I wasn’t going to buy the new Marvel RPG — I’ve made no secret I’m not a fan of the FATE-ification of Cortex, although I think Leverage does a good job of emulating the series’ “best at what they do” characters and is pretty sleek as a set of mechanics. Not a bad system, but it’s not Cortex. Smallville was a hot fucking mess from the crappy character creation/group dynamics matrix stuff through to the point seeming to be playing people in the writers’ room for a soap opera based on a superhero character. Some like it, and more power to you — I consider it the best example of a totally-unplayable RPG since Space Opera.

So I was understandably a bit trepidatious about buying the new game. But since we’re looking for a system to do a supers campaign, and all of them have some serious issues — the latest Mutants & Masterminds is pretty decent, but like most supers games (looking at you Champions,) you need a week and a Cray supercomputer to calculate up a character. The old DC Heroes was my initial choice, but their gadgeting rules were a nightmare. The old, old Mavel game from the ’80s was disastrous all around; far too abstract for my taste. Icons is a nice lightweight system but not really good for anything other than street-level supers…and I can run that sort of game in the old James Bond system pretty easily.

Enter Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. First off, presentation: I bought the pdf version, so I can’t speak to the quality of the book, but based off of the electronic copy, it’s damned pretty — a full color, high quality version of the game book, along with a player and GM (called the Watcher for MHR)…and you’ll need it the first few times. And a character sheet. The file for Marvel is far superior to the other Cortex PLus stuff — there’s not a lot of lag time on page turns on the iPad 2, unlike the previous Cortex Plus core books.

Onto the substance. First the bad — the base mechanic is nightmarish to describe; it’s, at base, pretty simple, but describing it is a pain in the ass. I’ll try (again, this is my third pass) to distill it: you have a dice pool based on whether you work Solo, witha Buddy, or in a Team. Add your die in a power set and/or a Distinction (a description of your character’s motivations, etc.) Take the two highest dice as your result to hit a target number based on the opposing dice pool of the bad guy (or the “doom pool” for non-character incidents.) Except it’s more complex — there’s all sorts of dice you can get from special effects on your powers, or borrowing from the doom pool with plot points, or or or… Out of the dice left over you have an effects dice — how much damage you do. Damage here is like the Fate stress — physical, mental, or emotional and rated from d4 to d12. More than that and you take Trauma — longer-term injuries that stick with you between action scenes. It’s easier to track than it sounds.

The complexity of the dice mechanic not withstanding, the game is not as unplayable as it will first read. If you cut out a lot of these options, and for the beginner I think you should ignore some of this, the system gets very manageable. The authors should have included some kind of stripped rules set for people just coming into the role playing game, or even people who don’t have a lot of time to reread the rules the half dozen times it took to get it down. Once played a few times, I think it would be easier, it just has too high a learning curve right off the bat.

The good: character creation is superb. No points. No balancing. What do you want to play? Give them the right skills, power sets (with a limitation or two to make it interesting), and go. It will require a bit of restraint from the munchkins in the party, but I think it’s pretty much the only way to do superheroes. One of the benefits here is that there are only four real levels of “strength” for a power: normals have a d6 (or lower…you’re not playing these guys), there’s the enhanced folks with d8 — the street level heroes; superhuman at d10, godlike at d12. You can reskin powers listed with new names, distinctions add characterization (as do Milestones — goals that earn you experience points), and there’s a couple dozen Marvel Universe characters to get a good idea of how to build that character you want. Gadgets are handled like powers, except you can take ’em away.

Simple, straightforward…only the extensive list of plot pont fired options causes it to be overly complex for the beginner.

So with that in mind, I think I can recommend it. I wanted to hate it when I bought it; I wanted to like it after a read through, but am still on the fence over the base mechanic…and after Smallville, that’s a move in the positive direction.

Style: 5 out of 5 — it’s beautiful, and the method of producing examples of how to play interspersed in the text (including dice graphic examples) really helps. Substance 4 out of 5: it’s a well thought out game system, it just needs a “simple” version for those just getting into the hobby or who have little experience with RPGs. For the $12.99 on Drive Thru RPG, it’s definitely worth it.

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