Review: Margaret Weis Productions – Basic Game (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying)


Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game
The long-awaited return of roleplaying superheroes in the Marvel Universe (powered by Cortex Plus) written by Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue, Jack Norris, Jesse Scoble, Aaron Sullivan, and Chad Underkoffler and published by Margaret Weis Productions.
By The Warden

Learn more about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game here.
Purchase Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game here.
Download Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game here.

Gee, certainly seems like there’s a lot of Marvel stuff going on right now, huh? Moments before sitting down to write this review, the announcement of The Avengers $200 million domestic opening weekend hit the media frenzy to cap what must be the biggest time in Marvel Comics’ history. It’s been close to 20 years since I read comics on a regular basis and one of those series was West Coast Avengers (with a little bit of regular Avengers thrown in just so I could keep up with the universe). My favorite of the Marvel heroes? Hawkeye. Not only because he was an incredible archer and became such through dedicated training, but because he was such a flawed individual who couldn’t keep his marriage together. He reminded me of one of my uncles if he had mastered the art of archery to the nth degree.

It’s these characteristics which defined Marvel heroes above all others; they were identifiable, relatable people given super powers and regular lives. They screwed up and had to live with consequences, relationship problems, and paying bills on top of saving the world. This is the Marvel Universe drawn upon for the new Marvel RPG published by Margaret Weis Productions.

CONTENT

Before we get started, there’s one disclaimer we should address. While the cover says “Basic Game,” I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s simple and easy to learn. Nearly everything about this game is incredibly unique and strays from some of the conventions of your typical action-packed RPG, but I’m not saying that to scare you. Myself, I’ve been itching to see a major publication like this. Everything I’ve read in previews was what I expected and more; it truly puts the Plus in Cortex Plus (the name of the system, an extension of the original Cortex System seen in Supernatural and Smallville).

The core concepts are provided in Chapter 1: Introduction, particularly the use of dice rolls, actions, Plot Points, and Doom Pools. The game uses a dice pool mechanic assembled from various features of each hero’s datafile, as provided below.

Affiliation: Each hero excels in one of three pairings: Solo, Buddy, or Team. Ranked from d6 for the weaker to d10 for the strongest, the Affiliation highlights each hero’s aptitude in particular situations (for example, Wolverine’s better on his own, Cyclops works best on a Team).

Distinction: Three phrases or descriptions commonly used to describe the hero and his or her personality have a part to play. If they can apply to your particular action, you can add on a d8 or if they complicate matters, you’ll use a d4 and gain a Plot Point. For example, Spider-Man’s Wisecracker Distinction means you can play up on his quips to gain a d8 to your roll.

Power Sets: These are what makes our superheroes super. Grouped together in sets, each is divided into particular aspects categorizing matters such as Stamina, Strength, and specific powers. Each one includes its appropriate dice applicable in any given dice roll, along with special effects and limits.

Specialties: What the rest of us would call skills, these represent all the hard work and natural ability of the superhero and offer additional dice just as Power Sets.

Milestones: The last piece of the datafile puzzle, Milestones provide XP incentive for players to engage in storytelling and non-violent resources to increase Power Sets and retraining their hero. Iron Man’s Demon In A Bottle Milestone grants him 1 XP when he’s in a situation where he’s expected to drink alcohol and Daredevil gains 1 XP when he causes stress to an enemy who cannot see him.

When it’s time to drop dice, players select the dice according to their described action or reaction. While all the dice are dropped, not all of them will be used. At least two of the dice become the hero’s total and will be compared to the reacting roll (be it from a villain or the Watcher – AKA Gamemaster – simply rolling to thwart with laws of physics like gravity and reality). Another die is selected as the effect and its power is determined based on the size of the effect die. There’s much more to the process than that, but this is a review, not a reprint, dammit. Plot Points allow players to select additional dice, burst their effect dice against multiple opponents, and unlock additional features based on their individual hero. Any dice resulting in 1 become consequences for the Watcher to use against the heroes, but they also provide opportunities for the players to gain additional Plot Points. This is one of the major strengths of the game – there are no real penalties, only choices for players to take advantage of in other ways beyond dice rolls. The game encourages players to embrace difficulties and become empowered by them rather than held back.

Chapter 2: Playing the Game explains the concept of Events and Scenes, a predominantly Watcher-central chapter. Chapter 3: Taking Action breaks down the turn sequence by embracing the game’s comic book roots, simulating the panels of a comic as the basis for a single action. If it can be described in a single panel, it’s an action.

Chapter 4: Understanding Datafiles gets into the heart of the game: the heroes. How to apply all the components listed above, stepping back, gaining milestones, and so much more are found in here, including detailed descriptions of how individual Power Sets apply in the game. What I found here is a strong emphasis on players taking control of their characters as there are numerous devices and options available beyond simply tacking on more dice. If you’re looking to play the Marvel RPG for the first time, I would highly recommend playing one of the existing datafiles included in the back section of the book.

