Thursday, September 27, 2012

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Review

There's been quite a lot of buzz about the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game recently.  It won Gold in the Best Rules category of the 2012 Ennies, as well as two Silvers for Product of the Year, and Best Game. 

It's worth mentioning that I am not a massive comic-book or Marvel fan.  I used to be though and my attic is full of 1980s comics and graphic novels, including classics like Watchmen, Batman Returns, Ronin, etc.  I also have very fond memories of playing the original TSR Marvel RPG (FASERIP anyone?!) as well as sessions of the DC Heroes RPG and Golden Heroes RPG. It's fair to say that I've played a few in my time (though, strangely, never touched Champions). But all that was a long time ago and it's been an age since I looked at them.  It's also worth mentioning that I generally played a PC rather than GMed, as I never enjoyed making up superhero plots.

The awards the new Margaret Weiss published version received, as well as my own peeked interest (as much because of the recent brilliant Avengers Assembled movie, as anything else) made me decide to check out the game.

So what's it all about then?

The Marvel Heroic RPG (MHR for short) Basic Edition comes in a 228 page softbound book, which is divided into three main sections; the Operations Manual, The 'Breakout' Event (scenario), and Datafiles (Heroic characters for the event)
The rules for MHR are detailed in the Operations Manual and they are pretty and very flexible.  The central mechanics of the rules are the Dice Pool; a collection of dice of various sizes (from D4 to D12, there is no D20 or D% used in this game), which you then roll, the Doom Pool; a resource pool of Dice that the Watcher (aka the GM) uses to indicate the danger of the situation and to counter the PCs, Plot Points; the game 'currency' that PCs use to do cool things.

Here's how they work in play..

The Dice Pool Mechanic
Your hero has a number of traits that you use to build up your pool.  The first is your Affiliations which is an indication of how well you operate either as a Solo hero, with a Buddy, or in a Team. The second is your Distinctions which are typically defining your background, personality etc. and can be used positively for D8 or negatively for D4 (more on that later).  You then have your Power Sets which indicate what you can do with your amazing powers, and finally you have Specialities; skills and knowledges.
To act, you describe what you want your hero to do (being as descriptive as possible!) and the desired effect, and pick appropriate dice from each of your traits to roll. Let's do that will Captain America (check out the link for a copy of his datafile):

The Capt is on his own and comes across a HYDRA agent up to no good. He wants to slam the agent with his shield..
He starts with D6 from his Solo Affiliation (not great, but Capt is at his best in a Team situation where he gets a D10).
Looking at his Distinction we decides that 'Sentinel of Liberty' indicates his desire to see Hydra defeated, and we use this in a positive way to give us a D8 die.
Captain America has two Power Sets 'Super-Soldier Program' and 'Vibranium-Alloy Shield' and he can use one trait from each by default so we'll pick Enhanced Strength D8 and Weapon D8.
The Capt is one of the worlds best fighters so it's no surprise that we have 'Combat Master' D10 to use, and we do...

The Dice Pool then is D6, D8, D8, D8, D10.  That's a good dice pool to roll!

We declare that we want to cause Physical Stress.
We roll the dice pool and and we get  4, 1, 7, 8, 8 respectively.
Now we build the result.  Firstly we set the 1 to one side; we can't use that. When a 1 is rolled on the dice it's called an Opportunity and can be used by the Watcher (GM) to increase the Doom Pool.
We then have to decide which 2 dice we are going to use for our effect total and decide to pick the D8 roll of 7 and the D8 roll of 8. We add them together for an effect total of 15. Nice!
Finally we take one of the remaining dice (we have a D6 and a D10 left) to use as our Effect. We choose the D10.  For the effect the number on the dice is irrelevant; is the size of the dice that indicates the level of the effect.
So Capt America has swung his shield at the Hydra agent and rolled an effect total of 15 with an effect dice of D10.

To counter the Capt, the agent would build his own pool and roll the dice. If he doesn't roll over Capts total then he's hit for D10 of physical Stress - Ouch!

The Doom Pool Mechanic
The Doom pool is used exclusively by the Watcher to fuel the actions of his characters, as well as an indication of how much challenge or danger there is.  The dice in the pool can be used to add dice to bad guys dice pools, to roll against the hero's actions if there are no bad guys present (Can Collosus pick up that truck? Roll against the Doom Pool), or to do a number of other cool things like creating Scene Distinctions ('the room is now on fire - Burning Room D8') which people can then use in building the dice pool.
Under normal circumstances the Doom Pool starts at 2D6.  When a PC rolls a 1 on a dice (as Capt America did above), the Watcher can activate that opportunity by giving the player a Plot Point and either increasing the Doom Pool by a D6 or increasing a dice in the pool by one step; say from D6 to D8. As you can imagine as the action progresses the Doom Pool gets bigger and the game gets harder.

