Spider-Man’s Web-Swinging Woes

2003 was the beginning of the era in which Marvel began really start milking its licenses. Spider-Man and X-Men had just proved that the Marvel comic properties had a moneymaking role outside of the four-color page, and X-Men Legends was in development and soon to be a very well received video game compared to previous Marvel, well, shovelware. With a massive surge in the gamer population generated by D20, it was a no-brainer to re-enter a market where the Marvel Super Heroes RPG had previously done well relative to the last surge in D&D.

The result was the Marvel Universe RPG. The interesting thing about the MURPG is that it set the precedent for Marvel’s later move to exert extreme control over its properties, forgoing being licensed to another RPG producer in favor of in-house development. The title credits page is simply a list of the Marvel principles, with the actual staff that worked on the book squeezed in at the very back just before the appendix. Perhaps Marvel thought this was for the best, as none of them were “name” designers; Dan Gelber worked on various Paranoia editions (and little else) and none of the others turned up in a search of RPG credits (before or since). I actually seem to recall this as part of the marketing promotion at the time: they were using unknown designers without any preconceived bias toward making a standard RPG.

This is certainly made apparent almost instantly on reading the rules. The typical “what is an RPG?” intro seems to spend as much time making subtle jabs at traditional, dice-based RPGs as it does explaining what RPGs are for new players. In the minds of the designers, a dice-based RPG is clearly one where Spider-Man could fall to his death at any moment based on a bad roll. They were determined to avoid the pitfalls of a game where “figuring out the percentages of success and failure are what the game is all about.” Instead, they’d created a resource-based, no-luck system because, after all, “Many people like resource-decision games more than probability-based die-rolling games because they more closely mirror real life.”

As a statement of fact, this isn’t false (though using “many” instead of “most” is something of a giveaway that little actual research was done, as many paper-writing college freshmen know). Indeed, Nobilis had, with its second edition the year before, created a huge exploration-space for the resource-driven RPG. The world was ready for experimentation, and Marvel had hired a fresh staff of undiscovered talent to set the tone for the rest of the decade’s RPGs. Unfortunately, just maybe, the best RPGs don’t come from writers making their sole lifelong foray into design.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Core Mechanics

The core of the MURPG’s Action Resolution System (ARS) is the concept of “stones.” Every number in the game is meant to translate to a tactile representation. White stones represent health and high-cost items during character creation. Red stones represent energy and lower-cost items.

In play, white stones are hit points. Red stones are energy, and, for most characters, they’re limited to three per white stone (so characters lose maximum energy as they take damage). Additionally, spent energy refreshes at one per white stone per round (called a “page;” individual character actions occur in “panels”).

Characters determine trait totals in a way not unusual for RPGs: attribute (“ability”) + skill (“action”) + modifiers. What’s unusual is that the attribute + skill total is essentially a container that indicates the maximum energy that can be spent on a challenge. If the trait total is 7, the player can choose to spend up to 7 stones from his or her energy pool toward the action. Modifiers are free increases to the total (and, thus, way more valuable). If the player can’t afford the energy (or just thinks the challenge is of lesser importance), he or she can apply less than the full possible total to the action. This is the only way to do less than your absolute best at a challenge.

This results in an interesting alteration of the concept of difficulty: the difficulty of the challenge is actually a barrier to entry, not necessarily the total that must be met. If the difficulty is 7, a character with a trait total of 6 can’t even apply stones toward the action unless he or she finds a +1 modifier somewhere. With lack of time pressure, pretty much any challenge can become an extended challenge (and many standard challenges are given a “resistance” number way higher than the difficulty): as long as you meet the difficulty prerequisite, you can spend stones up to your trait total each round until the resistance is overcome.

Ultimately, with all results really coming down to whether you have enough stones of energy to spend, the overwhelming importance of this resource (and its potential imbalance within the party) becomes a problem that cascades throughout the rest of the system…

Part 2