System Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Conclusion

Comments Off on System Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Conclusion

The Best of Them Bleed It Out

Superheroes is probably the number two RPG destination after swords and sorcery, though modern horror and sci-fi would be strong contenders. Nearly all supers games, though, spend quite a bit of effort on mechanical simulation, which can make it harder to capture the feel of supers in play. A player often wants to fling a car at a villain without checking a complex algorithm for lifting, throwing, and damage. Systems that are highly granular and simulationist tend to make a lot of comics tropes possible, but only with a multi-step process.

Even the systems that make this easier to do are often simplifying without shaping. That is, they basically run the same, just faster, as the more complex engines, because the effects are less granular. But the engines are fundamentally a mechanical sim underneath, interested in preserving and extending the physics of the real world. They don’t often give the GM and players a lot of tools for making the game feel like a comic rather than any other modern game in spandex. There are often a few nods to genre emulation, like hero points awarded for following tropes, but they aren’t generally integral. You can easily play these games off-tone if you’re not fully versed in the language of comics and interested in playing along.

MHR is doing something I haven’t seen before. It superficially resembles some of the other low-granularity supers games out there. Unlike most of them, though, it’s not just a simplification of a more complex engine, but each rules element is in place to make genre emulation easier. Rather than a set of attributes, there are elements to make you think about your role on the team and your character’s attitudes and backstory. Powers are arranged around generating thematic sets and include voluntary limitations for flavor. Skills require you to think about allies and other resources to use them optimally. And the entire action sequence is designed to model comic panels rather than clock time.

That’s not to say that other games don’t have various similar elements or answers to these things, but none of the ones I’ve played have done as good a job of making it feel like you’re playing in a comic story. They make sacrifices on that front to differentiate power levels and effects, or to provide a world of rational physics extended to the power of supers. MHR perhaps does some of these things less well, but it’s all in the interest of feeling like you’re playing a comic rather than feeling like you’re playing in the real world, with supers.

It does it all with a system that’s variable enough that it doesn’t feel hand-wavey when you stat a character, but in which it’s pretty easy to stat and run characters. And you can try lots of random stuff without breaking the engine. It’s ultimately pretty easy to run once you’re comfortable with the fundamentals, does a good job of modeling supers and a great job of modeling comics, you can tweak it without fear, and a lot of its systems are modular enough to steal for other games. The next time I think about running a supers game, this will definitely be at the top of my list for engines.

So check it out. ‘Nuff said.

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

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

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

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Point-Based Character Creation


Edit: There is also a Smallville Pathways-style group character creation method that’s less crunchy, more playtested, and probably more fun at the table here.

I picked up the new Cortex-based Marvel RPG last week (review probably starting next week, after Savage Worlds concludes). One of the immediate oddities of the game that seems to have leaped out at everyone was the lack of a systematic character creation method. It comes down to “pick an existing Marvel character and give him or her whatever stats seem reasonable.” Maybe there’s a plan for a more in-depth system in a later book or maybe Marvel put its foot down that their last system got a lot of flack from people like me about how easy it was to minmax and break the system and that wasn’t to happen again. Either way, the lack is palpable for players (who make up the majority of players that I know) that want to make their own heroes.

The system below is a first tinkering on my part to retrofit points onto the system. Costs for things are largely based on how much system utility a given power or SFX seems to have: that is, if the power die or SFX could conceivably be used more often in dice pools, it’s priced more expensively. Even with the points, you’ll want to have a pretty in-depth discussion between GM and player about each hero and make sure elements are added because they’re thematic to the hero the player wants, not because the player has spare points and wants to pick up something useful. GMs are specifically encouraged to assess additional point cost to “unrelated collection of useful powers” characters and may even provide a few bonus points to characters that take situationally-useful but highly in-theme powers.

All that said, the points below do get within spitting distance of the existing datafiles that I priced. For reference:

  • Local: Armor
  • Regional: Colossus, Cyclops
  • Regional +XP: Human Torch, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, Shadowcat, Thing
  • Global: Beast, Black Widow, Invisible Woman, Mister Fantastic
  • Global +XP: Captain America, Daredevil, Iron Man, Spider-Woman
  • Cosmic: Emma Frost, Spider-Man, Storm, Wolverine

Power Level

Starting characters in this system are rated by power level. This is basically the frame of the game that the characters can play from the starting session. If you let experience persist across Events, characters will likely upgrade levels every few Events.

