Fantasy HERO (FH hereafter) is the newest and most ambitious of Hero Games' "genre books." A genre book, for those unclear on the concept, is intended to provide a complete, detailed overview of a particular gaming genre, as well as tips for running that genre under the HERO System rules.
The two earlier editions of Fantasy HERO were hit or miss affairs. Many HEROphiles loved the in-depth dissection of various genre and subgenre "bits" and the sections on world creation but chafed at other aspects of the book, such as the oft-derided default magic system and bland sample setting.
This new third edition of FH aims to correct those flaws while still maintaining its usefulness as a general fantasy gaming resource. Aside from a few minor glitches, it succeeds admirably.
FH is a massive, massive tome. Even as a softcover, its 416 page bulk is thicker than some phone books. Well over an inch thick, FH towers over even the mammoth hardcover HERO System Fifth Edition Rulebook. In fact, no real description of the book's size does the final product justice. I knew all about its impressive dimensions prior to receiving my copy in the mail, and was still astounded by the heft of it. Amazingly, FH boasts an MSRP of just $31.99, and I was able to purchase it for considerably less than that online. A better price to content ratio is virtually unheard of in the industry.
Storn Cook's FH cover is quite nice. A full-color battle scene that features a diverse group of good guys (female paladin, dwarven warrior, giantess, etc) defending a castle from an evil wizard and his hoard of orc-type henchmen. It's a crowded action scene that has been criticized by some for being perhaps a little too "comic book actionish", but painting frenetic action is what Cook seems to do best, so you can't blame the guy for turning in a fine example of such.
Interior art is all black-and-white, but is almost uniformly very, very nice. Nate Barnes turns in some excellent character portraits, after a run of illustrations for the Star HERO line that depicted pretty much nothing but technology and vehicles. It's nice to see him branching out a little and doing a good job of it to boot. Another true standout is Andrew Cremeans. His work throughout is top-notch.
One other feature of note is the inclusion of shaded title pages for each chapter. This seemingly-small addition is actually a vast improvement to the overall look of HERO 5th interiors. They serve to make each chapter a more distinct entity, and reduce the tendency of the books to seem to run together. If anyone out there in Heroland is listening: Please carry this feature over to other future projects!
The only layout problem I can spot is an error that causes the page headings in chapter seven to all read "Chapter One." Regrettable, but not likely to cause any real confusion, as, well, one chapter is in the front of the book and the other in the back.
All-in-all, FH is a classy book. Unlike some of the books from the comic-inspired Champions line, I don't personally feel that the lack of color interior art hurts the appeal of the final product in the least. FH is the most well-laid-out and well-illustrated book that the new Hero Games has released to date.
Style Rating: 5
FH is organized into seven chapters. Each is discussed in detail below.
Chapter One - Wizards, Warriors, and Wondrous Worlds: The Fantasy Genre
After answering the most basic question ("What is fantasy?"), this chapter dives right into an overview of the major fantasy subgenres. These are: Crossworlds Fantasy (think Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia), Epic Fantasy (think Lord of the Rings and its many knock-offs), High Fantasy (basically any Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy with common powerful magic and uber-capable PCs), Low Fantasy (gritty stuff such as the Song of Fire and Ice novels), Swords and Sorcery (pulpy Conan-type stuff), and Urban Fantasy (magic in the modern age).
This overview is good overall, with notes on the most common elements and mindsets of each genre along with a variety of suggested reading and the most common starting "power level" of most of its main characters (i.e. PCs) in HERO System terms. The only downside that I can see is that Urban Fantasy is given rather less attention throughout the book, in favor of the more tradition pseudo-medieval paradigm. This is perhaps understandable given how the long shadow of D&D looms over all fantasy gaming, regardless of system, but it's a pity nonetheless to scan the whole of the book and find only a few short paragraphs on modern fantasy.
After that is a discussion on applying "meta-genres" like romance and horror to fantasy, which are really nothing groundbreaking, but a good resource for the novice GM.
Finally, we're given a fairly-large encyclopedia-style alphabetic listing of common genre "bits" (from "Alchemist" to "Wizard") and what you can do with them. The main upside of this section is the discussion of several bits (like "Denial of Power") that are common in fantasy fiction but rare in gaming (where power is normally considered to be something to be used as often and as impressively as possible). Most useful advice indeed for any GM frustrated as to why his PC wizards are acting less like Gandalf or Merlin and more like two-legged missile batteries.
