Game: Comic Book Heroes Players Guide
Publisher: SteelMagic Studios
Series: d20 Modern
Review Dated: 16th, July 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
A 7-paged index for a 188-paged PDF, this isn’t a lightweight product. SteelMagic Studios’ Comic Book Heroes is a hefty RPG straining against the confines of the OGL. You can feel it. SteelMagic aren’t allowed to tell you about the full character generation process in d20 Modern – and I suspect that drives them nuts. Comic Book Heroes tries to be as comprehensive as possible but it’s hamstringed by the rules and regulations it must follow.
If it’s not obvious from the introduction, SteelMagic’s Comic Book Heroes is a d20 Modern super hero game.
Here’s a good question. What’s the difference between a hero and a super hero? In the current d20 Modern game I play I’ve a low level Dedicated Hero who’s specialised heavily in observation skills. His spot skill is fantastic. It’s almost supernatural. Almost. That’s the line Comic Book Heroes takes – a super hero has super powers, a hero, no matter how good they are, don’t have super powers. That’s probably the first definition you thought of and it’s the best definition to stick with.
The definite if rather broadly struck distinction between a hero and a superhero allows SteelMagic to do two good things with Comic Book Heroes. This is a stand alone superhero game (d20 Modern still required) and it’s also a superhero add-on for your current d20 Modern game. If you want to take your current d20 Modern character and turn her into a super hero then this Comic Book Heroes can do that too.
Right near the start of the RPG we start to run through d20 Modern’s core classes. Except These classes are not quite the core classes. There are subtle differences. The Smart Hero is not the same as The Smart Superhero.
We finish with the re-visited classes and begin re-visited skill at about page 26. That’s less than 15% of the book done. As you read through Comic Book Heroes there’s just no shaking this feeling that the book insists on being as complete as it can be.
I’m thoroughly bored of chapters which re-visit skills now. One day some d20 publisher is going to suggest that a radical and alternative use for Climb skill is to use it for “scrambling up a tree trunk, using branches and the tree trunk for assistance”. It’ll probably be introduced alongside the Tree-Climber Prestige Class in a Ranger splatbook. That’s been unfair though. There are many supplements which have a valid reason to go back to skills – typically because the core subject matter of the supplement is far enough removed form the subject matter of the core rules. Comic Book Heroes is, of course, one of these exceptions. We don’t bother repeating unnecessary skills but do look at new ones and, more helpfully, look at super heroic ranges and situations. Skills like autohypnosis and DC values in the 40s.
We’re given a similar treatment in the feats chapter except we do run quickly through the d20 Modern feats. They fit into a two column table so we might as well. We get to keep most of them and then have a whole new lot added in.
Origins are important in Comic Book Heroes. The plan is that you can convert your character to a super hero or create a super hero at level one. And you can; mostly. Listed origins are; mutant, alien, supernatural, transformer, geared up and cyborg. They’re the tried and tested bunch but I wish there was more. The mutant origin catches so many possibilities, bundles them together and tars them with the same brush. These are your racial equivalents for the game and have origin specific issues and suggested powers.
There’s a vast amount of super power in Comic Book Heroes. The bulk of the lengthy PDF is chocked full of super heroic abilities. This is good. Heroes have a number of points to spend (SSPs) and powers cost a certain amount of points (Cost). The better the power then the more it costs. Most powers can be bought in doses. If you want to be good at some specific super power then buy it more than once. Nicely, and as one of my favourite features in Comic Book Heroes, you can then buy add on options or limitations to these powers. Add on extras cost points and the limitations get SSP back to be spent elsewhere. Power ups include extended range, joinable, extra damage and extra usages and limitations include energy drain, audible indication, gesture and a chance of failure.
Having this control over the super powers of the game is nice for two important reasons. The players can finely tune their characters to fit exactly how they picture the superhero, you can specialise or generalise as much as you want. GMs may well have to guard against min-maxers but this system also gives GMs important control. The Comic Book Heroes game, although tending towards high powered, golden age, heroes can be easily made to fit any hero genre. If you want to play a dark hero game then, as GM, you might insist that all powers have two limitations and that no points are earned back. For example, every power in one gritty game might harm anyone nearby when the hero uses it.
