Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game

 Posted: May 2013
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)


Roleplaying? Like, Dungeons & Dragons? With dice, and paper and stuff? You mean, there's a Marvel Roleplaying game?

Well, heck yes! In fact, there have been FOUR separate Marvel Role-Playing games!

The first was Marvel Super Heroes Game (TSR Role-Playing Game). Created in 1984 by the same company who published D&D, it initially featured a Basic Game in a boxed set. Popularity subsequently saw the system extended into an Advanced Rules boxed set, and then re-simplified as an updated Basic Rules box. Over the subsequent decade until 1993, nearly 60 expansion booklets were released for this TSR system, including a huge range of "modules" (custom-written adventures for your players to tackle), as well as extensive information books for creating your own adventures, including the eight encyclopaedic volumes of the Gamer's Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

The second Marvel Roleplaying game was released in 1998, entitled Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (SAGA). The SAGA series launched to a luke-warm reception and was abandoned a year later, with only a dozen expansion books having been published. They included a mere seven adventure modules (the last four being very limited distribution and almost impossible to find now).

The third outing was the Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game from 2003, and it lasted even less time than the SAGA series. Despite an attractive hardback format, only the base game and two expansion books were published. A fourth book (the Spider-Man expansion) was written but never saw print, although I believe it can be obtained as a PDF.

So, after a ten year gap, we see once again a new offering for Marvel Roleplayers in 2013. How does this one compare to its predecessors?

Story Details

In essence, all four of the Marvel RP systems contain many similarities which they they share with pretty much every one of the hundreds or more role-playing systems ever created. There are one or more "players" to act out the roles of heroes (or occasionally villains). There is a "referee" who administers the game, the world, and the "non-player characters".

Together, the referee and the players construct a shared narrative within the structure of a pre-defined "adventure", which outlines a flexible script to guide the direction of play. The adventure typically involves a mix of tightly-scripted sequences closely channelled by the Referee, along with free-form sequences where the players (and the luck of the gods) can work within loosely-specified guidance. Occasionally the play will abandon the script entirely and enter free-form story-creation, which is where the Referee's skills are truly put to the test.

To maintain some structure, all role-playing systems have a method of assigning abilities and attributes to characters (both heroes and villains). These define what the character is good at, and hence determines their likelihood of succeeding in any task they attempt to undertake in the course of the narrative, whether that task be pummelling a foe, piloting an alien space-ship, or defusing a time-bomb.

So what makes one system different from another? Well, the systems provide two things. "Rules" and "Resources". To compare systems, we must compare:

  • How [usable, versatile, intuitive, reasonable] is the Rule System for determining the output of any attempted task, including specifically the resolution of the combat which looms large in most super-hero adventures.
  • How [wide-ranging, clear, practical, engaging, supportive] is the Resource Information regarding characters, items, locations, and adventures.

Let's look at Rule Systems first. Let's go all the way back to Marvel Super Heroes Game (TSR Role-Playing Game). This game used a pair of 10-sided dice to generate a random number between 1 and 100. For any task, the relevant skill of the player (adjusted by circumstances) was compared against the difficulty (easy, hard, near-impossible) of the task. Roll the dice, and look up the table. For vital tasks, a player could spend their limited store of Karma to greatly increase their chance of success.

The TSR system provided a wide set of situation-specific guidance for common tasks such as fighting, driving, falling, lifting, etc. In addition, an extensive set of dedicated rules were provided to govern the use of super-hero powers such as ice-creation, fire, flying, telepathy, different flavours of magic, and many, many more.

The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (SAGA) did away with dice, and contained a set of cards which were used for the "Fate Deck" and the "Doom Deck". Presumably it was inspired by the surging popularity of collectable card games of the time. Each character started with cards, and draw them to attempt to achieve goals. If success, was critical, cards could be sacrificed. Running out of cards meant defeat. The SAGA system also provided rules for "standard" super-hero powers, although they were less proscriptive than the TSR system.

The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game was the first Marvel Roleplaying game not to use a random element for conflict and task resolution. Instead, players selected how many red "stones" to use from their reserve to achieve tasks. In a fight, you must play more stones than your opponent. For vital tasks, use more stones. Stones regenerate each round, but run out of stones, and you're in trouble!

Finally, there's the new kid on the block. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. This game introduces a different mechanism again. Polyhedral dice with 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12 sides are mixed and matched according to a series of rules and guidelines. Spider-Man in a team, gain a D6. Agility task? Use a D8. Perform a relevant "special effect" and add a D10 to the mix. Spend Plot Points to swap dice or use additional dice. Meanwhile, the referee has his own pool of dice to work with, along with dice from any villains involved in the battle.

