Epic Changes: Converting from “Pathfinder” to “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying”

As our Pathfinder game progressed through 18 months, 75+ adventures, and nearly 20 levels of play it was increasingly apparent that we had captured lightning in a bottle. Despite the pressures of adulthood, careers, significant others and children in some ways our play group of nearly two decades had just started to hit its stride. Thanks to our DM, the world was teeming with possibility, fantastically developed, and linked together with a metaplot that we had been organically and naturally unraveling since day one. Meanwhile, each player had reached a synthesis of Pathfinder-style combat potency and crafting believable personalities for well-rounded three dimensional play. There was only one problem: Pathfinder itself.

As players options increased, analysis paralysis set in. Our DM found his painstakingly and time-consuming efforts to challenge us increasingly bypassed, ignored, or worked around. Based on my own enthusiasm and work on Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, I demoed it for everyone, with the same setting and player characters. Ultimately, this demo combined with the aforesaid problems and our love for the story to prompt us to switch our game system from Pathfinder to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. This transition exposed how a game system transformed the tone of the game, aided in codifying the emergent plot elements typical to epic play, and caused struggles in rediscovering each character’s identity. (Disclaimer before we go too far: I freelance for Margaret Weis Productions for upcoming Marvel products, as do several other CH writers.) 

Setting the Tone

As our power increased in Pathfinder, the nature of our power was highly codified. Moreover, much of the power was represented by better attack bonuses, defenses, and damage output. Our adventures stakes increased, but our characters grew more calcified. Specialization was virtually required to tackle difficult challenges, and so our Bard had to say everything while sometimes only the Fighter could hope to legitimately hit foes. Even within those areas of expertise, the system codified and set the limits of what could be done. Even though we were virtually gods compared to the poor common plebeians of the world, we were only able to behave that way in our niche.

All that changed with the switch. After some initial hiccups, both the Watcher and I made sure to emphasize the narrative nature of the game, and the strength of Plot Points. Our fighter could, if described properly, leverage his strength to intimidate people. The roles within the party melted away and the characters could act when their internal motivations prompted them to.

Making the Plot Crunchy

In Pathfinder, each character had a henchmen and a number of characters led organizations, held political office, and had clout across the world. With the exception of henchmen, much of the in-game benefit for these accomplishments were ephemeral. A character’s mercenary band was all well and good, but what good did a few platoons of first level characters do for a high level adventurer? Not much.

With mobs of troops, friendly battlecruisers that can call down bombardments or even end scenes, and troupe style play, the heroes are suddenly clamoring to spend XP to codify what was essentially window-dressing in Pathfinder. The sprawling set of ties, resources, and allegiances that dozens of Pathfinder adventures bring seems to come together quite nicely in the form of (heavily modified) Marvel rules.

Rediscovering Your Role

Pathfinder is a system that codifies in great detail what a character can do. Spellcasters had more options, but those options had limits, restrictions, precise areas of effect and the typical D&D faire. While the simpler builds took 1 minute turns (oftentimes finding themselves with less to do because of the insanity of 20-23rd level monsters) our poor sorceress was constantly frazzled trying to figure which of her seventy spells to cast, because none of them seemed just right.

Once converted to MHR, that problem did not go away quite as I expected. We were all playing characters with hundreds of hours of play history. As such, players worked very hard to find the new “Marvel Way” of representing what their characters did. What’s more, is that players were hesitant to step outside their previously imposed bounds. Our sorceress in particular sought to keep her character’s actions true to her Pathfinder roots, but eventually that urge diminished. Seeing the Fighter use his flying armor to smash at breakneck speeds into a Galactus-lookalike while the Bard laid down an impressive Spirit Bomb worthy level of covering fire demonstrated just how “big” the system could be. In short, the players are starting to embrace the comic book roots of things, that if you can justify with a mildly straight face based on your characters powers… why not give it a shot.

Ultimately, the game has transformed in a positive way. The simulationist combats are gone, and although they had greater strategic potential, the feast or famine nature of Epic Pathfinder had turned them into glum churning affairs. As players begin to realize that their ability to effect the gameworld is almost boundless, the characters are emerging from the shackles of the Pathfinder’s Rules as Written and finding that they really can change the scope of the whole game world. For me, that is the essence of epic play. The joy of early adventures was cleverly using resources to get NPCs to behave in unintended ways, set enemy patrols against one another, and winning a fight through some means that shouldn’t work. Our frankenstein monster, Pathfinder Epic Roleplaying, promises to do just that for us as we shape our gameworld in bigger and badder ways.

