Posts Tagged “Margaret Weis Productions”
So, I’ve got a group of players that I’m going to be running through the Civil War event for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, with original characters for all the players. We’ve had a character creation session, and two of the players have produced finished characters. The other two are dragging their feet a little bit, but I’m hoping that they’ll have their finished stuff to me soon.
Anyway, to make sure we kept the interest up, and to give the two players with finished characters a chance to try their characters out, and to give me a little more experience running the game, we decided to do a one-shot with the two finished characters.
Actually, that’s not quite the way it happened.
I was trying to prod the two players with unfinished characters into finishing off their characters, so I offered to run the first session on Friday night if everyone had their characters finished. The two without finished characters were unavailable for completely unrelated reasons, so I figured I’d go with a one-shot for the completed characters who could make it.
Now, while I wanted to get playing, and I wanted to encourage the unfinished characters to get finished, I didn’t want this to be seen as a punishment for those who weren’t done. So, I decided that, while I would award XP as usual in play, no XP would carry over to the campaign. It’s just the only way it seemed fair.
The set-up for the session was pretty simple. I was going to have either A.I.M. or Hydra steal a MacGuffin from NYU, where Volcanic teaches and lives. A tweet from Cam Banks gave me a better idea. He said:
I hope they feel overwhelmed right off the bat and turn it around in the 11th hour!
That gave me A PLAN! I decided that Hydra, with the aid of Mentallo, would steal the MacGuffin (a cylinder of dark matter that had been bombarded by cosmic rays ), but be ambushed by A.I.M. troopers before they could leave the building. A quick look at Google Maps showed me that the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics at NYU is about two and a half blocks straight down a street from Washington Square Park, so I thought it would be fun to have things move down there for the climax, where Madame Hydra was waiting to pick the Hydra troopers up in a Hydra sky car.
I started by telling the characters that they were at NYU, and asking them why. Jumpstart said that his character’s secret identity – a medical doctor and a scientist – was giving a talk there about the effects of cosmic radiation on brain structures, and Volcanic – who doesn’t have a secret identity, being made of lava and all – was listening to see if he could decipher any clues about how to change back into a human form.
The lecture was interrupted by the sounds of weapon fire outside in the main entry. Volcanic stuck his head out to see what was going on, providing a bit of a distraction for Jumpstart to switch into his costume. Outside the auditorium, our heroes were up on the mezzanine, looking down on the entry hall, which was dominated by a giant sculpture of an atom. A gang of A.I.M. troops had pinned down Mentallo and his Hydra henchmen, but Mentallo had mind-controlled a team of security guards, who were outflanking the A.I.M. folks. Add to that the panicking students, and things looked grim.
The good guys were a little intimidated by the big mess, I think, and didn’t know where to start. That didn’t stop them from wading in, though. Hydra took that opportunity to make a break for it, smashing through the plate glass windows despite Volcanic coating them with magma. A.I.M., still pinned down by the security guards, took hostages to try and escape.
There was some discussion at this point about pursuing Hydra before they got away, but the pair decided that keeping the hostages safe was the priority. They concentrated on the A.I.M. troopers and mopped them up before heading out to chase Mentallo and the canister down the street to Washington Square Park.
The battle at the park went pretty quickly, and very much in the heroes’ favour. They were getting the hang of using their elemental control powers, had established strategies for getting and using PPs, and each had a couple of assets to call on in an emergency. The bad guys got wrapped up in short order, and even Madame Hydra was snagged when her getaway vehicle got electrified.
I had planned for Madame Hydra to snag the canister and escape, with or without Mentallo and the troopers, but the heroes just beat me on that one. See, the second part would have been a Transition scene with the heroes tracking down where the canister was and assaulting a Hydra base – or A.I.M., if they had managed to snag it – and retrieving it before it could get used as a weapon. So, we ended early, and the bad guys all got hauled off to the Raft. I did make the point that this was pre-Breakout at that time, so I won’t have any questions if I use the villains again in the event.
