Building a Hero

Like nearly all superhero games, the MURPG features a complicated method to try to balance characters with wildly divergent powers. In this system, it’s through the concept of actions and modifiers and, in many ways, the game was ahead of its time: a superpower is pretty much directly analogous to a skill. You buy an action for fighting in melee, you buy an action for sneaking, and you buy an action for blasting flame from your hands. This isn’t too far out from many modern games that roll things like resources or status—traits that would traditionally be separate from the skill list—into the same big bucket of character abilities. Unlike many modern games, though, which tend to treat things in the same bucket as basically the same cost, MURPG has a system that binds theoretical power to cost.

Effectively, there is a concept of a “basic action” that maps to a chart. A basic action at 4 costs two of your chargen resource stones to buy, at 6 it costs four, and at 8 it costs nine. Every action in the game has a modifier that indicates its relative utility relative to this platonic basic action: Shape shifting is +3, Inventing is +6, Drain Energy is +1, Business Skills is +0, etc. This modifier effectively increases the cost by shifting it up the chart: Inventing 1 costs the same as Business Skills 7. On the surface, this seems like a relatively simple way to balance things. Having a low action means you can’t put many stones in it and won’t meet many difficulties. Sure, Ninja gives you way more options than basic Close Combat, but the guy who is capped at putting 3 stones into Ninja could be putting 8 into Close Combat.

Except that most actions allow you to tie them to an attribute, and just add that in. If you tie your action to your Agility 8, it becomes an 11 Ninja vs. 16 Close Combat. And Ninja can also take a weapon modifier (which Close Combat can’t when it’s taking an attribute). So it’s actually something like 14 Ninja vs. 16 Close Combat. And Ninja does a ton of things: close combat, ranged combat, stealth, etc. And you’re rarely going to have 16 stones to apply anyway.

In conclusion, Ninja is terribly broken and… wait, no, I got off track. That example got away from me by virtue of my hate for the brokenness that is Ninja. But it’s just an obvious wart on a superhero system that’s easier to minmax than most (and in a field that includes every superhero game ever made, that’s saying something). In the tiny, thin book, they encourage making your own actions based on the examples, and it’s pretty easy to come up with actions you don’t have to buy very high because they attach to attributes and give you lots of other cool options.

But, really, all of this plays second fiddle to how you get energy in the first place.

As noted last week, energy typically comes from your stones of health. If you don’t have a lot of energy to spend, a high action is functionally meaningless except in situations where the GM gives you a high difficulty barrier to entry: pity the character with a 16 action and only 3 energy to apply each turn. Energy is the life blood of the system; you’re practically limited in what you can do by how much your total is and how much you regenerate each turn. And player characters can easily have widely varying amounts of it.

Energy doesn’t just go down as you lose health, it’s directly locked to it. If you buy up your health (via the Durability attribute), you just have more energy than less robust characters. Full stop. Of the example characters, the Blob starts with 18 energy while many other characters start with 9. His fatness allows him to bring twice as much effort to bear on literally anything in the game. The Punisher and Venom both have higher Close Combat skills than they can ever apply in a fight. Jean Grey can’t actually use her whole Telepathy. But the Blob can max out his ludicrously high Close Combat and still have energy left over for a little Black Ops or Social Skills. Because he’s tough.

Beyond being fairly arbitrary (and, in fact, so arbitrary that they had to introduce an optional rule where you have a lot of energy because you’re smart), the problem with this is that it creates a system mastery learning curve that makes new players drastically less powerful than old hands, even with the same level of starting points. You make your street brawler with high Close Combat, Acrobatics, and Agility. I make my assassin with Ninja linked to high Intelligence (as an energy source). My buddy ties his Elemental Mastery to his massive Durability. I hope you enjoy playing our sidekick.

MURPG… the story of how quick, agile, or strong people are not as good as smart or tough (and possibly fat) people…

Okay, I’ve done nothing but bust on the ability to minmax a superhero game system for 800 words. Fish, barrels, shooting… yeah. Anyway, if you make the simple decision to fix all your players at the same energy total and exert effort to keep your old hands from setting themselves up to be an order of magnitude more competent than the new players, how does the system run? I’ll talk about that next week.

Part 3