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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A few more words about the Marvel Heroic Role Playing game

So, I am continuing to speak about the new Marvel RPG from a first impressions point of view.  I will get a good playtest run this weekend when I attend the launch party at Labyrinth Games on Sunday.  But, since I have the PDF I have wanted to give my pre-play impressions of the game.

Sequentially, the book does not talk about character creation right at the beginning.  There are a lot of basic concepts in the game discussed first as well as detailed explorations of how various game mechanics work, how the game is played through action scenes and transition scenes (the game really gives the feel of creating a comic book story) and how to take actions in those scenes.

However, the way I flip through things is different than going to cover to cover.  I keep a bookmark slowly progressing through the book, but I'm constantly jumping around to see other interesting things.  So, as I mentioned yesterday, I jumped to the end to see the 23 Marvel heroes statted out in the basic book. 

While that is a solid and representative sample, and plenty to play through the "Event" included with the book (perhaps I can post later on how the "adventure/module" structure for the game is structured around these "events"), everyone is going to be missing one or more of their favorite heroes.  Also, plenty of people will want to create their own heroes and strike off in quite unofficial/"What If" directions.

The game well provides for both contingencies.  On the one hand, Margaret Weis Productions has a fairly aggressive production schedule for their "Events" planing to bring out Civil War, Annihilation, and Age of Apocalypse.  Each of those are likely to be packed with character write ups.  In part this is because the game aims to satisfy those individuals who always wanted to play their favorite hero.  So, if you want to be Hawkeye, or Nightcrawler, or The Silver Surfer, all of those official write ups are coming this year.

On the other hand, the game makes it reasonably easy to create your own character, or to come up with a playable version of your favorite, but unreleased, character following the rules and models provided.  Hero characters are defined by five key traits: Affiliations, Distinctions, Power Sets, Specialties, and Milestones.  Combined, these build a character that is complex, versitile, and very role play ready.

In brief, these traits act in the following manner:

Affiliations tell you if the person works best alone, as a buddy, or in a team.  Then, based on how the hero is acting in a scene he or she has a better or worse die to roll in their dice pool (a set of dice you build out of your traits to accomplish actions or to react to things in scenes).  These are not immutable traits and can change and shift over time.  So, for example, Captain America, at the start of the Avenger's Disassembled Arc, operates best as part of a team and lest well on his own.  His peak performance has been trained to operate working with the Avengers, and when they disband, he has a real game incentive to try and get them, or some team, back together.  On the other hand, heroes like Wolverine and Daredevil have their peak performace solo, and operate less well as a member of a team.  Marvel Team Up veteran Spiderman is best as a buddy.  So, by ordering your affiliations, you already know a lot about your hero and it has a very Marvel feel.

Distinctions are pieces of information, catch phrases, titles, or other words or phrases that describe the essence of the hero.  Depending on a given situation, they may count for or against the hero.  When they are a positive influence, they add a "good" die (d8 in a system that goes from d4 to d12) to the dice pool, when they have a potentially negative influence, they add a d4, but also give the hero a Plot Point (which is the action currency of the game that allows heroes to really shine when it counts).  For example, Captain America has as his three distinctions "Lead by Example", "Man Out of Time", and "Sentinel of Liberty."  These traits add flavor to the hero and give flexible and interesting in-game mechanics that help shape play and allow character rewards for making in-character choices that a player would avoid if merely playing the "game."

Power Sets are the heart of the super hero identity as they represent inherent powers, technological or magical equipment, or whatever else (training, alien physiology, etc.) that makes the hero powerful.  The game suggests that you should be able to stat out a hero with no more than two Power Sets.  As I have thought through various Marvel heroes and seen how they did the 23 for the basic game, I have to say they seem to have done a good job with their rule of thumb.  Within a power set can be a number of individual powers that are somehow linked (using Captain America again, he has Super-Soldier Program as one set, and his Vibranium-Alloy Shield as his other).  The powers that make up the Power Set are each rated at a die level from d6 (ho hum, but allowing something a regular person can't do) to d12 (Godlike).  Generally, for any action, only one die from any given Power Set can go in the dice pool.  So, if you have two sets, you can general apply more powers in a roll.  On the other hand, each power set also includes one or more special effects that help customize the powers, and also limits which may interrupt or prevent the use of the power (e.g. Cap can lose his shield) until some condition is met.  The game gives good guidelines for describing and using powers that would appear to easily handle anything you have ever seen in the Marvel Universe, and if it not there, there are clear guidelines for developing new things to go in Power Sets.

On the one hand, the power curve seems a bit flat, with only 4 levels of powers possible (ho hum, Enhanced, Superhuman, Godlike).  However, the combinations, addition of special effects, and combination with other traits really allows this simple spread of power levels to describe a very diverse set of heroes without the need to have every possible attribute statted out in dozens or hundreds of gradiated levels.  The point is not to try to figure out the physics of superheroes and model that, but to model the way that things work in comic book stories.  The play reports I have seen and my own impression of the simple elegance of the system support that MHRP does just that.

After Power Sets are Specialties.  Theses are the "skills" of the game.  They are few in number and broadly defined.  You get a die if you are an Expert (d8) or a Master (d10) at something important.  There are, at my count, 13 skill Specialties offered in the game.  The focus is on things that come up in comic books, things like Crime, Science, Combat, Tech, Medical, etc.  The focus is on relevant playability, not modeling a complex real world inventory of what people can do.  It is possible that some other specialties could come into play at some point, but really, these do the job of handling your Marvel character.  They also allow for interesting interactions with powers and other traits to flexibly deal with challenges in the game. 

Finally, there are Milestones, which are triggering events that provide the hero with experience.  This is one of the more innovative parts of the character description.  These are not unique, as they have appeared in earlier games (the one that I am familiar with is the Lady Blackbird steampunk scenario where experience "keys" are similarly described).  However, using these milestones to describe possible story arcs and rewards for characters is new as far as the Marvel Universe.  Each Milestone is described by a 1xp, 3xp and 10xp level.  The 1xp level could be a thing that can happen often and the character can gain xp frequently by meeting the terms of that level.  Cap has two milestones (again, a hero may have one or two) and his first one is, for the included scenario, "Mentor the Hero."  If he chooses to aid a speficic hero he gets 1xp the first time he does it.  But there are lots of heroes to help, so he can pick up a fair amount of xp by being helpful.  The 3 xp is a once per scene trigger.  It is a bigger, scene defining moment.  One of Caps is to earn 3 xp when he ais a stressed-out (i.e. out of commission due to physical, emotional or mental stress) hero in recovery.  The 10xp is a defining decision by the hero and may be hit only once per Act.  For Cap, one of his is to get 10xp when he either gives leadership of th team to your chose hero or to force your chosen hero to resign or step down from the team. 

For me, these Milestones are really powerful role playing tools.  The xp rewards allow for purchase of advantages along the arc of an Event, so they have real game implications for success or failure, and they shape the character's behavior to deal with certain issues along the path of the overall story.  While all of the heroes in the book come with predefined Milestones, it is clear that each new important stage of a game/campaign, should be marked with the GM (called The Watcher) and the players coming up with Milestones for all the characters that make sense to the story they plan to tell together. 

Taken together, I see the character system as innovative, comprehensive, flexible and fun.  It is also demanding on a certain level, in that it requires real thought and collaboration between the players and The Watcher to make things like the Milestones and Distinctions work.  However, I think the collaboration it demands builds a better, more trusting and richer play experience.

If I have time, more tomorrow.