This week in am reviewing Marvel Heroic Roleplaying from Margaret Weis Productions.
First things first – the game as a PDF, or at least a set of PDFs. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying available from DriveThru RPG includes six items; the 234 page basic
• Marvel Heroic Basic Book,
• a cheat sheet for Watchers,
• a cheat sheet for players,
• a guide to character creation,
• a catalog of Marvel Heroes,
• and an example of play.
The basic Marvel Heroic book comes with a nice table of contents, an index and book marks. None of the other documents, aside from the 48-page catalog of heroes, are really long enough to include bookmarks. The catalog is problematic as it is a perfect repetition of a catalog that already exists in the main book, and it should have bookmarks to make it easier to navigate. It also does not include any of Marvel’s notable villains.
All the works are full color, well designed and include ample art from Marvel comics. The pages are a bit busy in terms of layout, but not badly so – though it can take a few seconds for the busier pages to fully load and present all their contents.
Moving on we get to the mechanics – as with other games from Margaret Weis Productions, such as Smallville, Firefly and Leverage, Marvel Heroic employs a variation of the Cortex System. Marvel Heroic does a good job in setting up a structural dynamic similar to the comic books it seeks to emulate. That is any comics, not just Marvel, something I will get back to soon. It is deeply story driven rather than a numbers game. This is a virtue and a handicap for the game.
Unfortunately, Marvel Heroic is not a good choice for people new to role-playing games. Narrative fiction does work under a system of rules, such as tension between opposed forces, rising action, character arc, climaxes and so forth. However, these rules are not as transparent or intuitive as the basic arithmetic that determines the mechanics of many, if not most, role-playing game systems.
The basic book is dense with terminology that can be difficult for new gamers or gamers used to a more mechanically straightforward affair. This includes terms like Affiliation, Stress and the Doom Pool.
The book introduces a double handful of potentially new terms and while there is a lexicon, it is in the back of the book rather than the front. As such, the plethora of new terms is a hurdle for first time gamers.
In the game, character are built out of various traits, including specialties, distinctions, powers and the like. Examples of these include elements such as being a trained human, an altered human, being best in a team, being best as part of a pair or being best when operating along, enhanced strength, enhanced durability and resistance to cold or heat. Further, characters include details such as personality traits, reputations, backstory, a catchphrase or title and some notable feature. Each of these, at least the important ones, receives a dice rating, be it a d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12. The d4 is special case, as it is nominally a liability but grants an advantage later.
To put it another way, think of any particular Marvel Heroic in terms of descriptive terminology, adjectives and adverbs rather than numbers to fill out things like strength, dexterity, constitution and so forth.
Players must keep handy a dice pool matching their characters and when it is required, they roll the appropriate dice. Appropriate dice are determined by a situation in story terms, not mechanically – Captain America’s trait as a natural leader comes into play in group situations with a team behind him, but would not be much of an issue in a singular combat with a robo-Nazi. There are ultimately too many variations and possibilities to get into in a single review, suffice to say to it is a system that is so dynamic it can be frustratingly flexible. Players employ the highest two dice and the next two highest dice for attempts to accomplish tasks or do something important. The doom pool is the name of the dice pool the game master employs for villains and difficult situation; it is the dice pool that opposes the player actions. The same basic rule about rolling the dice of the dice pool governs all situations where dice are rolled from fighting a killer Sentinel Robot to getting into a snark contest with Spider-Man.
That the game is so potentially flexible is not inherently a problem – depending on the group. Which is the crux of the issue – the rules come from a determination to reflect stories as they appear in comics and in this Marvel Heroic is successful. However, its dynamic quality makes it more vulnerable to disputes at a game table.
The rules of initiative in Pathfinder and 4E D&D are relatively rigid and a determined by an impartial roll of the dice while by comparison order of action in Marvel Heroic depends on fictional constraints. The game master chooses who goes first, based upon who is team leader or the fastest… and then the player of that character chooses who goes next. This might make narrative sense but it also depends upon the group getting on well.
Further, the rules specifically urge game masters to be quote “shamelessly transparent” unquote. This will be a real philosophical change of pace for many game masters.
These are issues that are not accidentally or incidentally a part of the structure of the game, but are basic design elements of the game. They are not flaws, but assets – simply assets that will not suit everyone or for work well for everyone, such as new gamers or contentious group. Among the few real flaws the book possesses is that it does not present any actual villains.
The game is admirably adaptable. A flaw of the Smallville game was excessive amounts of space in that book given over to a canceled TV show. Marvel Heroic fortunately discusses Marvel comic by presenting the major heroes and discussing the comics in large strokes – it does not devote pages to lengthy discussions of what happens in the comic. That space is reserved for the actual game. In any event, it should be with-in reach of a competent game master to use the system with characters from comics such as Dark Horse, IDW, Image, NBM and… what is the other one. Oh, right, and DC Comics.
In the end I give Marvel Heroic Roleplaying a 20 on a d20 with two important qualifiers, first this is not a game for people new to role-playing, even if they are also long time fans of comics, second, this is not a game for a contentious group, unless they also like games exploding in their face – it is best suited to a group which works well together and who are fans of comic books.
[5 of 5 Stars!]