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:

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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36 responses to “Tabletop Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game”

  1. Cam Banks Avatar

    Thanks for the review, Alex! Sorry it wasn’t a great fit for you, but I appreciate the time you spent explaining why.


    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Cam – no worries. Just because I utterly hated the thing doesn’t mean other people won’t love it. That’s the thing about reviews – they are just one person’s opinion.

  2. Christopher Hackler Avatar
    Christopher Hackler

    Wow, it is rare that I look at anything and can’t find some positive. I agree that this is not the game for a munchkin. I like the ability to create the character how I want them and I am one of those gamers who will create balanced and detailed characters. I am sure the Event books will include lots of characters but as I understand it unlike the FASERIP Marvel game (which I totally loved back in the 80’s) books full of stock characters will not be produced. Mayfair DC was great and there was a random point generator for background that appeared in Dragon that was a lot of fun but could make a player sad, check it out. Anyway some of the info on future plans and direction of the game were given in this interview with Cam Banks. I appreciate that you did site each reason for your objection and not just objection as a banner statement.

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Chris – unfortunately for every one of us that likes a balanced character there will be someone who equally will want d12 in EVERYTHING. Some gamers are like that. :-/ It’s also a terrible game to give to newcomers and kids – both of which should be the target audience for this sort of game.

      1. Christopher Hackler Avatar
        Christopher Hackler

        I agree that the one gamer who sticks a D12 in everything will raise its ugly head. There really is no way around that with most systems. I have seen some busted Champions characters. I am spoiled because I play with a great group who usually try to enhance the story. We have all broken many systems over the years and fortunately my group and I are past that. Storyteller systems are a bit more work for newbies. That is why so many gamers get their starts with Dungeons & Dragons and graduate to Fate or Cortex or Hero or Gurps or whatever. I think i could have handled it at 13 years old when I first bought the Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying game in 1985 but not sure I had the maturity to embrace what the system is trying to do. When my 5 year old showed interest in HeroClix I made a game for him (download off my sight). Now he wants to play daddy’s new game and I will figure that out as well. Adding dice and telling a story he can do. He will also want to play Spider-man or Thor much more than wanting to create his own character so I have that going in my favor. I bet he couldn’t figure out Hero System or Mutants & Masterminds. We might not play the game with kids as it is written but if we are sparking the flame at an early age can’t we fudge it a bit.

        1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

          Chris – Agreed. At my age and experience both as a player, reviewer and occasional freelancer/consultant, I am exceptionally picky about who I play with and that ensures I have a game that is nicely balanced will a good story, well designed characters and people that remember a game is fun rather than SERIOUS BUSINESS. The problem is a lot of people aren’t that lucky.

          As a reviewer I go out of my way to see how I can break a system or find flaws in what’s written. it’s not to be an ass to the game, but because if I can do it – hundreds of others will too. My job is to report the problems as well as the positives and with this game I honestly truly couldn’t find anything that could be broken/twisted/easily messed up. I went into this exceptionally positive and excited as I wantes to see how they improved Cortex after all those complaints people have had about it. Instead, I just found a pretty big mess that could have used a few more months of tweaking or better phrasing.

          The problem with the MWP version of Marvel is it’s written in such a way that it’s far too easy to abuse. I know the designers didn’t try to do that but the game really feels like it was written in a vacuum rather than thinking about. “Oh god, turn order is decided by players? What happens if you get a bunch of munchkins in a party? What happens if you play with six year olds that take it at whoever screams loudest goes first?” It really feels like the game was designed without taking any negative player scenarios in mind and that’s sloppy to me.

          I also agree storyteller systems, in the right hands are wonderful. Something like Do/Flying Pilgrim is wonderful. The problem is that a super hero game should be newbie/younger gamer oriented. It should be a gateway game ala D&D just like you described which is exactly the opposite of what this Marvel RPG is. I wouldn’t suggest this game to anyone unless they had been tabletopping for a long time and had a certain level of maturity that they could handle something that is extremely rules light one second and then exceptionally anal about dice rolling the next.

          I think that’s why this review reminded me just why I liked FASERIP Marvel when I was in single digits. It was two dice and you looked on the chart to see how to play. My friends and I figured that out in elementary school. I wouldn’t give this particular RPG to kids that young. They would be totally lost.

