Tabletop Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game
Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions
Pages: 234
Cost: $19.99 ($12.99 for the PDF)
Release Date: 02/21/2012
Get it Here: DrivethruRPG.com

I’ve played a lot of super hero RPGs. I started with the old TSR Marvel Super Heroes Basic game (my first RPG in fact) and then moved on to the Advanced version. I’ve tried the other Marvel games, such as the SAGA system or the one published directly by Marvel Comics. I’ve played the awesome DC Heroes game by Mayfair (my personal favorite super hero system) along with both Green Ronin and West End’s versions . I’ve played non licensed systems like Champions, ICONS, Supers, Mutants and Masterminds, Brave New World, Villains and Vigilantes and Aberrant. Although I’ve never worked on a super hero RPG before, I have worked on several others, and as you can see, I’ve played a LOT of games in this tabletop sub-genre. So I can say with some certainty and conviction that the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game is by far the absolute WORST Super Hero RPG I’ve ever come across, and is just plain terrible across the board.

I guess I should get the obvious out of the way – Marvel Heroic uses the Cortex Plus system. The original version of Cortex is almost universally reviled by gamers. Even those that do use it tend to mod it heavily, and in every case, those mods make the game better, but not necessarily a system you’d still ever want to use. I know Margaret Weis Productions is desperate to get this thing over in the same way the WWE tried to with Ezekiel Jackson or The Great Khali, but it’s just not going to happen – especially when the older, better Marvel games are out there. Why they didn’t just revive the old FASERIP system (Which is almost universally loved), tweak/update it a bit and release THAT is beyond me. That would have been guaranteed money in the bank as older gamers would have been caught up in the nostalgia (Temporarily forgetting that it wasn’t perfect itself…), and it was one of the easiest RPGs to learn so it would be inviting to kids and newcomers alike. Instead, we get a massively convoluted system filled with terrible writing, poor descriptions of how to actually play the game and an odd combination of, “We aren’t going to make rules for half the game but for the other half there is going to be such minutiae that there’s no way kids will be able to follow this thing.” There is honestly NOTHING positive I can say about this game – it’s that bad. Still, let’s run down exactly WHY this game is our early front runner for the worst RPG of 2012.

Let’s start off with the most obvious problem with the game, and that’s that in order to play Marvel Heroic, you are going to need a TON of dice. Each player is going to need a d4, a d6, a d1 and a d12. The game works much better (and requires less paper) if each player actually has two or three sets. The “Watcher,” (the game’s term for Storyteller/DM/GM) should have at least three sets, if not more. This, my friends, is an insane amount of dice. Even crazier is that every time you roll, you’ll be rolling at least three to four dice, if not more. This means you’ll be paying more for dice than the actual book itself, PER PLAYER, which strikes me as insane.

So let’s talk about rolling those dice. There’s no rhyme or reason to what you will roll. It all depends on the situation. Based on a character’s Power Sets, Distinctions and Specialties, you could be rolling a few dice or a lot. The trick is that the gamer has to find a way to get as many of the above to fit into the roll. Distinctions are nothing more than vague and nebulous phrases, so a gamer that’s good at fast talking can come up with ways for every roll to feature a Distinction. Each of the Powers, Distinctions and Specialties have a specific die attached to them. For one character it might be a d8, for another it might be a d10 or 12. There’s no real specific rhyme or reason behind it, either for official characters or made-up ones. In fact there’s no real rules for character creation in the game AT ALL, but we’ll touch on that later.

For an action, a player rolls their heaping helping of dice (in the example given it’s “only” seven). Any die with a 1 is put aside for the moment. You then choose any two of the dice and adds their total together. Almost always, it will be the two highest rolls. If you have any Plot Points available, you can spend one to add one of your remaining dice to the rolls. Then you choose one of the OTHER remaining dice and choose that as your “effect die.” The effect die decides how strong your action was. Think of the mass pool of die as your “to hit” roll and the chosen effect die as your “damage.” Generally you’ll want your highest die for the effect. So if you have a D6 and a d4 left over, you’d probably want the d6, as it’s a bigger die and thus a greater effect. If you have any more Plot Points left, you can use that to add another die to your effect. The target of the action then rolls their collection of dice, and whoever has the highest total wins. Repeat over and over again. How bloody convoluted is that?

