Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game Review

Cover of the New Marvel RPG
Cover of the New Marvel RPG | Source

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game Review

The new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game published by Margaret Weis Productions appears to have all the bells, whistles, and creativity gamers have come to expect and demand in modern RPGs. The super hero genre roleplaying game has certainly had its challenges and challengers through the years. We have seen the Champions system, based on the more generic Hero system. We have seen Mutants & Masterminds, which now includes the distinguished DC Universe Roleplaying Game. There was the short lived, but cult classic, Villains and Vigilantes. Palladium put out their massive Heroes Unlimited some years back, which provided an interesting take on the genre. There were additions to the GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System) that permitted for a super hero RPG as well as the once popular Aberrant by White Wolf. The fast-paced Icons based off the Fudge System has also become somewhat popular these days, mainly due to its simplicity.

MWP has taken things in a somewhat new direction by using the Cortex Roleplaying System and modifying it (somewhat heavily) to create the new Marvel RPG. I picked this PDF up yesterday, and I was impressed enough that I read it cover to cover in less than 24 hours. It seems inventive and fun, and I thought I’d share my thoughts on it with others who may be considering picking up a copy themselves.

Other Super Hero RPGs from Amazon

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Remember this Blast from the Past?

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RPG PDFs

First of all, let me take a brief moment to talk about the roleplaying game PDF. I am really on the fence about the whole concept. RPG books have become more and more expensive over the years. When I started playing, you could pick up a main book for around $20 or $25 on average. Supplemental RPG material usually ranged right around the $15 mark. Now, we see core books costing $40 and $50. The supplements are ranging anywhere between $20 and $40. People wonder why the industry is dying. The books have simply gotten too expensive. They have become harder to find, too. Local bookstores are closing and the few that have a dedicated space for RPGs seem to shrink that space more and more every year, carrying only the most popular titles and only for a limited amount of time.

This leaves gamers with limited options to pick up their favorite RPG books. They can order them from a local book store or a comic or gaming store. They can order them most often directly from the publisher. Or, they can purchase a PDF. One of the problems with ordering these books is that you simply do not have the option to look through them and see if they are what they appear to be. Do they deliver what they promised?

So, PDFs offer us ready availability. For people like me, in the middle of nowhere, we do not need to travel an hour or more to find a store than can order or might even have a roleplaying game I am looking for. The downside is, many sell their PDFs at the same price as the physical book. Okay, I understand that the writers and artists need to be paid, and the company has probably ordered a large number of hardcopy books that may never sell that they need to be sure to cover the cost on, but I am not going to pay the same price for a digital copy that I would for a hard copy. In fact, I expect that the PDF should always cost less. A $50 core book might just be out of my price range. However, at $20 or $25, I am more likely to buy the digital copy, because that’s all I really need anyhow.

The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game, the newest in a long line of Marvel RPGs, has met my challenge with their PDF. They lowered the cost for the PDF, and I picked it up when it was on sale on top of that. It was a good read and I’ll tell you why.

The new Marvel Heroic RPG requires lost of dice--and lots of different kinds of dice.
The new Marvel Heroic RPG requires lost of dice--and lots of different kinds of dice. | Source

The New Marvel RPG

Years ago, TSR—famed and now defunct publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, before it was taken over by Wizards of the Coast—contracted with Marvel Comics to create a roleplaying game based on their popular comic universe. This has travelled through the years and become known as the Marvel SAGA RPG. One of these days, I really am going to look into how it became known as SAGA, but that’s for another time. I remember getting that first boxed set. It came with a dark blue and a light blue book as I recall. One handled the rules and the other was characters, if memory serves. On the back of the books there was this color coded chart, because everything was based on a percentile roll. The chart was supposed to give a good gauge of how powerful someone or something was while also giving a visual representation of how hard a given task would be.