Overall, the one-shot served its purpose – the players got the hang of their characters, I got more practice with the system, and everyone had fun. But no one was hitting their Milestone triggers in the game. I decided not to bring it up during play, but we talked about how important it is after the session wound down. It’s a change of perspective, making the characters decide when they earn XP, but with Milestones, there’s really no way for the Watcher to track the triggers for the characters. At least, not effectively.
I think the players are going to tweak their characters slightly based on how they played, but overall they were pretty happy with what they had built, and I thought they worked well, myself. For me, I got some insight into how to make a scene change location, some more familiarity with managing the doom pool, and some practice making the scene distinctions work for me. So, I call it a win.
We’re trying to set the first full session for September 28. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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It’s been a while, huh? Well, without running a regular game, I’ve had less to say than usual.
That’s changing now; this past Sunday, I got four of my friends together to create characters. We’re starting the Civil War event for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.
I gave the players the option, individually, to decide how they wanted to create their characters: pick a pregen, model another existing hero, use the Random Datafile Generator from Margaret Weis Productions, or model a hero of their own devising. Given the folks who opted to join the game, I was expecting about half to take a pregen, and the other half to model their own heroes. Turns out, all four wanted to create their own heroes from scratch.
MHR has a character creation system, but I found it a bit lacking for what I wanted to accomplish. See, one of the most important themes in Civil War is the rift it creates in the heroes of the Marvel universe. The whole brother-fighting-brother vibe. Using homebrewed characters can be problematic, simply because these characters don’t have the deep histories with the other characters of the Marvel universe. Or even with the other players’ characters.
I needed to fix that in order to get the most bang out of the event.
Smallville RPG, also from MWP, has an interesting character creation system that establishes all the types of relationships I need. And, as luck would have it, someone had already produced a version of the system for MHR. It’s very good, but it’s a little more structured in the assignment of powers and dice than I wanted to be, and more arbitrary in the relationships than I wanted, so I looked to another great game for ideas.
Dresden Files RPG builds relationships between characters in a wonderfully organic way, using the novels and the guest star roles. It creates history between the characters, and very rich relationships, but unless you throw in the entire city creation section, it doesn’t really tie the characters to other characters in the Marvel universe. And it felt counterintuitive to go through the city building if we wanted to play in the established continuity.
And so I wound up doing what I always seem to wind up doing; I kit-built a system using parts from both DFRPG and Smallville. I snagged the idea of the relationship map from Smallville, and the phased approach, including the novels, from DFRPG. The end result was a set of guidelines for building characters that would produce finished characters, with relationships both within the group and with iconic Marvel characters, and develop the characters in a more organic kind of way. You can see the results here.
That’s what I sent out to folks before the game, recommending that they read it over, as well as the MHR basic rulebook. When we got to the character creation session, I quickly realized that I had made the system too elaborate and structured for the time we had.
We ran through the concept, origin, and first appearance phases pretty much as written, though we didn’t use the relationship map quite as I had spelled out. The players were eager to add contacts with iconic Marvel characters, so they jumped all over it, leading to a pretty full map pretty early on. Seeing that I had enough information on there for purposes of this game, I backed off it.
With the last 45 minutes of our session, we walked quickly through the novel stages, and then called it a night. I sent the players home with some homework: put the finishing touches on their characters, send me their novels, and decide on a name for their group. I’m starting to get replies, and things look good.
And who are these new heroes?
- Volcanic, an NYU professor who took on the mantle of a volcano god to save Manhattan from annihilation.
- Jumpstart, an electric-powered speedster with a family connection to HYDRA, currently working for SHIELD.
- Mega Joule, an inner-city high school athlete gifted with powerful kinetic abilities and a drive to help other kids on the streets.
- The Doctor, chosen by the soul of the world to be the new shaman for the age.
And that’s where things stand. As soon as everyone gets their homework back to me, we’ll set up the first session of actual play. I’m looking forward to it.
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So, I’ve finished reading over the Civil War event book for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and was really impressed. It is, of course, a beautiful book, full of Marvel comic book art, and Jeremy Keller’s wonderful layout. But that’s only part of it. It really succeeds on three levels: as an adventure book, as a resource book, and as an instructional book for designing your own events.
