System Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Part 4


Rolling Dice

The process for actually rolling dice during an action is straightforward but presents several opportunities for adding depth:

  1. Determine the acting character’s basic intention (which allows you to justify adding things to the dice pool)
  2. Assemble and roll a pool of dice (possibly spending Plot Points or Doom Dice for more dice)
  3. Keep a success total and effect die (possibly more with PP/DD)
  4. Determine the reacting character’s defensive intention
  5. Assemble and roll a pool of dice
  6. Keep a success total
    1. If the total is less than the acting character’s, you’re affected
    2. If the total is more than the acting character’s, you defended… and can spend PP/DD to hurt the aggressor
  7. 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.

Balancing Power

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.


Heroville Pathways


This is a character creation hack for MHR based on Smallville‘s pathways. It uses some of the ideas from Dresdenville and is based on the point values in my previous post on MHR chargen, with some new insights based on playtesting. It’s intended for making new heroes not based on existing characters, but potentially existing in the Marvel universe. The character map steps should be useful to you in creating relationships and antagonists even if you prefer the default, freeform method for generating stats. Note that this system treats all power traits and SFX as if they were of equal value: if you feel certain of these are less/more versatile, feel free to charge half/double for them.


The following node types are used in this system when making the relationship map:

  • Protagonist (Square): This is used for PCs. All PCs are placed in the center of the page and are automatically connected to one another.
  • Secondary Character (Circle): This is used for NPCs. Unlike Smallville, there isn’t a mechanical distinction between features and extras, but you might wish to double-circle NPCs that wind up with a lot of lines drawn to and from them, as they’ll likely be very important to the plot. These NPCs should typically be neither antagonistic nor completely helpful: they are not the players’ enemies (that’s antagonists, below) but they will often have their own goals and serve as foils.
  • Theme (Triangle): This is a one or two word theme, typically a very broad noun like “Ostracism,” “Fear,” “Sacrifice,” “Forgiveness,” and so on. The intent is to provide a core concept for Distinctions to build off of, and to give the GM ideas as to what concepts are central to the game when planning scenarios.
  • Macguffin (Pentagon/Shield): This is an important item or element that will drive the plot by frequent attempts to obtain or use it. It can be something powerful but specific (Mjolnir, Cap’s Shield) or something broadly important (the Odinforce, the Super Soldier Formula). It should not be something easily destroyed. It might also sometimes be an important location; in this case, draw the symbol as a diamond per standard Smallville notation.
  • Antagonist (Hexagon): This is a character or group with goals the create conflict with the PCs. They might not be villains as such, but they will always have an agenda that causes them to be at odds with the protagonists.

Like standard Smallville notation, connections between nodes are one-way arrows: one node might have a relationship with another with a different reciprocal relationship (or none whatsoever). There are a few limitations to this:

  • Themes cannot have outgoing arrows, only incoming arrows. The label for this arrow is the name of the Distinction so created.
  • Other players and the GM might draw arrows from other nodes to any protagonist, but only the player of that character can draw outgoing arrows (i.e., only the player can define how his PC feels about other nodes). With the above rule, this means that only the player can connect his own PC to themes.
  • Each node can only have a single outgoing connection to any other node (i.e., it can’t have two different relationships with the same element).
  • Unlike Smallville, when a player draws an arrow from his protagonist, he does not get to draw and define a reciprocal relationship for free: if he wants to control both sides of the relationship, he’ll need to spend another connection before another player or the GM decide to spend one to define it first.
  • Remember that placing something means giving it a node type and an interesting name, but the other players can and will define it by creating connections, and the GM will ultimately stat it and use it based on those connections. Don’t get your heart set on a thorough definition for an item as soon as you place it: something cool sounding but vague will likely be enhanced by other player input.


Begin the setup by placing and naming all the PC squares and connecting them (the arrows can be labeled at any point for free or left blank). Come up with a basic concept for your character. You can define your Solo, Buddy, and Team dice (from d10, d8, and d6) at any point in the process. Rotate around the table between every addition to the map (e.g., everyone adds a node before connecting to nodes) and alternate which player starts the process each time. Stop at the step that best defines the type of game you want to play (e.g., complete step 4 but don’t complete step 5 if you want to play regional-level heroes).

1. Background

Think about your character background and what your primary Power Set will be.

  1. Add a Theme (Triangle).
  2. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as your first Distinction.

Pick one of the following:

  • Early Power: Add a Power Trait at d6.
  • Early Training: Add an Expert Specialty (d8).

2. Catalyst

Think about the situation that granted your character powers.

  1. Add a Secondary Character (Circle).
  2. Add a Macguffin (Pentagon).
  3. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Circle or Pentagon.
  4. Draw an arrow from any Circle or Pentagon to any protagonist.
  5. Draw an arrow from any Circle or Pentagon to any Circle, Pentagon, or Triangle.

(Define all connections as you make them.)

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes two connections (between any valid elements).

Pick one of the following:

  • Indoctrination: You received your powers from training or deliberate experiment.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Add two Power Traits at d6.
    • Add an SFX or step up one Power Trait to d8.
    • Define an appropriate Limit.
  • Mutation: You are a mutant and likely received your powers at puberty.
    • Add a Power Trait at d8.
    • Add two SFX.
    • Add another Power Trait at d6 or an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Take the Mutant Limit.
  • Accident: You received your powers from some kind of scientific or mystical accident.
    • Add a Power Trait at d8.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or two SFX.
    • Add another Power Trait at d6 or two SFX.
    • Define an appropriate Limit.

