Arena Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

In Brief

You don’t have to be a comic book fan to have a soft spot for Marvel superheroes. Whether you watched the X-Men cartoon show from the 1990s, the newer movies like X-Men or The Avengers, or even something farther off-canon like X-Men Evolution, you likely have a very distinct idea of what sort of character you’d be playing in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. This product hit the market like an electric shock and almost overnight it became a sensation that people have been talking about. The system is interesting and new, the material iconic, and the presentation professional but still the attention it’s received is really worth a look.

Genre: Action superhero
System: Unique dice pool system
Potential Library: Small (3 products so far)
Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions

The system developed for this game has a few items definitely worth mentioning. First, it works off of dice pools but unlike games with similar mechanics like ShadowrunWorld of Darkness, or Burning Wheel nearly every type of common polyhedron is used from d4 to d12. Strong powers use bigger dice and weaker abilities use smaller dice. This deceptively simple mechanic creates a game that is both craftily design and relatively easy to remember. For example, every hero and villain has a d6, d8, and d10 associated to different affiliation categories: namely, “Solo”, “Buddy,” and “Team.” If you’re playing Wolverine, you’re strongest as a Solo loner (using the d10), almost as good integrated into a team like the X-Men (using the d8), and worst when it’s just you and one other (using the d6). Isn’t that just… awesome?!? So simple yet so powerfully iconic and subtly tactical. It instantly gives you a mechanical incentive to play Wolverine as the type to ditch a partner or to leave his team behind to scout out some threat. He just isn’t as effective when he has to watch out for others.

Best Products

So far, the game has produced three products but the pace has been blistering! The first book came out in February and the next two in June. There are plans for two more products out in the next six months so keep those fingers crossed that they won’t start running into delays a la Posthuman Studios or White Wolf. Right now, I’m concentrating on what’s been released so far.

Basic Game: The first product and essentially the core book (more on that below), this book has not only the Operations Manual to tell you how to play but a lot of the classic heroes that you’ll want to try, especially if you grew up on movies and cartoons instead of collecting comics and learning every corner of the Marvel universe. The X-Men, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil; they’re all here. There’s also a Mini-Event (a two-Act story arc) called “Breakout” where a group of villains tries to break Sauron (from the Savage Land not Mordor) out of a “maximum-maximum security prison.”

Civil War Event Book (Essentials Edition): So here’s the thing with this event book (and presumably future event books), there are two versions of it: one with the core rules Operations Manual and one without. If you have the Basic Game book, I recommend the Essentials edition without the OM as there’s nothing new presented in it. The main thrust of the product is the Civil War storyline from the comics where a mutant-related tragedy prompts the enforced registration of those with superpowers, a decision which splits the heroic community between pro- and anti-registration camps. The Essentials edition has the story arc for this plot as well as datafiles for major characters from the comics that deal with it including Captain America, Iron Man, Mister Fantastic, etc.

If, however, you are mostly interested in playing out the Civil War you can get the Premium Edition and not need the Basic Game. There are even repeat heroes in the Civil War Premium Edition so you will still have Wolverine and Daredevil without the Basic Game, though not Cyclops, Storm, or others. The reason I recommend the Essentials Edition of Civil War is that there is no “lite” version of the Basic Rules and if you are thinking of getting it in the future you will definitely have overlap. Besides, no one wants to play with half the X-Men…

Civil War: Fifty States Initiative: I have to say I haven’t bought this one yet so I only have basic information on it so far. It’s an expansion product for the Civil Warl Event Book dealing with some relatively minor characters from the main storyline who have a chance to shine during side plots. As part of the Civil War in the comics, there is reference to a “Fifty States Initiative” aimed at having government-sanctioned teams of registered mutants in every one of the 50 US states. The plot has led to several spin-off series of state teams of heroes, many of whom are included in this book. I don’t know much about the story arc but it does relate to the Civil War storyline and is intended to be attached to Act 3 of the earlier event book. Normally, I wouldn’t include a product I haven’t read through sufficiently but with only three products on the market I thought you deserved to know everything.

Weaknesses

The biggest weakness of the game by far is the lack of a character creation system. Not that it has a poor system or that it’s hard to interpret and/or doesn’t make the sort of hero you want. There just flat-out isn’t one. That said, it would be easy to muddle your way through a hero with some playtesting and there are plenty of efforts around the web taking a stab at a standard approach (and a somewhat-useful random character generator from MWP), but with the game as it’s written you have to wait for Margaret Weis Productions to give you a superhero before you can play him. Or, turn to your fellow gamers online (notably at exploring-infinity.com and Marvel Plot Points). Of course some would say this isn’t a problem at all.

The second issue is with power-balanace. Because superheroes are variable characters with wildly different superpowers, hero datafiles are all over the board. In other games you might have a rogue who’s useful more often than the wizard or a well-designed vampire character who is more effective than a scattered compatriot. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, though, Storm is just simply stronger than Ms. Marvel and Emma Frost has special powers that Black Widow’s special training just can’t hope to match. In a sense, this is what you want (after all, you just have to watch the Avengers movie to see how Black Widow fares against the Hulk) but for players this might become an issue. To a degree this is self-correcting, but it means that no one is likely to play li’l ol’ Jubilee if you’re fighting alongside Wolverine or Jean Grey. Unless you like getting bashed around.

Verdict

A strong endorsement here for a game that hits all the right notes. The system is simple and intuitive, but also nuanced and ripe with potential for both game masters (ahem… “Watchers”) and players. It also captures the feel of its genre really well and definitely evokes the four-color feel of Marvel superheroes. Getting into it right now also means you can cheaply pick up the entire library to try out with friends and you won’t have more experienced gamers pulling ou strange and obscure expansions. Go get it, bub.