Sunday, January 29, 2023

GAME REVIEW: Four-Color Heroics

 Before we get started, here are some disclaimers:

  • I am reviewing a comp copy provided by the author
  • The author and I are friends, and have been for many years
  • It is my hope that the author knows me well enough to trust me to be fair, impartial, and honest
  • I have read but not yet played this game

Okay? We good? 


I really like it.


Four-Color Heroics is a roleplaying game of superheroic action and shenanigans from Spectrum Games, designed and written by Cynthia Celeste Miller, and edited by Norbert Franz. It's meant to help model golden-age comics characters in action, though it can really pull a lot of duties, if you ask me.

Nazis can, and should be, punched the fuck out anytime, anywhere.

It's...let's see, the PDF is 23 pages long; the rules take up about 8 pages of that, and the rest is support material. It uses a dice pool system (you'll roll a bunch of d10s, but sometimes some d8s and/or d12s), the implementation of which is uncomplicated and kind of clever. 


Not very long, really - not in terms of putting stuff down on paper. The mechanical requirements of a character are light: you'll have 5 Attributes (Action, Combat, Alertness, Brainpower, Charisma) and some Qualities (which further break down into Skills, Flaws, and Powers). Each attribute features a pair of Facets, to give a bit of granularity (Action covers Athletics and Brawn, for instance); these modify your dice pool when you, you know, roll dice. Buy the whole lot with some points, calculate a Damage Limit, decide on some Keywords that apply to your character, come up with a name and a background, and go be all heroic and stuff.


Well, there's a bit more in there, but it's also pretty easy to get along with. The aforementioned Skills, Powers, and Flaws are pretty open-ended, and give you the opportunity to flavor your character without having to drill down a whole lot if you don't want to. The rules give you a framework for defining Skills, Powers, and Flaws, and trusts you not to abuse the freedoms it allows you.

YOU CAN'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO but okay yeah that makes sense I guess.

As I mentioned, your character is assigned some Keywords - common-sense descriptors that help define them. These are things like "Robotic", "Organic", "Hero", "Villain", "Alien", or the like. Powers also get these Keywords applied to them, so you can have an "Energy Bolt" power that is "Piercing" or maybe a "Gadget" or "Cold" or whatever. The idea seems to be to define minutiae up to a certain meaningful point, but not overly so. Other games already do that, and this one isn't here to be that precise, just fun.


Like I said, that's all done with a simple dice pool. You're rolling d10s equal to your Attribute, and looking for those that roll 6+ to count as successes; those count against either a static number or an opposing roll. Pretty straight-forward, but there are a couple of finer details: the pool can shrink or grow under certain circumstances, and some of the dice can bump up to d12s or slide down to d8s depending on applicable Facets and Skills and stuff. Also, there's a nice drama die/metacurrency mechanic folded in: one of your dice is a special "Impact Die", which can either hamper you on a 1 or give you a bonus success on a 10. Rolling a 10 also gives you a "Momentum" point that you can spend for, you know, cool stuff, not unlike Bennies in Savage Worlds or Momentum Points in 2d20 games. 

The whole thing is very uncomplicated. There are certain rules that can create a bit of weirdness, though, and the rules counsel you on what to do when that happens. 

Combat is likewise functional and uncluttered. It's mostly opposed checks, and loser takes damage determined by the margin (plus mods if a power allows them). The game specifies using tokens to track damage, which seemed a little weird to me - why not just, you know, write them down? So I asked Cynthia. She said:

I feel it gives the system a looser feel with one less thing to require traditional in-game record-keeping. It's faster during combat scenes to slide over a few tokens than it is to erase the previous damage amount and write in the new amount.

This tracks with the rest of the feel of the game: it's obviously wanting you to have fast and uncluttered fun, and while I don't think you would lose much by erasing and re-writing damage, I don't disagree with her, either.


Oh, yeah. Well, aside from, you know, a cover and an index (very handy, those indices), you'll get a slew of pre-generated example characters of different flavors and types, as well as a 2-page blank character sheet. The real meat of the extras, though, is the Appendix - 2 pages of guidance on actually using all this loosey-goosey stuff without it being "just do whatever". It packs in some sample qualities, thoughts on how sample characters were created, and the philosophy of designing powers and stuff. 

To me, those are two very powerful pages - they not only help to solidify the game's feel and intent, but it gives you the keys for doing it yourself. I love it when a game designer gives you a look behind the curtain and explains some of why they designed a game or a mechanic in such a way, how they approach it, and what it means to them. 


Yeah, yeah it is! It's laid out very clearly and legibly, but retains enough "old-timey comics" flavor to stay inspirational, with plenty of period art spread throughout. Here, look at this sample page:

Pulpy in many senses of the word.

Miller and Franz have kept the text concise and easy to parse. In reading it, I only had to backtrack once or twice, but that was only to confirm my own understanding of a rule or passage. They also chose this particular panel, which tickles me somethin' fierce:




Look, what can I tell you but that this game is pretty nice? It's not a major revolution or revelation in RPG design, but it's good at what it wants to do, and that's worth something. It very clearly wants to be about superheroes doing superhero things quickly and easily so you can focus on the story and the fun and not have to worry overmuch about the rules. There's a bit of granularity, but note that it's in favor of your narrative. And it looks to me like it works just fine at that. Solid.

More than that, I think it'd be pretty damn good for other kinds of action/adventure gaming - all it really takes to re-flavor it for, say, modern mercenary action or space opera or fantasy is to change up Keywords and the scope of Powers. You might have to kit-bash a more robust magic system if you want to go to FRPG Town with it, but what's a blaster rifle but a Power with damage rating and a "Gadget" Keyword? 


I mean...that's up to you. The PDF is currently $3.95 on DriveThru RPG, and I have it on good authority that a print version is forthcoming real soon now. At a time when some games cost upwards of fifty bucks, only give you so much of what you expect them to be about, and ping you for special gimmick dice, Cindy's letting you get away with highway robbery. 

As for support, well, there's a companion volume on the way, and there's a Facebook group dedicated to Four-Color Heroics and they've already produced some cool stuff. You can dip in and get some and share your own. It's a good time.