Back in the last decade, Marvel tried capitalizing once again on the RPG followers and made their own Marvel Universe RPG. This game really did not have much fanfare to it, and I honestly never got into it myself. The rules were a bit blocky and it looked like modern conventions had been thrown out the window in consideration for designing the newer Marvel RPG.

Now, we are at it again. This time, Margaret Weis Productions has stepped into the ring to bring out the newest marvel RPG—the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game. At first look, I actually thought I was looking at the Marvel Universe RPG put out by Marvel. The cover design was similar to what we saw with that rendition. It was sleek and shiny, and screamed “I’m an exciting comic book product with your favorite heroes; pick me up!” Everything I could remember told me MWP had not had anything to do with the product from a few years ago, though. So, I did a bit of searching. There really wasn’t much to find online in regards to product information. I had no clue which rule system they were using for the game.

I decided to purchase the PDF. MWP has been doing some interesting things with their RPG systems recently, and they have been talked about a lot. I myself haven’t had a chance to try out their Smallville RPG yet, but I have good and interesting things—something about how rolls in the game are all based on relationships with other characters rather than abilities?!? Seems interesting, but I digress. I purchased the PDF version of the Marvel Heroic RPG, and I’ve been happy with my decision to do so.

The Design & Layout

As I mentioned previously, the cover of the new Marvel RPG looked like the cover of a comic book just begging to be bought. They carried out the art through the rest of the book. Let’s be honest. You cannot have a successful super hero RPG without having good art. One disappointment is that it seemed I recognized all of the artwork in the gaming book. They all looked like edited panels of what I’ve seen in the comics over the years. Okay, the art was cool then and is now, but I would have preferred to see some more original art in this book. Don’t recycle old art and cheat the customers here.

This becomes even more important when you realize just how much of the book is art. From some reading I’ve done and interviews I have had, I understand that an RPG book is expected to be 10-30% artwork. Nowadays, it is definitely leaning more toward the 30% than the lower estimates. This book, however, seemed to be about 50-60% art. Okay, we know art is what sells comics. The story can be as great as anything ever written, but if the art sucks, you might as well write a novel. But, most of the Marvel RPG being art was a bit disappointing. This is especially true if you bought the PDF and thought you were saving money and then wanted to print it out. Not only is it mostly art, but it is recycled art. So, half of what you are paying for, you may have already paid for.

The cool thing here is that the book is not that thick. So, a bunch of art means fewer words. With an already somewhat think book, words this few means one of two things. It is either poorly written or designed, or it is a masterpiece without all the fluff. As I said, I wasn’t disappointed by this book, so beyond the rant about art, there is plenty to appreciate about the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game.

When considering the layout of the new Marvel RPG by MWP, the uniqueness of how they went about it was quite skillful. They gave a brief introduction, although Margaret Weis’s left little more than loaning the name to the book with a brief smile. The real stars of this book are the writers and designers. Perhaps this was Weis’s tasteful way of not stealing the spotlight.

Then, the book really dives right in. The break the book into three different sections: Operations Manual, Mini Event, and Hero Datafiles.

Marvel Heroic RPG Operations Manual

There is a brief introduction, but it is short by RPG standards. The very first pages of the actual meat of the book go over the character sheet, which they call the “Datafile.” This allows them to quickly introduce some of the terms and concept for the game, but they do not fully explain any of them right off the bat. They take time over the first section of the book—what they call the Operations Manual—explaining how players roll dice for their characters and how the Watcher (called a DM or GM in other games) rolls dice to challenge the players’ characters.

It is a pretty neat system, which I didn’t immediately recognize as Cortex. In fact, if it weren’t for the forwards, I would have thought it was a whole new system. It is relatively slick. They combine the joy of rolling large dice pools with the simplicity of not adding dots or numbers to figure out the dice pool. Instead, a character takes their affiliation status (solo, buddy, or team) and either a d6, d8, or d10 whenever they make a roll, and start their pool with this. Then, they look at their power sets and which power will be used and add another d6, d8, or d10. Then, they continue this process for specialties and distinctions. They can modify rolls by spending plot points in a variety of ways.

