This past year, Marvel Heroic Roleplay got great reviews, and pulled in a number of awards. Between the buzz and some of the names on the design team, I was excited to try out this game. Once I got a chance to borrow Matt’s copy, I was certainly intrigued by what I saw, and it only increased my interest in playing. A couple weeks ago, we got our first chance to give it a try.
Stuff I Liked
There’s just a visceral thrill in grabbing a handful of dice and letting them all crash to the table. The downside is usually adding up all the results, which MHRP neatly sidesteps by having you pick only a couple of the dice to use in the result. As with many other things in the game, however, you can pay Plot Points to both include more dice in the pool before rolling, or to add more to the tally afterward. This gets you the coolness of the dice pool mechanic, without the biggest drawback, and creates one of the main sinks in the central point economy of the game.
Instead of trying to define every little ability the characters might have, the features in MHRP are more general. This lets you get away with a very simple one page character sheet. It also means the characters that players can make, and the actions they can take, are by and large constrained only by their imaginations. If you can make a justification for using a character feature on a roll, you get the associated die.
Since the central mechanic of the game demands that the players describe how they’re using their abilities in order to justify their use, it creates a narrative almost by default. That idea’s built right into the core of the game, so no matter whether you’re blasting an enemy, negotiating with a politician, or healing an ally, you’re automatically describing the action. Thus, the game mostly avoids the pitfall of bringing the story to a screeching halt each time there’s a need to roll dice.
From the GM’s side, the layout of adventures encourages you to organize them like a story, even using names like Acts and Scenes. This might seem like a little thing, but simply getting the GM thinking in plot-based units goes a long way toward ensuring a coherent narrative. Improv GMs might find it a bit constraining, but I think it would be a good framework for those used to a more dungeon crawl-esque game.
Lots of games grant you experience (or some other reward) for “playing your character.” MHRP, however, defines exactly what that means for each character. The Milestones mechanic essentially lays out a set of instances in which a character gets XP. The more tension inducing, character defining, or ethical dilemma inspiring the action is, the more points it’s worth.
There are also plot-based Milestones for each Act. These encourage the character to get involved in the story, and keep it moving. Since each character can follow two tracks of Milestones at a time, they have the chance to develop their character arc and the plot simultaneously, and get rewarded for doing so.
Distinctions vs Aspects
I love Fate. The biggest problem I have with that system, however, is remembering aspect compels so that I can earn (or give out, depending on which side of the table I’m on) Fate Points. MHRP neatly sidesteps that problem with Distinctions.
Distinctions essentially are aspects. When they’re working for the character, they add a d8 to the pool. Instead of getting rewarded for doing something disadvantageous yet characterful, though, distinctions allow you to substitute a d4 when they’re working against you. Not only does that reduce your odds of rolling well, but it also increases your odds of rolling a one, which causes the “Doom Pool” to grow, representing the escalating opposition against the PCs.
Since using the d4 is the player’s choice, this offers a ready safety valve for players who run out of Plot Points. One of the other major sources of Plot Points, rolling ones, is also out of the hands of players or GM, but the roll serves as an instant reminder. The combination of these two take much of the onus off the GM for coming up with ways to keep the point economy chugging.
Built-in Power Constraints
I’m not especially concerned with character balance in a system. Still, I was a little dubious when I read that there were very few limits on the powers a player could give a character during generation. You’re limited to two “Power Sets”, thematic groupings of powers, but beyond that you could load them up with all sorts of powers, all rated at d12. You can also add as many “Specialties” (skills) as you want, rated as high as you want. You’ll know you’re pushing it, says the book, when the other players start to give you dirty looks.
However, that’s not the whole story, I was glad to learn. You’re limited to using one power from each set to add the associated die to the pool. If you want to add more, you need to pay Plot Points. You can also only add one Specialty die to the pool. You’re also limited in how many of the dice rolled get included in the result. If you want to add more, you guessed it, you need to pay Plot Points. So, instead of limiting character choice during creation, characters are put on a more or less even playing field by the dice limits and Plot Point economy during the game.
Stuff that Seemed Clunky
A surprising amount of time was spent picking which dice to include in the pool. In some games this is a bit more pre-defined. In MHRP it can change for each action, depending on how you want to describe the effects, and which “SFX” (Special Effects) you want to activate. Perhaps this gets quicker with experience, but it was a bit of a speed-bump.
Instead of remembering to Compel the PCs, in MHRP I had to remember to aim them toward Milestones. Unfortunately, I think this resulted in too few XP for most of the characters. Hopefully this one gets easier too.
Words of Advice
More Complicated Than You Think
Don’t make the mistake of overestimating the simplicity of the system. There’s more complexity there than you think. As we played, we found several little rules we’d missed that had big effects on the outcomes.
Don’t Pull Your Punches
I was surprised at how adversarial the game is, with the GM given specific powers to use against the PCs. However, just as the PCs are constrained by their Plot Points, the GM (or Watcher) is constrained by the ebb and flow of the Doom Pool. Don’t have the Watcher characters hold back in some attempt to keep things fair. That’s already taken care of by the Plot Point/Doom Pool economy. Play the NPCs all out, according to their personalities.