          For me, this Marvel RPG just feels very poorly thought out. It wasn’t written for kids or newcomers which should be the target audience, and older gamers like ourselves will either already have their super hero system of choice and stick to that or take one look at this thing and realize how broken it is.

          Of course, if I wasn’t a reviewer and played this with the sole intent of just screwing around with some friends (in person or on skype) and taking it as face value, I’d honestly have probably enjoyed this a little more and just occasionally said, “Wow, ths could have been phrased better” or “hee hee hee. Look what nasty combo I figured out” in the way we all did when D&D 3E came out. But a critic has to be critical and from a critical standpoint, I just couldn’t find anything to be positive about here. If others can, then more power to them. I just know there are a dozen or so SH RPGs I’d recommend before this one.

          1. keiya Avatar

            No rules can ever create ‘well designed characters’, since character is about decisions, not rules. And honestly, character creation in MHRP is more balanced than GURPS or D&D in my experience… you don’t have the player who knows the rules inside and out building characters that can only be challenged by things that would kill the others if they look at them funny.

  3. Dean Gilbert Avatar

    Just curious…did you actually _play_ the game? Because several of your statements indicate to me that you haven’t.

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Dean – not only played it – but played it with people that have worked in the industry for at least a decade each. We were all pretty unanimous that this was one of the worst designed games we ever came across and that the rules, as written will be nonsensical to newcomers and younger gamers (Big mistake at a super hero game should be pretty newbie friendly) and depending on the makeup of players and villains you can easily get stuck in an nigh endless combat loop.

      1. No one in particular. Avatar
        No one in particular.

        I’m sorry but…What?

        Most of the problems your brought up on your review are non-issues or are actually strong points in the table. The dice pool is a hurdle, but I don’t think you got what the system was trying to do with the marvel way of Super Heroics.

        The system suceeds in emulating comic book scenes, plots dilemas and tensions to a T.

        And if you think combat is “unbalanced” I would invite you to actually play the game and look over – carefully – on most antagonists sheets provided.

        Doom Dice are more often than not better than plot points. Pair this with the fact that the GM can start with however Doom Dice he wants of each Act and you clearly haven’t done your homework there pal. Plot Points are more constant, but your Doom Pool will only shrink if you spend it on the small conflicts. Like a good comic, it’s all about the build up, you should hold onto the Doom Dice up until the real threat shows his face, and then all hell breaks loose. (You know, like a comic book)

        Next is the initiative order.The book, while providing the ways like you put it ultimately leaves it in the hand of the GM to decide how he wants to deal with, same thing with character creation. Can a player just decide to have d12s on his powers? Yes. The DM can also just say “Nope.”

        Try to do what the book says, first you need to create a character and a background, then try to convert it to the system. It was clearly created with Marvel characters (as in, the actual marvel characters) in mind in the sense it’s up to the players and GM stat their favorite heroes who haven’t been stated yet.

        It was really strange reading a review ragging so hard on a system and missing all the key points that make it a great super hero experience. It went all over your head, which is even scarier since you did mention you work on White Wolf right? The “mechanics working alongside descriptions and roleplaying” shouldn’t be such a hard concept to be grasped by you by just reading the damn thing. (Which by the way, is the system main strength: Description. Distinctions are perfect for this and as a GM you shouldn’t accept a shody way of shoehorming it into a scene, the player needs to roleplay to get it. Similar of how stunts worked in Exalted, a WW game.)

        I really hope you try playing the game as a player, while someone who understands the design goals of the system guide your journey. You might even like it.

        1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

          Sorry man, but if you think this makes for a great super hero experience, I can’t imagine what you think of all the other options out there. Plus with the lack of using an actual name I’m guessing playtester or employee.

          I think you also missed that I not only played the game but with other people in the industry and they all agreed the thing is a horrible mess. I mean, you’re more than welcome to your opinion, but “The system suceeds in emulating comic book scenes, plots dilemas and tensions to a T.” is honestly the most laughable comment I’ve seen in MONTHS. It’s the exact opposite. Seriously, go talk to people that work in comics. I know several. This plays out anything BUT.