  • Local characters are either just starting out or have profoundly limited powersets. They will most frequently deal with small-time criminals (“Street Heroes”) or be in training for higher-powered teams (e.g., X-Men trainees). Local characters start with 20 points to spend on Power Sets and 4 points to spend on Specialties.
  • Regional characters are entry-level with a pretty good power range, have extensive pre-game training, or are experienced heroes with a limited power range. They will either handle problems all over a major city or may pursue specifically relevant stories all over the world (common for mutants). Regional characters start with 30 points to spend on Power Sets and 6 points to spend on Specialties.
  • Global characters have had pretty extensive experiences before the start of play and commonly have a broad selection of powers to match. They deal with crises all over the world and may periodically go to other worlds or planes. Global characters start with 40 points to spend on Power Sets and 10 points to spend on Specialties.
  • Cosmic characters have reams of backstory, extensive powers, and tons of training. They frequently have to spend substantial amounts of time off-planet to find threats significant enough for them and/or are solo heroes that often deal with threats that would stump whole teams of less experienced characters. Cosmic characters start with 50 points to spend on Power Sets and 16 points to spend on Specialties.

Affiliations and Distinctions

Characters of any power level arrange Affiliations and Distinctions normally (i.e., match d10, d8, and d6 to Solo, Buddy, and Team and then pick three Distinctions). At the group’s discretion, Local and Regional characters may start with fewer Distinctions and the intention of gaining more related to character development in play.

Power Sets

Characters start with one Power Set for free. If the character has a second Power Set, it costs 2 points extra per Power Trait in that set (e.g., a secondary power set with three Power Traits costs +6 points beyond the costs of its traits and SFX).

Each Power Trait has a cost that is multiplied by the die step (d6=2, d8=3, d10=4, and d12=5) to find the cost of adding that Trait. For example, a cost 2 Trait at d8 costs 6 points and a cost 3 trait at d12 costs 15 points.

Special Effects (SFX) have a flat cost to add to the Power Set.

Each Power Set must have at least one Limit. Additional Limits do not generally provide any kind of bonus (other than that the character now has an additional way to recover Plot Points or drain the Doom Pool). If both player and GM agree that a Limit is unusually restrictive or powerful (like Sentry’s “The Void”), the GM may choose to award a small number of bonus points. However, be wary of awarding one player bonus points for a limit that will provide problems for the whole team.

Power Traits

A Local character can only have one Trait at d8, and the rest must be d6. A Regional character can have one Trait at d10, the rest must be d8 or less. A Global character can have one Trait at d12, the rest must be d10 or less. A Cosmic character can have any number of traits at d12. At GM’s discretion, particularly compelling rationales may bypass this restriction.

  • Attack Powers: 1, 2 for a particularly unresisted energy type
  • Durability: 2, 3 with no major weakness
  • Elemental Control: 3, 4 for powerful elements (e.g., Cosmic) at GM’s discretion
  • Intangibility: 1
  • Invisibility: 2
  • Mimic: 2
  • Movement: 1, 2 for flight
  • Psychic Powers: 1 for animal and plant control, 2 for mind control and telepathy
  • Reflexes: 2
  • Resistance: 1
  • Senses: 2
  • Shapeshifting: 2
  • Size-Changing: 1
  • Sorcery: 3
  • Stamina: 2
  • Strength: 1
  • Stretching: 1
  • Teleport: 2
  • Transmutation: 2

Special Effects

  • Absorption: 2, 3 for extremely broad (GM’s discretion)
  • Afflict: 2
  • Area Attack: 3
  • Berserk: 1
  • Boost: 1
  • Burst: 2
  • Constructs: 2
  • Counterattack: 2
  • Dangerous: 2
  • Focus: 1
  • Healing: 1
  • Immunity: 1-3 depending on broadness (GM’s discretion)
  • Invulnerable: 2, 3 if weakness is rare
  • Multipower: 2
  • Second Chance: 1
  • Second Wind: 3
  • Unleashed: 2
  • Versatile: 2


Any remainder of points for Powers can be halved and applied as additional points for Specialties. Any remainder of points for Specialties can be spent on Powers directly (but are not multiplied).