The Civil War event in the comic books was a big, complex, involved affair, and I was initially skeptical about how it would translate to an RPG adventure. The main issue in my mind was the question of taking sides in the war. What do you do if part of the group wants to side with the pro-registration folks, and another part wants to side with the anti-registration folks?
Well, the folks who wrote this book saw that one coming, and offer extensive and helpful advice for how to handle things. They encourage talking about the possibility of player-vs.-player combat, and making sure everyone feels comfortable with it. Beyond that, they suggest using troupe play, with players trading off characters to make sure the players are always on the same side, whichever side that needs to be in the current scene. There’s also a lot of advice about how to run the various scenes in the game for different sides in the way – pro, anti, and undecided. Very solid, useful stuff.
The overall adventure is broken into 37 scenes, split into 3 acts. Not every scene is mandatory, and it’s assumed that Watchers will improvise any other scenes that are needed based on the actions of the players. Scenes are identified as Action (26) and Transition (11), but several of the scenes have notes about running them as the other type. In essence, the structure and scene choices offer not just a sequence of events in the larger story of the Civil War, but a toolkit to let the Watcher and the players develop and explore their own experience against the bigger backdrop.
The structure provided is not rigid, but is a useful default and starting point. There are a few defining scenes that I think are pretty important to make the game about the Civil War, rather than just normal superhero hijinks, but you don’t need to follow the default roadmap to get to them. The structure is loose enough to expand for Watcher-created, player-driven scenes, and to collapse to omit scenes from the book that don’t quite fit. And there’s plenty of fodder in the book to make it easy for the Watcher to improvise both action and transition scenes on the fly.
That said, you don’t have to play that loose with the structure. Following it step-by-step from the first scene to the last in order will give you a solid, exciting event, one that your players will talk about.
The only thing that I think is missing is from the Sourcebook section at the front of the book. This is where the events behind the Civil War, the factions involved, and so on, are described to give you context. It’s very complete, but there are a few story threads that run through the three acts, in various scenes, that I think could have been noted here. Things like the Atlantean vengeance squad, or the MGH trail – threads that wind through the other scenes and that the Watcher probably wants to keep track of. You don’t need anything big; just a quick list of the various story threads and the scenes that directly apply to them.
But that’s a pretty small quibble.
Y’know, this book is worth the price of admission just for the datafiles it contains. You get 32 full hero datafiles. You get 33 villain-style datafiles in the Friends and Foes section, any one of which can be converted to a whole hero datafile with about thirty seconds of work. And scattered through the rest of the book are 59 other datafiles, ranging from villains to average citizens, and 3 add-on power sets. A few of these are duplicates, but the vast majority are at least tweaked from other appearances, either in this book or in the basic game book.
And then there are the milestones. 22 milestones specific to this event – that is, not attached to hero datafiles – and lots of interesting unlockables. While this stuff is tailored to the Civil War event, it is easily adaptable to other events/adventures/characters.
One of the things I look for in a product is material that I, as a GM, can lift out and use with minimal work. This book has that in spades, and has an index just of the datafiles for good measure. Kudos!
Above and beyond anything else, this book is a master-class in designing for your ownMarvel Heroic Roleplayinggame. Want to see a stunning example of how to build an event? Look at this book. It’ll teach you the structure and flexibility you need. Want to find out how to handle a certain type of scene? Odds are there’s an example in here. Want to see how to put together a certain type of character or power set or milestones or unlockables or…
It’s all here. And the way it’s set out is accessible and instructive. Just reading this book, even if you never use any of the scenes or story, will make you a better Watcher. It is a stunning example of what to do with the game, and it is filled with smart ideas and interesting twists that show how the rules work in neat ways. In creative ways. Infunways.
If you plan to run MHR, I’m going to go so far as to say you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’ll make it all much easier and much better, both for you and your players. The adventure is good – very good – but the value of the book goes way beyond that.