Comments

  1. That’s awesome! Can you share the character sheets? Both PF and MHRPG would be awesome to see the comparison.

  2. Very cool. I’ve been thinking of doing something with 4e. Would you be willing to share how you went about doing the conversions. I’d love to see the crunchy bits you had to deal with. Thanks!

  3. My 4e hack for Marvel is here: http://critical-hits.com/2012/03/26/fantasy-heroic-roleplaying-a-dd-4e-hack-for-marvel-heroic-roleplaying/ (with a new update coming next month)

    TheMainEvent and the DM from the Pathfinder game are working on ways to share some of their conversions online.

  4. TheMainEvent says:

    If you want to see how the process worked for a few characters, check out my original post:

    http://critical-hits.com/2012/05/03/pain-of-publication-ninja-testing/

    As Dave said, I am working with my current DM/Watcher on a joint post showing the down and dirty of what we have done 🙂

  5. I express similar conversion thoughts for a 3.5e character on my own blog.

    I’m honestly not sure if any new games I run or play are going to be straight d20. Hacks of story systems are just so alluring!

  6. This was an interesting read. But when you said you’re using heavily modified Marvel rules, why couldn’t you just modify the Pathfinder rules to suit your needs? I just started running a Pathfinder game as a first-time GM with mostly inexperienced players. I plan to let the players get away with lots of quirky stuff (like Intimidating with Strength instead of Charisma) if they can justify it and/or roleplay it. Is there a reason this approach wouldn’t work for your campaign?

  7. TheMainEvent says:

    @Suspense: The heavily modified rules you spoke of were long commonplace in our pathfinder game. The Fighter got to use his STR to intimidate, we had modified mount rules to make them more viable in dungeon settings, and a host of other “Fixes.” And they did help the game, but as we got higher level it was more us fighting the system than the system facilitating play. Tougher fights took easily consumed a whole evening. Overall, the game outgrew Pathfinder.

  8. I really didn’t fully understand this article. I wish you had given specific details of situations in game where these “breakdowns” occurred and the requirement to meld in a different system was necessary? Tell us of a RP or combat situation the article applies to that your group has experienced.

  9. TheMainEvent says:

    @Enix: In the 20th level adventure finale we played we fought the Avatar of an evil god: a twinked out fighter-mage. THe fight against him went one of two ways: a characters had cheesy ways to avoid the attack, characters were instantly killed by a flurry of melee/spell combos. Ultimately, to challenge us in combat, things had to be unfairly fatal or mean-spirited.

    Furthermore, our spell casting characters spent a lot of effort scrying and thwarting similar attempts from political rivals. This left hapless fighter types out in the cold if they were separated. Our DM either had to nonsensically ignore the opportunities to presented, or punish the Fighter for simply being his character.

  10. One of the things I have been following with great interest is the transition that Star Wars role playing is making from WotC’s Saga Edition to Fantasy Flight’s Edge if the Empire. It’s a very similar move – a d20 system making way for a narrative dice pool system. And one if the comments made on d20 Radio’s forums was that d20 is phenomenal for tactical, simulationist gaming (battle maps and min/maxed bonuses), whereas both Marvel and EotE are heavily descriptive, evocative, and rely little on hard “truths” of the game world.

    It may be difficult to have the same skirmish war game feel from Marvel as you get from Pathfinder, but at the same time you aren’t locked into the constraints of d20. TheMainEvent brings up one of the frustrations I have with higher level DnD/Pathfinder, which is the great disparity between beginners and phenoms. An appropriate challenge for some PCs becomes a death trap for others – at that point for example, it’s possible for one PC to have a saving throw >20 higher than another PC. Auto success for one is auto failure for the other.

    I think really what the takeaway here is that for TheMainEvent’s group, Marvel is exactly what they needed to revitalize the campaign. For Enix and Suspense, Pathfinder may well be fulfilling the needs that have at their tables just fine.

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  2. […] apply it to a variety of genres, settings, and intellectual property. Having played in a game that began as Pathfinder and switched to MHRP and kept the same setting, I have experience in crafting MHRP to fit unusual circumstances. I have […]