Watching the Watcher: GM Constraints in MHRPG

Cam Banks said this on Twitter:

I’ve had people question me why the Watcher doesn’t just have “full GM powers” in #MarvelRPG. Reason: Constraints are good.

As someone who’s just recently started running a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign ((Or maybe mini-campaign, depending on how you define such things. What I’m doing is running the Civil War event.)), this was kind of enlightening for me. I had been noticing that being a Watcher in MHRPG was qualitatively different than being a GM in a lot of other games, and hadn’t yet put my finger on exactly why.

And there it is: constraints.

Now, I’m a firm believer in Cam’s statement that constraints are good. Constraints can focus a play experience in a very particular direction, and dealing with constraints can help foster creativity as you try and fit what you want into the framework you’re using. The first aspect of that leads to consistency and the second to variety, the combination of which produces what we want in most narratives: something that is both inevitable and surprising ((What this means when you unpack it is primarily that we want things that catch us off-guard but remain internally consistent and do not strain our suspension of disbelief. I could – and have, when I was in university – go into great depth on this one subject, but it’s not really all that interesting. It’s just a good principle to keep in mind when working on any sort of narrative.)).

There are three main constraints on Watchers in MHRPG ((There may be more, and more subtle ones, but these are the three big ones that I’ve spotted so far. Scene definition as either Action or Transition may be another, but I’m as yet unconvinced of that, so I’m leaving it off the list. )) : open rolls, the doom pool, and the initiative system.

Open Rolls

What I mean by this is that every roll the Watcher makes happens right in front of the players. The players get to watch you build your dice pool – which works by pretty much the same method they use ((The only exception is using the doom pool instead of plot points.)) – and then they see you roll the dice, set aside the ones, and pick your dice for the total and the effect. It all happens right out in the open. Why is this a constraint? Well, because one tool in a GM’s toolbox is fudging rolls ((And yes, there are massive arguments over whether fudging rolls is a good idea or a bad idea. I will say that I find it a useful tool in some games, mainly to help control pacing.)), and with everything happening out in the open, you can’t get away with that.

Players get to see the dice rolls, and can do the math as easily as you can, so you can’t cheat to make things harder for them. On the other hand, you can’t cheat to make things easier for them, either. HackMaster has ((Or at least had; I haven’t looked at any of the new editions.)) a rule that states, “Let the dice fall where they may,” meaning that the GM should not be fudging rolls, and should let the dice decide if the characters live or die.MHRPGdoesn’t usually have life-or-death situations resolved by a single roll, but the concept of letting the dice decide is firmly enforced by the fact that they are rolled out in the open.

Now, there are still ways to manipulate the result a little bit, mainly by spending dice from the doom pool, but it becomes very obvious if you’re doing that. I’ll talk a little more about that next.

The Doom Pool

Lots of games give mechanical currency to players, allowing them to affect the results of dice rolls. Fate points, action points, luck points – in MHRPG, they’re plot points. Nothing all that new about that, though the game gives a number of interesting ways to use them, and gain them. Unlike most other RPGs, in MHRPG, the Watcher gets some mechanical currency as well, in the form of the doom pool.

This lets the Watcher manipulate the rolls much like players do, under the same sorts of constraints – the doom pool is currency that gets spent and earned in a manner very similar to ((And intertwined with.)) the way characters get plot points. One of the cool things about this is that it takes the place of fudging rolls as a tool for pacing and shaping the drama, but it happens out in the open, and isn’t cheating, because it happens completely within the mechanical framework of the rules.

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about using the doom pool is that, when you invoke it to mess up the players in a big way, they tend to blame themselves for letting the doom pool grow as high as it did. When players see you spending doom dice to mess them up, it’s a fair cop. And when they see you deliberately not spending doom dice, they get even more worried, because you’re obviously saving up for the dreaded 2d12 you need to end the scene, which usually doesn’t happen in the players’ favour.

