Civil War: Doom & Democracy

***Spoiler Warning***

My group and I are playing through the Civil War event book for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, from Margaret Weis Productions. While the course of play may not follow the event book – or the comic books – precisely, there’s going to be a certain amount of stuff that does conform to the adventures and comic series.

In short, if you don’t want to know what happens in Civil War, don’t read these posts. Or the comic books.

***You Have Been Warned***

Friday before last, we gathered the players and got in our first session of our Civil War game. Well, kind of the second session, if you count the dry run I did previously. Or the third, if you count character creation. But really, it was the first full session where everyone got to try out their characters.

I wanted to ease into things in this session, letting the players fit themselves into the world a little bit before throwing some action at them ((There are good things about starting out with a bang, but sometimes it’s a good idea to ease the players into things. Especially with a new system.)), so I started by saying, “It’s a Wednesday night. Where are you?” This led to the group – who call themselves The Guardians, by the way – spending some time coming up with a secret base for themselves.

It’s the concealed sub-basement of an apartment block in Brooklyn, owned by The Doctor’s parents, with tunnels reaching all over NYC, courtesy of Volcanic. The base has accommodations for all the team members, a gym, science lab, tech lab, ritual room, and med bay.

So, we spent some time fleshing it out, getting into character, and doing a little roleplaying to set the scene. Then I had Reed Richards call Jumpstart to ask for a favour.

I think three out of the four characters have some sort of relationship with the FF, but I picked Jumpstart because he also had ties to S.H.I.E.L.D. and tended to have more of a military outlook. Those qualities made it pretty likely that he would agree to do the favour for Reed ((Possibly committing the whole team without consulting them. Well, a Watcher can hope, right? ‘Cause that would have been some fun drama.)), which is what I wanted, because that was the on-ramp to the story.

To be clear, the game would not have been derailed if they hadn’t taken the bait. I had some contingency plans, layered in stages, right up to the Guardians sitting around playing video games until S.H.I.E.L.D. capekillers came knocking on their doors. This is something I’ve tried to emphasize with the players – they are free to make whatever choices and decisions they want, without worrying about “ruining the adventure.” The structure of the event book ((Which I talk about back here.)) makes it easy to improvise on the themes of the Civil War, build scenes on the fly, and track what changes if the players do something really unexpected. Along with that, I’ve picked up enough experience running more improvised adventures in recent years ((Thanks especially to GUMSHOE and FATE games for the recent practice.)) that I think I can cope with what they throw at me, and make the game about their heroes, rather than about the big names in the Marvel Universe.

I’ve also warned them that I may make some changes from the comic books, especially about who joins what side, so they shouldn’t count on Cap fighting against registration, or Tony Stark spearheading the registration forces. Am I going to change those two, specifically? I’m not sure yet. I’m not making any decisions about this until after the SHRA passes, and I’ll see how things stand then. The heroes have already done some things that will affect the course of events ((No, I’m not telling you what just yet. You’ll have to wait and see)), and I’ve taken notes and done some thinking about consequences.


Reed Richards called and asked Jumpstart to look into a potential problem in Broxton, Oklahoma – reports had reached him of numerous incoming aircraft, currently passing over the Atlantic, ETA two hours. Volcanic was able to build a quick detector to trace the origins of the aircraft, and discovered that they were coming from Latveria. Richards would not confirm or deny that, nor would he tell them what was in Broxton that the Latverians ((Doom, by all reports being dead, or at least trapped in Hell.)) might want – the characters didn’t have clearance for that information from the government.

Why was Richards calling them? Well, he and the rest of the FF were in Washington, giving testimony to the committee discussing the SHRA. I didn’t spell that out to the characters, but Reed Richards in a suit, unable to leave where he was, and the discussions about the SHRA made it pretty clear, I think.