A d6 Specialty costs 1 point, a d8 costs 2, and a d10 costs 4. Characters above Local level aren’t encouraged to have d6 Specialties.

A character cannot have more d10 Specialties than d8 Specialties (e.g., if a character wants two d10 Specialties, he must have at least two d8 Specialties as well).


GM and player should work together to come up with relevant milestones. In general, all PCs should have milestones that are likely to happen with the same level of frequency (e.g., one character should not have a 1 XP milestone that can easily happen over and over while another has a 1 XP milestone that can happen only once).

An updated way to do this with pathways-style creation is here.

System Review: Smallville, Conclusion


The World Has Folded in Your Heart

“Author Stance” is a term I hear bandied around the indie-sphere. Based on this article, I’m not completely positive I’m using it correctly, but in my head it’s the kind of RP summarized in the Smallville examples of play: the players talk about their characters in third person and are free to hand wave and summarize things that don’t seem germane to the narrative. “‘You’re such an idiot!’ Sam says to Trevor, and then proceeds to lay into him about his drinking.” Someone correct me if I’m over summarizing or getting it wrong.

Regardless of whether I’m using the terminology correctly, it’s something I seem to recall seeing pretty frequently in examples of play in various indie-spectrum games. And I can never tell whether it’s an accurate example of how that game would play at the table, or whether it’s a simplification to make it easier to explain the game’s concepts clearly and in the space allotted. None of my gaming groups have ever really played that way: “I hit it with my axe” is far more common than “My character hits it with his axe” and it’s pretty unusual not to roleplay out the entirety of any important conversation. If my character and Harbinger’s character are at odds, you can bet that there’s going to be a fully in character argument at the table. Hopefully fully in character, at least.

I say all that to point out that I believe that my group’s experience with the game is probably not indicative of actual flaws in the system. It may be indicative that the designers took for granted that players would automatically be in Author Stance for the game. The game really might have benefited from having a big disclaimer at the front saying something along the lines of, “This game will make your character hate other player characters a lot of the time, so you should try to describe your actions in such a way that you’re not necessarily truly immersed in your character’s feelings. And a play contract for how far you’re willing to stymie one another might be a good idea.” Or we might be atypical and most groups have no problem keeping their in character actions from bleeding OOC.

All that said, I absolutely love that the game is a salvo of pure innovation shot directly into the mass market. The sheer courage involved in letting respected indie designers have an option to put some of their ideas into a slickly produced book obviously designed to reach gamers (and non gamers) that follow a popular show is commendable. Even if you don’t want to play it as written, there are a bunch of concepts that can be usefully grafted into other games. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the character creation system, which is likely to see play in pretty much any game I run from now on.

So even though my group had some difficulties with the system, I can suggest that yours might not if you go into prepared with a play contract and/or a comfortable distance between you and your character’s emotions. And, even if you can’t overcome these issues, the system is modular and doesn’t obfuscate any of it’s design: you could take it down for parts or just fix what doesn’t work for you really easily.

I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern game design: even if you’re not going to play it, you owe it to yourself to be aware of what it’s doing and why.

System Review: Smallville, Part 4

Comments Off on System Review: Smallville, Part 4


As mentioned in part 2, NPCs are pretty easy in Smallville, insofar as they don’t have a lot of stats and the ones they do have include descriptive phrases to help you roleplay them at the table. While you’re encouraged to go through the same chargen for NPCs as for PCs, it’s pretty easy to eyeball it when you’re not trying to give them very specific connections (i.e., you just want them for a one-off). So, by and large, NPCs are very easy to create for the table.

But if you’re like me, the best NPC is one you don’t even have to think about statting at all until the players have given enough of a damn at the table. Smallville has you covered, and I’m actually shocked more games don’t do something similar. The GM has a resource called the Trouble Pool, which starts small but grows from various things throughout the session. Not only can the GM spend this pool in ways comparable to players and their Plot Points, it can also be rolled for any situation that doesn’t have its own character sheet (and used to augment NPCs that do have one). Further, if you want to take the single step of saying “This NPC is a 2dX Extra,” you can use those Extra dice to assist the Trouble Pool when the NPC is on screen.

