Thursday, February 23, 2012

Marvel Super Heroes RPG - Why I Don't Like It

I would love to call this a review and sound all fancy about it, but that just isn't the case. I haven't actually played it, I have not read every single line of the game book, nor do I have much interest in doing either. This is, instead, an examination of the flaws I see in this game.

With that in mind, feel free to read on.
I figure I should start by telling you some basic details about the game, before I get into why I hate them. The game is by Margaret Weis Productions, and utilizes their Cortex Plus rules. I am not overly familiar with those rules, so this is my first introduction to them, in what is likely a heavily modified version.

Conflicts are generally dealt with using a collection of dice, from d4s to d12s. A player will determine the number of dice to use in his dice pool based on various stats, and will roll them all. Rolling a 1 opens up an opportunity for the opposing party (works for GMs and players alike) and contributes nothing to the end result beyond that. Two dice are kept and added together to determine the result, and one other die is chosen for effect. If you have no remaining dice, your effect is d4.

Plot Points are the currency of the game's play, and you can spend them to capitalize on an opportunity, add dice to your roll, keep extra dice for your results or effects, for stunts, and for other stuff. The GM has a Doom Pool of dice, which functions both as his Plot Points for the above purposes, and also the opposed roll for all actions the PCs take with no direct opponent.

Choosing My Hero
The first of my issues with this game is with their "character creation" system. The draw of the roleplaying game, to my mind, is the ability to create a character in a setting you enjoy and the, through the process of the game, watch them grow and change. They are tested by the various adventures your GM sees fit to force you through, and you get to watch as their path takes them places you never expected to go.

Or, as is the case in Marvel Super Heroes, you take the role of a previously existing character and play them through an adventure. Now, I could be off here, but I call that acting, not roleplaying. Sure, there are people who enjoy playing Captain America in these situations, but I don't find that option very compelling. I am constrained by a character that I had no hand in creating, and, if I am with average comic book nerds, I am constrained also by their view of the behavior of this character.

So in this game, they give you several character dossiers for existing Marvel heroes, and you are expected to choose from these to play their game. There is something akin to a character creation system, but it is more a way to take fully fleshed characters and define them within this rule set. The process of making characters that they do not supply you with consists of figuring out how the character's powers can be represented by the system, compared to other characters, and it is written as if the player will be doing this for one of the Marvel heroes that was not printed. There is no guide to making your own character. There is not concept of balancing characters between each other at all, just a statement that having all d12s is excessive.

Fistful Of Dice
Assuming you have a lively and imaginative group who are willing to spend the time to craft your characters, or perhaps you're just playing the cleverly-teamed Daredevil and Thor, you then enter into their system. If you want to do something, you build a dice pool. And the GM builds their own dice pool for NPCs, or simply uses the Doom Pool they have for everything else. It sounds simple, but this is deceptive.

My issue with their dice system is that it will cause you to focus more on the dice pools and less on the scene. You have your Plot Points with which you can access Assets (bonus dice applied to a target/scene), the opportunities the GM's rolls give you (available when they roll 1s), the power stunts you have available, more dice in rolls, etc. So you work to gain Plot Points, which can be done by rolling 1s and the GM using that to get more dice for his Doom Pool, by sabotaging yourself with certain rolls, and various other ways that I forget.

In truth, there are so many parts of this process of building up Plot Points and dice that you could easily lose sight of what the purpose of the game should be: roleplaying. You'll spend so much effort gaming the system so you can succeed when the time comes that it stops being a roleplaying game and starts to feel like something else entirely. To me, it seems more like a board game with no board. The point is not the action, it's the economy of Plot Points and the way it affects Dice.

Roleplaying vs. Simulation
As I've mentioned, I'm having trouble viewing this as a roleplaying game. Part of that is characters, part is the somewhat excessive dice system, but another is their approach to adventure design, at least as presented in the book. An adventure is what they call an Event, an overarching story that has 2 or more Acts with some action in them. This, in itself is not a big deal. It's fairly typical of games to try to present the same basic concepts in terms appropriate to their setting.

What gets me is their concept of Framing the Scene, Transition Scenes, and Action Scenes.

An Action Scene is one where stuff happens, and you roll lots of dice. Usually, it's a fight, but it can be rescuing people or stuff like that. The point is, it's Action. Non-Action stuff, like detective work, social interaction, roleplaying (it's listed in the book), are for the Transition Scenes. It's what you do between fights, see? In those Transition Scenes, you rest and recuperate from your fight and do all that Other Stuff. When you're done goofing off with all that stuff, you move to the next Action Scene, where stuff really happens.

There is a section on Framing the Scene in the book, in which it is defined how they expect the GM to tell the players exactly how they got into the situation where Action happens, their goals, and basically set the scene up for some fighting. It's that kind of irritating text in published adventures that takes any control of the game out of the hands of players, and it's right there in the rules under Playing The Game.

This is not a roleplaying game. It's a comic book simulation. You take previously existing characters, you get your bajillions of dice ready, your GM tells you how the game is going to progress, tells you how the fight starts, and only then do you have any control. And even then, you're going to focus more on the economy of gameplay, trying to get points and stack your die rolls as much as possible, all why trying to frame this dice game in your head as an epic fight. Kind of like Axis and Allies or Talisman.

There's More, and Caveat
There are other complaints I have about the game, like their dark pages with white writing, just for those PDF purchasers. Mostly my issue is that it calls itself a roleplaying game when the general feel of the rules tells me otherwise.

Now, I did not play this game. I don't see how I could get my local gaming friends to actually play it. I can see how a good GM can make this into something truly great, but then that's more GM magic than game. I certainly understand that other games are similarly resource-focused and tend to be less about the roleplaying and more about the action scenes (I'm looking at you D&D). But this one just had the perfect storm of attributes to make me want to write a negative review.

Ans amusingly, what would have made me overlook much of this is if they had just given us a standardized "Make Your Own Hero" option. Then I'd just think it's an overly complicated game and move on.

Anyway, them's my thoughts on Marvel Super Heroes after reading most of the book. Feel free to slam me about missing something if it proves me wrong. I wouldn't mind being wrong.

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