System Review: Marvel Universe RPG, Conclusion


Take the Stones!

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I could go write another fantasy heartbreaker…


*Here’s my first one! It’s terrible!

System Review: Marvel Universe RPG, Part 3

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So this is a superhero game, so you’re going to want to know how well fights go. It’s a game that, in fact, suggests that a “Brawling” style of play—where two players just make characters and go at it GM-free—is totally valid. So how is the combat?

The stone-based nature of the system means that there is no randomness to add excitement. Instead, all drama comes from hidden knowledge of how your opponents are planning their attacks. A lot of games talk a lot about declaring actions in reverse initiative order, but in actual play it’s simpler to just go in order of initiative, losing the faster characters a huge tactical bonus (because the slower characters get to allocate their actions based on what’s already happened). This isn’t true in MURPG: the GM and players can hide their stone arrangements and then reveal them all at once. The fight then goes in order of Agility for initiative, and the slower characters may be completely screwed if they guess wrong (e.g., a lot of energy devoted to a Close Combat attack when the faster character spent stones to move away and use a Ranged Combat attack).

Beyond the weirdness of blind allocation, the way combat works is pretty straightforward:

  • Allocate stones to one or two actions (or more if you’ve twinked out your power armor) up to a maximum of the action total or your available energy.
  • Move stones out of actions into defense, if desired (i.e., you can’t just roll stones into Defense; each stone allocated to Defense functionally reduces the maximum stones that can be assigned to your attack).
  • Add free modifiers (from weapons, armor, and special modifier powers that are always on like energy resistance) to your attack and defense totals.

On your initiative, compare your total attack against the target’s total defense. The difference is damage. If the target isn’t taken out, he’ll get to do the same to you on his initiative. Repeat next turn.

Keep in mind that some characters can’t even make full use of some attacks with a full energy pool, and almost no characters recover energy fast enough to attack full on every round. Most characters have to choose between investing close to their refresh rate in attacks every turn (and keeping on this way indefinitely) and making one big attack followed by several turns of investing less than refresh to get back to a good total.

This creates a combat system that’s very close to an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, in that there are often four results determined by binary player decisions:

  • The character and opponent both invest in an attack and neglect to roll any stones into defense: both take heavy damage and the character with the higher Agility might just take the other one out before he can act.
  • The character invests heavily into attack and the opponent rolls heavily into defense: both take minimal damage.
  • Vice versa to the previous one.
  • Both characters roll heavily into defense: neither takes damage but both have probably wasted energy.

The only other variable (assuming energy totals aren’t completely mismatched) is when the player risks dumping in a high amount of energy. Do it too early and you might be on the ropes the rest of the fight if it doesn’t work out. Do it too late and you might have already been plinked down to low HP even if you win.

Plinking brings up another interesting aspect of the system: damage is divided by 3 and rounded up before being applied. Effectively, beating the target’s defense by 1 is as good as by 3, 4 is as good as 6, and so on. If you can correctly predict the target’s defense, you can save two energy on every attack by dealing just enough that nothing will be lost to rounding. Since even taking one point of damage probably reduces the target’s energy recovery, plinking can add up pretty fast.

In practice, the drama of combat with anyone on roughly the same power level comes down to gauging when the other guy is going to spend big and when you should do the same. If you’re fighting someone of lower power level, you can probably take him out without ever taking damage if you’re careful. Conversely, a more powerful target means that hopefully your allies can all focus fire and spend big before you start dropping like flies.

That is all to say that the MURPG combat system is interestingly different from other games, but lacks a lot of tactical combat options that are present in more complex and more random models. You can get actions that give you interesting tools like armor piercing, AoE, double damage, etc., but if you have these they’ll get used over and over and if you don’t have them your tactical options are often limited to trying to scoop up GM fiat bonuses from using the terrain. It really all comes down to whether you can risk enough stones in attack to beat your opponent’s defense without the same thing happening to you (and starting your inevitable death spiral as your recovery drops due to lost HP).

And since having a higher energy total effectively means a guaranteed greater level of damage and defense each turn, fights are often inevitably in favor of the guy that bought more energy.


