This is not a review of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game
I have an unwritten rule here at Greywulf Towers, and that’s not to write negative reviews. The reasons for this are twofold; firstly, I was raised with the ethos of “if you haven’t got anything good to say, don’t say it”. Second, I believe that as bloggers we play some small part as the public face (read: we’re Google friendly) of role-playing and negativity only serves to damage the hobby we profess to love.
That doesn’t mean I won’t criticise or find fault where it’s deserved, but I do strive to balance that with the positive elements in a product, and have previously shied away from reviewing games where the bad outweighs the good. I have also posted negative reviews in anger in the past, only to regret them later.
With that in mind, this isn’t a review of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game. Superhero RPGs are my first gaming love, and the various incarnations of a Marvel RPG and I go way back. TSR’s Marvel RPG was our role-playing game of choice for many years, and the campaign it gave birth to is still going strong, even after switching systems (first to HERO, then Mutants & Masterminds 2e and now M&M 3e). I’ve even dedicated a whole RPG Week to that wonderful system.
What I wanted to do was fully playtest it before penning a full review of this new contender to the throne. That’s proved somewhat difficult to set up. Here’s (roughly) how the conversation went with my players:
“What do you think of the game?”
“I got to page 12.”
(laughs) “I got to page 18 before giving in.”
“I flicked through it. Made me want to play FASERIP again.”
“I tried generating a character. ‘Tried’ being the operative word.”
“Oooooookay……. Do any of you want to play it?”
Oh my. Tough sell.
I’ve said it before (and no doubt I shall keep saying it until all RPG publishers get a clue) layout is everything, and that especially applies to the first product in a new game (or edition). This is the book which has to sell the entire product line and hook the gamer right from the start. Get it right (the Pathfinder core book, for example) and fans and accolades shall follow. Get it wrong (the Fourth Edition D&D Player’s Handbook) and you’ll earn nothing but derision from the very people you want on your side. It doesn’t matter if the rules themselves are good (the 4e D&D rules are excellent, imho) if the layout and presentation style doesn’t make the game enticing to play.
The Marvel Basic Game is a perfect example of presentation and layout crippling the game. The first thirty-ish pages of the game throw the reader right into a shark-infested deep end where every third word is an unexplained game term. Even my own game group (each player with at least 20-odd years of gaming experience) was left scratching their head trying to work out what the heck it was talking about. Here’s a sample paragraph from Page 9:
Any die that comes up a 1 is called an opportunity. It can’t be used for the total or as an effect die; instead, the Watcher may use it to add dice to the doom pool , making the situation more challenging. If the Watcher rolls an opportunity, the players may use it to trigger certain special effects (SFX) on their Power Sets as well as some other things.
In isolation and out of context that might not look too bad, but every single flipping paragraph is like this. That’s ok in the middle of the book where you’re going into the crunchy details about the game, but not right at the start when the reader doesn’t care enough to read further.
It doesn’t help that further into the book the entire thing is explained all over again, in a much clearer and less dense style. Those first thirty pages are just wasted hyperbole. I can understand the game designers being proud of their rules system and wanting to show it off, but this is the MARVEL Role-Playing Game not the Marvel ROLE-PLAYING Game, and the superhero buy-in should be right at the front of the book. Save your rules-system to show off later in the book, where you have the reader on your side.
There is a reason why role-playing games follow a traditional presentation structure (Introduction, character generation, game mechanics) and this is it. That’s especially important with a game such as a Marvel RPG where it may well be the reader’s first introduction to role-playing. I can imagine many a movie-going superhero fan buying this, getting (much like my own game group) about 10 pages in then tossing it onto a bookshelf unplayed. It is not an attractive game to read, meaning it doesn’t matter a jot how well it plays.
If that was the only problem then I could just say “read it in this order instead!” and carry on my merry way writing a positive review. But that’s not all, by a long shot. The PDF is probably the most non printer-friendly I have ever seen. Here’s a sample page.
This is the entire of page 45. There’s several pages like this, but this one is particularly annoying as just two pages before there’s another full-page art piece. I’d estimate that out of a 234 page PDF there’s about 15 pages of full-page art, most of which are like this (ie, not full-page and just looking like they missed out the text). That’s just silly and serves no useful purpose. Sure, you could go through by hand and tell the printer to print out only selected pages, but the problem is made worse by the fact that every single page has a wide blue margin. If there was ever a PDF which cried out for a printer-friendly version, this is it.Take out the full-page art, remove the margins and it’ll be much improved from a printing point of view.
But what of the game itself? This is a variation on the CORTEX system where players roll multiple dice depending on their current Affiliation, Distinction, Power Sets, Speciality, etc. and decide whether the dice contribute to their total (chance of success) or effect (how big a success). It’s a good, solid system that encourages storytelling and tactical play. Do you go for the sure shot or risky move with a big payoff? It’s not just down to a roll of the dice, but also how you play ’em. I’ve seen CORTEX described before as Yahtzee Role-Playing, and that’s something I can entirely relate to.
Another way to look at it is that it’s a really crunchy version of RISUS, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I could, for example, take this Captain America Datafile (pdf link) and see it in RISUS terms – Super-Soldier Program (4), Vibranium-Alloy Shield (3), Lead By Example (2), Man Out of Time (1). Game on! Seeing CORTEX as a kind of RISUS-Heavy certainly helped me appreciate the rules more.
Character generation is suitably woolly and while the focus is more on recreating existing Marvel heroes there’s plenty of scope for an imaginative player to create their own superhero. Again, not a bad thing. As this is the “Basic” game I expect later supplements to provide a more in-depth chargen experience.
As far as systems go as a whole it’s pretty abstract (there’s no “I roll to hit with my Eye Beams then roll for damage” here) but that’s one of its strengths. I am pretty sure that in-play all those unnecessary game terms (Doom Pool? Really?) fade into the background and the dice are rolled and a story unfolds.
I would love to find out and be able to write a proper, positive, playtested review. The only thing that’s stopping me is the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game itself.