Powers Based on HERO System

A conversation on Google+ today (spawned by Echelon Reference Series: Spells — I’m approaching 3,000 spells in this beast of a tome) brought up an interesting question.

On a more serious note is Echelon going to use a structured spell design system based on this research?

(I’ll have to find a way to thank Ian for putting this in my brain.)

I hadn’t truly planned it, since my early cut was going to be taking this monstrous beast, building some scalable spells, then bundling them by similar types with some related and suitable powers (probably one per tier).

A moment’s thought, though, suggested that while I may still do this, and organizing this mass of spells is a worthwhile effort on its own, Ian’s idea has some merit.

HERO System Power Overview

In HERO System powers have effects (what they do), and may have advantages (how they do it better) and limitations (things that make it hard to use them). These come together to make three primary values, the Base Cost (how many points for the base effect), Active Cost (Base Cost multiplied by a function of Advantage Value, a measure of how powerful the power is), and Real Cost (Active Cost divided by a function of Limitation Value, indicating roughly how much the power is worth to the character). Most often a campaign will have limits on Active Cost in order to keep things roughly even. Powers with high limitation values cost less, and you can therefore have more of them — but being limited, they are less useful.

The range of powers possible to implement with HERO System is impressive. They try to potentially model everything, and it’s hard to come up with something that simple cannot be done, especially if you set “effectively 100%” guidelines. For example, if the biggest Energy Blast allowed is 8d6, buying 40 points of “fire resistance” might be considered “immunity to fire” — it’s possible to roll more than 40 points of fire damage with this Energy Blast, but unlikely enough and at that point small enough effect that it’s not really worth bothering.

Depending on the genre, different kinds of powers might have different required limitations or advantages. There might also be restrictions on what effects are allowed — a gritty military campaign probably doesn’t allow Teleportation, but may allow all sorts of Energy Blasts, often with nifty advantages like Armor Piercing and Area Effect.

Applying these in practice can get tedious, though. The math is not particularly difficult, especially once you learn to work with multiples of quarters (multiplying and dividing).

  • Base Cost of a power is a direct function of the effect being used. Energy Blast is 5 points per 1d6 damage, for example.
  • Active Cost is equal to (Base Cost times 1+Advantage Total). Advantages are each worth some multiple of one quarter, presented as a fraction (+1/4, +1/2, +2, etc.); add them up, add 1, multiply by the Base Cost to get the Active Cost.
  • Real Cost is equal to (Active Cost divided by 1+Limitation Total). Limitations are also worth some multiple of one quarter, presented as a negative fraction (-1/4, -1/2, -2, etc.). Ignore the sign (it’s just there to mark it as a negative, you never add them directly to advantages) and add them up, add 1, divide the Active Cost by this number.

… I don’t even like explaining it in text. It annoys me.

It might be possible to simulate, at least approximately, an easier way.

Echelon Powers

For the sake of conversation and concrete examples, the following discussion will focus on spells and spell casting. However, the same principles can apply to all kinds of power — spells, psionics, martial disciplines, what have you.

Pretty much all talents can be considered much the same as powers in HERO System. They should scale more or less quadratically, much as spells do in D&D and Pathfinder. If we implement powers in Echelon somewhat like powers in HERO System, allowing a Base Cost proportional to Caster Bonus (Level Bonus plus Caster Training Bonus, to a maximum of character level) and applying total advantages proportional to tier of applicable talent gives us an Active Cost of P1(level) * P2(level), more or less. Quadratic behavior, very good.

Perhaps excellent. Instead of taking the Base Cost and multiplying by (1+Advantage Total), we might simply take the effect available at the level and apply the advantages available through training. If I have access to Energy Blast through my training (I’ll come back to this) at the Heroic tier, a Caster Level of 10, and a talent that lets me apply ‘+3/4 Area Effect’ (Heroic is the third tier, +1/4 per tier gives +3/4; according to HERO System Sixth Edition this is a 9-16 metre radius area of effect), I have a passingly decent representation of a fireball spell (10d6 Energy Blast (Fire), 9m-16m radius — 30-50 foot radius, about).

According to HERO System, this would be a 50*(1+3/4) = 50*1.75 = 86 Active Point spell. Not out of line for some settings and genres, but somewhat more powerful than I might actually want for Heroic tier… but it does fit the pattern I want, more or less.

The Expert equivalent (Caster Level of 6, ‘+1/2 Area Effect’) gives me 6d6 damage with a radius of 5m-8m — about 17-27 foot radius, or 20-25 foot radius if I round. In HERO terms this is a (30 * (1+1/2) = 30*1.5 =) 45 point spell… not inherently unreasonable, really, for a non-Supers HERO setting (HERO System calls this Heroic rather than Superheroic, and I don’t want to confuse things).

A Basic equivalent (Caster Level of 2, ‘+1/4 Area Effect’) gives me 2d6 damage with a radius of 3m-4m — call it a 10′ radius. This is probably quite okay for the level.

If these were D&D or Pathfinder levels I’d be fairly okay with both, really. That Echelon tiers are four levels higher than their nominal D&D equivalents might be biting me here, because the Caster Level is high enough compared to my tier definitions they might be out of line. If I simply return to levels being the equivalent of D&D or Pathfinder levels, Expert becomes level 1-4 again and the 2d6 fireball is a reasonable worry for these people, but perhaps not for the next tier up.