System Review: Marvel Universe RPG, Part 2


Building a Hero

Like nearly all superhero games, the MURPG features a complicated method to try to balance characters with wildly divergent powers. In this system, it’s through the concept of actions and modifiers and, in many ways, the game was ahead of its time: a superpower is pretty much directly analogous to a skill. You buy an action for fighting in melee, you buy an action for sneaking, and you buy an action for blasting flame from your hands. This isn’t too far out from many modern games that roll things like resources or status—traits that would traditionally be separate from the skill list—into the same big bucket of character abilities. Unlike many modern games, though, which tend to treat things in the same bucket as basically the same cost, MURPG has a system that binds theoretical power to cost.

Effectively, there is a concept of a “basic action” that maps to a chart. A basic action at 4 costs two of your chargen resource stones to buy, at 6 it costs four, and at 8 it costs nine. Every action in the game has a modifier that indicates its relative utility relative to this platonic basic action: Shape shifting is +3, Inventing is +6, Drain Energy is +1, Business Skills is +0, etc. This modifier effectively increases the cost by shifting it up the chart: Inventing 1 costs the same as Business Skills 7. On the surface, this seems like a relatively simple way to balance things. Having a low action means you can’t put many stones in it and won’t meet many difficulties. Sure, Ninja gives you way more options than basic Close Combat, but the guy who is capped at putting 3 stones into Ninja could be putting 8 into Close Combat.

Except that most actions allow you to tie them to an attribute, and just add that in. If you tie your action to your Agility 8, it becomes an 11 Ninja vs. 16 Close Combat. And Ninja can also take a weapon modifier (which Close Combat can’t when it’s taking an attribute). So it’s actually something like 14 Ninja vs. 16 Close Combat. And Ninja does a ton of things: close combat, ranged combat, stealth, etc. And you’re rarely going to have 16 stones to apply anyway.

In conclusion, Ninja is terribly broken and… wait, no, I got off track. That example got away from me by virtue of my hate for the brokenness that is Ninja. But it’s just an obvious wart on a superhero system that’s easier to minmax than most (and in a field that includes every superhero game ever made, that’s saying something). In the tiny, thin book, they encourage making your own actions based on the examples, and it’s pretty easy to come up with actions you don’t have to buy very high because they attach to attributes and give you lots of other cool options.

But, really, all of this plays second fiddle to how you get energy in the first place.

As noted last week, energy typically comes from your stones of health. If you don’t have a lot of energy to spend, a high action is functionally meaningless except in situations where the GM gives you a high difficulty barrier to entry: pity the character with a 16 action and only 3 energy to apply each turn. Energy is the life blood of the system; you’re practically limited in what you can do by how much your total is and how much you regenerate each turn. And player characters can easily have widely varying amounts of it.

Energy doesn’t just go down as you lose health, it’s directly locked to it. If you buy up your health (via the Durability attribute), you just have more energy than less robust characters. Full stop. Of the example characters, the Blob starts with 18 energy while many other characters start with 9. His fatness allows him to bring twice as much effort to bear on literally anything in the game. The Punisher and Venom both have higher Close Combat skills than they can ever apply in a fight. Jean Grey can’t actually use her whole Telepathy. But the Blob can max out his ludicrously high Close Combat and still have energy left over for a little Black Ops or Social Skills. Because he’s tough.

Beyond being fairly arbitrary (and, in fact, so arbitrary that they had to introduce an optional rule where you have a lot of energy because you’re smart), the problem with this is that it creates a system mastery learning curve that makes new players drastically less powerful than old hands, even with the same level of starting points. You make your street brawler with high Close Combat, Acrobatics, and Agility. I make my assassin with Ninja linked to high Intelligence (as an energy source). My buddy ties his Elemental Mastery to his massive Durability. I hope you enjoy playing our sidekick.

MURPG… the story of how quick, agile, or strong people are not as good as smart or tough (and possibly fat) people…

Okay, I’ve done nothing but bust on the ability to minmax a superhero game system for 800 words. Fish, barrels, shooting… yeah. Anyway, if you make the simple decision to fix all your players at the same energy total and exert effort to keep your old hands from setting themselves up to be an order of magnitude more competent than the new players, how does the system run? I’ll talk about that next week.

