Marvel Heroic Roleplaying by @margaretweispro: A Review #MarvelRPG
I’ve been promising a review of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying by Margaret Weis Productions, so here it is. The short review goes something like this: I really like this game. A lot. I appreciate that it does a genre that we are all familiar with, superheroes, and does it in a way that I have not seen it done before. I like that it moves quickly once you understand what is going on. I like the focus on Events, which are somewhat controversial, since they play out like the arcs you would read in a comic book. I don’t mind that the character creation system is very freeform or that the character progression is reset after each Event, although I understand that some may find that to be problematic. The game is meant to balance in play, not at character creation, and the character progression model is representative of most comics: Characters in the long term, tend to stay roughly around their same power level and, when they do move away, tend to revert back to their default state eventually.
With all that effusive gushing out of the way, I will note that the game is not perfect. The learning curve is steep, at least it is for me, because the game operates very differently from any other game I’ve played. We have an existing vocabulary of roleplaying game rules that those of us that have been doing this for a long time have built up in our head. We tend to use previous games to analogize how we play new games but Marvel Heroic Roleplaying does not analogize very well. Which is a good thing, because challenging those expectations challenges the notion of what a game should or shouldn’t do and how it should or shouldn’t go about doing it. If every game is the same, then you may as well just use one system (and some do) to play all game types. If the system does not contribute to creating a better feel for the genre it is meant to simulate, then all systems are equally inadequate and then it doesn’t matter. But it does matter and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, once you get it, nails the feeling of crafting a comic book story.
The learning curve for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying will likely not be that bad if you have played Margaret Weis Productions’ Leverage game (based on the television show of the same name), which is built on the same underlying system – “Cortex Plus”, a system that has evolved over the years of MWP printing any number of licensed property roleplaying game products. It will also likely be an easier curve if you are already familiar with the “indie” roleplaying movement, sometimes referred to as the “narrativist” movement. These games, as a generalization, tend to try and focus on telling the story not simulating the action. I think that this is important to note because, although I cannot state with certainty because I am not in lead designer Cam Banks’ head, I think it informs how to approach the game. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s mechanics exist to create a comic book. The mechanics, in many ways, mirror a process in which there is a branching story and we role based on the importance of various scene factors to see which branch we follow. It does not, as many games before it attempt to, seem to try to replicate exactly how strong a person is, or how smart, or every area of their knowledge; if a character’s refractor beam can penetrate steel or can only bend zinc (with an accompanying chart). This focus makes many of the rules make more sense than if you look at them from a more traditional approach. However, don’t let me tell you that Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is some sort of fancy storytelling game (although I like those, too), it just uses some of the mechanics that have come out of that movement to better emulate its genre in an attempt to create a more engrossing game. It succeeds in almost every way.
The book itself is a paperback with a little over 225 pages. Only about 125 of those pages are rules and the remaining pages are made up of a Mini-Event based on The New Avengers Breakout arc and a bunch of character write-ups. The list of available heroes is a pretty good selection (Daredevil, Spider-man, Wolverine, and Cyclops, to name a few), but the villain selection does not carry many A-list villains (Carnage, Silver Samurai, Tombstone, Graviton, Crossbones, Sauron, and Electro are the highlights for me). This is not a big deal for me, as villains (and heroes) are super easy to write-up, but it could be a problem for some.
We will cover rules down below, but there are still two major topics to touch on regarding Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Events and Character Creation. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s expansions are being released based on the Event format. An Event is a write-up of a particular moment in Marvel history (say, the Age of Apocalypse), appropriate character profiles from that time (Apocalypse, Dark Beast, One-handed Wolverine, Blink), and an adventure set in that time period. Since comic characters change over time (and may have different power sets or power levels depending on when the adventure is set), I think this is a good way to release expansions. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is built to be played in arcs much like the material it is based on, so character growth is limited to within a single Event (so, while there is character progression, once an Event ends all of the progression is reset). Advancement is done through characters reaching Milestones (experience points for performing acts appropriate to your character or having your character make a tough decision). These Milestones are set beforehand and likely indicate the direction the story will be going, be it towards a final showdown with the villain or towards a difficult decision between self-sacrifice and fame.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is meant to let characters of disparate powers contribute on the same team and seems to perform that job admirably. I have heard people say that the system is meant to balance in play and not in character creation, and that definitely seems to be the case. Character creation, as it exists in the book, basically boils down to assigning whatever powers and power levels you think are appropriate for your character. There is also a random character generator (character sheets are referred to as Datafiles) available from Margaret Weis Productions. There have also been some fan-suggested point buy systems, but none has been officially adopted. So long as everyone builds a reasonable character that is interesting, the amount of die variance (instead of using a straight bonus system, say +12 to your roll if you are The Hulk) allows heroes of vastly different power levels to work together.
