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Author Topic: Hearts & Souls  (Read 1392 times)

RPGPundit

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Hearts & Souls
« on: November 20, 2006, 03:34:23 PM »


Hearts & Souls (hereafter referred to as H&S) is a superhero RPG by Tim Kirk, published by Silverlion Studios, a division of Better Mousetrap Games.

The version I'm reviewing is the print version, which is a very neat smaller sized Hardcover, with a dust jacket.  I mean shit, how many RPGs have a fucking dust jacket?? That's just cool!

The game clocks in at 134 pages, and in brief what I have to say is that this game is clever, very clever, and probably the closest I have yet to see to what I'd want a Supers game to be about; but that said, it feels unfinished, with some important details left out, and a lot of useless material that was obviously from the designer's homebrew setting added in.

Usually, I try to analyze a game based on its author's own "mission-statement". In this case, there wasn't much of a mission statement, except possibly this: "Who hasn't dreamt, at least a little, of being a superhero? Hearts & Souls is an attempt... to give you the tools to create super heroic stories with you and a few friends".

That said, the game really isn't a "story-creating game", or at least it doesn't have to be.  Perhaps this game manages to find a very interesting middle ground between "storygames" and real RPGs, since I could imagine that a lot about its structure would appeal to "storygamers" (though the most hardcore of the Forge crowd might criticize that the game lacks strictly-defined rules that force story-creation), but the game itself is set up so that it can play as a regular RPG.

In fact, I have to admit that one of the things that made this game appeal to me is that I felt some serious parallels between it and Amber, something that my more astute Proxies might recall I had suggested any really effective supers game would probably end up feeling like.

Before I go into the meat of the game, let me say a few more things about the structure of the book.  Its mostly well laid-out. Its relatively easy to read and to find things, the organization is good (though not perfect).  It does have a slight problem with margins.  The designer should have made the inside margin a little bigger; as it stands, you almost lose the text in the curve toward the spine.  It doesn't actually get that far, but it does make it a little awkward to read.  There's a fairly wide outside margin, and they probably should have shortened that and made a wider inside margin.

There's a relatively good amount of art throughout the book. The cover is in colour (on the dustjacket) but the rest of the illustrations are all black and white. The artwork all looks more or less like something out of late 80s/early 90s comic books; some of them are very good, a lot of them are a little amateur and even cheesy. I'm guessing it was a case of the author making due with what he could get.  If he ever does a second edition, I'd recommend he try to get some more professional artists.

Ok, now on to the game itself:  the first thing that it establishes you must have for your PC hero is a "Drive".  The drive is the raison d'etre of the superhero, what it is that makes him put on the cape and cowl. The game details 4 basic drives: Love (as in love of humanity, "guardianship", ie. superman), Guilt (a sense of culpability for something that drives you to become a hero, ie. batman or spiderman), Spirit of Adventure (heros who are in it for the fun and thrill of it all, ie. the flash), and community (in the sense of belonging to a community of heros that sets them apart from others, ie. the X-men).

The drives aren't just alignments, they're actually mechanically significant in the game; if a character is in a situation where he fails a check, if his player can think up a heroic monologue that links his Drive to the current situation he is allowed a re-roll.
This is something that is slightly worrying to me, in the sense that I would imagine it would have to be carefully and strictly judged by the GM, otherwise I could see players trying to think up very harebrained and tenuous links to their Drive just to get said re-roll. But on the whole it does more good than harm, since it is clear that Mr.Kirk believes, and I agree with him, that these heroic motives are a big part of what defines the superhero genre, and should be directly relevant to play in some way or another.

The mechanics of the game are fairly simple; there are three levels of power in the game: human, superhuman and cosmic. Within each level, there are three different rankings.  Your power level determines what kind of dice you roll (either a d4, d8 or d12) and your ranking determines how many dice you get to roll (using only the highest result as the one that determines how you did, there's no "counting successes" or any of that bullshit here).

These levels and ranks apply to the six basic attributes, but they also apply to your superpower. Every superpower (or group of superpowers) are defined by four areas: attack, defence, movement, or manipulation. A player, when attempting an action, can either roll his relevant attribute, or the relevant area of his power.

What the Power consists of is largely irrelevant, it doesn't matter if its a mutation, or an item, or a "superskill" (exceptional level of training). Effects-wise, they're all the same.

Its worthwhile to note that the game does NOT have any "character creation" system.  Either you or the GM decide/work out what your character's attributes will be and what his powers will be and how good they are.  Usually the GM will set up the "pitch" of the kind of game he wants to run, and in doing so will create guidelines of the kind of power levels that are acceptable in the game, and then players create the characters they want within the limits of that "pitch". I think this is ideal, really, since just about ANY point-buy or random system would end up creating complications that are entirely undesireable and un-needed in an emulation of the superhero genre.