Richards loaned the Guardians ((All of whom agreed to go. I had something up my sleeve for anyone who chose not to go along, but I didn’t need to use it. That’s fine; I can save it for another time.)) the Fantasticar to get them to Oklahoma in time. At the site, they found a military installation – quonset huts, security fence, patrols, etc. The colonel in charge was grateful for their help, but still wouldn’t tell them why the military was on site.

The heroes took some time to create resources before the arrival of the aircraft, and then settled in to wait for the arrival of the invaders. The Doctor, when the armoured personnel fliers started arriving, woke the spirits of the air to knock them out of the sky ((No-Fly Zone d12+ grounded everything. Everything. Including commercial aircraft, who now had to detour around a large section of Oklahoma.)), and Volcanic caused the ground to open and swallow several of the carriers that had landed ((“Did I get them all?” “All you could see.” “How many more are there?” “Enough to make this scene an exciting battle.” “Gotcha. There are PLOT carriers.”)). Then the silhouette of Dr. Doom appeared on a hilltop and everyone stopped and stared.

And another silhouette appeared. And another. And three more, and then a dozen, and then a score. They figured pretty quickly they were dealing with Doombots, but it still made them plenty cautious. Volcanic was swarmed by Doombots ((Applying the complication Covered in Dooooooms! d12.)), and Jumpstart rushed to his defence, trying to pull as many Doombots off him as possible. Mega Joule had set up an ambush, and popped out to delay a another mob of Doombots marching on the encampment, while The Doctor held the main gate.

This scene had a bit of a strange rhythm, to tell the truth. The players weren’t rolling many opportunities, and this my doom pool wasn’t growing, and they weren’t getting Plot Points ((Except, of course, when they used their Distinctions for a d4.)). This meant that they weren’t able to bust out some of the cooler things they could do, but it also meant that I was limited in the tricks the bad guys could pull in.

Still, things turned around eventually, and I was able to turn the real Doom into a Doombot with 2d8 when The Doctor was about to take him down ((Using the You Are Not Worthy of Doom! SFX.)), and bring the real Doom in from the rear, through the fence and the torn-up quonset huts, down to the crater in the middle. He got his hands on what he was after – Mjolnir, sitting in the crater where it landed – and got blasted by Asgardian lightning for not being worthy.

This was the moment when the characters found out what was being guarded in Broxton. Doom made his escape at that point, and the Guardians were left to help with the clean-up, and discuss whether any of them were going to try to lift the hammer themselves. Eventually, they decided against it, and headed back to NYC.

Overall, the battle outcome was a bit ambiguous – the Guardians defeated all the Doombots, but Doom himself got to the hammer, but the hammer blasted Doom, but Doom got away… You know how it goes. They chalked it up in the Win column provisionally.

Reed got in touch with them the next day to thank them for their help, and to warn them that, due to their involvement with Doom and the military ((And the fact that air traffic had to be diverted around Oklahoma for an hour or so with no warning.)), they might be called to testify before Congress. At least, Volcanic would, because his identity is public knowledge. The other Guardians discussed this, and decided that, if Volcanic was subpoenaed, they would all stand with him.

Sure enough, a few days later, Dr. Nicholas Burns, AKA Volcanic, was called to testify before a Congressional committee, so everyone got on the train and headed down to DC, along with a Lawyer d8, thanks to The Doctor’s business connections.

In retrospect, I should have re-read this scene more carefully before the session. Testifying before Congress is run as an action scene using debating skills rather than superpowers ((Well, powers could be used, if they were appropriate. Mind control, for example, or growth for intimidation, things like that.)), knocking out dice from the Committee to win the debate.

My big mistake, I think, was using rolls to determine the effectiveness of arguments made by either side. That produced some strange results, and incidentally devalued the arguments being made. A better approach might have been to conduct the arguments and interview purely through roleplaying ((Or maybe to abstract the arguments and questioning a bit: “The Committee chair launches into a long-winded recitation of rulings by the Supreme Court, many of which seem to relate only remotely to the matter at hand. He’s obviously trying to confuse you and set you off your game.”)), and call for rolls only when one side or the other tried to directly manipulate the other through Psyche or Menace or some power. As it was, the whole thing felt like a mis-handeled skill challenge from D&D 4E.