The Initiative System

I’ve written about the initiative system in brief in previous posts. This post by Fred Hicks does the best job of describing the intricacies and subtleties of the initiative system ((One aside, here. I have found that, so far, many of the action scenes only go between one and three rounds. This makes it especially powerful to be the last character acting at the end of the first round, as long as you have allies that you can then tap to start a chain at the start of the second round. In a lot of cases, if you manage that, there won’t be a third round, ’cause you’ve already won.)). In brief, it turns play sequence into a tactical minigame, rather than a random determination. And it puts the Watcher on exactly the same footing as the players. Again, this means that you can’t fudge things, tweaking the initiative order in secret – but you can do some pretty hefty tweaking out in the open, right in front of the players. And it’s not anything they can’t do, themselves, so it’s not really cheating.

The Results of Constraint

These three constraints work together to produce a very specific play experience – one where the Watcher gets to feel like a player in his interactions with the rules. Normally, the GM kind of sits above the rules, and decides when and where to apply them for best effect. You can do that in MHRPG, too, but if you accept the constraints as written, you instead get down into the trenches on even footing with the players.

Why is that good? Not for the obvious reason of balance. I don’t believe balance between GM and players is really possible ((Or all that desirable.)). And the game does a good enough job of making the various mechanical pieces balance against each other using the dice pool mechanic, so that’s not really the issue.

It’s good because it’s fun. It’s good because it lets you play as hard as you can in an adversarial role when it’s time for the villains to act, without feeling like you need to keep anything in check. The constraints and openness mean that, if you pull out the stops and your villain completely trashes a hero, the players start to fear the villain and not the Watcher. They know you played it fair ((And I believe fairness is a very different thing than balance. Fairness, and the perception of fairness, is vital in building trust between GM and players.)), and just flat-out beat their characters.

It’s also a lot of fun because you are bound by the same sorts of triumphs and reversals that make the characters’ lives interesting. Roll enough ones, and even Dr. Doom is gonna have a bad day. It’s surprising, you’re stuck with it, and the player gets to have a moment of awesome that none of you were expecting, as he or she narrates what amazing thing the character did to pwn Doom. And when you roll amazingly well and the player rolls poorly, you get that same opportunity.

A friend once said to me that she felt GMing and playing in an RPG were, in a lot of ways, two different hobbies, and there’s some truth to that. Certainly, in most traditional games, the GM finds enjoyment in different things than the players do. With this sort of constraint system in place on the Watcher, you really get the best of both worlds – all the fun world-building, adventure-making, villain-playing good stuff that GMs usually get along with the dice-manipulation, hail-mary-throwing desperation, surprising reversal and triumph joy of being a player.

Both flavours of fun in one tasty game.

Minneapolis Marvel

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Launch Party

I’ll be running a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Launch Party on Saturday, March 3, 2012, at Imagine Games and Hobbies, starting at 1:00 pm. If you’re interested in trying the game, you can sign up at the store.

It may have escaped your notice ((This is sarcasm.)), but I’m a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to games ((My group has coined the phrase “game-whore” specifically to describe me.)). So, when Cam Banks announced that he was going to be running a launch party for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying at The Source in Minneapolis, it seemed like a good idea to plan a road trip ((I’ll be honest. The launch party was more an excuse for a road trip than a reason for it. I’d been meaning to head down to Minneapolis for a weekend for some time, mainly to visit The Source, which is an amazing comic and game shop.)). I pestered my friends until one agreed to come with me, and off we went.

We left in the mid-afternoon on Friday, and made it down to Minneapolis around 11:00. Next morning, we started with breakfast at Hell’s Kitchen ((Food was very good. Home-made peanut butter was amazing.)), then walked around the downtown area ((It was very cold. But downtown Minneapolis has some very attractive buildings.)), hung out in Barnes & Noble, grabbed some lunch, and headed out to The Source to be there early.

The launch party started at 2:00, so we had about an hour to browse the dense and tempting shelves of the store. I have to say, this is THE place to go for hard-to-find, out-of-print games. And their graphic novel selection is overwhelming.

