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Opportunity Actions: Review – The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game

Hey, gang, it’s me again, your (not really) humble Opportunist. I’ve been doing a lot of reviews lately. Here’s another one. There’s a really great reason I’m writing a review of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. I have been incredibly excited for this one to come out. I hope my excitement doesn’t bias my opinion of the game. Let’s find out.

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is the newest licensed offering from Margaret Weis Productions. It uses the Cortex+ system, a system we’ve seen used a few times before, and used successfully. Here we see it implemented to tell superhero stories. This is a departure from a lot of supers RPGs, where things boil down essentially to a group of people with super powers getting into basic ‘go stop the [BAD GUY] from [DOING SOMETHING REALLY BAD]’. This is not to say that those games are bad. They’re a ton of fun, actually, but the essence of superhero stories doesn’t always play out that way. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying tries to fill that void. First, though, let’s look at the book.

The Book (What, did you think I was kidding?)

The book itself looks fantastic. To be fair, that should be expected. Even if they weren’t using the modern, more cutting edge art style that comics are using, they still have 80 or so years of character design helping the process along. It’s the same idea that makes DC Adventures look so cool. There’s no denying the superior visual quality we’re dealing with here.

On the other hand, the art can influence the look of a book only to a certain point. Layout needs to be visually stimulating enough that it keeps you reading. The look of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is really clean, and you do stay involved. The text doesn’t dry up, and if a particular rule isn’t on the page you’re reading, the referring page is listed in the margins. Some pages are absolutely lousy with references crammed into the margins, and this is a great thing. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve cracked open a rulebook only to spend a huge chunk of time looking around for the page that mentions that one thing you need to know to make a rule make any sense.

The Basic Game book is split into three main parts, each of which are broken up into sections: The Operations Manual, the Breakout mini-event, and Hero Datafiles.

The Operations Manual

This part of the game gives you the ins and outs of how to play the game. You get an overview of the way the mechanics work before the game goes further into breaking down specifics. The first warning here is that there is an enormous amount of information here. The book does its best to put it all out there for you, but the organization can be a little hard to follow at times. This is not a ‘one read through and go’ game. I think it probably best to keep dice handy and work through the examples in the book (which are thankfully plenty). Like I said before, I was grateful that there were so many reference notations in the margins (bonus if you own the PDF: every page number in the book is clickable, making the cross-reference process much smoother).

Breakout

Breakout is the included Event, based on the events of New Avengers #1-#6. It works pretty well as an introductory scenario for the game. You get a variety of villains, and there’s plenty of ways for things to get all oblong-shaped as the story develops. One of the nice things about this game in general is the flexibility of a character driven structure. Breakout shows this off really well.

Hero Datafiles

These are, pretty much, what you’d expect. Twenty or so pregenerated versions of some of your favorite Marvel superheroes. Now, you don’t get everybody, but with twenty three of the more well-known heroes at your disposal, you aren’t left wanting, although I’ll never be satisfied if they don’t make room for Forbush Man!

What!? Don't judge me!

High Points

This game has a bunch. Here’s just a few:

