles your lifting ability, gives you +1d6 unarmed damage and to break out of Grabs and Entangles and to maintain Grabs of your own, and +1" of Leaping ability.
That alone would be a tidy bargain, but STR also has three Figured Characteristics based on it; Physical Defense (PD), Recovery (REC), and Stun (STUN).
Every 5 points of STR, rounded in the character's favor, garners +1 PD and +1 REC.
Every 2 points of STR, rounded in the character's favor, garners +1 STUN.
So lets do a little math. Every character starts off with a 10 point base for STR which grants 100kg lifting, 2d6 exerting, and 2" leaping. It also grants 2 PD, 2 REC, and 5 STUN. Not bad.
If I spend 5 points on STR my character has 15 STR, then in addition to the other things STR grants (lifting, exerting, leaping), it also grants +1 PD (1 points), +1 REC (2 points), and +3 STUN (3 points). So wait a second...I spent 5 character points, and got all the things STR grants on it's own PLUS 6 points worth of other figured characteristics?
That is a "Point Recursion". Spending points shouldn't generate more points, and in my opinion it is a real flaw.
Some people are of the position that this point recursion allows superheroic bricks to compete with other archetypes that benefit from Power Frameworks, but I don't buy it (I've never found bricks to have problems being competitive -- quite the opposite in fact). And even if one concedes that point, it still doesn't excuse the brokenness of this at heroic levels of play.
This also leads in to a less common but prevalent objection that STR is too cheap. The arguments over this topic are a minor saga unto themselves, but the short version is that there are some (including me) who think STR should at least cost two character points per point under the current model. However, in my opinion the costing of STR is a secondary concern compared to its recursion ability.
Recursive CON
While STR is the worst culprit for recursion, Constitution (CON) and Dexterity (DEX) also have some recursion as well. However, it really is small potatoes compared to STR.
Energy Defense (ED), Recovery (REC), and Stun (STUN) are all derived partially or in full from CON, which has a similar effect as the STR recursion shown above, but since CON costs two points and has far fewer intrinsic abilities than STR does, it is a much less serious affair.
Recursive DEX
Speed (SPD) is derived from DEX, but at a stiffer ratio; every 10 points of DEX grants a point of SPD, and further SPD is the only exception in the game to the HERO rounding rules; SPD is only valid in full increments. Further, DEX costs three character points per point; thus it would take 30 character points spent on DEX to yield one point of SPD, which is inefficient since you could just buy a point of SPD directly for 10 character points.
However, DEX divided by 3 determines base Offensive Combat Value (OCV) and Defensive Combat Value (DCV). It costs five character points to buy a dedicated Combat Skill Level (CSL) for either OCV and DCV, and levels to boost OCV must be bought separately for either Hand to Hand (HtH) or Ranged.
Thus every 9 points of DEX, rounded in the characters favor, garners +1 OCV/+1 DCV which is worth at least 10 points in CSL's, and 9/10ths of a point of SPD for 27 character points. That's a very powerful recursion, and characters built to abuse it have a definite advantage over those that don't capitalize on it. Also, there are a lot of combat-useful Skills based on DEX, like Fast Draw, Acrobatics, and Breakfall.
CHARACTERISTICS SUMMARY
There are definitely some flaws inherent in the current HERO System Characteristics model. It could be improved, without a doubt, but it isn't a game-stopping issue. The system could definitely use some refactoring to make it a cleaner, less quirky model, but it still functions pretty well in actual game play.
There are also pros to the model to balance out some of its cons. On the plus side since you get to decide for yourself how many points to spend on which characteristics rather than determining them randomly or semi-randomly, you get to design the character you want, within the boundaries of the campaign in question and the character points available to you. Also, the HERO System allows you to raise your characteristics after the game has started via experience points. The game also does not have hard caps on the upper limits of characteristics; a character can go over the "Characteristic Maxima" for any characteristic, they just have to pay double the normal character point cost for each point of characteristic.
SKILLS
In general Skills work very well in the HERO System, in my opinion. The System was one of the first games to have a really extensive treatment of the subject as memory serves, and it is integrated directly into the game mechanics rather than tacked on as an after thought. You see the influence of the HERO System in many more modern games; the d20 Skill Model is a pretty direct copy of it, in my opinion.
In the SFX driven HERO System, an individual character might have an ability purchased as a Skill that conceptually indicates an inborn ability or Power, such as a super-dexterous character with an insanely high Breakfall and Acrobatics Skills defined as expressions of their superhuman abilities rather than a trained ability. But in general the Skills concept loosely covers any ability that is essentially trainable.
Skills cover a broad gamut of different sub-mechanics intended to handle a huge array of abilities. It is a powerful selection of options; however, the variety of sub-mechanics can be somewhat confusing to a newbie, particularly since they are not grouped together in the text by subtype (they are listed alphabetically).
Personally I think this is an organizational flaw (as opposed to a mechanical flaw); if the Skills were grouped by subtype I think it would be much more clear. Regardless, I've never heard any common objections about the Skills in the HERO System aside from confusion regarding how various subtypes are resolved, so I'll just take a stab at grouping the subtypes myself and discussing them.
