Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tommy's Take on Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game

So Margaret Weis Productions has a new Marvel RPG out. I have owned and played every official Marvel RPG. Marvel SAGA is my favorite supers RPG ever, and Marvel FASERIP was the first RPG I ever owned. Marvel Universe (the one with the stones)...the less said the better. In 2010, MWP unveiled Cortex Plus, which powers Smallville and Leverage, the latter of which was named one of my "Top Six" that year. Both are elegant games with unmistakable similarities, but they also veer off into their own directions. I am cautiously optimistic as I approach the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: First off, Cortex Plus, re-jiggered specifically for this game. Second of all, the PDF is out right now, for $12.99. MWP has wisely set a print retail price of $19.99, making it a very affordable option, especially for a 200+ page book. The PDF version includes a set of datafiles (also included inside the main book) as well as a Players and Watchers cheat sheet. Very handy. This is a full color affair, keeping in line with MWP's strong track record for production values, especially with their licenses.

The first section of the book is the Operations Manual. These are the rules. The Introduction hits on the basics: The Datafiles (that would be the character sheets), Dice (you use d4s, d6s, d8, d10s and d12) as well as traits you can draw dice from and how the dice pool works (basically, you keep two for your result and one for the Effect Die, unless you spend Plot Points to keep extra dice), Plot Points and how they can be used (adding extra dice to the roll, extra dice to the totals, acting special effects in your powers,etc), The Doom Pool (dice the Watcher starts with to screw with you, ranked from Standard to Global to Cosmic, and can be raised to High Stakes and Catastrophic) and how it is raised and used (whenever players roll a "1", that's an Opportunity to add dice to your pool and can be used to boost opposition, activate enemy Special Effects, end scenes prematurely and more), Stunts and Resources (using your powers in unique ways above and beyond just pushing your limits), Effects like Assets, Stress and Complications (Stress is the kind of damage you take: Physical, Mental and Emotional, and can not only be used as opposition dice against you, but in the right circumstances it can be used as action dice for your - though it makes that stress worse. Get "Stressed Out" and you can wind up with Trauma). Assets can be gained through your Effect die and used to roll extra dice on later actions. Complications can be used in place of inflicting Stress to add extra dice when acting against an adversary. It can be a lot to take in, but I think the authors realize this because - as with Smallville and Leverage - there are a TON of examples.

Playing The Game breaks down the structure. "Adventures" are called Events. Events consist of Acts. Acts are broken down into Scenes. Scenes are comprised of Panels. I should note at this point that I hate the ever-growing use of terms like "Panels" and "Pages" in supers RPGs, but it's something I'm just learning to get used to. Initiative is handled with the players deciding who goes first. If the Watcher wants to go first, he has to spend a die from the Doom Pool. Order of action from there is determined by the player who just acted. Finally, there are Transition Scenes where you can try to heal up, swap out characters and generally just relax from the intensive action that just occured.

Taking Action is pretty much just more examples and details on how actions work from the Introduction (with a nice freebie: a Sentinel datafile, as the example in question is Cyclops vs a Sentinel). This covers things like Extraordinary Successes, which can boost your effect dice and - if it goes high enough - even result in one hit knockouts. This section also covers splitting your focus on multiple targets, determining just what is within the realm of possibility for your character and even spending plot points to ensure automatic success. There is also a section on how Mental and Emotional conflict vary from physical conflict.

Understanding Datafiles breaks down just how your hero's stuff works, using Captain America as an example. First off, every hero has an Affiliation (Solo, Buddy and Team), ranked by how effectively they work in each situation. Then they each have three Distinctions (things like Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Man Out of Time or Best There Is At What He Does), Powers Set, Specialties and Milestones. Milestones are interesting as they are how heroes gain experience points.

Affiliations are spelled out, including notable examples of prime examples of each Affiliation (Wolverine is primarly a Solo character, Spider-Man works best in a Buddy situation and Cyclops functions best in a Team), as well as just when you should use each affiliation and when you should stop using them. Distinctions can be used to help or hinder you (giving you a Plot Point if you choose to have it hinder you).