  1.  One mechanic to rule them all. It’s a dice pool mechanic, but unlike most, this uses dice of many sizes as opposed to a static die shape of variable numbers. In Vampire: The Masquerade, for example your stats determine the amount of dice you roll. In Marvel, your stats decide the size of the die you use. It makes the game fun to look at, where a seemingly random appearing set of dice are thrown and fortunes are read. Why is this a good thing? Everything you do, from swinging on a webline, to going claws out at a Sentinel, to having witty banter with supervillains is handled the exact same way. The less you have to learn, the sooner you get to the game.
  2. The MARVEL Universe. I’m not usually a fan of games that use a licensed property. They can be immensely overcooked, and all the fun you were hoping to have gets washed out in material that tries to hard to be canonical and poorly considered mechanics. The difference here is that we’re dealing with a comic book universe in which crazy things happening is a matter of course. Another nice mechanical point is that the game asks you what you want to do before you describe it with mechanics. Imagine the scene, think it out loud, and then scan your sheet to see what’s possible.
  3. Fistfuls of dice. There’s nothing in Marvel that you can do by just picking up one die. Every action requires you to grab at least four dice and usually more. One thing I like to for fun is grab extra dice for free. Some powers let you do that, but the really sneaky way is to use an extra Distinction (descriptive concepts that put a little personality/bonus information into what you do) at a D4. Now, normally you can pick one at a D8 or D4. The D4 means you’re treating the Distinction as a negative thing, like when Spider-Man’s clever insults could potentially get him in trouble. When you take the Distinction at D4, you gain a Plot Point (PP). You can add a second Distinction to your pool by spending a PP. What this means is that essentially you can add a D4 to your pool for a net cost of zero PP. It’s not really that sneaky, but it feels mischievous.
  4. It’s modular. While it’s not explicitly stated in The Operations Manual, you really only need to use as much as you want. There’s all kinds of fiddly little bits that add to the action. You can put the following things in your dice pool: one Affiliation die, one Distinction, one Power from each of your Power Sets (you usually have only one or two), one Specialty, one of your opponent’s Stress or Complication dice, one Asset, and one Push die, Stunt, or Resource. To that, you can add a d6 Push ( to represent some situational thing), an extra Power or Distinction (like I mentioned above), or your own Stress, plus any special dice you might get from effects tied to your Powers. Really, though, you don’t need to roll more than four or five dice (Affiliation, Distinction, one or two Powers, and a Specialty). When I first tried the system, I tried to cram as many dice as possible into every roll. At one point, I rolled 14 dice (D4+5D6+4D8+2D10). Meanwhile, other players who were focused more on learning the system than pushing its limits were rolling the regular four dice. The funny part is you couldn’t tell the difference. Really the biggest difference is one player saying (as Wolverine), “I claw at the guy,” and myself saying (as Daredevil), “I spring from the darkness towards the dangerous foe. I swing my billy club at him, trying to use the zipline to hogtie prepared to take another swipe if I miss. I use my radar sense to guide me…<blah, blah, blah>”
  5. The XP system. Marvel uses a concept called ‘Milestones’ to figure out experience. This system is phenomenal. If you take nothing else away from this game, remember the Milestone system. A lot of games work on the concept of killing monsters and stealing treasure to gain experience. The Milestone system offers three different qualifiers to gain experience based on personal goals as well as story objectives. You pick two Milestones which gives you six different ways to advance.

I could keep going on points like this, but you get the idea.

Rough Edges

There’s some things about this game that can be sort of wonky. It’s not that the system is bad. It’s really good, actually. Some of these things may represent a barrier to entry for some, which isn’t so good if you’re trying to attract folks that don’t normally play RPGs or players that might not have the strongest attention spans when it comes to learning a new system.

  1. Organization. I showed this rulebook to a Japanese friend of mine who writes stereo instructions. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I’m kidding. That’s a little more harsh than I really feel, but it sounded too funny to let it go. The truth is that this book does some serious organizational difficulties. I have probably read through this book four or five times, and I’ve never read it in order. It’s like that because every rule that you need to know refers you somewhere else. The core mechanical concepts are loaded on up front before you understand any of the elements that they use. The character sheet is explained toward the end, where you learn what the different things on the sheet are after the rest of the book tells you what to do with them. While it’s good that there are references in the margins of every page, it is a LOT of flipping back and forth.
  2. Missing rules. The base ruleset is really fine just the way it is, but there are some important specifics that simply aren’t there. The elegance of the core rules means that specific rulings are easy to work out for yourself and some Watchers may have to try on their game design hats. Some might find the prospect daunting. For example, I got into a discussion with someone on how to do a chase scene. Is the distance between opponents an Asset, a Scene Distinction, or a Complication? It could be any one of the three. If a villain has a Gear Limit, should you target the powers like you can target Assets, or should the player activate the Limit? What happens when two heroes decide they want to duke it out? (I’m getting technical here, but things can get convoluted if a rules dispute emerges.)
  3. Sticky modularity. Like I said before, this game can be tailored to how much crunch you want to toss around. Unfortunately, what happens more often is that a player is simply unaware of what it is he or she can do. There are a few examples of this, but they all go back to player ignorance, which may reflect back on the organizational difficulties.

Another Thing

I’ve heard that character creation isn’t very clear. I think the bigger issue is that it’s not done the way people are used to. There’s no die rolling, no point buy, and no real restrictions to speak of. There’s just a checklist and you’re encouraged to take your cues from the pregenerated characters. People tend to forget that this is a game of big pulpy storytelling, not D&D with eye-lasers. It’s really geared toward basing your character on one that already exists. Hell, you could probably take the guy you made in Mutants & Masterminds and port him right over. One of the first things I did was make up a Green Lantern, and I had no trouble with it at all. I think the character creation is just fine the way it is.

Conclusion

I feel like I might have been a little hard with my criticisms. The issues are there, but they are far overshadowed by the fact that this is just a fun game to play. Regardless of your own personal level of skill as a gamer, you will have fun playing this. Like I said earlier, if you can get past the rulebook’s organizational issues, it’s going to be a really good time. For me it was the struggle between my attention span and my love for the Marvel Universe. Luckily, my attention span lost. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a winner as far as I’m concerned.

Links! (Updated 3/26/12)

I almost forgot these.

