Monday, August 8, 2011

Tommy's Take on the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game

In light of the recent news that Margaret Weis Productions has just secured the Marvel RPG license, I thought I would re-post my review of the Marvel SAGA RPG from over four years it is my favorite Supers RPG ever released, and quite possibly my favorite RPG ever released (running nose to nose with Savage Worlds).

Originally posted on in May 2007...enjoy!

The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (hereafter referred to as Marvel SAGA) was released by TSR in 1998 after their card-based fantasy venture Dragonlance: The Fifth Age was put on the market. Someone inside TSR was playing with the card-based system and decided "Hey, this would make a GREAT supers game!" and with a little modification, it did!

Marvel SAGA's (so named because its powered by the SAGA game system, which I will explain in further detail below)core rules were released in a boxed set containing a 208 page rulebook, a 64 page Roster Book and 96 playing cards.

The Box

The box is a handsome piece featuring art by Carlos Pacheco and showing Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine, Storm, Iron Man, Silver Surfer, Thor and The Human Torch all rushing into action together. The cover flap opens, and we see what appears to be a pair of Celestial hands holding Rogue, Thing, Human Torch, Iron Man and Wolverine in one hand and The Grim Reaper, Magneto, Ultron, Sabretooth, The Super-Skrull and Dr. Doom in the other. The box opens at the top, with the contents inside. The box holds everything comfortably, until you crack into the Fate which point having 96 loose cards floating around seems kind of troublesome.

All in all, a nice piece of presentation, evocative (especially the front cover piece) of Marvel's primary art style at the time.

The Fate Deck

The core of the SAGA game engine is the Fate Deck, a 96 card deck divided into five suits, each color-coded and represented by an iconic character: Strength (Hulk/Green), Agility (Spider-Man/Red), Intellect (Mr. Fantastic/Blue), Willpower (Dr. Strange/Purple) and Doom (Dr. Doom/Black). The first four suits sync up with the four Ability Scores used to define every character in the game. The last suit is the hand of fate working against the heroes in the game.

Each card features a Marvel character prominently displayed in the center, with their name beneath them (for those who don't know what Werewolf by Night looks like). In the upper left corner is a box featuring the suit's iconic character, a number from 1-10 (the cards are weighted toward middle numbers, so you're more likely to draw a 5 than you are a 1 or a 9, for instance) and an "aura", represented both by color (white, red or black) and a plus, dot or minus sign. The upper-right corner features a Dramatic Event that the Narrator can use to spur new developments from round to round and a Calling underneath it, which is meant to be keyed both to the Dramatic Event and the character displayed on the card. Finally, down the right and left hand sides are numbers, so the cards can be used to track things like the health of minions or villains as well as things like bomb timers.

The card art is culled from Marvel's depository of art, and ranges from amazing, iconic pictures (Spider-Man swinging through the air) to questionable (there are much better Sabretooth pictures out there). Heroes populate the first four suits, with villains appearing on the Doom suit.

TSR also released four promotional cards around the game's release, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on them. They are Ghost Rider, Lockheed, Deadpool and The Impossible Man, each representing one of the four main suits and each numbered 5 so as not to skew the deck balance.

The cards are a wonderful prop, but are also probably the biggest reason this game never quite caught on. A diceless RPG can be a hard sell, especially when you're stacking a licensed property on top of it, and Marvel SAGA never seemed to catch fire. Building a fanbase for an out of print game can be hard enough, but when you tack on the requirements of an out of print 96-piece prop, you nearly hit a brick wall.

The Game Book

The core rules are contained in this 208 page volume, featuring the cover art from the box adorning this volume as well.

A standard Foreword trying to hype you up for the game appears, followed by the Table of Contents.

Chapter One is The Marvel Experience, telling you what's in the box, a bit about SAGA game system and a roleplaying example (not a gameplay example, oddly...but actually a roleplaying example, the example with actual gameplay comes later) featuring Cyclops, Rogue and Wolverine interacting until a Sentinel attacks.

Chapter Two is Marvel Heroes, which breaks down how to read a Hero Sheet and what each section means, using Nightcrawler as an example. It does a nice job here, showing you what's on his sheet as well as explaining *why* it's on his sheet. In order, it breaks down his Name, Image, Abilities (Strength, Agility, Intellect, Willpower), Edge and Hand Size (this is both his experience level and his health score), Skills, Powers and Equipment, Calling (why he does what he does), Hindrances, Personality and History. A very helpful piece for understanding the sheet.

Chapter Three is Action, and details the core mechanic of the game, which is decide what you want to do, the narrator decides what action ability that goes off of as well as the difficulty level, you select a card from your hand and add it to the action ability. Simple as that.

