Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recent Gaming Innovations: The Marvel Approach

After D&D, various superhero games are my favorite things to plan, run, play, and generally mess with. I have a lot of them from Superhero 2044 onward, and they all tend to follow a similar design philosophy of being superhero simulators. This is awesome and a ton of fun to play and run and argue over how many tons Superman can lift and other similar trivia. This has spurred a lot of mechanical innovations over the past 3 decades as well, giving us Champions' point-based character creation, the original Marvel's results chart and Karma system, DC Heroes' universal table and scaling system, and Mutants and Masterminds Power Level system. All of these have been around for a while though.

This year saw a new contender: MWP's Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and it started with different premise: comic book simulator, not superhero simulator.  I would expand it to include movie and TV simulator as well. It's a major shift among the universe of spandex-clad rpg's. It feels completely different in play as there is a lot less focus on how far I can throw that mail truck compared to Dr. Science's flight speed in meters per round, and a lot more on the dramatic side of things. Players have more control over the flow and the environment through assets and plot points. One of the great problems of previous superhero games is coming up with a system that can handle the comic-book scale when it comes to hard numbers on things like ranges and speeds and lifting weights. MHR solves this by coming from a different angle entirely. Some might say avoiding the question is not answering the question, but by taking this different approach the question basically disappears. I will use something I put up on the blog recently to illustrate my point:

I've seen a lot of statblocks in my time  - individual NPC's and swarm type units but I've never seen one for a committee in a noncombat encounter. In most games this kind of thing would be a placeholder roleplaying scene in between fights. Not here - they get a statblock like everybody else and it's resolved via the standard game mechanics. At various times in the past I've played around with using a more narrative, episodic approach and here is a game that is built from the ground up around that premise. In this encounter Iron Man's "powered armor" power may not prove all that useful, but all characters have affiliations, distinctions, and specialties on their sheet - here's a place where some of them can shine and the mechanics for resolving this are the same ones used for combat and everything else.

Another shocking change from traditional supers games: no character creation. OK, well there is a system but it's all of 7 pages and is basically think about it, decide what it should be, talk to the DM and you should be able to figure it out - no real-world benchmarks, no point values, no set list of powers or advantages or disadvantages. Considering that a major focus of most games is on building exactly the character you want or  rolling up a solid character this is a nearly heretical approach but it works for me because in a Marvel game I'd rather focus on playing Marvel characters. I know not everyone feels the same, but I don't need Aluminum Man to fight alongside Spiderman or Colossus - I have other games for that and I'm perfectly happy having him fight alongside Solar Flare or the Iron Magician and roam around Freedom City or Atomic City. If Colossus and Spiderman are running around Marvel New York then I'd rather play Iron Man!

I think another thing that attracted me to it is that it's the complete opposite of D&D 3E/4E when it comes to design and play. For example: I can't see this game benefitting at all from a character builder or a battlemat, and I consider both nearly essential for 4E and extremely handy for 3E play. I've played more of those two games than any other by far over the last 12 years. I like them a lot, but it's nice to have a different flavor of game available when I want to take a gaming vacation. It exercises different parts of the brain, and it feels good.

Now I like my 12d6 Energy Blast (Armor Piercing, Explosion, Extra Knockback) as much as anyone and I'm not going to go all-storyteller anytime soon. This game will not replace the games I already know and love. But it is incredibly refreshing to see something this different pop up with a major license in a genre I thought was pretty much settled. I now have a way to play "supers" with a system unlike any other. It's one of the great revelations in gaming for 2012 for me personally and I wanted to call it out this week.

1 comment:

Barking Alien said...

I think all of your observations are spot on and very well thought out, as well as conveyed. I am especially impressed by the statement that Marvel Heroic is a Comic Book Simulator and not a Superhero Simulator. Could not have put it better.

The one area where I disagree is character creation. I DO NOT want to play Marvel Characters. I want to play MY CHARACTER.

It's the major hurdle my friends and I have come across when trying to get anyone to play this game. First question is always, "How do I make up a character?" When told you can be any Marvel character, we either hear a request for some obscure hero they haven't made stats for yet or, "Why would I want to play Spider Man? I want to be the guy that saves Spider Man."

Marvel Heroic is awesome, innovative and a fantastic change of pace from what we have seen in the past but honestly, there is a reason Champions has been around as long as it has and M&M became so popular so quickly and stayed at the top of the 'Superhero Game' game. Those are the kinds of Superhero RPGs most Superhero RPG players, GMs and fans want.

I love the ideas in Marvel Heroic. My players ask, "So how much can I lift?"