Limitations, though… how to handle limitations. I don’t think I want to get into calculating Real Cost and using that to constrain the number of spells known… though it’s not a horrible fit.

What if I simply say that all types of powers must have a baseline of -2 of limitations, and they will typically be drawn from a  common set (spells probably include Incantations, Gestures, Focus, Extra Time, and so on), and removing limitations counts as advantages? If I remove a -1/2 Gestures (must make Gestures through the duration of the spell, as I recall) it counts as a +1/2 Advantage — it’s available to someone with the necessary talent at the Expert tier. If a particular talent has additional limitations it might bring with it inherent advantages (such as Shadow Magic always being Silent — no Incantations, but that’s paid for with a different limitation).

I’ve considered somewhat whether the effects (what the spell can do) should be restricted by the talents known… my first thought was that it should, but since most effects can be made suitable for most power themes I am inclined to not make this a hard limit. Assuming a combat-oriented game, most PCs should have some kind of offensive ability, some kind of defensive ability, and so on (“A way to reach the fight, a way to take part in the fight, and a way to survive the fight”, to quote an old friend).

The effects might not be restricted by the talents known, but the advantages and limitations certainly could be. Effects are what you do, advantages and limitations determine how you do it… and that is one of the primary differences between the talents.

Other Power Types

As mentioned above, this post focuses primarily on spells and spell casting as a concrete example. Different talents or genres could focus on different things. A psionicist is likely to have significantly different advantages and limitations than a spell caster, and like a caster overcomes his limitations and gains advantages over time. A martial adept similarly would likely have different advantages and limitations than either of the other two. They can still have powers, whatever they call them, of comparable might and applicability, but executed differently.

In all cases, though, base power could be proportional to training and level (Caster Bonus, Base Attack Bonus, etc.), and advantages could be proportional to tier of training (which also likely affects the relevant Training Bonus). Bend ‘limitations’ so they are a baseline condition and can be bought off with advantages, and I think it can come close.

It might be worth building a repository of such powers, but in practice I think it will largely be pretty simple. I don’t need to know the exact Base Cost or Active Cost, because I know that the Base Cost will be legitimate and the advantage total will be within limit. If I want to charge some kind of cost it can be a simple formula of the two — add them together, consider only the Caster Level used (training simply makes you more efficient in how you do it, so you get more for your energy spent), look again at using tokens (generic ‘magic tokens’ for the base effect, ‘Shadow tokens’ for the talent that lets you apply the the Shadow Talent advantages).

Closing Comments

Lots of rambling tonight, I want to get this down before I lose it. I think there’s some wicked potential here, though — base effect by level and advantages by tiers in a talent comes quite close to the curve I see powers following in D&D and Pathfinder. By bending the advantages and limitations applied I can model a broad range of abilities of very different types, all within the same framework but having different final effect.

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  1. GreyKnight

    How is the “cost” of a spell implemented in Echelon terms? Does the player bundle a bunch of spells up to some fixed cost limit and call the resulting bundle a talent?

    Could you give an example? Which talents/spells would you take for an Expert shadow mage? If necessary, assume he wants the following spell effects: spread shadows around the room (impeding light sources); create a broadsword out of shadow; manipulate object at a distance if you and it are in shadow.

    • Assuming, for the sake of conversation, a 20 Active Point limit and 10 Real Cost limit (so all powers must have at least -1 Limitations) per tier, Expert ‘powers’ would have an Active Point cap of 40 points and Real Cost limit of 20 points.

      The spells you mention are probably Control Environment, HKA, and Telekinesis (with ‘only works in shadow’ limitation). As individual powers they could have 40 Active Points.

      However, if you want to have ‘shadow magic’ be a combined thing, you might want to use a power framework. Because I’m applying things differently, where the cap is on the talent slot rather than a pool of points, it would probably be necessary to limit the framework cost to 40 Active Points and 20 Real Points.

      An Elemental framework with three powers at 20 Active Points would have a total of 40 Active Points (consistent with the tier limit) and would have limitations. You could use all three at once (modulo power initiation) at full power.

      With a Multipower, and assuming all three are flexible slots, could have an Active Point limit of 25 (n+3n/5 = 40; 8n = 200, n = 25 points in the pool) but you could only have 25 Active Points in use at once, spread across the three powers. Switching to fixed slots lets you get this to 30 Active Points, but you could only use one power at a time (unless you bought them at lower caps).

      Variable Power Pool is probably not the best fit here, but could be done. 26 points in the pool, 13 for Control (but you’ll probably need to reduce the pool because it’s bigger than the Real Point limit and you can’t put limitations on it). However, over time you could have anything that qualifies as ‘shadow magic’, swapping them in and out as circumstances (and limitations) allow. As I said, probably not the best fit for this purpose, but could be good elsewhere.

      So, if you want biggest power, keep them as individual powers: Control Environment, HKA, and Telekinesis. That eats three talent slots, though. Or reduce their power by about half and put them in a framework, but pay only a single slot. Advantages and Limitations were not really explored much here because I’m doing this off the top of my head, the book is kind of bulky and not convenient at the moment.

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