Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts on Marvel Super Heroes RPG (Part 1)

As I posted a while ago, I ran into a group of guys playing the old TSR Marvel Super Heroes game down at the food court. They invited me to play, but work commitments kept me from accepting their offer until today.

Let me preface by saying that I had fun. The GM did a great job of making me feel like I was playing in a living, breathing comic book world that was unfolding all around my character. There was a lot of sandbox gaming going on, with a whole bunch of leads popping up all around us. We could have gone and investigated any of them and I'm sure they all would have turned up a bunch of adventures.

I say that because I don't want it to seem like I didn't enjoy gaming with this friendly group of guys. I really did. However, I'm not sure that Marvel Supers is my favorite game. This is likely to be a longer post than it needs to be. I'll try to keep it to two parts.

I used to own the Marvel Super Heroes Basic Boxed set. Man, did I save up and work hard to get that stupid thing. I was a kid and there was no internet, meaning that not only was it hard for me to scrape up the funds, I then had the added challenge of trying to find a copy of the game. I probably spent more time trying to get Marvel Super Heroes than any other game, toy, or “fun” thing I own. You can imagine my disappointment when I didn't like the game.

To be fair, I only actually played it once, running some of the sample characters against a mini-adventure that came in the back of the book. I couldn't have been much older than 12 or 13, no expert on either RPGs or comic books. The rules really encouraged you to play existing characters from the Marvel Universe and came with stats that seemed to cover every comic book super hero I could think of (minus Superman and his DC friends, of course). With that in mind, I let my neighbors and my cousin pick whatever characters they liked and we just went at the scenario as written.

They picked Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, and Silver Surfer. For those of you not familiar with comics, let me help you out. You know Spider-man, of course. He's sort of a moderately powerful guy in the world of supers. Then, there's the Hulk. You also know him, but it's important to understand that, depending on how angry he is, Hulk is potentially the strongest character in the universe. A universe that includes people who can literally throw the moon at you. Finally, the Silver Surfer. Without getting too deep in needless detail, one can argue that Silver Surfer is more powerful than Superman or Thor. That's the most famous hero EVER and a deity, respectively.

Going against Spidey, an infinitely strong monster, and a guy who can stand in the middle of a supernova and not bat an eye? Two crooks and a guy dressed like a scorpion. 

Hey, it's not my fault! I didn't know that much about the game and didn't give a lot of thought to the relative strengths of these characters. I was used to level-based systems, where every character had a number that showed how powerful he was. This game rated abilities with adjectives, for crying out loud! Spidey's agility was something like “Amazing” or “Incredible.” The Silver Surfer's main ability was rated as “Shift Z” or some other abstract description, proving that even the authors of this game couldn't think of as many adjectives as they had power levels.

There are many people who claim they loved the Marvel attribute system. I'm not one of them. I get the concept here. They're trying to make the system feel less gamey and more like a comic book by removing numbers and replacing them with descriptive words. The trouble is the words themselves. I challenge the casual reader to tell me which is better, “Amazing,” “Monstrous,” or “Incredible.” Yeah, you might guess correctly. The order that the authors placed these stats might make perfect sense to you. But, then again, they might not. Change them into numbers, and there is never a chance you'll get it wrong. 8 will always be more than 5.

Anyway, the fight went something like this. Spider-man drops in on a couple of jewel-thieves mid-crime. After a few seconds of witty banter, Spidey wraps the bad guys up in a web and the battle is over. But wait! There's a surprise! The Scorpion is hiding in the back of the getaway van. Bursting from his hiding place, Scorpion raises his poisonous tail and...notices the Silver Surfer floating above the alley. The Surfer snaps his fingers and the Scorpion is blasted into oblivion. End of adventure.

As stupidly simple as that was, I remember that it took a long time. You could chalk some of that up to inexperience, but I remember the Marvel system being kind of slow. Tonight, I got to experience it again, a much older and more experienced gamer.

You know what? It was still slow.

Everything in Marvel is resolved on a chart. It's not the worst system in the world. You cross reference your stat or power, roll d%, and look on the chart. The results are color-coded with white as a failure, green as a success, yellow as a better success, and red is the best result. That's not hard, I know. I used to play Rolemaster; I don't mind a chart.

You know what's faster than a chart, though? A number. It's the same as the ability score thing. I can learn the difference between Monstrous and Colossal, I can also learn what a yellow means when attacking vs a green. With a number, though, I don't need to learn anything. If my sheet says, say, roll d10 and add 5, I can do so easily. Then, depending on the system, the GM can tell me whether my action worked or not.

It might sound like I'm picking nits here, but I don't think so. Remember that we're talking about a game that is trying to emulate the action of comic books. If any game system should be fast and easy to use, it's a super hero game system. Comic books feature lots of fights. These fights, for the most part, are divided up into large illustrations that tell the story in a kind of snapshot style. Comics don't feature a lot of characters missing, panel after panel, dragging on through seeming stalemates. The Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying Game does.

I will forgive a supers game for slow, detailed character generation. A truth about almost every supers RPG I've ever played, even if I didn't care for the system, is that character generation is a lot of fun. It's a big part of the game, coming up with your own super hero. Also, in a game that faithfully emulates comics, character death should be rare. That makes me more forgiving of a drawn-out character creation. This isn't OD&D, where you're making new characters all the time.

Combat, though? It should be all WHAM! ZAP! SLICE! Done. Charts slow things down, at least until you learn to use them, and have no place in a super hero game. I have a theory about the chart. It feels like the product of a second or third generation of roleplaying games. It can only exist in a world where roleplaying game concepts are already firmly rooted in the minds of the designers. It feels like being different just for the sake of it. I can imagine designers asking themselves, “What would a game be like if it had a single chart to handle all the mechanics?” and then writing a game around that.

Instead, a better product would have come from looking at the source materials and trying to translate them into a game that remained as faithful to their feel and spirit as possible. Sadly, I don't think this was done here.

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