The FASERIP System
by Chris Perrin
Marvel Super Heroes is a superhero game written by Jeff Grubb and published by TSR, Inc. in 1984. Marvel Super Heroes came out the year before Mayfair Games’ DC Heroes, making it the first superhero game to use licensed settings from the big two comic produces (Marvel and DC.) The game uses the FASERIP system (sometimes called the Four Color or 4C system) in order to have characters of different powers all together in the same world. The game continues to be a nostalgic favorite despite the fact it’s over twenty-five years old, which may account for the open sourcing of the 4C system.
Marvel Super Heroes was a fine product for superhero role playing games, especially at the time of its publication. It was simple to learn, generally fast to play, but complex enough for serious role playing. Everything in the FASERIP world is rated using a series of adjectives like Amazing, Incredible, Super, etc. That includes character stats and powers. For instance, the Hulk might have Incredible Strength, while the Punisher would have Super Agility and fire an Amazing bazooka. Walls might have Super hardness and a supersonic jet would fly at Incredible speeds. The better the adjective, the more likely the character was to succeed at a given task, the wall to take damage, the jet to fly, etc.
The Basic Roll
The basic roll in FASERIP was to roll two ten-sided dice to determine a percentile (also known as percentile dice or d%.) To determine the success or failure of the percentile roll, the player consulted a chart (conveniently printed on the back of the rule book.) Along the top of the chart were the same adjectives that defined the characters or objects in the world’s statistics. Each of those columns defined the color-coded values needed for success. Success in Marvel Super Heroes came in four colors: white, green, yellow, or red. White meant failure no matter what. Green meant a normal, average success. Yellow and red were progressively better successes which might do additional damage or have other effects.
Of course, the difficulty of the task and things like defense might cause column shifts. Skills, situational modifiers, etc. would allow the player to roll on a higher column (or perhaps force them to roll on a lower column), but the basic mechanic is generally roll your percentile dice and compare it to the handy chart at the back of the book. Roll two ten-sided dice and hope for a green success.
Marvel Super Heroes Scale
What FASERIP gave Marvel Super Heroes was a system that did two things. First, it put everyone in the world on the same scale. The average human being with no super training, a hero with no powers like the Punisher, a mutant like Cyclops, and a harbinger of the end of your world like Silver Surfer could all exist on the same scale. The normal human would have really small attributes. The Punisher would have better attributes and Silver Surfer would be rolling at the top of the scale. The end result is a system that made playing all different types of characters possible and even gave the Punisher a chance (albeit a small one) to take out most any super villain he ran across with a lucky roll or two.
The other thing FASERIP did was make all types of rolling very fast. Combat could be accomplished quickly with just a few percentile rolls. This is very much part of the superhero genre where heroes, despite standing up for truth, justice, mercy, and the American way, end up throwing a lot of punches, shooting a lot of guns, and blasting a lot of energy bolts.
Beyond the system, the game also had a nice package, especially in the quasi-second edition of the game, the Marvel Superheroes Advanced Game. This was a boxed set which contained rule books, several maps, and cardboard minis with stands. The cardboard minis feature most of the popular superheroes of the age (Hulk, Spider Man, Captain America, etc.), innocent passersby just begging to be used as human shields by villains, and, of course, the super villains themselves like Doc Ock and Doctor Doom. There were also blank minis for those who chose to generate their own characters.
The maps and charts were well done and in full color. They were a nice touch when it come time to fight in the game.
Which leads to the largest area of weakness with Marvel Super Heroes: character generation. Either because it was inline with TSR’s philosophy for mechanics during that era of gaming or as a reaction to the more complex Champions, character generation was random, from stats to which powers a character might have. This led to players being forced to make sense out of wildly disparate groups of power.
Also, because the strength of those powers were also randomly determined, players could be saddled with “superheroes” with powers they did not want which were far, far weaker than any comic book superhero. In fact, when using the rules from the set, creating your own character almost always resulted in a character that was less powerful than using one from the Marvel universe. There never was an official fix for this issue, though character generation could easily be house ruled.
Today, FASERIP and Marvel Super Heroes have been out of print for years. But all of the old materials have been released online. This decision appears to be legal and not a violation of copyright. There are several online sources which have archived Marvel Super Heroes available for download. Also, for game designers looking to make their own games, the 4C system has been open sourced. Games can now be written and published using the system, though the exact terms of the license should be consulted before starting work on a 4C system.
Marvel Super Heroes is fondly remembered for several reasons. It definitely captured hearts and minds because it was the first of the big two companies’ officially licensed worlds. More importantly, it presented a system that captured the action of comic book fighting in a way that was easy to learn and, more importantly, fun to play.