          Finally, many of your justifcation attempts are not only outright wrong, but are contradictory with what is actually written. Let’s take a look at where you messed up.

          “Pair this with the fact that the GM can start with however Doom Dice he wants of each Act and you clearly haven’t done your homework there pal.”

          Really? Then why on page 14 is there a table for “STARTING DOOM POOL?” Nowhere in the entire book is there a “Start with as many Doom Pool dice as you want.”Good job making stuff up.

          “Next is the initiative order.The book, while providing the ways like you put it ultimately leaves it in the hand of the GM to decide how he wants to deal with, same thing with character creation. ”

          Which again is a terrible idea and I gave examples of why. Thanks for proving me right yet again. Give this game to children or newcomers and they will be lost. Utterly lost.

          “Try to do what the book says, first you need to create a character and a background, then try to convert it to the system. It was clearly created with Marvel characters (as in, the actual marvel characters) in mind in the sense it’s up to the players and GM stat their favorite heroes who haven’t been stated yet.”

          Which again is something most gamers will HATE. Especially newcomers. ‘Hey, never played an RPG before? MAKE A CHARACTER WITH NO RULES.’ That’s just stupid. Wanting players to make Marvel characters themselves instead of actually providing a lot of them? ‘WE’RE LAZY OR COULDN’T FIGURE IT OUT OURSELVES.”

          Dude, your entire post is not only erroneous but shows you haven’t actually read the game in detail. It’s like you’re playing off a house rules version of this which is sadly what most people have to do with a Cortex game.

          I’m glad you’re able to find enjoyment in such a terirble product, but the fact you don’t seem to really know the thing you’re defending and the use of your “handle” tells me you’re a little to close to the game to emotyionally seperate yourself fromt he reality of how bad it is.

  4. Jasonwickham Avatar

    At first, I thought this guy was just having a knee-jerk reaction to dice pool systems ( which, honestly, I kind of sympathize with- I hate them, myself) but you don’t devote over 3,500 words to a review if you don’t truly find a lot to hate about the product.

    Thanks for the detailed review. I was kind of hopeful about this one, but I won’t be wasting my time (and money) now. Think I’m going to run Mystery Men! instead. It’s simple, flexible and- best of all- free.

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Jason – I’ve written for White Wolf so I’d be a MASSIVE hypocrite if I hated Dice Pools. :-) My problem with the dice pool was the sheer number of types of dice, that everyone needed at least 2-3 sets to properly play the game, and the added of things together combined with spending/getting points based on what was rolled. All that just adds up to a headache, especially for younger gamers or people brand new to tabletopping. It’s just very unfriendly unless you’re a dice chucking vet. :-)

      Just remember thought hat everyone is different. Just because I hated it doesn’t mean you won’t love it. Perhaps when it’s in physical form rather than PDF, you can flip through it at your local gaming store and see if it’s to your liking.

      I’d recommend Mystery Men over this too! For readers who don’t know the game Jason is talking about you can indeed get it for free over at Here’s the link:

  5. Steve Crow Avatar

    While I’m not fond of the game, there is at least one error in what you describe. 10 xp Milestones can only be rewarded once per Act (OM107). So it’s not quite as easy to abuse as you describe. But yeah, the lack of a character design system is a total turn off. Keep in mind that Margaret Weis’ general theory (as Cam Banks has noted) is that most gamers don’t play long-term campaigns. So MHR is pretty much designed for a series of one-offs (Events) rather than an ongoing campaign.

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Oh, I know it can only be used once per act, but like I said in the review, if you play several adventures, the abuse is rampart. A system that only works in one-offs is basically something that is too rigid for the average gamer. When (not if) people do try to play more than one adventure with this thing and the entire system quickly falls apart.

      1. Steve Crow Avatar

        But you don’t play several adventures/Events with MHR. It’s not designed that way. I’d agree that a system that only works in one-offs or short-term campaigns is basically too rigid for the average gamer… but Margaret Weis Co. believes that’s what enough gamers do to make it worth their while to design accordingly, based on their research. I think they’re pretty upfront with it in MHR, so while people may certainly try to play more than one Event with the same characters, they’re doing it against the stated design of the game.