So, game time rolled around, and we wound up with two tables of gamers. I was at Cam’s table with my friend, three local gamers, and Cam’s nine-year-old son ((I have to say, the nine-year-old’s unbridled excitement and enjoyment was really pretty cool to have at the table. It’s also a good indication that, while the system has some neat complexities hidden in it, it’s not a complicated system to play.)). Our team wound up being Black Widow, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel, Captain America, Daredevil, and Spider-Man ((That was me.)).

I’m not going to talk too much about the adventure – it’s the first act of the Breakout mini-event included in the basic game, and is being sent out with the launch party packages, so I want to avoid spoilers. That said, here are some interesting moments from the game:

  • Cap gathering up a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to help him out, then losing most of them to something nasty in the dark.
  • Black Widow quelling a mob with a little creative threatening.
  • Ms. Marvel saving a helicopter from crashing into the river, then using it as a weapon.
  • Daredevil and a villain in a tug-of-war over Foggy Nelson, with Daredevil taking emotional stress.
  • Iron Man and a villain trading energy blasts back and forth.
  • Spider-Man making a bad roll, getting in trouble, and gaining a fistful of Plot Points, because that’s how Spider-Man’s life goes.

The game was fun. It went kind of slow, because Cam was the only one at the table familiar with the rules, but I can see it moving quickly and, more importantly, flowing well after a bit of a learning curve. The action scene was full of interesting things going on, and not all of them were staged by the Watcher ((Which is what the GM is called in this game.)).

The core mechanic is familiar to people who have played other Cortex Plus games, like Smallville or Leverage. You assemble a dice pool and roll against someone else’s ((Usually the Watcher.)) dice pool. There are a few little quirks to the system, like choosing an effect die and using your Plot Points, that add a bit of tactical thinking to the mechanics, but it’s all pretty straightforward.

The thing that really stood out in my mind – and afterwards in conversation with my friend – was that the game is built to create the kinds of superhero moments that you see in comics almost automatically. This is because, in assembling your dice pool, you are making decisions about how your character is trying to achieve his or her intent, bringing in different aspects of character, different powers, and different skills. So, mechanically, it makes a difference whether Spidey is sling-shotting himself at a villain with his webs or just straight-up punching the bad guy. And, narratively, the dice you pick to roll give you a good idea of what exactly you’re doing in the scene.

What it comes down to is that playing Spider-Man feels like playing Spider-Man, both from a mechanics and a flavour point of view. And this, I think, is a huge strength for the game.

There’s a lot of smart design work that underlays that feeling ((I’m not going to get into a lot of specifics, here. I’ve only played one session, and haven’t actually had a chance to read the rules, yet, so all I can do is talk about the little bit I’ve seen. A lot of that is lacking context, so I’m going for generalities to avoid giving the wrong impression of things.)). The way dice categories are broken down, for example, are exceedingly clever, modeling different types of characters very well using a single system, and providing a clear, sensible structure for assembling dice pools. The experience point system encourages character arcs over defeating villains. The turn sequence favours thinking of the team and planning the next move and using team-up, fastball-special-style tactics. The ability to add and remove things from the environment through either Plot Points or character actions makes for fluid, creative, exciting combats.

All in all, it may ((I only say “may” because it was a small taste of the game, and without having read the rules, I can’t be sure how much of the good stuff is in the game, and how much was the result of Cam’s GMing.)) be the best super-hero system I’ve played in.

After the game, we managed to get a table at Solera for tapas ((The food was very good. The dates were amazing. The service was absolutely phenomenal.)). Then back to the hotel for sleep, and into the car for the trip home.

So, that’s the story of our road trip to Minneapolis to play Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. I’m really looking forward to getting a chance to read the complete game, and to run my own launch party on March 3.

Thanks to Cam for the great time playing this game, and thanks to the rest of the players in Minneapolis for being so friendly and welcoming.


I forgot to mention that I also got a chance to meet Jeremy Keller there, art director for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and author of Technoir (among other things), and tell him how much I liked his game. He, in turn, said some nice things about my blog. So, thanks, Jeremy!