Part 3

System Review: Marvel Universe RPG, Part 1


Spider-Man’s Web-Swinging Woes

2003 was the beginning of the era in which Marvel began really start milking its licenses. Spider-Man and X-Men had just proved that the Marvel comic properties had a moneymaking role outside of the four-color page, and X-Men Legends was in development and soon to be a very well received video game compared to previous Marvel, well, shovelware. With a massive surge in the gamer population generated by D20, it was a no-brainer to re-enter a market where the Marvel Super Heroes RPG had previously done well relative to the last surge in D&D.

The result was the Marvel Universe RPG. The interesting thing about the MURPG is that it set the precedent for Marvel’s later move to exert extreme control over its properties, forgoing being licensed to another RPG producer in favor of in-house development. The title credits page is simply a list of the Marvel principles, with the actual staff that worked on the book squeezed in at the very back just before the appendix. Perhaps Marvel thought this was for the best, as none of them were “name” designers; Dan Gelber worked on various Paranoia editions (and little else) and none of the others turned up in a search of RPG credits (before or since). I actually seem to recall this as part of the marketing promotion at the time: they were using unknown designers without any preconceived bias toward making a standard RPG.

This is certainly made apparent almost instantly on reading the rules. The typical “what is an RPG?” intro seems to spend as much time making subtle jabs at traditional, dice-based RPGs as it does explaining what RPGs are for new players. In the minds of the designers, a dice-based RPG is clearly one where Spider-Man could fall to his death at any moment based on a bad roll. They were determined to avoid the pitfalls of a game where “figuring out the percentages of success and failure are what the game is all about.” Instead, they’d created a resource-based, no-luck system because, after all, “Many people like resource-decision games more than probability-based die-rolling games because they more closely mirror real life.”

As a statement of fact, this isn’t false (though using “many” instead of “most” is something of a giveaway that little actual research was done, as many paper-writing college freshmen know). Indeed, Nobilis had, with its second edition the year before, created a huge exploration-space for the resource-driven RPG. The world was ready for experimentation, and Marvel had hired a fresh staff of undiscovered talent to set the tone for the rest of the decade’s RPGs. Unfortunately, just maybe, the best RPGs don’t come from writers making their sole lifelong foray into design.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Core Mechanics

The core of the MURPG’s Action Resolution System (ARS) is the concept of “stones.” Every number in the game is meant to translate to a tactile representation. White stones represent health and high-cost items during character creation. Red stones represent energy and lower-cost items.

In play, white stones are hit points. Red stones are energy, and, for most characters, they’re limited to three per white stone (so characters lose maximum energy as they take damage). Additionally, spent energy refreshes at one per white stone per round (called a “page;” individual character actions occur in “panels”).

Characters determine trait totals in a way not unusual for RPGs: attribute (“ability”) + skill (“action”) + modifiers. What’s unusual is that the attribute + skill total is essentially a container that indicates the maximum energy that can be spent on a challenge. If the trait total is 7, the player can choose to spend up to 7 stones from his or her energy pool toward the action. Modifiers are free increases to the total (and, thus, way more valuable). If the player can’t afford the energy (or just thinks the challenge is of lesser importance), he or she can apply less than the full possible total to the action. This is the only way to do less than your absolute best at a challenge.

This results in an interesting alteration of the concept of difficulty: the difficulty of the challenge is actually a barrier to entry, not necessarily the total that must be met. If the difficulty is 7, a character with a trait total of 6 can’t even apply stones toward the action unless he or she finds a +1 modifier somewhere. With lack of time pressure, pretty much any challenge can become an extended challenge (and many standard challenges are given a “resistance” number way higher than the difficulty): as long as you meet the difficulty prerequisite, you can spend stones up to your trait total each round until the resistance is overcome.

Ultimately, with all results really coming down to whether you have enough stones of energy to spend, the overwhelming importance of this resource (and its potential imbalance within the party) becomes a problem that cascades throughout the rest of the system…

Part 2