The elegance comes in with the other pieces of the core engine. If the card you play is of the same suit as the action ability, then you trump, which means you get to flip over the top card from the Fate Deck and add that to your action score. If that card happens to also be of the same suit, then you can add THAT to your action score as well. Keep doing this until you draw a card that isn't of the same suit. In instances in which you want to hold back, you can "pull your punch" and refuse a trump.

Your Hand Size will generally range from 3 to 5 cards depending on your characters experience level ,though there are some exceptions, such as completely normal "baseline" humans that would only have 2 cards, extremely experience people with 6 and cosmic beings with 7 cards. Your Hand Size is determined by your Edge score, which is 2 points lower than your Hand Size (Edge of 1, Hand Size of 3, for instance). That Edge does for you is allows you to play multiple cards from your hand for a single action. Any cards in your hand that are equal to, or less than, your Edge score can be used to increase your action score, until you play a card that's higher than your Edge.

Example: Spider-Man is trying to get Dr. Octopus to attack him in a blind rage before Octopus has a chance to activate a bomb that will unleash the inhabitants of Ravencroft Asylum. Spider-Man positions himself next to an electrical box and begins to taunt Dr. Octopus, which is a Willpower action. He looks at his hand he has the 3 of Strength, 4 and 5 of Agility, 1 of Intellect and 4 of Willpower. He could play the 4 of Willpower and trump, but he really needs Octopus to not push that button, so he uses his Edge to play the 1 of Intellect and 3 of Strength before he plays the 4 of Willpower. He trumps and gets the 7 of Intellect, all of which combines with his Willpower of 10 for a total score of 25! Since Spider-Man is also skilled at taunting, Dr. Octopus gets pushed over the edge and attacks! Of course, if Spider-Man does move, he's in all kinds of trouble...but he does still have two Agility cards, and he gets to redraw the three cards he just played...

Sidebars in this chapter cover Skills (which lower a related action by 4 difficulty points), World-Class Skills (which allow you to automatically trump as long as you play anything except a Doom card), Pushing to the Limit (straining your character to achieve greater than average results) and the difference between using Powers and Power Stunts (the base function of a power is easier to perform than a Power Stunt is).

The chapter provides a checklist of the steps needed in an action, and then a gameplay example featuring Nick Fury being ambushed by Hydra agents.

After that simplified example, the chapter moves into Opposed actions, which tells you how to factor in opposition from the opponents, both from their abilities and from the Narrator's card, a card that is flipped over from the Fate Deck every exchange that you add to the difficulty of all actions.

Example: The 6 of Doom is the Narrator card in the above example. In order to drive Dr. Octopus into attacking him, Spider-Man must attempt an average Willpower(opposed by Willpower) action. The difficulty for the that is 8, plus Dr. Octopus' Willpower of 4, plus the Narrator Card of 6, for a total of 18. Spider-Man still ticks Doc Ock off.

A sidebar here details The Doom Bank, where all those cards with Doom's face on them go when played. See, Doom cards are bad, and when you play them, The Narrator gets to use them against you later.

Example: In the above example, Spider-Man has successfully distracted Dr. Octopus. However, The Narrator has a 6 of Doom and a 4 of Doom in his Doom bank, and he decides to play them, bringing the difficulty up from 18 to 28! Dr. Octopus sneers at Spider-Man, pushes the trigger on the bomb, and unleashes Ravencroft's inmates!

A section follows on Hero vs Hero play, for when two players just HAVE to play the classic "misunderstanding" angle, as well as how to read the Auras of the cards. This is something I don't like about the system, as the Aura on the Narrator card can change from exchange to exchange, which is fine for some effects, but they made powers like Body Transformation dependent on Aura readings, and I don't recall many instances of Colossus' power just "wearing off" in the middle of a fight.

Chapter Four Clobberin' Time is combat. The first page of the chapter gives you an outline of the steps of a combat exchange. In step one, The Narrator draws his card and reads the aura, with the heroes regaining a card if its positive and the villains regaining 5 health if its negative. He then decides if the Dramatic Event on the card comes into play here, and if so, how. If its the opening exchange, then you check for surprise and we're off.

Step two has declaration of actions, and then the playing of the cards. Sidebars here discuss aiming and distances, which are generalized into Striking, Firing and Visual Distance...Champions, this ain't, but then, it's not trying to be. Another sidebar discusses pile-ons, for when your heroes gangpile Juggernaut and when Hydra gangpiles your brick.

Step three is counteractions, which is generally dodging the attacks by the Narrator-controlled character.

