||Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game
by Margaret Weis Productions
The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game is a new roleplaying game that departs significantly from the more typical style of games that have been released over the years. It uses a modification of the Cortex system designed by Margaret Weis Productions, but with some significant differences. The Cortex system is used with a number of other games, including Supernatural, Smallville, and Leverage. To play you need dice from d4 to d12, – preferably three to four of each. It would also help to have tokens or counters to keep track of plot points, and a notepad or post-its to keep track of advantages (assets) and disadvantages (complications) over the course of a session.
Disclosure: I was given a review copy of the game by Margaret Weis Productions.
MHRG is a flexible, open game system. Crafting a character is more about making the character you want to play, rather than being limited by a random creation system or a point-generated system. The game also does away with attributes and detailed skill lists, and removes a lot of the complication which would normally go into creating a hero. Instead of fixating on the more mundane aspects of a character sheet – things you would add to a character “just in case” or that would make sense but never be used – the game emphasizes only what stands out about your character.
The first step in creating a character involves knowing how well the hero interacts with others. Is she a team player, does she work best with a partner or sidekick, or does she prefer to act by herself? These three traits are assigned a die value, which indicates where her strengths lie. Even if you choose solo as her greatest strength, she can still work with a team – it just means that from time to time you’ll want her to do her own things, separate from the group, but still helping the group overall. Teams do split up from time to time, and it is during these times your character will shine.
The second step is to decide her distinctions. You must choose three traits which define who your character is. Distinctions are used to separate your character from other heroes, and act as a reminder about who she is. When you play to your character’s distinctions, you gain a die bonus when you roll. If you ignore your distinction, you don’t get the die – and you are also missing out on generating Plot Points which can be spent to help your character later. These distinctions may be a theme (with great power comes great responsibility), or an occupation (news reporter), or it may be a characteristic (stunning good looks, billionaire philanthropist playboy). It can even be a catch phrase that the character uses (It’s clobberin’ time!).
The third step involves filling out one or two power sets. Each power set helps define a theme for your hero’s powers, and you can choose whether or not to use one or two sets. Each set is then filled with the powers that you think helps define that aspect of your hero’s abilities. For example, you may have a hero that has gone through a secret government program that has injected something into your system. The training provided, the powers provided by the serum, and any equipment which came with being an agent are all one “set”. If the hero also happened to be a mutant, this can provide a second “set”, defining her mutant abilities.
The major difference between this game and other roleplaying games is that you can choose as many powers as it takes to make your “set”, and you can choose what level to have these powers at. There is no costs associated with your powers, and the only limit is what the game master sets. If the game master thinks your character is viable, then you’re good to go. This means that MHRG allows you to make characters from any level, from the street-tough hero who has no true powers and a handful of gadgets, to cosmic level heroes who surf between the stars. The power list is not too extensive, and you can theoretically adapt anything that is there into making the character you want to play.
Once your powers are set, you should select some SFX for your hero. SFX are “mini powers” or adjustments to your existing powers. SFX can represent smaller powers or sub-abilities which are not significant enough to warrant being a full power, or can provide advantages or represent aspects of your powers which are not normally used. For example, your shield-bearing hero can normally deflect attacks with the shield, but might also throw it to take out people. Normally, only one person might be hit at a time, but as an SFX you can take down a group of opponents, and the SFX will provide the tools needed to make this possible. “Group Attack” is not enough to warrant being a power, but as an SFX it fits perfectly. Alternatively, going into a “Berserker Rage” is not really a power, but as an SFX it can provide bonuses to the hero’s attacks, making it a good SFX as well.
With the SFX out of the way, the character should have two limits. Limits are flaws, but they work somewhat differently than in other games. Limits provide the character with Plot Points which allow her bonuses to use later on, or which can add something to the game, helping to set up for the big finish at a later point. For example, a character who’s powers “shut down” from exposure to a specific substance will get a Plot Point when this happens – and it is most likely that you will do this voluntarily, rather than waiting for the game master to do it – because being hampered makes the game interesting, and provides you with the edge later on. Limits can be triggered by the game master as well, and if he does it, you still get the benefits that the Limit supplies.