General Comments

So, how does the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying mechanism compare to its predecessors.

Well, the dice-rolling mechanism is certainly the most complex of the four rule systems. First of all, there's a set of rules to figure out which dice you should even put in your pool. Then you roll them, and you have to decide which rolls to use. The dice showing "1" are removed as opportunity dice, which is good. Or bad. It wasn't clear - I think it depends. Then take two other dice for your score. Pick a third dice, as the "effect", noting that the number on the dice doesn't matter, only the size of the dice. Of course, if you're a "master" level, you can substitute a D8 for 2D6. Or a D4 + 1 plot point. I think. I read it twice and didn't quite figure it out.

So, this system is suited for people who like playing with lots of dice, rolling, selecting, grouping, modifying, boosting and up/down-grading their dice pool continually. Essentially, the dice rolling forms a "game within a game".

So, it's much more complex than for example TSR's 1-100 scale. But to be fair, the original TSR Rules had plenty of complexity in their text description of super-powers, which were quite detailed and proscriptive. Also, the TSR system was strongly map-driven - each module included maps of the key battle grounds, and tokens were used to locate the characters. Rules for movement were an important part of the game. The new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system which doesn't seem to include any maps or movement rules at all. Yes, that's simpler. But it also removes an important visual element, as well as making the Referee responsible for managing which players can move where at what time.

The SAGA system was simpler on all counts - simpler text rules, no maps, and a card-drawing system of moderate complexity. The 2003 Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game was even simpler, with no random element at all.

So all of the four Marvel Role-Playing systems published to date have varying complexity in terms of their text rules, their randomisation rules, and their map/movement systems. I think there's strengths and weaknesses with all of them. Personally, I can see the fun in a complex dice-juggling game, and I'm sure that I would eventually figure out the rules of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying with a bit of practice.

On the other hand, there are days when I really liked the idea of a nice simple approach and all those dice would probably feel like a distractions. Frankly, if the Referee is creative enough, then all the rest of those rules are just clutter. All you really need is the Referee to present the challenge, and the Player to justify how and why he expects to succeed. Then the Referee rolls 2D6 and defines the result. Nice and simple, and doesn't stop the flow of the role-playing.

So I'm not even going to try and say that this rule system is "better" than that one. You now have a choice of four. Pick the one that best suits your play style!

Overall Rating

So I've failed to chose a preferred Rule System from the four on offer. So how am I going to rate this Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system against its predecessors? Easy. I'm going to look at the depth and quality of the supporting material.

Visually, this is a pretty attractive book, in standard TPB sizing. It's colour-coded and widely illustrated, which is all very nice. But if you're a first-time Referee wanting to make sure your first adventure is a success, then that's not necessarily sufficient. What you really need is lots of supporting material, and a nice helpful, well-written adventure module, with lots of maps, diagrams, explanations, hints, and narrative fragments to set the scene.

And... that's where "Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game" falls down fast. For all it's glossy artwork and its brightly coloured dice, it's damn short on supporting material. Yes, it has lots of profiles for popular Marvel Heroes and Villains. Yes, it includes a sample adventure "Breakout!" which is based on New Avengers #1-6. But honestly I'm not impressed with the detail of the adventure at all.

Firstly, I think that tying an adventure to an existing well-known storyline is a mistake. Already, the players will feel constrained by the outcome of the original story, instead of feeling free to create their own narrative. Secondly, the complete lack of maps doesn't help at all. Finally, the "Breakout!" adventure just feels unstructured, without sufficiently clear goals or directions to guide first-time players. Essentially, it just seems to dump a bunch of heroes and villains on "The Raft" and let them scrap it out, presumably by throwing lots and lots of dice according to the rules which I didn't quite manage to get clear in my head.

Frankly, this feels like HeroClix without the pretty plastic figures. Really, if you wanted to run a Marvel Role-Playing session with your friends, I reckon you'd be better off buying an old copy of the TSR game from eBay, along with a few modules. They're pretty cheap second hand!

Final Rating: 2.5 Webs.

Despite the bright colours, piles of dice and nifty-looking concepts, I just can't help but feel that this latest take on Marvel Role-Play is likely to leave new players confused and unsatisfied. Sure, more experienced gamers can probably make it work. But honestly, experienced role-players don't need anything more than pencil, paper, and imagination!


For the record, I am a keen life-long player of complex board games. In my youth I also played role-playing games including D&D, Traveller, ICE and others. I own all of the rules for the games listed above, and many of the modules. However, I have limited (or zero) practical playing expertise in most of them. So feel free to contact me to confirm or contradict my various speculations and judgements!

 Posted: May 2013
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)