At this phase, no specialties can be higher than Expert and no powers can be larger than d8.

3. Mission (Local-level heroes)

Think about your character’s personal ethics/code and desires. Add one of the following:

  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character is defined by an Ethos
  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character is motivated by Love
  • A Macguffin (Pentagon) if your character is in pursuit of an Item


  1. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as your second Distinction.
  2. Draw an arrow from any valid node to any protagonist.
  3. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes two connections (between any valid elements).

Pick one of the following:

  • Addition: You gained a useful piece of gear or a secondary suite of powers.
    • Add a secondary Power Set and choose a Limit for that set.
    • Add one Power Trait to the new set at d6.
    • Step up any two Power Traits or add two SFX (or one of each).
  • Empowered: You went through some training or enhancement process to increase your powers.
    • Add two new Power Traits at d6 or step up four Power Traits (or one Trait and two steps).
    • Add one SFX.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8).
  • Trained: You went through an education process that mostly focused on mundane abilities.
    • Add an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10) or add an Expert Specialty (d8).
    • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or add two SFX.
    • Step up a Power Trait or add one SFX.

At this phase, a maximum of one specialty can be Master and only one power can be larger than d8 (any number can be d6 or d8).

4. Agenda (Regional-level heroes)

Think about your character’s plans for the future and why he or she continues to fight. Add one of the following:

  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character pursues an Ideal
  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character is supporting a Group
  • A Macguffin (Pentagon) if your character is in pursuit of Knowledge


  1. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as your third Distinction.
  2. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon.
  3. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes two connections (between any valid elements).

Do all of the following:

  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or step up two Power Traits.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10).
  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or add two SFX.
  • Step up a Power Trait or add an SFX.

At this phase, there are no limits on specialties at Master except you cannot have more Master specialties than Expert specialties. Only one power can be d12 (any number can be d10 or less).

5. Legend (Global-level heroes)

Think about the legacy your character plans to leave the world and what he or she has already done to attain it. Add one of the following:

  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character will be remembered for Virtue
  • A Macguffin (Pentagon) if your character will be remembered for Power
  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character will be remembered for Awareness


  1. Draw an arrow from any valid node to any protagonist.
  2. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM adds one Antagonist (Hexagon) or Macguffin (Pentagon) and makes three connections (between any valid elements).

Do all of the following:

  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or step up two Power Traits.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10).
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or a new Power Trait at d6.
  • Add a new Power Trait at d6 or add two SFX.
  • Step up a Power Trait or add an SFX.

At this phase, there are no limits on specialties at Master except you cannot have more Master specialties than Expert specialties. There are no limits on Power Traits.

6. Transcendence (Cosmic-level heroes)

Think about what your character means to the cosmos and what they will call you across the stars and dimensions. Add one of the following:

  • A Secondary Character (Circle) if your character is a powerful being’s Agent
  • An Antagonist (Hexagon) if your character will be known for a powerful Nemesis
  • A Theme (Triangle) if your character is considered a God in his or her own right


  1. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Theme. Define the connection as a replacement for any previous Distinction.
  2. Draw an arrow from your protagonist to any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon.
  3. Draw an arrow from any Circle, Pentagon, or Hexagon to any Circle, Pentagon, Hexagon, or Triangle.

After all players are done with this phase, the GM makes four connections (between any valid elements).

Do all of the following:

  • Step up two Power Traits or add a new Power Trait at d6.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up two Power Traits.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or a new Power Trait at d6.
  • Add an Expert Specialty (d8) or step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10).
  • Step up an Expert Specialty to Master (d10) or add two SFX.
  • Step up a Power Trait or add an SFX.

At this phase, there are no limits on specialties at Master except you cannot have more Master specialties than Expert specialties. There are no limits on Power Traits.

Work with the GM to come up with Milestones for your completed character.

System Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Part 3



Even more than Smallville, MHR is a system that runs on tactical GM constraint. That is, the GM has system-based restrictions on certain actions, and can’t just narrate anything desired in these cases. In particular, the GM’s Doom Pool is a mechanic that relies on fixed rules to make it grow: you generally only get to add dice to it when you give players plot points for their 1s or you sacrifice NPC actions to add to the pool. Both of these things can happen a lot, but they can’t happen at a whim.

And the available dice in the Doom Pool become the GM’s currency. They’re needed to steal initiative, increase NPC dice pools, increase NPC success, and several other useful tricks. They basically work like Plot Points for the GM in a lot of ways. Without spending Doom Pool, players will generally be able to have their way against challenges unless the NPCs involved have lots of high stats. This works in many ways like other resource mechanics that rise and ebb between players and GM like coins in DRYH and push dice in Technoir: it establishes a natural rhythm of difficulty within a session.

So, while the GM is still given a lot of leeway to adjudicate and stack the deck with NPCs, there are many more limits on GM authority than in a traditional RPG. This is pretty common to indie games, but not nearly as common in mainstream games. And it’s something that might not be readily apparent if you haven’t seen the game in action. The GM is letting the system do a lot of the heavy lifting as far as setting the pacing and tone of the game: the threat level of most challenges relies on how the dice fall and how the GM manages the dice tactically, rather than how the GM has arranged the scenario.

