For the True Believers

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 ((Lots of work at the day job.)) and another ((A nasty, nasty cold.)), 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 ((Which, of course, jinxes me to make sure another project or illness will land on me tomorrow.)), 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 ((Well, to be fair, it does give you the freedom to do what you want. Just not a lot of the support. Not overtly. As mentioned, the games are eminently lootable and hackable, and tweaking them to your desired flavour is not difficult.)) 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.

Dice Pools

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 ((Who teams up with everybody in the Marvel Universe.)) 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 ((About which more later.)), 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 ((There are some dice tricks that can change the die type and number here.)) – 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 ((This is what the game calls the GM.)) 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.

Balance

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 ((Well, the .pdf. I assume the book will be, as well.)) is striking, colourful, and organized clearly. Indeed, the linked page references in the margins make the .pdf a real joy to use.

Final Thoughts

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 ((That said, MWP has said that there is downloadable content coming that includes things like random character creation charts, so that’ll pretty much cut the legs out from my one complaint.)).

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 ((You know, kinda like the Event books that are coming down the pipe next. Who’d’a thought, huh?)), 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 ((I’ve long had an idea for setting a superhero game in the time of the Irish Red Branch tales…)).

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.