Chapter Two - Subjects of the Realm: Character Creation
The first portion of this chapter is devoted to HERO System Package Deals. These are premade bundles of abilities representing particular races, professions, backgrounds or other conditions. This can be quite a timesaver, as anyone who wants to make up a deep dwarven warrior can simply purchase the Dwarf, Deep and Heavy Warrior Package Deals and call it a day. Half-earth elemental elven druid? Take Elf, Earth Elemental and Druid.
Most of the Package Deals also include optional additions. The Infernal Environmental/Ancestral Package Deal, for example, has potential add-ons like bat wings, a hellfire aura, or a vow of servitude to a demonic master.
Perhaps best of all, Package Deals are not "classes" in the D&D sense, just potential timesavers. A player with the character concept of "thief" in mind can choose a variation of the Rogue Package Deal and leave it at that, or he can build his thief from scratch in any way the GM will allow. Or perhaps a combination of the two with the Package Deal serving merely as a starting point. This makes the chapter highly-useful, but wholly non-restrictive.
For the most part, these Package Deals and their accompanying descriptions are good and one of FH's features that will see the most use on average from both players and GMs.
After the Package Deals are several lengthy subchapters on how the various HERO System character creation elements such as Characteristics, Skills, Perks, Talents, Powers and Disadvantages are best used within the confines of the fantasy genre. Most of this material is par for the course and fairly unremarkable, with two exceptions.
First, the section on Characteristics addresses the common problem in straight point-buy systems, and HERO System in particular, for different characters to have very similar stats. If Strength is a cheap ability, what's to prevent everyone from buying it to a high level, even if the result (musclebound wizards and rogues who can bench-press taverns), just plain "feels wrong" within the context of the genre? Thankfully, several excellent solutions to this dilemma are presented for the consideration of the GM. Kudos to designer Steve Long for confronting this common problem head-on.
Second, the section on Talents is a brilliant example of how the FH GM can use the HERO System Power creation rules to create a menu of D&D 3rd-style "feats" for the PCs to purchase. Everything from rapid fire archery to barbarian rage to obvious direct translations of the Cleave and Great Cleave feats to roguish Sneak Attacks clerical undead turning are collected into a listing of over 20 new Talents.
The chapter ends with a brief sample equipment list with prices based on a familiar "copper, silver, gold" scale. Nothing earthshattering, but good to have.
Chapter Three - Blades and Battle: Combat and Adventuring
This chapter mainly consists of the basics: Discussion of the HERO System combat and damage system and how its various maneuvers and optional rules interact with the fantasy genre. That's just about all there is to say about that.
There's also a very small two-page selection of new optional rules for things like groundfighting and moving through melees. Personally, I don't need 'em, but they're few enough to easily ignore and leave to those that do.
After that, we're treated some some very helpful advice indeed: Controlling STUN damage and healing magic in your games. Both of these can be problematic in a HERO campaign.
The division of all damage into STUN (bruises, temporary shock damage and other such incidental owies) and BODY (real, serious bodily injury that can be lethal) is a good one for simulating heroic, "cinematic" reality in most genres. Some genres (pulp adventure, superheroes, etc) work well when character are as (or more) likely to be knocked-out than killed by most attacks, but in fantasy, a pissed-off dwarf generally expects to KILL an orc he smashes with his warhammer, not knock it out. In HERO however, even so-called Killing Attacks are usually better at stunning than, well, killing. This honestly isn't a huge problem. The GM can always assign Killing Damage weapons a decreased ability to deal STUN damage through a Limitation or can ignore the STUN/BODY distinction for "mook" characters, but the large amount of advice on resolving this situation is much appreciated.
Magical healing is another issue altogether. With too much floating around or no restriction on how and how often it can be applied, PCs can become virtual immortals, which is anathema to true drama. After a through discussion of exactly why magic healing is so common is most fantasy gaming and so rare in its literary source material, some solutions are offered. These include everything from including a variety of challenges for character to confront besides combat to "creative interpretation" (fudging) of combat die rolls to keep the PCs in one piece for the adventure's climax.
After that are sections on weapons and armor, which are basically what you'd expect. There is, however, an excellent discussion on balancing heavy armor versus other forms of defense, another common problem. Armor, you see, can be bought or found and typically doesn't cost players points during character creation, unlike other means of defense like magic or extreme dodging skill. Thus, it has been argued that, from a power-gaming perspective, "tank" characters are inherently more efficient that other types. But fear not. If this becomes a problem for you, there are many solutions provided, all very useful.