Thus, the first thing the game system does to get a result that feels like a supers comic is to free up a lot of the GM’s mental focus from second guessing whether something feels like a comic.

Setting the Scene

Another factor to keep in mind is that scenes include some deeply embedded formulas to control pacing as well. Specifically, the game assumes that there are two types of scene: an action scene where conflict occurs, and a transition scene where recuperation and information/resource gathering occur. And these are generally meant to alternate off: if the PCs do a bunch of stuff that’s conflict, even if it’s a sequence of conflicts, that’s often a single action scene. If the PCs spend days doing research and planning, that’s one transition scene.

There are fairly strict limits as to what can happen within a scene, particularly the healing and resource gathering that can occur in a transition scene. This is not a game where players are incentivized to take a lot of downtime, collect a huge advantage, and roll in. Ten minutes coordinating with SHIELD command before diving right back into the fray gets you no less advantage than taking three weeks off, at least as far as system elements are concerned. These are superheroes, and the game doesn’t reward them for being overly cautious.

However, it might reward them for amping up the drama. A three week break could be a single transition scene (with only a single attempt to heal and gather resources)… or it could be broken into several transition scenes if players pick fights. And these could be social or mental battles as well. “I’m going to go harangue SHIELD leadership about registration” or “I’m going to go challenge Magneto to a game of chess” are valid tactics as well, if the GM doesn’t have a rollercoaster of action scenes ready to go. Marvel series tend to feature almost as much page content of allies dealing with their own personal dramas, and the scene structure makes that pretty viable: initiating an action scene that you’re pretty sure you can win (and which is likely to damage a non-physical track) isn’t a bad way to farm Plot Points, heals, and resources.

Taking Action

The meat of the game, of course, is action scenes. As noted above, these could focus on mental or emotional conflicts, but typically characters will find it easier to direct their superpowers toward physical battles (unless they’re psychics). Like the last Marvel game, action scenes phrase rounds as Pages and individual turns as Panels. Unlike the last game, this is more than a cosmetic gloss for normal RPG mechanics.

A major factor that leads to this is the initiative system. Fred Hicks describes it here better than I could, but, in essence: players start the conflict unless the GM pays Doom dice to interrupt (and it costs more if the players have traditionally initiative-boosting powers), after an action is taken the acting player gets to designate the next character to act (again, unless the GM pays to interrupt), and the round doesn’t end until everyone has gone once (and then the last actor gets to decide who starts the next round). This has several cool effects: it eliminates any slowdown from rolling and tracking results for initiative, it gets players thinking tactically about how they should coordinate, and it makes managing large squads of NPCs much easier (since they can all pass to each other if desired).

This initiative system also heavily supports the comics feel: players naturally get into a rhythm of making sure their actions have flow, in the same way a series of comic panels might show a related series of several characters maneuvering. Since panels aren’t of a predefined length of game time and this system persists even when the party is split, you can create a very nice balance of “meanwhile, somewhere else” action that keeps everyone involved. In my first playtest, I was very easily able to flip back and forth between Mr. Fantastic and Thing dealing with Carnage while Invisible Woman and Human Torch were elsewhere dealing with a mob of prisoners, and the flow felt very similar to how a comic would break up those beats across a few pages.

As mentioned, actions themselves have no set timescale. There is no concept of a predefined limit as to what a successful result looks like precisely and how long that should take, just an intent to create an effect, a method of resisting, rolls, and building a story out of how the dice fall. Obviously, there are a lot of systems where you don’t have to lock yourself into a fixed time frame and can describe more or less happening with an action, but this is one of the few that’s made it readily apparent to me that the difference between a one second blast and a 15-second flurry of attacks is just whichever one makes more sense based on the rolls and pacing. What keeps actions to a manageable length is that you can’t generally do a ton of things in one action without a lot of Plot Points to blow on rolling and keeping extra dice. Maybe it had to do with the presence of a focused, comics-savvy group, but we found it quick and easy to fall into a rhythm of summarizing the result of an action as a panel in a comic book: if you can draw it clearly in a fraction of a page (or possibly on a splash page with a really good roll), that’s about what you can do with an action. And none of the other supers games I’ve played have ever naturally fallen into that rhythm.

And since this post is threatening to exceed last week’s if I go into more detail now, I’ll save the particulars of how the dice system accomplishes that for next week.

Part 4

Borrowing from Video Games: Mass Effect’s Military Effectiveness


The throughplot of Mass Effect 3 involves gathering War Assets to raise Military Strength: essentially, the ending of the game depends on how many resources you can throw at the enemy in the final battle. This creates an interesting shift in the mission structure of the game, as cash and experience are secondary rewards for many missions. The major reward is in an NPC, group, artifact, ship, or other resource that adds a few points to your total. Now, the actual system is somewhat opaque and one can’t trust the game’s feedback on how many resources is enough for the best ending, but it does work to good effect. I’ve spent two previous installments without taking much time to read codex entries in the journal, but I’ve read every word of backstory the writers wrote for each War Asset.

This reminds me of something I mentioned in my Technoir review:

There are few elements of player psychology more powerful than the act of putting something on a character sheet, and I have never seen a player get emotionally attached to an NPC faster than every player in my Technoir sessions got attached to the connections in what was basically a one-shot.

