Comics : Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: 2004.

Background...

What is a role-playing game? Basically, it's a story improvised collectively by several people. Each of the human "players" acts one fictional "character" in the story that you are making. One other person is the "game-master", who actually pre-defines the world in which the story takes place, and who controls any extra characters that are needed to make the story work. By "acting their character", this typically translates to sitting down around a table and explaining in turn what their character says and does.

The three big differences between role-playing and a simple game like Monopoly are firstly that role-playing games require imagination, secondly that the players have to discover the plot as they go along, and thirdly that because almost anything can happen in the story, that the "rules" can't possibly cover every situation.

You can immediately see why role-playing is demonised by various narrow-minded far-right reactionary types. Imagination? Making up the rules as you go along? Not ideal attributes for teaching young persons the correct behaviour in the structured and pre-determined society they wish to create. But I digress.

You've probably played or at least seen a computer game that describes itself as a "Role-Playing-Game" (RPG). "Baldur's Gate", "Knights of the Old Republic", that kind of thing. Let me please tell you right now that while those games are a lot of fun, they bear only the most superficial resemblance to genuine role-playing games. The only thing they really have in common with true RPG is that you find out the story as you go along.

In all other aspects, those computer "role-playing games" are no more than very complicated chess games. It may seem like you have a lot of "choices" on the menu, but in practice "Baldur's Gate" has as much in common with real role-playing as watching "Debbie Does Dallas" does to spending a weekend in the Bahamas getting up close and personal with Paris Hilton.

In a real role-playing game, you can try anything you like, even if it's dumb. You interact with real people, that do unpredictable things. You head out where the written rules no longer apply, and you must count on the adaptability and creativity of your gamemaster to keep the game alive. Belive you me, there's no comparison. Of course, it's tough to actually get three or four people together in the same place in our modern busy life-styles, and it's a lot easier to sit down by yourself in front of a PC and play some predictable pre-programmed half-arsed pretend RPG. Sad, but true.

But enough bemoaning how computers and television have eaten away at the time that people spend interacting with others, and how they have damaged our creative and imaginative skills. Let's instead get down to the real point of this review - examining Marvel's latest offering in the Superhero role-playing game space. Latest? Indeed, Marvel released a Superhero role-playing around twenty years ago. I'll see if I can get my hands on a copy and review that some other time. But for now...

In Detail...

Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game
May 2003 : SM Guest
Find ISBN 0785110283
Summary: Spider-Man Character Included
Publisher:  Marvel Entertainment
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There are a number of different role-playing genres - the most common few probably being Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Gothic/Horror, and Modern/Action. After those, you're quickly into the smaller and more exclusive genres such as Western, Cartoon, Alternate Future, and of course - Superhero, which is where we come in.

There are also many different role-playing systems - where a "system" is a set of rules to help structure the game play. There are some systems such as G.U.R.P.S. and D20 that include expandable rules, in an attempt to cover all possible genres, while many other pre-packaged role-playing systems, e.g. James Bond, include specific and targeted rules that really only apply to a single genre.

Some rule systems (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for example) are very complex, and have countless tables and charts, and use handfuls of dice. Running a game of AD&D is tricky in one sense, because if the complexity of the game mechanics. In another sense, it can be simpler because the actual mechanics can partially compensate for a lack of creativity, and because there are helpful rules to cover so many situations.

"Yes, Yes!" You cry. "But what about "Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game"!?

Well, within this hardcover, 7.5" x 11" 128 page full-cover glossy-paper book you will find a single-genere Super-hero roleplaying system, with a very simple rule system - one which is quite different from most. In fact, it's very different. Rather than doing a "me too" and just re-working an existing system, the guys who developed the Marvel Universe RPG have sat down and created something from scratch.

The most notable thing about this system is that there are no dice involved. Everything works using red or white stones. White stones are for health, while all other actions are powered by red stones, which represent an abstract concept of "energy". Each character has a certain number of red stones, and get more over time. When you want to perform an action, you choose how many of your stones to commit. Use enough stones, and you succeed. Use too few, and you fail, although you may often be allowed to add more stones, if it is a task you can persist at, e.g. opening a safe.

Characters have five key Attributes: Intelligence, Strength, Ability, Speed, Durability. They also have up to nine Abilities, e.g. "Lightning Strike", "Thieving", "Web-Slinging", "Inventing". They can have specific sub-skills, e.g. under Inventing you might be an expert at inventing weapons, or robots, etc. The level of your ability controls the Maximum number of stones you may assign. It may also give you bonus "free" stones.

In a lovely touch, time is measured in "Panels", and "Pages". During the "Missions" you will gain extra experience which is measured in "Lines". Each line is a note about something that you did during the mission. If you get enough lines in one Ability, or Attribute, then you can boost your level in that area. Also, in future games you can refer back to your experience lines and get extra bonus stones when performing tasks that you have performed before. This encourages players to keep a good record of what there character has done.

Characters also have specific "Challenges" or "Weaknesses" that they need to keep in mind. e.g. "Always helps the underdog", or "afraid of having secret identity exposed". When playing their character, the player must act out their weak points as well as their skills.

The book includes 40 pre-defined characters from the Marvel Universe. Plus, there are rules for creating your own character. There are some player rules, and some game-master rules, plus a single pre-defined "mission" in the book for you to play. After that, the game-master will need to create new missions, or buy expansion missions.

Now, as I mentioned, this is a very simple rule system, and it is different from many conventional systems, especially in that it does not use dice. In one sense, this makes it a very easy game to learn. In fact, at 128 pages for a complete rule set, pre-defined characters and a mission makes this probably the smallest role-playing system I have ever seen.

Be warned, however. The fewer the rules, and the simpler the game mechanics, the more pressure there is on the game-master to make decisions and to keep the game balance. Furthermore, such simple systems required more imagination on the part of the everyone - you can't rely on complex charts and dice-rolls to fill up the time, the players and game-master must all contribute. And we all know that imagination isn't as prevalent as it used to be!

For that reason, I would probably not recommend this system for a novice game-master. It does, however, look excellent for novice players - since they can get right into playing without having to get to grips with a stack of complex tables and formulae.

In General...

The "Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game" book is a very attractive book. The game system is ingenious and inventive. It's also very lightweight, and I love that. I really like systems that let demand imagination, creativity, and flexibility. This is my kind of game.

It's hard to find time for gaming with friends in these days of working parent families, and pressure to "get ahead". Still, Marvel found time to create a whole role-playing system, surely the least I can do is find a few friends and a little time to try it out...

On the minus side, the hardcover format makes it a bit tricky for the GM to photocopy. The tear-out player chart that is provided doesn't fit on an A4/Letter page, making it hard to copy also. Plus, the mission maps are in color, meaning they need to be scanned and color-printed to show to the players. Hey, look, I'm nit-picking.

Overall Rating...

Great book, fun game. Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the rules, this is role-playing for those that love their role-playing. 4.5 Webs.