At the very end of the chapter is the long-awaited HERO 5th mass combat system. For the most part, it's very serviceable and introduces few new rules. In fact, the new rules it does introduce are balanced out by the standard "personal scale" combat options that have no place in mass combat, rendering the new system more of a slightly-modified and no more complex version of regular HERO combat than a whole other animal altogether. Good stuff.
Chapter Four - Arcane Creations: Magic
The second-largest chapter (after chapter two), this is where the book really begins to shine. While previous editions included a rather bland default magic system and gave only cursory attention to any other method, the new FH has no "official" system and instead concentrates on guiding the GM in the creation of his own ideal one.
First addressed are a huge variety of questions that must be answered during the creation of a magic system. Who can use magic? How? How powerful is it? How common? How does its presence impact the rest of the campaign world?
After that, twelve separate magic systems are provided as examples of the creation process. They range from the standard to the unusual. For example, "Vansarjak" (which I'm betting sounds suspiciously like "Jack Vance" for a reason) and "Divine Magic" will seem quite familiar to D&D fans, while "Chaos Blades", "Naming Magic" and "The Secret Sciences" are more offbeat creations. Each of the dozen systems includes a handful of sample spells, one of which is always a standard lightning bolt (for easy comparison purposes).
Overall, the magic discussion is one of the best parts of FH. There is one problem, however. Some of the systems call for some decidedly unorthodox methods of spell-buying by PCs. Treating spells not as Powers but as much less expensive Skills is one. Allowing spellcasters to cast any spell of a particular "school" with successful rolls of a single Skill is another. One system rather arbitrarily gives spellcasters a whopping 80% blanket point cost discount on all spells! Methods like these are all well and fine, but I believe that designer Steve Long made a major mistake by not including ANY notes of warning with these systems. In fact, any one of them has the potential of massively unbalancing the game in favor of spellcasting types if applied unthinkingly. Pity the poor bloke who wants to play the rough-and-tumble barbarian in the campaign where all spells cost 20% of normal or are accessed through a single Skill! In my opinion, just tossing these ideas out into print without so much as a whisper of caution is a huge mistake.
After the magic systems, there's a lengthy discussion on enchanted items. This includes some good advice on avoiding "magic inflation", AKA the "Just another +3 longsword... *yawn*" rut.
Unfortunately, the enchanted item section is more hit and miss than the one on magic systems. Mainly, the book is uncharacteristically authoritarian in declaring "This is how X is done in FH." While the magic system section has a very wide-open "the only rule is that there are no rules" attitude, the enchanted item section does not. Rather, you get "this is how you do scrolls" instead of "here are a few ways that you might choose to do scrolls in your game." This is compounded by the fact that some categories of items, particularly scrolls, are handled in a very narrow and limitedly-useful fashion.
As Independent items, scrolls as presented cost large amounts of character or experience points to create. Points that are then lost forever. The "Scroll of Many Spells", for example, requires the permanent expenditure of no less than fifteen points by its creator. This is a huge amount in a low-to-medium-powered HERO campaign, equivalent to total experience earned on about 3-5 adventures. Is this method usable? Perhaps, if magic scrolls are extremely rare or powerful in your game and their creation process should be just as costly as that of magic weapons or other, more permanent items. In most fantasy campaigns I've experienced, however, disposable scrolls are very minor magic items, and not much (if any) more difficult to create than potions. Permanently expending 15 (or even 5) points on one would be ludicrous. So why not include some notes on other possible methods that are less costly and useful for more types of campaigns? For example, using a naked Delayed Effect Advantage powerful enough to cover the Active Points in the character's most powerful spell with OAF Fragile Expendable and Extra Time. An unfortunate oversight.
Thankfully, other listings, such as the ones for weapons, armor and miscellaneous items are fairly useful, and save the chapter from ending with a whimper rather than the bang earned by the magic system creation portion.
Chapter Five - Beyond the Fields We Know: Fantasy Worlds and Races
This chapter is a relatively-straightforward and very extensive overview of fantasy world design. Geography and ecology (and how magic might affect both) start out the chapter, followed by sections on the sun, moon and calender as well as population demographics (how historic medieval cities and villages were arranged, populated and supported, as well as how and why the fantasy versions of such might differ). Useful, if basic stuff.
After that is a section on race creation. Racial archetypes (beast men, magic races, short folk, etc) are detailed, followed by a lengthy section on designing unique races and the Package Deals to represent their abilities and cultures.
