Hercules & Xena Role-Playing Game by oriongates
IntroductionOriginal SA post
So, I picked this up a couple of weeks ago after rewatching the Hercules and Xena series on Netflix and I remembering just how terrifically insane and cheesy they were. So, needless to say I was excited at the prospect of trying out the RPG, based on West End Game's d6 system, but I honestly had no idea what to expect from it. Could this be everything I wanted Scion to be: The adventures of long-haired, barely dressed demi-gods as they battle gods and monsters and occasionally engage in spontaneous dance marathons? Then again, it's a late 90's licensed RPG...this could go really poorly.
This is a boxed set, it's got two books: The Hero's Guide and The Secrets of the Ancient World, three adventures (including one "solo" adventure), and a GM's screen...because everything had a GM's screen back then.
The set also comes with 6 custom dice, using chakram's and hydras instead of numbers. The set I bought didn't include them, which is fine since it would have been a pain to try and share them among an actual play group.
The Hero's Guide
The Hero's Guide starts with the usual "what's an rpg" section where we learn that, like just about everything else, the role-playing game was apparently invented by Salmoneus who serves as the "voice" of the game throughout the book. It gives the thing a goofy, conversational tone which is certainly appropriate to the subject material.
We then move on to character creation. You're given the option to simply select a "hero template" (basically a pregenerated character from the back of the book) and simply add a name, a Unique Possession, and 10 skill points. But lets take a look at the full process:
First, you pick a Hero Type. This is sort of like a class, except it doesn't actually do anything. I'm serious about that, nothing at all. Each one has a list of important attributes and typical skills but you aren't given any sort of bonus to these, or required to purchase any of them. You could make an Archer with no Marksmanship skill or a Warrior without any fighting skill...which may be considered very appropriate. However, there's about 7 pages of these Hero Types and most of them are just various synonyms for "fighter".
Next comes Race, which can be Human or something completely awful. Humans are completely average, receiving no bonuses whatsoever, but that still makes them better than the other races. Centaurs get superior strength and toughness and a big boost to speed and have to make a willpower roll every time they attack or go berserk and start trying to kill everyone around them, friend or foe. Nymphs are pretty but slow (speed, not smarts) and are tied to a specific environment (rivers and lakes, forests, seawater, etc) and within their environment they get bonuses, outside of it they wither away after two weeks. Satyrs are the best non-human race, they're only a little bit slow and they have improved awareness...oh, and a reputation as a race of hairy-legged rapists .
I'd suggest sticking with human.
After that we have Attributes and Skills and a brief explanation of how they're used. This the only d6 system game I've been exposed to but I understand it uses a variant of the core system anyway. Basically it's a dice pool system, you add your relevant Attribute and attached skill together, roll that many dice, and anything over a 2 is a success. You count those up and compare them to a static difficulty or an opposed roll. All rolls are open-ended because one of your dice will be a Wild Die, which explodes on a roll of 6, but on a roll of 1 it'll take away one of your other successes. So someone with 3D Reflexes and 2D Fighting rolls 5d6 to see if they hit someone. Simple enough.
There's 8 Attributes (Coordination, Endurance, Reflexes, Strength, Awareness, Charisma, Knowledge and Mettle) and boatload of skills. The skills are given a brief description, but none of the specific skill rules are explained here (that's apparently in the Secrets of the Ancient World book), except where they are (like Jumping and First Aid).
We finish up with a few extras: Body Points (ie hit points), Character Points (which can be used to improve your character or to add up to two extra dice to a roll), Fate Points (used to double the number of dice you can roll for one check), your starting Fame (or more clearly, your lack there-of). There's also mention of something called the Hero's Challenge (attaining the highest level of Fame by defeating a god or goddess in combat), some personality notes and a Unique Possession (which is really just a normal possession that you get for free).
Then we've got Specialties (ie focused uses of certain skills) and Special Moves (combat tricks). Specialities are pretty simple, you can just buy up a particular aspect of a skill at a cheaper rate (such as purchasing a bonus to Swords instead of a bonus to Fighting in general), while Special Moves are a set of pretty specific combat tricks that can be bought, based on actions we've seen in the show. Half of them are just "do half damage and knock your foe down", but some range from very lame (possibly inflict some fire damage or possibly injure yourself) to crazy powerful (double damage on an Archery attack or the ability to instantly KO an opponent if you beat their defense roll by more than 2-4 successes.
Then we've got Advantages and Disadvantages. They're optional and involve gaining or losing skill dice in exchange for a disadvantage or advantage. Much like Special Moves they're mostly mediocre with the occasionally overpowered (1-in-6 chance to be able to ask for divine intervention, without limit) or pointless (for 1 skill point you can buy a +1D bonus to a skill...whu?). Mostly ignorable.
The chapter ends with Deeds (feats that make gods more or less likely to like you) and rules for improving your character.