Power Sets are a collection of Power Traits, and a good selection of Power Traits are provided, like Reflexes (ranked from Enhanced to Superhuman to Godlike), Elemental Control Powers, Psychic Powers, Sorcery (YES!). Basically, most of these are ranked from d6 to d12. However, you also get Special Effects, which can differentiate one character's Reflexes from anothers. These can include things like Area Attacks, Dangerous (lowers your highest die type, but inflicts worse Stress), and Unleashed (for guys that try to hold back but occasionally REALLY cut loose). Heroes also get Limits like Mutant (which is actually a good way to get Plot Points), Growing Dread (making 1s and 2s Opportunities for the Watcher) or Mutually Exclusive (where you have two Power Sets that cannot be used together).

Specialties are basically just skills. Allowing you to either roll higher dice for actions or more smaller dice for actions.

Milestones are the specific goals your hero is working towards in the event. Sometimes these are very personal and specific to the hero and sometimes they are very specific to the event. For instance, Wolverine's Milestones are related to violence (and his bad temper) and encountering old connections (for good or ill) from his past. Each Milestone set has a 1xp, 3xp and 10xp Milestone. You can use your XP to swap out Distinctions, step up Power Traits, add Power Traits, add new Specialties and unlock Event resources. Character creation is very freeform, essentially just hitting the checklist of features and making sure they are all present. If you're modeling a specific hero, work to nail that hero's powers and such. If you're making your own pretty much have free reign, with the Watcher's approval.

Understanding Events tries to help out with the Event structure, including tips on modifying events (either that you have ran before, or maybe you just want to tweak what's there)...this can be as basic as swapping out the Hero options, changing up the bad guys, or completely altering the Event milestones. There's also a two page summary on making your own Events.

A mini-Event is included, Breakout, based off of New Avengers #1-6, in which a slew of villains escape from the raft after a "freak" electrical storm. This does a pretty good job of laying out a two-session Event, explaining the concept of Event Unlockables (like gaining SHIELD Champion-level clearance, Recruiting Sentry to your side or - my favorite - redeeming one of the Raft inmates). While most of the scenes are taken from the comic storyline, various options are presented to change things up. Imagine Jigsaw and Carnage forming an alliance, for instance.

Act Two heads into the Savage Land due to clues found from Act One, and leads to the characters running afoul of giant dinosaurs, spies and the Savage Land Mutates. Again, options are provided for shaking things up. 29 villains, by my count, are provided in the "Inmates" section, ranging from losers like Armadillo to awesome B-stringers like Crossbones to the frighteningly powerful Graviton. This is in addition to guys included in the Event itself like Carnage and Count Nefaria. We're not looking at Dr. Doom and Magneto here, but it's still a cool cross section of characters to help with working on your own villain Datafiles.

There are about 23 datafiles for heroes provided, with obvious picks like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, and less obvious picks like Armor (of the X-Men), well, she's really the one that just stands out to me. These are pretty impressive two-page entries with full histories and the like.

WHAT WORKS: Top notch production values. Lots and lots of detailed examples. A supers system in which neither magic nor powered armor seem to be giant headaches or hopelessly busted. Lots of promise for support is out there, (really looking forward to the Cosmic Stuff for sure). Fantastic price point. Probably the most logical advancement system I have seen in a supers system (with the second best being "Well, comic book characters don't advance like normal anyway, so just handwave it)". Also, I totally dig the Solo-Buddy-Team set-up.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I've never been comfortable with "Stress" systems. A bit more abstract than I prefer. I'm also not sold on the "Event" set-up, especially with the default assumption that characters will be dropped from Event to Event.

CONCLUSION: Well, just by reading it I like it better than I do the "Stones" system. It certainly seems like it could be a blast, but until I see it in play, I couldn't put it ahead of Marvel SAGA which has stood the test of time for me. We have always been a fan of playing our own characters in the Marvel Universe, even though there has never been a Marvel game with a GOOD character creation system. This game doesn't change that, but it does bypass horribly busted attempts and just says "Hey, make what you want, here's how". Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is probably the most mechanically interesting Marvel system (behind SAGA) to me. Hats off to the crew at Margaret Weis Productions. Not only have the released a gorgeous product, they did it at a very nice price point. A very impressive effort using a system that has had its foundation tested twice before. And if you were nervous about the final product, don't worry...this isn't a "You punched Spider-Man in his Mary Jane" game. Very much excited to see how things develop from here.