The main point of contention, as it played out, was the issue of secret identities. The Committee insisted that the Guardians give their legal names in order to be heard, but the gang successfully argued that they should be allowed to testify under their noms de guerre. Well, kind of successfully. They got their remarks on the record, but they were entered as anonymous testimony, and thus carried less weight.

The upshot was that the Congressional committee thanked the Guardians for attending and dismissed them without getting any of their real questions answered. Still, the majority of the committee was favourably disposed towards the Guardians, so that counts as a win. Still, there was the implication that the committee might invite the Guardians back when they had more power to compel answers.

And to wrap things up for the evening, as the Guardians navigated the crowd of reporters out front, the Titanium Man landed in the midst of the crowd and roared out a challenge.

Check out the next issue for - The Terror of the Titanium Man!

Civil War: Dry Run

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 ((Yes, that is a hint.)).

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 ((More on that later.)), 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 ((One of the PCs)) 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 ((That’s pure comic book science!)) ), 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 ((The other PC.)) 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 ((Why? Because comic book action!)). 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 ((I had spent a turn or two while the heroes were bogged down in getting into costume and out of the auditorium to effectively let the villains grandstand, building the doom pool, and deciding what distinctions to put on the scene. Doom pool, which had started at 2d6, was up to 4d6, and there were the distinctions Giant Atom Sculpture, Panicky Students, and Mind-Controlled Security Guards.)).

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 ((I am pleased about that. I like my heroes heroic.)). 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 ((Three out of four of the characters have some flavour of elemental control, and the fourth has Sorcery. These are very cool powers, but they’re probably the trickiest to use in cool ways during the game, as they are very indirect.)), 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.

Civil War: Recruitment

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 ((Though it doesn’t explicitly call it out as such.)), 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 ((Called Pathways.)) 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 ((I know, I know. I’m such a whiner. Seriously, the Marvel Pathways thing is awesome. It just didn’t quite fit what I wanted.)), so I looked to another great game for ideas.

Dresden Files RPG ((For which I have much love.)) 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 ((There are ways we could have done it, but they seemed more complicated than the cool they would provide, so I decided against that.)).

And so I wound up doing what I always seem to wind up doing ((It’s a sickness, I tells ya.)); 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 ((Of course, some did, some didn’t, some read one and not the other, and so on. Which I expected.)). 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 ((Based heavily on the character of the same name from The Authority.)), 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.

GenCon 2012: Day One

Day one of GenCon 2012 is over. Busy day.

Things started pretty wild when they opened the dealer room doors. There’s always a pretty intimidating rush of people, but it seemed like a larger crowd this year. I was grateful to be in the booth, avoiding a trampling.


I managed to sneak out to grab my preorders for Night’s Black Agents and The Zalozhniy Quartet from Pelgrane Press, where I met Paula and Steve Dempsey, which was a treat. Then I headed over to Margaret Weis Productions to snag my preorder copy of the Marvel Civil War Event Book. I got to say a quick hello to Cam Banks and meet Amanda Valentine – a most excellent editor – and also Jen from the Jennisodes podcast. She gave me a Ninja Panda Taco button, which was nice because I’m looking forward to that game coming out.

I managed to get some generic tickets and found the Games On Demand room, where I ran into Matthew Gandy, another excellent editor. He filled me in on how the room worked, and Clint and I came back for the 8:00 slot to play some Apocalypse World.


The game, though of necessity short, was a lot of fun, and gave me some much-needed insight into how it works mechanically. Many thanks to Trevis for running it, and to the other players for making it fun.

And now to bed.

Pick a Side

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 ((Heh.)) 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 ((There’s an action scene that is all about debating a Congressional committee, for God’s sake!)). 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.

Summing Up

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.



**Spoiler Alert**

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 ((This is a bit of an unfair characterization of the combat in MHR, which tends to be very flavourful. But you take my point.)).
  • 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.