So...it was at about this time that something began nagging at me and I began to have a sneaking suspicion, one that would not be confirmed until the next chapter... The Ancient World (no, not the Secrets of the Ancient World, that's the other book, this is apparently the ancient world sans secrets)
The Wussiest HeroesOriginal SA post
Part 2: The Wussiest Heroes
That suspicion I mentioned last time was confirmed almost as soon as I started the next chapter, The Ancient World, because this is where they have write-ups of NPCs and upon reading this I realized an awful truth:
Starting PCs are really, really lame.
The NPC section starts with stats for Hercules and Xena. The characters that this game is based off of and, presumably, the characters you were interested in emulating in play. Well trust me, there's no chance of that. At all. Both characters have truly ridiculous amounts of skills and Special Moves. However, it's amusing to note that their Attributes are built using the same rules as starting characters. That means everyone gets 24 Attribute Dice, with the minimum being 2, Average being 3 and human maximum being 5. So, that means that everyone, Hercules and Xena included, have only enough Attribute points to be "average" at everything, so if they're going to be superior they'll end up inferior in some other way. So that means that both Hercules and Xena are mostly average, and a bit stupid (Knowledge 2), and Xena is a weakling (Strength 2). Their massive skills make up for it in most cases but it's still an amusing flaw in the system.
Well, maybe I'm expecting too much. The two main characters are meant to be pinnacles of the game and maybe it's not unreasonable for them to be something to work towards rather than starting at that power level right out of the gate. So...what sort of character can we emulate as a starting PC?
How about Iolaus? He's a badass in his own right, heroic and competent. Definitely a worthy starting PC. Let's see his stat block...nope. Not going to happen. He's not Hercules, but he's still got over 15 times as many skill points as a starting PC.
uh...Gabrielle? C'mon, this was released during Season 3, she can't have gotten that competent yet...nope. She's much weaker at only 6 times the number of skill points as a starting PC. Next is Salmoneus, with only 4 times a starting character's Skill Points
So...is there anyone who is roughly approximate to a starting PC? Yes. Yes there is:
At only 5 points higher than a starting character Joxer The Mighty is only slightly better than your starting PC. So much for playing amazing heroes.
Well, how fast can characters advance? Perhaps it's a game where you can start as a fresh-faced farmboy and rise to be a great warrior before too long? Taking a quick peek into the Secrets book for the guidelines on gaining character point's it's suggested that each adventure should be worth 5-20 character points. Just for kicks lets assume you play once a week, complete one adventure every 2 weeks and are rewarded with 12 cp on average. Seems more than fair.
Raising a skill takes an amount of cp equal to the new total times 3. So raising a skill from +4D to +5D takes 15 points. Hercules has a Fighting skill of +12D. Assuming you start at +3D, that's a total of...((insert math here))...216 character points. So, just to equal one of hercules skills (and not including the Brawling Specialization he has, an extra 30 points) it'll take 18 adventures just to equal one of hercules skills. That's 9 months of fast-paced, non-stop play. The thing is, he still has a couple of dozen more skills, some of which are just as high or higher than his Fighting.
Starting characters have 10 skill dice (maximum of 3 dice in one skill)...Hercules has a total of 228, plus 6 specialty points and an arbitrary number of special moves. In order to begin play at something approaching his power level you would need to give starting characters between 600-1000 character points. Not only would character creation be incredible tedious and take forever, but specialized character's could easily break the system in half. Reaching that power level during play would take years of back to back weekly gaming.
So yeah, not only do you not start out nearly at the power level of the show's characters, but you have very little hope of actually reaching it.
Next: Finishing up the Hero's Guide and starting on the Secrets of the Ancient World.
finishing up the hero's guideOriginal SA post
Part 3: finishing up the hero's guide
So there's not much left in the Hero's Guide. After NPC stats there's a short section telling you about the greek gods, and a section on gear. The equipment is kind of a mixed bag. It's got plenty of shout-outs to the show (like the breast dagger) and swords come in the short, long, serrated and squiggly varieties (squiggly is the best). On the other hand there's again a depressing amount of "realism" here. For example, the chakram has a chance to injure you on a bad roll and unarmed combat is probably the worst thing you could ever do. It's got no damage bonus, meaning anyone in armor will ignore most of your attacks and even if you can hurt them it will take forever to take down even a weak opponent, plus it's got no Speed bonus making it slower than even two handed swords. Stop getting your stupid realism in my RPG about models fighting CGI monsters!
The book ends with a set of pre-genned sample heroes (also featuring the only original art in the book).
--Secrets of the Ancient World--
This is the game-master's guide basically, it's also where the actual rules for fighting and skills are. The book starts with a section on running the game. It seems decent enough but honestly I haven't done anything other than skim sections like this for over a decade now, so I'm not going to delve into it now. After that we come to a few rules for running the game.
The first part of this chapter is rules for creating more experienced characters, on the level of Xena or Hercules, which is great! Also a bald faced lie! This alternative starts you out with 30D for skills, giving you still less skills than Salmoneus. Although since this (presumably) removes the 3D skill cap you can quite easily break the game by dumping all your points into combat or defensive skills (giving your character +15D to +20D Dodge makes you basically untouchable for instance), at the cost of being narrowly focused.
