The process for actually rolling dice during an action is straightforward but presents several opportunities for adding depth:
- Determine the acting character’s basic intention (which allows you to justify adding things to the dice pool)
- Assemble and roll a pool of dice (possibly spending Plot Points or Doom Dice for more dice)
- Keep a success total and effect die (possibly more with PP/DD)
- Determine the reacting character’s defensive intention
- Assemble and roll a pool of dice
- Keep a success total
- If the total is less than the acting character’s, you’re affected
- If the total is more than the acting character’s, you defended… and can spend PP/DD to hurt the aggressor
- Describe what happened
There are two major interesting things about this process.
The first is that each action/reaction is a fairly context-rich experience. It does take potentially far longer to run the action than a more defined system, but you’re able to build a lot of context into the result. And a combat generally doesn’t take a whole lot of actions to complete: you can instantly take out an opponent if you keep a large die for effect and use a high margin of success or SFX to step it up over d12. In my experience so far, even a fairly large fight has only taken a couple of rounds unless people weren’t taking advantage of spending plot points to damage the aggressor on a successful reaction. But each individual action can be described as a short series of events, making it feel like more is getting accomplished than a more narrowly defined attack/hit/damage system.
The second is the concept of damaging on reaction. This blog post, part of a series on the newest Avengers cartoon, points out how common it is for heroic characters to get to react and take out minions, and MHR captures that perfectly. As long as you have plot points (which you can get constantly if you’re willing to take a d4 on your Distinction), your character is being effective both when attacking and when being attacked. A subtle tactic of the game is that you might not want to have minions pile up on the high-defense characters… not just because they’ll likely not be affected, but because they’ll just get wiped out by the reactions en masse. It nicely imports the inverse ninja principle/conservation of ninjitsu effect that basically originated in Marvel Comics: a big pile of mooks challenges the characters (even if you don’t use the game’s rules to boil them down into a single group character), and your players are going to feel like badasses as they wreck the attackers in reaction.
Given how dice and actions work, there are basically two ways of increasing character power in the system:
- Bigger dice
- More dice
There’s no question that slinging d12s is awesome in the system (and makes it way more likely that you’ll one-shot targets), but being able to add more dice is similarly helpful: you potentially have a larger spread of rolled dice to mitigate low rolls, and you’re likely to be able to justify rolling a full set of dice on a wide variety of rolls. This solves the Superman/Batman problem better than most other supers games I’ve seen (or, since this is Marvel, I’ll go with what a previous commenter suggested and call it the Gladiator/Hawkeye problem). To wit: a massively powerful character (a few d12s) isn’t generally out of balance with a highly trained character (several d8s and d10s).
Part of this is due to all characters sharing the same spread of their first two dice: Gladiator still rolls a d6-d10 based on how many other characters are in the scene with him and a d4 or a d8 for his Distinction, just like Hawkeye. Before spending Plot Points or using SFX, those two dice are likely to make up half your pool. After that, Gladiator rolls a d12 for his power, while Hawkeye likely rolls two, smaller dice (assuming he has a pair of power sets for training and gear that stack). Then they roll a Specialty die, where Hawkeye again likely has a wider range and, thus, an easier time using a good die in any given situation. So you might get a situation where Gladiator’s d12 and d8 are matched by Hawkeye’s d10 and 2d8. If Gladiator uses Plot Points, he can probably roll extra, bigger dice, but Hawkeye’s smaller dice are more likely to generate opportunities and let him spend PP more often.
However, I’ve seen a lot of commentary that suggests that all characters are meant to be inherently balanced by the system, and that’s not true in my experience. That is, a character with fewer, bigger dice is probably balanced against another with more, smaller dice, but that doesn’t mean a character with more, bigger dice is balanced against a character with fewer, smaller dice. The spread of results is potentially smaller than more granular, simulationist supers games, but it still exists. That is, a low-powered character would be able to contribute in a fight with high-powered heroes, and that’s awesome, but that character is still going to get less total success numbers than more robustly-statted heroes and be able to apply a big pool of dice to a much more limited array of circumstances (due to lacking a broad range of powers and Specialties).
And I’m not sure you’d even want a system where any particular array of possible character stats is just as good as any other array of character stats.
So, in my experience:
- Focused, powerful characters (fewer, bigger dice) are pretty well balanced against versatile, weaker characters (more, smaller dice).
- Focused, weaker characters (fewer, smaller dice) can still be very useful in a team and have fun, as long as they’re prepared to have less options for big dice than other players.
- Groups that want to make sure all heroes on the team contribute similarly (i.e., groups where feelings will be hurt if characters roll better and more often than others) should use some mechanism to ensure that happens beyond just picking a hero and giving him stats that seem reasonable.
The designers have done a really excellent job making a supers system where any two heroes can usefully team up, but I can’t help but feel like they may be taking a more enlightened approach to the problem of character creation than my group is prepared for. We can be envious bastards, and it helps us to have more restrictive mechanics on character creation to keep us in a more ethical realm where we don’t get jealous of the guy next to us. Obviously, your mileage may vary.