FLAT ABILITY SKILLS
Some Skills cost a flat amount of points for a flat effect. In other words, they are not variable in either cost or application.
SKILL LEVELS
One of the most interesting and powerful aspects of the HERO System is the concept of Skill Levels, which come in several varieties; Combat Skill Levels (CSL), Penalty Skill Levels (PSL), and Skill Levels (SL). They all work the same, the difference being only in application.
The idea behind Skill Levels is that you can purchase bonuses to other Skill Rolls or for Combat Attack Rolls, or to offset Penalties to various task resolutions.
PSLs
PSL' are only applicable to penalties of various sorts, and essentially cancel penalties on a one for one basis. A classic example of this in action are PSL's to offset the Range Penalty; a character with 4 PSL's of this sort offsets a -4 to hit penalty for Range. Another example is a character that takes PSL's to offset hit location penalties.
Personally, I don't like PSL's and think they are unnecessary; they could easily be handled with CSL's and SL's instead. In particular there is frequently confusion on where to use PSL's as opposed to CSL's; PSL's are not supposed to be used to improve OCV, but the difference between offsetting something like a Range or Hit Location penalty to OCV which is expressly allowed vs. offsetting an OCV penalty to the Grab Maneuver which is expressly not allowed is not really clear or intuitive.
CSLs
CSL' are applied to OCV or DCV. They come in different varieties, ranging from +1 OCV to hit with a single attack for 2 character points to +1 applicable to HtH or Ranged OCV or DCV for 8 character points and several flavors in between.
Personally, I love CSL's and consider them to be one of the most flavorful and useful abilities in the game.
SLs
SL' are applied to Skill Rolls, as the name implies. They come in different varieties, ranging from +1 with a single Skill for 2 character points (which is also rolled in to individual Skills as a convenience in the 3/2 Roll Under model described later),  to +1 with all Skill Rolls, PER Rolls, and other Skill-like rolls such as Find Weakness for 10 character points, and several flavors in between.
There are numerous advantages to this model, the primary one being point efficiency when making characters with a broad array of Skills. Rather than buying several related Skills and having to raise each one separately, a character can buy the Skills at their base level and then buy one or more Skill Levels to apply to them all.
Personally, I find the 3, 5, and 8 point varieties of SL's to be fairly useless in a majority of cases, but they come in handy from time to time. The 10 point Overall Skill Level on the other hand is point for point one of the most useful abilities in the game.
Also, it isn't clear to me why all three types of Skill Levels aren't blended into a single Skill Level ability.
COMBAT SKILLS
Next you have "Combat Skills" which grant flat abilities for a flat cost. These include abilities like Defense Maneuver and Two Weapon Fighting. I also personally consider Martial Arts to fall in this category since they are flat cost flat abilities that are used in Combat, but technically Martial Arts are a separate category of Skills.
These Skills are very useful, and tend to be pretty efficient. They are well worth checking out for any character with a combat orientation that doesn't rely on Powers.
FAMILIARITY SKILLS
The simplest type of Skill has no associated Skill Roll, and simply exposes a list of items that a character is either Familiar with or isn't. Familiarities are usually bought for 1 point each, but some of the Skills of this type allow Familiarity Groups that cost 2 points each.
Transport Familiarity and Weapon Familiarity are the two Skills that fall in to this group.
LANGUAGE SKILL
Similar to Familiarity Skills, Languages don't have an associated Skill Roll, and are bought in a check list fashion. There are a finite number of languages available in a given setting, and a character might know one or more of them. A character is assumed to at least speak their own native language (literacy by default is an assumption determined at the setting level). So in a Heroic game set in the modern "real" world a character might speak Russian and French in addition to his native tongue for instance.
Where it differs is that aptitude with a Language is bought in tiers rather than the simple have it/don't have it model of Familiarities. Thus it costs less to have the ability to carry on a "Basic Conversation" than it does to pass as a native speaker. This makes a certain amount of sense, but personally I think that another approach would be better, as I discuss below.
There is also the idea of a Language Familiarity table, wherein different Languages might have relationships with each other, and knowing one can do anything from enable one to understand similar dialects with effort to simply learn a similar language easier (i.e. purchase for fewer character points). Thus in a modern "real" world setting a character that knows Russian can probably converse with someone that knows Ukrainian without too much difficulty, while someone that speaks Italian would probably have an easier time of learning Spanish than someone that only speaks German, since both Spanish and Italian are Romantic Languages.
On the plus side, the HERO System Language Familiarity Chart idea actually works really well and is great for things like Fantasy and Sci-Fi where you have a lot of languages, but it is also a very quirky subset of rules.
Killer Shrike Style Languages
As mentioned above, I personally do not like the fact that Languages lack Skill Rolls and are instead bought in levels of fluency. Personally, I would rather see them be treated as 3/1, INT/5+9, 3d6 Roll Under Skills (which are described later).