The upside, as I said, is players who like large dice pools and only need limited math yet don’t like checking a character sheet for various enchantments, enhancements, and other bonuses to add in there. The downside for me is this—so many different types of dice. I prefer games that stick with one die, even if they roll multiple. This is probably one reason White Wolf has always worked well for me. It is a personal preference, though, and I know there are people out there who love all the funny looking, polyhedral dice gamers use. I used to be one of them. Oh, I miss my d100.

Through the new Marvel RPG’s first section, we go over each part of the character sheet in more and more detail. Each new section builds upon the last. It is pretty creative in this manner. As I went through the pages, I kept wondering when they were going to discuss character creation. I actually got to the point where I was thinking they would somehow manage to ignore this very important piece of roleplaying games and not show how characters were created—instead, just give us pre-generated characters with enough information to alter them slightly. To an extent, I was right.

They bring about creating characters on page OM 110, or Operations Manual 110. They never talk about creating your own character. They don’t talk about coming up with a unique and fun concept. They don’t even show many hard and fast rules to creating a character. Instead, they talk about making existing characters from the Marvel Universe in this RPG format. They give some basics as to how many distinctions and specialties a new datafile should have, but even a number of these are arbitrary, saying you will know when you have done it wrong or right based on the reaction of the rest of your gaming group.

They close out the Operations Manual of the book with a brief discussion on how to create events. Events are the Marvel heroic Roleplaying Game’s term for adventures.

New Marvel RPG's Wolverine Datafile

A sampling of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game's Datafile staring everyone's favorite immortal bad ass with claws--Wolverine!
A sampling of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game's Datafile staring everyone's favorite immortal badass with claws--Wolverine! | Source

Marvel RPG Mini Events

The next section of the Marvel Heroic RPG is called Mini Event: Breakout. This section is strategically placed right after the discussion on how to create events for your Marvel RPG sessions. The Breakout Mini Event covers a popular arc from one of the newer Marvel series, which allows you to do a few things as a true Marvel fan. You can rewrite Marvel history. You can tell the story that had been left untold. You can play it straight-laced all the way through and see if the story ends up the same as when the original creators told it.

It is a good example, and even just reading through it, the simplistic yet inventive method with the book’s layout so far sets us perfectly to understand this section. It provides examples throughout the entire book, but a full-fledged adventure summary with examples is excellent. It is neat also because it shows us how this story, which brought about the New Avengers a few years back can be broken down into a gaming event. It is not your typical hack and slash adventure. It is a story you sat down and read, flipping through the pages to catch all the action.

The Breakout section of the book contains a series of villains for use during this or other events.

Hero Datafiles could be considered the third part of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game for sure. Technically, it is part of the Mini Event: Breakout section. This is a great way to invoke fun-filled memories with images and descriptions of our favorite characters. While the accuracy of their abilities can be argued for the next hundred years or so, I give any game creator a break for trying to define unworldly characters in such a regulated format, even for the looseness provided by the new Marvel RPG. Plus, they already told you go to go back and modify those stats. My only drawback here is that I would have liked to see more heroes described. Hopefully, they will put out some more. Otherwise, there are numerous forums that I am sure will pick up the stats and create some pretty inventive ones themselves.

The New Marvel RPG Review Final Thoughts

Overall, the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game was presented well. There were plenty of examples, with a new one being introduced for each rule. It would have been nice to see some more examples, with everything strung together. I say this, because the inventive way they bring the super hero RPG to live with this system seems fun, but it sometimes gets a bit jumbled. There are certainly much worse and more confusing games out there, but that was the one area where I felt this game fell short. Mind you, if they hadn’t done such a spectacular job with everything else, I probably wouldn’t be as demanding here. I hope this line sticks around for a while and does well.

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