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I’m going to be talking about the Breakout mini-event in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying rulebook. I’m going to be giving away more about things than in the previous act so, if you’re planning on playing the adventure, I’d say skip the Actual Play section.
You Have Been Warned!
A few weeks back, I got together with my gaming group to finish off our run through the Breakout mini-event in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying core book. Our first session had gone pretty well, and I was interested to see how the second act played out.
There were a number of very specific things I wanted to learn from running this second act:
- The first act is primarily one big action scene. I wanted to run the second act to see how the game handled stuff that wasn’t just face-punching.
- I wanted to see how the experience point system worked in play, and to do that, I really needed to run the second act.
- I wanted to gauge the learning curve. Everyone was pretty much up to speed at the end of the previous session, but the gap between sessions was pretty long, and I wanted to see how much of that mastery they had lost in the downtime.
- I wanted to see if I could speed up the action scenes so that players didn’t have to wait as long between their turns.
So, I brushed up on the act, gathered my MHR gaming kit, assembled my players, and away we went.
Our roster of New Avengers was:
- Black Widow
At the end of the previous session, Black Widow had determined that the breakout at the Raft was intended to free Karl Lykos, and that he had probably fled to the Savage Land. Further research at the start of this session turned up some mysterious blanks in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files on the Savage Land, specifically on one of their outposts there.
The team spent some time gearing up – that is, using the transition scene to create some Assets and Resources for themselves to use in the adventure. They came up with a couple of fairly standard things, like med kits, but also a device that could detect Karl Lykos’s unique mutant energy signature. The X-folks signed out a blackbird, and they flew off to Antarctica.
Shadowcat was piloting, and ran into the magnetic and meteorological anomalies that prevail in the Savage Land, and pretty much on cue, someone brought up the fact that no one ever lands in the Savage Land. They always crash. Kitty looked at me, and asked if she could roll to land the plane safely.
Now, in the adventure, the default action is that the plane lands safely, but then gets stomped by a T-Rex. I had intended to let that happen, but when a player asks to roll on something, that’s usually a signal that that moment matters to them, and as GM, you should do your best to make it a memorable moment. Given that reasoning, I let her roll against the Doom Pool, which was still at 2d6, to land safely.
Well, her roll boosted the Doom Pool by a couple of dice thanks to the opportunities she rolled, and the Doom Pool roll beat her. I spent one of the new dice in the pool to counterattack, inflicting a d6 of emotional stress on her, as she wrestled the blackbird in for a landing, describing it as a barely controlled crash that left the plane largely intact, but cut a huge swath through the jungle. Everyone got out to survey the damage and decide what to do next.
And that’s when the T-Rex came and smushed the plane.
The T-Rex fight was interesting primarily because it showed off the sophistication with the rules that the group had developed after only a single session. The players worked the Plot Point economy efficiently, taking their Distinctions at d4 to gain points, spending points in clever and useful ways, and even using their power limits and spending experience points to get more Plot Points when they needed them. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by skillfully everyone worked the system.
Better than that, though, was the way everyone got into narrating the action based on what dice were in their pool. The T-Rex had two dice knocked off its Solo pool in the first round thanks to clever things like Storm lowering its core temperature and Daredevil and Black Widow co-operating to use their swinglines to trip the dinosaur.
After walking through the jungle for a while, homing in on Lykos with their detection device, I dropped the mutates on them. My goal with this fight was to boost the Doom Pool up to 2d12 so as to end the scene with the heroes captured. This proved to be an interesting exercise in resource management, as I need to spend enough from the Doom Pool to keep the bad guys up and fighting, but save enough that I could reach that magical 2d12 level. This wound up generating a fair number of Plot Points for the good guys, which made the whole thing a pretty epic battle.
But I got to that 2d12 I wanted, and had Brainchild lead the group into an area that he had mined with disruptor bombs, and knocked everyone out.