The advantages to handling Languages in this fashion is that it is more consistent and allows translations to be resolved via a standard Skill roll rather than forcing the GM to arbitrarily decide what a character understands based on their fluency and maybe an INT roll. To resolve even a short conversation via the official version of Languages a GM might have to make several decisions about how much is understood based on the vague levels of fluency. Also, things like Complementary Skills, time required to converse, and completeness of comprehension are also either arbitrary or not handled by the official method.
If instead a character bought "Basic Conversation" as an 8- Familiarity for 1 point or an INT/5 +9 Skill for 3 points, and things such as sounding like a native and imitating a dialect were handled as penalties to the roll, then not only would all of the current functionality of Languages be preserved, but it in addition resolution becomes much more standardized.
For example, a character wants to have a basic understanding of Greek, such as a dedicated History major specializing in Ancient Greece might acquire via repeated contact. He can parse Greek text given enough time and reference, and can pick up on basic phrases, but he isn't fluent enough to carry on a full speed conversation.
Under the official rules the character would take Language: Greek (basic conversation); 1 pt. All the resolution of what that allows him to do, and whether he succeeds or fails to understand a particular communication is left entirely to the GM as an arbitrary decision. If Language behaved like a Roll Under skill instead, then the character would buy FAM: Greek 8-; 1 pt. Resolution is now easily determined by rolling against 8-, and further circumstantial modifiers are easily applied just like they would be to any other Roll Under skill.
Further, a character can easily use Complementary Skills if appropriate; to continue the example if someone were talking to the character in Greek, but were discussing historical sites and events it is perfectly reasonable that the character could use his KS: Ancient Greece Skill as a Complementary Skill; he'll likely recognize key words and have a better chance of puzzling out what is being said. Similarly, Language could then also be used as a Complementary Skill Roll to other Skills, primarily Interaction Skills; Obviously a character that speaks a particular Language well is going to be particularly convincing (Persuasion) or glib (Conversation) or inspirational (Oratory) when speaking in that Language.
ROLL UNDER SKILLS
The most common kind of Skill is what I call "Roll Under" (RU) Skills. They come in several varieties, but the mechanic is consistent; they are described with a number, and to use them you roll 3d6 and try to get a result less than or equal to that number. Situational modifiers are applied to make tasks harder or easier.
Mathematically the same probabilities can be modeled with a Target Number (TN), or Roll & Add (R&A) type of resolution found in many other game systems if no base number is used, where dice are rolled and must equal or exceed a certain number to succeed. However, I personally find that Roll Unders are more consistent and work better in actual play. In TN and R&A systems the difficulty is rated in the same terms as the roll, and thus they lend themselves to arbitrary Target Numbers that are relative to the skill needed to do something rather than an assumed standard difficulty.
Characteristic Skills
The most common version of a Roll Under is the 3/2, (CHAR/5) +9 model wherein you spend 3 character points for a base roll of an indicated characteristic divided by 5 and added to 9; +1 bonuses to the base roll can be purchased for 2 character points each. Thus if a character with a 15 DEX were to buy Acrobatics it would cost 3 points, and the character would have a 12- roll (15/5 = 3; 3 + 9 = 12); if the character wanted Acrobatics 14- it would cost 4 character points for a +2 to the roll.
Abstract Skills
A slight variation on the normal 3/2 Roll Under Skill are several Skills that represent undefined categories that are taken for specific subjects defined when the Skill is purchased. This type of skill also offers the option of basing a particular expression on a characteristic or instead not basing it on any characteristic. If the Skill isn't based on a characteristic it is called a General Skill and has a base roll of 11-. General Skills also cost less; 2 points for the base 11- roll rather than 3 points. Either way, regardless of whether the Skill is based on a characteristic or not and whether it costs 3 points or 2 points, these Skills are still resolved by rolling 3d6 and getting less than or equal to the Skill number.
The three categories of this type of Skill are Knowledge Skills, Professional Skills, and Science Skills. Knowledge Skills are further subdivided into Groups, People. Places, Things and by convention People Knowledge Skills are called a Culture Knowledge (CuK) while Place Knowledge Skills are called either an Area Knowledge (AK) or a City Knowledge (CK). Professional Skills indicate an ability to do some kind of task or complete some kind of work not otherwise covered in the rules; often a character will have a paired selection of a Knowledge Skill and a Professional Skill to represent both an intellectual understanding of something (KS) as well as the practical application of it (PS). Finally Science Skills are like a combination KS and CK for scientific subjects.
This type of Skill also has built in scoping you can define your implementation of the Skill very specifically or very broadly or in between. When you attempt to use the Skill you get a bonus or penalty to your Skill roll based on how specific your version of the Skill is and how relevant it is to the subject at hand. Thus a character could take the generic Science Skill SS: General Biology and accept penalties when using it for specifics like Microbiology or Marine Biology, or they could take a specific SS: Microbiology and gain bonuses when using it for Microbiology and situationally be able to use it for general biological matters at a penalty. There's also nothing stopping a character from having overlapping Skills of this type indicating a comprehensive coverage of a subject; this can even be mechanically useful if the GM allows the character to use one such Skill as a Complementary Skill to another Skill.
