Supervillains are breaking out of the containment facility known as The Raft! The Scarlet Witch has altered reality, creating a world where mutants are in control! Annihilus is waging an omnicidal war on the universe!
There have been a couple of different roleplaying games based on Marvel Comics over the years and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is the most recent. It was released this year by Margaret Weis Productions, a company that has produced several games based on licensed properties including Leverage and Smallville.
The focus of this game is to directly emulate popular storylines from the comics. The Basic Game comes with the Breakout scenario, the story in which the New Avengers got back together, and Civil War, Annihilation and Age of Apocalypse are among scenarios that have been announced for future release. It's not just about the storylines, but the characters. Datafiles are provided for 24 different Marvel characters, everyone from Spiderman to Wolverine to Iron Man to Luke Cage to Ms Marvel to the Fantastic Four and half a dozen different X-men.
This will be the first game I cover that uses the Cortex system, featured in all Margaret Weis Productions games. You will generally have a pool of dice of varying sizes. You then roll the dice, find the two with the highest numbers and add together for a final result. If you beat your opponent then you can use remaining dice as Effect Dice, representing ways you have changed the situation to your advantage or damage you've done to your enemy that will allow you to roll even more dice later on. Most of the mechanics involve increasing your die pool or changing the kind of dice you roll. Each Cortex game tends to be differently flavoured around a certain kind of conflict and narrative. While Smallville is all about emulating TV-style character interaction and Leverage about setting up the perfect plan, MHR is all about climactic superhero smackdowns and making the tough decisions superheroes make.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying doesn't actually have any hard and fast guidelines for character generation as of yet. The idea is that you're either supposed to play one of the 24 characters provided with the basic game or you make a new character using the existing ones as a rough guideline. It's actually not that difficult to make your own character from scratch although I do kind of wish that 1) there was something more concrete to work with and 2) the game came with just a few more characters out of the box, especially since there are a few noticeable absences like Thor, Hulk and Nightcrawler. Actually, that reminds me of another issue I have: lack of statted villains. The game does come with a number of villains to go with the Breakout scenario, but none of them are particularly high profile. No Dr Doom, Magneto, Green Goblin or Red Skull, basically if you don't know who Carnage, Count Nefaria and Sauron (no, not the Lord of the Rings dude, this one is different) are then you're a bit out of luck. I imagine we'll see datafiles on the more prominent Marvel villains at some point, but again, some more out of the box would have been nice.
Step 1) Who Am I Making?
Rather than coming up with my own superhero, I'm going to use the system to make an established Marvel character. Which character is that going to be? Well, I tossed a couple of options around, before finally deciding on Squirrel Girl, aka the most powerful character in the Marvel Universe ever.
Doreen Green started off as a simple mutant who was somewhat agile, could talk to squirrels and with clever use of her powers was able to defeat Dr Doom. Since then, she's become the centre of a running gag where she takes down some of Marvels' most powerful villains, including Thanos, the Mandarin and Ego the Living Planet. She's also the leader of a team of superheroes based in the Great Lakes region with a constantly fluctuating name. She's one of Marvel's more lighthearted characters and she should be fun to stat up.
Step 2) Affiliations
Superheroes are often defined by how they operate. Some are loners, some work better with a friend and others work best either leading or being part of a team. Your Affiliation Die is the die you basically get to add to every roll and is determined by who you are operating with, whether you're going Solo, teamed up with a Buddy or acting within a Team.
I have a d10, a d8 and a d6 to allocate to each affiliation. Squirrel Girl works primarily in a Team environment, both seeking to join the Avengers in her first appearance and eventually going on to lead a crew of her own. However, her Solo achievements are the stuff of legend, so I'm going to put the d8 there. That leaves Buddy with d6.
Step 3) Distinctions
Distinctions are short descriptors of your character that will allow you to add dice in situations where they apply. When a distinction applies, you may choose to add a d8 to your dice pool or a d4. Why use a d4 when bigger numbers are better? Firstly, you get a Power Point for doing so. These may be spent in various ways to activate special abilities or add more dice to your pool. Secondly, whenever you roll a 1 on a die the GM has a chance to use it as an Opportunity, which means that the Doom Pool, a special pool of dice they can use in a variety of nasty ways, gets larger and nastier, but they also need to pay you PP to do so. Thus it's a great way of building up those points. So for example, Wolverine's player might choose to roll a d4 while fighting a villain using I'm the Best There is at What I Do, representing how he's so sure of victory that he's likely to get overconfident and make a mistake. On the other hand, Thing's player might not need the points and will just add the d8 to his pool when using It's Clobbering Time! They're also just a useful way of giving everyone else the sense of who your character is and how they operate.
I need to define three Distinctions for Squirrel Girl. I'm going to start off by giving her the Cute But Deadly distinction, reflecting that she might seem harmless and silly but is anything but. Friend of the Squirrels represents her relationship with her greatest allies. I'm also going to create the Resourceful Leader distinction, as she's quite smart and capable.
Step 4) Power Sets
What is a superhero without their powers? Power Sets are collections of Power Traits the character possesses like super strength or flight that add dice to pools when used and come with associated Special Effects and Limits. Special effects might give you bonuses to using your powers in certain ways or cool tricks you can perform, while limits will negatively impact your powers in certain situations, sometimes giving a PP in exchange.
