Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Marvel Heroic RPG - First Impressions As I Gear Up

A week from today (the time of you reading this) I'll be starting a new campaign using the Marvel Heroic RPG. The game is going to be run once every two weeks on Tuesday with a group of 5-6 players. I say 5-6 players because one of the players is both tentative and would be arriving late due to work on a regular basis (something I'd be ok with for this game.) Yesterday, four of the players made their characters and so I'm in the initial stages of gearing up for game launch. With a new system, that's a bit different than normal. With a new system like the Marvel HRPG, and I figure something on initial thoughts may be warranted.

The Perils of Freedom
One of the first things I've noticed in running character creation for the Marvel Heroic RPG is just how much the total freedom the system gives you in character creation has daunted my players. Everyone in the game has at least a few years of gaming experience, and everyone has reacted in the same way to the character creation rules: they just don't get it.

For those not in the know, the Marvel system doesn't use dice rolls or points to make characters. You simply build the character you want to play and assign all powers as you see fit. This would be the equivalent of a D&D game letting you assign your own stats, level, classes, and just take whatever feats and powers you wanted with no system in place to enforce balance. The reaction I've had from the players as they've gone through with it are interesting.

One of my players gave himself a couple of very useful and strong powers, but then went off and added a lot of limits to their powers as a way to keep themselves in check. Another player based his character off of one of the templates in the book, then felt awkward and lowered some of the power levels to be more 'reasonable.' Another grasped the super heroics and wanting to be powerful, but also carefully hedged their powers to have a mix of strengths and weaker areas, and can simply not be talked into bumping any of the powers higher despite the concept more than justifying it. The last player, who I admit to currently knowing the least about their character, has given themselves a lot of power and at high level. The kind of power that a lateral thinking player like myself would have a ton of fun with. To balance it though they're giving their character some hard defined psychological limits and things they won't do.

From them all I, as a GM, am in an interesting place. With some characters my "new school" GM mind is practically begging the players - who I know to be good players - to go a bit more nuts with the system and see what it can do. With others my "old school" GM mind is cringing at what it can't help but see as abuse of an open mechanic and fear of Mary Sue-isms over riding the game. But that's a good thing too in its own way.

The other fun fact that came out of character creation is that one of my players caught on to something neat that I'd missed on the first run through. I was asked how character progressions works (mechanically) and I pointed him to the part in the book about XP spending. On looking at it though, this is a neat thing as well. Why? Because if you want your character to progress mechanically you have to give them room to progress. The person who puts all their powers/skills at D12 is going to find themselves with a lot of XP and not much to do with it. The person who starts off with a mix of D8s-D12s with a few D6s on the other hand is going to have a lot to do with it. One player will get to see their character grow mechanically as well as as a character with their role play, the other will lose at least half that experience. Its subtle, but I like it.

System Focus
The basic book for the Marvel HRPG flat out states that the reason it doesn't mind if a player goes nuts and gives their char god-like power in a game where someone else makes a more reasonable character is because the system will naturally give both characters their chance to shine. Now, my base line assumption on the system is that it does this with opportunities and plot points. Namely, the character with lower power levels will give the GM more opportunities to activate, and thus get more plot points in return so they'll be able to do more stuff later on.

In practice, I have no idea how that is going to work, but I am excited to see how it does this. Especially since my players have naturally set something like this up for me just naturally. No one has 'gimped' themselves or anything, but as I mentioned above, there is at least one character that a lateral thinking person could have a lot of fun with. I'm really excited to see how that plays out in practice.

Events and Planning
The last thing I want to talk about here is how planning and preparation work for the GM. Marvel takes a very structured approach to its campaigns. The game is broken down into events (civil war, maximum carnage, secret invasion, etc) which work as a large over-arching story that is told in acts. The acts work like the acts of a play or story, giving you clear breaks and milestones to hit in the game when things shift and you go into the next aspect. Each act is further broken down into scenes (action scenes and transition scenes)  which is what your actual game sessions will be made up of. At first this can seem like a lot to consume, but noodle it a little bit and it actually makes planning for the game a lot easier.

This means I don't need to necessarily plan out a series of actions with the hopes of the players finding their way into them in a proper order. Instead, I can set myself up with a couple of key action scenes and transition scenes and then let the players find their own path. Sure, I'll need to do a bit of improvising in between, but that's perfectly fine because the important/key moments have definition. The structure, in a sense, frees you to approach each as its own individual cell as opposed to as a part of the greater whole.

For example, for an X-Men story I could have an Action Scene set up where the players come across the Juggernaut rampaging down town, and another one where Juggs comes for them at the mansion. I could also have a couple of transition scenes planned to talk to key people (i.e. Xavier invites the players down to discuss the issue with Juggernaut.) With this, I don't need to open the game on any one of them. The players, and I, are free to work around to it and then when we need that piece of the cell you just go to it.

Something I could do anyhow with any game? Sure, definitely. However, the approach Marvel has openly taken to their games makes it apparent, and you don't have to look any further than their example event Breakout to see it. Instead of a lot of text and other details you get some background on the situation, a couple of key events, and are otherwise just given the freedom to go through with it. Having tried it a little bit, it seems to be a very efficient system.

Concluding Thoughts
Overall, my initial impressions with the Marvel HRPG in practice are very favorable. I'm still not sure how it will actually play out over a campaign. So far, I've only done a one shot with it and that was mired with some of my own lack of understanding. I'm excited to see how it works out, but I could easily see this being my new default for super heroic rpgs. Especially when I want a focus on character and narrative. Not that this means I like other systems less now, just that this seems to be the ideal tool for me so far.


  1. That bit about advancement hadn't occurred to me either, but what you were describing about the players keeping themselves in check by scaling their powers back or putting on limits makes perfect sense to me. If you put a point buy system into play, players see limits and want to push as far as they can. If there are no limits, they actually want to avoid any social fallout as a result of taking advantage of it. I like this approach much better than the rule zero fallacy excuse designers of point buy systems make of "yeah we've got this highly detailed point system that ostensibly balances characters out, but in reality it's broken, so just don't break it, m'kay?", while MHR admits that character balance on that level is possible and doesn't straight jacket you. You need to police yourself all the same, but at least you have full freedom too.

  2. Replies
    1. What Marvel offering doesn't need more Alison?

  3. There's a lot about the system I find myself liking; a lot that I find worthy of cross-pollination to other systems. Some of these concepts I've already used elsewhere, but it is nice to see them in a mainstream offering.

    I really like the idea that players have the freedom to essentially place their characters at the "level cap" from the get-go.

    The tradeoff of that choice meaning they give up seeing very little advancement is a nice drawback for that choice.

    I also find it interesting (though not entirely unexpected) that freedom leads to self-regulation in character creation.

    Breaking the game down into acts and scenes is something I've advocated in adventure creation for a while now as a way to get a more focused storyline and eliminate a lot of idleness at the table.

    All-in-all I really like how the system handles a lot of various pieces to a setting where questions of balance, focus, and character vision vs. character creation are tenuous at best.

  4. Did you or any of your players consider using the Random Datafile Generator?

  5. I've looked it over but I didn't present it to my players. For first run throughs with systems I like to go as by the book as possible. If something seems game breaking I may change it, but otherwise I try to play it "as the designers intended" or at least "as the print run presented."

    I am actually happy I didn't, considering the interesting differences I can see in the characters that likely wouldn't be there with a system to determine what could or couldn't be done. Things like what Kevin mentioned in his comment about trade offs and other things.

    As a GM, a player, and a designer I really want to see how the first few sessions play out. Even if it goes very badly I think it will be a strong learning experience.

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