Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Make Mine Marvel (Heroic Roleplaying)!

I think my favorite current RPG has got to be the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game by Margaret Weis Productions. This may be because it came out so close to the Avengers movie, and I'm still on an awesome movie high, but I've always had a soft spot for superhero games. Many, many years ago, I used to have the old Marvel FASERIP RPG, and spent a lot of afternoons and evenings in the basement of a friend's house creating characters (and occasionally actually using them). I have a pretty large comic collection, which trends towards Marvel over DC (especially recently, since the reboot). So I like to think I know a fair bit about superheroes and villains, even if I haven't had a chance to see the system in action.

MHRP, like the Smallville and Leverage RPGs before it, runs on the Cortex + system. This probably doesn't mean a whole lot to people who don't know those games, but it's a relatively elegant system. It uses dice from d4 up to d12, which can be a bit confusing at times, but the dice grades help to show a different in degrees of power. What the system seems to do very well, at least from my point of view, is emulate the action flow of comics. Characters are made up of a small set of factors; the most ubiquitous of these is Affiliation. There are three grades of Affiliation - Solo, Buddy, and Team. Each character has a d6, d8, or d10, and one of these goes into each grade. This tells you, and other players, how your character prefers to operate - Wolverine, who likes to do his own thing, might have his d10 in Solo, while Captain America, who is at his best leading a team, has his d10 in Team. Affiliation is probably the most-used factor in rolls, since each character is always doing something either alone or with others.

After Affiliation, each character has distinctions. These are defining characteristics of each hero (or villain). To use familiar characters, Iron Man has a distinction of Billionaire Playboy, while Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, has a distinction of Hotheaded Hero. Each character has three, and if they are made relevant in a scene, if that relevance is helpful to the character (Tony Stark needs to use his money), you roll a d8; if it proves a hindrance (Johnny's rash actions get him into trouble), you roll a d4 and gain a Plot Point - these can be used for a variety of things, like performing extraordinary actions with powers, or finding (or creating) resources.

Each character also has one or two power sets. Each power set consists of between one and six powers, at varying levels; to use Captain America again, he has two power sets, Super Soldier Program (covering his enhanced durability, stamina, reflexes and strength), and Vibranium-Alloy Shield (which has its own durability, and use as a weapon). Each of the individual powers in each set has a rating; some have listed special effects (like the shield's ability to ricochet), and each power set has a limit - which can be used to temporarily disable the set - or even just a single power within the set - in order to gain a Plot Point. The limit mimics the part of comics where a hero's abilities are lost for a short period of time to build tension - a villain catching Cap's shield, or someone dousing the Human Torch.

After powers, there are specialties. Each character has a number of skills; there's no set number, just whatever you think your character should have. You really only get ratings in specialties you excel at, though - there are only two skill levels, Expert and Master. Skills only come up when they might be relevant - Reed Richards being a Science Master doesn't help in an interrogation. Finally, there are milestones; they don't add to rolls, but they do help advance your character; each character has two (or more) milestones, and each has three conditions. Each condition, if met, gets your character experience, and they aren't necessarily met by fighting; Iron Man, for example, has a milestone called Demon in a Bottle; its first condition, which gains him 1 XP, is fulfilled if the character finds himself in a situation where he is expected to consume alcohol. The 3 XP condition is met when Iron Man lies to a fellow teammate about drinking or when he gives a teammate reason to think Iron Man has been drinking. The final condition - which closes the milestone out if it is hit - is worth 10 XP, and is met when Iron Man drinks himself into a stupor or checks into rehab. Each condition fo a milestone advances a character's story, if not a session's plot.

When in a situation that calls for a roll - say, a good old fight between heroes and villains - you rolls a series of dice. You always roll affiliation, and then, if they apply, you might roll a distinction, a power, a specialty, and maybe a stunt or resource (you can find out about these if you buy the game). Two of these dice are your roll, and a third is your effect die; the first two are added together to compare to whoever you're fighting, and the effect die is useful only for its die size - it tells you how much damage you do to your opponent (physical, mental, or emotional stress), among other things. Every 1 you roll is a die that can be used against you by the GM (or Watcher), but every die used against you in this way gets you a Plot Point.

If the description sounds a bit technical, I apologize; I haven't actually played the game, though I would love to, so my knowledge is purely on paper. From what I can see, though, the game seems to be very narrative-friendly. There are no exact details about exactly how much a super-strong character can lift, or what the IQ of Reed Richards is; the power levels are fairly flexible. And characters like Hawkeye can stick around on the same team as Thor, because while their powers might not be as earth-shattering, they are more likely to end up with Plot Points that can be used to shape the scene. The flow of the game seems to be true to the way an actual issue of a comic book would flow, and everyone can participate regardless of power level. It seems to solve the problem of power balance by finding other ways of making the less strictly powerful characters useful.

In any case, I am very interested in the game, especially with the Avengers movie fresh in my mind. Once it comes out on DVD, I'll be looking to watch Avengers, and the movies that lead up to it, in one giant marathon; maybe I'll be able to be playing this game as well.

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