Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world. For what I have for you this time out, let me set the scene:
Three X-men and a former Avenger investigate a breakout on the Raft, the maximum security prison in the East River for supervillains. There, they find that numerous inmates have escaped, with the help of Electro. Cinematic battles are fought in and on the raft. In a key moment, the Hulk, at the Raft in self and solitary confinement, proves valuable in taking out Vapor, Ironclad, Vector and X-Ray, the evil Fantastic Four-like group known as the U-Foes. And discover that there are deeper and darker things afoot, that mandate a temporary alliance to uncover.
Was this the latest issue of a comic? A motion comic on DVD? A new animated Marvel series? No, none of the above. This was a recent session of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game that I participated in. Marvel is the latest roleplaying game from Margaret Weis Productions (yes, that Margaret Weis, fantasy fans).
Marvel is based on an iteration of the Cortex Roleplaying system that has been used in roleplaying properties based on the TV shows Smallville and Leverage. While the iterations of those two games have focused on using the Cortex system for Drama and Action, respectively, the variation of the Cortex system is a high-octane version of the Action rules called Cortex Heroic.
Cortex as seen in Marvel uses a lot of dice and a lot of moving parts. It is somewhat more complicated than swinging a sword or casting a spell in Dungeons and Dragons.
To take an example, suppose you, playing Ms. Marvel, want to punch a Kree soldier. First, you would take into account who she is with (some superheroes work better alone, others as buddies, and others in teams, and the dice they get reflect that). Add a distinction (sort of like a FATE Aspect). Put in a power from a power set (one from each if you have multiple sets. Add a specialty, such as Combat Expert. There are special effects, and other things that can complicate this further. Roll the dice, take the highest two numbers as how well you did, and take the largest die you can to see how effective you were.
There are several further complications to this basic mechanic. 1’s, either rolled by you or the GM are opportunities for the other party to take advantage of the bad roll. (The statistically minded can see that it pays to have powers which use d8s and d10s rather than d4s for this reason) Both the GM and the players get pools of special points (plot points) and dice (Doom Dice) they can use to juice up the action at key moments.
Given that, though, especially with its milestone system to encourage players to emulate superheroes, the game captures what it means to be a superhero, and these superheroes in particular. The Thing gets experience for being moody. Emma Frost’s history in the Hellfire Club and as a teacher both can come into play. Colossus’ capacity for self-sacrifice is rewarded as well. Experience can be spent on upgrading characters, or, more commonly, “unlocking” things for the campaign, such as making certain non player characters and even villains as rendering aid or even being available to switch to and play. For example, we’ve accumulated enough xp so far that one of the players could switch to The Hulk, a powerful character with significant drawbacks, if we so wished.
We have come across some issues with the game that those who are tempted to play and run the game should know. As you can imagine from the description above, the mechanics of combat can be extremely crunchy, with a lot of moving parts to get used to, and some of the finer points of combat and our characters have taken time for us to get used to. Combats can take a while, and feel like a interminable slog if not handled properly and especially with opponents that are resistant to straight-up fighting. And, to date the system seems far more geared and oriented toward combat scenes than transition, non combat scenes. The characters are not balanced any more than they are in the comics, requiring, like the superheroes themselves, to get creative in some situations. This may frustrate some players, and it took my gaming group some getting used to.
Too, the rules for building your own superhero, or upgrading your superhero, are perfunctory at best. They are there, but they are scanty. The game is clearly designed and clearly modeled on the idea that you want to play Captain America, or Spiderman, or The Thing. While you could play Marvel superheroes in other systems (by building them from scratch), by being the official licensee of Marvel, the work has been done for you. As I have said, the powers and abilities feel authentic and true to the characters. On the other hand it does not model creating from whole cloth “Hestor, the Sonic Man, Guardian of Denver” very well at all. It’s the intellectual property that is the real value and real draw for this game. Supplements and add-ons to the game allow for more heroes available to play, more villains to face off against, and more Marvel comic storylines to explore.
Despite the difficulties my roleplaying group and I have had with some aspects of the system, we are still playing it, kicking its tires and seeing how it works. When we are engaged with the system and know what we are doing, it is fun for my fellow players as Shadowcat to phase through villains, or Wolverine to slice and dice, or tactical genius Cyclops to actually be more than a joke he often is in movies and comics
And who I am and who do I play?
The Truth is…I am Iron Man.