Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game

While I’m not a big fan of the Leverage TV show, I am a fan of the Leverage RPG and the unfathomable malleability of the Cortex Plus system.  In the hands of a mad post-it note-er, the game is a fast, wild ride through the rampaging dark caverns of a gamer’s id.   Yeah, it’s a damn fine game.

I come to the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game thinking hard about ways to make it do things it shouldn’t.  When I introduce my list of nerddoms, my affinity for comic books lists ahead of video games or RPGs; comics predates any of those pithy things.  I have comics in my bookcase I bought when I was 10 years old (Ambush Bug vs. Superman!) so ragged and torn they hardly look like books and identifiable only by their iconic Hostess advertisements.  

I’m not primarily supers fan.  The last book I read was “Joe the Barbarian” by Grant Morrison a whole two days ago.  Vertigo is my go-to imprint 80% of the time.  But I do confess… when I reach for supers, I reach for Marvel.  X-Men first, mostly, then Avengers, then Spider Man, then everything else.   

In this framework, knowing Cortex Plus is putty in the hands of the overly imaginative, I read Marvel Heroic RPG and found it… more a comics roleplaying game than a pure Supers game.  I’ve played, much to my eternal sadness and stains upon my soul, certain Supers games and they… were Super games trying valiantly to keep the comics unbalance in powers, relations and cosmic silliness.  Marvel Heroic RPG waggles its hands at this problem and says hey, look, you can play all kinds of Marvel and to hell with worrying about if Kitty Pryde is on an equal level as Captain America in the comics.  Everyone on a level playing field!  We’re going to roll some dice and punch things!

I start thinking… could I use it to play Fables? Could one fight off incursions into Fabletown? How about more abstract? Could one do one’s own version of a new current fav of mine, the Unwritten and stat up dice for characters from literature? Or even more abstract — The Walking Dead? Here’s the thing — Cortex Plus is malleable and adaptable.  These rules for comics.  I think so.

What about the game?

The Cortex Plus system, as a stand alone system, is fast and simple.  Roll some dice, pull out the 1s as HORRIBLE DIRE CONSEQUENCES, add up the top two dice and pick a die as the “size” of the result and compare on a contest.  That’s about it.  One can do fun tricks to add dice to one’s pool to juice the result (including tossing in d4s to encourage horrible dire consequences).  The system is stunt driven — the more a player tosses in wackiness, the more dice they roll, the crazier the result.  

As a pure Marvel game, while I haven’t played yet and only read the examples, my gut tells me Marvel Heroic RPG works.  The new Cortex Plus mechanics of the Doom Pool took a few passes to get the gist of how consequences compound, and I worked through the stress tracks a few times, but I cannot find any obvious gotchas or breakdowns.  I’m struck how the game solves the worst problem plaguing Supers games, the “Superman and Batman” problem, by simply saying Hey, They Have Their Strengths, Let’s Play Them Up and Move On.  Game feels simple, lightweight, and fast.  All good things in my book — I get frowny at games heavy with their own importance.  

The meat of my post — a good things/bad things comparison.

Good Things:

– Cortex Plus is fun! 

– Operations Manual’s layout is sane.  It progresses from basics to Doom Pool to consequences, stress, resources, et al and ends with a helpful “how to play” chapter with a lengthy example.  Only after the book explains the game does the book meander off into how to run the game, how to write scenarios, example scenario, and goodies.

– Game is light, fast and cinematic.  Everything for a character is on a single sheet; no need to paw through stacks of source books to figure out how one stat or power works.

– I found the Cyclops and Emma Frost examples running through the book helpful, despite having no love for Cyclops.  The examples are in blue call out blocks directly after the demonstrated rule.  I did end up reading some examples several times. 

– Dude, one of the two example scenarios is Avengers vs. Dinosaurs.  While yeah, I know this comes from a Bendis run, it’s still Avengers vs. Dinosaurs.  With stat blocks for dinosaurs!  I admit: I didn’t read the Avengers punch mobs of Bad Guys scenario. I did read Avengers vs. Dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs are awesome.  

– Book is quite nice upon the eyes, for lo, it is a nice looking book.

– On finishing reading the book, I knew how to play (if not run).  Victory for the good guys!  A technical manual that conveys information to the reader!  A mark of a superior product!  How many RPGs have a I read and had no clue?  Answer: most of them.

Bad Things:

– The Doom Pool is a tad confusing.  Another example crammed into the book would have done me a world of good.  It’s my “oh god a new mechanic WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE” instincts kicking in a bit.

– This book will not please the diehard Supers gamers for so many reasons it will take another 1300 word post to fill.  (I’m not one, so all good.) 

– The mix of Marvel PCs is real off.  I understand the need to sell future supplements and give a broad taste of the Marvel ruleset but we’re left with a handful of Avengers, Cyclops and Wolverine with no Jean Grey, etc.  I chalk up the extensive Emma Frost to someone’s fanboyness of the Grant Morrison New X-Men run.  I felt like I bought a Magic starter set and now had an eclectic mix of half-made useful sets and combos.

– References to Characters Not Appearing In This Book in Rule Blocks and/or Art:  Mystique. Ghost Rider. Dazzler(!!). Professor X.  To name a few.   Game is clearly not a contained game but the core rules ala the nWoD core rules with expectations one will buy the add-on packs.  “If you like this you will LOVE the Civil War Expansion!”  This is unbelievably awkward but unavoidable with the architecture of the core book and planned expansions.  The core book has to have all the core “stuff” but needs to sell expansions.  It cannot be a compendium of the top 100 Marvel characters. So we end up with, say, half of Quicksilver’s stats in a random example.  Quicksilver isn’t that useful in the first place and half of him is pathetic.  This left me with the feeling of editorial sloppiness and some poor choices.

NO DOCTOR STRANGE.  -10 points.  As a huge Mighty God King fan, this is unforgivable.  My tiny fist, it shakes!  Seriously, the lack of a Dr. Strange is sad.  I would have dumped any of the example PCs for Dr. Strange.

– The MWP website for the game is tragic.  Yeah, okay, not a game thing, per se, but honestly: the website is tragic.

LOOK, A CONCLUSION!

May be a little skinny on meat and substance for some die hard Supers gamers to get going right off the bat and will become more interesting with later supplements but for $13 at Drive Thru RPG, I can think of no rational reason not to buy the game.  It’s ridiculously cheap so go buy it.  I like it and I feel it has some deep, untapped potential.  It’s a more accessible gateway into Cortex Plus than Leverage or Smallville.  

So yeah.  Excepting a few small quibble, it’s a great game. Good job, guys.