The main way the Trouble Pool increases is that the GM can “buy” a player’s die that rolls a 1 to add a Complication and also add that die to the pool. So if the player rolls a 1 on a d6 (even on an otherwise successful roll), the GM can toss that player a Plot Point, describe something that complicates the action, and add a d6 to the Trouble Pool. Since players will often be rolling several dice, at least one of them turning up a 1 is likely, so the Trouble Pool basically grows faster the more the players are making rolls.

This is very intimidating to players. And, honestly, that’s really its major benefit as a system: because smaller dice are more likely to roll 1, the Trouble Pool is likely to mostly be made of small dice that aren’t much of a threat against any PC rolling any d10s or d12s. I stopped buying d4s altogether unless I had something interesting to add as a story complication because the value of a Plot Point to the player was generally more than that of a d4 to the Trouble Pool. But players do eventually roll 1s on big dice, and toward the end of the session, the players seriously need to worry that their troubles are going to be rolling several high dice with a lot of low dice to use similarly to Plot Points.

Pacing wise, the Trouble Pool mechanic has a very similar effect to Exhaustion in Don’t Rest Your Head: it creates a natural curve over the course of a session where players eventually realize they need to start dealing with their problems before they become insurmountable.


Smallville handles the concept of “merits and flaws” in a very interesting way that captures many of the advantages of Fate‘s Aspects while retaining a level of crunchiness that’s easier to use for new players. Distinctions are additional traits that players can buy during chargen, and, as mentioned, they wind up filling out a lot of the “skills and attributes” mindspace that a more traditional system would have. So, for example, the “Athletic” Distinction fulfills a lot of functions that a Strength attribute or Athletics skill would cover. But Distinctions can be more traditional-style advantages/disadvantages as well: see “Impulsive” and “Family Reputation.”

In addition to providing an extra die to any roll in which the trait applies, as a player increases the die size of a Distinction, he or she gains access to new thematic special abilities. The cool thing about these is that they’re built with a very specific language of system modifiers. Every special ability gives you one of a few types of bonuses in exchange for one of a few types of costs (such as spending a Plot Point, giving a bonus die to your opponent, or adding a die to Trouble). There are enough of each side of the equation that, coupled with the theme lent by the Distinction name, there are a lot of variations, but it’s easy to understand and simply phrase how they work by virtue of the consistent list. They synergize pretty well too: see Pyro’s three Plot Points for 3d6 added to Trouble trifecta of “Impulsive,” “Willful,” and “In Over My Head.”

Distinctions are a very clever way of hooking advantages to the system rather than making each one an exception that must be remembered. Many other games could probably do something similar with the positive and negative components of their own core rules.


It bears mentioning again, that Complications (i.e., the GM buying a “1” with a Plot Point to get a Trouble die and describe a problem) are a very cool aspect of the system. I’ve never seen players so happy to “take their medicine” and accept the bad consequences of a roll as when they knew they’d immediately receive compensation in the form of Plot Points for the inconvenience. Someday, I might have to try an old school WoD game with the punitive botching rules and see if giving the players back Willpower every time they botch increases the enjoyment of the system.


System Review: Smallville, Part 3


Playing the Game

Conflict and Player Drama

The Smallville TV show is more about conflict between the principle cast than it is about the problem of the week. In fact, generally each episode’s plots are more about finding new ways to get the main characters to have interpersonal drama than to work together. It’s a very efficient way to make a large-cast show work, as there isn’t a lot of screen time wasted on introducing new characters to fight with. Instead, the leads spend a lot of time fighting among themselves.

The RPG works very hard to capture this milieu, and the character examples are up front about it: in addition to the four heroic principles, who have their own drama about secret identities and such, two of the example PCs are actually the recurring show villains. Effectively, the game suggests that you make your character to be frienemies with as many other PCs as possible. The GM advice even suggests that making a game is about inventing Wedges that can set different PCs against one another based on their mutual relationships, and then assembling those into a plot. What’s going on in the story is secondary to how you’re going to get the PCs fighting one another.

Knowing all of that is necessary to understand why the rules are the way they are.

