Wednesday, October 12, 2016


In a dim and misty dungeon known as the eighties, I once casually passed by, in a chamber of games, a game book upon a shelf. It had an awesome Viking illo on the cover and the ambiguous title HEROES in large, black runic-looking letters. It looked different than all of the brightly coloured, flamboyantly decorated books and boxes around it...plain and unassuming.

Intrigued, I picked it up and looked it over and after cursory examination determined that it was apparently a historical rpg and had no fantasy elements at all--no dragons, no wizards, no dungeons. Thinking such a game was not to my taste, I put it back and never gave it another thought...for a long time.

Flashforward to the 2k's, the age of the Internet and the subsequent opening of the reliquary of ye olde school games--great blogs like Grognardia, websites like the Acaeum and forums such as  the Original Dungeons and Dragons Discussion suddenly had images, discussions, and histories of many fascinating games... some once thought lost, some obscure, some never abandoned by the faithful few. Moreover, with the advent of Amazon, E-Bay and other online used book sellers, for pennies or for Sovereigns, one could actually come back into possession of lost or surrendered books... or whet curiosity by buying games perhaps never owned but always wondered about. 

And this without having to rely on a luck roll in musty old book stores or garage sales!

One item that called to me as I surveyed these relics and read their lore was the game I had looked at once but never bought... but which now highly intrigued my gamer head.

I speak of Dave Millward's HEROES

Mr. Millward's original game is now once again available as a scanned PDF for download at a reasonable price--and with it, there is also available a sleek revision with new art, a few mechanic tweaks and rules clarifications from his original labour of love. 

I was thrilled to get a copy of the original HEROES, and spent nearly two weeks absolutely immersed in it. 

After a thorough read of the rules, I offer to you what I personally found engaging about this book, and I will also try to explain a bit about the system of HEROES and it's setting. 


HEROES is a quasi historical rpg in a Dark Ages setting.

I say "quasi" because Millward basically created a microcosm of Dark Ages Europe that is easier for a GM to manage (politically and game-event wise) than would be the authentic historical milieu. He named this realm The Questerlands, and populated it with fictitious nationalities and kingdoms which someone possessing even a thumbnail sketch of European Dark Ages history should be able to readily identify with their real-world counterparts. For examples, "Russland" is Russia, "Angonia" is England, "Ispania" is Spain and so on. The map provided with HEROES is not identical to real Europe, but the locations and proximity of the kingdoms of the Questerlands corresponds closely enough to give the setting a flavor and atmosphere that tastes like the real Dark Ages.

The city which features centrally to the game is Triente, which is modelled after the real city of Venice with its many intrigues, maze like precincts, and political prominence. 


Character objectives in a game of HEROES are quite different than in a game of Dungeons and Dragons --the usual game incentive of Loot is present, to be sure... but Loot is chiefly desired because it is the means by which one's social status may be raised. This is somewhat more important in HEROES, rather more important than gaing new X.P. Levels in D&D. 

What HEROES characters want to gather are Personal Experience Points--or P.E.P. It is these,along with money, that help a player to develop the character and interact with Non Player Characters through social status. 

P.E.P. can be spent to raise social status directly or, if a player chooses, to develop attributes and combat capabilities. Unlike D&D's Experience Point system, which awards points for monsters killed and treasure gained, P.E.P. are rewarded solely at the GM's discretion.

And they are valuable coin--for example, gaining simply 3-5 P.E.P. after a session of HEROES would be considered a rich haul...more than sufficient to lift character strength and eminence.

However, P.E.P. can also be lost... either through bad role-playing or by simply not keeping up with Triente's carousing scene to fulfil character obligations like drinking, wenching, courting and, in general, keeping up a rep. 

Failing to to do any of these things will result in loss of P.E.P. and thereby, eventually, social status. And yes... that will affect you on the dice tables!

You can gain Personal X.P. Points in HEROES for doing this
One thing must be stressed--a streak of rather black humour underlies HEROES.

