by Chris Perrin
City of Heroes is a superhero role playing game written by M. Alexander Jurkat with material from Jack Emmert and Sean Fish that is currently awaiting publication by Eden Studios. It is the direct pen and paper adaptation of the Cryptic Studio’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) also called City of Heroes (now owned by NCSoft). The rules and game engine were originally designed by former Palladium Books freelancer C. J. Carella and called the Universal Mission Simulation System, or Unisystem for short. The system has been licensed by Eden Studios from Myrmidon Press.
City of Heroes Tabletop RPG
Fans of the computer game can rest assured that City of Heroes, the tabletop version, will not deviate from City of Heroes, the electronic version. As a pen and paper port, the game uses the same setting as the computer version of the game. Players take on the role of superheroes battling their evil counterparts in Paragon City, which is the same city that computer gamers battle in when they log into the MMORPG version. That game further tries to recreate the online gaming experience by stating out many of the more popular bad guys from the game so that players can continue to thrash them in the offline world.
Unisystem was a solid choice as it has been used for several popular and award winning games such as All Flesh Must Be Eaten, WitchCraft, the “Buffyverse” games, and others. The system was originally designed by C.J. Carella for the Myrmidon Press games WitchCraft and Armageddon. All of this means that rather than starting over, Eden Studios used a system that had a good track record of performance in games which have a similar feel to City of Heroes.
At its heart, Unisystem is a point-buy rules set. Players buy levels for their six physical Attributes, Skills, qualities (advantages/powers) and drawbacks (disadvantages.) Usually, qualities and drawbacks tend to give characters supernatural powers or background (like being a vampire), all of which lends itself to the superhero gaming genre quite well. Obviously, the game would need to have quite a lot of these qualities and drawbacks to accurately represent the richness of the superhero gaming experience.
The resolution mechanic in Unisystem is simple. When a player wants his character to do something, he finds the value of his relevant attribute (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception, or Willpower), adds the value of any relevant skill, considers any modifiers, and then adds to that number the roll of a ten-sided die. If that total is nine or more, the action succeeds. If not, it fails.
The System in Action
City of Heroes uses this system with little modification, which is good because the system seems to be well suited to action-oriented superhero games. Having one die to roll with, only a small amount of math is a pretty fast way to resolve what happens during the action part of the game. At the same time, combat can be more than simple dice rolling until one side or the other gets a lucky roll because of the various modifiers, qualities, and skills. At the very least, qualities and drawbacks allow players to think tactically about how best to take out the bad guy.
Perhaps the one drawback is that it does not scale well to less powerful supers and humans like the Punisher, who only has rifles and guns. However, in a game like this one, this is not as large of a concern as the heroes are all powerful.
Having a proven system like Unisystem is going to be an asset for City of Heroes, which has already faced several challenges in its young existence. There are always problems with porting games from the computer to the tabletop. Players are used to a certain style of play which involves a lot of visual action, furious attacks, and, in most cases, a minimal amount of role playing. Pen and paper role playing games are more socially oriented and don’t have the same “always on” level of excitement one can find by logging into a server and going out to kill bad guys. On the other hand, a simple system like Unisystem at least will make playing the game as simple as playing online, which means the players can concentrate on the action.
The other challenge for City of Heroes will be much harder to overcome. Development on the games began in 2005 and now, years later, not a single book has been published. The reasons for this are many, though in some cases, they are also troubling. In late 2006, according to themselves, Eden Studios had the product finished, but was having cash flow problems which would delay them publication until the next year.
Then, in 2007 Cryptic Studios sold the full ownership of all intellectual property of both City of Heroes and City of Villains (their MMORPG which lets players take on the role of super villains instead of heroes with super powers) to NCSoft. According to sources inside Eden Studios, the sale of the intellectual property has delayed the release of the game for several unnamed reasons. Eden Studio’s website for the game has not been updated since June 2006 when they told the world they were nearing completion of the game.
That currently leaves the fate of the game up in the air as Eden Studios and NCSoft determine how to handle the intellectual property issues. No decision is thought to be forthcoming, however.
Until then, City of Heroes: The Pen and Paper Role Playing Game is not available. However, because the Unisystem is present in a number of games, players who want to know what the game might be like can purchase a game like All Flesh Must Be Eaten and create a few superhero qualities. It is not quite the real thing, but it is a start. Failing that, gamers can always signup for an account for the MMORPG, start a guild with their play group, and try to get their superhero gaming fix that way.