The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game is the latest rpg to bear the license of the much-loved and world-famous Marvel Comics brand. It’s a lot of pressure on Margaret Weis Productions to come out with something extra awesome that can stand the test of time and fan scrutiny, but after having had a chance to read over the book a bit and spend some time studying its contents, I can say that this one is definitely a winner.
The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game is the latest rpg to be powered by the Cortex Plus system, a semi-rules-medium system that MWP has had much success adapting to various games. From Smallville to Leverage, MWP’s team of designers know how to take a simple dice rolling mechanic and spin off all sorts of interesting ways to use it to deliver a specific feel appropriate to the source material. They’re veterans at coming up with neat mechanics that simulate their source material, so there’s little doubt that their design team has what it takes to adapt comic books to tabletop rpg form.
The book itself is a visual delight. The full color pdf I’m reviewing loads quickly and features bookmarks (always a plus!). The layout is simple, consistent, and clear, with the use of both sidebars, callout boxes and even little notes on the margins to tell you where to look up a certain rule that’s being referenced in the text. The art is taken from the comics, and as far as I can see there aren’t any unflattering renditions of any of the characters.
The system for the game however, is something that will take a bit of getting used to if you’re not already familiar with the Cortex system. To put it simply, when making a roll, a player assembles a dice pool, sets aside any 1’s rolled, and picks two dice to serve as his total, and one other die as the effect. There’s quite a number of polyhedral dice involved, and I can easily see the need for around two to three sets of dice for a game to run smoothly. Task resolution has a myriad of little permutations that can change the number of dice in your pool, how many dice you count for your total or the size of your effect die. Overall, it takes a bit of time to get used to, but I suspect that after a few minutes of sample dice rolling through a melee or two will help out with the learning curve.
Character Datafiles (or character sheets) are essentially composed of dice codes linked to traits or descriptors. These are grouped into several categories:
- Affiliations – which detail if the character works best alone (Solo) with one other character (Buddy) or in a group (Team)
- Distinctions – three short phrases that say something about the character, like “Friendly Neighborhood Hero”
- Power Sets – self-explanatory, but detail a character’s available powers, and possible related limits
- Specialties – which represent skills and other know-how)
- and finally Milestones – which are personal goals that bestow an experience bonus upon achieving them
While there’s a whole bunch of hero datafiles in the game, I’m glad that there are guidelines to making your own character as well. What I did find interesting, however, was the fact that the guidelines weren’t restrictive. If anything it was surprisingly permissive, which leads me to conclude that the game works best with groups who are very open to the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Nothing in the rules stops you from getting d12 ratings on everything, but the game does sort of rely on the group to police each other.
This sort of collaborative mood shows up in other places too. Even initiative order, which is traditionally handled as a roll-off in many, many games, is treated her by agreement, or at the GM’s fiat. If it makes sense that Spider-Man acts faster than Captain America, then it does. No mess, no fuss. I get a great feeling about how the game encourages the idea that people are playing this game to have fun, and that the dice rolling and such are meant to support that.
Being a superhero game, The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game also features a fairly diverse set of powers. These aren’t exactly treated with the same attention to minutiae as the HERO system, but they’re meant to support what can or can’t be done in the context of a comic book. Rough guidelines are provided for each tier of power level for each of the powers, and there are also a few other notes encouraging players to feel free to swap out or reskin powers, as well as some more advice on making their own powers.
The book also contains a starter adventure or Event in the form of and adaptation of the “Breakout” storyline of the New Avengers written by Brian Michael Bendis, accompanied by a substantial set of villain datafiles and hero datafiles.
All in all, The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game feels like good, clean fun… as long as all of the participants in the game are willing to comply with a shared concept of what is acceptable or not in the context of the game. A lot of things, from the initiative to the character creation, is a cooperative effort, and I can’t help but feel that it takes a certain kind of maturity to really get the most of this game.
The system itself is easy enough to learn given time, but executing the game requires that players know when to lose gracefully, or roll with the punches when their character ends up stressed out or developing a trauma. Comic book fans might not really mind, to be honest, but I fear for those who tend to prefer mechanical supremacy.
That said, this is the first superhero rpg I’ve read in a while that has me interested in getting a few friends together and running something right now. It has all the things I look for in a system: transparency, speed, and flexibility, and with any luck, I can get a game up and running without much trouble and without needing any special software for it.