It should be pretty easy to take ME3‘s system of War Assets and translate that to virtually any game where players rely on NPCs or other resources for success. Historically, players are difficult to predict when it comes to NPC attachment and world engagement. You might bring out an NPC that you expect to be a cherished assistant for most of the campaign, and your players ignore him as inconsequential. You might try to get them interested in a particular area or project, and have them dismiss it and wander off. But what if you handed them a card with the resource’s name and a value on it? They may still decide to pass because of the effort or because they just dislike it, but they’re far more likely to take it seriously than something that they can assume is just color.

There are several ways to use this in play, in escalating order of complexity.

The first is to use it at a bare minimum: PC goals can be associated with requiring outside help. You might tell them the explicit number, or give them an idea of the scope and let them start assembling resources. Convinced the Duke, 20 points; bargained with the Thieves Guild, 40 points; took over a small stronghold, 60 points; and so on. The problem could be anything from defending a position, to finding out intel, to getting access to a cool toy: as long as you can quantify it as something that requires aid or resources the PCs don’t currently possess, you can hook it in.

The second is more complicated: allow resources to be improved once they’re acquired. For NPCs, this might be hooking part of their value into their friendliness to the PCs, and diplomacy or doing jobs for them can improve their value (as they’re willing to commit more resources). NPCs can also improve if they level up (likely related to the PCs giving them the opportunity). Inanimate resources can be improved by physically upgrading them: perhaps the defensive grid the PCs found isn’t a resource on its own, but it can grant a 20% improvement to any defense-based asset.

The third is to make values more complicated than a single number, and require resources to be allotted to different tasks (which could possibly expend them). You might give resources an offense and defense rating, a diplomacy and intimidation rating, a martial and magic rating, or whatever set of conflicting values make sense for the game. Players then need to arrange them to obtain multiple goals at the same time. The Knights of the Scroll could be used to increase the power of the assault against the orc fortress, but they might be more valuable contributing to the research project trying to find a ward against the necromancer’s oblivion field.

The fourth is to feed them fully into a tactical wargame. ME3 already features signature NPCs that add as many points as a whole squad, so it wouldn’t take much of a leap to treat them as hero units. Resource cards might include synergies to give the players ideas on how to effectively arrange resources into units. Then confrontations are played out in turns. And it need not be entirely war campaigns: a political campaign could have just as interesting an arrangement of resources, as could a massive research project.

The fifth is to turn the system from an add-on to the core of gameplay itself. Each PC is represented with his or her own card, an aggregation of smaller resources, or the very concept of PCs might be done away with and the players take on the role of dynasties or other major powers. All challenges in the game are about proper allocation of resources: can you direct enough at the problem to succeed without sacrificing something else?

Whichever route you choose, I expect most players are going to pay way more attention to the state of the game world when it’s hooked into quantifiable values that they can hold in their hands and think about tactically.


System Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Part 2


Character Traits

MHR continues the Cortex Plus system’s experimentation with drastically altering character traits to key them to the specific genre in question. Smallville uses Values and Relationships as its primary traits while Leverage uses Attributes, Distinctions, and Roles (with the attributes being a bit broader in scope than the RPG norm). The crossover is that there will be a couple of types of character trait that form the core die pool for any action, and those core dice always speak to the genre being emulated.

As noted last week, MHR tends to include more dice in general than the previous entries. In addition to further normalizing the result, it makes it more likely that you’ll keep the three dice required to generate a two die total and a one die effect. This is accomplished by providing more core trait types (and, thus, four different dice that you can usually add to your pool without plot points or special abilities) and effects and other rules to further increase that number fairly easily.

Core Traits

The trait types are: Affiliations, Distinctions, Power Sets, and Specialties.


Each character has a die associated with Solo, Buddy, and Team (generally a d10, d8, and d6 arranged to taste). This is the easiest die to add to a pool, as it requires no other justification other than whether the character rolling is alone (or with a group but not, you know, with them), in a dynamic duo (or whatever the Marvel-approved variant of that term is), or with a group of three or more.

Wolverine has a d10 for Solo, d6 for Buddy, and d8 for Team, meaning he gets to use a big die alone, the middle die on a team, and his worst die with a partner. This strongly encourages the player to roleplay character tropes: if you’re playing a guy that is constantly splitting off from the group, he probably has a high Solo die to encourage that mechanically.

The highest active affiliation die is also the cost to the GM to force the players into different group dynamics: if the party is hogging a d10 Team die and refuses to split up, the GM can expend a d10 from the Doom Pool to narrate a plot complication that forces them to split up for a while (or forces them back together if they’re stronger as Solo or Buddies).


These are very similar to Fate‘s Aspects, and are three phrases that can have a positive or negative connotation. They’re usually pretty broad, so at least one of them can often be used on any roll with some kind of superficial justification as to why the character would be good or bad at what’s happening based on character history or motivations. And if you can’t figure out how to use any of them, there are probably a couple on the scene itself that could do in a pinch.

They have a high utility in at least keeping the character’s personality at the forefront of the player’s mind when describing actions. Describing a distinction positively lets you add a d8 to your pool, while describing it negatively gives you a d4 (which is more likely to roll 1s and be useful only to your opponent) but nets you a free plot point. (If I’d already done a Leverage review, I could have just said, “they work pretty much exactly like Distinctions in Leverage.”)

For example, Wolverine’s “I’m the best at what I do” Distinction gives him a clear option to add a d8 to most anything violent and a d4 to things outside his particular sphere of expertise.