As mentioned in the first post in this series, conflicts beyond a simple test are done as a series of back and forth rolls between two opponents, each trying to get successively higher numbers as the conflict escalates. The ultimate loser either takes damage (possibly having to leave the scene if the damage or margin of failure is high enough) or has to give in and allow the winner to accomplish the stated goal of the conflict. Note that these are mutually exclusive: if you beat an opponent who chooses to take damage, you don’t get what you wanted (unless all you actually wanted was to get the opponent out of the scene). The most uneven conflicts in the game cannot be resolved if the loser is willing to take a severe beating (physically or emotionally) rather than give in.

In the initial post, I framed this conflict system as PC vs. NPC/Trouble pool, but, as explained above, it will actually be PC vs. PC quite a lot of the time. If you’ve done your job right as a GM, two PCs will go at it with words, fists, or superpowers frequently and about topics they care very much about. If you have a group that doesn’t enjoy PvP and/or can’t completely partition PC emotions from player emotions, this is not the game for you. In my second session, I found a particular wedge that worked very well indeed, and I was rewarded by the entire group suddenly realizing they treasured their real life friendships too much to keep playing. Because the game doesn’t differentiate between social and physical conflicts, and doesn’t ever want to force a change in how you play your character, you can never actually accomplish anything against another player willing to stick to his guns and take the damage. Even something as simple as getting the PC to admit a lie or give up a held object is out of bounds, and you could find play fairly heavily stalled by players that refuse to budge. A play contract is highly suggested.

Assuming your group is able to handle the player drama inherent in the conflicts, the system gains complexity by using plot points and other optional adds. That is, if you rolled two dice to start the conflict, then your opponent rolled higher, you can start pulling in additional adds if you feel like the new difficulty will be impossible to beat with your initial dice pool. There is even some support for switching to a slightly different dice pool with the justification of responding to your opponent’s action (but you’re not supposed to straight up turn it from a social conflict to a physical one in the middle of an exchange). Plot points allow you to roll additional dice and/or keep additional dice beyond the initial two, distinctions may let you add in dice in exchange for something else, and resources and PC assistance can add bonus dice beyond the two. My only real complaint about the system is that it’s unclear how long added dice persist: if you add an Extra, for example, do you get the bonus for just one roll or the rest of the exchange?

And adding in PC allies, Extras, and Locations is the point where the system expresses its biggest flaw. All of these elements assist by breaking the “keep the best two dice” rule. Instead, the assistance you get from these sources adds the best single die to your kept two. Even an ally of 2d6 is likely to add 4-5 points on average to a roll, which is a much bigger bonus than simply adding more dice, even large dice, to your own pool. Since the game tends to assume the PCs are fractious and rarely in a scene together, the assistance rules don’t actually specify a limit to how much assistance can be gained in this way. And when two groups of PCs (or PCs and NPCs) are in conflict over the same thing, it tends to make sense to elect a leader for each side rather than breaking into multiple conflicts. All of this means that conflicts with allies tends to blow the dice curve out of the water with all the bonus assistance dice. My players, already not fully bought into the PvP aspects of the game system, questioned heavily why they wouldn’t always team up on the NPCs because the system so heavily incentivized it. Ultimately, the assistance mechanic gets a very small portion of a page in the book, almost as an afterthought, but has sufficiently large impact on play that it could have used more explanation as to how to manage it (such as guidelines for breaking up large conflicts and assistance caps).

PC Advancement

Intensifying the problems with refusing to give in on a conflict is the advancement system. Effectively, damage turns into exp. You can’t raise traits at all without at least one wound, and your biggest wound plus any wounds you had healed during the session becomes your “growth pool” for the session. You’ll roll all these dice against a pair of dice rolled by the GM (made up of the die size of the trait you’re trying to increase and a bonus die for how valuable that trait is), and keep the best two with no ability to modify the roll other than having a big pile of dice. My players were not fans at all of the random advancement (they universally failed to raise anything their first session, despite several big damage hits). Further, it really encourages players to never back down: they very quickly realized that their goal was to get hurt as much as possible in order to get exp, and giving in would only ever cost them advancement (in exchange for the temporary inconvenience of damage, which I’ll go into more about next week). While the experience system being tied to getting hurt seems like a cool idea, it has enough ramifications with the rest of the system to have undesirable effects even before bringing the pure randomness into it.

This week wound up trending unfortunately negative, but that means next week can be all the things  I liked about the system, starting with the Trouble Pool.

Part 4

Older Entries