The Cortex System and Margaret Weiss Productions
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is the fourth licensed RPG for the Marvel Comics universe. This Marvel Universe RPG uses a modified version of the Cortex System by Margaret Weis Productions. Modified versions of the Cortex System have been used for licensed rpg games like Smallville, Leverage, and Supernatural.
Artwork and Production Values of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying
First of all, the artwork for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying basic book is gorgeous. The art comes from Marvel Comics publications, described as the Marvel Bullpen, so you’re getting a beautiful 234 page role-playing book. Of course, you can get that in the comics, but you won’t find a better looking superhero role-playing game.
Character Creation and DataFiles
The Marvel Heroic character creation process is where you’ll create the datafiles for your superhero. A datafile is a fancy word for “character sheet.”
Affiliations:Solo, Buddy, or Team?
You’ll have to decide whether your character is best as a solo hero, part of a heroic buddy arrangement, or is most efficient working with a team of heroes. This is important, because one of your dice is determined by the amount of collaboration in your exploits. You’ll spread a d6, d8, or d10 among these three options. You might be d10 Solo, d8 Buddy, and d6 Team, or any other combination.
This is easy for most Marvel Universe characters, though it might require thought for generated characters. The Ghost Rider would be a d10 Solo hero. Power Man (Luke Cage) and Iron Fist would be d10 buddy heroes. So would Cloak & Dagger. Cyclops (and most of the other X-Men) would be d10 team heroes, while the Fantastic Four would be, too.
Distinctions: A Character’s Sense of Identity
Every character has three distinctions. These are similar to the aspects and challenges I talked about in the Icons article. These are three elements that are inherent and unique to the character. In character writeups, Reed Richards’ distinctions are “Absent-Minded Professor”, “Boundless Curiosity”, and “Family Man”. Spider-Man’s are “Friendly Neighborhood Hero?”, “Wisecracker”, and “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”. These don’t have to be positive, though. Ms. Marvel has the “Struggling with Identity” distinction, while The Sentry is a “Phobic”. When you activate these distinctions, you’re given bonus dice: your choice of either a d4 + 1 plot point or a d8.
Marvel Heroic RPG Power Sets
Next comes power sets, which are your specific powers. Most characters have one or more of these. Emma Frost has two power-sets: Omega-Level Telepath and Diamond Body. Wolverine has Feral Mutant for his senses and healing factor and Weapon X Program for his claws and psychic resistance. These are a lot more open-ended than you would think. Daredevil has Billy Club and Hypersenses as his power sets. The billy club, for instance, gives him d6 Weapon, d6 Swingline, and d8 Enhanced Durability (blocking attacks). The power sets range from d6 to d12 in levels and represent the high end of your dice pool, as they should.
Powers contain limits, power traits, and special effects which help define and enhance your powers, under certain circumstances. This lets two energy projectors have quite different powers, in game terms.
Specialties in the Marvel Heroic RPG
Your specialties are the skill sets in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game. These can be at master (d10) or expert (d8) level. The d10 can be converted to 2d8 or 3d6, while the d8 can be converted to 2d6.
Milestones in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying
Your milestones is the major way you collect experience points. This means each character defines their experience building in a different way. This can get complicated, but I love how this makes for so many conflicting motivations.
I’ll use Spider-Woman for an example. She has “Betrayal of Trust” and “Blast from the Past” as her milestones. When she convinces a hero to buddy up with her or declare a hero/villain to be an old foe (or flame), she gets 1 xp. When she abandons a buddy in the middle of a fight, deals emotional stress to an old flame, or deals physical stress to an old foe, she gets 3 xp. When she betrays her buddy to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. status, gives up S.H.I.E.L.D. status to rescue her buddy, gives up something important to be with an old flame, or forgive her old foe, she gets 10 experience points. Just imagine what playing this character would be like–or the emotional roller-coaster being her teammate would involve.
Plot Points and Doom Pool
When you build up plot points, you can use them to use special effects or add dice to your pool in number of other ways. These are somewhat like hero points in Mutants & Masterminds or determination points in Icons. Doom Points happen when a player rolls a 1, which are set aside for the GM (The Watcher) and his villains to use. I’ll discuss this in greater detail in a second, but the Doom Pool increases the tension in a game–unopposed rolls are made against the Doom Pool, for instance.
A character builds a dice pool by taking one die from each section of his/her character card: affiliations, distinctions, power sets, and specialties. When you roll, you set aside any ones you rolled for the Watcher. Then you add together the two highest other dice you rolled and these become your score. Dice in the Doom Pool can be used to increase the dice pool for the villains, so a growing Doom Pool creates a sense of foreboding in a hero team.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Review
The Cortex System is a proven winner and it’s shown it can handle superhero campaigns before. This modified version for the Marvel Universe does a good job of simulating superhero action and other comic book tropes. Players who hate dice pools aren’t going to be big fans of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game, but the action isn’t as clunky as it is in White Wolf’s Storyteller system (See our review of Aberrant.) It might take a little while to learn how to build your pool and the Watcher might have to watch rules lawyers who’ll argue for more advantageous dice in the wrong situations, but I like the way experience points are handled and the way the doom pool builds suspense. I wish this game more success than the last Marvel Comics roleplaying game, but if the executives making decision on whether to continue understand no superhero rpg is going to displace D&D, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying should be a big success.