One area where the game feels incomplete, however, is in the descriptions of powers and suggestions of what kind of power-levels different powers should have. There are a whopping 2.25 pages worth of descriptions of some powers that might be "tricky" with the current system (things like armor, transformation-based powers, or regeneration), but this is hardly sufficient.  It would have been better if there was way more of this, and less of the "setting" that takes up more than half of the book.

The game resolves superhero actions and conflict through the use of "Stress" mechanics. Stress in H&S is the measure of failure or injury. You receive "Stress points" when you fail in an action, when you strain yourself in trying to push an action, or when you are damaged. Each character is supposed to also have a "stress trigger", which can manifest itself as their "vulnerability" (ie. kryptonite) or as a psychological weakness of a character (be it a phobia, a source of frustration ie. "has amnesia about his true origins", or anything else that generates trauma); this stress trigger automatically generates stress in a character when he encounters it.

A character can build up a certain amount of stress, after which he has to spend the stress in the form of a "stress event", which can take multiple forms: psychological damage (ie. anger, apathy, self-doubt), a setback that ends up complicating their situation, or physical damage (ie. shock, unconsciousness, or rarely, death).  What stress event you end up getting depends largely on the GM, though the player can also choose to trigger a (presumably lesser) stress event earlier in order to clear his slate and avoid the more serious consequences the GM might inflict.
Players can also reduce their existing stress by taking up non-heroic commitments (ie. the secret identity), by heroic acts (ie. when the PC succeeds at heroic actions he sheds some of his stress as a reward for victory) or even by humour (depending largely on his Drive).

Just as the game doesn't have a fixed character creation method, it also doesn't have a set "experience" system. This also makes a lot of sense within the superhero genre, where you don't usually see superheros gradually improving their abilities the way you might in a D&D game. Instead, the GM is encouraged to award character's ingenuity with powers letting them figure out new "stunts" that they can do with their abilities, and characters can occasionally end up "upgrading" their powers in an "all new, all different" sort of way; sometimes with accompanying costs in the forms of new problems.

This is basically it for the mechanics side of things, and it takes up the first 32 pages of the game, including a rather lengthy but very useful "example of play".
After this, you get 15 pages of GM advice, most of it relatively good, and specific to running a superhero campaign.  It includes a bit of material on different common situations that would appear in heroic games, and a section on supervillains and the kind of drives that would motivate them.

The entire rest of the book aside from the Appendix (so everything from page 49 to page 125) is dedicated to setting.  This is where I think the game really falls flat.  There should have been about fifty pages less setting, if indeed there had to be any setting at all, and about 50 pages more of examples of powers, examples of mechanics for different kinds of actions, and even optional rules.  Granted, there's plenty of "sample powers" listed in the seventy pages worth of sample NPCs, but I'd really really really have rather just seen the powers and not the NPCs in question.

You see, supers RPGs always run into a problem with setting.  The best they can hope for is to create a clever kind of "amalgam" setting that is an obvious ripoff of the DC/Marvel universes.  So even the best, like the Mutants and Masterminds setting, detailed and sophisticated as it may be, still feels like a ripoff.  And frankly, the sample settings of H&S is no Freedom City.  Not even close. Instead what you get is 70 pages of relative cheese. I'm talking about sample characters like the "all american archer"; the "Cyclonatron", and, I kid you not, "Dr.Decepto" and "Commander Crustacean". And lets not forget the "Lethal Leaper"; "Master  Maleficient"; and the "Terror Trio".

Like M&M, H&S tries to create a faux-comic universe, making up nonexistant comic series that these characters supposedly "first appeared" in, etc.  Its just.. well, utterly unnecessary.  I can't imagine anyone looking at this stuff and saying "wow cool, I've never thought of this before".
And I mean, its not even like you get a lot of cool, Freedom-city style, details of places or setting.  All you get is long long lists of NPCs. If the writer HAD to put a setting section, and again I'm not convinced that such a thing is necessary for a supers RPG, it should have been just a handful of sample NPCs, and then a bunch of details of cool places, maybe some more random tables for setting related materials, etc. In other words, something more along the lines of what we get in M&M's "Freedom City" or the Star Wars "Galactic Campaign Guide".

Anyways, the game finishes off with a couple of appendixes; one that has a bibliography of books, games and TV series that can be useful reads for anyone running a supers game (though again, I question the need for this, given that pretty much anyone who WANTS to run a supers game has probably already been inspired by comics), an appendix with some sample items (ie. explaining the damage levels of firearms) and creatures (I was amused by the fact that "housecats" have a villainous drive of "megalomania"); and finally a very neat "player character Random Generator" that allows you to roll up PCs or NPCs , heroic or villainous; determining their origins and powers by random rolls. I found this a very cool tool, that could have been expanded upon.

My conclusions:

The Good: The system is great. I read it, and I think "finally, I can actually run a supers game that will FEEL like a supers game".

The Bad: The game system is a bit incomplete. More attention could have been given to elaboration of powers, and to mechanics for different situations. Note that the game as it stands is definitely playable, but it would probably depend on a lot of GM houseruling.

The Ugly: the setting sucks. 70 pages worth of cheesy NPCs.

