Last weekend, I got the chance to try running Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. I’ve already talked about playing the game, and about reading the game, so it seems like coming full circle to talk about what it was like to run it.
It was the launch party event at Imagine Games & Hobbies. I had brought in a sign-up sheet a couple of weeks previous, hoping to get a gauge of how much interest there was in trying the game. On Monday before the game, all eight slots1 were filled, and there were others expressing interest. I was lucky to get in touch with someone else who was willing to read over the rules and adventure and run a second table, so I expanded the available slots to twelve.
Well, when game day rolled around, we had eleven people signed up. And the other Watcher volunteer was hit by the murderous cold that’s been going around2. But, as is common for Saturday events, not everyone who signed up showed up to play. And one extra person who hadn’t signed up did show up to play. I wound up running a single table of seven players.
Everyone3 had fun with the game, and lots of cool things happened, and at least one person went and bought the .pdf immediately after the game, so I count the session as a success. That’s the short version of the review.
Here are some specific observations.
When you’re starting out, just learning the game and just teaching it to others, the first few rounds are going to be slow ((Especially if you’ve got a large group. Like, f’rinstance, SEVEN people. Just as an example.)). Resign yourself to that fact. There will be a discussion with every character on every action about what dice get added to the dice pool, how and when to spend plot points, how to determine your total, what your effect die means, and how the Doom Pool works. This will pretty definitely happen on each hero’s first action, almost definitely happen on each hero’s first reaction, and is likely to happen for each hero once or twice more as they try different things.
This is the learning curve of the game. As Watcher, you’ll go through it, too, but you’ll be muttering under your breath and looking at the rules when you do, rather than having someone else walk you through it.
But don’t sweat it. The way the game narrative works, and the turn sequence, even though each round will take a fair bit of time, players and characters are involved and enjoying most of it. I’m not going to say the round flies by, but there is enough interesting stuff going on that those who are not involved in a given action/reaction cycle will still be interested in listening to the cool things the dice mechanic tells you are happening. And, with the fact that all rolls are opposed, it’s quite possible that each hero will be the centre of the action twice in a round – once on his or her action, and once on a reaction to something a villain does.
Once the mechanic clicks for a player, you can see the lights go on behind the eyes, and things start to speed up. It’s still not a speedy game, round by round, but a lot more happens and changes in a round of MHR than in, say, D&D, so it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging at any point4.
Part of the GM’s job in any game is managing spotlight time for the characters: making sure everyone gets a moment to shine in play. MHR actually comes pretty close to automating distribution of spotlight time.This is the product of two things: the narrative nature of assembling the dice pool, and the brilliant turn sequence system.
Each turn, each hero gets the spotlight handed to him or her to do something cool. And building the dice pool – picking the dice you want from your various die categories – creates a narrative image of what your hero is doing. It’s pretty much guaranteed to be cool. You may even get to do this a couple more times during the game, as your hero reacts to a villain’s action.
In addition, the way the turn sequence works5, it’s primarily the players who are determining who gets the spotlight next. The game plays like a team-up comic book, with each hero getting his or her glamour spot, and then passing it on to another hero. It works wonderfully smoothly6.
The Doom Pool
This is such a fun mechanic. It does a lot to gamify a great deal of what used to be just GM whim, giving license to adjust dice rolls and otherwise “cheat” the players, all within a carefully defined and codified structure. It adds a little resource management mini-game to the Watcher’s job, but it does so in a way that removes other concerns that take up a GM’s attention.
Like what? Well, like deciding when to bump up the bad guy’s attack roll, and how to do that. By making the choices available dependent on the dice in the Doom Pool, and giving clear guidelines on how to spend them and how to regain them, the choices become much more focused and structured. I bump up the attack roll if I’ve got the dice in the Doom Pool to do so, and I’m not saving them for something specific.
Aside from this mechanical benefit, the way the Doom Pool grows and shrinks builds mounting tension into the game. The players can all see the dice in the Doom Pool, and they know that they’re going to get used for something nasty. Adding dice or stepping them up increases tension, and spending them gives a cathartic moment of tension relief. Really, it follows the peaks and valleys of a rising tension chart pretty well.
That is, if you use it properly. I found that I had a tendency to hoard the dice rather than spending them. This had a few problems:
- It cheated the players out of that cathartic relief moment when a die or two gets spent.
- It gave fewer opportunities for plot points to move to the players for adding spent Doom dice back into the pool.
