Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Revelations from a Month of Character Building - Marvel Heroic

Making characters in Marvel is actually pretty easy once you start trying it:
  • Affiliations: Easy enough, especially with an existing character of some kind
  • Distinctions: Also pretty easy when you're working on an existing character, maybe less so for something with no history
  • Powers/SFX/Limits: These are more mechanical than the parts above. It really affects how you want this character to work mechanics-wise, especially in combat. Some rely on plot points, some modify the doom pool, some let you use multiple powers at the same time - there are a lot of options in print and it's pretty easy to modify them to fit another hero, taking parts form here and there.
  • Specializations: Pretty easy, comparable to skills in other games.
  • Milestones: One of the most flavorful parts of a character. They directly encourage certain behavi or (ideally in-character behavior). Many of them have nothing to do with die rolls and quite a few have nothing to do with combat, possibly coming up any time.

More than some RPG's, Marvel really comes together in play rather than in-book. D&D 4E had the same problem. Maybe that had something to do with both games somewhat disappointing reception. Both suffer from a weird effect where you can read them several times and not "get" them, but one play session clears things up darn near instantaneously. Listening to an actual-play podcast can help here too. Building Pools, spending Plot Points, choosing what kind of Stress to inflict or whether to create an Asset or a Complication as the Doom Pool escalates reads like a confusing mess of terms but one session brings it all to life in a real "Oh" moment - at least it did for us.

In comparison Mutants and Masterminds is easy to "get": d20 roll + mods vs. a target number. That's nothing uncommon, and only Hero Points come in to change things up.

ICONS has a similar mechanic but the rolls tend to cancel out leading to a fairly predictable  stat vs. stat comparison a lot of the time but it does have Determination to mix things up some of the time.

Compared to the simplicity of those two games, there are a lot more decisions to make with each action in Marvel. Building the pool is one set of decisions, then whether to sue any SFX to modify it, then whether to send any of those plot points, then whether to do anything that triggers an XP from a milestone - each action uses this process, so while it's a narrative game, and fairly rules-light, it's not mechanics-light and that keeps it fun for those of us who like some crunch. For this game, the crunch happens during your turn, not when you were reading the book before the session and updating your character sheet.

I think Marvel and ICONS share this characteristic as well - there's really no "build" game for either one of them. ICONS base assumption is random generation and Marvel's is "Make it up!" with a random option. We really didn't have much of it in older versions of D&D but once 3rd Edition came out boy it moved in and set up camp and has yet to leave, even with 4E and Pathfinder. This makes "builds" a basic assumption for a lot of more recent players. So much energy is expended nowadays on "builds" that I think it blows some peoples' minds that there are RPG's where you really don't have optimization, or point-hunting, DPS, feat chains, or all of those other things that fill up charop or build forums. This used to be a thing with Champions, and still is to a degree, but M&M 3E/DCA  de-emphasized it as did ICONS. I wonder if this is a negative for a certain section of the RPG population.

The Best Parts to Steal for Other Games:
  • Affiliations - I really like having a simple, mechanical way to show a character's preferences when it comes to being alone or with a group. I also like that it's effectively a bonus, with the preferred scenario getting a bigger bonus instead of the traditional bonus for good, no-change for median, and penalty for worst. In this system Wolverine doesn't get a penalty for being on a team, he just gets a smaller bonus than when he is solo. It's a subtle thing but it matters For ICONS maybe the least-favored one is a Challenge and the most favored is a Quality, allowing a character to soak up some Determination when it's bad then spend it when it's good. Now that I read that, maybe it should be the other way around ...
  • Physical, Mental, and Emotional Stress - other games have tried to model this kind of thing but I can't recall one that builds it into the system as seamlessly as this one does. The mechanics are the same whether you're punching someone, confusing them, or frightening them - there's no special mechanic needed, no special ability or power, you just declare what you're doing and describe how you achieve it, then roll the dice. I'll have a lot more on this in another post but it opens up a lot of options for players in an encounter. Think about Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi - he is physically down and has no hope of defeating the Emperor in combat, so he begins screaming at Vader, who suddenly turns on his master and ends the fight. How would your favorite game model this? A single skill roll doesn't seem adequate as it takes several minutes for this to happen. Does the DM have to whip up a skill challenge on the fly? That's tricky to do in the middle of what is otherwise a combat encounter. Plus, what skill is being used here? It's not intimidate, and persuasion doesn't seem like one of Luke's strong suits. Marvel has this kind of thing built in to the main mechanics and it's a pretty big win.
  • Milestones - ICONS handles some of this with Qualities and Challenges, especially with things like Catchphrases and Epithets. M&M has a little of it with Complications but they don't work in quite the same way. I need to look at this more myself and see how I can adapt it to other games.
  • Assets, Resources, and Complications: being able to make an attack that boosts someone else's chances rather than just doing damage is another big win. M&M can do this with the various Conditions fairly well, especially if your character has an Affliction as an Alternate Effect or can stunt into one with a Hero Point.The main lack is that there's not a good way to boost an ally - conditions are bad and meant to be inflicted on an enemy. They are debuffs, not buffs, to use MMO language. I'll have more about this in another post too as there's a lot to think about.


WQRobb said...

I playing MHR right now and enjoying it, but it does involve some "un-learning" from 4E.

If there's one disconnect between the rules and gameplay, it's the distinctions. A semi-clever player will always find a way to work either a personal or scene distinction into their pool, which the game seems to suggest that being able to work in a distinction regularly represents some profound quality in the character.

Blacksteel said...

There is a kind of hierarchy to it:

The first thing on your sheet is the affiliation and it always applies.

Then there are the distinctions and they almost always apply

The Powers - it seems to run about 50-50 if you're working in some non-combat scenes as well

Then the socialites which seem to be fairly narrow individually speaking but there tend to be more of them so it balances out.

My players seem to be able to generate 4-5 dice pretty easily and I think it's meant to work that way. The guidelines are pretty loose but we're having a good time regardless.

Blacksteel said...

"specialties" not whatever word I made up there.