In short, however, the game is worth getting. Especially if you've read Amber and like it, you will like this system. If you want a game that captures the emulation of the supers genre, this is a great game. If you're looking for something that deals more with superpowers than with superheros, however, stick with M&M or Champions. This is the rules-light answer to those two, and the emphasis is squarely on the concept of Superheros, rather than an exercise in point-buy building of super-powers, which is what those other games feel like to me.

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Silverlion

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Hearts & Souls
« Reply #1 on: November 20, 2006, 05:12:09 PM »
Thanks for your review, I'm not sure about the margin issue, I thought I'd fixed that when Lulu hiccuped, but you might have gotten one that was printed prior to that revision, for that I apologise.
 

On the setting; Part of the reason of the sample NPC's is to ALSO provide write-ups of how to do certian powers (Magic, Trick Arrows, and so on) so the powers are intentionally expanded on by using the NPC's.

Yes the some of the characters  are cheesy, but then that's true of Marvel and DC, I mean Marvel has: The Spot, and Humbug, The Gibbon.

 DC has Plastic-Man, Weather Wizard, and Captain Boomerang. For every Venom, or Green Goblin (and boy was he cheesy to begin with he rode a rocket broom!), Darkseid, Doctor Light, Polaris there are a half a dozen cheesy villains. It's not your thing and that's cool.  But I dont think you can say its untrue to its source.

I wrestled a great deal about having more powers in the power section, but ultimately it came down to comic book writers don't have a big list to choose from--they make up what works for the character they have, and I felt better to encourage players to be more creative (using plain English and the system for running powers) than to just pick and choose from a prewritten list. I guess for you, that doesn't work, completely fair assessment though. I appreciate it.
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flyingmice

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Hearts & Souls
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2006, 05:42:18 PM »
Hi Pundit, Tim!

That was my used copy I sent to Pundit - it was the first H&S Print sale, long before you fixed anything, Tim! It was actually the proof copy, as Tim couldn't get it himself for some reason, and he trusted me to tell him what went right and what went wrong.

Yeah, the settings are cheesy, but I figured on using them as examples and guidelines. Heck, does anyone actually use supers settings outside the real Marvel or DC deals? Anyway, you are spot on, Pundit - this was the first supers game that made me want to run supers. I think Tim absolutely nailed what makes supers awesome. :D

Great review, Pundit!

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RPGPundit

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Hearts & Souls
« Reply #3 on: November 20, 2006, 07:41:24 PM »
Quote from: Silverlion
Thanks for your review, I'm not sure about the margin issue, I thought I'd fixed that when Lulu hiccuped, but you might have gotten one that was printed prior to that revision, for that I apologise.


Ah, ok. I'll clear that up on my blog, too then.
 
Quote

On the setting; Part of the reason of the sample NPC's is to ALSO provide write-ups of how to do certian powers (Magic, Trick Arrows, and so on) so the powers are intentionally expanded on by using the NPC's.


Yea, I did realize that. I just think it would have been a better choice to outline those powers, without writing up characters to go with them; and to have dedicated the extra space to either more rules options or more fluff material for setting.

Quote

 DC has Plastic-Man, Weather Wizard, and Captain Boomerang. For every Venom, or Green Goblin (and boy was he cheesy to begin with he rode a rocket broom!), Darkseid, Doctor Light, Polaris there are a half a dozen cheesy villains. It's not your thing and that's cool.  But I dont think you can say its untrue to its source.


Not at all, and I can recognize the cheesiness of the original sources.  The problem is, I think pretty much ANYONE who buys your book could say the same thing, making your cheese largely unnecessary. I mean, bad enough we have the Marvel and DC cheese. :p

Quote

I wrestled a great deal about having more powers in the power section, but ultimately it came down to comic book writers don't have a big list to choose from--they make up what works for the character they have, and I felt better to encourage players to be more creative (using plain English and the system for running powers) than to just pick and choose from a prewritten list. I guess for you, that doesn't work, completely fair assessment though. I appreciate it.


I think that you backhandedly tried to handle the issue anyways with the NPCs you created; but you'd have been better off saving some space for other stuff and having just had the powers, not the NPCs.

But on the whole, let me say I loved the game itself, and plan to run a playtest sometime... don't know when, since I still have yet to run a playtest for In Harm's Way, which I also loved to bits, but someday I will run both of these...

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Silverlion

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Hearts & Souls
« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2006, 08:00:34 PM »
Quote from: RPGPundit


I think that you backhandedly tried to handle the issue anyways with the NPCs you created; but you'd have been better off saving some space for other stuff and having just had the powers, not the NPCs.

But on the whole, let me say I loved the game itself, and plan to run a playtest sometime... don't know when, since I still have yet to run a playtest for In Harm's Way, which I also loved to bits, but someday I will run both of these...

RPGPundit


True enough, again, thank you very much.
I'll consider your concerns at length (and someday long ages from now when a 2E is done, I'll add/expand in such a fashion)
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