Oh – but wait! We still have to talk about those leftover 1s. Dice that land as 1s are “Opportunity Dice.” The Watcher can hand out a Plot Point to take one of these dice and add them to the “Doom Pool,” which is a collection of dice for the antagonists. Yes, you read that right. In order for the bad guys to get a positive, the good guys gain something as well. So it’s generally a constant win-win for the Player Characters. Plot points have many uses and generally add to your dice pool. So it all comes down to 1s not being bad, but giving you a chance to be better down the road, while also giving the opponents a chance for an extra die down the road as well. It’s rather unbalanced, as even when you get a bad roll, you benefit from it. So if you’re reading this wondering if there are any negatives, fumbles or critical misses – there aren’t. This leaves Marvel Heroic to be horribly balanced, and basically the antagonists are always at a constant disadvantage.

So what can a Watcher do with the Doom Pool? Well, they can add a die from the pool to add to a roll. If you want to keep the die after you roll it, its original owner… gets yet another Plot Point. Sheesh. The Watcher can also use the Doom Pool in the same way that players use Plot Points. The difference is that while the PCs get Plot Points from doing just about everything, the antagonists only get them when the opponent rolls 1s. Again, terribly unbalanced, and combat ends up almost consistently being a cakewalk for players.

Wait! There’s more. Combat order is determined by when the players speak up. Yes, that’s an actual rule in the game. So this means combat is generally determined by who is the loudest and fastest. How annoying is that to have to manage – especially if you’re playing with kids? Players can also decide amongst themselves what order they want to go in, but in truth and practice, that’s not going to happen very much. So how does this tie in with the Doom Pool? Well, antagonists ALWAYS GO LAST. Yes, I know that’s insane, but that’s the actual rules of the game. There is no concept of initiative. It’s “Players first, and then maybe the bad guy.” Unless, of course, they spend one of their rare Doom Pool dice to attack sooner. The die spent must be as high or higher than a die attached to a character based on speed or reflexes, so if all you have are some d6s, there’s no real chance of the opponent ever getting an early attack in. Once again, this game proves to be horribly thought out and offers no real challenge to the players. It’s a constant uphill battle for the antagonists to even really do anything – much less test the heroes’ mettle.

You can also use the Doom Pool for actions that are generally decided by the GM in any other tabletop game out there. For example, you can spend a die to “split the party up.” An example in the book is “”The floor collapses under Cyclops and he drops out of sight!” So yes, in order to add the slightest bit of dramatic tension or challenge, the DM has to give up a Doom Pool die. If you’re not hitting your head against the desk from the sheer stupidity of this – I guarantee one of the next two will do just that. If teammates are split up – the Watcher spends a Doom Pool die to reunite them. How does that even make sense? Finally, a Watcher can spend 2d12 (almost impossible for this to ever occur) from the Doom Pool to end a scene because it is dragging out or no side is really winning. Holy crap is this stupid. Of course, this wouldn’t even be necessary if it the game was even remotely designed well, but since combat is convoluted and powers/attacks are so vague in their description and what one can do with them, battles can go on and one without any real damage occurring to either side. This built in, “I’m bored, let’s end it” is an obvious sign that even the designers knew the Cortex system is terrible and to give Watchers a chance to move things along before everyone is sick of playing. At the same time, this option means the Watcher can basically go, “I’m bored. What I want to happen is going to.” This of course, makes the entire scene of combat immaterial. Also, when you do this, every character gets 2XP. Yes, you get experience point for the game’s combat system being so badly designed the Watcher has to stop it. Oh my god, this is terrible. My mind is still boggled that any action that a normal RPG would allow NPCs or antagonists to take FOR FREE requires actions in Marvel Heroic. Worse yet, the chance to even try to take those actions are determined by sheer luck from how the PCs roll. How can anyone think this is a good idea? HOW?

One last thing on combat before we move on. There is no real concept of hit points, health or even death in the game. In fact, there are no rules at all for characters dying. The concept isn’t even brought up. What the hell? Instead the game uses “Stress” as a concept for how tired/injured/depressed a character is. You have Physical, Mental and Emotional stress, and the effect die is generally used as the level of stress a PC or NPC takes. Here’s the problem though – there’s no actual description of what stress does to a character in the game. It’s another vague, poorly written spiel that is bandied about without any substance. All that happens is your opponent can roll your Stress Die against you. Yes, another die to roll. If your hero hits d12 in any of the stresses, they can’t do anything for the rest of the turn. They aren’t necessarily knocked out, injured or dead. They just can’t do anything. If they take anything above d12 Stress, you then begin to take on Trauma… which, again, has no real definition other than “it’s worse than Stress.” If you hit d12 Trauma and then take more “damage,” your character goes into a coma or dies or is simply knocked out of the story. Again – no real substance, definition or description of what can/should happen. It’s all up in the air save for “it’s totally really bad and stuff.”