I'm going to start off by creating a power set for Squirrel Girl based off her ability to summon and direct swarms of her namesake, called Squirrel Mobs. This will come with just a single Power Trait, Control Squirrels, which I will set at d8. Now I need to add a few SFX and Limits to this. I'm going to add the Area Effect SFX. This lets me affect multiple opponents, adding a d6 to the pool and letting me keep an Effect Die for each one. I am also going to give her Furry Hordes, which steps up the effect die and lets me add d6 when I use the power to create Assets, effects that let me roll more dice later on, in this case the mob of squirrels I have just summoned. For limits, I'm going to give this one No Squirrels Here, which gives Squirrel Girl 1PP every time she chooses to Shut down the power, representing the fact that there are no squirrels to be found.
Now for something a little more interesting. Her second power set, Squirrely Mutant, will have a few more power traits. She will have Enhanced Strength, Enhanced Reflexes and Leaping all at d8, plus a d6 in Enhanced Senses, representing her superhuman ability in those areas. I think this is a great place to create an SFX that lets her pull the shocking victories she is known for. This SFX, which I'm calling It's Canon Now, lets her spend a PP and 2d12 from the Doom Pool to immediately end the current scene on the condition that she's operating Solo. This is normally something restricted to the GM but I think it's the most fitting way of modelling her. Now for some limits. I'm going to give her the Mutant limit, which allows her powers to be shut down by mutant affecting stuff like Negation Collars or Leech's powers, but also gives her 1 PP whenever this happens. I'm also going to give her a limit called Not Avengers Material, where both 1s and 2s are counted as Opportunities in any roll using a Squirrely Mutant power. Note that this will cause the Doom Pool to rise rapidly, something that might cause issues in the short term but gives me a greater chance of being able to use It's Canon Now when I need it.
Step 5) Specialities
A superhero isn't just their powers. They will generally have more mundane abilities as well, such as mastery of Combat, knowledge of Science, Mysticism or the Criminal underworld and even using their talents to Menace their opponents. Specialities are basically this game's version of skills. They are rated at two levels, Expert, which lets you add either a d8 or 2d6 to your pool or Master, which lets you add d10, 2d8 or 3d6.
I think Squirrel Girl is an Expert in both Combat and Acrobatics. I'm also going to make her a Vehicles expert, since she's flown a gyrocopter in the comics a couple of times.
Step 6) Milestones
This is probably my favourite bit. In MHR, characters gain XP by fulfilling character-specific Milestones along the path they're taking in life that often involve tough choices. You get 1xp for actions that come up often, such as Beast helping mutants recover from stress, 3xp for more significant but uncommon actions, like Spiderman taking trauma (like stress, but worse) from a dedicated enemy and finally 10xp for a making a decision that's a turning point for the character, such as Iron Man choosing to either go into rehab or have a total relapse.
I need to figure out two different Milestones and neither of them are going to be completely serious. The first one I think should cover her team history as a Great Lakes Avenger. She gets 1xp every time a team she is a member of changes its name. She gets 3xp every time Grasshopper dies, one of the Great Lakes Avengers' better running gags. Finally, she gets 10xp when a team she leads gains widespread recognition and respect or she's forced to disband it.
The second one will focus on her nature as Marvel's most powerful superhero, Remember That Time I Beat Thanos? She gets 1xp every time another character brings up one of her past victories. She'll get 3xp every time she stresses out a villain using Resourceful Leader . Finally, she gets 10xp the first time she defeats a villain when using It's Canon Now and causes the entire table to either cheer or leave the table in disgust.
The Finished Product
Doreen Green (Public)
Solo D8 Buddy D6 Team D10
Cute But Deadly
Friend of the Squirrels
- Control Squirrels D8
SFX Area Attack Target multiple opponents. For every additional target add d6 and keep +1 effect die.
SFX Furry Hordes When using Squirrel Mobs to create Assets add d6 and step up the effect die +1.
Limit No Squirrels Here Earn 1PP if you have Squirrel Mobs shutdown for the remainder of the scene.
- Enhanced Reflexes D8
- Enhanced Senses D6
- Enhanced Strength D8
- Leaping D8
SFX It's Canon Now Spend 1PP and 2D12 from the Doom Pool while Solo to immediately end the current scene, narrating the outcome to your liking.
SFX Mutant Earn 1PP when affected by mutant-specific Milestones and tech.
Limit Not Avengers Material Count 1s and 2s on dice as opportunities when using a Squirrely Mutant power.
Acrobatics Expert D8
Combat Expert D8
Vehicle Expert D8
Great Lakes Avenger
1xp when a team you are a member of changes name.
3xp when Grasshopper dies.
10xp when a team you lead gains widespread respect and recognition or you're forced to disband it.
Remember That Time I Beat Thanos?
1xp when another character brings up one of your past victories
3xp when you stress out an opponent with Resourceful Leader
10xp the first time you defeat a villain with It's Canon Now in a way that causes the entire table to cheer or leave the table in disgust.
How I'd Run It
I'd really love to give the Breakout scenario a shot if for no other reason than the idea of an alternate Marvelverse with a different group of Avengers massively tickles my fancy. I'm also going to definitely check out the other scenarios that are brought out, both for the datafiles and because if the basic game is anything to go by they'll be pretty cheap.
This would also be a good medium to try out a comic idea I've had for a while. Anyone who knows me at all knows I'm a massive Spiderman fan, and I've always wanted to see a dedicated 'spider-family' team, if you will, consisting of Spidey, the three Spiderwomen, Kaine, Toxin, Steel Spider and maybe Spidergirl. I've dubbed the idea 'Spinners', since Slingers was already taken by another Marvel book with a good premise but lacklustre execution.