They recovered as captives of the mutates and Karl Lykos, who spent a little time monologuing. But you know who you shouldn’t ignore, even when she’s stripped and manacled to a high-tech restraint table? Black Widow, that’s who. She’s got the skills to get out without tripping the power dampening thingies. And she did. First thing she did was free the others, and Storm and Shadowcat double-teamed Lykos, taking him out in one turn.
They mopped up the rest of the mutates, in the room, and I told them that they heard more coming from elsewhere in the complex. So, Black Widow said, “Hey! I’m gonna cash in these 10 xp to unlock the S.H.I.E.L.D. Champion Clearance thing and get the helicarrier to show up and take us away!” Which she did, so that was the end of that. We did a little bit of wrap-up stuff, but that was pretty much it for the night.
So, here’s what I found out about the things I wanted to see in this session, as enumerated above.
- MHR handles non-action scenes just fine. In fact, the light framework they use for the adventures and the fact you can use the Doom Pool to represent the environment makes it very easy to improvise when the characters take unexpected actions. The transition scenes help recovery, but more to the point, they give a lot more options for roleplaying and interacting with the world. The start and end of such things are pretty loosely defined, and I think that’s a big advantage.
- The experience system works fine, as far as we saw. The main use of xp in this short adventure was gaining more Plot Points in tight situations. I think that actually spending the xp to buy up character abilities is going to see limited use if using Marvel characters and events – it’s more likely to see use in longer campaigns and using home-made characters. That said, it does everything it needs to, and the unlockables are a very neat mechanic.
- The mastery of the system that the players had gained in the first session came back very quickly, and grew in play. The learning curve is not nearly as steep as I had originally feared. So, yeah, the game is pretty easy to master once you get the core concepts down. One important aspect of this mastery that was pointed out is the design of the datafiles. They make it remarkably easy to just go down the list and build your dice pool. Some real thought went into the sheet’s usability, and the folks at MWP deserve kudos for that kind of attention to detail.
- Action scenes are still not fast. I thought they were getting faster, but it was pointed out to me that, as Watcher, I’m involved in everyone’s action, so I’m always busy interacting with the players, and that skews my perception of how long a player is sitting waiting to do something. The fact that combat is symmetrical, with players getting to make reaction rolls and possibly counter-attack when attacked, lessens the sitting around aspect. But the fact that the Watcher has to build a dice pool the same way as a player, but for several different characters, slows down that part of the game. This is far from a game-breaker, but it is something the Watcher needs to be mindful of – make sure that the focus is always firmly on the heroes, and try to keep the spotlight moving briskly and fairly among the heroes to minimize boredom.
And that’s the end of our MHR playtest. Everyone had a good time with it and I think I may look at setting up a longer game in the fall, when my gaming schedule opens up a bit.
As an interesting aside, a number of the players in this group stated a preference for playing canon Marvel characters in these games, rather than creating their own, original characters. I knew intellectually that this was a common preference – otherwise, there would be more emphasis on building your own character in the main rulebook – but I was surprised to hear it in my group. See, for me, it might be fun to play Spider-Man or Doctor Strange in a one-shot, but for a real campaign, I want my own character to play. So, it’s an interesting eye-opener to hear others voice a different preference, and discuss the reasons with them. Enlightening.
Anyway. ‘Nuff said.
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I’m going to be talking about the Breakout mini-event in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying rulebook. I’m not going to be giving too much away, I think, but if you’re planning on playing the adventure, I’d say don’t read the last couple of paragraphs.
You Have Been Warned!
So, a couple of weeks back, my friend Clint, who runs a couple of games I play in, was looking for an opportunity to play in a one-shot game that he didn’t have to run. I stepped up to volunteer, and set out a list of games I could run on short notice to the group who were interested, and got them to vote on what they’d like me to run for them. They voted for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.
No one else in the group had read the rulebook, so I was clear to run Breakout again. I approached it a little differently this time around because I was running it for my friends, in private, and not as part of the Launch Party event as a representative of anyone else. One of the things I did was to allow the group to select characters from the complete list of heroes in the rulebook. We wound up with an interesting mix: Black Widow, Colossus, Daredevil, Shadowcat, and Storm.
