Welcome back to the second installment of System Shock’s look at Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, a tabletop RPG system from Margaret Weis Productions. Last time, we looked at the core mechanic of the system and suggested what kinds of players might enjoy this system. This time, we’ll look at the mechanics that set the system apart from other RPG systems.
The action order mechanic is very unique and fits this Marvel roleplaying game and source material quite well. The first person to act is normally a player chosen collectively by the heroes. When that player’s turn is done, they must choose another participant (hero or enemy) to go next, who then repeats the process. Each participant can only take one action per round. The Watcher (the DM in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) chooses the next participant after villain turns. The last participant to act in a round chooses who starts the next round.
While it may be tempting to have all the heroes go first, this means that the villains could all then all go twice in a row, if they choose to do so–first at the bottom of Round 1, then again at the top of Round 2. The system is simple, easy to keep track of, and invites players to strategize and remain aware of the situation at hand. Fred Hicks, who designed this aspect of the system, has written a very interesting write-up of how it was designed on his blog.
What I like about the action order is that you have to think like a hero. You have to look at the situation and respond like you’re a superhero and not just as though you’re playing any old Marvel roleplaying game. It’s not like the D20 systems out there where your decisions are largely based on chance. You’re roleplaying for realsies!
The Doom Pool is a resource drawn upon by The Watcher. It allows him to do interesting things to change the current situation, basically throwing a massive, plot-enhanced wrench into the proceedings. Though the list below is not exhaustive or in-depth, it should give you an idea of how Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s Doom Pool works.
Doom Pool dice are generated when The Watcher “activates” an opportunity. This happens when a player rolls a 1 on one of their dice–the Watcher can hand that player a Plot Point and add dice to the Doom Pool as a result.
Spending the dice themselves allow the Watcher to create chaos in several ways, including adding them directly to a villain’s dice pool, activating villain special effects, keeping an extra die to add to a dice pool total, etc. However, it also allows the Watcher to separate the heroes from one another, creating dynamic conflicts and changing the effectiveness of heroes mid-fight, based on their affiliations. You know, making you roleplay through mechanics in a Marvel roleplaying game! Not just rolling dice for numbers!
In addition, if the Doom Pool ever reaches 2d12, the Watcher can spend this to end the scene immediately rather than play it out, and the players and Watcher agree on an acceptable resolution based on the way the fight was going when it ended.
The Doom Pool also acts as an opposing force when a hero is doing something which is not directly opposed by a villain: for example, hacking a computer system. The Doom Pool dice are not expended when they are rolled this way.
The Doom Pool does a good job of simulating the often quickly-mounting odds against the heroes in any superheroic confrontation and lets the Watcher cackle with glee while making life interesting for the heroes.
What’s a Marvel roleplaying game without a plot, right? After all, comics tell stories. And so do tabletop RPGs. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Plot Points are a currency generated during gameplay that the players (not the Watcher) use to enhance their character’s abilities. As with the Doom Pool section, I’m not giving you a complete list of all the ways you can use Plot Points, but just aiming to give you an idea.
Plot Points are generated when the Watcher activates an opportunity rolled by one the players, when the Watcher activates one of the heroes’ limits, or when you use one of your Distinctions negatively by rolling a d4 instead of a d8 for that distinction (since 1s can’t be used for anything, even effect dice, a d4 has a very high chance of being useless and giving the Watcher a chance to get more Doom Pool dice, too).
Plot points can be spent to perform stunts, activate special effects, add in another power from the same power set, etc. Basically, it gives the hero access to more dice or more powerful abilities.
In addition to that though, Plot Points may also be spent to change the incoming type of stress being suffered by a hero, making them a very good survivability tool. If a player would be knocked out by physical stress, they can change it to another kind of stress by spending a Plot Point and providing a justification (“Tony Stark manages to dodge out of the way of Carnage. Carnage instead hits one of Tony’s long-running experiments in the lab, and Tony is none too happy about all that wasted time, so he takes Emotional Stress”).
Milestones are a section on a hero’s character sheet which provide the player with guidance on roleplaying points for the character. Successfully completing them provides the player with XP, which can be spent on rewards.
For example, below is a milestone for Tony Stark, a.k.a Iron Man:
XP is not incredibly powerful, but is really just designed as a “good roleplaying” award. Depending on the Event the character is participating in, some rewards may be unlocked using XP. As you can see, a milestone gives the player direction right out of the gate as to how to roleplay the character, even if they are not incredibly familiar with them. This is one of the reasons why the game is so accessible: you need not have much foreknowledge of the character’s personality, because the milestones (combined with things like Affiliations and Distinctions) give you a well-rounded view of the character’s general concept.
As with pretty much everything in this system, milestones can be customized–the Operations Manual suggests that you switch out a Milestone for a new one once you complete the 10XP portion of it, unless keeping the Milestone makes sense for your character.
The core Marvel Heroic Roleplaying systems offer a lot of opportunity to engage with the material and create a true Marvel narrative. The feeling of being a hero in the midst of a conflict is palpable, and heroes are encouraged to act as they really would instead of just making the most effective attack they can think up every turn. In this way, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is truly effective at recreating the source material. If you’ve been looking for a Marvel roleplaying game, but didn’t want to go the homebrew route, you should definitely check this one out.
But there’s one thing we haven’t touched on yet: the potential for customization! In the third and final post in this series focused on Marvel, I’ll show you some of the custom Marvel Heroic Roleplaying datafiles I’ve made and explain some of the design decisions. I’ll also provide you with some guidelines you can follow for creating your own datafiles for our own campaigns! Plus, you’ll get a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying PDF of my own characters for you to use in your own games! You’re welcome.
Until next time, True Believers!