The basic system in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is not terribly difficult, but it does require some getting used to. I’m not even going to begin to try and explain all of the rules here, just to give a basic overview. Each character/scene/villain has a number of Traits (how good a particular power is, that they are an expert in combat, or that they are great working with a team, for instance). Each Trait has a rating which is equal to a die type (d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12), with larger types meaning that the character is better at that thing. When you take an action, you add each appropriate die on your Datafile, typically one of each applicable Trait type, into your pool and then roll all of the dice you have. You get your result by setting aside any ones you rolled (which can then be used against you by the opposing player), picking two dice to add together to determine whether or not you succeed (called the Total), and choose one remaining die to serve as the Effect, which is how well you did what you were trying to do. The Effect die only uses its die type (d6, etc), so a d8 that rolled a 1 is the same as a d8 that rolled a 7 for purposes of Effect. You then compare your Total to the roll of the Watcher (the game master in MHR terms), who uses a similar dice pool from either a character opposing you or the Doom Pool if you are taking an action which might fail but is not actively opposed by another character. The Watcher goes through the same process of setting aside two dice for a total and one die for the Effect and you compare your Totals. The player with the higher Total succeeds and, if the successful character was the one acting, may then use the Effect die to cause Stress (damage) to the opposing character or provide an advantage to a future roll or create a Complication on the opposing character that can be used against them later. So, that’s the system in a nutshell: get one die for each applicable trait, roll against your opponent who is doing the same thing, the person with the higher Total wins. If the winner was the character acting, they may use their Effect die to cause something to happen. An example of play can be found on MWP’s Web page, and I definitely recommend you take a look at it to give you a better feel for how the game plays out.
Not so Fast
So far, so good, but there is definitely more going on than just what we’ve looked at so far. I think the sticking points in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying for a lot of people are going to be the use of die types to say how good something is (a d8 Energy Blast power, for instance, would add a d8 into the dice pool when it is used while have d10 stress means that your opponents can add that d10 into their dice pool if they wish, using the fact that you are hurt against you), the number of different uses of Plot Points, and how Assets work.
The first point just takes a little getting used to. Each thing on your character sheet has a rating that indicates what dice it adds to your dice pool. The use of dice types instead of flat bonuses results in a much more forgiving curve that allows lower power characters (Hawkeye) to hang with the most powerful characters (Hulk). If you had only used flat bonuses, Hawkeye could basically never do anything useful against a foe like Galactus, but we know that is not the case in comics. They are not realistic and sometimes, even against a world eater, a guy with some exploding arrows is the hero of the day and this is a game that lets you emulate that.
It is Plot Points, I think, that pose the largest hurdle and create the largest feeling that the game is complicated. Not that Plot Points themselves, actually, but the sheer number of choices for what to do with the, Plot Points are the currency in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and are gained when you have something go wrong with one of your powers, something about your character makes an action harder, or the Watcher uses a one you rolled to add a die to the Doom Pool (which he must then pay for with a Plot Point). Once you have Plot Points you can spend them to add extra dice to your dice pool, to make a reaction roll (one where you are being attacked) cause damage, or make certain powers behave differently, to name a few of the options. The list of things you can do pretty long but, once you get a feel for what they can do, it really isn’t bad. There’s just quite a bit there that is hard to analogize to previous experiences, although it’s all pretty easy once you get a feel for it. Just don’t feel like you need to know how to do everything all at once. If you get in there and play, the main parts of the system will likely click pretty fast and then you can add in the parts you missed later.
The last real hurdle for me is the, to me, unnatural idea that a thing doesn’t have a rating unless it is important to you. If a thug has a Crowbar d6 Trait, you might be able to take an action to disarm the Thug but – even if you narrate picking up the crowbar yourself – you do not get a statistical bonus for the crowbar unless you spend an Effect die to create a Crowbar Asset for yourself on the subsequent turn instead of just gaining some statistical advantage for the mere presence of the crowbar. You create the Asset to make the thing important, although you could narrate using the crowbar on the next turn without gaining any advantage for doing so. Even if you use an Effect die to make an Asset persistent, in which case it lasts until the end of the next action scene.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is my favorite roleplaying game in a long time. It took me a little while to wrap my head around it, I admit, but once I did it all just made sense. I don’t know if some of the issues regarding the learning curve could have been resolved by changing the order some of the rules are presented in but I would encourage you to keep chipping at it and ask around in the community. Even if you don’t play the game perfectly, I doubt that it would break the game terribly so long as you get the gist of the dice pools.
The book is gorgeous to look at and uses a system that does a really great job of emulating the feel of comic books. There are some flaws, and it takes a little bit to learn, but there is a good system lying underneath that does exact what it sets out to do. That alone is well worth the price of admission. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is available directly from Margaret Weis Productions for $19.99. The first supplement based on the Civil War storyline is up for pre-order as well, and can be purchased for $29.99 as an expansion or for $39.99 including the original rulebook.
Additional Related Posts
- Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game Civil War Event Book Essentials Edition #MarvelRPG
- Making a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Event: Like Clockwork, Part 3
- Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: The Supplements So Far #MarvelRPG
- RPG Review: Streets of Bedlam by @jasonlblair – Life in Savage Worlds isn’t always black and white
- Making a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Event: Like Clockwork, Part 4 #MarvelRPG
Michael is an enthusiast about a lot of things, including indie games, roleplaying games, board games, and comic books that wanted to help create a place where he could bring things to the attention of those with similar interests. Futile Position is a true labor of labor, which he hopes continues to grow through the support of the great readers who have come upon this page.