Unlike D&D, HEROES is not a game where a player should become very attached to a character 

Expect instead to be creating new characters on a fairly regular basis, and learn to look at these characters as simply being memorable figures in a longer, multi-character campaign narrative that is meant to arouse the darker humour of GM's and players, rather than create the stuff of bard tales!

Character deaths are actually part of the entertainment here--combat is swift and lethal, and moreover, there are tables whereon a single roll of the dice determines one's fate in the face of warfare, plague, or legal punishments.

In fact, one gem of the book is the list of Heroes in the front dedication, apparently all PC's from Millward's early campaigns.

The ignoble ends of these characters are described in epitaphs such as: "Ivar the Axe, whose head was caved in by a mug", "Brian the Brewer, who couldn't swim in his armour" or "Wally the Unmentionable, who just disappeared."

Indeed, Irony is abundant in the even title of HEROES, because selfishness, skullduggery, and naked, bald ambition are the hallmarks of character progression-- this would appear to be Millward's somewhat wry commentary on the oft alleged "heroism" of the Dark Ages warrior class. 

Don't look for paladins here.

The altruism assumed of characters in most fantasy games and settings is roasted somewhat in HEROES...BUT: it is tongue in cheek, not cynical.

I think it very safe to say that Millward, a citizen of England, is a great fan of Monty Python and it is a similar sort of humour, the lampooning of romantic and chivalrous notions, that is very evident in this game.


Character generation is completely random in HEROES--one dices for nationality, beginning social class, and character attributes. Nationality and social class determine also beginning equipment and weapons, as well as any professional or religious training the character starts with.  

There are seven basic character attributes mostly determined by the roll of a ten-sider: these are STRENGTH, AGILITY, INTELLECT, PERSONALITY/CHARM, BERSERKER POTENTIAL, MISSILE SHOOTING ABILITY, and COMBAT VALUE (melee skill). A table is included for modifications to these attributes based on one's Social Background.

HEROES has a very limited skill system that depends upon Social Class--skills are described only by a name and are largely self explanatory, so there are no detailed skill ranks or levels--someone of a Merchant Class background, for example would have: "Commerce, good judge of quality, counting, IQ x 10% chance to read and write."

Regardless of whatever social rank one rolls upon character creation, though, the character’s effective social rank within the city of Triente, while influenced by rolled rank,  is not directly must be earned.  

The Basic Game  

Although it is possible for the Umpire (as the game referee is called)of a campaign of HEROES to conduct a campaign by designing detailed maps and adventure scenarios (as with D&D), this is not the thrust of HEROES as it was designed to be played.

Instead of creating maps and their keys, an Umpire designs "Incidents"--encounters that result from a random dice roll oft thrown to see what exactly happens in a given period of time after players have announced their actions for the week.

You see, a game begins with the Umpire asking each player what his or her character is going to do for the week.

The player may decide to visit a tavern and drink, to court the one they love (or can possibly raise their social status...), to study warfare, engage in commerce, equip for a merchant venture or raid, mount a foray against bandits, join a militia, or... you name it. 

There are tables for many of the above mentioned actions to determine the resultant encounters and outcomes arsing from them, but there is also ample room for a player to do anything they want that week, table or no.

One thing I love about HEROES is that player actions may be undertaken jointly, as with the traditional D&D party ("We all go to the Dancing Cup together!").. or, each player may declare separate actions.

The Umpire then helps (?) the player resolve the outcomes these actions through dicing on tables, role playing whenever necessary, working out any combats or encounters, or, if the dice call for it, using an Incident.

Incidents take you from the larger, summary actions (metagaming, if you will) into the the sort of close and personal role playing and conflicts one is used to in D&D. 

Millward has provide a good number of Incidents to get you started, and some Incidents are potentially recurring in every game, while others are one time story arc beginners. 

For example, every week there is the chance of encountering a rabid dog--prior to rabies vaccinations, this was a fairly common danger, and so there is a standard 10% chance of such an encounter weekly! So look out, because unless the highly chancy folk cure works for you (eating the dead dog's scruff..), your character will join Edgar Allen Poe in a most undesirable fate...

