Saturday, 13th October, 2012, 06:10 PM #1
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Folks: Why Marvel Heroic Roleplay plays so uniquely with designer Cam Banks
There have been Marvel Roleplaying games before. "Three, actually," Cam Banks, design lead for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, told me when I asked him about them. Prior to this I'd only known about one. "And they each used completely different resolution mechanics." One used dice, another cards, and the last, stones - Cam had looked at them all. "Each Marvel RPG had its mechanics," Cam said, "and there are people who really like each one of them and who think that one was the best incarnation of Marvel."
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was published earlier this year by Margaret Weis Productions, and uses its own variant of their Cortex game engine. Cortex is a dice pool system with easy resolution. The system comes with a variety of pre-generated Marvel heroes, but has plenty of rules for generating your own characters. It's got simple mechanics, mechanics a first time player can pick up with nothing more than a character sheet. "We were definitely inspired by 4E [Dungeons and Dragons] where you have all the rules you need on a character sheet and power cards." But their goal wasn't just simplicity. They wanted to give us troupe style play, and framed scenes, and a roleplaying game that tells stories you would find in a comic book.
I asked Cam how much pressure there was to do the Marvel Universe justice, and how much they let themselves be influenced by the old games. "There are a large number of expectations and you have to ask why would people prefer this or that? ... Why would they like that over other options?" He explained that they had to get down to the essence of Marvel: that Marvel is a whole universe with its own feel. "So we made a game that tells stories the way stories are told in comics."
When I asked him if it was a superhero RPG like others, he said, "It's a comic book RPG. When we were working on [the] Smallville [RPG] we made a game that plays like a TV Drama. We had to look at what our material was and at what we were trying to accomplish." They also learned lessons from their earlier games. "We borrowed ideas from a game in production based on some of Margaret's books, Dragon Brigade, and from Rob [Donoghue's] simplification of Smallville's mechanics so that everything came out of one roll. Marvel is really the child of Smallville and Leverage with this strange cousin called Dragon Brigade."
When I asked him about other inspirations, he revealed a laundry list of indie darlings. "Vincent Baker's games Dogs in the Vineyard and In A Wicked Age. Clinton Nixon's The Shadow of Yesterday." When prompted, he admitted, "Lady Blackbird, too, Milestones are straight out of that." Milestones are MHRP's experience system, where players are rewarded with experience for acting out their character's typical arcs, or for behaviors traditionally associated with a particular character.
The Art of the Scene
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has a strict scene structure. There are two types of scenes: action and transition. All interactions in the game fall into one category or the other. Having set types of scenes, and rules about the types of things that happen in them, is fascinating in play. I asked Cam why they decided to structure the basic play of the game. "Framing scenes was something we wanted to do for Smallville, but didn't. Comics have discrete scenes too. We have action scenes where the big conflicts and fights are happening." It was the opposite, however, that was most interesting: transitions.
"We also have transition scenes, which happen between some action scenes. Transition scenes came out of tag scenes that resolve plotlines in TV Drama. They are the scenes at the end of episodes where characters are resolving or discussing plot from the episode." In comics, Cam said, they realized that the tag or transition scenes are serving as bridges between action scenes. They're scenes where characters are interacting personally, gathering resources or information, and recovering from conflict. It turned out that the scene structuring system was all an outgrowth of the desire to make a Comic Book RPG: a game that tells a story just like a comic book would.
(Re)Introducing Troupe-Style Play & The Short Campaign
MHRP emphasizes a troupe style of play, wherein players can switch characters as they move through the game. "It came out of the story structure," said Cam. Troupe play dates back to Ars Magica, in the late 80s, but hasn't been used much recently in major published RPGs. "In Ars Magica you had your mage and companion and then all your grogs. You could pick up somebody new that wasn't your main character as an exercise in roleplaying or because you were bored." Characters leave and join superhero teams all the time, it's an aspect of the huge number of characters seen in comics. Cam's opinion was: Why not let the people play everybody they want to? "It made sense for events like civil war where you had two large separate groups of heroes and a group might want to explore both sides of the conflict. You might play one group, and then go play as the other side to see how they react."
