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?”
“NO!”

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.

I got your entire blue ink cartridge, right here

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.

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12 Responses

  1. I have to say I’m really not sure what to make of this right now. I’ve seen so many people- people with opinions I respect- gush about this game. But I’ve also seen people really tear into it with solid and serious criticisms. In particular the review at Diehard Game Fan really made it sound like something I wouldn’t care for. I pretty much share your superhero gaming DNA (with added V&V and DC Hero). I suspect I’m going to be sticking to M&M for the time being.

  2. OnlineDM says:

    I see where you’re coming from. I got a copy of the PDF so that I could build a MapTool framework for people who wanted to play the game; I wasn’t actually trying to play myself. This meant that getting right into the mechanics worked well for me. I do share your pain on the terminology, though. It feels like there was something missing right up front, maybe a little example of play where players are using terms like Power Set and Specialty and Doom Pool in context, and then the game goes on to explain that stuff.

    As for the ink density of the PDF, though, that didn’t bother me in the slightest. I thought it was a beautiful layout and I loved the art. I remember another person criticizing the half-page picture of Doctor Doom on the Doom Pool intro page, and I thought that was great. Of course, I’m reading it as a PDF on my computer, not printing it out.

    I think that players should either buy the PDF to use electronically, or buy a hard copy of the book. Buying the PDF and printing it seems like a bad idea. Ink is expensive!

    • greywulf says:

      I have a couple of players who always print their PDFs (either wholely or in part) and consider PDFs that aren’t printable (for whatever reasons) as being “not fit for purpose”. I can sympathize with that point of view. Even when I buy a print edition, I tend to get the PDF version as well so that I can print out my own individual sheets and handouts for use during play. That’s something I’ll hesistate to do with this rulebook due to the use of so much solid colour.

  3. Granger44 says:

    I’d hate for them to get rid of the margins. I find those side bars and the pages numbers for the cross-referenced terms incredibly useful. That said, a printer-friendly version of the PDF would be really nice.

    • greywulf says:

      It’s not so much getting rid of the margins – I agree, the sidebars with cross-references are great – but getting rid of all that blue at the side of every darned page. Lose those and the PDF becomes printable without costing a fortune.

  4. symatt says:

    I’m a very fickle person when it comes to systems and so I hold strong thoughts on what you say about games even though this is not a review. That said, just on pure asthmatics I would buy this book. (only book form, no PDF) but now I have second thoughts as it would just be used as reference. Rules have to be easy to follow and make sense straight away or they leave me frustrated.
    If this is how its going to be and by example this is what is happening. I do think that for me its a shame as MARVEL, in the past has been a system that I can get a grasp on straight away.
    Game designers sometimes forget that gamers start young and some do not have the learning levels the same as everyone else. If a game needs to get complicated let it happen in the add on books, let the players learn with the system as it evolves and so the player grows with it.
    I’ve lost my flow but I hope you understand me.

    • MSH RPG Fans says:

      I agree. I play MSH RPG Advanced with my kids (13 and 7) and they love it. It’s an easy to pick up game that has a simple elegance that expands as you need it to. For me, it’s a perfect game as my kids love the comics and love playing super powered individuals. Not too complicated, fun and intuitive. One thing I did miss in the FASERIP system was level achievement similar to legacy D&D. That accomplishment. It’s much more piece by piece in MSH Advanced, power by power and ability by ability. Anyway, I agree that games need a simplicity.

  5. The Last Rogue says:

    Played it. Loved it. It is replacing my current PF campaign for the forseeable future.

    • greywulf says:

      Excellent! I would love to be able to run it, and strongly suspect that it does indeed play much better than it reads. Here’s hoping I can still convince my players so that I can give it a fair and proper playtest review.

  6. Thanks for the not-a-review. I’ve been fence-posting this. I’ve read a few of the other reviews, but it’s good to see an approach like yours (well, if it were a review, naturally).

  7. MSH RPG Fans says:

    Thanks for the non review. I’ve already purchased the book from Amazon, but I have been cruising around looking at the early word out. I had to chuckle at your “I got your entire blue cartridge, right here” comment. We’ve been trying to put together a community on Facebook, and get some info and tools and links out in a place that lots of people frequent. We’re old school fans of the FASERIP system, but we embrace the other systems too that Marvel RPG fans loved to play too like SAGA, etc. Thanks again for the review, check us out if you like.

  8. Buzz says:

    I’ve run this game twice so far, and I can tell you that it’s much simpler than it reads (though I thought it read pretty well). You would be well to grab the excellent cheat sheets created by John Stavropolous posted in this thread on Story games:
    http://story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=16004

    MHRP is not your typical supers RPG. Anyone weaned on Champions or FASERIP and inexperienced with indie games like, say, FATE, are going to feel a bit at sea when first experiencing this game. That said, giving up on this game after reading 15 pages means missing out on something very, very cool. MHRP is the most comic-book-like RPG I’ve yet played, with the possible exception of Truth & Justice. Once you get the gist of the system, it flows really well. It’s unfortunate that the rulebook is arranged so strangely.

    Lastly, I think faulting the rulebook for being graphics-heavy is a little unreasonable. The layout is beautiful and just drips with Marvel flair; as a supers comic RPG, I consider that a huge plus. If you need a hardcopy, the printed book is full-color and only $19.99. That’s far less than the cost of the ink you’d use in printing it out at home. Also, the hero data files and cheat sheets provided by MWP along with your PDF purchase are printer-friendly, as they are the most likely pages you’d need to print out.

    Anyway, I encourage you to give the game a shot, or try to get in a game of it at a local con or game day. I am along time Champions and V&V player and have owned or played a lot of other supers RPGs; I honestly think Marvel is one of the best yet.

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