As another slight quirk, all three versions of this type of Skill cost 1 point per +1 to roll, even if they are based on a characteristic.
Checklist Skills
Some RU Skills have been merged with the Familiarity Skill model (like the Weapon and Transport Familiarities mentioned above), to allow more optional granularity. For example Computer Programming is just a normal RU Skill by default, but it can be grated more finely if the GM prefers, with a checklist of specific platforms and programming languages that a person is proficient with bought as 1 point familiarities. This is useful in campaigns that focus on high tech and enforces a higher degree of realism, but is not useful in campaigns where such shadings are not important.
This is done really inconsistently however; it is very hit or miss as far as which Skills are expanded in such a fashion. In my opinion all of the RU Skills could be modified to work in this fashion; in particular the abstract KS, PS, SS Skills could be switched to this model so that you could do something like take an undefined KS Roll and then buy the things that the roll applies to for 1 point each  instead of having to buy a new Skill for each one. For instance it would often be less expensive for a brainy scientist type character to buy a single Science Skill 17- and then buy all of the types of Science he can apply the roll to than it would be to buy multiple Science Skills up to 17-, or sufficient SL's to approximate the same effect.
SKILL ENHANCERS
Skill Enhancers are not Skills themselves, but rather are an accounting gimmick to make certain types of Skills cost fewer points. It is intended to be an aid for characters that are specializing in a particular area to help defray the often inefficient investment in points required to do so. For instance if a character takes the Linguist Skill Enhancer it costs 3 character points, but it decreases the cost of all Languages the character learns by 1 character point; so if the character is going to take four or more Languages, it saves a few points.
Personally I think Skill Enhancers are pretty unimpressive. The point shaving involved is rarely worth bothering with for starters, and for seconders the majority of them revolve around the abstract Roll Unders. This is kind of silly in my opinion since the abstract Roll Unders are scoped when taken, and can be scoped generally enough by a clever player to avoid having to take a bunch of them in the first place. KS: Cities of the World 16- and PS: Urban Driving 13- costs 12 character points for a character with 20 INT and is almost certainly cheaper than buying City Knowledges for every city on the planet, even with the Traveler Skill Enhancer. The name is also misleading, since one of the "Skill" Enhancers actually makes some types of Perk cheaper, but that's a nit pick.
SKILLS SUMMARY
So basically, the Skill model is broad, powerful, and open ended, but is also really a mixed bag that could benefit from some reorg and standardization. In practice however most of the quirkiness fades out of focus, and functionally the Skill model works very well in actual play. 
PERKS
Perks are things that are conceptually neither innate or learned, but rather are more social in nature. Things like Contacts, Followers, Bases, and Money fall into this category. If you want International Police Powers for your Interpol Agent or a Base on the Moon, Perks is where you go to look for that for instance.
I'm generally happy with how Perks works. It is more of a collection of disparate mechanics than a definitive structure, but due to the nature of what is being modeled all works out pretty well in my opinion. The only issue with a Perk I've ever had arise during play is disagreements over exactly what the Money Perk allows, and this is typically more of a communication issue that is easily resolved.
TALENTS
Talents in the Fifth Edition of the HERO System are basically pre-canned Powers and/or Skills. All Talents are small scale Powers or Skills written up at a certain level of ability with certain assumptions built in and made available to characters in an as-is fashion. This is ideal for campaigns where Powers are off-limits to characters, and is also useful to assert a certain level of standardization on various reoccurring concepts. For instance, there are several ways to write up an "Eidetic Memory" using Power Constructs or Skills, but it is convenient to have a consistent way to handle it already defined and provided via the Eidetic Memory Talent.
Further, a GM can take Power Constructs he wants available in his game, and then turn them into Talents to make them available to players as is. This is a great way to handle a lot of things. Want to allow fantastic wuxia style powers, but still keep some limits/consistency? Fine, use Talents. Got a group of newbies and want to shield the players from having to deal with the Power mechanics math? Use Talents.
For example, say you are playing in a Heroic level game and the GM wants straight Powers to be strictly off limits, but Equipment and Talents are ok. Lets pretend it's Sci Fi or Fantasy, and there is a race of people called Da'Fahrees; some of whom are born with wings and can thus fly. Well Flight is a Power, which the GM has already decided are not allowed. Further, all Da'Fahrees that can fly have winged flight, and while some are a little faster than others there is a definite upper speed limit. No problem; the GM simply designs an ability using the Flight Power, applying Limitations as appropriate, such as "Restrainable: Wings", and makes it a Talent. He can also define any options he wants to be available, like an option to buy more inches of flight or a non combat multiple or 1/2 END. He calls the new Talent "Da'Fahree Flight" and notes that it is only available to a  Da'Fahree character.
It is a great concept, but unfortunately the game designers haven't been super consistent about employing or pushing the concept's use in follow up supplements for some reason, using ideas like "Super Skills" to group abilities that by definition are Talents.