  • I had a chance to play this over Google+ with Brent and crew over at The RPG Doctor. We recorded the session, and you can check it out here. It’s pretty fun if you’re into actual plays.
  • Margaret Weis Productions The makers of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Find the game there.
  • The Marvel Universe Wiki You’re gonna need this.
  • Plot Points A fansite for the game operated and maintained by Dice Monkey. This one’s the go to for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. This is also where I got another opportunity to play. In fact, I even wrote something small for the site. Find it here. (3/26)

Watch your threatened squares, true believers!

Update! 3/21

Having played a couple of times now, there’s one thing I don’t know if I jive with. That’s emotional stress. If a character gets emotionally stressed out, then their emotions get the better of them. In the case of someone like Wolverine, that could potentially exhibit itself in a violent outburst. Now, when something like that happens, Wolverine is hardly taken out of the Scene, although that’s what happens in the rules. I’m not sure how it would work out if Wolverine flew into a rage in a scene where he stresses out emotionally. It shall require some thinking. Although, I have to admit, watching Wolvie losing his Canadian bacon at a black-tie dinner would not only be fun to watch, but it would also play right into his “…What I do isn’t very nice” Milestone. Fourteen XP scene, anyone?

About

The Opportunist (a.k.a Seamus) has been playing D&D and/or some other form of RPG for the last 24 years. For the past two years he has been at the head of the table, behind a screen, in the role of the DM. He began at Cub Scout Camp, played through high school, and still enjoys gaming today. Seamus is a graphic designer by day, a devoted husband and father of two all the time, and an all around good guy. That is, until you get him behind the DMing screen, then he can be a nightmare (in a good way, no, really!).

10 Responses to “Opportunity Actions: Review – The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game”

  • I’ve also got the game. It does look good and I like the core system, but it’s not quite enough to wow me into feeling a craving to play right away. Part of it is that I guess I’m just not a big enough super hero gaming fan.

    Part of it is that I feel that there’s a bit too much emphasis on playing or creating stats for existing Marvel characters over making your own. I would have liked more about making your own characters (with examples) and super teams or partnerships along with how to tie them into the existing Marvel world. I’d also have liked more examples of the game in play, though that’s a personal choice rather than what I see as a design concern like the original characters issue.

  • Yeah, there’s a level of buy-in that helps. I’m a dyed in the wool comics nerd, so I’m already pretty sold on the want to play. After I got the chance to read it and try it out, the system turned out to be more than what I’d hoped for.

  • I was pleasantly surprised by the game, as I’ve not been a big fan of the FATEification of Cortex…but this is a very well thought out set of mechanics that well captures the feel of comic books.

    I fou nd the charactr creation to be the best part. None of the balancing act of trying to squeeze a concept to bit the point buy limit, no random BS…just build the character you want. Most comic characters spring to life with their powers fully developed and on dislay; this is not the genre for “Level 1″ nonsense.

    I’m looking forward to playing it, although I think the extravagant amount of stuff you can do with plot points and trading dice needs reigned in until people are familiar with it.

  • I absolutely agree. That’s one aspect that I think makes the game shine, that you can pare the down to what your brain can handle and add on as you get more and more comfortable with it.

    Character creation in this game seems to be a hot-button. Many are saying that it barely exists and munchkiny gamers will abuse the fact that you can just throw whatever numbers you want at the piece of paper in front of you. What they forget is that you can do that in any game. Strict character generation rules are designed to keep players and GMs honest. This game expects folks to actually be honest up front and not front-load your Baron von BA with ridiculous power combinations. That’s why I think it works best to model established heroes, since they’re pretty well-known, or at least better known than something completely made up.

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  • Apparently they read my comment here (and elsewhere, as I’ve said it several times) and there’s now a PDF of an example of play over at the MWP website.

  • Yeah, I’ve printed it and plan to give it a read-through tonight.

  • […] some familiarity on your part with the product. However, let me point you to a few relevant reviews Here, Here, Here, & Here. Yes. All the reviews are written by one […]

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  • Just to give credit where credit is due: i think this game is a great learner of previous open and great games, more than a new invention.
    (Not that there’s anything wrong with that: it’s thrilling that such creations now go into a “big” license game – it’s not about being original, it’s about making the best setup for fun at the table).
    FATE was mentioned back there, and it sure is a main influence in Distinctions (Aspects), the Assets/complications mechanics, the stress and trauma, and a large etc…
    But the other influence one can easily see is in the Milestones which are, 1 to 1, The Shadow of Yesterday’s “Keys”. If you loved them, then the praise should go to Clinton R. Nixon, the game designer behind their first appearance, and one of the most unfairly forgotten (and generous, as almost everything he did was licensed through C.C.) game designers i know of.

    Anyway, great review about a very good game. I’ll bookmark this site…