- It made it hard to grow the size of the dice, because when you step a die up, you need to step up the lowest die in the pool.
- It reinforce the idea that the heroes’ best course of action was directly attacking the villains, because acting against the environment meant that I could roll an ungodly mitt-full of dice against them.
- It disadvantaged the villains, making them easier to take out, thus lessening the sense of peril in the session.
So, lesson hopefully learned: spend those Doom Pool dice and make the players wish you hadn’t.
The Cheat Sheets
The .pdf of the game7 comes with two cheat sheets: one for players and one for Watchers. I followed Cam Banks’s example – I printed them out and got them laminated. They are very handy tools.
The player sheet gives a basic rundown of the rules the players need to know: how to build your dice pool, how to use plot points, etc. The Watcher sheet is twice the size of the player sheet, and gives an overview of building Watcher dice pools, using the Doom Pool, and so on. It also has a little square on one corner marked Doom Pool where you can put the Doom Pool dice, letting the players keep track of how it’s growing. Below that is a list of lines where you can record the names of the villains and how much stress they’ve taken. This last I found incredibly handy. I used a dry erase pen on the laminated sheet, entering and erasing names and marks as needed.
The idea of the Watcher’s play mat instead of a screen actually speaks to an important point about the game that is subtle and easy to miss. You don’t want a screen because all rolls are opposed rolls, and should therefor be made in the open. The Doom Pool gives you your mechanic if you find you need to fudge a roll – well, I say fudge, but it’s not fudging in this system. It’s using the system as written to skew a roll as required, providing you’ve got the dice for it.
I strongly recommend spending the ten or fifteen bucks to get the play mat laminated. It’s very useful. The one thing I wish it had on it was a quick rundown of what the Watcher gets when he buys an opportunity from a player with a plot point. I just don’t know what I’d take off to fit that in.
An Important Rule to Remember
This is something I kept forgetting, and it’s not a good rule to neglect.
When you beat your opponent’s total by five, you get an extraordinary success. That lets you step up the effect die on your action. For every five points you beat the total, you can step up the effect die again, even going past d12.
Why is this so important? Because without this rule, you can’t stress a character out unless he or she already as a d12 of stress. Without this rule, the attack that really matters is the first attack, because that will determine how many more successful attacks you need to stress the target out. Hit him with a d8 of physical stress? Then you’ll need at least two more attacks, more likely three8 to stress the target out.
By remember and applying this rule, you give more reason for the players to spend plot points in order to increase their dice totals, because there’s more benefit to getting a high total. It makes the action less rigid and mechanical9, gives more options to the players, and creates some great moments for the take-out blows.
It also, incidentally, lets you one-shot a character. Had I remembered this in the game, Daredevil would have been able to talk the Sentry into joining the fray before the end of the scene.
One Last Tip
Most of the villain datafiles in the core book print out quite legibly on index cards. I ran the game at the launch party using my iPad for the rulebook, and printed out the actual adventure on paper so that I could scribble on the villain datafiles. Unfortunately, this led to me cluttering up my space with sheets of paper as I paged back and forth to the different datafiles. For the next time I run this10, I’m printing out the datafiles on cards. They’re still going to get shuffled and mixed, but they’ll take up much less space.
The game runs a lot more easily and smoothly than I had even hoped when I played it and read it. There is, to be sure, a learning curve for both players and Watchers, but it’s not all that severe. It starts slow, but there’s enough going on to keep people interested in more than just sitting and waiting for their turn. And the speed comes with practice, as with all things.
I’m really looking forward to running the game a second time to see how it goes with a little practice.
- The launch party event is set up for six players, but is really easy to scale, so I put in a couple of extra slots, figuring I could handle an eight-player table if need be.
- I did my time with it, and I know it’s a bad one. So I don’t begrudge him.
- Including me, and a few people who stopped for a couple of minutes just to listen in.
- Well, it hasn’t to me, anyway.
- I’m not going to go into detail about it here. Fred Hicks covered it in detail over on his blog, so go read that.
- Except that I need to be better about keeping track of which villains are up and around.
- And the .pdf package for the launch party.
- Target has d8 physical stress. If the next attack does less than a d12 stress, then the stress jumps to d10. Next attack will raise it to d12, and the attack after that stresses the target out. If the attack does a d12 stress, then the next attack stresses the target out. So, two or three attacks, and nothing can change that. Except this rule.
- The bad kind of mechanical.
- Which will be next Saturday for one of my regular game groups who wants to give the game a try.