I had put together a kit for running the launch party, consisting of the laminated cheat sheets for the players, the laminated play mat for me, a bag of poker chips, a bag of red dice for the Doom Pool, a bag of green dice for everyone to share, the datafiles, some pencils and pens and post-its, and some flippable cards for tracking who’s gone in the turn sequence. For this session, I added index cards on which I had printed out all the villain datafiles, as well as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent stats for the players. And I spent some time making custom flippable cards for each of the five players, featuring art of the hero each was playing.
I also decided to start the game by running the hook as a transition scene, giving the players a chance to do a little roleplaying and establish some assets for use later on. Only a couple took advantage of the opportunity to create an asset, because they each had only one plot point, and were worried about getting more. But Black Widow wound up with Expert on Raft Security Systems d8, and Daredevil came to the party with Bob Reynolds’s Legal Research d8. When everyone was ready, we went on to the action scene.
I had prepped a little better for this one than for the previous one, mapping out some choices for the big villains, and determining which minor villains I was going to use and where I was going to use them. Thus, the escalation of things, and the addition of more villains worked more smoothly than in the previous game I ran. The fact that I had all the villains printed out on index cards made it easier for me to track who had acted in the turn and who hadn’t, because I could just flip the cards over when the villain had finished his turn. I also kept a closer eye on the Doom Pool, using the dice more frequently than I had previously, and that helped the flow and build of the game.
Some highlights of the game:
- Colossus wiping out a mob of villains in one attack by being dropped into their midst by Storm.
- Storm whipping up the winds to create Storm-Swept d12 on the open landing deck.
- Shadowcat using her intangibility and counter-attacks to essentially get Armadillo and Tiger Shark to beat themselves unconscious.
- Black Widow using her S.H.I.E.L.D. squad, not to fight the villains, but to get the Raft security measures back online and send a distress call to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ.
- Daredevil locking Foggy Nelson in an empty cell to get him out of harm’s way.
I ended the scene by spending 2d12 from the Doom Pool. Up until the distress call, I had thought the scene was going to be a real disaster for the characters, and was ready to narrate a pretty grim ending, but with the distress call, the scene ended with the arrival of reinforcements and the bulk of the villains being rounded up.
We finished up with another transition scene, as Black Widow kept Maria Hill from arresting the stray X-Men, and then interrogated the prisoners to find out who the target of the break-out was. When she found that it was Karl Lykos, the X-Men got a little worried, and were able to fill in the rest of the gang about the kind of threat he poses.
Everyone had a good time, and we’ve decided to run the second act in the next couple of weeks. So, this one goes in the Win column.
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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.
So, I got my .pdf copy of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying a week ago. What with one thing and another, it’s taken me some time to do an in-depth read of the game, and then put together a review. I’ve almost caught my breath for the moment, so I thought I’d get my impressions down before running the launch party event on Saturday.
The Short Version
The game is a lot of fun, and nicely emulates the feel of comic book superhero stories.
The Long Version
If you’ve read my report on the launch party I attended to play the game, you’ve got an overview of things. Now that I’ve had a chance to read the rules, I can talk in more depth about a number of points I touch on in that initial post.
First off, it’s important to understand what the design goals of the game are: what the designers intend the game to do. MHR is not really a superhero RPG – well, it is, but it is more specifically a comic book RPG, focused on emulating the stories told in Marvel comic books. That means it makes certain decisions and choices from the start that are reflected, encouraged, and reinforced throughout the rules. For instance:
- Playing characters from Marvel comic books is the assumed default.
- Play focuses on published events, such as the Breakout mini-event in the rule book, and the forthcoming Civil War event book.
- Important choices and decisions made by the characters are what drive character change and advancement.
By focusing on these things, the game… I don’t want to say “sacrifices,” because that implies something negative. Let’s just say “de-emphasizes” certain elements. For example, because the game assumes playing Marvel characters, there is little advice about how to create your own, original character. There is plenty of discussion about how to model an existing Marvel character using the rules, which is easy to adapt to an original character, but the build-it-yourself hero options doesn’t receive the same kind of support that existing Marvel characters do. You can do it pretty easily, but it’s not something the book spends a lot of time talking about. The same is true of advice on building events.