There's also talk of the Hero's Challenge, allowing you to become a demi-god (which really only means being really, really famous). It's here I note that Fame doesn't actually do anything. It's a measure of how well known you are but there are no rules governing how this influences people who know about you, or even how likely it is that a given person will have heard of you. Past Fame 30 the reputation descriptions stop being helpful (can you guess who is more well known: a Vanquisher, Vindicator or Hero?) and the number itself doesn't really mean anything unless you wanted to get into some kind of notoriety dick-measuring contest.
Then there's a list of possible Powers and vulnerabilities, like super-strength, durability, Achilles' heels, etc. There are no guidelines for assigning these abilities and the book flat out states that they should be given out purely at the GM's discretion. Again, this just doesn't seem right when you consider the source material...shouldn't there be actual rules in place for if a character wants to play a half-god, spirit or other supernatural being? Even some general guidelines would be nice.
Then we come to the actual skill mechanics. Most of them are unremarkable, although some are way too specific (such as Remember or Resist Disease) which is obviously an attempt to make up for the fact that you can't improve your Attributes in play but it just creates further problems given the relatively low amount of skill dice available to PCs. Many of the difficulties and examples are fairly arbitrary (did you know it's just one step below Heroic difficulty to craft leather pants?)
Next we've got a section on creating adventures. Like the GMing section this fairly generic and not worth commenting on.
After that is the rules for combat. Fairly serviceable, although I absolutely hate any system that requires the players to declare their defenses ahead of time and take multi-action penalties in order to use their defensive skills. The battle rules do contain one great thing: the range chart. This game features my favorite range chart ever:
I love it, it's simple, easy to understand and quick to use.
Later I'll finish up the Secrets of the Ancient World with their gods and monsters section. I'll skim the adventures but I get the feeling they're probably fairly generic and not terribly interesting.
Prepare to get your ass kicked: Gods and MonstersOriginal SA post
Prepare to get your ass kicked: Gods and Monsters
So, first we have a quick overview of locations in the Ancient World which is useful but not worth commenting on.
Then comes Ancient Powers, where the book goes into more detail on the greek pantheon. This was the part that I was really hoping would redeem this book. After all, if you're going to have a hercules and xena game you're going to get into conflict with a god or two and some interesting or unique rules for divine abilities could turn this book into something useful, even if I never run it.
So, I read through it. There's a quick rundown on the different deities' status within the pantheon, their habits and personalities and some roleplaying tips. You know what this section doesn't have? Any rules for using the gods during play. Get into a fight with Ares? Handled by GM fiat. Being cursed by Hera, it's up the the GM what happens. The gods basically are just plot excuses for events, which is something that often happens in the show but at the same time they're meant to also be characters that can be persuaded, threatened, or even beaten. The game even acknowledges this with it's Hero's Challenge where you survive combat with a god...but there's no rules on how to fight a god, let alone beat one.
The only rules boil down to the following:
*gods aren't omniscient, and barring magical artifacts they're only aware of what they can actually perceive. This is presumably not strictly true, considering that the gods seem to be able to respond to people calling upon them (wouldn't be much point in the Blessed advantage otherwise would there?)
*They can remain invisible to any mortals they wish.
*They're omnipotent within their spheres of influence.
That's it. No rules (even vague ones) for getting into a fight with a god, surviving their wrath, or what a god can do outside of their sphere of influence.
Keep in mind that by this point in the series both main characters have defeated gods in one-on-one combat.
Oh well, moving on. Next we've got things we can fight: monsters. The monsters here are pretty true to the show, but I notice that none of them actually have skills. Monsters only seem to use their base Attributes. These can exceed human attributes, but given the lack of skills to back them up this actually means that most monsters will be far less dangerous than major human opponents. For example, a giant has only 3D Reflexes, which means that they'll almost never hit anyone successfully or successfully defend against anyone's attacks. Sure, if they happen to hit you it'll hurt like hell but the odds of that are pretty low. So fighting one is mostly just a matter of carving down their huge BP supply.
And when compared to the statted NPC characters the monsters are downright pitiful. Gabrielle could take down Pyro by herself and Iolaus could easily fight an Enforcer unarmed.
Still, when measured against normal PCs they're not too bad, just a little odd since the lack of skills means they can't be "customized" very much.
So, that's about it. The adventures are mediocre but serviceable and so that's about the entirety of the game.
Despite the criticism I think the system itself isn't actually bad, it's a simple and easy to use and I do like some of the ideas behind it (the Stay Up skill in particular is one I approve of). It's just completely unsuited for the characters and setting it was trying to emulate. It's low powered and it doesn't have the flexibility you'd need to play anything other than decently skilled humans. This is not the Scion-killer I was hoping for, I guess I'll stick with PDQ for my mythic hero gaming.
So as a low-fantasy or swords-and-sorcery system it's okay, but as an appropriate system for Hercules and Xena it is very disappointing