Troupe play, scene framing, and simple advancement via milestones all contribute to a game that lends itself to short term play. Cam told me "It comes down to what do people really do when they're gamers? How do people really play the game?" In this way, MHRP is made for the average table, where individual games rarely last too long before the group moves on to something else. "I can play marvel for three months and [then] choose from other games. It's easy to switch from marvel to other games or to another, different marvel game."
That isn't to say short campaigns are the only option for MHRP, Cam said that there will be a viable published continuing campaign soon. "Annihilation will be real ... long term campaign style play. It will be an example for how to do that and how that might work in marvel."
The Future for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying
"The books for [Marvel Heroic Roleplaying] came out of a discussion with Marvel where they were talking about doing separate RPGs for each of their events." MHRP's original book was the core rules and a small event based on the New Avengers comics. Out of Marvel's original idea, Cam said, came the idea of putting the game's core rules - the "Operations Manual" - into the premium edition of each event book since. For example, when Civil War was published this year, two editions were published: one including the full rules, one including only the new materials from Civil War. If you only wanted to play civil war, you could buy the premium civil war hardcover and have a complete game.
Doing event-based book releases also had the convenient effect of tying any specific instance of a hero's stats - their datafile - to an exact point in the Marvel Universe's continuity. "If we do game stats for Spider-Man, it is a specific Spidey from a specific point in history. Marvel likes this because Marvel is confident that their continuity is being respected. It is very important to them."
I made sure to ask Cam what else might be in store for MHRP in the next year. "There will be something for everybody," he said, "no matter what level of the Marvel universe you like. We are doing Age of Apocalypse for the gritty, dark feel and Annihilation is cosmic. We don't like to say anything specific though, because you have to see how the [other products] do first. You don't want to get people excited about something and then not be able to do it."
I see now - that's just the old RPG publishing schedule defense. You're never sure when something will happen, so don't announce a date.
Well played, Mr. Banks, well played.
Folks is a new column here on ENworld, where we talk to the people who make RPG industry and culture tick. It's about people and stories that matter to the hobby. It's about interested, invested, and investigative journalism in RPGs.
Last edited by Morrus; Saturday, 13th October, 2012 at 06:35 PM.Jonathan Bolding is a freelance writer living in Durham, NC with his exceedingly patient wife. You can find him on twitter @JonathanBolding.
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I really want to try this game out, but I haven't been able to generate enough interest in my gaming group. I think it looks awesome!
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I didn't so much enjoy this system in play. It dragged pretty mightily when resolving actions, so that action scenes were kind of interminable. And I'm always skeptical of strict scene framing (though it seemed to work rather well enough here). Trying to remember some of the other kind of weird stuff, but it's late, so forgive me.
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I'll have to be sure and run a game for you next time we're in the same place. it really can play fast.
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It reminded me of circa 2008 learning D&D 4ed for the first time: at first everyone decided as their turn came up what they were doing and it took forever. Once everyone knew their powers better, they were able to play out their turn as soon as it came up.
Jonathan Bolding is a freelance writer living in Durham, NC with his exceedingly patient wife. You can find him on twitter @JonathanBolding.
Play goes fast once people understand the dice mechanic (which is used for everything in the game) and are familiar with their character. Character writeups are pretty short, and the dice mechanic is fairly simple, so none of that should take too long.
I recently finished running the Breakout mini-event in the Basic Game and I have to say that I LOVED it - as did my players (only 1 of which is a 'hard-core' comic book fan, and he admits to liking DC more than Marvel anyway)
It's pretty easy, after gaming for 30+ years, to be pretty cynical about new systems, but MHR is absolutely a breath of fresh air.
I've found that combat can be as slow or as quick as you need it to be I've found, and it doesn't take long for astute players to know how to build their pools quickly.
My favourite part of the system is just HOW flexible it is. The stress/assets/complications components pretty much allow you to cover EVERYTHING without loads of rule books.
I've posted a review at Loot The Corpses: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Review but you can probably guess the tone...
In short, it's brill. Cam's done a masterful job and I can't wait to give the Civil War event a go.