I want to re-iterate that I don’t think this is a bad thing, but it is pretty counter to the way most superhero games do things. It shouldn’t really surprise people who are familiar with Margaret Weis Productions’ other Cortex Plus games, like Leverage and Smallville. Each game is focused like a laser on a very specific type of play experience – heists for Leverage and inter-character drama for Smallville – paring away everything that doesn’t lead to that play experience and tweaking everything that remains to drive the desired outcome. It produces a magnificently tight, thematic game, with systems that are eminently lootable and hackable.
What it doesn’t produce is generic games. So, if you go into the game thinking that it’ll give you the support and freedom to do your own thing that, say, Champions does, you’re going to be disappointed. Set your expectations accordingly.
What MHR gives you is a fun, short-term, flavourful, pick-up-and-play superhero comic book game.
Let’s talk some specifics.
The basic mechanic of the game is assembling a dice pool, rolling the dice, picking two dice to add together for your total, and a third die to represent the effect. It’s pretty bare-bones and simple, but the way you do these things turns it into a narrative event worthy of gracing the pages of your favourite comic. The main reason is the way you assemble your dice pool. You get to add a die for each of the following things:
- Affiliation. Each hero has a die rating for when he or she is operating solo, with a buddy, or with a team. The ratings are d6, d8, and d10, arranged as best fits that hero. Thus, Daredevil shines when he’s solo, Captain America works best in a team, and Spider-Man is at the top of his game when he’s helping one other hero. This leads to some very interesting decisions during action scenes, as players weigh the benefit of different group configurations.
- Distinctions. Each hero also has a set of three Distinctions – character traits, catch phrases, distinguishing characteristics. These can either help the character or cause problems, and the hero can either add a d8 (the Distinction helps) or a d4 (the Distinction causes a problem). Adding a d4 gains the character a Plot Point, and the player gets the choice of when the Distinctions is positive or negative. More interesting narrative decisions.
- Power Groups. Each character has one or two power groups, each of which contain a few different powers rated by die type. The hero can add a single die from each power group to the dice pool, as long as he or she can describe how that power helps. This adds another layer of narrative gold to the process – is Spider-Man going to just punch the bad guy, adding a d10 for Superhuman Strength from his Spider Powers, or is he going to swing off a lamp post and kick the villain in the head, adding both the d10 for Superhuman Strength and a d8 for Swing Line in his Web Shooter power group? These decisions go a long way to creating dynamic description about what’s happening.
- Specialties. Each hero also has a few skills that he or she is especially good at, and can add a die – usually a d8 or d10 – to the roll. Thus, you get to decide whether your hero is being sneaky, or tough, or agile, or whatever, based on your specialties. This is usually just the icing on the narrative cake, but can sometimes be the whole point of the action.
- Other Dice. There are other dice you can pull in, usually from things that you or others have done in the scene. For example, if you’ve damaged your opponent – applied Stress, in this system – you can add the Stress die as a sort of wound penalty for your target. Or if you happen to, say, catch a falling helicopter, you may get a die to use it as a weapon on your next turn. These are all the stunts and situational modifiers of the game, and tend to reflect teamwork, planning, or the environment.
The upshot of it all is that, by the time you’ve gathered your mittful of dice to roll, you’ve got a pretty good picture in your head of what’s going on.
And that’s just cool.
The Plot Point Economy
This game, like many other modern games, has an in-game mechanical currency called Plot Points. Players can spend these to add extra dice to their totals, or to keep two effect dice, or to activate certain powers, or to capitalize on the Watcher’s bad rolls, or a number of other things. This is not terribly new, but the implementation of the economy – the method by which players gain and spend Plot Points – is smooth, elegant, and well-defined. There are codified rules as to when the Watcher hands over a Plot Point, which is something that is lacking in a lot of games, and there are clear times for characters to spend them, with clear rules for what they get.