Power Sets

The meat of a character’s traits reside in this category. These are basically high-concept supers traits like strength, durability, senses, or attack that are associated with a die.

Unlike some other supers systems, these are not necessarily specifically flavored, but instead pick up context from the other powers in the set and the special effects and limits associated with the set. For example, the Invisible Woman’s d12 (Godlike) Durability is understood to be a personal force field while Colossus’ identical trait is because he’s made of organic steel. In addition to effects that modify the power, players and GMs are encouraged to be good sports about the limitations of a power based on character concept: Sue is expected to not defend with Durability against light-based attacks and Peter might not get his against attacks potent against metal.

Characters can add one power die per power set (see below) for free as long as it’s appropriate: Human Torch has no defensive power traits except Flight, so might not get a power die for defense while grounded, but can add a d10 for Flame Blast in his attacks automatically and could spend a plot point to add his Fire Mastery d10 as well.


The last category reflects character skill, and will be either a d8 for Expert or a d10 for Master (with an optional rule I’ve seen bandied about of using a d6 if you don’t have an appropriate specialty). These dice can be stepped down to split them (e.g., instead of a d10 Specialty you can roll 2d8 or 3d6), giving characters stronger in skills an option for more dice or bigger dice. The skill categories are very broad (Acrobatics, Combat, Crime, Tech, Vehicles, etc.), but most characters don’t have very many of them.

This is an area where I’m not too thrilled with the level of granularity, as players with access to the Combat Specialty can add it to pretty much every roll in a fight, while those that don’t have it will have to increasingly contort their behavior to try to vaguely justify using whatever Specialty they do have. For my group, Distinctions already provided the idea space for “you only need a flimsy excuse to justify this trait” and Specialties moved into “increasingly repetitive justifications to keep adding my d10.” Part of that was due to a high combat-focus in the playtests I’ve run so far, and players would probably mellow out if they had more opportunity to use good Specialties that aren’t combat-focused, but for subsequent runs of the game I might look into making them more focused and giving out more of them. Your mileage might vary.

Other Traits

Multiple Power Sets

One of the really neat thing about the system, as hinted at above, is that powers are conceptually linked together to generate context. For example, Daredevil gets the power traits Reflexes, Stamina, and Senses as different elements of his “Hypersenses” power set, but, meanwhile, has traits for Durability, Attack, and Movement to represent his gear (“Billy Club”) power set. Similarly, Captain America has one set for his super soldier benefits and another for his shield. And while this division is commonly used for an “innate powers” vs. “gear powers” concept, some characters merely have multiple power sets for abilities that are just conceptually disassociated (e.g., Spider-Woman has “Bio-Electric Metabolism” and “Spider-Powers”). Most non-gear reliant heroes only have a single power set.

The neat thing about treating powers this way is that you can get the players thinking about how their power traits are just system manifestations of a central character power source. Since you also associate SFX and Limits (see below) with a particular power set, you can make characters that have a lot of various power traits feel like cohesive wholes. Iron Man isn’t just a huge raft of traits, but is, instead, a core of “Powered Armor” that happens to be supporting a “Weapons Platform.”

However, the use of multiple power sets does have a minor system issue, in that it’s nearly always advantageous to have more than one power set, because you get to add a die from each set for free. A character with one power set with two offensive powers has to pay a plot point (or have certain SFX) to include the second power on an attack, while if he had them across two sets he could add both automatically. It’s a small problem, but it does have an effect on the system that I’ll hopefully get around to talking about next week.

Special Effects (SFX)

Most similar to Talents in Leverage or Distinctions in Smallville, SFX are basically small exceptions-based rules that a player associates with a particular power set. Like power traits, they are pulled from a short list of very broad options and take their flavor from the power set. Some might need to be specifically customized (e.g., the Afflict SFX helps create penalties for a target, but the type of penalty must be predefined). In general, they’re designed to cover aspects of superpowers that can’t be specifically modeled with more dice.

The game manages to round out a pretty broad spectrum of superpowers with only 18 categories of SFX. As noted above with the power traits themselves, the granularity is pretty low and you’re encouraged to narrate minor quirks of your powers at the table rather than giving them specific structures, but the game does manage to cover a pretty broad possibility space of superpowers without a lot of complexity.


Each power set also has at least one limit. These are generally a circumstance where the power set gets turned off (gear can be broken or lost, the Human Torch can be extinguished, etc.), but might be something more broad (like the social stigma of a mutation-based power set). Players can voluntarily activate a limit when it seems appropriate and get a plot point, or the GM might force the issue by expending a Doom Die if the player doesn’t take the bait. Generally limits are customized from a short list of broad classifications, but players are encouraged to make their own if none of the existing ones work. Like Distinctions, they’re a low impact way to give flavor to a character and, like most good implementations of flaws, only pay out when they actually impact the character.


The last major element of a character is a list of milestones. These are player-directed XP: each milestone lists a (potentially frequent) circumstance where the character gets 1 XP, a more rare circumstance where the character could get 3 XP, and a capstone circumstance where the character gets 10 XP and retires the milestone. Each character can have two of these at a time, and they’re the major source of experience points for the game (characters also get them when the GM expends a d12 from the Doom Pool).