The fourth step in character creation is choosing one or more specialties. These are similar to a skill list, but much more restricted. Instead of a huge list of skills, this provides a smaller list of things your hero may excel in. You are not expected to put a value to every specialty in the game – instead you’re expected to pick a handful that represents your hero’s greatest talents – the things she’s awesome at. When your specialty applies to your actions, you get to use the value of your specialty as a die.
Finally, you need to create one or two milestones. A milestone represents a mini story arc that you feel is an important part of the hero’s identity. This is something she’s invested in as part of the game, and that you want to introduce to the story as a whole. Each milestone is divided into three steps – and milestones are what is used to get XP in the game. The game master does not hand out XP for the adventure – the milestones in the game are what is used to get you XP – the adventure is used to give you opportunities to spend it. This means, if you want XP, you need to try to get your milestones into the game. In addition, each adventure has one or two milestones as well, and you can adopt these adventure-specific milestones for XP as well.
The lowest tier of a milestone is something pretty simple and straightforward. It almost acts as an introduction to who the character is, and the theme that you wish to pursue. If your hero is an android, and this is not immediately apparent, having someone find out you’re an android for the first time could be the trigger for this milestone. This trigger grants 1 XP each time it comes up, and can come up multiple times in a single scene.
The second tier can be a point of contention with the character, something which adds a touch of drama or that can complicate either the hero’s life, or the life of those around her. For example, if there comes a huge debate about the rights of androids, and whether they should count as “people” or “property”, this can trigger the milestone. This trigger grants 3 XP, and can only come up once per scene.
The third tier is the finisher of the milestone, and represents the outcome of the story arc. This is where the life of the hero changes, whether for better or worse, or changes the lives of those around her. The android may embrace her android nature, forsaking all that is human, or she may utterly deny what she is, and embrace humanity instead. This is worth 10 XP, and ends the milestone.
Once a milestone has been concluded (whether in one adventure or over multiple adventures), it is removed from the character sheet, and another can take its place. If this was an adventure-specific milestone, it doesn’t carry over to other adventures normally – so if you want the 10 XP, you need to really push to get the conclusion of the milestone before the adventure is finished. A character can find herself in a whirlwind of drama and chaos, but walk out of the adventure with more than 40 XP under her belt from excellent roleplaying, while someone who isn’t invested in his hero or the adventure may walk out with a small handful of XP.
An interesting thing about MHRG is that experience points are used in a different way than other games. Yes, you can use XP to improve your character, but that isn’t the point to XP. After all, as you just saw, you can build the character you want to play – if you wanted your character stronger, you’d probably have built them stronger in the first place. Of course, you may have wished your character to start weaker – or the game master may have asked for the players to make the characters at the start of their careers, in which case your XP can be used to advance over time.
The more important aspect of XP is how it is used during a session. XP can be spent for Plot Points, which are then used to modify dice rolls and power SFX, but it is also used to invest in an adventure. XP is spent to create Events, which are dramatic outcomes which can be built into a scene by the heroes. Did the hero just defeat a villain during a scene? For 5 XP, that villain can be convinced by the hero to change his ways, allowing you to use the villain as a hero in a later adventure. The villain is “unlocked” as an additional character, usable by the players as a PC. For 10 XP, in a later scene in the same adventure, the villain can be called to aid the heroes in a time of need. The villain comes in, saves the heroes or provides assistance (played by the game master), and then leaves shortly afterwards. A hero may have a hidden base, and for 5 XP, just happens to have a gadget from the base which can be used right now. This provides a quick advantage (asset) that the hero can use – a die bonus for the next little while, so nothing that will break the game. XP can also be used to remove powers and replace them, buy new power sets, or make adjustments to your character as she evolves over time.
So, how does MHR play?
