Games of Futures Past
There’s no doubt about it: the Marvel Universe has gone through quite a lot of changes during the last decade or so. Characters have come and gone, super hero teams have disassembled, reassembled or changed their rosters and there’s even been a civil war that shook the foundations of the world for a while. With so much stuff happening, there was a need for a new RPG that translated the current characters and their powers in game stats. Margaret Weis Productions took up the challenge, filling the void that was left after Marvel decided to cancel its own RPG, Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game (2003) after they found out it wasn’t able to outsell Dungeons & Dragons, even though the sales figures were excellent compared to any other roleplaying game.
This reviewer still fondly remembers Marvel Superheroes (Advanced Game) by TSR. It was first published in 1984, with the expanded edition following close on its heels in 1986. Marvel Superheroes used something that was nicknamed the ‘FASERIP’ system, an abbreviation of the 7 Attributes in the game (Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition and Psyche). It was a very well-researched game that used a great table, different colors to represent levels of success and an ingenious way to categorize Powers and Attributes, dividing them up in different categories: Shift 0 (0), Feeble (average score of 2), Poor (average of 4), Typical (6), Good (10), Excellent (20), Remarkable (30), Incredible (40), Amazing (50), Monstrous (75), Unearthly (100), Shift X (150), Shift Y (200), Shift Z (500), Class 1000, Class 3000, Class 5000 and Beyond, with especially the latter 4 and often even 6 or 7 categories usually reserved for intergalactic beings. It was a great, intuitive system, except for one thing: with all of the damage and defenses being fixed, one always dished out exactly the same damage and oftentimes villains or heroes weren’t even able to scratch their foes because of the fact that their fixed damage was lower than their opponents’ fixed defenses.
TSR later issued the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, which used the SAGA System that had been conceived for the underestimated Dragonlance: Fifth Age RPG. It used 96 custom-made cards instead of dice and the characters were all based on 4 Abilities rated 1 through 30, but the rules were left too vague in some places, which many players found confusing.
Marvel then took matters in its own hands by coming up with the Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game, which featured a diceless mechanic based on the allocation of energy (or effort) represented by ‘red stones’. As already stated, the company expected an unrealistic amount of sales and cancelled the game soon after the basic rulebook was released.
Enter Margaret Weis Productions, which decided to adapt its acclaimed Cortex System to the Marvel Universe. However, instead of basing Marvel Heroic Roleplaying on the generic rulebook that was released a while ago or instead of making the new RPG compatible with earlier efforts such as the now-discontinued Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, Serenity or Supernatural, the rules went through quite a lot of changes before they were considered ‘right’ for a superhero game based on the Marvel comics.
Even though Smallville was adapted quite heavily to a unique style of play that suited the series quite well, all of the other Cortex games (including the simplified Leverage) have used 6 Attributes: Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality and Willpower. Marvel Heroic Gaming, however, ditches all Attributes in favor of a much simpler, narrative style of gaming and we’re not really sure if that was the right way to go…
Marvel Heroic Gaming: Datafiles
First off, allow us to make one thing clear: this game looks beautiful. The makers definitely benefit from the great artwork provided by Marvel and ably directed by Jeremy Keller. This is a great book to look at, both as far as the drawings and as far as the layout are concerned, and with 234 pages of full-color delight in your hands, the expectation bar for first-time readers is set very, very high.
The book starts off with a foreword and a sample Datafile, followed by an explanation of the dice types used. Margaret Weis is still allergic to anything remotely resembling a D20, though, and so the game only uses 5 dice types: D4, D6, D8, D10 and D12.
Each character has 3 Affiliations, which describe if (s)he is at his or her best Solo, with a Buddy or in a Team. Unfortunately, there’s no way not to prioritize, as there’s only a D6, a D8 and a D10 to allocate to each Affiliation. This means there’s absolutely no way to simulate that a given hero or villain is just as effective on his own or in a team. Obviously, this is an effort to keep game balance, but it feels like too much of a constraint, limiting your options in the game.
All characters also have several Distinctions, which are snapshots of their personality traits, backgrounds, attitudes or catchphrases. These can be just about anything, from ‘I Don’t Have Time For This’, ‘Tactical Genius’ and ‘Uncompromising’ (Cyclops) to ‘Hotheaded Hero’, ‘Never Grows Up’ and ‘Shameles Flirt’ (Human Torch).