        1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

          You just described one of the big problems with the game. The system only works with a very small portion of gamers and then only if the system is used in a very specific way. That’s bad design across the board. A good system is inviting to all gamers and can be used in multiple ways, be it one shot, campaign or anything in-between. By making such a gamer for so few people, the system inheritently shoots itself in the foot and pushes away far more people than it brings in.

          You’ve also brought up another problem with the line “they’re doing it against the stated design of the game.” Most RPGs have the golden rule of either “house rule it” or “if it doesn’t work for you,through it out.” Unfortunately you can’t do that with MWP version of Marvel which again, will be another turn-off with the system as designed. The book very much reads as “FIll in the blanks we left because we couldn’t be bothered to make a more flexible system but if you go too far, the game’s broken nature becomes apparent. Whoops.”

          1. Steve Crow Avatar

            Hmm. I guess I don’t have the problems with you do that MHRPG is a (relatively broad) “niche” game. That “portion of gamers” is comic book readers. And these days the market is going toward “event” trade paperbacks. The game models that particular niche/concept. Now, also, Margaret Weis believes due to their research that most “normal” RPGers want short-term games, not full-blown campaigns. Now, they may be wrong: time will tell. But if the majority of RPGers want short-term games rather than campaigns, and comic book readers want short-term “events” rather than campaigns… then is MHRPG wrong, or fails to meet the concept they aimed for?

          2. Alexander Lucard Avatar

            If you poll most comic book fans though (and even writers), “writing for the trade” is one of their least favorite things about the current state of the industry. As are super big events. Which means that Marvel wasn’t written for comic book gamers or comic book fans. It was written for Marvel Publishers.

            So yes, if you make a game based on two aspects of comic books that tend to get the most criticism from fans of that particular industry, I’d definitely say MHRPG is not only wrong, but I’d also have to wonder what their “research” was based on.

            I’d also say Marvel fails simply because it’s based on short term events as well. From my experience it’s not that gamers don’t want a campaign – it’s the logistics of being able to pull them off. Again, a quality RPG allows for both possibilites. With say, D&D, V:TM, Shadowrun, CoC and every other game you can think of, it is designed for one shots, short term play or full campaigns. Marvel isn’t. By limiting who can play and for how long, you limit not only your audience but the effectiveness of the product as a whole.

          3. keiya Avatar

            How do you do superhero oneshots in D&D with players who don’t like spending large amounts of time on character generation or using premade characters, without using tons and tons of houserules? *EVERY* system only works for a subset of players.

  6. Steve Crow Avatar

    I also don’t think the initiative issue is quite as bad as you say. Everyone has to go once before someone can go a second time. And a lot of the stuff breaks down to one-on-one fights, so whether Player A fights Villain B first, or Player X fights Villain Z, doesn’t really matter. Also note the bit (OM36) about how the person who goes last picks who goes first next round. The Watcher can also just choose who goes in what order if the screaming becomes excessive. As for Villains getting initiative, like the “break off combat – 2d12 cost” thing, as you note it seems odd to make storytelling decisions reliant on doom pool payments. The way game is set up, you’ll never start off any adventure with an ambush because you won’t have the doom pool dice to pay for it. I suppose you can go in media res and just say, “Hey, the villains ambush you and you’re in a fight–they go first.” but then why have the cost mechanics if you’re just going to use GM fiat anyway?

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Steve – imagine playing the game with either

      a) young children
      b) people new to gaming
      c) powergamers/munchkins

      Under any of those three situations, the initiative system is HELL. Because this is a super hero game a and b will be common situations. I agree that with a table of adult mature vets who don’t play to “win,” it works. But ANY system that only works under certain circumstances and with specific players is a crappy broken system.

      Totally agreed that the “last in round 1 goes first in round 2” is an attempt to balance out, but it still shows how broken the system is and how un-comic book-y (for lack of any real words that exist in the english language) is.

      So you have players as Quicksilver and Nova? Both are insanely fast. They’re fighting with the Blob. Both players argue about who goes first…which is annoying, while the Blob’s player says “I’m f’n slow. I’m last.” Then once that is settled and the round ends…the Blob goes first in Round 2. It works in theory, but not in comic book sense or what passes for “Marvel Reality.” It’s just a terribly broken system across the board.

