In the System Shock series of articles, we’ll be looking at different RPG game systems and pointing out unique elements of the game system so that you can decide for yourself if a system is right for you! Our inaugural article will introduce you to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, a new game system from Margaret Weis Productions. The system is fairly open-ended, offers very flexible customization options, and stays true to the source material.
This introduction will be in two parts: today, we’ll look at the basic mechanic the game works on and I’ll muse about what kind of players the system is likely to appeal to. The second part of the article will look at the the specific elements in the system which I feel are unique and worthy of mention.
Even if you aren’t a die-hard comic book fan, this system still has a lot to offer. A mild, passing interest in comic books will suffice to get you into the game, and the unique mechanics like the Doom Pool should keep you hooked. Most of the players I’ve run this for were not comic experts, and many had really only seen superhero films, but the experience was generally warmly received.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying uses the Cortex+ system–basically, they took the Cortex system (Battlestar Galactica, Serenity are examples) and stripped it down to basics. Then, they built specific parts for the system, unique to the Marvel setting, to fill in the gaps and add that unique feel into the system. What you see here is called Cortex+ because it takes basics of the Cortex system, but throws in elements specifically made for Marvel’s brand of high-flying superhero combat.
The basic mechanic of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying involves assembling a dice pool.The dice pool is built from anything that applies to the current action. Things like affiliations and distinctions are always added, whereas power sets and specialties will vary a lot more in their usage.
- Affiliations: How comfortable your hero is in the current group situation. For example, Daredevil works best Solo; he rolls a d10 for his affiliation if he is alone. If he is in a team, he only rolls a d6.
- Distinctions: The parts of your hero’s personality, past, or major character concept that apply to the task at hand. These are normally d8s, though you can choose to roll them as a d4 and gain a plot point instead if the distinction would be a negative one in this situation. One of Daredevil’s distinctions is Blind Justice, so if this applies positively to what Daredevil is doing, he can roll it as a d8–or, if there is a potential negative impact from using that distinction, he can choose to roll a d4 instead and collect a Plot Point (more on that later).
- Power Sets: The powers your hero as access to. You can roll one die from each power set, assuming the powers make sense together and in the situation at hand. For example, Godlike Durability will not help you attack people, but will help you endure attacks.
- Specialties: Much like “skills” in other RPGs, specialties can be added to certain actions when they make sense. For example, Combat Mastery is a d10 that can be added to a dice pool when making or evading an attack.
- Assets: These are created by heroes to assist others. If you have an asset that applies, you can add one to your dice pool.
- Stunts / Push Dice: These can be added by heroes a number of ways, all of which involve spending a currency called Plot Points (more on that later). These basically represent the hero using their powers in new or more complicated ways or making an additional effort.
- Opponent’s Stress: If your opponent has stress you get to roll it against them. This means that wounded opponents are easier to hit. If they have multiple kinds of stress, you only get to add one.
Example of assembling a dice pool:
The Avengers corner Red Skull, and Captain America wants to attack him. First, Cap decides how he’s going to do this, and settles on hitting him with his trademark vibranium shield.
His die pool is made up of: d10 for his Team Affiliation (he is with a team of heroes), d8 for his “Sentinel of Liberty” Distinction (he’s attacking Red Skull, a maniacal totalitarian, so this fits), d8 for Enhanced Strength from his Super Soldier Program Power Set, d8 for Weapon from his Vibranium Alloy Shield Power Set (heroes can add one power from each set so long as it makes sense), and a d10 for his Combat Master specialty (this is a combat action so it makes sense). Cap has no assets to add to his dice pool, and elects not to add a stunt or push die. Red Skull has no stress, so Cap cannot roll it against him.
So, after gathering up all your dice, you roll them. First you set aside any 1s that were rolled (you cannot use these, but the Watcher can use them for some things), then you keep two dice and add the values together to be your total. You keep one additional die to be your effect die. The rolled value on effect die doesn’t matter, but you can’t use a “1” as an effect die.
Your total is then compared to dice rolled by an opponent in a similar fashion, to determine if your attack succeeds. When attacking or acting against a villain directly, the villain’s dice are gathered and rolled in much the same way. Villains also have affiliations, distinctions, power sets and specialties like heroes do.
If you’re doing something not directly related to another character, you roll against the Doom Pool as opposition(again, more on that below).
If the person acting succeeds, their effect die is used. The size of the effect die determines the magnitude of your action–if you have a d12 effect die when attacking someone and your action succeeds, you deal d12 stress to your target.
You can also use your action to assist other heroes in combat, and this is actually a focus for a few characters (like Shadowcat for example).
Will I / Will my group like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying?
While I love Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, I know that some of you won’t. I think you owe it to yourself to give this game a shot, but before looking at some of the unique elements of the system, let’s take a look at what kinds of players are likely to enjoy the game and which will not.
This system will likely appeal to:
- Players who enjoy creative, high-flying combat or are fans of the superhero or comic book genre. The system does an incredibly good job of bringing the genre to life.
- Players who enjoy assuming a role. The game’s milestone system rewards players for playing their hero faithfully while still giving them choice regarding the outcomes. For example, Tony Stark’s milestone gives you the choice of drinking yourself into a stupor or checking yourself into rehab.
- Players who enjoy improvisation. Creativity and descriptiveness goes a long way in this system and these kinds of players will engage with the material instinctively. Being clever is rewarded in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.
- Players who want to live their own superhero fantasy. The limits (or lack thereof) for character creation mean that as long as your Watcher is on board, you can truly create the hero you want to play.
This system may not appeal to:
- Players who thrive on character optimization. The rules for character creation are so fluid that pushing the boundaries of optimization will just make the Watcher (and maybe the rest of the players) angry. Optimization really isn’t the point of character creation in this system, anyways. Superheroes are always best when they have interesting flaws.
- Players who need in-depth, tactical combat in their system. There’s a lot of strategy here, but Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition it is not (nor is it trying to be).
- Players who do not like imagination and improvisation. The game encourages you to use your powers in creative and new ways, but if your players don’t engage with this idea, they may express the feeling that they are “always rolling the same dice”.
- Players who need to acquire new items and grow exponentially in power every few sessions. The system does have XP, but it isn’t drastically improving the capabilities of your character. Character development is primarily story-based through the use of milestones.
Hopefully the above has given you an idea of the core mechanic in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and shed some light on whether the system is likely to be a good fit for your group. And don’t forget to check out the second installment of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying System Shock where we take a more in-depth look at the system’s unique mechanics.
Have you played the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system? What did you think about it?