Marvel Heroic RPG

As you’ve no doubt surmised from the preceding few posts, I picked up the new Marvel Heroic RPG by Margaret Weis Productions. It’s the latest in a line of licensed products by MWP and continues the trend of ever more polished and snappy products. I’ve spent a lot of time reading the new Marvel game and the short version is this: Marvel Heroic RPG does an excellent job of emulating the stories told in Marvel superhero comics with a light but flexible system that encourages player creativity and high-energy, narrative descriptions.

If you want the long version, keep reading.

Production Value

The layout is phenomenal. The entire book is cleanly laid out and easy to read. The art is iconic and does not interfere with the text. While I think the rules could have been organized differently, there is a definite flow to them and anyone can start playing in short order.

I am appalled at many RPG PDFs. This game is not one of those. The production value of the PDF version of the Basic Game is superb. The file size has been kept down to a reasonable level for a book with so much art. The entire book is clearly and fully bookmarked for easy navigation. A lot of games don’t have any bookmarks and they suffer for it. Lastly, all page references in the text (even in the sidebar!) are hyperlinked to the page that is referenced. This makes for quick rules clarification when it’s needed.

The PDF from DriveThruRPG also included a stand alone PDF of all the datafiles on the heroes in the book, handy if you want to print them before a game. Another handy tool for getting started is the cheat sheet. There are two cheat sheets – one for the players and one for the Watcher – that lay out the mechanics of the game and provide page numbers for expanded rules. Those will be super useful when people first sit down to play.

Basic Play 

The basic mechanics of Marvel Heroic RPG are very simple. Assemble a dice pool and roll it. Keep two dice and add them to make a total. Your opponent, usually the Watcher (MHP’s term for game master), assembles and rolls his dice pool, then keeps two to make a total. The higher total wins. The winner picks one of his remaining dice as an effect die that reflects how powerful the result is.

Assembling the dice pool is easy and straightforward. The character sheet is organized into sections of traits and you can choose one from each section if it’s appropriate to the action you are taking. During conflict scenes, the opponent’s stress die or a scene distinction can also be used. It is very easy to end up with a fistful of dice, which I find viscerally satisfying.

Plot points are the currency of the game. The Watcher can add dice to his Doom Pool when players roll 1s by giving the players plot points. Players can then spend plot points to modify their rolls, either to activate special abilities, keep extra dice for their total or add a new effect die to create secondary effects. This is part of the back and forth, give and take nature of play. It happens on a meta level but also informs the narrative of the game. It also means that most of the time that something bad happens, there is a silver lining.

Superhero Stories 

At its heart, Marvel is trying to simulate the pacing, drama, ebb and flow of superhero stories. It is not trying to precisely emulate the physics of a superhero setting. It doesn’t care if Hulk can bench press 20 tons more than Thing. There aren’t any hard and fast numbers in the game. Everything is measured in dice and die sizes. The physics of the game are definitely comic book physics but they are replicated from the perspective of the guy writing the comics. Stan Lee never sat back and thought, “Hey, I wonder if Hulk could bench press a mountain. Let me sit down with my slide rule and calculate that out.” No, he just had Hulk just bench pressed a freakin’ mountain. Why? Because it was cool and told a fun story. This game turns you into Stan Lee for a few hours.

To help with the pacing of the story, the game has two types of scenes – action scenes and transition scenes. Action scenes are big and flashy with lots of conflict and drama. Transition scenes are quieter and give the heroes a chance to recover from any negative effects suffered in an action scene. These seem like they will be more low-tempo and focused on inter-character role play. The game specifically prescribes that these two types of scenes alternate back and forth – action, transition, action, transition, etc. This creates a natural ebb and flow to the story. In my experience, most role playing games do this already. Players fall into this routine without any prompting. Marvel states it outright and then gives an incentive to follow this pattern by making recovery actions be almost exclusively available in transition scenes. The narrative reward is the emulation of the story pattern in comics and plenty of opportunity for role playing between players.

Super Mechanics 

Powers are handled in a very streamlined, open ended way. They are broken up into multiple components. Power Sets are descriptive terms about the hero’s powers. Power Sets are almost like an origin story condensed into a single word or phrase. Mechanically, they function as a shell containing Power Traits, SFX and Limits. When assembling a dice pool, a hero can only choose one die from each Power Set (unless he engages some game mechanic that lets him choose more).

