Learning to Play “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying”

Now that Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has been released in PDF, you may be itching to start playing.

I came in late in the playtesting cycle and just last Friday ran my first MHR session as a warmup for the launch party at my FLGS this Friday.  So I haven’t exactly played this game a lot.  It was also the first time I’d had to teach some players a new game since I introduced my group to Torg in the early 90s.

Although I have read through the Smallville and Leverage RPGs, I had yet to actually run a Cortex Plus game. It was a learning experience.  So, I figure that other people would be interested in my experiences at teaching the game to my players and that I could provide some tips and warn about some pitfalls in introducing the game to your players.

Don’t Force Feed Them the Rules

Unless your players have played Leverage or Smallville, there is a lot to absorb all at once. There is the core mechanic, plot point usage, actions, complications, stress, and milestones.  Instead I recommend starting with going over the datasheets and how you build your dice pool.  Mention that the players have Plot Points that they can use to manipulate the dice pool via different methods and SFX on their datasheet, but don’t go into all the various ways they can do so.  Finally mention that you, as the Watcher, have the Doom Pool that acts not only as a supply for extra dice for Watcher characters (much like Plot Points are for the players) but also as an an opposition pool for actions that aren’t directed at a specific Watcher character.

Then throw them straight into the action.

Some points that you may want to emphasize to your players:

  • The importance of the effect die is the actual die it is, not the number that is showing on the die.  This is quite different than other games, and it took some time for my players to wrap their head around it.
  • Rolling a one on a die is not necessarily a bad thing!  Yes, this will cause the Doom Pool to grow, but it also means that the players get Plot Points!  This is important because…
  • Plot Points are PLOT FUEL!  Players will want to have a nice supply of Plot Points later in the Act when the Doom Pool is larger and with bigger dice.  Player’s shouldn’t be afraid to add a d4 to their dice pool (and get a Plot Point) instead of adding a d8 when including a Distinction in their dice pool.

Subtle Rules

As expected, I made several errors in my first session. Most of these errors I either discovered on re-reading the Operations Manual or through discussions online.  To help you avoid those little mistakes here is a list of the ones that I made:

  • In order for the reaction roll to prevent the action from succeeding, the total needs to be greater than the action roll.
  • If the effect die from the reaction roll is higher than the effect die from the action roll, the effect die for the action roll is stepped back by -1.
  • Distinctions must have some association with the action or reaction you are attempting.  If you can’t come up with one (and for some of the villains it might be tough), consider using a Scene Distinction instead.
  • If the Watcher rolls an opportunity (ie. rolls a 1), that opportunity can be activated by the player immedately, and the push or stunt die added to the next roll, including the reaction roll to the action that provided the opportunity.
  • Although you cannot use multiple effect dice to inflict the same type of stress on a single character, you can do so with mobs.  So if you use one of the Area Attack SFXes, and have effect dice on a 5d6 mob of d10, d8, d6, d6, you can take out three dice from that mob (as you can’t have 2d6 stress).
  • When you get to the end of a round, the last character gets to choose anyone to go next, including himself!  This is why a player might want to choose a Watcher character instead of a Hero to go next, as explained by Fred Hicks.

Cool Stuff to Do

One of the great things about MHR is that it gives you mechanics to do cool stuff.  Here are a couple of things you can do to complicate matters for your players:

  • Mess with their Affiliations.  Unlike many other games, MHR actually encourages you to split the party.   By spending a die from the Doom Pool you can force the heroes to join up or split apart, which will improve (or degrade) their performance by changing which of their Affiliation traits is applicable.  Wolverine is going to attack that villain?  Spend a die from the Doom Pool and send them crashing down into the lower levels of the complex, separating Wolverine from his friends (and making the player happy).  Want to make things challenging for Cyclops?  Do the same thing.  On the other hand, combining separate groups can be just as rewarding.
  • Scene Distinctions (eg. It’s Pitch Black or Collapsing Building) are great for providing an alternative Distinction for players to use rather than the ones listed on their character sheet, especially if it’s difficult to apply them to the current situation.  They also provide excellent mood and atmosphere.

Above all, the point is to make cool stories and have fun!



  1. Thanks for the insight! I’m running this tonight so it was a useful read. This group has never played a game that was not D&D.

  2. I came across another subtle rule that I’d messed up.

    During my launch party, I thought that the Watcher characters could only use their effect die on a reaction roll if there was a large enough die in the Doom Pool. (ie if my reaction effect die was a d8, I needed to spend a d8 from the Doom Pool in order to inflict that). However, that requirement is only for getting an _additional_ effect die when making an _action_ roll.

    When you want a Watcher character to use her effect die in a reaction roll to inflict stress on the acting hero, all you actually need is to spend a d6 out of the Doom Pool.

  3. I’m getting the hang of it, but I do have one question: Does the reacting person get to see the acting person’s roll before rolling the reaction?

  4. Yes he does.

    And actually, the intention is for all dice rolls to be completely visible.

  5. Yeah, it’s definitely a lot of game to absorb all at once. I think that stems from two things.

    1) It’s jargon-heavy. Most of the rules feature multiple game-specific jargon terms, making it hard to grasp an individual rule without learning a number of the basics first.

    2) It’s deceptively thick. By this I mean that the game, from the outside, can trick you into coming into it thinking it’s simpler and less crunchy than it actually is. This can lead to situations where you know the rules to either side of a situation, but the way they interact has certain factors to it as well, and without knowing those situation-specific rules things can seem off. We ran into this a few times in the test game I played with you, if I recall correctly, including using area effects on mobs as you mentioned. In my experience, Savage Worlds suffers from the same problem.

    Neither of these make the game bad. On the contrary, it’s a very solid system for this style of gameplay.

    They do make it somewhat more difficult to learn, though.

    Altogether, I’d recommend at least the Watcher doing a full read-through of the rules manual before the game, maybe even going back to certain sections to review. But to really get a handle on the game, to the point the entire group is comfortable, will likely require either an experienced person leading it, or a few sessions of play with the book handy.

  6. We played our first session last night, with three players. None of us were the least bit interested in playing stock Marvel characters, so we spent most of the evening making characters, which helped us get to know parts of the rules – like building dice pools. Our group’s been playing Pathfinder for almost 18 months straight, so these rules are a huge departure for us.

    Anyway, we screwed up all sorts of things regarding stress, reaction rolls, and the like. I had a sudden realization that I didn’t know how to have a character “roll Perception” as I would in PF…had to figure that out, ended up using the Doom Pool as opposition.

    One question to the peanut gallery: Distinctions. What if none of a character’s distinctions fit a situation? Is that die left out of the pool? I’d think so. I know this post recommends using a scene distinction, but since we were so early in the process of learning the rules, I had none. Any suggestions?

  7. If no Distinctions are appropriate, you don’t get a die.

    However, that’s why it’s important to have Scene Distinctions, so the characters cause those.


  8. Argh… Players ‘can use’…

    Stupid autocorrect.

  9. PapaRudd says:

    Thank you for these tips. I have read, re-read, paced and re-read these rules and your article helped me condense my thoughts!

    For someone who started on 1st ed D&D with the pummeling table, to AD&D with thac0, to 3rd with feats and Prestige Classes, to the downfall of 4th (mixing a card game, board game, rpg, and mini game into one)…..We old guys are looking forward to our first game this weekend.


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