Beware rabid dogs--since there are no clerical spells in HEROES (or any spells at all), you are officially screwed if you get bit--unless a folklore method works.

Other Incidents are unique, though... like, say, bumping into the palanquin of a noble's daughter in the street and having to dice against a percentage chance of falling completely in love with the lass! If you fail this "saving throw" (or succeed at it, if you'd rather call it), you must seek her hand in marriage and satisfy her father's demands for her hand!

Other Incident encounters involve chance meetings with city militia, merchants, clergy, nobility, riff raff, and insane religious zealots.

Incidents outside Triente can range from civilized encounters to dirty skirmishes with foreign troops or highwaymen. And of course there are encounter tables for the high seas, mountains, and marshes as well...inclement weather or getting lost is as big a danger as meeting hostile travellers.

As we've stated, there are  more than enough Incidents to get you going, but as Umpire, you will want to create your own list and the neat thing about it is that you can fill a notebook with random Incidents that are as detailed or sparse as you desire, and pick or dice for them at random. HEROES frees you somewhat for the need for the structure and detail a game of D&D might require.


Another awesome feature of HEROES is that, depending on group tastes, politics and intrigue can either feature as a very large part of the campaign or else have absolutely no primacy at all. A sparse political outline is given in the appendices, and you are given to know that there is an Emperor and a powerful Duke who answers to him and oversees Triente

Four rival families of means control various quarters of the city, as do a Bishop, the Duke, a prominent merchant company, and, in several quarters, the City Commune.

All of these factions desire to dominate Triente, and all are stalled by a system of checks and balances arising from the opposing/mutual interests of every party involved.

One of the most interesting political features of HEROES are the tables which detail employment, secular or religious, within Triente.

A player may opt to try and win employment in such an office (a matter of the dice) and if successful, might choose to undertake the duty with utmost fidelity (thus ensuring a regular income) or else choose, perhaps more likely, to accept bribes or rob the employer...such nefarious actions will net coin increases but are also attended by a percentage chance for discovery, leading to disgrace and possible punishment.

The Game Mechanics  

2d10 (Percentage 1-100)are the main resolution mechanic for HEROES, and there are a myriad of tables to cover nearly every game contingency... but, lest you be dismayed by this, rest easy; the tables are arranged very neatly and they resolve simply, usually with a single roll of a die or percentile.

If you like table driven game engines in an rpg (and some do) HEROES provides many such fascinating tables...tables which, I might add, would, in many cases, port over to a D&D game very neatly, some "as-is". Even if you can't get into a "quasi-historical" setting like HEROES but want to add new ingredients to an existing D&D  campaign, many would be quite exciting additions!

Consider the following examples:

Determination of Nationality/Country and starting weapons.

Social Background and beginning skills.

City Professional, Official and Clerical Employment Positions including income, influence, and underlings. (There is also a table for menial jobs to raise one's wages if you find yourself a paycheck away from the street...because you must maintain a residence!)

Comprehensive movement and encounter tables for varying terrains and nations.

A Slave Market table for resolving what happens to unfortunate PC's who, through war or criminal offences, wind up in bond. None are pleasant, and some are downright scary--like eunuch service or, in some more barbaric areas, being tormented for sport...roll well, my friend.

Hireling and Mercenary table for getting together an expedition.

Village Characteristics table for players who decide to go marauding in the borderlands...this table covers population, armed defence, and available livestock for plundering.

Weather Tables and Encounters for Sea Voyaging (including chance of sinking).

Combat Tables for man to man combat, skirmish and large scale forces. I should note these are very barebones in the original HEROES edition, but more on that later.

My favourite table in HEROES, though, is the Trade Table. It has a detailed list of items, commodities and livestock and gives the value of these by lots and how much of a profit you can expect to get for them in a given place. To use the table, you simply cross index the trade item with the nation or city where you want to buy (or sell) the goods and there is a percentage die to be thrown to determine availability (in the case of buying). 

If you are a marauder or brigand you can of course acquire trade items by means other than buying...cough, cough.