Next up are powers, which are arranged in one or more Power Sets. Each Set groups together powers that have the same origin, such as Iron Man’s Powered Armor (grouping together Cybernetic Senses D6, Superhuman Durability D10, Enhanced Reflexes D8 and Superhuman Strength D10) and Weapons Platform (consisting of Missiles D6, Supersonic Flight D10 and Repulsors D8). Most of the powers are left purposefully vague, leaving the Storyteller and the players to add in the blanks, usually based on their knowledge of the hero or villain they’re playing. This is a problem, since it is obvious that Mister Fantastic’s D10 Stretching, for example, works in a very different way than Carnage’s Stretching. Let’s take Elemental Control, which is a general moniker for Air Control, Cosmic Control, Darkforce Control, Earth Control, Electric Control, Fire/Heat Control, Gravity Control, Ice/Cold Control or any other type of energy one can come up with. No rules distinction is made between any of these types of control, leaving Storytellers with a general description only. The system is remarkably flexible, allowing for ‘Complications’ that can mirror just about any effect, but you really need to know the characters in order to be sure what they can do with each power. When you’re used to playing the Hero System, Fuzion or even Mutants & Masterminds, where powers are so well-defined that they’re virtually impossible to misinterpret, this is a major worry.
Another problem with powers is their very limited effect range. All Powers use either a D6, a D8, a D10 or a D12, allowing for only 4 levels of Power. In the Basic Game, Armor, Beast, Iron Man, Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, Sentry, Spider-Man and Spider-Woman all have the Power Superhuman Strength (D10). This may be cutting it too close for a lot of gamers and comic fans, as many of us love to compare statistics and discuss who is the stronger hero, etc. Compare this to the virtually unlimited range in games like Hero System and Mutants & Masterminds and you quickly realize more could have been done to distinguish one character from another, especially since Attributes don’t exist in this game.
Every Power Set includes one or more special effects, but these are very general and only affect the way dice are rolled, the number of dice rolled or the die type rolled. Still, quite a lot of effects can be simulated with this, but again the rules aren’t able to express the difference between one special effect and another. For example, Area Attack allows a character to add a D6 and keep an additional effect die for each additional target. It works exactly the same way, no matter if you’re playing the Human Torch or the Invisible Woman.
All Power Sets also come with at least one Limit, such as Conscious Activation, Gear or Mutually Exclusive. Only 7 Limits are provided, but they seem to cover most of the bases.
All Powers, Special Effects and Limits are listed as ‘examples’. There’s no exhaustive list, allowing the Watcher to come up with his or her own descriptors. However, there’s no way to create your own hero (or villain, for that matter). Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is totally geared towards playing existing heroes, sometimes even in ‘troupe play’ (allowing the players to play several heroes, one after another, during a single gaming session). This is a glaring omission, since creating your own character not only is part of the fun for a great many gamers, it also allows everyone to avoid the annoyance and inconsistencies that invariably result when a player handles an established character very differently than the way that character would normally act. Luckily, it’s possible to download a Random Datafile Generator document from the Margaret Weis Productions website, which allows players to roll on a number of tables in order to create a character. The character creation is fast, but powers and the like need a lot of explanation in order to explain what can and can’t be done with them. Also, randomly rolled powers are only rated D8, D10 or D12, which further limits the range available.
Next up are Specialties, which are skills, like Acrobatic, Business, Combat, Mystic and Psych. These have an even more limited range than powers do, with all Specialties rated either Expert (D8) or Master (D10), even though the D8 can be substituted by 2D6 and the D10 by 2D8 or 3D6.
Lastly, characters are also defined by Milestones. Each of these has three progressively more significant levels, which grant 1, 3 or 10 Experience Points, respectively. For example, Wolverine has two Milestones: ‘…And What I Do Isn’t Very Nice’ and ‘Old Friends Old Enemies’. The first Milestone provides 1 XP if Wolverine first chooses to inflict physical stress in a Scene, 3 XP when another hero rebukes Wolverine for his violence or when Wolverine threatens another hero with violence and 10 XP when Wolverine kills someone or recovers from his berserker rage in front of innocents. They’re a nice way to add a roleplaying element to the rules, just as Distinctions are, even though they’re rather limited in scope.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Dice pools
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying uses narrative ‘Transition Scenes’ and more action-packed ‘Action Scenes’. During Action Scenes, characters can take an action or respond with a reaction. Attack actions are rolled against the Watcher’s dice pool, which is called the Doom pool. The character’s dice pool consists of:
• The appropriate Affiliation die, depending on whether the character is alone, acting with a buddy or within a team (this will always be a D6, a D8 or a D10).