All combat is considered simultaneous, so in Step four damage is inflicted from all successful attacks, generally by taking the action score and any weapon modifiers that may be present, and subtracting the victim's defense (usually Strength, though some powers and body armor come into play). If any damage is left over on an attack to a Hero, they have to discard that many points worth of cards. Any remaining damage on a character is taken from their Health score. Sidebars here detail weapons and armor, and the general bonus a given type bestows.

Step five is the end of the exchange, figuring out whose still standing and who isn’t, who’s running and who’s not. It also features a sidebar regarding serious injuries, cautioning that death should only happen when the Narrator says so, and that it still has a hard time sticking.

A sample exchange featuring Spider-Man vs Electro and Rhino while trying to save J. Jonah Jameson ends the chapter.

Chapter Five is Superheroism, and is mostly a flavor chapter about being a hero, with a “day in the life” being ran through that starts with Atlanteans threatening the city, later involves abduction by Mandarin and ends with the realization that you’ve missed all the plans you’ve made for the day. A sidebar is included for playing villains as opposed to heroes, if your Narrator allows. The chapter then moves into “Contradictions of Heroism”, such as Honesty and Masks, Vigilantism and The Law and, of course, Great Power and Great Responsibility. Sidebars cover Illegal Activity and running trials in the game. The chapter ends with character advancement, another area I’m not a fan of. It all moves off of 1 point response bonuses, either positive or negative, depending on how the adventure went for the heroes. Since you can only ever have one Response Bonus at a time, you’re stuck in the linear, gradual advancement that just doesn’t fit most comic book source material.

Chapter Six is Narration and is the guide to running the game system. It offers guidelines on how to decide what abilities or powers relate to a given action, as well as examples of the various difficulty levels. A sidebar is included that covers Material Strengths for everything from paper to diamond to Silver Surfer’s board.

The next section of this chapter discusses Running a Fight, such as keeping track of all the Narrator ran characters, using tactics appropriate to a villain’s Edge and a sidebar detailing granting new power stunts (a fairly odd place for it, and a symbol of the weird organizational issues this book has). Discussion also follows on handling the party splitting up, especially in a fight.

Events are covered next, including tips on using them to springboard parts of the adventure as well as tips on when to use them. A sidebar is included that offers the helpful advice of using the picture on the Narrator’s card as inspiration for a guest star, such as flipping a card, getting Hulk and deciding that the Jade Giant needs to show up…as friend? Or foe? This section also warns you not to enforce the relationship between Callings and Events.

The next section focuses on adventure design, focusing more on seat-of-the-pants action and dramatic plot twists than carefully constructed scenes. Indeed more advice is given on “feel” than on adventure structure.

A sample adventure is included featuring Mole Man kidnapping the mutant Rictor and using his powers to generate earthquakes in New York City. Its nothing terribly special and doesn’t really even serve as a decent introductory adventure other than giving you some non-threatening mooks to wail on.

The next section is on running supervillains, using their Callings and Edges as a guide for the kinds of plots they are likely to engage in, and the layers of planning they are more apt to go to. A cursory discussion of the need to commit crimes and the use of deathtraps follows, with the bright point being where the authors point out that anyone using something more complicated than a gun doesn’t really want to kill the heroes anyway. Losing Ungracefully offers a game mechanic for ensuring that all non-mook villains stand at least a chance of having a backup plan regardless of what happens. Finally, this section offers the five rules of villain deaths, in case you just watched your players kill off Doctor Doom and aren’t sure how to salvage it. There’s some nice advice in this whole section that can be easily adapted to any supers game.

Running A Series is meant to help you decide the kind of Marvel game you want to indulge in, with some advice on *how* to run the various styles. It assumes nine basic series formats, from Rock-‘em-Sock-‘em to Idealistic to Battle-Scarred to Villainous. The book acknowledges that the system doesn’t do “gritty” very well, but offers no advice on how to fix that.

The last section is on Nonlinear Story Hooks, most of which assume the “story” is more important to you and your players than your heroes. They encourage, if momentarily, the players to take the roles of other characters, be they other heroes or even the villains for a short scene! This section does caution that not every group is going to be happy with these kinds of hooks, and that a refusal to play along with the hook could have disastrous consequences for the game.

