Take the Stones!

I suspect that most system nerds eventually look at their trail of extensively house-ruled games and get the thought into their heads that it’s time to make a system from whole cloth. After all, you never seem completely happy with the games others have invented, so why not work out something that will please you from the ground up? Unless you’re the truly gifted soul who makes a Forge darling out of the gate (and this is often accomplished by doing something very small and focused), you probably just invented a fantasy heartbreaker. You certainly can’t sell it, your friends probably don’t want to play it in favor of some other system, and, when you do finally playtest it, you find that there are core mechanics that looked great on paper but have unexpected flaws in practice. It turns out that even extensive house rules allowed you to build on a functional backbone, and that making a game that survives contact with the players is a dramatic undertaking. If you look deeply at any successful RPG, you’re likely to find either a steady iteration off of an established base or a gradual incorporation of tested mechanical concepts into a formerly chaotic melange. It’s a very rare RPG indeed that owes nothing to what has come before except knowledge of traps to avoid.

To be blunt, MURPG seems like an excited young aspiring designer’s early game system got released into the wild long before it was fully tested and refined*. There are really neat ideas in the system, the core of which is the aspiration of abandoning randomness completely while still retaining a relatively crunchy game. As noted, it was an early adopter of the habit of blending diverse traits into one big pool that is all the rage these days. The consistency of the use of stones throughout the system (and that three red = one white) is highly elegant. It’s not necessarily a bad system, but it needed a ton more playtesting and maybe a few admissions that dice-based systems do certain things for good reasons. Under the veneer of high-quality Marvel production values, it’s a rough draft.

This is pretty harsh to say, but seems to be supported by the actual arc of the game. Despite Marvel’s push to promote it and give it prominent place in comic/gaming stores, it still received two supplements and was cancelled. You could say this was simply a comics giant overestimating the potential return on an RPG that wasn’t d20-based, but the system was also only very briefly discussed in the places online that fixate on such things. It was discarded for Silver Age Sentinels, Mutants and Masterminds, Champions, and a whole host of smaller attempts at the elusive, perfect superhero RPG. Within a few years, it became a speedbump on the discussion: “Marvel RPG? You mean the one without dice?” “No, Marvel Superheroes, the one from the 80s.”

But there is one last bastion of support for the game. In all of the methods of play there is one that benefits hugely from the abandonment of randomness. It’s a format where rolling dice is cumbersome and potentially impossible: MURPG still has life in the sphere of play-by-email/post. A game system that’s a little awkward without a large tabletop and piles of glass beads in the physical world only requires a short text description showing the math in an online format where describing your dice roll is suspect at best. It may not be the greatest system in the world, but, of the “mainstream” ones, it’s pretty much the only game that isn’t very difficult to play without a trusted random number generator that’s visible to all players.

The MURPG needed a lot more work before it was done, but it did have a few bright ideas that could have been incorporated into later games. “Doesn’t require dice” is a design goal that gets used way less than you’d expect given the decently large group of forum gamers. They might not be able to play at scheduled times but can totally write forum posts and emails at work. There’s a market waiting to be served, and MURPG is still one of the few systems that can fill it. Something should be done!

Maybe I could go write another fantasy heartbreaker…


*Here’s my first one! It’s terrible!