Power Traits are the powers themselves and are fairly broadly described as things like Strength, Durability, or Intangibility. As traits, they are assigned a die (d4-d12) to demonstrate what the power level of the trait is.

SFX are small rules that let the player manipulate the powers in some fashion. The rules of SFX are always tied to both the mechanics and the narrative of the game. They let a hero gain more dice from a Power Trait, use multiple Power Traits from a single Power Set, or even keep extra dice after rolling to cause multiple effects or increase the total further.

Limits are a special type of SFX that describes the hero’s maximum capabilities or perhaps the downsides to his powers. Mechanically, this tells the player when his powers cannot be used and how to reactivate them when they get shut down. Remember how I said that bad things have silver linings? Limits almost always give the hero a plot point when they are reached and a power is shut down.

Combining all of these elements, Power Sets, Power Traits, SFX and Limits, gives you a very clear idea of what your hero’s powers are. Yet they aren’t constricting. See, none of this says, “Your flame blast does 12 hit points of damage and your super speed lets you move 17 squares per round.” It’s all descriptive, not proscriptive. Players are given guidelines and then the freedom to play the character.

Mechanics Inform Narrative, Narrative Triggers Mechanics

There is a move in role playing game design to unify the experience of mechanics and story. In broad terms, the idea is to have the mechanics always mean something to the story and have the story be the reason that the mechanics activate. It creates a circular relationship that always moves the story along seamlessly during play. Marvel embraces this idea with dice pools and the effect die. When assembling a dice pool, players and the Watcher pick the dice that make sense in a narrative sense to the action. This goes beyond just adding bonuses to your attack roll the way D&D handles things. Are you angry enough to just want to hurt your foe? You can add in your emotional stress die of Furious d8 (you have to step it up to a d10 after the action but them’s the breaks). Players are encouraged to think about who the hero is with every roll of the dice.

Once the dice are rolled, an effect die is chosen. I love the idea of the effect die so much. It’s not an arbitrary numerical system. The effect die lets you narrate just how bad/powerful/effective something is. General guidelines of effects are given that basically range from “Minor d4” to “Godlike d12”. Describe the outcome based on your effect die accordingly.

Open Character Creation

Imagine the super hero you have always wanted to write. We all have one. The greatest thing about this game (and apparently the most frustrating, judging by comments on these here intarwebz) is that it has no concern about in-party character balance. None. There are absolutely no rules giving you guidelines for making heroes who are all of a similar power level. Why not? My guess is that because comics don’t care either. They’ll team up Frog-Man with Thor if it makes sense.

What the game does do well is give all character chances to be successful, regardless of how power level. There are plenty of ways that lower powered or less offensively oriented characters can still have a decisive effect on the story. Every character has a ton of opportunities to gain and spend plot points.

Milestones

Milestones are so intensely groovy. They’re an opportunity for every player to write a compelling, exciting and dramatic story arc for their heroes. This is the experience point and advancement portion of the game. Every hero has two milestones, comprised of three beats or triggers. Each trigger is a turning point in the story. Something of significance to the hero. Once the character hits the third trigger, he can choose to resolve the milestone and take a new one, or to repeat the milestone if it’s an ongoing struggle. Again, the mechanics are triggered by the narrative and the narrative is informed by the mechanics.

The first beat should be fairly easy to achieve. It’s worth 1xp and is repeatable multiple times in a scene (but only once per roll of the dice). Take my hero Derby for example. She gets 1xp every time her ample education helps her as a hero. This could be solving mysteries, building a gadget, or anything else related to her science and engineering degrees. Mechanically, I earn XP whenever her medical, science or tech specialties are included in a roll. This is an incentive for me to play Derby like the genius she is and to put her character’s story at the front.

The second beat takes a bit more work but is also worth 3xp. It’s repeatable but only once per scene. Derby’s 3xp trigger I stole shamelessly from classic Spider-Man comics. Any scene in which being a superhero disrupts her academic career, she takes 3xp. This means that if she’s supposed to be in lab when Breakout happens, I get rewarded for playing the game.

The third and final beat should be a significant challenge or emotional turning point for the hero. I honestly don’t know how often a player should hit a 10xp trigger. For Derby I chose “when you finish a degree or drop out of school.” That’s pretty significant and very final, either way. It can be triggered at any time if I want her to drop out but if I really want her to get that degree, I may have to let that milestone stick around a while longer than I would necessarily like. She  only has the opportunity to graduate at the end of a school term. It would be interesting to see how time dependent milestones like that work out in play.