Chapter Seven is Adapting a Hero. You may have noticed that I haven’t discussed character generation yet. That is because the default assumption of this game is that you will be playing a Marvel hero that has already been statted out for you. This section still isn’t about character generation per se, it’s about modeling existing characters that haven’t been statted up yet. First up are the incredibly useful benchmark tables for the four Ability scores, ranging from 0 to 30, providing a description as to what that means for each Ability as well as providing examples of who would have that score. They provide the same thing for Edge and Hand Size, as well as pointing out the Health score that a Narrator character has based on their Edge. We move into Ability Codes and Skills, with a list of skills provided in order of their suit, as well as what each Ability Code means, and how many skills it imparts. Wolverine has 4 Agility skills and those an Agility code of A, whereas all of Mr. Fantastic’s skills are Intellect, giving him Ability Codes of X in Strength, Agility and Willpower. The section on Powers and Equipment is less useful, as the Intensity Benchmark chart only provides examples, and knowing that Ant-Man’s insect control falls in the 9-10 range isn’t really useful for modeling anyone but Ant-Man. A powers list is provided, but isn’t broken down by trump suit like the skills list, but just alphabetical order, which is disappointing as the powers section is already in alphabetical order, so a list by trump suit would have been welcome.

Callings finally get discussed in detail here and include the following: Adventurer, Animal Nature, Demolisher, Exemplar, Explorer, Gloryhound, Greed, Guardian, Idealist, Investigator, Majesty, Mentor, Outcast, Peace of Mind, Protector, Repentant, Responsibility of Power, Soldier, Thrill-Seeker, Uncontrolled Power, Vengeance, Vestige of Humanity, World Domination and Youthful Exuberance. A description is provided for each, with examples, and a warning that Demolisher, Greed, Vengeance and World Domination may be inappropriate for heroes. A sidebar in this section discusses changing Callings, which is not meant to be done lightly and is meant to be a major turning point in the character’s life.

The next section is Hindrances, detailing internal obstacles for your heroes to overcome, which are usually represented mechanically by reducing an attribute or attributes to 0 in a given situation (such as exposure to radiation or avoiding surprise attacks) or hindrances like Bruiser which force your hero to use Agility instead of Strength for attacks and can only be taken by a character with a minimum Strength of 11 and a maximum Agility of 4.

Appendix One: Skills is the skill-by-skill breakdown as to what each skill in the game is meant to do. Many skills just provide a reduction in difficulty, but some (like Martial Arts) allow you to use a different Ability Score for an action than the default. Each skill is tied to an Ability Score and uses that suit for trumps.

Appendix Two: Powers is the big power listing, but starts with another discussion on stunts and details power Limits. A list of Power Sources follows, including Mutation and Equipment. Rules are included here for making Equipment, but these are kind of hand-wavy and were later replaced with, in this reviewer’s opinion, much better rules that first appeared in Dragon Magazine and were later reprinted in Reed Richard’s Guide to Everything.

A sidebar included discusses the different trump suits for equipment: Swords use Strength, guns use Agility, powered armor uses Intellect and magic wands use Willpower.

The powers themselves are fairly exhaustive, covering most of what you need to define most Marvel characters. Each power’s listing includes trump suit, exemplars (who uses the power), related powers, then a description of the basic use of the power followed by common stunts and limits unique to the power. A few, such as Chi, have been errataed and still aren’t very user-friendly, while others – like Magic (a common problem area in supers games) – don’t seem to match what the comics show. For instance, a powerful mage can either duplicate physical trump powers or mental trump powers…meaning that Dr. Strange isn’t capable of both Teleportation (Agility) and Illusion (Willpower) though I’m reasonably sure I’ve seen him use both. The game allows you to take powers as stunts of other powers, but doesn’t generally allow you to stunt off of THAT power, something that a case could be made for from the comic books. Also, no effort is in place to balance the powers against each other. Cosmic Energy Control costs the same to purchase as Claws. Only Invulnerability and Immortality have special considerations made for cost, having a set cost of 10 points apiece. The system clearly assumes a certain amount of “play-along” from the players

In Appendix Three: Hero Creation, we FINALLY reach character generation. Yes, they do acknowledge that some people will want to make their own characters, as opposed to existing characters. The character generation is kind of flawed, though, as its semi-random. You draw ten cards and either use those or, depending on the flavor of game the Narrator wants, redraw all 1s, 2s and 3s or all 8s, 9s and 10s. You then assign up to three each to your four Ability scores. The trump suits of the cards dictate ability codes (Doom cards automatically mean a code of X) and, thus, the number of skills per ability you can pick. You can also spend a non-Doom card of 7 or higher at this point to make one skill World-Class.

Edge begins at 1, but for every non-Doom card of 7 or higher that you play, you can raise it by 1. You can pick up to five powers and can assign any number of cards up to a total value of 20 to them, with number of starting power stunts based off of the number of cards of the corresponding suit you’ve assigned to it. You can take limits, up to three per power, but they don’t necessarily help you. In fact, how this works is that for each limit you take, you draw a card off the Fate Deck and, if its of a positive aura, you add it to the power’s intensity. Unfortunately, this means you could well be stuck with a limit for no benefit, something that hasn’t sat well with a few of my players.

