Assembling

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Plain and simple, I’m a sucker for supers RPGs.

Thus it was that I grabbed a copy of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game from Margaret Weis Productions and after some time to read and digest it I ran a one-shot today (wherein the heroes faced yet another splinter cell of AIM and their hideous creation U.L.T.R.O.D.O.K). I’d heard that the game takes a different twist on the genre – it is much more narrative-driven than other games I had played. Based on my experimentation with adapting Dogs in the Vineyard to supers a few years back, this was very appealing feature to me. And following Jack’s review of it a couple posts down I had to check it out.

MHR uses dice pools of varying sizes and descriptive Distinctions in place of traditional stats like strength and agility, and on the surface bears a lot of similarity to DitV. It maintains a lot of nice flexibility for players, encouraging them to be creative with what they’re doing and using the mechanics to back that up rather than the other way around. You won’t find pages and pages of detailed rules on how individual powers work in MHR; they’re kind of general and handwavey.  There’s no detailed granularity – we don’t get exactly how many tons the Thing can lift or whether he is stronger than Colossus (both have d12 or “Godlike” Strength). For me, that’s fine but I can see where it would rankle some folks.

Beneath the veneer of simplicity though MHR has a *lot* of moving bits. There’s a system of “Plot Points” that players earn and can be spent in a number of ways. There’s a “Doom Pool” of dice used by the GM (or “Watcher”) that works in a similar but not exactly the same fashion and has a lot of caveats to juggle. Each power set can have a handful of different Special Effects that tweak how the dice pool is constructed. And the recovery rules are extremely murky and in a few places I found them wanting (there’s very little way to recover your own damage/Stress but others can do it for you, although if you are badly Stressed it is seemingly incredibly hard for someone to help you recover and far more likely they will do more damage to you). And there is an *art* to manipulating your die pool and results that I don’t completely get yet (I never got it in DitV either, but some of my players almost instinctively did so). So while the game stays in a strongly narrative zone for character powers and abilities, the fiddliness seems pushed down into the actual operational mechanics.

That’s not to say I dislike the game. I found it very difficult to get my brain around how the ruleset worked, so decided to run a one shot to test it out. The game was a lot of fun and a number of the pieces I was having difficulty understanding in the abstract came together nicely in play. It was only one game so I’m not sure I was doing everything right. But everything seemed to hum along and the mechanics didn’t get in the way of us all coming up with some very comic-booky awesome actions. There was fair amount of focus on manipulating the dice pool results that took me out of the immersion from time to time and the randomness of the dice were exceptionally cruel from time to time. I don’t think it was my ideal system but it was solid A+++ would play again.

The highlights for me were
1) being able to have characters of different power levels all at the table together and not having anyone feel overshadowed. In our group we had Thor, Captain America (the Bucky Barnes version), Iron Man, Beast and Elsa Bloodstone (from NextWave). You’d think that Thor and Tony would outshine everyone else in that kind of setup but it really didn’t happen. Perhaps this was a feature of a compressed scale – everybody’s powers range only d6, d8, d10 or d12, a feature that has rankled me in other systems but which worked well here.
2) Assets, Complications, and Scene Distinctions. These all work very much like Aspects in the FATE system – scene distinctions can be part of the scene and used by characters to replace or supplement their own distinctions in dice pools, and assets can be set up by one character to give another some extra “oomph” in a later action. Complications work like an additional damage track; a character can be taken out by a sufficiently high complication tied to them (the example in the rulebook is Colossus bending an iron bar around some goons. He hasn’t pummeled the goons into unconsciousness but they’re done for all intents and purposes).
3) the Doom Pool. This is a side pool of dice the Watcher uses both to boost dice pools for the bad guys or to power certain abilities and also as a standing dice pool for environmental effects. If a hero is trying to shore up a falling building or any kind of situation where there’s not a specific character to roll against, the Watcher uses the Doom Pool for opposition. As the game goes on the Doom Pool grows from its paltry starting 2d6 to a size where it poses a real threat.  I was a little concerned the game would degenerate into a war of attrition of players vs the Doom Pool, and in some ways it did but it wasn’t long and drawn out and it felt more like a resource than an obstacle.

So yeah, good stuff, looking forward to the next books being published (the Civil War “event” book should be out in pdf in a couple weeks with the hardcopy to follow some time thereafter), largely so I can see more examples of how characters are put together. My plan is to run a one-shot of ICONS soon so I can get a feel for which of the two hits closer to my sweet spot.

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2 Responses to “Assembling”

  1. Christopher Tatro Says:

    One concern I forgot to mention: since every character has 3 damage tracks – physical, mental and emotional – and most characters have a lot of physical toughness I fear that every game will just degenerate into everybody trying to come up with ways to load on the mental/emotional stress onto enemies. As it was in our session, Thor at one point said he was going to ridicule and belittle his enemy and make him feel bad about himself “WITH MY FISTS!”

  2. Rob MacD Says:

    Sweet. I read the Leverage and Smallville RPGs a while ago (they’re both built on the same basic chassis as MHRPG) and I could detect the DitV and FATE influences, but it did not at all click how cool they were until I saw the system in play. Now I’m eagerly converting my Cold City / Night’s Black Agents game to a horror-espionage hack of Leverage, with some Smallville and Marvel elements.

    There’s lots of people blogging about MHRPG and statting out characters etc, but if you haven’t seen it, for me, the most useful blog for getting my head around the Cortex Plus systems and the tricks you can do with them has been Rob Donoghue’s: http://rdonoghue.blogspot.ca/

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