Me, Tavis, and Tavis’s son played in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying launch party at the Compleat Strategist, organized by the incomparable gaming mutant Jenskot. We had fun! Then Tavis and his kid had to leave and many new players came. We had even more fun! Then I went uptown and played it with some friends, and had fun too! So: 3 for 3, but with some reservations.
the good social stuff you don’t care about
Here is how awesome my friend Jenskot is: he organized a launch party for free, developing elaborate cheat-sheets requiring hours of work, to promote the work of strangers, who couldn’t get their act together to ship their silly game on time. It was a launch party to promote a book that doesn’t exist yet! (You can buy the PDF on-line, though.) But people still had fun!
The really nice thing about playing these licensed games is that it gives you a chance to geek out with fellow nerds about your love of the source material. “Wait, we’re fighting Razor-Fist? Razor-I have prosthetic steak knives instead of hands-Fist?!? The guy’s not a villain, he can’t even go to the bathroom! But boy, Paul Gulacy man, what happened to him? Nobody ripped off Jim Starlin’s style better.” So that was fun too.
Also if a superheroic adventure begins with Iron Man pretending to get drunk, while Colossus gets wasted on vodka, and they fly around NYC together demolishing buildings in order to finally build the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway line, the game has already failed (in the eyes of a 10 year old comic fan) –
the good game stuff
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a cleverly designed game that, in play, feels like a modern-day super hero comic book. Lots of snazzy action, a dose of fan-favorite characterization, and (at least at this early stage of learning the game) very drawn out and “decompressed.” The rules ship with a mini-module called “Breakout” based on the Bendis/Finch New Avengers arc of the same name, and a player commented, “You know, this felt exactly like those comics.”
The closest point of reference I can see is Dungeons & Dragons 4e, but only insofar as they’re both complex games designed to produce cool combat set-pieces by way of a cleverly designed economy.
The game operates by building a dice pool from various personality traits, super powers, and skills. Your roll measures both your overall performance and the effect it has on the fictional circumstances; your opponent makes a similar roll to resist you. As a player, you can heap inconvenience on your character–“Captain America is a man from the 1940’s, so I’ll say he has problems understanding how to deactivate the super-computer…”–to earn resources called plot points. Plot points can be spent to activate special super power combos or to jazz up your dice pool in other ways.
(Indie Filth Alert! This game expects you, as a player, to occasionally make things worse for your character in the hope of reaping a mechanical advantage. A sizable segment of gamers don’t like that in any way, shape, or form. If you’re one of them, you won’t like this game.)
Meanwhile the GM–called “the Watcher” in this game after Kirby’s version of the Man in the Moon–is on the look-out for any 1’s that you roll. The Watcher buys them off you with plot points, and for every plot point he pays you, he adds +1d6 to the “doom pool,” which represents the general FUBAR nature of superhuman conflict. When you’re trying to do something that has no NPC to resist you, you’ll roll against the doom pool. The Watcher can also spend dice out of the doom pool to activate special super villainous powers or create plot twists.
So the game works by steadily growing the doom pool, with you earning plot points along the way. In theory, the game is balanced if you’re rolling a bunch of d6’s for the Wasp and I’m rolling a bunch of d12’s for Thor, because the Wasp is going to be earning plot points about twice as fast, though the doom pool will also be growing a lot faster as she gets in over her head.
Several people on RPGNet have complained that the game doesn’t have a character creation system, but that’s not true. It doesn’t have a randomized or point-buy character creation system, but damn if I didn’t create Sonny Sumo last Kirbsday in less than 10 minutes. Almost all of that time was conceptual. The game doesn’t really sweat exactly how strong you are: Thor, the Hulk, the Thing, and Colossus are all equally strong, which as a neckbeard offends me greatly. But figuring out your character’s personality, and fine-tuning some super power tricks, takes a little bit of insight, because that makes a much bigger difference in play.