POWERS
This is where the money is at. The Power mechanics is where about 90% of the math and complexity that the HERO System is renowned for resides. It is also what makes the game so flexible and extendible.
Common Objection: Having to Design Powers To Make A Character
Some people have complained that they can't get past character creation in the HERO System because they don't understand how to use the Power construction rules and get stuck.
A key point that many people don't seem to get is that the Powers section is there for when you need it. Many characters in many types of campaign will never have a single Power, though they might have Equipment*.
Many people also have the wrong idea about what Powers are used for. It sometimes helps to remember that the system did primarily originate as a Superhero game many years ago, and its dark roots peak thru in various places, most notably the labels placed on things.
In this case replace the word "Powers" with "Unusual Abilities" and you have a better idea of what the concept encompasses.
WHEN TO TAKE POWERS
Powers really come into play for characters with unusual abilities. If you play a Fantasy Mage of some kind you'll likely delve into Powers for your Spells. If you play a Psionicist in a Sci-Fi game you'll likely delve into Powers (although the GM could very easily pre-can the Psionics he wants to be available as Talents). If you are playing a High Fantasy sword swinger or Rogue, or a High Espionage Super Spy (or some other cinematic "normal") you can stray into Powers for some unique "superskills" if the campaign allows it, but you don't have to. And obviously if you play a Superhero, you'll almost certainly use Powers for your superpowers.
However, many characters can be designed without taking a single Power, and in fact there are many campaigns where this is the norm. Some campaigns don't even allow Powers at the GM's option. You don't need Powers to have a HERO System character or to play the game. But the strength of the Power mechanics is that when some unusual ability needs to be defined in game mechanics so that it can be resolved, you can almost always model the desired effect in an internally consistent manner.
REASONING FROM EFFECT
The basic idea behind Powers is a concept called "Reason from Effect". This is a simple idea that lies at the heart of the Powers system, and reaching a deeper understanding of it is the key to developing skills as a HERO System character designer.
Instead of picking prepackaged abilities from a list like you do in almost every other roleplaying game, the HERO System instead asks you to concentrate on what you want an ability to do and then model that using generic base Powers modified by Advantages and Limitations that tweak the base ability in various ways. Call the resulting construct what you like and simply state what it looks (sounds, scans, whatever) like. Guns, Laser Eye Beams, Missiles, Dark Chi, Napalm, Acid, Soul Drains, whatever, can all be modeled with the same mechanic in the HERO System. This is called the Special Effect (SFX) of the Power.
The name and appearance is SFX; how it works is the mechanic.
Aside from the obvious extensibility of this open ended design, consider this; once you know the rules for a base Power, lets say Mind Control for instance, you know how to adjudicate a character's use of a Mind Control based Power Construct whether it has the SFX of Xavier-like Domination, D&D-esque Charm, Loki-esque Trickery, swinging watch Hypnosis, insidious Brain Implant, or a invasive Truth Serum.
This is one of the main reasons why the HERO System has a steep learning curve at the beginning, but once you crest the apex the curve drops heavily down to a very easy to understand paradigm. The first time you figure out how a base Power works you might need to consult the book and think it thru a bit, but once you've got it down that same knowledge applies to future uses of the same base power despite the fact that the actual SFX involved are completely different.
Common Objection: Too Generic
Some feel that the idea of standardized base Powers make HERO System characters feel somewhat generic. People of this viewpoint feel that if my character's Galvanic Aggravator is defined as a Ranged Killing Attack and your character's Acidic Globapult is also defined as a Ranged Killing Attack, then somehow the two abilities have been robbed of their uniqueness. 
Personally I ascribe to the "if you're bored it's because you're boring" mindset. Basically you get out of it what you put in to it, and if you have opted not to make your Power interesting and flavorful despite the vast array of options available to make each Power Construct either distinct mechanically, conceptually, or both then you have no one to blame but yourself. It is similar to going to one of the largest buffets in the world with a vast array of dishes from every major and numerous minor cuisine available, and claiming that it all looks the same. This is one objection that I personally think is completely invalid.
Common Objection: Too Much Math
The downside of this method is that there is Math involved in taking a base Power and applying Advantages and Limitations to it, and a common complaint from detractors is that they don't like doing math to play a roleplaying game.
My initial response is that people that don't like math are probably ill disposed to enjoy a point based game in the first place, since it is a mathematically driven model of roleplaying by definition, but that aside here is HERO Powers Math in a nutshell:
Base Powers have a Base Cost. Most Attack Powers are designed around a damage or effect oriented model that costs some increment of points for 1d6 of effect, while other utility Powers like Desolid or Missile Deflection are bought for flat points per listed ability, movement Powers are based around buying a game unit of movement for a certain cost, and most Defense Powers are based around a model of buying points of Defense (which subtract directly from damage) for a certain cost each, and so on. Essentially the purchasing of base Powers is very logical for the most part and it is clear what scale or effect your character points are purchasing. For instance Flight costs 2 character points per 1" of movement while Running costs 1 character point per 1" of movement; similarly Energy Blast costs 5 points per d6 while Ranged Killing Attacks cost 15 points per d6.