Similarly, you can take up to two Hindrances, but your actual benefit from it is dependent upon drawing a positive aura card.

Next, you play a card for you Calling, and if it matches the calling you have selected for your hero, you get a free card to play elsewhere on your character. At the end, you take a look at what you’ve done, make sure it fits, and commit it to paper.

Character creation is my least favorite part of this game. No one has made a character yet for the game that they were happy with without incredibly fudging and rearranging on our part. In fact, most of our characters that we use were created in Marvel Classic/FASERIP and converted to SAGA (which makes little sense, I know, seeing as FASERIP was at least as random). The nicest part of this chapter is a sidebar on building a team, making sure you cover niche protection, compatible motivations and have an actual leader. It only takes up half a page and could easily have been expanded. The chapter ends with the creation of The Hedgehog, a sample character of dubious distinction and Hero Templates, complete with a random name generator.

Appendix Four: Conversions offers tips on using the long-discontinued Marvel Super Dice in the game, as well as guidelines for converting from FASERIP to SAGA. There is also section for using the Toy Biz action figures available at the time as minis for your game.

Finally, the book concludes with an index, making some of the weird organization bearable due to the fact that it actually HAS both a table of contents and an index.

The back cover is a functional Hero sheet, which actually tends to have enough space to list everything your character has.

The Roster Book

The cover of the Roster Books features the inner flap art from the boxed set, featuring the heroes and villains facing off. The book offers up front that its detailing the “classic” Marvel Universe, not the up-to-date (for 1998) Marvel Universe, and includes 34 heroes and 19 villains. Most of the characters are made in accordance with the rules, though a few “unique powers” rear their head, such as Hulk having “Strongest One There Is”, a power that prevents anyone else from gaining a Strength trump against him and Juggernaut has “Unstoppable” which simply states that he cannot be stopped by anything.

The book provides a decent group of characters to get you going, as well as a list of Normal Humans, Humanoid Races and Critters. Finally, a brief history of the Marvel Universe finishes off the book.

The Gameplay

For all the odd quirks and organizational issues, as well as the utter lack of balance, the one thing that sets this game apart for me is simple: I have had more fun running this game than I have any role-playing game I have owned, played or read. Part of it is players, of course. No matter the genre, your players have to be willing to subscribe to the conventions of the genre or the game will fall short.

A good part of it is the fast-moving, over the top gameplay that feels like larger than life superheroics and never gets bogged down with overcalculations of bonuses and penalties and never tells you that a task is impossible, merely improbable.

We converted our Marvel Classic game over to Marvel SAGA and have never looked back, because this game engine has opened us up to some of our best game stories such as the time Mindstorm (the mutant master of Telekinesis and Weather) blew out his Electrical Control in desperation, trumping multiple times until he achieved a total action score of 61, defeating the villains that he dismantled his team and had him outnumbered and leveling Castle Doom (the site of the battle).

In Conclusion

SAGA was dismissed by many as being more of a CCG than an RPG when it was released, but this is no more accurate than calling D&D a craps game. In fact, with the familiar subject matter and helpful gameplay props, complete with color-coding, the game could well have served as a great gateway game for new players. I plan to try this with my wife, in fact, since she has yet to grasp the two prior game systems she has tried in the past.

SAGA definitely isn’t a crunchy game, nor is it tactical in the classical sense of the term. It has one of my favorite game mechanics ever in Edge, the great equalizer that makes Captain America better than most of the powerhouses he associates with by insuring that he rarely fails. However, SAGA could have used a second edition to clean the game up a bit, as the editing was more than a little suspect, though the presence of a useable index helps this out. A few of the powers’ uses are hard to reconcile with the differences between heroes and characters and a well thought-out dice-based variant probably could have helped the game’s longevity.

In the end, I see the game’s flaws but I can’t help but be swayed by one thing: fun. The only gripes about the game I have faced from players came from character creation and not the gameplay itself, which has flowed smoothly from our first adventure to our most recent. As for myself, the utility of the system more than trumps (no pun intended) a few vaguely worded powers. The support that was made available for the game is great, but when it was canceled there were several products in the pipeline such as the Marvel Team-Up Roster Book, The Green Goblin's Guide to Crime and a series of rumored comic-book sized roster/adventure supplements.

The online community for this game is virtually dead, though there is a Yahoo group devoted to the game as well as my own forums, inactive though they may be.

While I am certainly willing to read or even play other supers RPGs, if I had to pick just one then Make Mine Marvel SAGA!