      100% afraid on the lack of ambush, the break off combat and the whole issue with cost mechanics. I don’t know what the people at MWP were thinking.

      1. Steve Crow Avatar

        Okay, but _why_ is it broken? I think most “young gamers” (13 years or older, presumably?) that want to role-play are mature to make the decision. And if they’re not, they’re going to find plenty of other things to argue about. New players won’t care and will probably figure something like “A went first last turn and E went last going around: this turn B will go first and A will go last.” Power-gamers… what’s the advantage of going first? The opponent is toughest before he takes stress: after that it becomes easier for subsequent attackers. If we’re talking a series of 1-on-1 battles, does it matter if Cyclops vs. Bulldozer goes before or after Wolverine vs. Piledriver?

        I think your example also indicates one relative strength of the system. In most games, the Blob would always go last as part of a team of PCs. But in the comics sometimes he manages to get a shot in on even the faster people.

        I think the key to the thing is that Cam Banks likes to give players narrative powers. So yes, under certain circumstances and with specific players, that narrative power is going to get abused. But that’s the way that Cam rolls. What I dislike is what you note, that much of the narrative power is taken away from the GM in MHR, by tying it to die mechanics. It seems like more things have doom pool costs in MHR, compared to Leverage and Smallville where they assumed that if you’re the GM and you realize you need it in your adventure, put it in your adventure and don’t worry about the pool cost or the Complications that the players rolled or whatever.

        1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

          It’s broken for several reasons.

          1) As you’ve said, one has to be of a certain maturity level to really use this game. it’s not something you can use with gamers younger than say, early teens,. Compare that to say, the TSR version of the game which I could play in single digits and understand pretty easily. As could many others. Right there, the fact you have to have some experience with RPGs and be of a certain age to really “get” what the system is trying to do puts it at a disadvantage to other super hero systems.

          Also, remember most gamers at that age aren’t mature. Even up until my mid 20s I encountered players who took things too seriously, played to “win” or got upset if bad things happened to their character – especially death. This was most common in middle and high school. There’s far more of a sense to look at a RPG at something to beat rather than experience. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found this to be even more true with the crop of younger gamers, although that’s more the fauly of video game RPGs (especially Pokemon which makes me somewhat responsible…oops). Something that should be a gateway RPG should be more user friendly and at the same time a bit stricter ruleswise with gamers until they have an idea what they are doing. Again, the system as designed is just rife with issues that will annoy the two target audiences a super hero RPG should have – younger gamers and newcomers.

          2) people that are shall we say…a bit anal about comic accuracy will have issues with initiative will be like “Why isn’t Character X attacking first every time. As bad as it is to say, depending on who Character X is, they have a point. At least it’s Marvel so you don’t get “Who is faster? Barry or Wally?” debates here. :-)

          Now the key here is a lot of gamers won’t abuse the obvious loopholes in the descriptions and wording. But it’s still there. Part of being a reviewer is to try and see where the flaws are and how broken a system is. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in Marvel that can’t be broken or abused. At the same time there’s also a lot that will be misunderstood or confusing to newcomers and kids simply because it is so freeform. It’s just such a noniviting game to the vast majority of gamers that I’m still baffled by who the target audience is save for the designers themselves, you know?

          You’re also right that narrative games are wonderful. I gave Flying Pilgrim as an example of one that is done right. (Not sure if you played it). You’re also right that there is this weird thing in Marvel where it tryies to be narrative but then some of the rules are exactly the opposite and the juxtaposition of what feels like two very different ideas just don’t blend well at all. It’s like a flesh golem but made of systems rather than people.

          I’m glad you brought up Smallville and Leverage both because I really prefer the use of Cortex there than in MHRPG. We actually gave a pretty positive review of Smallville. I can’t fathom why so much of this game is died to die mechanics and specific rules around them why the rest of the game is a “Do whatever. We left it blank for you to figure out.” It puts the Odd Couple song in my head.