Some trade items are more precious in certain areas than others, and this gives merchant-minded characters a great incentive for equipping voyages or overland expeditions--which, need I tell you, leads to ADVENTURE! The trade table would be quite unobtrusive but imminently useful in a game of OD&D!

There are a variety of paths players can choose from in HEROES, as a group or individually: --brigandry and alleyway skullduggery, raiding and pillaging, war, diplomacy, city or church service, or trade, to name the major ones.

Criminal enterprises can lead to dire punishments, of course (Hey! there is a table for that too!)...but all depends only on player choice and character alignment.

Alignment is a simple matter in HEROES -you pick a number from 1-5 and you then choose Law (Alignment A)or Chaos (Alignment E). So a 1A character would be inclined to law but not nearly as fanatical as a 5A! And a 5E character is just bad news all around! Players are awarded or penalized P.E.P's in accordance with playing in a chosen alignment.

Now,if you happen to roll the status of exile when you are generating your social background, you are assumed to be evil...  why else would you have been cast out!?

Monte Python Meets Macbeth  

There is a great deal of material presented in the original HEROES to keep you busy for some time. The historical basis of the game is not stifling... the Umpire has room to fudge. One needn't be a history major to run a campaign, because, remember it's "QUASI-historical". 

That said, the Dark Ages mood is somewhat built into the tables and mechanics of HEROES, as is the rather gallows humour that permeates the text of the rules book.

I was very pleased with my purchase of this game; I have not yet had a chance to play it but having read the rules I do plan to get a game going someday. 

You see, it's not for everyone; a few D&D players I approached about getting a game going either found it offensive ("P.E.P.'s for wenching and drinking? Really!?") or else limiting ("What, no magic!? No monsters? Nah.") But, I did get maybe's from a few people and be sure I will hit them up!

My PDF of HEROES is from scanned copy of the original game; as such, you do get the occasional crooked page and (grumble, grumble) the Map of the Questerlands is the worst casualty of all--though useable, it is difficult to make the four page spread match up at the edges due to poor scanning. Still, this is a minor glitch, and all the rules are legible and clear. 

I laminated my map with clear packing tape...not the best, but, hey, it works, my map is beer-proof, very important for those longer game sessions where ale is involved.

My only other issue with the original HEROES is that the individual combat system is somewhat confusing.

Attacks are worked out on a percentage roll based on a number factor--this "combat factor" derives from weapons skills and attributes. 

The combat matrix is not, perhaps, as clear as it could be--or, rather, the table is perfect but the rules are thin as to how to use the table.

For example, there is a bit about Weapon Proficiency in the character creation section..but I am stymied to find anywhere in the rules where they explain how to actually use weapon proficiency in relation to a character's Combat Factor. 

Still, there is enough there that I can wing it, and, aside from this quibble of mine, which I admit may be due to a misreading fo the rules, the rules are clear enough on every other front.

In mass combats, HEROES is somewhat easier to work out; there is a table for a single resolution roll instead of detailed wargaming rules. 

One finds out the results of a mass battle in seconds and you also find out whether or not your character was wounded, captured, and/or sold into slavery!

I love the artwork in the original HEROES. It is fine amateur work by someone who probably later became a fine artist-simple pen and ink sketches that have a character and flavor very suited to the game and which possess a certain whimsical movement and intrinsic, understated humour. There are no full page illustrations other than the cover, but the interior art is prolific and provides great headings for each rules section.

It is my understanding that in the newest edition of the game, HEROES 2.0, which I do not yet own, the combat glitches and other small errata I have mentioned are revised for easier clarification.

However,  the original HEROES contains more than enough clarity for a reasonably intelligent person to conduct a fun campaign with no problem.

You can order a copy of HEROES at the link below. Based on my study of the rules, any DM worth his or her salt could make a party of salty warriors writhe with ecstasy in a HEROES campaign!

Good luck in the Mazes! 


P.S. The two signed cartoons are not in the HEROES book but are my own work and something I hope to add more of here at the Mazes! Hope you like!




1 comment:

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