In principle, I like the idea of player directed XP. The first place I saw it done was Apocalypse World (or at least the Dungeon World hack), and it was a lot of fun. It’s potentially best used in a system like MHR where PC-to-PC balance isn’t heavily defined (i.e., around here it generally leads to hard feelings if one PC powers up way faster than another).

In practice, I worry that the MHR implementation needs a few more guidelines to get milestone frequency at least in the same spectrum. The only technical limitation on them is that the 1 XP milestone can only be triggered once per turn and the 3 XP one can only pay out once per scene. But the example milestones vary drastically in how frequently they’re likely to be claimed. For example, Armor has a 1 XP milestone that can be claimed whenever she supports another hero (which could conceivably award an XP every turn) while Wolverine has a 1 XP milestone that triggers the first time he inflicts physical stress in a scene (so he can only get it once per scene, even if he is pretty much guaranteed to get it every scene). Most of the example 1 XP milestones, in fact, specifically key off of “first time in a scene.” I could definitely see grumbling at the table when one player is happily checking off an XP every time she takes an action while the other players got theirs only once in the scene.

But that’s a fairly minor quibble that can be solved with a social contract and groups working together to make sure their milestones have a similar potential frequency. I’d just encourage GMs to prepare to make that happen if you have players liable to feel XP envy.

Part 3

Player Participation vs. Solipsism


Last week I mentioned that I didn’t know why I had such a hard time getting people to play Capes, but that’s not entirely true. For at least some of my players, it seems to be a fundamental distaste for divergence from the typical player/GM relationship; a divergence that is key to a lot of story games. And it’s not a fear of the responsibility of having deep control over the narrative, but seems to be more focused on a preference for elements that are lost with the transition. Specifically, these players crave the process of discovery: unraveling a world created by someone else (the GM) through the medium of a character. To this type of player, giving everyone at the table an equal share in developing the world, even if there are rules governing how much control each person has, feels almost solipsistic. To paraphrase one player’s opinion, “I make something up, then my character learns about it. Yay?”

Meanwhile, I’ve had tremendous success with large levels of player participation in setting generation. I ran several sessions of a Nobilis chronicle where the players spent most of their time in their own Chancel, solving mysteries based on the elements they’d purchased in group character generation. Lately, I’ve been having a huge amount of buy-in using Smallville pathways to let the players outline all significant NPCs, themes/core plot elements, locations, etc. And, in general, players love Fate-point-type mechanics where they have an expendable currency to seize narrative agency. But the clear difference in all these situations is that I’m still creating secret elements out of the inputs provided by the players: with a GM involved, familiar elements are understood to be altered once they get run through the GM’s brain. I’ve had players create an NPC, add it to the map, make a bunch of connections defining that NPC’s personality, and finish by saying, “I wonder what she’s up to.”

Now, these behaviors are spread across a lot of players, so I can’t be certain that the assortment that’s been involved lately in group chargen wouldn’t have a great time in GMless story games as well. But the sense I get is that there’s some kind of bright line: a minimum level of GM involvement beyond which the game suddenly changes into a style of play that traditional gamers aren’t particularly interested in. So I wonder if that’s even true, and, if true, what that baseline is.

What are your experiences? How much narrative agency can your group share before it crosses the line? And does it feel like crossing a line to your group, or you individually, or is it all just a continuum?

System Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Part 1


Use that Evidence, Race it Around

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is the newest supers RPG set and licensed in the Marvel Universe. It’s produced by Margaret Weis Productions, using another customized variation of the Cortex Plus system as seen in their Smallville and Leverage RPGs.

Based on the intro to the book and commentary from the designers, MHR seems intended to be something of a spiritual successor to the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG. To the best of my knowledge, the original is still the most successful of several Marvel-licensed RPGs produced in the last thirty years, so it makes sense to use that as a target instead of more recent offerings. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the original, as I’ve never played it. In my defense, it came out when I was three. It does remain widely loved among many internet commenters.

When the original came out, it seems to have been an early arrival in a wave of supers RPGs. Champions had been available for a few years, DC would follow shortly, and both Palladium and Chaosium had first editions of supers systems. Given that I’ve never heard of the Chaosium game until researching for this review, was only superficially aware of the DC game, and have played the Palladium game and wasn’t a fan, I’m presuming that the early 80s was a pretty clear two-dog race between the Marvel game and Champions. Corrections from those with first hand experience is appreciated in the comments.

These days, there are a lot of options for running a supers game. Champions (via the Hero System) put out a 6th edition not too long ago. Mutants and Masterminds is highly praised (and used to power the newest DC RPG). Silver Age Sentinels got some good buzz ten years ago (and, notably, shares designers with both M&M and MHR). Icons is a smaller indie game (largely based on Fate). People who played a lot of White Wolf in the 90s still have Aberrant as a go-to. And there are still others that I’m less familiar with, as well as, if you can find them, all the previous Marvel games and some of the older games from the 80s and early 90s. So, MHR has a bit more competition for brainspace than its predecessor. The question each new supers RPG has to answer is, “if I have a sudden urge to run a supers game, why would I use your system rather than one of the many other options?”

Of course, MHR has a pretty quick and clear differentiator from all those other systems: like the previous Cortex Plus offerings it’s a designer system where rules are there to help capture the feel of the genre rather than the physics of the world. The game rules have very minimal concern for traditional supers concepts like precise lifting capacities of super strength and energy blast permutations. Instead, they’re trying very hard to create a reasonably simple and consistent interface whereby the imaginations of a handful of players are channeled into something that feels like it could be a comic book.

