This is my first review of an RPG book, and this time its the impressive Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game from Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. This is taken right from a post I made about it on a game forum, so it’s not particularly well organized. I think, however, that it gets it all across.
MHR is extremely different from most supers RPGs. Powers and other abilities are not rated in an objective, output-measured way, but rather they are rated by their plot significance. That comes in flavors from d4 (for things that are liabilities more than assets) to d12 (for things which are truly awesome to behold, i.e. Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor). Heroes put together a dice pool made of dice from their powers, distinctions (personality quirks or background details that are relevant), etc., etc., roll, take the highest rolling two dice for their Total and take the largest remaining die (in terms of size, not number rolled) for the Effect. The breadth of things that can be put into a dice pool is quite wide, including one’s own Physical, Mental, or Emotional Stress (also from d4 to d12); the Stress of an enemy; an Asset created by an ally like Invisible Woman’s forcefields d8; a Scene Distinction like Falling Boulders d10; an enemy’s Complication like All Webbed Up d8, etc., etc.
The dicepool represents all the plot factors in play, including environment, the emotional state of the heroes, knowledge/expertise in a certain domain, the previous actions of others, and, of course, the powers. So when a hero succeeds or fails, it’s an emotional result as much as it is a purely physical one. You know why they fight, in addition to just how. Part of your character’s background and story is in every roll. That lends itself extremely well to emotive role-playing.
That being said, the lack of objectivity makes for some strange-ness. The difference between Spider-Man’s Superhuman Strength d10 and Thor’s God-like Strength d12 is much less than you might expect. The universality of the mechanics (every roll produces an Effect Die that becomes or increases an Asset/Complication or Physical/Mental/Emotional Stress, or decreases/removes one of the same) means that everything feels quite same-y (as in Teleport doesn’t really have unique mechanics, and works exactly like Superhuman Speed or Acrobatics for most purposes).
The Powers aren’t that differentiated in and of themselves, but what does help differentiate them is the Special Effects (SFX) you attach to them. These are discrete effects that exist outside of the above-mentioned universal rules, usually in the form of dice pool manipulation or result manipulation, and they usually cost a Plot Point to activate. Plot Points are given out by the DM constantly, or can be earned by players by using a Distinction against themselves (including it in their dice pool as a d4), similar to Aspects/Compels in FATE.
For that reason, if you are averse to “disassociated mechanics,” then you may want to steer clear. One of the important ways a player can gain PP is by activating a Limit which shuts down their powers or SFX. So Captain America’s player voluntarily has Cap lose his shield in order to get a PP, and must roll to attempt to recover it. The player is thus both actor and writer for their character.
The game is extremely effective at hitting that somewhat overblown, somewhat melodramatic comic book style just right. People tend to get into their characters as they pursue their Milestones, little events that fit into a larger character arc which each grants XP. The largest shortcoming is that there is no point-buy character generation mini-game. There is random chargen, but it suffers from the same issues as all random chargen schemes. The default method of building chars is just by eyeballing their abilities and proficiencies and assigning a reasonable die. This works for most groups, so long as the DM trims down on excesses so everyone feels like they’re on a relatively even keel. However, even great power discrepancies are somewhat mitigated by the fact that those rolling lower dice are more likely to roll nat 1s, which are Opportunities, which bring additional PP. In practice, however, it’s better to have bigger dice, since larger Effect Dice are typically the key to handling powerful opposition.
OK, that’s the main body of the review, now time for MHR’s marks!
- Innovation: Milestones, dice pools, the Doom Pool, everything about MHR is fascinating and fun, and the system is flexible and robust. 5/5
- Execution: Delivers an amazing comic book romp in play, but lack of mechanical variety and point-buy chargen keeps it away from a full score. 4/5
- Writing: The book is succinct, with lots of sidebars to explain things, but nothing that got me excited to play or would be good for a re-read. 3/5
- Look: The layout and art is classic Marvel good-ness, lots of beautiful action poses and the illustrations used in explaining dice mechanics are colorful and effective. 5/5
Overall: 4.25, and high marks for value, at just $20 for the paperback ($13.88 right now on Amazon), and $10 for the PDF on DriveThru RPG. Hm, maybe Value should be another category?