What’s left of the book remains for Watchers only. Chapter 5: Understanding Events breaks down the essential of game play for Watchers when the time has come for Hulk to smash, followed by the Breakout mini-event (or pre-published adventure, if you will) and a sampling of 23 heroes from the relatively unknown (who’s Armor?) to the infamous (Wolverine, Captain America, and Spider-Man).

As I mentioned before, there is very little of this RPG relatable to others save for many independent and story games seemingly becoming major inspiration for this major publication. Even damage is converted into a more abstract and appropriate stress to increase the dice rolled by the Watcher against heroes rather than reduce a score. The turn sequence is a civil hand-over from one player to the other, with rules for the Watcher to spend dice from the Doom Pool to cut in line and try to kick ass. Rather than try to explain the concepts behind many of these functions in a short review, I’m going to save both you and I the trouble and cut to the chase: buy this game!

OVERALL

Everything about it screams as a tribute to comic books, from the dimensions of the book (it looks just like a graphic novel) to the mechanics themselves, this is a game providing both action and character hand-in-hand as equals. Not only that, the mechanics allow characters as massive as the Hulk (though he’s not found in this book) to exist alongside Captain America without one dominating the other in battle. Dice rolls are more about success against your opponents than measurements in effect and for every hero capable of destroying a building with their bare hands, there are equal difficulties to balance out the character. I am incredibly impressed by the overall quality of the mechanics and presentation of this game; to put it in Marvel RPG terms, it’s Godlike d12.

At the time of writing this review, I have yet to actually run a game myself and have hopeful plans to do so once I get my other games cleared from the schedule. While it appears very fluid and balanced on paper, be prepared for a few hiccups at first. There is a lot for players and Watchers alike to keep track of, from Plot Points to Doom Pools to stress and more. The game recommends a series of additional tokens and tools when playing, such as poker chips for Plot Points, playing cards to keep track of turns in a round, and index cards for power applications such as complications and assets. It is definitely recommend to run the mini-event provided using the included datafiles before taking it up a notch and creating your own events and heroes. Otherwise, prepare to be dazzled, true believers!

RATINGS

Publication Quality: 10 out of 10
This is a damn fine looking book, printed to look like a graphic novel more than your average RPG softcover. Layout is superb with easy-to-read text, sidebars popping on the page, loads of bright colors, and so many pictures of the genre they’re fighting amongst themselves for space without overcrowding the book. This looks like a comic book teaching you how to play a game. And it’s incredibly cheap for a full color softcover book ($26 Canadian and we normally get screwed when it comes to book prices).

(A minor note on art credits: All the artwork in this book is credited to the “Marvel Bullpen” rather than a collection of individual artists. While all the work provided are reprints from actual comics, a list of the artists involved would have been in good taste considering the attention drawn to artist rights in comic books lately. Whether this is a choice of the publisher or Marvel Enterprises remains unseen – I suspect the latter of the two as most likely.)

Mechanics: 9 out of 10
If this game doesn’t win the ENnies award for Best Rules, Best New Game, or whatever they’ll call the top category this year, it’ll be nominated for sure. Every strand of this tapestry creates a unified experience perfect to the medium it strives to emulate by emphasizing character and action together. It’s a healthy blend of story games and action RPG relying on player-Watcher cooperation and teamwork while keeping the heroes awesome and incredibly super powered ass-kickers. While I would expect a bit of a steep learning curve for the first couple of sessions, this game should soar once you and your players get a handle on the mechanics.

Players have as many choices to make over the course of Events and Scenes as Watchers and it’s safe to say there is no simple way to play these heroes properly, creating a gaming experience unlike many others. My personal recommendation is to try out the existing characters provided in the back of the book or download those posted online before taking the leap to create (or recreating) your favorite Marvel hero.

Desire to Play: 10 out of 10
Reading games like these makes you wish there was an additional day in the week. By the time I got through the first chapter, my mechanical curiosity was peaked and I was itching to give this sucker a run for its money. Now all I need is the bloody time. Until then, it will sit on the top shelf of my bookcase, also known as the Must Play shelf.

Overall: 10 out of 10
Some believe there is no such thing as a perfect score and any review offering one must not understand the idea of critical thinking. Perhaps, but this review draws from the first principle of game design: Did the material achieve its goal to simulate the setting or original material and create a fun and exciting game? The answer is a profound and emphatic yes on all fronts. While the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game is far from being the only superhero RPG out there, it is an incredible tribute to the Marvel Universe and the characters who have made it the inspiration for all our childhoods.

This game is a remarkable achievement in game design in every aspect there is, even how the game has been laid out and published. Even if you never plan to run or play a game, if you’re a mechanics nut like I am, this is a must-have for your collection. If you’re a comic book fan, this is a must-have for your collection. If you’re a tabletop gamer, this is a must-have for your collection. And if this is the Basic Game, what else could be in store for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game down the road?

Excelsior!

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