At the end of the scene, you recover at least one level from each stress automatically. So there is never any real threat to characters. They can’t die or be injured unless their player WANTS them to be. The antagonists are never a real threat and are always in a massive uphill battle against the players, and the majority of the game is poorly worded and lacks any actual concrete descriptions of how anything works or plays out… except for all that dice rolling. Who the hell would want to play this? It’s like a four year old wrote this thing up. Everything is consistently in the favour of the good guys dominating, which is nothing like how a comic book plays out. There’s no tension or pathos. This is more hack and slash than a Dungeon Crawl style video game.

Marvel Heroic is far more about Roll-Playing than it is Role-Playing and that’s a huge red flag for me. What’s worse is that the game actively discourages actually role-playing in favour of specifically following actions on your character sheet if you want XP. As such, the game doesn’t actually encourage people to roleplay, but follow preset personality guides – most of which actually don’t make sense for the character. Look at Captain America’s “milestones” (which are the actions that earn his player XP):

1 XP when you choose to aid a specific hero for the first time.
3 XP when you aid a stressed-out hero in recovery.
10 XP when you either give leadership of the team to your chosen hero or force your chosen hero to resign or step down from the team.

1 XP when you first lead a team.
3 XP when you defeat a foe without any team member becoming stressed out.
10 XP when you either convince a hero to join a new Avengers team or disband your existing team.

So basically you earn XP by declaring yourself the leader or playing nursemaid with the first set. That’s not really how Steve Rogers works. He’s generally given leadership out of respect and because he’s the best. He doesn’t just “take” it. Unfortunately, in this game, it means Captain America’s player will be actively bossing people around and clamoring to be in charge so that he can get XP – which, again, is totally out of character for him. Let’s hope you’re not playing during the 80s run where Wasp was leader of the Avengers for several years. A potential comic mishap is that Cap’s player will be calling every super hero in his rolodex saying, “Wanna be an Avenger? No, really Fabulous Frog Man. I mean it!”

The XP system is also not very well thought out. It’s exceptionally cheap to power up characters permanently, meaning power creep is all but inevitable. Let’s use Captain America as an example. A munchkin gamer is going to say “Hey Player A, why don’t you lead this mission?” and then force said person out of leadership before the end of the scene. Next scene they are in charge again. Bam! That’s 20 XP right there. Then the next scene they can do the same thing. Now, the most expensive permanent upgrades in the game cost ONLY 15 XP. So this system is not only one of the worst thought out I’ve ever encountered, but power gamers are going to abuse the ever loving crap out of this. Oh, but it’s balanced out in the minds of the writers because XP gains may or may not be temporary. It’s all whatever. Any “Watcher” with half a brain will look at how XP is earned and spent and want to chuck the book in the trash because it’s so easy to go off the rails. That’s not to say that this is how the game is INTENDED to be played, but it is how it inevitably will by some.

So let’s now talk characters. The game includes only twenty-three player characters. They are X-Men, Avengers and Fantastic Four characters from nearly a decade ago. Everything is around the time of New Avengers #1, which was 2005. Really? They couldn’t do anything more recent? Why not have things more up to date? I’m pretty sure the game wasn’t in development for seven years. As well, twenty-three characters is not a lot. Even worse, characters like Thor, Hawkeye, Ghost Rider, Rogue, Hulk, The Scarlet Witch, Dr. Strange, Namor, Silver Surfer, She-Hulk Deadpool and other major Marvel heroes are nowhere to be seen. Yet they’ve included… Armour? What’s up with that? If we want to go back to the original Marvel game from the early 80s, the Advanced version had nearly fifty PCs included in the Judge’s Book along with twenty-eight bad guys and ten uber cosmic level beings. You would think a newer game would at least provide more character options. Odder still, while the heroes are all in their own section, listed in alphabetical order for easy look up, many of the villains are thrown throughout the adventure section of the book, while others are grouped together in the same fashion as the heroes. The strangest bit is that the book only includes enemies and NPCs for the included adventure. Why would they not have extra villains for the Watcher to create their own adventures with? So we get Vermin and Hydro-Man, but no Doctor Doom, Red Skull or Magneto? Oh wait, you’ll probably have to buy another book down the road with super villains that you’ll actually WANT to use. Silly me.