This is something of a holy grail for supers games, as a more simulation-heavy engine relies pretty heavily on GM and player skill to keep from just turning into D&D in spandex, or some other genre that doesn’t really feel very much like a comic. The only other game I’ve seen work from the ground up to go for comics feel, as opposed to supers verisimilitude, is Capes, which is a much more freeform shared story-game experience than something that traditional players would consider an RPG. MHR looks more like a standard RPG (e.g., one character per player, a single GM, etc.), so may be poised to be a much more accessible entry point for players (i.e., for some reason it’s really hard to get people to play Capes. I don’t know why.).

So, the answer to the question, “when I want to play supers, why would I choose MHR instead of another supers RPG?” is, “because it promises to generate something that feels like a comic through natural interactions of the system.” The major focus of this review series will be on whether it succeeds at that promise.

Core Mechanics

As mentioned, MHR is another variation of the Cortex Plus system. It seems more similar to Smallville than to Leverage (which I’ll get around to reviewing one of these days), but includes modifications that are both specific tweaks for the genre and general evolutions in the system. The most obvious differences for players are:

  • Players are even more likely to get to roll several dice than in Smallville, which increasingly normalizes any dice swinginess.
  • The assistance mechanic is much improved in that it both has more limits and doesn’t automatically grant extra kept dice (which, for Smallville, I felt made assistance too powerful given the other inputs of the system).
  • Conflict uses a more traditional “on my turn, I act and my target reacts” system rather than two characters going back and forth in a battle for highest roll.
  • Rolls include an Effect die in addition to the two-die total that indicates the result level.

Let me unpack the Effect die a little more, as that’s the biggest and most welcome change to the core mechanics. In Smallville, once a character proved successful, the player would reroll the final dice pool and keep the highest rolling die to indicate Stress dealt to the target. Since MHR almost always leaves you with at least three dice (you have to drop ones that roll 1), you add together two dice (generally the two highest rolling) to generate the total result (which is the number the target has to beat to avoid getting hurt/affected), and then keep another die for Effect. So if you rolled a d10, a d8, and a d6, and the highest rolls were on the 8 and the 6, you’d use the d10 for effect (and it doesn’t matter what it rolled, just that it’s a d10).

This has two beneficial effects. The first is a simple speeding up of action at the table, since you don’t have to reroll after success is established to select a die for effect. The second is that it makes adding bigger dice consistently helpful even if you don’t roll well on them: if the big die rolls high, you get to keep it for your success total, but if it rolls low you still get to keep it for your effect die. Everyone’s a winner.

On the GM’s side, the mechanics work very similarly to Smallville except with the Trouble Pool renamed to the Doom Pool. There are some slight modifications to this: notably, when the GM buys a complication (now called an opportunity) with a plot point, it just adds a d6 rather than a die of whatever size the player rolled the 1 on. Additionally, there are more extensive rules as to what the GM should spend dice from the pool on, which interfaces with the initiative systems and genre emulation (I’ll probably go into more detail later). In general, there’s less reliance on the Doom Pool as consistent opposition, and more as a resource pool for the GM to use to assist NPC rolls. It primarily gets rolled independently when players make a support roll with no direct opposition.

The group I playtested with had mostly been in on my Smallville playtest, and the learning curve was very shallow to pick up the system and how it differed.

Part 2

Borrowing from Video Games: SW:TOR’s Story

Comments Off on Borrowing from Video Games: SW:TOR’s Story

If you’d told me a few months ago how many hours I was going to blow on Star Wars: The Old Republic within my first month, I wouldn’t have believed you. After all, I’ve been clean of World of Warcraft for nearly five years. I’ve played other DIKU-style MMOs in the intervening time completely casually, often getting bored after a few hours in. I’ve been eagerly awaiting Guild Wars 2 for precisely the reason that it’s replacing a lot of the most obvious inheritances from EverQuest and WoW. Yet the gameplay in TOR could almost entirely be run in any standard DIKU from WoW to Rift with just an art and sounds change. And, while I’m a big fan of lightsabers and all the other assorted brand identity of Star Wars, that in itself wouldn’t explain the draw of the MMO.

What does is the story.

The most obvious evidence of this is the sheer amount of cash spent on voice acting and animation: every mission in the game has at least a short conversation that is fully voiced, animated, and cut like a scene from an animated film. It’s leagues beyond “click NPC, see mission text, click accept” and the level of animation and NPC interaction is far beyond even any other voiced MMOs I’ve played. When you get your quest to kill ten rats you’re going to feel viscerally that the death of this arbitrary number of arbitrary critters is a matter of life or death for your questor. Not only do you see the emotional reaction to your mission completion, you even usually get a thank you note a little while later giving you the denouement of the plotline.

That’s useful, high-production-value gloss. It really makes the game shine. But it’s not the true engine of the story.

The real brilliance is the story flow, which is something I’ve never seen another MMO really do in the same way, and certainly not to the same success. The way most MMOs these days work is the concept of quest hub to quest hub. You go to a little village or camp, there are a bunch of NPCs that have missions in the area that need doing, and eventually one of them gives you a mission that takes you to the next quest hub. There may be some overarching logic to your overall path, but it gets drowned in the noise of all the quests you’re doing. And the overarching logic is shared by everyone in your faction.

