A Heroic Experience: Some Time with the Marvel RPG

A Heroic Experience: Some Time with the Marvel RPG

I’ve been raving about Marvel for some time to my friends. I playtested and knew that is was my kind of superhero game.  There are several reviews of Marvel as a product (including this one by Critical Hits) which I won’t replicate. What I’ll try to do briefly, is convey the experience of Marvel.  I’ve played several games, and possess a good feel of the games emotional and mechanical beats, as well the overall flow of the game.

Marvel looks  strange to RPG veterans  What we assume is necessary simply has no presence in the game. In fact, much of what I love about Marvel rests in what it chooses to ignore:  no character attributes, no initiative, no special combat rules, no HP/damage track. IT breaks the mold, but it also  fits what a comic game needs.  Here’s what I think: giving the Hulk something as puny as HP to represent his toughness or encapsulating Quicksilver’s speed in a standard initiative ranking system is silly. How fast is Wolverine’s regeneration, exactly?

Superhero comics describe a world of  innate absurdity that numbers fail to capture.  Trying to cage the inherent absurdity of a Marvel  comic in mere numbers or complex rules systems slows the game but more importantly detracts from the overall flow of the game. There is a joy in creating a superhero simulation where you have described a fictional character and her capabilities with precision, but I think there is even greater joy in a game  flowing from panel to panel and building super-heroic actions quickly.  For this reason, other super-hero games have entertained my while not fully satisfying my needs. In my ideal comic game I speak the langauge of comics; my table constructs super-heroic sentences which we collide into each other.  I get to do this with the Marvel.

Any action you take looks something like this:  Describe what you are doing, and link what your character can do — her skills, powers, and distinctions –into the action, pulling in dice dependent on the what gets pulled in. You construct the “body” of your action, and then you roll all the dice contained in that body.  Whatever opposes you builds the body of  their reaction in the same way, then rolls too. You both take your highest score  and the winner gets to hit the loser with the biggest die remaining as damage (“stress”), which can be physical, emotional or mental.  That has power and elegance on its own, but it gets better:  when trouble comes your way or you decide to give yourself trouble, you get plot points.  You can use these points to modify how the dice in your action/reaction body behave. Each character has his or her own set of SFX and limits that can be further tweaked and used to alter the body of action/reaction and to spend/gain plot points.

If it were just a die pool game I’d be unexcited by Marvel. The underlying economy and character-specific power sets and engines (specifcally, how each character gains and converts plot points) brings the game to life.  Black Panther plays very differently than Spider-man who plays very different from the Thing.  You’d think that, in a game without Strength or Agility, in a game without its own combat system, that these two would just be pools of dice, but you’d be totally wrong.  You find when you play the game that, wow, Spider-man actually plays like you’d expect, and the engine that drives the character rewards you for playing the character like himself.  The game gives you the opportunity to have as interesting a conflict trying to convince Mary Jane to wait just five more minutes as it does fighting Electro (which is probably the reason you need that five extra minutes).

I’ll share one of my favorite moments in playtest with you to give you a feel.

Power is out in the city and there’s been a breakout at the Raft.  Iron Man arrives on the scene, as do Woleverine and Spiderman.  After helping Wolverine clear out a mob, he heads down into the depths of the Raft to find the  power generators,thinking that power needs top come back to the Raft ASAP to contain this super-villain breakout.

Arriving at the generator, Tony takes a look at system and grimaces.  It’s a Stark generator, but ancient. He makes a mental note to sell S.H.I.E.L.D. the latest and greatest as he starts wiring his suit into the system.  Tony is a bit 0f a hard-headed futurist, so he’s going to go right ahead with this even though it’s not the best idea he’s ever had.  He shuts  down most of the armor’s weapons systems, redirecting power into his now-modified repulsors.  The Raft’s power grid is pretty well-blasted though, so it’s harder than it should be to get started. Flowing repulsor power into the generator, he sees a little bit of result, but too little and too slow. He could slow-drip power at this rate, but he’d be done only after all the prisoners have left.  Time to crank it up.  Tony remembers some cutting edge tech that he’s been wanting to implement and makes a few adjustments.  He pours more juice into the system…and receives massive electrical feedback.  This model of generator is even crappier than he remembered! The suit has protected Tony from the worst of it, but he’s still not going to survive if he stays part of this massive electrical current for too long.

He shunts powers from repulsors to the unibeam, and in one desperate boost, reverses the energy flow and brings the power back online. Security weapon systems come online to help out the other heroes topside, and the cells now have enough power to hold those who have escaped.  It would be a great time for a drink right about now.  Maybe as soon as the suit comes back online?

This happened in the midst of other fights, fluidly, spontaneously and easily.  Didn’t need extra rules, didn’t need extra anything.  The system just handled that while Spider-man fought Carnage and Wolverine fought a super-powered mob (and eventually Crusher Creel).  All the things that Marvel didn’t have let us create the “fight” with the generator using the same model as every other conflict, and the character “engine” of Iron Man gave the character plenty of options to go into the conflict with.

It’s clear that I’m recommending Marvel to you, but more than that: I recommend that you play Marvel, even if it looks weird to you.  It might not be what you’re looking for if you need that detail, but I feel it’s worth it to be familiar with it’s flow, which I really enjoy.

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