Being a big fan of comic books and roleplaying games, I have always had an interest in super hero roleplaying games. When I was younger I played the old TSR Marvel Superheroes RPG quite a bit. I have also tried my hand at GURPS Supers, Champions, and Mutants & Masterminds. So when the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game by Margaret Weiss Productions was announced at GenCon last year I was intrigued.
The new game is based on the Cortex system. My only experience playing a Cortex based game is the discontinued Serenity RPG, but outside of the types dice used and plot point there are not a lot of similarities. I understand it is much more similar to the Leverage RPG, but I having never played that game I can’t really speak to that.
The game mechanics are very different from roleplaying games I have played in the past. For one thing, there are no ability scores. Instead, the player will describe their action and assemble a dice pool based on their power sets, affiliations, specialties and other factors. The Watcher (i.e., GM) resists these actions using either the power sets, affiliations and specialties of characters he controls, or the Doom pool if the effect is not aimed at a Watcher controlled character. Depending on what you are trying to do succeeding on the roll can allow you to stress your opponent, create assets you can use, or inflict complications on other characters (among other things).
Both the players and the Watcher can increase their chances of success by spending plot points (in the case of the players) or dice from the Doom pool (in the case of the Watcher). At the start of any given session there are not a lot of plot points or doom dice available, but the game mechanics encourage both to flow freely during the course of any given scene.
Despite the complexity of assembling dice pools, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is not a rules heavy game like Champions or Dungeons & Dragons. If you can describe it, you can attempt to do it. It also stresses cooperation between the players and the Watcher in order to tell the story. Depending on your group you might find this to be a blessing or a curse.
What it does well
Because of the somewhat loose nature of the rules, characters with differing power levels can work together in a group and everyone still has a chance to affect the outcome of the scene. Daredevil and Black Widow can be on a team with Thor and Iron Man without the first two wondering why they are there. This is very good for simulating the comics the game is based on, which often throw these types of characters together in teams like the Avengers.
The game also does a good job at using bonuses to dice pools and plot points to encourage players to act like the characters from the comics. For example, one of Spider-Man’s distinctions is “Wisecracker”. If he can work it into an action, he might gain an extra die (perhaps by distracting Doc Ock with a crack about his weight) or a plot point (if he annoys the chief of police).
What it does not do well
If you are interested in creating your own superhero, this is probably not the game for you. While there are rules for creating your own datafile (i.e., character sheet), they are just as loose as the rest of the game. As a result, they are much better suited for “I want to make a hero datafile for Nova” than “I want to make my own superhero”. If creating your own superhero is your goal, you are probably better off with a system like Mutants & Masterminds.
This game also will probably not appeal to someone who prefers comprehensive rules to handle any situation that might occur. If you can’t imagine a game without drowning rules, you will be a lot happier playing Champions than Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.
I am definitely going to give Marvel Heroic Roleplaying a try. The system is innovative and flexible—If this is what Leverage is like I can see why so many gamers were creating Leverage hacks.
While I doubt I will start a long term Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign, it seems like the perfect game to break out for a few sessions when my group grows tired of slaying dragons. Although, to be fair they can do that in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying too!