Actual Play

Our roster of New Avengers ((Heavy on the X-folks, but what can you do? X-men make fun characters to play.)) was:

  • Black Widow
  • Colossus
  • Daredevil
  • Shadowcat ((And Lockheed the dragon, of course.))
  • Storm

At the end of the previous session, Black Widow had determined that the breakout at the Raft was intended to free Karl Lykos ((AKA Sauron. No, not that Sauron. This Sauron.)), 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 ((This is almost verbatim what Spidey says in the actual book.)). 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 ((This is a good rule to keep in mind, alongside Vincent Baker’s “Say yes or roll the dice.” Combining the two ideas does a lot to illuminate when you should and should not ask for dice rolls.)). 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 ((Actually, that last thing didn’t work out so well, thanks to some poor rolling, but Daredevil took the opportunity to lose his billy club and get a Plot Point for invoking his Gear limit.)).

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 ((Yeah, I made that up spur of the moment when I wanted to take them out. It fits comic logic, and no one batted an eye.)), and knocked everyone out.

They recovered as captives of the mutates and Karl Lykos, who spent a little time monologuing ((I had to build up the Doom Pool again, of course.)). 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 ((Shoulda kept some more dice in the Doom Pool. He needed them. The heroes all had at least three Plot Points each, and that’s a pretty big edge.)).

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 ((Plus, of course, the helicarrier rescue.)). 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 ((Though I still forgot an important rule during play and didn’t remember it until after the game. Which rule? Oh, nothing important, he said sarcastically. Just that you can add an opponent’s stress die to your die pool for free. Yeah, ’cause that’s not a big deal.)). 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 ((Smaller groups will mitigate this to some degree, and larger groups will exacerbate it.)). 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.


The New New Avengers

**Spoiler Alert**

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 ((Well, actually, the vote was tied between MHR  and Dragon Age. We went with MHR because Clint voted for it, and as he generally GMs for this group, I gave his opinion extra weight. Also, I was currently obsessing about MHR and wanted another chance to run it.)).

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 ((Minus the Sentry, who is really more of a plot device than a character in the game. At least, in the first act.)). 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 ((I carry this stuff – less the oversized play mat – in two organizer pouches from Tom Bihn. The dice and poker chips fit nicely into a Tom Bihn travel tray, which doubles as a bowl for the dice in play. Some time soon, I’m going to have to do a blog post about gaming bags, a much-neglected market in the luggage industry.)). 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 ((Okay. Tangent. Searching for art for comic book characters online – especially female characters – will show you things you cannot unsee. It’s not good. And when you’re looking for a picture of a character to put on a card for the daughter of two of your friends, it becomes blindingly easy to see that most pictures of female comic book characters – even the non-X-rated ones – are all about the boobs and the butts. My point? I dunno. I just wish not every woman in a superhero comic was treated like a cheesecake model. I guess. As an aside, the art chosen for the MHR rulebook tends to avoid this kind of sexism, tends to more diversity than you normally see in mainstream comics. So, kudos to the gang at MWP for that.)).

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 ((Also more intelligently.)) 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 ((Which held only 2d12, so that worked about right, as far as I’m concerned.)). 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.


Assembled! My Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Launch Party

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 slots ((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.)) 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 around ((I did my time with it, and I know it’s a bad one. So I don’t begrudge him.)). 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.

Everyone ((Including me, and a few people who stopped for a couple of minutes just to listen in.)) 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.

Learning Curve

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 point ((Well, it hasn’t to me, anyway.)).

Spotlight Time

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 works ((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.)), 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 smoothly ((Except that I need to be better about keeping track of which villains are up and around.)).

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 game ((And the .pdf package for the launch party.)) 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 three ((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.)) 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 mechanical ((The bad kind of mechanical.)), 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 this ((Which will be next Saturday for one of my regular game groups who wants to give the game a try.)), 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.

Final Words

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.

‘Nuff said.




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.


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.

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!