For television, the Nineties were the age of syndication. Streaming and the thousand-channel universe were still just beyond the horizon, but cable channels and local stations had time to fill. First run syndicated series filled in the hours, including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess.
Hercules started as a series of TV movies with Kevin Sorbo as Hercules and Anthony Quinn as Zeus. After the TV movies were successful, the series was greenlit. During the first season, Lucy Lawless made several appearances, including as Xena in several episodes. The popularity of the character led to a spin-off series. While Hercules and Xena had their own sidekicks – Iolaus, played by Michael Hurst, and Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor, respectively – the two shows shared common supporting characters. Salmoneus, played by Robert Trebor, and Autolycus, played by Bruce Campbell, among them.
Neither series felt restricted by history; for fans, this was a feature, not a bug. Myths were used as inspiration for episodes. The Greek gods were given new personalities, though ones that fit with known mythology. Zeus was an old man, regretting his wilder youth. Aphrodite, played by Alexandra Tydings, was a Valley Girl, at times oblivious of her effect on mortals. Ares, especially as played by Kevin Smith on Xena, was charming, but that was a veneer over seething destructive rage. Hercules and Xena both lasted six seasons. Later seasons included the occasional episode in modern times, with Hercules taking on the name Kevin Sorbo and acting on a TV series about his legendary journeys, while Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer (Ted Raimi) were reincarnated. With Sam Raimi in charge of the production, even the car, the one that has been in every movie he’s made since The Evil Dead, made appearances.
The setting seemed ideal for tabletop roleplaying. Thus, West End Games, publisher of Star Wars The Roleplaying Game, picked up the license and published the Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game in 1998. At that point, WEG had been successful with the Star Wars license, using a mechanic known as the D6 system. The system first appeared in the licensed Ghostbusters RPG, then was refined for Star Wars. WEG’s success is such that Lucasfilm is still using the company’s sourcebooks*.
So, when WEG released Hercules & Xena, the game was available in two forms. The first was a single book in full colour including photo stills from the series. The second was a boxed set that included the book and added a second book for game masters plus adventures to get players going and a set of the special dice used. These dice were six-sided, but instead of pips or numbers, they had appropriate markings. Five of the dice had two hydra heads and four chakrams while the sixth, meant to be the wild die, had one hydra head, three chakrams, one Eye of Hera, and one Thunderbolt of Zeus.
WEG modified the D6 system, using the d6 Legends mechanic. Instead of adding up the numbers that showed up on the dice, players just had to count successes. With the included dice, successes were chakrams, after Xena’s preferred weapon. Hydrae were failures. With the wild die, the Thunderbolt of Zeus was counted as a success and then allowed the player to roll the die again. The Eye of Hera cancelled a success and allowed the GM to introduce a complication if so wanted. The system provided for cinematic action, just like the shows the game is emulating. The RPG provided for specialties based on what was seen in the shows, including Xena’s pinch, Hercules swinging Iolaus around to hit opponents, and Hercules’ chest stomp. If a move wasn’t included, there was enough information to create it.
Mechanics, though, aren’t the only way to provide the tone, though they help. The game doesn’t require much bookkeeping; the GM sets a target difficulty and the players attempt to beat it with their skill dice roll. Character creation is quick – spend twenty-four dice among the eight attributes, then spend ten dice among skills and specialties, purchase equipment, and that’s it. The main book even helps with describing a number of different types of characters, from warrior to priestess to chronicler to entrepreneur and the suggested attributes and skills for them. Players are also not limited to creating human characters. Centaurs, nymphs, and satyrs are all possibilities for characters.
The game itself is written as if it was a set of scrolls written by Salmoneus and found only recently. The writing is such that it is possible to hear Robert Trebor’s voice while reading, and includes a few wink-nudge moments, just like the two TV series. The example of play in the main book, despite not featuring any of the characters from either shows, could easily have been in an episode. The overall presentation does bring out the setting of Hercules and Xena. The GM’s book, Scroll of the Ancient World, includes tips on how to role play the gods, from Aphrodite’s Valley Speak to Hades’ dark brooding.
The game did have some problems. The main book wasn’t enough alone to run the game; it was missing key sections, especially on how combat worked, though the base mechanic was detailed enough to let players figure it out. Starting characters were nowhere near the competency of the characters from the show, including Joxer. The GM’s book had suggestions on how to start players with experienced characters, but even then, they wouldn’t come close to Gabrielle or Salmoneus. The main book, though, did include stats for the main characters in both series. This was also a complaint with the Star Wars RPG. The game does include the stats for the main and recurring characters, though, allowing players to take on their roles.
The core rules also hinted at a number of planned supplements that would expand the game, allowing for greater flexibility. However, WEG’s parent company, a shoe importer, ran into financial problems. The importer pulled funds from WEG to remain afloat before filing for bankruptcy. WEG could not sustain itself with the loss of cash and wound up closing, losing all of its licenses. Hercules & Xena was the last RPG published under the WEG name, with later game releases done in partnership with other companies.
Licensed role playing games need to balance playability with accuracy to the source. A good core mechanic is a start, but the presentation needs to maintain the tone of the original. The Hercules & Xena RPG has both. The system is solid, having been refined with other games, and the writing brings out the details that drew fans into watching both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
* Dave Filoni has mentioned in commentaries for Star Wars: The Clone Wars that several designs for equipment have come from The Star Wars Source Book published by WEG.