(Indie Filth Alert: if you like discovering your tabula rasa character through play, this is not the game for you. If you require randomized character creation, this is not the game for you. If you require transparently point-bought balanced characters, this is not the game for you.)
The game is also pretty great at handling bizarre power stunts. You know how, in Kirby’s Fourth World titles, the little super-iPad called Mother Box can do practically anything? It’s a huge pain in the butt in Marvel Super Heroes, because you’d have to spend hundreds of points of Karma and get many spectacular rolls to pull off so many one-time-only stunts. But with Marvel Heroic those weird never-see-it-again powers carry a low, low price of one plot point. Which makes it handy for guys like Iron Man, Hawkeye, and Courageous Cat, who never seem to run out of nifty tricks.
the bad game stuff
Man alive, this game has stats for no-name bozo’s like Armor, Iron Fist, the Constrictor, and Tombstone–but no stats for the Hulk, Thor, Doctor Doom, or Magneto. Inexplicable!
This book gives the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide a run for its money for disorganization–or maybe, in this case, over-organization. The rules for healing and recovery are spread over three chapters, written largely the same way but in each instance there’s a little rule added that appears nowhere else. This book’s credits list six editors; you could not prove it by the way the book is organized.
There are a lot of things in this game that resemble one another, but have subtly different mechanical effects. “Stress” is exactly like a “complication,” except that stress doesn’t go away at the end of a scene; instead it converts to “trauma” which is also exactly like stress (which is like a complication). A “stunt” is like a “push” is like a “resource,” and all of them are like “assets,” except that an asset is created by rolling dice, and all four resemble “traits” except a trait is a permanent part of your character. Basically, they came up with a really nice economy, and then are trying to tell you there’s a mechanical difference between Coke and Pepsi–and there is, but it’s hard to discern at first. So far, it seems that no two people who have read rules agree on how a fictional circumstance should translate into the mechanics.
Although the game describes superhuman speed, subsonic flight, and teleportation, there aren’t any rules for movement in general, or spatial relationships of any kind. A single villain trying to run away from a group of super-heroes with differing rates of speed requires a surprising amount of mental gymnastics.
(Indie Filth Alert: if you really like battle-grids, miniatures, and being able to unambiguously declare where your character is in space, this is not the game for you. If you like saying, “My guy’s kind of over here, and your guy is kind of over there” and having the mechanics reflect that, this game might not be for you–it appears to be an open question.)
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to say, “Well, what you just declared is mechanically permitted even though it doesn’t make fictional sense. Oh no, we broke the fiction!” Example! Spider-Man hurls an industrial air-conditioning unit at the Vulture. He rolls to get an “effect die,” which can be traded in for any one of the following; he can spend a plot point to do another thing too…
- Spidey could inflict physical injury on the Vulture (effect die becomes physical stress)
- Spidey could break the Vulture’s flying suit (effect die cancels out flying super power)
- Spidey could inflict a painful memory of past defeats on the Vulture (effect die becomes emotional stress)
- Spidey could remove the distance between him and the Vulture (effect die cancels out the “I’m far away from you” asset)
The first three are at least arguable given the fictional circumstances. But there’s almost no conceivable way that chucking an A/C unit at the Vulture will physically move Spider-Man and the Vulture closer together. Yet the game’s economy isn’t going to stop you from saying stupid stuff like that. It’s the table’s responsibility to police the interaction between the fiction and the mechanics.
(Old Gaming Fart Alert! If you doubt the good sense of the people you play with, this game is not for you. If you believe that RPG’s should be hardwired to prevent you from creating logical paradoxes accidentally in play, this game is not for you.)
what do you think, middle-aged comics nerd?
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is an extremely nifty game that shows a lot of promise. It is, however, extremely confusing even beyond the learning curve of a new game. Aside from the crazy disorganization of the text itself and the almost-but-not-quite-the-same quality of many of the rules, the text veers toward a worrying (but manageable) one-night stand between cause and effect. I played it three times in one day with three different groups, and we all had a great time! You might too, but it’s not for everybody.