Some Powers have Adders that just extend the functionality of the Power and have a flat cost that is added to the Base Cost. Adders are always optional and their usage is quite clear' you add them if you want them. They are usually +5 or +10 points.
Next you may, but do not have to, attach modifiers to the base Power. Advantages are ways your Power is better than average, Limitations are ways your Power is worse than average. Both forms of modifier are rated in fractions, so +1/2 or -1/2 for example.
All fractions are increments of 1/4 and while there is no upper limit, for the most part there is a soft cap around +/- 2 on individual modifiers. Thus you will see modifier values of +/- 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 1. 1 1/4, 1 1/2, 1 3/4, and 2, and you will never see irregular fractions like 1/3 or 3/18. Each 1/4 Power modifier increment is analogous to .25; thus a +1 Advantage is equivalent to 1 and a -1 1/2 Limitation is equivalent to -1.5.
So here comes the scary math, and a few new terms.
  • (Base Cost + Adders) * (1 + Total Advantages) = Active Points
  • Active Points / (1 + Total Limitations) = Real Cost
Active Points represent how powerful (or leveraged might be a better way to think of it) the ability is in relative terms, and the Real Cost is what you actually pay to have the ability.
In case it isn't clear, if you had a Total Advantage of +1 3/4 and a Base Cost of 50, it would look like: 50 * 2.75 = 137.5 Active Points. The Power Construct is almost three times more expensive than an unmodified version of the base Power in that scenario.
Example: For ease of comprehension I'm going to give an explicit step by step breakdown of constructing a Power first and then finally give a standard full HERO System write-up of the finished Power Construct afterwards:
I'm going to play in a Superheroic campaign and I want my new character Lazer-Gazer to shoot laser beams from his eyes; the effect I want is to knock people out with it (yes I know its a laser, but superhero physics and the comics code make it all OK).
Lazer-Gazer Eye Blast Prototype: 10d6 Energy Blast vs. Energy Defense; cost: 50 points
NOTE: There are numerous ways to construct such an attack in the HERO System, I simply opted for a more typical manner of doing so. Energy Blast is a base Power allowing normal damage attacks to be made at range. Each 1d6 of Energy Blast costs 5 points, so 10d6 = 50 Base Points.
That looks good, but normally in a superheroic game characters spend 1 END per 10 Active Points in a Power, so 5 END per use in this case. With that in mind I decide that  I want Lazer-Gazer's Energy Blast to be effortless since I don't want to have to watch his Endurance while using it. To avoid this I add the +1/2 Power Advantage Reduced Endurance (0 END) to the Power.
Lazer-Gazer Effortless Eye Blast Prototype: 10d6 Energy Blast vs. Energy Defense, 0 END; cost: 75 points
Adding Advantages: 50 Base Cost * (1+.5) = 75 Active Points
Now Lazer-Gazer can shoot as often as he wants and never get tired, but on the other hand 75 points is a pretty expensive Power and I can't really afford it right now. So I decide that though it doesn't tire Lazer-Gazer to use the blast he does have to take careful aim and build up for an attack, so I take the -3/4 Limitation Extra Time (Full Phase, Delayed Phase) and the -1/4 Limitation Concentration (1/2 DCV) for a total of -1 in Limitations.
Lazer-Gazer Effortless Eye Blast Prototype: 10d6 Energy Blast vs. Energy Defense, 0 END, 1/2 DCV Concentration, Full Phase, Delayed Phase; cost: 37 points
Adding Limitations: 75 Active Points / (1+1) = 37.5 Real Cost (rounded in my favor to 37)
So it costs Lazer-Gazer 37 Character Points to have the Power, costs no END to use, and is theoretically comparable in effect to other 75 Active Point Powers. However, it takes a Full Phase to use it, goes off at half Lazer-Gazer's initiative (and thus can be disrupted), and also drops Lazer-Gazer to 1/2 DCV.
A full HERO System annotation would look something like this:
37 Eye Beams of DOOM!: 10d6 EB Reduced END (0 END; +1/2) (75 Active Points); Extra Time (Full Phase; Delayed Phase; - 3/4), Concentration (1/2 DCV; -1/4)
or an abbreviated one like this:
37 Eye Beams of DOOM!: 10d6 EB (0 END); FPhase DPhase, 1/2 DCV Con
And that's how the math works. Pretty simple, no? Here it is again:
  • (Base Cost + Adders) * (1 + Total Advantages) = Active Points
  • Active Points / (1 + Total Limitations) = Real Cost
POWERS SUMMARY
Powers are an incredibly rich feature of the game, and perhaps the aspect of the system that it is most famous for. You can do some really cool things with them, and for some the creation of interesting Power Constructs becomes a game within a game.