I like this an awful lot. As a GM in a number of games that use these kinds of points, it’s refreshing to have a systematic way to determine when a player gets one. Otherwise, I find it’s far too easy to lose track of handing them out in the crush of other things that a Watcher has to manage. The triggers for distributing and using the Plot Points are built right in to the rest of the system, and that makes it a lot easier.
The Doom Pool
All rolls in this game are opposed rolls. When a player picks up the dice to try and do something, the Watcher picks up the dice to try and stop it. If a villain is opposing the hero, the Watcher uses dice from the villain’s character sheet. If there is no villain, but there’s still a chance of failure, the Watcher picks up the Doom Pool.
This is a pool of dice that starts small and grows throughout the session. Normally, it starts at 2d6, though different events may set different starting points depending on how tough the scenario is. Dice get added to the Doom Pool whenever a player rolls a 1 – and the player gets a Plot Point in payment. Alternately, the size of a die can be increased, turning a d6 to a d8, for example. Thus, the tension ratchets up as the session goes on, and things get tougher for the heroes.
In addition, the Watcher can spend dice from the Doom Pool to use almost like Plot Points, adding to a villain’s roll or activating something nasty. These dice are generally gone from the Doom Pool after that, unless the Watcher gives the hero a Plot Point to return the die to the Doom Pool. There are a couple of other little tricks that tie into this mechanic, but I really think the genius lies in the way the players get to watch the Doom Pool grow as a direct result of their own bad luck, and the stakes rise along with the dice.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that game balance doesn’t mean everyone starts with the same number of points, but that everyone has the same potential to steal the spotlight in play and show off how cool their characters are. This game takes that idea to heart – looking at the heroes included, it is obvious that there was no point-buy formula to indicate how many powers someone had, or even how many die sides they get on any power. The builds in the rulebook are based on what the hero can do, not on how they stack up against each other.
With all of that, though, it looks perfectly reasonable to have Daredevil and Thor in the same session, each of them doing what they do best, and each having the opportunity to shine. Thor won’t necessarily overshadow Daredevil, because even though Daredevil has fewer and weaker powers, each turn gives each hero the same chance and potential to build an interesting and memorable moment in the spotlight. I hadn’t thought this would be the case, but actually playing the game has made me a real believer. The balance in this game exists despite inequity in hero builds.
Turn Order and Teamwork
Fred Hicks wrote a wonderful and detailed account of the turn order and the reasoning behind it here, so I’m not going to repeat it. I just want to point out how it really goes a long way towards inspiring the planning and teamwork aspects of superhero groups without the need of grafting on complicated or awkward co-operation rules. By letting the turn order develop the way it does, the players are encouraged to think both tactically and strategically, and to try different kinds of teamwork combos. It seems like a small thing, but just not having to hold an action in order to take your turn right after a specific other player really makes it more likely that you’ll try to set up some sort of combo, a la the Fastball Special.
Art and Graphic Design
I’m not a real visual guy, but I can appreciate an attractive book, and this is it. Not surprising, given the wonderful wealth of images available from the Marvel archives, sure. But beyond that, the book is striking, colourful, and organized clearly. Indeed, the linked page references in the margins make the .pdf a real joy to use.
I’ve played the game, and I’ve read the rules. I haven’t run it yet. But I’m really looking forward to giving it a try. I think that the game is wonderfully focused on what it sets out to do, and can easily be hacked, tweaked, and looted to make it work in a much broader application, as well. Personally, I don’t have a lot of interest in running a campaign set in the Marvel Universe with my players playing Marvel characters, and so I wish that there was more support in the book for doing my own thing with it.
But the system is dynamic, and fun, and does the best job I’ve yet seen of making play work like you see on the comic book page. The pick-up-and-play aspect of it is appealing for one-shots and limited campaigns, and the game does comic book action well enough that I think putting in the extra effort to use it with original characters and in an original universe.
My advice is to buy it if you’re interested in cool comic book superhero games. Just don’t expect it to be like Champions.
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