• One Distinction. Players have the option of using the Distinction in a positive way and choosing a D8 or deciding that the Distinction is used negatively, which only adds a D4 to their dice pool, but also grants a Plot Point.
• The die for one Power from each of the Power Sets.
• One Specialty.
• One of the opposition’s stress or complication dice, if any. Stress can be physical, emotional or mental and represents damage or mental or emotional overload. When either one of these types of stress exceeds D12, the character is ‘stressed out’ and pretty useless for a while. Complications are usually the result of certain actions taking effect or obstacles. For example, entangling someone might add a complication of D10, while a foe standing on difficult ground might have a complication of D6 to deal with. Almost no examples are given, leaving the Watcher a lot of freedom, at the risk of ruling inconsistently if (s)he doesn’t write down what die he previously assigned to what kind of Complication.
• One asset, if any. An asset is a brief, situational advantage, usually created by using the effect die of an action. For example, if Kitty Pride manages to crack an opponent’s firewall, she can create a temporary ‘Compromised Security’ asset equal to her effect die.
• One Push Die (1 Plot Point grants an extra D6), stunt (basically a push die connected to one of a character’s Power Sets or Specialties, which grants a D8 instead of a D6, or a D10 if the Watcher rolled a 1 on one of his dice, which is called an ‘opportunity’) or resource (a professional contact, equipment or some kind of knowledge connected to a Specialty during a Transition Scene), if any.
Players can then send Plot Points in order to change their pool in a number of ways and roll the dice, setting aside ‘opportunities’ (any dice that come up as 1’s). Out of the remaining dice, they add two dice together to generate a total and pick one die as their effect die. The Watcher usually rolls the dice out of his doom pool – which is similar to the players’ dice pools, but works slightly differently. If the player beats the Watcher’s total, the action succeeds at an effect equal to the effect die type (not the exact roll).
Plot Points are very important, as they can be used while generating the dice pool to add a push die, an extra power or Distinction beyond the single power or Distinction used or a D8 (or D10) stunt die. Players can also activate certain special effects by spending a Plot Point or add one of their stress dice, but this also steps up the stress die after the roll. For example, if Captain America sees the Statue of Liberty is being taken down, this may enrage him, causing him D8 emotional stress. He can use this extra D8 and throw his anger in his next attack, but this creates even more stress, leaving him with D10 emotional stress afterwards. If he exceeds D12, it’s game over for Cap.
Plot Points can also be spent on results. A PP can be used to add an extra die from the original roll to the total if any dice are left, to keep an extra effect die, to activate an opportunity (a 1) rolled by the Watcher, to activate certain special effects, to use an effect die from a reaction roll (for example, as a riposte) or to change stress to another type.
Obviously, this system is pretty innovative and allows for a lot of options. It promotes tactical playing and certainly adds a level of depth and strategy to the game, while also having the benefit of being interpretable in a multitude of different ways without necessarily needing rules for every eventuality. However, the number of dice in a pool and the limited range of the powers and Specialties also means there aren’t enough differences between the characters. This evens the playing field a little bit too much, allowing for minor characters to beat major league players too easily, for example. If Powers and Specialties would add more dice than just one and if a wider range had been used (for example, D4 up to D20), a lot of these problems would have been solved. If the Attributes from other Cortex games had been kept, that would have added flavor and more variety as well. As it stands now, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying looks great and offers a lot of promise, but its innovative rules system is inherently flawed and might not please all comic or RPG fans. Most of us like our characters diverse and unique, and most of us like clear differences between attributes, skills, powers and more.
Adventures are called Events in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. They’re broken down in ‘chapters’ that mirror comic book sensibilities, such as Acts, Action Scenes and Transition Scenes. The Event provided in the basic rulebook mirrors the Breakout story in the first 6 issues of New Avengers and the separately published Events all mirror known Marvel comic stories as well. This is unfortunate, as players who already know these stories might not be particularly challenged, surprised or enthusiastic about playing through scenes they know will be featured in the story. It would be nice if Margaret Weis Productions adds more options for newly-generated characters and starts to publish unique Events that don’t mimic what’s already out there. Please, guys?