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Ian O'Rourke
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The Superhero System Dilemma: Solved?
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

The first role-playing campaign I ran of any significant length was a superhero campaign. I didn't know it at the time, as I didn't read a vast amount of comics, but it was probably quite silver age in feel. Alien invasions. Transportation to other time lines and worlds. Superhero bases under the sea. Epic melodrama. It all used the Golden Heroes system, which is now probably uber-clunky. It involved division every time someone caused damage!

I continue to love the idea of superhero games. The reason is quite simple: it's quintessentially an everything louder than everything else sort of model. Big sets. Big Ideas. Big Characters. Scenery trashing fights. It's like a lot of the ideas I like in fiction...maxed out. I've not run one since though, largely because there continues to be a disassociation with the systems available to run such a game. They are either too complicated (Champions / Hero), have high barrier to entry character generation (Mutants and Masterminds), too simple (numerous to mention), focused in a different area (Smallville) or old and clunky. Nothing hit the sweet spot.

The question is: does the new Marvel Heroic Role-Playing game fill the esoteric niche? Hard to say at the moment as it's an effectively simple game that takes a long time to digest. But it might. It has a number of key wins.

The first is the character generation. It gets round the high investment barrier to entry system of most superhero games by not effectively presenting a system as such. No rolls. No balancing points system. Just pick what you want within broad guidelines. At first this sounds alien and a deal breaker. Chaos. Cats and dogs living together, etc. Then you start to realise it just might be a stroke of absolute genius and this links in with how the powers and the game works. If one player wants to create Black Widow and the other Thor why shouldn't they be able to without jumping through horrendous hoops? Not only that, if the system is doing it's job right the two characters should be able to enjoy a shared narrative without Black Widow being smudged by villains capable of slugging it out with Thor or being squeezed out as a protagonist by the rules. If that can happen all the need for a system to purchase powers goes away. Just let the player design what he wants.

Key to this is the concept of characters being 'balanced in play' not 'balanced in character creation'. Now, how well this works is yet to be seen, but it's a mixture of the higher ability to generate plot points which gives higher opportunity for stunt and asset generation. It should also simulate the comics with such a fight not being entirely about pure force of blows.

Is there some room for acrimony amongst even the best and most mature of players? Of course, should that player have one more Speciality? How many powers in a power set are pushing the limit? The trouble is I'm not sure complicated systems resolve these issues, they just obfuscate them and give the appearance of being being fare and you always have some people capable of investing the effort to max out every point and some who can't be bothered. Adults should be able to handle it.

Second, I'm liking how the powers work. Okay, some are a bit vague, but this exists to different degrees in every superhero system. The realisation of true genius in the game is the realisation that superheroes don't exist on a wide spectrum of power scalability with lots of points on the scale. Yes, we may start at human and move to Godlike but the points in between aren't infinite. The vast majority of heroes, say for Super strength are buff (assumed in this game), advanced human (Captain America), Super strong (Spider-man) or God like (Thor, Hulk, The Thing). Anything else is largely dramatic license and the domain of fan debates. No getting into the fact one character can lift five tons more than another because it doesn't matter. Who care whether Spider-Man or Iron Man is stronger? They are both Super Strong while not being God like. All powers break down like this into 3 or 4 points on a scale. The amazing thing is, I think it works brilliantly. This again, removed the need for many of the other 'systems' that other superhero games accumulate around powers while not being ridiculously non-existence. It's a thing of beauty.

Third, a core of it plays a lot like Fate but with dice values attached. Distinctions are Aspects with a die value. A Complication (via an effect die) is essentially the same as placing an Aspect (via a manoeuvre) on something it just has a die value attached. An Asset (via an effect die) works similarly way, establishing something akin to an Aspect on a scene or situation. It works in the same way but instead of the Aspect analogue being called on to get a +2 or a re-roll it provides the die value (D8, D10, etc) that can be added to the dice pool. They add dice. It's quite clever. This is potentially even more clever factored into the dynamic initiative order to allow heroes to create assets or complications for later heroes to include in their die pools.

It's another game that has to be played to fully appreciate I think. There is also other elements that aren't as solid in my mind and may still put me off the game (experience, milestones, etc). Still need to figure out the Doom Pool. Still slightly concerned why some of the mechanics around the Doom Pool seem essential to play (the cost of 2D12 from the pool to end a scene, for instance). It's looking good so far.

In many ways it's a Fate-like powered superhero system with the core dice mechanic working better (for superheroes) than Fate dice while utilising a lot of Fate concepts in the mix. It also has an interesting amount of crunch that feels right and focused in the right areas.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/03/2012 Bookmark and Share
 
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