However, it is a bit much for some players. There are options however. For starters, players that are unwilling to tackle Powers can simply tell their GM what they want and let them design the Power Construct. Also, there are several products from the publisher of the game that are basically just huge selections of premade Power Constructs. Finally, the HERO System Forums is a good resource; a how to post on the discussion boards always generates at least one solution.
An important thing for newbies to keep in mind however is that they aren't expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of what each Power does or how every modifier interacts with every other. Those things come in time. Instead, just focus on learning about the Powers that are relevant to the game in progress and learn as you go. You'll make mistakes in the process (we all did when we were new to the game too), but stay flexible and you'll eventually get through it.
* Equipment is typically defined by a Power Construct, such as a Sword that is defined as a Hand Killing Attack (HKA). However, things noted as Equipment are bought with money in most games, not character points, and further a lot of the minutia of the build can be hidden for Equipment.
POWER FRAMEWORKS
There are three Frameworks that you can use in combination with Powers to model more complicated and/or multifaceted abilities. Generally speaking Frameworks, particularly Multipowers, are very point efficient and powerful.
Common Objection: Frameworks Are Easily Abused By Munchkins
You can make some very powerful characters by correctly utilizing Frameworks, so it's no surprise that you can make some truly degenerate characters by incorrectly utilizing them. Some people have issues with the Frameworks in general due to this. Personally I find Frameworks to be invaluable character modeling tools. I think banning Frameworks, as some GM's have been known to do, is like banning matches because some people start forest fires with them. There are plenty of legitimate uses for Power Frameworks. But in the end, to each his own; the HERO System is infinitely customizable and if you don't like something in it you generally don't have to use it.
FRAMEWORKS
The three Frameworks are Elemental Controls, Multipowers, and Variable Power Pools. Each has a different model and serves a different purpose, with differing pros and cons.
ELEMENTAL CONTROLS
Elemental Controls (EC) are the simplest of the Frameworks and the structure is essentially just a discount for having particularly a strong SFX for some or all of your character's Powers, plain and simple. There is really nothing more to it than an accounting gimmick, with one exception and some limits on what Powers can be taken in an EC. You pay half the Cost of the lowest Active Point Power in the EC as a premium, and then subtract that same amount from every Power in the EC.
Basically, you'll pay more points for Powers in an EC than you would in the other two Frameworks, but you can use all of the Powers at the same time. That's the main pro to an EC, and why it is best used for Movement, Defense, and the occasional utility type powers that you want on potentially all the time (you don't want to have to turn off your Force Field to Fly for instance). The kick in the shorts for EC's is that negative Adjustments (Drain, Transfer, and Suppress based Powers essentially) targeting one of the Powers in the EC affect all the Powers in the EC, so one decent Drain can really have an impact.
A hidden downside of Elemental Controls is that there is a minimum cost per slot based on the discount gained, so adding powers to a high Active Point EC can cost a lot, making future growth in that area slow.
Common Objection: EC's Are Point Factories
The main problem with EC's, and a commonly voiced detraction, is that what constitutes a good enough SFX to qualify for an EC is really vague, and in particular I've noticed a tendency in old-skool players to use it to just generate a discount and thus squeeze more points for their characters.
A good rule of thumb here is for the GM to think of the EC and all the Powers in it as a single big and complex "meta-Power" and if that doesn't make sense then not allow the EC. In other words, Johnny Irradiated is a fire based character that has a fiery force field, can fly around, and can raise the Temperature around him all at the same time; the GM figures that all three effects are just stunts for the "meta-power" of generating a lot of heat in a superheroic fashion and allows it -- if the character's Flight gets Drained, it makes sense that his Force Field and Change Environment (Raise Temp) also get weaker, because the ability to generate heat is what is being Drained, not the individual stunts that it is used for.
MULTIPOWERS
Multipowers (MP) are probably the most common and generally efficient Frameworks. The basic idea behind a MP is that you set aside a Reserve of Points, and then buy relatively cheap Power slots that can use that Reserve, but the total Active Points (AP) of the Power slots currently active cannot exceed the Reserve.
Multipowers are very efficient and because the slots are so cheap, it is easy to add new ones with experience points. However, as a downside growing the Reserve can be slow, and you also have to put some points into each slot separately to raise them to use the new full Reserve.
The most significant downside to a MP however is that the Reserve is finite, and thus it can be difficult to balance Attack, Movement, and Defense Powers in the same Multipower. Few players want to have to make a decision from action to action whether they should drop their Force Field to fuel their Power Blast. However, some players like that sort of dramatic tension, and it is useful for modeling certain kinds of character, so it isn't a clear cut flaw so much as it is a point to consider.
Common Objection: Grab-bag MP's Lack Flavor
Some players and GM's use MP's as a big "grab bag" of completely unrelated abilities simple to save points. This lacks a certain elegance and frequently makes little or no sense conceptually, but isn't technically illegal. It is up to individual GM's to determine how concept driven they want MP's to be in their campaigns. Personally, I prefer them to be conceptually consistent, but each GM must make this decision on their own.