Then there’s character creation – or rather the complete and utter lack of a way to do it. There’s no random dice rolls to determine stats or point building. It’s just “Make a character. Here’s some power examples.” All Distinctions, Milestones and Specialties are pulled from thin air and slapped onto a character sheet. There are some examples of powers, but like much of the game, there’s only a short, vague description of what they do. Honestly, reading through this made me think one of two things. Either the writers couldn’t be bothered to actually figure out how to do character creation, so they left it primarily up to the people spending money on the game, knowing they would do a better job than themselves… or they read HoL and decided the “We don’t care. There are no rules. Do whatever.” was an awesome idea to follow. All I’m saying is that if your character creation system instantly reminds someone of the original HoL bits for character creation… your game is in trouble. Not because HoL was bad – it wasn’t. HoL was hilariously awesome in many ways. It was, however, A PARODY, and not really meant to be played. Sadly, Marvel Heroic IS meant to be played. The fact the game doesn’t try to nail down any real descriptions and just gives vague possibilities makes this game inaccessible to the two audiences that should be most interested in it: the young and newcomers. If this was someone’s first RPG, they’d swear off tabletopping for life. It’s that badly written. Nebulous concepts doth not a game make. You’re basically purchasing a brainstorming session here, leaving the gamers to do all the real design work.

Basically, if you want to make a character for Marvel Heroic, there are no instructions, rules or guidelines. You’re basically left to do it yourself. On one hand, some gamers will take this seriously and make well balanced, interesting characters. On the other, a lot of gamers will make heroes that dwarf Superman in power. Of course, the fact the game passive aggressively suggests that you not try to recreate actual Marvel characters instead of homebrew characters isn’t just a marketing ploy, but it’s extremely insulting to pretty much every gamer out there. Even with other licensed super hero games, the designers knew that people would be making their own characters as much, if not more, than they used the licensed one. That’s why so much of the rules were devoted to, you know… character creation. Marvel Heroic on the other hand… devotes a whopping four pages to the idea. Sigh.

Finally, the game includes one long adventure that can be played in two “Acts.” Here players re-create the first few issues of New Avengers. The adventure pretty much expects players and the Watcher to recreate the story almost exactly. What is the point of that? One could just read the comics. Even older licensed super hero RPGs were smart enough not to do this. They used licensed characters in all new, all different adventures. Trying to replicate something that players are more than likely familiar with is BORING to nearly everyone involved. There’s no creativity at all, and it becomes hard to separate player knowledge from character knowledge. Much like everything else about Marvel Heroic, the included adventure is a terrible idea that was poorly thought out and comes across as if it was slapped together by people who neither knew nor cared about the license they were writing about, or just why people have liked other Super Hero RPGs in the first place. Vibranium is stronger than Adamantium? Colossus is stronger than the Sentry? Hardcore Marvel fans are going to have a field day picking these “official” character sheets apart.

So here we are – over 3,500 words later. If you are still even remotely interested in picking up the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game, then Cthulhu have mercy on your soul because you’re either a glutton for punishment, you’ve been paid off to say you like it, or so you’re fanatically loyal to the brand name and/or publisher that you can’t admit that this is one of the biggest role-playing clusterf*cks in the past few years. The game is sloppily written, the ideas are poorly thought out (if at all), and much of the text is about specific buzz words and terminology for the game, without actually giving them any substance or specific details. There is no real character creation and the character sheets given for licensed characters are at times nonsensical or outright contradictory to who or what the character is – implying that the people behind the game don’t really know what they are writing about. What’s here is at best a rough draft of a tabletop game and should not in any way, shape, or form have been released in this state. There is honestly nothing positive that I can say about Marvel Heroic. It’s pretty much a shoo-in for the worst RPG released this year and somehow I strongly doubt we’re going to see anything worse. Now granted, the game isn’t as bad as say Jurassic Ancestry, but holy crap – THAT was a five dollar game done by an amateur while this is a game using a HUGE license and was supposedly done by industry professionals. There is no excuse for a would be A-level game to be this poorly written, designed and thought out. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves. Deeply ashamed. Now if you don’t mind I’m going to go hug my collection of Mayfair and TSR super hero RPGs and remind myself that this game will be dead in buried with both shame and scorn in a few years. Meanwhile the good but out of print ones will still maintain a strong, loyal fan base.

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