games superheroes

Roll to hit Galactus in the purple helmet

I am a superhero nerd, as you all know.

I am a roleplaying nerd, as you probably all know, and if you don’t then I’m sorry to spring it on you so suddenly like this.

And I have explored the overlapping part of that Venn nerdagram for many years (oh Christ, it’s like decades), playing many a superhero RPG. If you meet me in a bar and get me really drunk, I may entertain you with stories of the Champions game I ran in the early 90s and how it drove me to hard drugs and despair. And I’ve played, run and read many more, from Aberrant to (erk) Super Squadron and everything in between.

Which brings us to the topic of tonight’s post, one that will interest only a few of you readers, certainly more than the wordcount can justify – the new Marvel Heroic RPG from Margaret Weis Publishing, which is kind of terrific and also a very interesting barometer of changing narrative styles in commercial superhero comics.

No need to explain the premise – you play Marvel superheroes and you fight Marvel supervillains in the Marvel Universe. I think we’re all clear on that. Dig into the system and you find a very interesting beast – a narrative game with little granularity that’s nonetheless got plenty of room for tactical play. It aims to emulate the flow and feel of comics, rather than provide any kind of ‘physics engine’; characters are defined very loosely and abstractly but with easily understood traits and significant customisability. A lot of gameplay hinges on directly engaging with the dice – adding more of them, making them better, spreading them among different targets and setting them up for future rolls. It’s all pretty abstract, which isn’t a problem if the players maintain a strong connection to the fiction and don’t start thinking about the dice first – but there’s nothing baked into the rules to help with that. On the other hand, manipulating dice pools is fun, both on a mechanical level and in terms of narrative and character.

But look, enough about the system; I could talk about that longer but I risk driving all y’all away to one of those more popular blogs. If you want to learn more about it, check some of the reviews online or download some of the free demo files. Go on, it’s fun. Let’s talk instead about the way it structures play to fit Marvel’s narrative style, specifically modern Marvel comics. Because those are different beasts to what we were reading when Villains & Vigilantes came out.

A key element is how strongly the game is married to its source license. You almost always play existing Marvel characters, rather than home-grown heroes, and you fight bad guys in customised versions of major Marvel storylines. The game allows for your own characters and plots, of course, but all the support is aimed at using Marvel properties, and any kind of tools to change that (like a character creation system, rather than just eyeballing things) come second or third if at all.

One underlying message is that to be a superhero fan is to be a Marvel fan, and to bolster identification with the company’s output. But the second core message is that the individual characters aren’t as important as the Marvel Universe itself. Players are encouraged to swap characters between stories, acts or even scenes, and the material often places more emphasis on locations and plot events than the characters in them. It’s the Marvel Universe that is the star of the game, with the players experiencing it through the lens of their characters, rather than the other way around.

And that strongly matches the modern MU, where big crossover storylines have become not just annual events but tools for major changes in direction, where some books exist just as ‘continuity porn’ to summarise and communicate those changes, and where readers discard comics because they’re seen as ‘not important’ in the lead-up to the next big event. Developing the setting is often (not entirely, sure, but often) more important editorially than developing characters and their personal stories, and Marvel MHR reflects this.

It also reflects it in its campaign model, which is based on existing storylines – Events, in game parlance. Rather than create their own stories, all the support is for exploring a major Marvel event (Civil War, Annihilation and Age of Apocalypse are the ones on the schedule). The material explores the Event through largely discrete scenes, nearly all of them based on specific comics from those crossovers. (And in the case of the Civil War supplement, making them into a better story than the actual comics.)

This is a huge departure from the traditional campaign models of pretty much every superhero RPG, or indeed every gaming group, which have been solidly emulating Claremont’s X-Men for something like 30 years – a broth of long-term plots, multi-session plots and character-focused subplots that move in and out of focus as part of an indefinitely-ongoing game with a high degree of player-PC identification and the GM solidly in the driver’s seat. Once again the focus is on the setting rather than specific heroes, and the play of events that are bigger than they are (one of the things that tends to distinguish from DC, where heroes are often bigger than events). The subtext is that exploring the setting and the Event is where the fun is, for both GM and players, rather than tying yourself to a single character or coming up with your own story scenes.