Multipower In Practice
To show the advantages of a MP in action we'll return to the Lazer-Gazer example; lets pretend he also wanted to shoot a focused laser that could burn through metal and things like that. The player could write the effect up and buy it separately, paying full Real Cost for both his existing Eye Beams of DOOM! Power and his new metal-burning eye beam. The problem with doing that is twofold, first it is prohibitively expensive, and secondly the two abilities are somewhat redundant; rarely will he want to shoot both.
But if Lazer-Gazer were to take a MP with a 75 pt Reserve and put the Eye Beams of DOOM! into it; he could then take another slot in the MP with different modifiers (like Armor Piercing) for the Metal Burning Gaze of DOOM! for significantly fewer character points.
Ultra-slots vs. Multi-slots
There are two kinds of Power Slots one can take in a MP; if a Power must have a fixed number of Active Points allocated to it to be activated, it costs 1/10th the normal Real Cost in character points; this is called an "Ultra-slot". If the amount of Active Points allocated to the slot is variable then it costs 1/5th of the normal Real Cost in character points and is called a "Multi-slot".
Continuing the example, if Lazer-Gazer must use the full 75 points of the Reserve when using either of his Eye Beams, he would take them as "Ultra-slots" and pay 1/10th the Real Cost for each ability (4 pts in this case); if he could put in any amount of the Reserve from the minimum for 1d6 of effect to the full 75 then he would takes them as "Multi-slots" and pay 1/5th the Real Cost for each (8 pts in this case). The difference is that with a Multi-slot he could use a few D6 of the blast and use the remainder of the Reserve to fuel other slots. Also note that Ultra-slots don't have to occupy the full Reserve; Lazer-Gazer could take two weaker Powers with say 37 Active Points in the same VPP as Ultraslots for 4pts each and use them at the same time, since their total AP is less than or equal to the Reserve.
VARIABLE POWER POOLS
Finally there is the big daddy of Frameworks, the Variable Power Pool (VPP). VPP's can be used for a lot of things and can be anything from wide open to extremely locked down, but the basic idea is that you put aside a Pool of character points that you can use to gain Powers that are not actually listed on your character, which can change in various circumstances. The more easily these Variable Powers can be changed the more expensive the VPP.
At it's most wide open a VPP can be changed to any Power Construct at will as a 0 Phase Action (takes no time) with no chance of failure, although this is an expensive option. This is often called a "Cosmic VPP". A more limited VPP might only be changed between adventures or with access to a lab or a spellbook, or similar. Wizards, Gadgeteers, and similar flexible characters are all modelable with this concept, among many many others.
The plus side should be obvious, a character with a VPP is not completely locked in to a static capability. There are also many concepts that basically boil down to needing a VPP to work correctly; even when you can manage to do the character without a VPP there are some ideas that simply work better and more efficiently with a properly defined VPP.
The downsides are several however. The most significant is that in a structured game like the HERO System it really is safer to build a Power construct outside of a game and check it strenuously, doing it on the fly because a character just flipped their VPP around in the middle of play can be problematic and time consuming. Another problem is that few things in the game can be more easily abused by munchkiny players than a VPP. Yet another problem is that if a character's VPP isn't limited in some fashion either directly or by virtue of having a small Pool, it becomes very difficult to challenge such a character since they can just manifest something new in their VPP to suit a given predicament.
Still, the VPP is an essential piece for some complicated character implementations, and when used correctly rather than abused it is strong way to make interesting characters.
POWER FRAMEWORKS SUMMARY
Power Frameworks are a very powerful feature of the game, but they are open to abuse and require GM monitoring. Use with caution, but remember that they add a lot of options to character designers and the ability to model various complex ideas can often require their use.
DISADVANTAGES
Finally, things are not always peaches and cream for characters, and that is where Disadvantages come in. The term is somewhat misleading, for not all Disadvantages are purely disadvantageous; they are really more like Complications that enrich a character's background and ongoing roleplaying experience.
Things like Psychological Limitations, Dependencies, Accidental Changes, Social Limitations, Unluck, and so forth fall in to this category. In many ways a character's Disadvantages do more to define the personality and playability of the character than any of their Skills, Characteristics, and Powers do.
This being a point based game, and Disadvantages being somewhat detrimental to a character, they grant additional points to be spent on abilities, and in fact games are normally defined as allowing X number of Base Points + Y maximum Disadvantages, like a 150 + 150 campaign, which means each character is built on 150 character points plus up to 150 more points generated from Disadvantages.
Common Objection: Most Players Take Meaningless Disadvantages to Point-Grub
This is true; players that are more interested in powering up than roleplaying can take a bunch of Disadvantages that they have no intention of playing out or observing just to get more character points. This is manageable by the GM either enforcing the Disadvantages, making the players trade them in for other Disadvantages they are willing to play, adjusting the base/max Disadvantage ration to lower the maximum Disadvantage total, or just booting munchkiny players to name a few options.
DISADVANTAGES SUMMARY
Try to think of Disadvantages as a useful tool for detailing richly envisioned characters rather than just a source of extra points or a collection of things to screw a character over with, and your characters will be the better for it.
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