50 Games in 50 Weeks: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

Mar 12 2012

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying cover

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying © 2012 Marvel, Margaret Weiss Productions

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a new tabletop role-playing game that’s garnered a lot of interest lately, partly due to its impressive roster of designers and developers: Cam Banks (Smallville and Leverage RPGs), Rob Donoghue (Spirit of the CenturyDresden Files RPG), Matt Forbeck (Lord of the Rings RPG, Deadlands RPG), Will Hindmarch, and Philippe-Antoine Menard (The Chatty DM).

MHR takes an interesting mechanical approach: to perform an action, build a set of dice (a “dice pool”) from elements on your character sheet. Almost every rule centers around building that dice pool.

Contrast this with, say, Dungeons & Dragons, which has at least three different dice-rolling mechanics: attack rolls, saving throws, and skill checks. This means there’s a lot to remember, and many potential effects, but at least they all point to the same place.

The Core Mechanic

In Marvel, the dice pool is built out of four areas on your character’s sheet:

  1. Affiliations — How well you work solo, with a buddy, or in a team
  2. Distinctions — Three taglines that define your character. If a distinction applies to the situation, you can grab a d8, or use it at a disadvantage by grabbing a d4 and getting an extra Plot Point (more on those later). You can use several of these, if they apply.
  3. Power Sets — Your powers, like claws or energy blasts. You can use several of these, if they apply.
  4. Specialties — Skills, like medicine or acrobatics. You can only use one of these per dice pool.

You choose your dice out of each of these areas. If you have Plot Points, you can spend them for extra dice (and other things, but more on that later). You roll all your dice, and here’s where things get interesting:

You add two rolled dice together for your result (bigger is better). You then choose another die for the effect, but it’s the number of sides on that die that are important, not what you roll on it. So, if you roll poorly on a many-sided die, you’ll probably use that as your effect die.

The result is compared against the opponent’s result to determine if you succeed. If you do, the size of the effect die is the size of the damage dealt.

Stress

Here’s where things get weird if you haven’t played, say, Savage Worlds. Each character has three stress tracks: physical, mental, and emotional. Each stress track is tracked by die size. If you’ve never experienced this, imagine a stress track with five slots labeled 4, 6, 8, 10, or 12. If you choose a d6 as your effect die, then the opponent would shade in the 6 slot on his or her stress track, and would have “6” (or, in Marvel‘s parlance, “d6”) of stress.

An example: Cyclops is facing off against Venom. Cyclops’s player builds his dice pool, using Cyclops’s Optic Beam power, and ends up with a result of 15, with a d8 effect die. Venom rolls a result of 12, so Cyclops blasts Venom with his optic beam. Venom now has d8 of physical stress.

If a character goes above d12 stress on any track, he or she is knocked out.

Plot Points, Opportunities, and The Doom Pool

There are three other major elements to the system: Plot Points, Opportunities, and the Doom Pool.

Plot Points are player resources that can be used in many ways to build up a character’s dice pool. Plot Points can be used to add a d8 to a power, activate a special effect on a power, add more effect dice, etc. The “cheat sheet” that comes with Marvel lists 12 things players can do with Plot Points.

Opportunities are triggered whenever anyone rolls a 1 on any die. If a player rolls a 1, the Watcher (GM) can offer the player a Plot Point. If the player accepts the Plot Point, the Watcher adds a d6 to the Watcher’s Doom Pool (or swaps an existing Doom Pool die for a larger die). On the other hand, if the Watcher rolls a 1, a player can spend a Plot Point to get various bonuses: an extra d8 for the next dice pool, a larger effect die, etc.

The Doom Pool is kept by the Watcher (the Game Master). The Doom Pool starts with two d6s, and increase as the players roll 1s and accept Plot Points. In practice, the Doom Pool grows rapidly. The Watcher can add Doom Pool dice to any of his dice pools as desired.

Marvel Heroes

© Marvel

How Well It Works

There’s a lot more to the system than this, and that’s the primary thing to know about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: you’re not going to grok the system in one session. There are too many rules and exceptions, all of which affect the construction of dice pools. Everything modifies the one core mechanic.

However, you will absolutely be able to play Marvel in one session. It simulates American superheroes beautifully, and within an hour you’ll be constructing dice pools with ease.

During my first game, I had a grand time. I ran a modified version of the “Breakout” event listed in the book. The players were able to use their characters effectively. The mechanics supported play of the characters.

Events

The basic rule book provides an event called “Breakout.” It’s a two-part story intended to be told over two sessions, but each part can also be run solo.

The event structure provided in Marvel is better than anything else I’ve seen.

Each event has several Milestones. Side explanation: Each hero has two character-specific Milestones that he or she can pursue. Performing certain actions that fall within the Milestone gets the character Experience Points (XP). Each event has its own Milestones, and characters can choose to pursue those Milestones instead of their own.

Moreover, each event has “unlockables” which can be “bought” for XP. So, if a character gains 5 XP, he or she can unlock extra help or information to further the story along.

From there, the book describes various locations involved in the story, and Scene Distinctions (another element that you can use to add dice to your dice pools) that apply to those locations.

The book then lists suggested starting places for various heroes. In this case, the action centers around a prison for super-villains in New York’s East River, so Matt Murdock is visiting as a lawyer, Captain America is flying overhead on his way to a security conference, Peter Parker and Tony Stark are on business in New York, the X-Men are on a pier investigating a tip, etc.

The book goes on to describe the action of the event, along with stat blocks for each villain. It’s basically a series of encounters, but only the final encounter is required. All the others are treated as optional encounters, with plenty of options and ideas to power the conflict up or down (such as extra villains, innocent bystanders, or additional environmental problems).

It’s beautiful. It provides so many options that it’s easy to pick a direction, but none of it kills the game. The book assumes that the Watcher is smart enough to adjust if the game’s going poorly.

Conclusion

I love this system. It’s easy to play and easy to run. The rules provide enough complexity to let smart players gain significant advantages, but it’s not so complex as to be inscrutable or confusing. It takes a while to fully understand all the bonuses and effects, but you can have great fun with even a basic understanding of the system.

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