Admittedly, I’ve only ran two sessions. I’ve made a cheat sheet for the players, to help them get used to the game engine, but as a whole I’ll have to say, “very well”. It will take a little getting used to, but overall, I’m satisfied with how the game runs. Your heroes are just that ... heroes... and the game allows for any level of play. You have the means to evolve over time, refine your abilities, and grow as much as you feel is proper, but you also have the means to do other things, to add personal touches to the game. The system overall is very flexible, though it requires a little more work on the game master’s part than I am used to. I don’t tend to plan things ahead very far, but a good game master will need to set the milestones and distinctions for each adventure ahead of time, so that the players can make use of these. The other thing I am not used to is how open the game is. The game master is expected to roll openly, and the plot of each adventure is also expected to be open. The game master tells the players what the milestones are (which will provide some spoilers, most likely), and also is expected to describe openly what the outcome of any action done by the NPCs will be, so the players can decide whether to oppose it or not.
“Health” is also a foreign concept in this game. You have stress and trauma, which is divided into physical, mental, and emotional levels. The stress meter builds up, and when it hits maximum, the character is incapacitated, and anything overflowing moves into trauma – which is long term damage. A hero can shift stress from one trait to another, thus allowing for a “buffer” to be in place before the character is knocked out. Stress can heal relatively quickly, while trauma is a long-term thing. The general goal of a hero is to “stress out” an opponent, to quickly rack up stress of one sort or another, specifically to incapacitate the enemy. The system is well designed to allow for heroes and villains to battle each other in a dramatic fashion, choosing different avenues to attack. And both you and your opponent can use your own stress and each other’s stress as modifiers to help improve your odds. Are you stressed? You can use your stress die as a bonus for your roll – but the stress die escalates when you do. Is your opponent stressed? Well, this gives you a bonus die to use against them! Health is not an “all or nothing” thing in this game, and is just another tool that can be used to help make the adventure exciting.
While I do recommend this game, there are some flaws. First and foremost, the chapter divisions are awkward. The beginning chapter discussing how the game works was using terminology from later in the book – so it would address things I have not heard of. I had no idea what these terms are, or how the mechanics of them worked, and this proved to be a lesson in frustration. I had to jump back and forth between chapters as I worked through the opening section, so I could follow what was being said. This is a very strong negative for such a good game, because it will very likely frustrate new players and prevent them from ever playing. For someone new to roleplaying games, this is a fatal flaw, because they will have no idea what to do, and will not understand what is being presented to them.
I do recommend making a cheat sheet and going over the rules a few times. There are some concepts which take a bit of getting used to, and making a flowchart for how the dice system, plot point system, and XP system work will help everyone immensely. The cheat sheet I made took only one page, but covered everything I thought the players should know for any roll of the dice. Broken down this way, the system is fairly elegant, and its strengths are much more obvious. The system is good, you just need to be patient until you get the hang of it – and that was something I did with only two sessions.
My second complaint is the lack of villains for the game master to use. There is a single adventure, with only a small handful of villains. Most of the villains are second-stringers, but there are a few specific first-line villains to be used. The number of heroes to draw upon is also limited, and it is somewhat expected that the players will use these pre-generated characters for the adventure in the back. My group is more inclined to making our own characters, however, and the small selection of heroes made it a little more difficult to draw examples from for making our milestones, SFX, and distinctions. A larger sample pool would have been great, for villains and for heroes.
All in all, MHRG is a good game. The concepts behind it are strong, and the engine itself is also something I am particularly pleased with. The layout and lack of heroes and villains are a significant detraction from the game, but I think the game itself makes up for it.
Layout: 7/10 Good use of space, good text size.
Art: 7/10 Recycled from comics, but good choice of artwork.
Coolness: 9/10 Cool concept, excellent ideas.
Readability: 3/10 Problematic. Had to read two or three chapters at the same time to understand concepts.
Content: 4/10 Everything needed for the players, not as much for the game master.
Text: 6/10 Good font size, difficult to follow early in. Use of charts and examples were very helpful.
Fun: 8/10 The game itself is very fun to play, but takes a little bit to get used to.
Workmanship: 8/10 It is quite obvious that thought was put into this game, with an eye on the players.
System: 9/10 A very solid system, able to handle quite a lot.
[4 of 5 Stars!]