Post-PAX: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

I didn’t realize whom I was speaking to at first, but I spent 10 minutes talking to Margaret Weiss about the Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game by TSR while finally ogling the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game. To my surprise, she knew it! “I always wanted to run a game”, I told her, “and I thought that the card mechanic would be a lot of fun, but I could never find anyone else that was interested.”

Thanks to the internet, I’m pretty sure than I can run a Marvel game at last but that card mechanic is still a little awkward. The new book looks great and seems to offer a lot of bang for the buck, so I bought it. Mrs Weiss was kind enough to autograph it for me as well.

I’ve finished my first pass on the book and it was a steal for $20.

The Basic Mechanic

Damn… does this game love dice or what? Marvel Heroic Roleplaying debuts a revised version of the Cortex system known as Cortex Plus. I’ve heard of Cortex, but I haven’t seen it before.

In the Cortex system, you build your dice pool from various sections of your data (character) sheet and roll. You choose two die from that pool and add their results for your check result. Then you choose a third die from the pool to represent the strength of your effect. However, the strength of your effect is represented by the size of the die rather than the result that you rolled on it. There is a little strategy her in which you may choose to use a smaller die toward your check result in order to use the larger die as your effect die, even if the larger die rolled a higher result. It takes a little judgement to guess how best to use your die pool and there are many ways to manipulate the pool in Cortex Plus.

There seem to be no static values for checks in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. The Watcher (DM) rolls to opposed the player’s actions.

The Book

I was also surprised on how small the RPG actually is. The first half of the book is called the Operations Manual and it only runs for 125 pages.

The first 30 pages describe the basic mechanic, with examples. The following 30 pages cover the Watcher’s end role in playing out the mechanics of the game. Reading these two sections really feels like diving into the deep end of the RPG mechanics.

Next we have 56 pages going much more in-depth on the features of character data files and descriptions for the different powers commonly found in the Marvel Universe. A mere 8 pages are set aside for creating your own events (adventures or campaigns).

Being a comic-book RPG, there is a lot of good art throughout the book,but there are also ample sidebars. As small as I just made the operations manual sound, it is actually smaller!

The remaining 100 pages of the book are a sample event based ona recent story arc in Marvel Comics, The Breakout. The Event includes data files on dozens of heroes, villains, and other threats. Combined with the rules, they make a handy reference for seeing how a game is put together.

First Impressions

Reading through the book for the first time was an odd experience. By the time I finished, I was certain of how to create and structure a campaign drawn from my collection of 90’s comics but some of the basic mechanic had eluded me. Learning how to assemble your dice pool is easy enough, but I took a bit of page flipping to understand a few common ways that the pool may be manipulated.

Eventually, I went online and downloaded cheat sheets used at a launch event. Given my initial confusion, I can see the die pool being a little intimidating for new or casual players. These sheets will help, but I expect spending part of the first session rolling dice through a few examples in order to demonstrate.

Constructing an event should be dead-simple if you are working from an existing comic-book arc. As long as you are sticking to high-adventure plots, you can forgo a lot of the subtler practices of storytelling and blow stuff up then send in the heroes to clean up. That particular style and tone is quite a palette cleanser after focusing on D&D for so long. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has me itching to pull out some of my short boxes and give this a run.

It seems to me that the hardest part of Event writing will be creating hero data files. The game assumes that players will be taking ont he roles of established Marvel heroes. You can play generic versions of the characters, and their powers, but for longer games where it may be appropriate to earn and spend XP it will be more rewarding to really play up Milestones.

Milestones are a character and plot developement device. You’ve probably seen the like of them before in other games. Milestones outline short, middle, and long-term goals that give players something to shoot for. They can be based on the characters or on the event. In the latter, they are visible a visible railroad that rewards the players for staying on track and can offer unlockable resources.

Milestones for characters can be used as a role-playing aid and I really love how they are implemented for the Black Widow (BR 58, “Black Ops Betrayal” and “Deadly Romance”). If played out effectively, no other player can be certain of the Widow’s true allegiance or convinced of her sincere intentions. The capstone event of each milestone can be played either way–you may either lay to rest or exploit those doubts in a defining moment that would reshape how the character is written were this really a comic book.

If you only have a moment to check out the book in a store, I recommend that you also check out the data file for Iron Man (BR 76). “Demon in a Bottle” deals with Tony’s long addiction to alcohol. “Bleeding Edge Tech” gives you XP for trashing your armor.

I am startled at how much Marvel Heroic Roleplaying reminds me of Fate. The die mechanic is very different, but the use of character and scene Distinctions feel very much the same and the use of Plot Points echos Fate as well. Once the two were linked in my mind, I found that I could easily reinterpret the data file for Fate. That opens up a world of possibilities for the Marvel DM who wants to play with it.

This looks like a great game for running for only 1-2 people. Not every game needs to be a team-based game and it looks as though the Watcher’s die pool (called the Doom Pool) scales to match the number of players all by itself. Once you embrace the aesthetic of comic-book storytelling, running the game for fewer than 4-6 people seems like a natural fit.


I’m glad that I bought this and I am salivating at the chance to write and run for it. In fact, I am going to dig out my Age of Apocalypse comics right now and start plotting. I have a collection of 90’s comics that will keep me in story ideas for years if I choose to use them. Marvel is only a fraction of my collection, but I don’t see any barriers to running a Justice League, BPRD, or Valiant Comics game using Marvel Heroic Roleplaying rules.

Given the level of inspiration that I felt reading the book, I’ld say that this is more than worth the $20, even if you can’t run a regular game on it. Once you have the rules down, I think that it will make a fantastic, platform for one-shots and limited engagement games.


~ by Hunter Rose on April 15, 2012.

2 Responses to “Post-PAX: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying”

  1. Just to be the devil’s advocate… it didn’t debut Cortex Plus. I’m not familiar enough with all the MWP products to know which one did, but it’s been around. It is far and away an improvement on the original Cortex system used in the Whedon-verse games.

    That said, yeah, this game is pretty awesome. I also can’t wait to try it with my local group.

    • I don’t remember how I had the impression that this was the debut of Cortex Plus. To be honest, I’ve done a lot of link-hopping in the last week trying to discover more about it and to assemble some basic resources. I was very surprised to see all the different games that MWP has published using Cortex! I’m not exactly living under a rock anymore when it comes to RPGs. I guess instead of living under a rock, I live inside a bubble… and a tiny one at that! 😉

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