          1. Steve Crow Avatar

            Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I guess I don’t have a problem with games aimed at a specific maturity level. But I’m looking at the specific initiative issue, I still think MHRPG models the comics. The Blob sometimes gets initiative. It doesn’t make sense, but there you go. People manage to hit Quicksilver first sometime. Stilt-Man hits Spider-Man first. At DC, villains like Captain Cold and Heat Wave manage to beat the Flash in initiative (??). The fat, pudgy middle-aged Toyman gets the drop on Superman. RPGs are mechanical, but comics are narrative. So having narrative determine initiative makes sense to me. It’s not the only approach, but it seems like a valid alternative.

            And sorry to seem dense, but as far as initiative, I’m still not seeing how power-gaming or maturity effects it. If you go first rather than another PC against the villains, they have less damage that you can benefit from, and you give the GM more drama pool. I don’t think MHRPG as a “gateway” game (and I’m not convinced it aspires to be) has to have stricter initiative rules. Some other stuff, yes, but that’s a separate discussion.

          2. Alexander Lucard Avatar

            Steve – I think you’re missing exactly what I’m saying.

            What you described is how a super hero RPG should play. That’s not how Marvel plays out. Remember in order for a bad guy to go first, the Watcher needs to spend a Doom Dice. However if the character has super speed, spidey sense or the like, they will have to spend an even larger Doom Die to let the bad guy go first. The problem comes in with those exact examples where you’ll need a d10 or d12 to go first against Spider-Man, Flash or the like. Those aren’t very common and most Watchers will want to save their d12s for ending the scene. A better, quality title would allow more of a chance for something weird to happen. Marvel doesn’t. The Watcher is too constrained at certain points like this, yet has free reign in others. In comics, characters don’t get to “choose” who goes first. The writer does in order to make the most dramatic or interesting battle. To best simulate this, the GM would need either total control over initative, which would ruin the role-playing experience or let it be completely by chance (including the bad guys). Marvel doesn’t do that.

            As for power gaming, people will want their character to go first so they can do the damage, inflict stress or trauma and have less of a chance of being hit. While young children will want to go first “just because.” Remember lining up or playing G.I. Joes? First first first. Little kids want to be first simply to be first. I see it ALL the time when I do gaming stuff for kids. With Marvel, trying to do this with single digit kids will inevitably boil down to a screaming match depending on the kids involved.

            I don’t think Marvel aspires to be a gateway game either, but that’s yet another problem. it should be. The most revered super hero RPGs were just that – games all ages could play. Simple to understand or make characters but fun for any age group. Marvel unfortunately seems aimed solely at very old and experienced gamers, which is never a good thing for super hero products. I could use the current comic book market as an example of how aiming solely for adults with super heros has cut the number of sales down dramatically, but that’s a whole other ball of wax. ;-)

  7. […] There has been a lot of talk this week about the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game. Mark @ Dice Monkey has been diving into some of the different aspects of the game and recently focused on “Distinctions and Power Sets.” And where Mark seems to be liking the system, Alex Lucard @ Diehard Game Fan offers a very different opinion in his review. […]

  8. […] Avengers Alliance for about a week now and I’m really loving it. After the truly terrible Marvel Heroic Roleplay Basic Game I had to review, I was really looking for a good super hero game to turn things back around. […]

  9. Seamus Corbett Avatar

    I have to say this is one of the most poorly informed reviews I’ve read thus far. Most of your criticisms are poorly informed, and the rest are just flat-out wrong. As someone who claims to know games (or can at least do a Google search to get a decent-looking list together),

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Seamus – Unfortunately most of the commentary I’ve seen from other people that work in the industry (both tabletop and video game wise) flat out agree with me that this is one of the worst super hero games they’ve ever seen – if not the worst. It’s totally cool if you disagree with me. After all, a review is only one person’s opinion, but if you read the comments here, even the people that have LIKED the game have agreed with my issues with the product. I just happen to be a lot more unforgiving and annoyed by them. ;-)

  10. Ben Avatar

    I agree, though less vehemently, with many of your criticisms, but I’m not convinced the system itself is unusable. Setting aside views of what a comic book game should be, the game relies at it’s heart in players spendingtime trying to make their characters awesome through describing stunts, using powers, describing the results of the effect die – and I can see people liking that. The game forces trade offs between being awesome and being vulnerable in order to be extra awesome later.

    Those fundamental activities sound fun. I think enabling those experiences is what the entire game is tailored around.