The mix of the mild, medium and hot triggers means that players are mechanically encouraged to be in character at all times. I love that.

Distinctions

Distinctions are like aspects from Fate. Only better. It pains me to say so because I really dig Fate and think aspects are great. Here’s the reason why distinctions are better: the player is equally empowered to use it to his advantage and disadvantage of his own volition without involvement from The Watcher.

Aspects in Fate can be compelled to give the player a fate point. That’s pretty groovy. Except it puts the onus of compels on the GM. If the GM isn’t thinking about it or can’t keep all 50 character aspects in the game straight, players can feel a bit cheated even if they are playing the character to the hilt.

Distinctions are entirely player driven. You get to add a distinction into every one of your dice pools. If you spend a plot point, you can add a second one. A distinction can either be added as a d8 or it can be added as a d4 and you gain a plot point. The d8 means it helps you out in some way. It represents something your character is good at or enjoys. The d4 and the plot point means the distinction gets in your way somehow. Since distinctions are player driven, this negative invocation comes off as less adversarial than Fate system compels.

The example of Hulk came up in an exchange on Facebook with Fred Hicks of Evil Hat. We decided that Hulk’s player is pretty well encouraged to always be adding, “HULK SMASH!” as a d4 into his dice pools. It gives him a constant stream of plot points, it drives the narrative forward by creating colorful descriptions and it gives opportunities for interesting complications out of that mechanical bit. The mechanics are engaged by the narrative and the narrative is shaped by the mechanics. Nifty, isn’t it?
The last bit about distinctions that I really like is that scene distinctions, like scene aspects in Fate, can also be added to a dice pool. This gives players more opportunities and options when deciding to add distinctions. If nothing on your character sheet fits, be sure to look around at the table to see what scene distinctions are in play.

Stunts

Stunts sound so cool. Spend a plot point to do a cool thing with your powers that you normally can’t. Ok, pretty basic. Except I have no idea how they actually work. This could really use more examples in the book. I understand that the game is encouraging you to think like Stan Lee and make stuff up but this is really too open ended for me. It seems a little like carte blanche to break the rules as long as you have the plot points to spend. Not really my thing. Maybe after I’ve played a while these will make more sense.

No Stand Alone Character Sheet

This is my pet peeve! When I want to print a character sheet, I want to open the file and hit print. I do not want to open the file, look up which page the character sheet is on, hit print, and tell it to print just pages X-Y. Keep it simple. Open, print, done.

The blank datafile is stuck at the back of the book. The standalone PDF of the pre-gen hero datafiles also has the character sheet. Nowhere did MWP make just the character sheet available. It’s not on their website. It’s not in the DriveThruRPG download. My Google fu couldn’t even find just the blank datafile.  It took some tech guru effort on my part to split out the character sheet into its own file.  This was really frustrating given the production values of the rest of the game.

Event Creation

The game’s units of play are Scene, Act, and Event. They roughly correspond to the D&D ideas of Encounter, Adventure, and Short Campaign. There are a few pages devoted to rules on how to create Events but there is no walk-through example. The walk-through of Captain America’s datafile is immensely helpful when learning to make a character from scratch. Having something similar for making Events would be just as helpful. I felt much more adrift and unsupported with Event creation than I did with character creation. This is at least partially because the game stresses the structure of an Event. Not following through with an example of creation was a bit annoying. To be fair, an Event is included with the Basic Game so you aren’t completely without resources. Readers are directed to read the event to understand the structure.

Final Verdict 

The Marvel Heroic RPG is a very polished, narrative driven superhero RPG that emulates the stories told in superhero comics. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in exploring the drama and action of the genre. I’m in the middle of a Serenity campaign right now and it blows me away to think that the two games are from the same company. Margaret Weis Productions has come a long, long way in game design over the last six years.

Features:

  • Completely customizable characters for the hero you want as soon as you sit down to play. If you like crunchy point-buy systems, however, this is not the game for you.
  • Rules and narrative are very tightly woven. The game actively encourages players to play their characters to the hilt and to be the iconic heroes from the pages of comics.
  • The dice pool and the Doom Pool system encourage a back-and-forth style of play between the heroes and the Watcher that emphasizes player choice and the silver linings of setbacks

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.

This entry was posted in Game Design, Marvel Heroic RPG, Reviews, Role Playing. Bookmark the permalink.

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