You can also see this in the presentation of NPCs; most get a paragraph of definition/description next to their rules, rather than the full-page write-ups that tend to be the norm in something like Mutants & Masterminds. The assumption is that you probably know who they are already, but it’s also that these characters aren’t meant to be used by GMs to create stories around them; instead, they’re tools to be slotted into the pre-developed event. They’re not interchangeable – the GM’s choices will matter – but the emphasis remains on bringing the Event to life, rather than creating original storylines.

In case any of this seems overly negative, I want to say that it’s not – I really like the game and I think the change in narrative emphasis makes for fun play. There’s real attraction in saying ‘I want to be Wolverine and I want to fight Apocalypse!’, rather than just approximating those characters and stories. But it’s a big change from the gameplay that older RPGs encourage, and I think the key is that superhero stories have changed, and that the interests and expectations of superhero readers have changed – and Marvel MHR is the first RPG to change in accordance with that.

So anyway, it’s another overly long post that many readers will have skipped. If you made it to the end, take comfort in that I edited out a good 500 more words talking about specific systems and sourcebooks. And give Marvel MHR a whirl – it’s really engaging, well-produced and has an interesting stance on what elements matter in the superhero genre.

I bags playing Iron Fist. Or Daredevil. Or Iron Fist as Daredevil COME ON IT’S TOTALLY IN CONTINUITY

5 replies on “Roll to hit Galactus in the purple helmet”

I started reading this post and then stopped when I got to “Which brings us to the topic of tonight’s post” and summoned my husband from the other room so I could read it to him. He’s been a Superhero RPG player since forever (I’m not allowed to play Superhero RPGs because my idea of being “heroic” doesn’t fit the comic book model.) and he recently gave this game a try.

Interestingly, he agreed with every point you made, but completely disagreed with your summation that the game is enjoyable. In fact, he kinda hates it. In his words: “If you’re a character-driven player, it’s boring and frustrating. The game railroads you into taking certain actions. It’s a complete railroading. You may as well not even be playing.”

I guess the new narrative style doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone.

Hi Jo,

I can totally see where your husband is coming from, and certainly this approach isn’t going to work for all gamers.

Thinking about it, I can see two ways in which the game railroads players on a character level:

1 – It pushes very hard for you to not just emulate the character but to reiterate some of their major plots points, like putting Tony Stark back through his alcoholism plotline even though it’s ancient history. You can work around that by choosing different milestones, but that means deciding on the character’s story and personal events before play starts, rather than during.

2 – The leavening of characters’ abilities means that everyone can play on the same field, which is generally a good thing, but it also makes those characters kind of interchangeable. If Thor and Invisible Woman have roughly the same impact on play, then player choices (in both choosing and playing characters) have less impact and less meaning.

These problems don’t effect everyone, and they’re positive aspects for some players. I’m more of a story/tone player than a character player, if that makes sense, so the deliberate shallowness of the approach doesn’t bother me. But I totally get why it would bug others, such as your husband.

I feel that “inevitability” is a major component of the new Marvel direction, so if they’ve embedded that as a game play mechanic…

I have never played a comics-themed RPG despite being both a comics geek and (lapsed) role-playing nerd* but retain a love of the old 90s Marvel game. But, I fondly remember the character write-ups in old issues of Dragon Magazine, where – probably because they had already covered the major characters in the sourcebooks – they dredged up the most obscure supporting characters and flahs-in-the-pan villains they could think of. “So, you remember that green minotaur dude from an issue of Dr Strange? No, well here’s his stat block anyway…”

That said, I do recall a Fin Fang Foom write-up which was pretty awesome, and my first introduction to Marvel’s very own pants-wearing dragonzilla.

* did I get that right? or is it the other way around?

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