TOR starts with a personal, class-specific quest. It’s different for each of the eight primary classes in the game. You’re on a personal mission: the quest to catch and ruin the criminal that stole your ship, the careful dance of ending a terrorist conspiracy, a secretive search for a rival operative that threatens to undo your master’s plans, and so on. Each of these personal stories is broken into a whole series of smaller goals… and each of those smaller goals sends you by the ubiquitous quest hubs to pick up a few more missions while you just happen to be in the area. It’s a simple and yet winning change: instead of the focus being on whatever arbitrary pile of tasks happen to be in the area, it’s on the much more compelling (yet equally arbitrary) series of class story tasks that happen to send you through the area.

And these tasks are incredibly arbitrary for the simple fact that every one of the four class stories in a faction has to share exactly the same series of beats. If you travel in a group of four, each a different primary class, you’ll never have to wander more than a bit out of your way to do each other’s story quests. The agent goes to the temple to stop terrorists, the inquisitor is hunting a relic buried there, the warrior needs yet another relic, and the hunter has to eliminate a troublesome NPC that happens to be there. Yet the overall design is clever enough that your own story doesn’t feel especially slighted by knowing everyone else is going to the same places for different reasons.

That’s a long lead up of explanation to get to the question: Why don’t we do this more often in tabletop RPGs?

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in tabletop games, particularly those run by new GMs (or just for new groups where the GM doesn’t know the players well), is in getting player engagement. As a GM, you put your story out there and the players either find something about it that their characters invest in, or they slog along out of friendliness hoping something will eventually click. I’ve seen a lot of games eventually stall out largely because most of the group never really cared much about the story.

The obvious solution to this is to run a sandbox game where the players completely drive the action based on what their characters want. But, in addition to not working well for all genres, a true sandbox requires a level of improv skill and/or prep time that not every GM is ready to bring. Plus, ignoring the derisive label of frustrated novelist, a lot of GMs get inspired by a story idea that they want to try rather than an open setting.

TOR offers a compromise: an individually-directed story that nevertheless parallels and draws the player into the story the GM is interested in telling. Instead of the player character’s goals being side tasks that sometimes distract the group from the main story, they’re the hooks that get the group into the main story in the first place.

Interestingly, the place I see this kind of thing most often is convention games with pre-gen characters that have written backstories. GMs that make these often take great pains to ensure that the pre-gen’s goals will keep the plot moving. Why not do this with your home game where the players each have their own character? For all but the most closed or disinterested players, it’s a simple matter to ask them for their take on where they’d like their characters to grow or what they want them to accomplish. Then set measurable steps to this goal (either as achievements out of play with the player, or delivered in-character but clearly during the first session). You can even bribe the player with the promise of a big dump of exp or other upgrades set to milestones or total completion: for certain players, nothing focuses the mind like pursuit of system-based character improvement.

Once you know where the players want to go and you have a finite series of steps to get there, it should be a simple matter to bind those steps into the main story you want to run. Want the players in a haunted house? The solution to a player’s personal mystery is hidden inside. Want them to infiltrate an enemy group? One of them has information pertinent to a player’s story that has to be socially engineered. Need them to kill ten rats? A contact has a crucial piece of the puzzle and that’s his price for turning it over. Sure, the players may grumble a little: it is obvious what you’re doing. But as long as it has a measurable impact at getting them closer to their goals, they’ll most likely play along.

And the coolest thing about this in a tabletop game is that you should be able to disguise it more easily than an MMO with areas that have fixed levels of enemies. Player goals don’t necessarily all have to serendipitously wind up at the same place. They can be trusted to help one another on disparate goals only to see a story emerging from all of them together. Or, for groups where their goals run largely perpendicular to one another, you could even gloss the entire game as periods of downtime progress on goals with sessions chronicling the times that a bunch of the PCs’ goals happen to intersect.

It might not be high art, but it certainly beats a player complaining that he doesn’t even know why his character is there.

System Review: Savage Worlds, Conclusion


And I Don’t Know What I’m in For

On inspection, it seems that Savage Worlds was first published in 2003, so it’s weird that I’m finally getting around to it now. Sadly, it came out too late for the “let’s convert these games to our own systems” phase my friends and I had in college, or it might have been really useful to us. Instead, it came out right in the middle of the “D20! All the time! For everything!” phase that I think a lot of groups went through a decade ago, and mine certainly did. So that’s my excuse for not really being aware of it earlier.

Overall, it’s a pretty slick little game engine that’s quickly crept up alongside Fate in my brain as an option for “I could just run [random game idea I just had] in…” As noted in the previous posts, I doubt I would actually run it without some significant alterations… but there are almost no games that I run without significant alterations. Savage Worlds has that special combination of modularity and simplicity, but with enough granularity to hook in a variety of ideas, that makes a good generic system. It’s tuned just enough toward high-action pulp that it makes itself obvious as a system for any game ideas within that spectrum without being so specific as to rule out particular concepts as too difficult to implement.

So, I’d heartily recommend the system to groups that aren’t afraid to seriously tinker with the rules. It does some things you might not be a fan of, but those things are pretty easy to replace with something more to your liking without breaking the whole thing. And if you suddenly find yourself struck by an idea for a campaign that you just need something lightweight, fast, and actiony to run, you’ll have another collection of tools to make that happen.