(Editor’s note: as regular readers may know, several of the Critical Hits staff worked on or playtested Marvel Heroic Roleplaying by Margaret Weis Productions. Obviously none of us could make something resembling an impartial review, so we turned to our staff reviewer Wyatt to give it a read, as he was in no way involved in its creation. So enjoy this review from that perspective.)
Life has taken me on a divergent path than a lot of gamers I know. At the ripe young age when people seem to go into comics, I got into Pokemon, and then I watched exactly a million anime shows and read probably twice as many manga. As a child when a Limewire or Kazaa download purporting to be a fansubbed episode of Yu-Gi-Oh turned out to be porn, I was pretty disappointed.
I don’t really have a lot of experience with comics except that I watched The Death and Return of Superman fan-film (warning for language and things) which is absolutely hilarious, and some Marvel comics Hollywood movies. I have, however, played a lot of RPGs, and in the future Marvel Heroic Roleplaying might go into the rotation, though I doubt I will actually use the Marvel serial numbers in my game since I don’t have much attachment to Marvel. It is an interesting game with a versatile core mechanic that models comic book style adventures quite adequately.
Buckets Full of Dice
I’ve never played Leverage before, which seems like it would be helpful for potential new players, if they have experience with that system, since from what I hear Marvel takes after that game. It took me a while to get the hang of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. The first few chapters lay out the dice system and all the trappings, but on a first read, you might find yourself bombarded with terminology, like Stress and Doom Pools, that the character sheet of Captain America can’t explain on its own. If you’re not an experienced RPG player, who can find analogues to these things in other games; it can be confusing to take in the casual mention of them until they’re fully explained. The glossary is at the back of the book – I think it would’ve been better if the glossary was right up front like the old White Wolf books, which also had this kind of problem. I have to admit I found it difficult to get through the mechanical sections of the book – it took me a while to work through the fairly dry explanations and examples. I think a more informal, hammy style of writing could’ve helped the book out.
MHR is a narrative game with a superficially simple dice pool mechanic. The gameplay choices brought on by the pools and their interactions can go quite a bit deeper than is immediately obvious. Essentially, you build your hero or heroine from numerous traits, such as powers, specialties and distinctions, each of which is rated by a die size (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12). All rolls in the game are essentially opposed rolls after building dice pools – you pick out as many of your list of traits as are appropriate and allowed (one from your powers, specialties, resources, and so on) and then throw this bucket of dice unto the table.
By default, you can take two dice to go into your Total, and then one other die to be your Effect die. Your Total is essentially what determines whether or not you succeed, but your Effect die will determine how much of an impact the action has. Using Plot Points, special tokens you receive from dramatic play, you can add more dice to your Total and Effect. You want your total to be high, so you’ll pick die for it based on their results, but for your Effect die, only the size of the die (whether it’s a d6 or a d8, etc) is important. However, any die that rolls 1 is out of your pool entirely, and cannot be chosen: it is given to the Watcher (the Game Master) for the Doom Pool, which has a variety of baleful effects.
Because of this setup, once you’ve rolled your dice, and dove facefirst against the table to pick results for your Total or Effect die, you’ll have a lot of choices. Will you risk a low total so that you can put aside a larger effect die and have a greater impact? If you think you’ll need the results of your larger die to succeed, will you settle on using a smaller Effect die? You have some interesting choices at each step of the way (with a reference card to help you through them) when you roll for your action.
Resources external to your character, as well as damage to your character, are also rated with a die. Assets you gain, Stress you suffer, Complications you’ve dealt or been dealt, as features of Effect die usage; these are more dice that can be added to pools. You could potentially use the Stress die you’ve suffered to your advantage, though this involves stepping up that die, and potentially risking more long-lasting damage to the character. It is a rather solid way to handle common conceits of RPGs – the pool creates advantages, it deals penalties to your enemies, and consequently those are treated as die in enemy pools or your own pool. The core mechanic of the game stretches quite far.
The Doom Pool is a clever feature of the game that extends the concepts featured above. It is essentially the GM’s resources and dice pool, spent on activating the effects of enemy characters, mimicking the Plot Points that a player can spend. It’s also the dice pool that the GM uses to oppose player actions that no enemy is around to oppose, such as the player trying to restore his or her health. The Doom Pool is expanded when catastrophic failures occur, and begins play with a certain amount of die depending on the situation. Both the amount and size of the Doom Pool die is important, and truly cataclysmic events will feature fairly big and broad Doom Pools to challenge the players. For example, an average comic book plotline of finding bad guys and beating them up would only warrant a small starting doom pool of 2d6. A cataclysmic event, where the fate of the entire world could be at stake, would warrant a larger doom pool of 3d10 die.