Not all of the book is full with super powers though. There’s a hefty dose of equipment. Comic Book Heroes isn’t sci-fi per se, in fact, it has no default world setting (just aliens and cyborgs) but the equipment runs the full gambit of hero comics. There are spacecraft (and the skill system separates their usage out) and there are laser blasters too. Once again the GM has the choice of what to include in their campaign world. Saying that something isn’t available is much easier than making up a set of stats especially to include something.
“Devices” aren’t standard equipment. Devices are super powered equipment and generally bought with SSP. With devices we cater for the likes of Iron Man – who gets his power from his suit and who is screwed without it – or any other hero who’s powers are tied to specific devices rather than a natural (or supernatural, er, or unnatural) ability.
The ins and outs of cyborgs aren’t glossed over either. Too often, I think, the cyborg hero is thrown into a game or supplement too quickly. There’s a whole host of issues which rear their head the minute you start using cyborgs. How many implants can someone have? What happens if a blow strikes the cybernetically enhanced limb rather than the natural one? How can you tell which limb gets hit? All these questions need answers and Comic Book Heroes rises to the occasion. Without getting into the mechanics; cybernetic enhancements work of the Constitution score. As you might expect the tough marine can handle more cybernetic limbs than the elderly professor. Both men will benefit from the enhancements though. The next stage up from “simple” cybernetic enhancements are entirely mechanised suits – power armour – which are a cross between a vehicle and armour. Comic Book Heroes has a whole chapter on mechanised armour (or mechanized armor as it might be spelt) and this is an unexpected surprise. Less surprisingly but very much in the theme of completeness there’s a chapter on vehicles too.
Combat. Comic Book Heroes has pages devoted to the discussion and rules of combat. Chapters like this need to be justified; they could very easily become an annoying waste of space. Once again SteelMagic Studios should have had nothing to worry about here – the genre does need specific rules for combat and although there are other super hero d20 products (Vigilance and Mutants and Masterminds, for example) but there isn’t a glut of super hero rules from third party publishers. However most of the combat section here is just re-print of what we already have in the core rules. It’s a bit of a debate – should a supplement-cum-game, trying to be as complete as possible, make room for plenty of re-printed rules? It saves having to flick between books. Or should they concentrate on pointing out differences? I’m not sure I know. In this instance I’m not sure I care! Why not? The reprinted rules, in this game, seem entirely appropriate to me. This PDF is trying to be as complete as possible; I appreciate that and find the re-printing handy.
There’s a fairly decent Gamemaster section which quickly discusses comic book roleplaying, doing the dangerous thing of rewarding players with SPP (more powers), super hero campaign and, of course, some of the usual GM rules (falling, objects, etc).
This is a big PDF but it could be bigger. This particular review is for Comic Book Heroes LA edition. The Limited Artwork PDF is designed to be easy enough to print off – even if we’re encouraged to get that done professionally. Limited Artwork means virtually no artwork – if you don’t count the rather pretty graphic chapter headers there are barely a couple of illustrations in the entire product. This isn’t something that bothers me though. There’s plenty of colour in the layout. We’re told that the AA (All Artwork) edition of a SteelMagic products normally follow swiftly behind the LA. If you’re quick enough and the offer is on you can upgrade for free. If you buy the AA edition then you get the LA edition for free. The traditional model is to only offer the best / the pretty PDF and give the easy-to-print one away free. I think this extra level options suits SteelMagic well enough. It’s actually rather nice to have the option of paying less (about %50 less) for this large (and not cheap at nearly $20!) game. The only catch is if you buy the LA and then fancy the AA edition as well and there’s no cheap upgrade available.
All in all I rather liked Comic Book Heroes. It’s professionally done and the simple goal of working as a start up super hero game and as a super hero conversion for your current game. SteelMagic do show their status as a relative new comer – despite the length of the PDF there are no bookmarks. The lack of bookmarks really does hamper on-screen usability. It’s quite common to find slews and slews of NPCs in super hero products, we don’t get that here and I don’t miss them at all! The super powers themselves often make or break the game. Too few or too fiddly power rules really wreck the product for me. I want to design an original or inspirational hero and need a system able to work with me in order to help me with that. I’m a little worried about the drama of dealing with LA and AA editions but, on general, prefer to have the choice than none. Super hero games, I think, demand a fair bit of support from the publisher. Expansions and supplements should bring in new powers and origins in just the same way as comics evolve and introduce new heroes and villains too. It’s thumbs up for Comic Book Heroes and we just have to see what else SteelMagic Studios can do with it.