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