For many years of my life I’ve been obsessed with comic books and superhero roleplaying games. For instance, I wrote my graduate thesis on British and American comics. So a couple of years ago, I was on Kickstarter and saw Urban Heroes—a superhero RPG made in Italy. I have to confess, I was intrigued by this amazing concept and couldn’t help myself; I just had to back it! After all, the United States seems to dominate the superhero genre, and I was so curious as to what an Italian lens on the genre would reveal.
What is Urban Heroes?
Urban Heroes, created by Tin Hat Games, is based on a world much like ours, called Earth-Z. The past is just like our Earth until things change in last quarter of 2008. A huge particle accelerator in Switzerland, explodes devastating the city of Geneva. And not long after, several people from around the world manifest superhuman abilities. These superbeings became known as H.E.R.O.es (Human Exposed to Radioactive Operations) and are believed by many scientists to have magnificent abilities due to Z particle exposure.
After the explosion, the world as we know it takes a turn down the road of the strange, the unknown, and the chaotic. In Urban Heroes, you’ll find an Earth that has been terrorized by the explosion in Switzerland, a giant monster—like Godzilla—that wreaks havoc, churches that worship superbeings, and superbeings that destabilized nations. The setting is dystopian and takes a global view of the world—not one nation or continent dominates the story.
The game universe reminds me of a hybrid of Smallville (if it was on HBO), X-Files, and Cyberpunk–yeah the roleplaying game. Urban Heroes is dark, filled with conspiracies, and is downright gritty.
Speaking of gritty, the game system lends itself to a grittier scheme for a superhero RPG. There are rules for fatigue from using superpowers, various conditions from getting injured, and even mental stability—yeah, your character can go bonkers!
Taking damage in the game focuses on different locations on the body—head, torso, right arm, left leg, etc. True, it’s a hit location system and that might slow down combat, a bit; however, I suppose, it can be easily adapted to an assumed Torso damage for accelerated game play. In addition, to rules for hit locations, there are collateral damage rules for when a character fails to hit his/her target-–property or innocent bystanders can be damaged. This no doubt adds to the gritty feel of the game, and the often forgotten consequences of violence on a super-scale.
System Situation Resolution
Like many roleplaying games, a character’s success is often based on if he/she makes a die check equal to or greater than a target number called Difficulty (D). The Scriptwriter (GM) decides what Characteristic or skill is used for varying situations and the player then rolls the die (ranging from a D4 to a D20) depending on his Characteristic or Skill. Each character is comprised of five Characteristics: Body, Mind, Reflexes, Social, and Control (used for powers). If you’re curious about what the character sheet looks like, you can check it out here: http://www.urbanheroes.it/en/download/
As with many roleplaying games, character creation can be pretty fun. Urban Heroes takes that positive attitude of character creation and amps it up!
Players can optionally roll on a Life Events Table to decide random benefits or flaws to their character. The older a character is, the more wonderful or awful things could have happened to the player character (H.E.R.O). I imagine it’s not too usual for a H.E.R.O. to belong in Bedlam or any other special place. As awful as that may sound to some, remember, one does not need to be restricted by rolling randomly. Heck, you never know how luck can play out for you. And even if you roll bad here, you can counter negative events with bonuses from the Balancing Life Events Table. Your character can gain a +1 to a Skill of your choice, +1 Contact, +1 Social Status, etc.
After the player rolls Life Events he/she can decide on a Life Choice, basically your character’s starting concept. They have numerous choices, such as Activist, Athlete, Military, etc, each granting the character with a Pro and Con. One amusing Life Choice is Redneck:
“Redneck: The H.E.R.O.’s a coarse farmer from the countryside, who grew up far away from the complex life in the city and is quite uncultured. Pro: during character creation the character gains 1 Contact within his family, a carbine or a shotgun…+10 Health Points on each Location and +1 Rank on a Skill of your choice (however, you can’t assign this point to a Knowledge Skill). Con: decrease the Mind Die of the character by 1 step.” (33 UH)
Hmm… Inspires me to create a whole new take on a farm-boy superhero!
Next the player chooses skills and powers.
A H.E.R.O.’s powers are decided by the character’s Origin (e.g., Divine, Genetic, Psionic, etc.) and typically rolled randomly. Chances of creating a character as powerful as Superman or as versatile as Martian Manhunter are slim to none—nope, no Swiss Army Knife characters here. But…
The back of the book states that there are “more than 900,000 combinations between Powers, Flaws, and Origin…90 powers and every detail to play them in our real world.” I didn’t check the math on this, but there is definitely a lot of powers and variations here. However, powers are limited to a four tier variance (i.e., Minor, Intermediate, Major, or Superior). Not sure how much I like the tier limit (probably more than Marvel Heroic Roleplaying), but I do appreciate how there is a pattern between a character’s Origin, primary power, secondary power, etc. It’s definitely an interesting system. I’m curious what all the munchkins will do with it.
The Book, Layout, and Art
Simply beautiful! The book I got is hardcover and appears to be pretty solid. I have not used and abused it yet, so I cannot vouch for its sturdiness, but again, it looks solid. As for the art and layout; don’t judge a book by its cover. The cover is quite simple, but to-the-point for a game called Urban Heroes. However, with that said, the art and layout inside are advanced, radical, and often with an urban punk feel. Several pages throughout the book look like top secret files—which adds to the X-Files theme—while others draw the viewer into a world of super-punk-dystopian fun and terror. The art is straight-out professional comic book level! Pretty impressive for a small, independent game company.
No roleplaying game is perfect, at least in my opinion. With that said I will start with the bad part about this book. There are numerous typos and some poor grammar uses throughout the book; but nothing that really hinders the gameplay. The book’s pretty easy to understand regardless of the typos and sometimes poor grammar. Be that as it may, keep in mind this game was translated from Italian to English, and the Kickstarter did not make a whole lot of money to fund the greatest translation. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen RPGs in English by Americans that looked worse when it comes to typos and bad grammar. As a professional writer, I’m full of typos and bad grammar. Just ask my proofreader (my daughter), she’s probably rolling her eyes as she proofs this.
Needless to say, the boys at Tin Hat Games do have an errata on their website.
In addition to some typos and grammar mistakes, I question the limitation of the game having characteristics restricted to dice ranging from D4 to D20 and only one die being used for the roll. I have not played the game yet, so this may not be an issue.
On the upside, I really like this game! Urban Heroes is one of the best systems for a gritty superhero game. It captures the gritty violence feel, like Frank Miller splatters blood all over his graphic novel or Quentin Tarantino makes a movie in the 90s. It’s quite beautiful and refreshingly different. The world is fantastic and filled with mysteries that I want answers to. There are countless American superhero roleplaying games—understandable as American creators dominate the genre, but how many Italian superhero roleplaying games have you heard of???
I wonder if Tin Hat Games will translate more Urban Hero stuff for us? The game leaves me pondering; what else is out there? God, UFOs, Godzilla, Pokémon? I also want to know more about the Amazing Men and their character profiles!
The people at Tin Hat Games have been great at communicating with fans. They have been very responsive to questions and when the Kickstarter was delayed they made up for the delay by throwing in a cool Scriptwriter (GM) screen for free. All of this further helped the game feel worth the wait,
With that all said, I’m glad I took a chance with this Kickstarter, and I look forward to seeing what else comes out of this little company from Italy!
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