Plot Points
Plot Points are the players' 'currency'; they are gained and used up throughout play and, like the Watchers Doom Pool, can be used for a number of things; adding extra Effect Dice, performing Stunts, etc. PPs are only ever used by players as the Watcher has his Doom Pool to use instead.  Plot Points can gained easily by using a Distinction in a negative way. For Example Captain America could have used his 'Sentinal of Liberty' distinction when fighting the HYDRA agent if we describe it that Capt is attacking before giving the agent a chance to surrender which is something he's uncomfortable doing. Doing so means he uses a D4 instead of a D8 in his pool but does gain 1 PP.

These mechanics can be used for everything in the game, and it's worth noting that the emphasis is on collaborative narrative play.  There are no figures, no maps, and both players can the Watcher can creative assets ('I pick up the car and throw it at him'), complications ('Carnage wraps you in his tentacles'), or Scene Distinctions ('Narrow Hallway D8')

Intiative, Scenes, Events and More
There are a number of other aspects that make the rules system interesting.  Who acts first is decided by the Watcher and then that person decides who acts next; allowing players to chain their attacks (Collosus: 'I'm picking up Wolverine and throwing him at the Sentinel [a Support Action to generate a 'fastball special' Die for Wolverine to add to his Pool], and now it's Wolverine's turn!'). The game uses two types of Scenes - Action and Transition to construct Events which makes it easy for the Watcher to make their own scenarios.  The use of the Pool mechanic for emotional and mental challenges as well as the more typical physical challenges is great, and Milestones which encourage the Players to role-play to gain XP, which can be used to add PPs, unlock special events or new heroes to play.

Breakout Event
Included in the Basic book is the 'Breakout Event'; a short (two Act) scenario which allows you to recreate the story from New Avengers comic issues 1-6.  It includes all the datafiles for the villains you'll need, as well as un-lockables and milestones that players can take at the beginning to tie their PCs closer to the story ('Round up the fugitives' for example).  It makes a good introduction to the MHR system and is likely to last a couple of sessions of play, with options to extend it much further should you want. 

Finally the MHR basic game ends with a number of Datafiles.  These are complete PCs for players to use and include a number of icons (Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, Spiderman, to name but a few).  It's clear that these are really included specifically for you to play through the Breakout event with and if you're looking for the stats for Deadpool, you're going to be disappointed (and will need to wait for the Civil War Event book). There are though, enough datafiles included to keep most people happy and anyone that would want to play a Marvel superheroes game in the first place is likely to know someone. 
The data files highlight one of the great aspects of the MHR game. Though there are various power levels, it's quite possible for Black Widow to stand alongside Iron Man without feeling like a fifth wheel.  The power levels, coupled with the narrative nature of the game, allow everyone to be able to have an impact.

The Marvel Heroic Role play game is not perfect (though it's pretty close!)  The rules are very simple and might be too simple for those gamers that need books and books of detail (D20 and D&D players, I'm looking at you...)  In play the narrative nature is open to interpretation and possible abuse in the wrong hands; something the Watcher will need to look out for.  The Operations Manual reads well first time, but isn't easy to use as a reference guide later on and in play I found myself struggling to find a rule. The Experience System isn't really about improving your hero, which again might not be to the taste of gamers used to more obvious character progression. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Dice Pool mechanic takes up quite a lot of time in play as the player has to describe the action they are going to perform and the Watcher has to describe a reaction. There's nothing really wrong with this, but action scenes do take some time to resolve; at least initially. Finally, whilst there are rules for character creation, it's quite clear that the designers really want you to play Marvel heroes from the comics. 

My issues with the MHR system are minor in reality.  The fact is that this game is one of the best systems to come out over the last couple of years and it well deserves the awards it received.  It encourages colloborative narrative story telling supporting by an extremely flexible ruleset. Many of the rules mechanics are fresh and inspired (I'm thinking of stealing the Initiative rules for other games!) and I can easily see this game being used to introduce new gamers to role-playing. It really is that simple and well..FUN!
It won't be for everyone. I'm still not sure that it will sustain a long campaign (though I would love to try out the Civil War Event book) and the style of play might take some time to adjust to, but I'm personally loving it. As a game MHR captures the comic style perfectly, it's easy to understand, fun to play, and doesn't require heavy investment in maps and minis (you will need a bucket full of dice though!)
Marvel Heroic Roleplay is a great game. It deserves to be hugely successful and I hope to see many supplements for it. If you have a passing interest in superhero games, like narrative storytelling, or are just looking for something to pass a few hours and have fun with some friends, you HAVE to get this.

HIGHLY recommended.

Rating 5/5 

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