Build Your Own Paperback
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a narrative-focused game. It was a little surprising at first just how it twists certain concepts that you find in more tactical sorts of games. For example, the Initiative order in Marvel is decided by players. One player acts, then chooses who acts next. Then the final player chooses who acts first at the start of the next initiative. You can choose for an enemy to act if you want – whether or not you do, the enemy will get a turn regardless. In other games, the turn order would be the result of attributes and rolls, and would confer a tactical benefit. In MHR it is more about the rhythm of the story, and cooperation between the players to influence the unfolding story. This can be tricky for players used to more traditional RPGs to get the hang of. For people coming from games like Dungeons & Dragons it is probably going to be an entirely new playstyle.
Other mechanics offer greater mechanical rewards if you incorporate narrative elements. When you spend a Plot Point, you can add a d6 to a roll with no questions asked, but you can put more storytelling effort, narrating and developing your stunts with greater connection to current scene, to get a d8 as a reward instead. You can use your Stress and Complications to your advantage, at the risk of making them worse, if you have a good explanation and narrative timing for it. Being defeated for good is essentially being put on a bus in comics-land, and does not have to entail death – especially given the amount of heroes in real comics who “die” and then just come back (basically all of them). While there is an aspect of tactical gameplay in the building and employing of dice pools and SFX (special powers your hero can use that have unique effects on the gameplay), MHR concerns itself primarily with fostering a narrative in the vein of a superhero comic book story, than with hard tactics. So damage and penalties are banes which can be turned around to serve the player’s stories.
Character Creation seems like it would just be constructing a bucket of dice – but it’s very focused on creating an interesting hero with built-in story hooks. It’s fairly in-depth – it took me a bit of time to make my first character as there’s a lot of information to digest, especially when trying to build a new hero’s power set. Your core dice is your Affiliation: whether you work best alone, with a sidekick or as a big group. You then create Distinctions, which are significant personality traits and types and even accomplishments. They’re rated as a D8 or a D4 depending on whether the Distinction would be beneficial or inconveniencing, and you can make this choice at any time. Choosing the D4 gives you a plot point, because the smaller die is much more likely to roll a 1 and give the Watcher an advantage.
You then choose a power set, of which there are many examples. Specialties are your training and skills, while Milestones are objectives your character has that you are rewarded for achieving. The book seems to suggest that you won’t be making entirely new heroes, but rather adapting existing Marvel heroes that don’t have datafiles in the book already. There’s nothing stopping you from making new ones, but the process is, as described by the book, more of an art than a science, which is mildly off-putting. While there’s not much “optimizing” to be done, it still takes some getting used to trusting everyone to make well-rounded characters, rather than slapping d12 powers and Master specialties all over the place. If they do those things it doesn’t necessarily affect the dynamic of the game all that much, but it’s like I said before, a new playstyle for people who’ve played more traditional RPGs. I still find it a little hard to think around how the character generation works here.
Concluding The Story Arc
Finally let’s talk about the PDF itself. It has over 230 pages, with the first five chapters dedicated to learning the game, taking up about 120 pages to teach it. There seems to be a fair bit of repetition of concepts: Chapter 3 seems to reiterate a lot of things in Chapter 1 but in greater detail. The examples felt very similar, however, and I didn’t feel like I learned that much more from them. There’s an example Event included in the book to show the Watcher how the average game of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying will go. Finally there are sample datafiles for a lot of Marvel heroes. I was happy to see Spiderman and Iron Man, two of the very few Marvel superheroes I’m more familiar with. Captain America and Wolverine also there. There’s over twenty heroes that provide a good variety of examples for your own, which the book purports should take about a half hour to make.
The PDF has a lot of artwork from (I presume) the comics themselves, but some of it seemed to have scaling issues. I tried Adobe Acrobat, and then things like Foxit on Windows and Skim on Mac, and the Artwork still looked a little funky when you zoomed in. I could see a lot of jagged edges and blurring. I suppose it might just be my computer somehow, but it’s very strange. The text is very legible at full size and the layout is pretty nice, though there are essentially sidebars in every page which I’m not all that accustomed too. The PDF has good bookmarks, with every section of the book well-outlined. The book cites itself a lot in the sidebars, but thankfully each citation can be clicked to take you to the page it wants you to look at.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was a bit of a hard book for me to crack, with ideas I hadn’t been all that exposed to before, and was a bit of a dry read, but overall it seems like a really solid game for comic book hero stories. It’s not a game like Mutants & Masterminds, which takes after the d20 System. It’ll take some getting used to if you’ve never played games by the same publisher. I’m not a Marvel comics fan, so there’s a huge subculture value to this game that I’m not the best person to convey – but mechanically it feels interesting and solid, with rules that actively foster a narrative structure without feeling shallow or draconian, as can sometimes be the case. As with many RPGs though, this book is probably best read with a big d10 in your Buddy or Team Affiliation rather than alone, to truly help you “get it.”