    I vote the watcher as the player who’s most in the dark, though. Possibly house rules.

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

      Ben – I agree. The core of the game has potential, but the way its written and laid out makes the end product a jumbled mess.

      House rules tend to be the way ALL Cortex products go. My feel is that if you have to make a ton of house rules for a system, it’s a bad system in the first place, so why use it?

      I agree that people do like narrative games and that they can be fun, but there are other, better narrative based super hero games out there, you know?

      No worries about the cell phone created errors, either. We’ve all been there. :-)

      1. Ben Avatar

        Our primary difference is that I think the game within might be worth saving, and I’m not convinced yet it will take house rules to do it. I haven’t played yet, so I don’t know it runs for the Watcher or anyone else, but the idea of the doom pool growing and growing as a visual indicator of how harsh the final challenge will be is great.

        Doom dice are gained the way they are to introduce some of the “game-playing” to the Watchers, I think. They have to balance out the desire for early encounters not to be a cakewalk with the need for the climax to feature a suitably threatening antagonist boosted by Doom dice.

        I agree that the layout and presentation is terrible, too. I was reading the Eclipse Phase and Leverage RPGs at the same time as Marvel, and it was slow going. I still haven’t read the adventure in the back.

        But once one person has suffered through the book, I believe that a group could still really enjoy themselves. And I don’t want

        Multiple people I respect and follow on Twitter contributed to the game, so I’m unwilling to dismiss the game mechanics along with the shoddy wrapping paper.

        You mentioned other narrativist superhero RPGs; what are they?

        1. Alexander Lucard Avatar

          See, for me, the way Doom Dice are gained feels like a crutch at best and bad design at worst. A good system doesn’t need a gimmick or extra rules to ensure encounters are challenging. Everyone seems to be in agreement that this particular Marvel game is designed for a VERY niche audience. It’s not for newcomers, it’s not for younger gamers, it’s not a gateway game, and it’s only for one-shots. So who is it for? Long time VERY experienced gamers like you or I who instinctively know how to fix a broken/badly laid out system because god knows we’ve encountered several of them in our lives ;-)

          So with that in mind, the person running the game will almost certainly know how to craft a pretty decent adventure with proper build, challenges and enemies of the appropriate power to challenge players, right? So why have the Doom Dice mechanic in the shape it is in at all? The very mechanic feels at odds with the narrative approach the game strives for. You have all this constant dice management between players and the Watcher and to me, that becomes more about roll-playing than role-playing. Even in something like D&D you don’t have to constantly think about dice. Does that make sense?

          Again, though – that’s just me. I think the visual sight of the Doom Pool pretty much ruins the surprise or build of what’s coming as the players can see what’s coming. I can totally get that some may take it as a suspense builder, but for me and the people I generally game with, we found it to be a total mood killer. Imagine something like that in say, a Cthulhu themed game. “Holy crap, the GM’s got 6d12s set aside. Get ready for a Great Old One guys!” If it works for you and your buds, more power to you.

          I do think that if MWP recalled the thing and actually hired a compentant editor (or three) the game could be SO much better. It reads not only like stereo instructions from the 70s, but also like a game designed by someone that isn’t good at fully describing what they actually mean.Scatterbrained if you will. Like “Hand me that thing?” Well, what thing? We can’t read your mind. If they had a middle man that could go, “Oh you mean XYZ? Here you go. Also, let’s put XYZ next to ABC as it would flow better.” would have made a world of difference to me. If anything, I think Marvel highlights that a game needs an editor/quality control guy as badly as it does designers in order to really succeed.

          Other narrative superhero RPGs will probably vary by everyone’s definition of what a “narrative” game is. Similar to how some consider White Wolf games narrative titles while others don’t. But there’s Flying Pilgrim, the 2003 Marvel game, Abberant and Street Fighter if you count White Wolf’s games as narrative. Things like that.

          1. Ben Avatar

            I get what you mean about the dice. It is a very dice-heavy game, both in sheer numbers required and their constant manipulation.

            Thank you for the provocative review and entertaining my thoughts on it.

  11. Ben Avatar

    Gah, sorry. Never comment from your cell phone is the lesson here. Forgive the errors, please.

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