The remainder (and majority) of the chapter is devoted to the creation of fantasy civilizations. Politics, religion, art, architecture, entertainment, language, customs, family life, travel, economics, technology and more are covered in great detail over the chapter's remaining 31 pages.
Overall, chapter five is the least "crunchy" one in FH and the one most likely to be useful to non-HERO System gamers. It's detailed, well-written and one of the book's highlights.
Chapter Six - Wonders of the Imagination: Gamemastering Fantasy HERO
Chapter six is the general GM's advice chapter.
The first section covers the scope of the FH campaign on the widest possible level. What fantasy subgenre does your campaign most resemble? How powerful are the PCs at the start of the campaign and how powerful can they eventually become? What's the campaign's overall theme and moral tone? Is the campaign's subject war, piracy on the high seas, court politics, dungeon crawling, a mixture of several types, or something else entirely?
Following that is a standard section on adventure design and plotting. Nothing exceptional, but it does get you warmed-up for the next section, which is quite the gem.
"Dealing With Disconnects" is the chapter's highlight, a section devoted to aspects of fantasy fiction that are often "lost in the translation" when imported to the gaming table. Armies fighting major battles, for instance, are usually exciting in fiction, but can drag in an RPG if not handled with care. "Infodumps" can be an awkward aspect of both fantasy fiction and fantasy roleplaying, so tips are included to help them run smoother and more subtly. Too much magic? Splitting the party? Maintaining the fantasy "feel" at the gaming table? It's all here, and each common dilemma is dissected in great detail. Simply put, this whole section is well-done and extremely useful.
Next is a brief section on using character Disadvantages as sources of story hooks. Good, but nothing to write home about.
After that, there's a short section on the fantasy environment. Lava, quicksand, light sources, traps, the underground environment and such are laid-out in detail. The sample traps cover most of the usual bases and their complete writeups are helpful for a time-pressed GM.
Finally, we have villians and NPCs, another fairly typical section that provides common archetypes for fantasy NPCs of all stripes, such as the Corrupted Hero, Dark Lord, Tyrant, Likable Rogue, Greedy Merchant, and the ever-popular Hireling/Henchman. A some brief guidelines on the creation and use of monsters and their treasure rounds out this chapter (one of the best overall, along with four and five) in style.
Chapter Seven - Drudaryon's Legion
FH's final chapter is also perhaps its least useful. The centerpiece here is the titular Legion, a band of adventurers led by Drudaryon, a holy paladin of the god Nelaros. They're serviceable enough as far as sample characters go, but they suffer from one problem: Collectively, they do a fairly poor job of illustrating the full range of possibilities that the supremely flexible FH paradigm allows for. All five members of the Legion, as well as the two villain characters accompanying them, all very clearly designed as part of a generic D&D-style high fantasy game. That doesn't really illustrate anything other than how to copy D&D. For a book that quite adequately covers the whole length and breadth of the fantasy genre, from Conan to Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, why not a more diverse approach? I feel that one or two characters from each major subgenre would have been a better resource for FH's audience than seven very similar high fantasy characters. Designer Steve Long should consider that Champions, Star HERO and Fantasy HERO are three fantastic books with one thing in common: Dull, narrowly-focused sample characters that drag the end of the book down like a lead boat anchor. Please take some inspiration from Micheal Surbrook's fantastic Ninja HERO sample characters in the future.
The chapter is saved, however, by the very useful character sheets for common "humanoid" monsters like orcs, ogres and trolls. Directly useful for far more campaigns than the Legion and its foes, they're nice to have.
After that is a bibliography that includes designer Steve Long's favorite fantasy novels, nonfiction books and fantasy-themes films. It doesn't claim to be exhaustive or anything other than the designer's personal favorites, but it's useful as an listing of entertaining reference material for those in need of inspiration.
Next, we have another useful feature in the form of an Appendix: Writeups of a castle, a wizard's tower, an inn and a temple that should satisfy most characters looking to purchase a handy Base.
Finally, we have the typical godlike HERO index. If it's not here, it doesn't exist. More companies should index as thoroughly. Hell, I'd pass a law if I could....
Substance Rating: 5
In the final analysis, FH is as complete, detailed and useful as it is massive and pretty. Despite some annoying glitches with the magic chapters, iinsufficient detail on the urban fantasy subgenre and disappointing sample characters, it's the best HERO genre book to date and a good half of it potentially has great value for gamers who prefer other systems, as well.