Review of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game by Margaret Weis Productions

Thanks for the review, Neuroglyph! While I do think the lack of a classic point-buy system A LA Champions has thrown some people, the game does extensively cover how to create your own heroes, events, and scenes. In fact, together with the random datafile generator provided in the PDF or on the website, MHR has the same three options the original Marvel Super Heroes game did: premade hero, modeled hero, and random hero. Our nod to the original, there.

There's a lot that isn't traditional in the game, but I hope you get a chance to play it yourself. If you see me at GenCon or another convention, grab me for a game. :)
 

Neuroglyph

First Post
So here we are in the wake of the weekend of the release of The Avengers Movie - and by all accounts, the movie has broken more box-office records than Hulk has smashed New York City landmarks! As a side note, if you haven’t gone to see the The Avengers Movie yet because you can’t believe the hype, trust me, believe the hype! And go see it on the IMAX screen if you’ve got one near you, because that much action needs to be viewed on a HUGE SCREEN!

And as it turns out, not long before The Avengers Movie was released, a role-playing game was published by Margaret Weis Productions with the license from Marvel Comics under its belt. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game offers players to portray superheroes from the Marvel Universe, battling against super-villains and other threats to mankind, and hopefully making the world a safer place! And with great movies like The Avengers, Ironman, The Fantastic Four, and Thor to envision, who doesn’t want to play a superhero?!

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game

  • Design: Cam Banks (lead), Rob Donoghue, Matt Forbeck, Will Hindmarch, Phillippe-Antoine, Ménard, Jesse Scoble
  • Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions
  • Year: 2012
  • Media: PDF package:Rulebook + 3 Support Books (302 total pages) + 2 Reference Sheets
  • Retail Cost: $19.99 ($12.99 from RPGNow.com)
The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game is a role-playing game, using the Cortex Plus game engine, of portraying famous superheroes from the Marvel Comics Universe. The PDF package includes six four booklets – MHR Basic Game, MHR Datafiles, MHR Example of Play, and MHR Random Datafiles – and two Reference Sheets – one for Players and one for the Watcher (Gamemaster). The MHR Basic Game book also includes a Mini-Event (adventure) called Breakout, based upon a comic book series of The New Avengers.

Production Quality

The production quality of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game has a great layout and a gorgeous appearance, but had some problems conveying the information about the game system. The main rulebook has both a table of contents and bookmarks for ease of navigation, but the material was not always conveyed in an easy to understand format. The designers did offer examples along the way in blue text to draw the eye, but there needed to be better transition between chapters in order to understand the nuances of the Cortex System, the character sheets (datafiles), and how it all fit together.

The illustrations in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game were drawn from a variety of Marvel Comics, and as such, made awesome eye-candy while reading the rules. While they might not have always been illustrative of a rules concept or mechanic, it’s hard as a fan-boy not to enjoy the comic panels and single shots of superheroes splashed liberally throughout the book.

The Contents

As previously mentioned, the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game contains all the rules necessary to understand and use the Cortex Plus game engine, as well as a sample adventure or Event called Breakout. There is a nine page booklet offering a sample of playing the game, an eleven page booklet for generating random datafiles on new superheroes and super-villains, as well as two Reference Sheets – one for the Watcher (gamemaster) and one for the Players, which can be printed out and used at the table. Unfortunately, despite the massive amount of material and page length, there are some fairly big gaps in this Basic Game.

For starters, the Cortex Plus game engine is quite different than anything I’ve run into before, and I must admit that it’s quite innovative and unique. It uses polyhedral dice to represent the various Powers (with Special Effects or SFX) and Specialties (Skills/Skillsets) of the superheroes, as well as dice to represent their Affiliations (whether they are better Solo, with a Buddy, or on a Team), and Distinctions (such as catch-phrases, origin plot elements, and attitudes). Dice pools are assembled to represent the actions and reactions a superhero takes during a wide range of situations, whether in combat or non-combat, and the results of the dice thrown are compared to a counter-action from their opponents. The system seems well-geared to handling superhero actions, and provides a structure to interpret role-playing into game mechanics fairly well.

But on the downside, I felt that the Cortex Plus engine gave the game a steep learning curve, and I had to end up reading through the rules twice and reference the 9-page Example of Play booklet a couple times before I felt I had a handle on the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game. Perhaps if the rules had been written a bit differently, or if I had played the game with an already experienced Watcher, I might have picked up the conventions of the Cortex Plus system a bit faster.

And because of the use of dice pools, involving sometimes up to 6 or more dice, it’s hard to determine a comparison of the overall power level between superheroes and villains. It’s hard to compare one power against another, or against a skill set, when a single action or defensive reaction might involve two, four, or even eight dice to determine an outcome.

On the plus side, Cortex Plus comes across as a speedy and narrative focused system, both in and out of combat, and completely user-friendly for gamers who prefer “Theatre of the Mind” style of play. It’s cinematic, and offers the players a freedom to try out all sorts of superheroic antics without worrying about rules minutiae. I should mention that the Cortex Plus system has been used before in the Battlestar Galactica RPG and the Serenity RPG (aka Joss Whedon’s Firefly setting) with success, as it conforms well to player-driven action, and an Act/Scene/Action style of adventure scripting from the gamemaster.

The game also includes a selection of superhero character sheets – the MHR Datafiles booklet – for 23 well known heroes from the Marvel Universe. For superheroes, you’ve got a good chunk of the X-men to choose from, along with some of The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, The Heroes for Hire, and a sprinkling of independent heroes like Daredevil, Spiderman, and Black Panther. The design team did not offer much in the way of villains for the Watcher to use, although the Mini-Event: Breakout (adventures are called Events here) offers stats for opponents that can be used by Watchers creating their own Events. In addition to pulling in superheroes as “villains”, such as Black Widow, other opponents include S.H.I.E.L.D agents, Electro, Count Nefaria, and an assortment of other mutants and mutates from the Savage Lands.

Of course, the designers did include a random character generation booklet – the MHR Random Datafiles book – which can be used to create both new villains as well as new superheroes alike. A blank Datafile sheet can be found in both the main MHR Basic Game Book and the MHR Datafiles booklet. The downside of this is that there are no real rules for crafting one’s own superhero as in Champions or GURPs, and the game feels geared more toward playing out the escapades of an existing Marvel Superhero, or an entire superhero team. While some gamers might thrill to role-play Wolverine or Ironman in a Marvel Universe setting, others will undoubtedly mourn the feeling of being too confined by the lack of a character creation system.

Additionally, the Experience Point system seems more geared to offering bonuses during a single Event rather than allowing a superhero to change and grow over time. Many of the benefits one can gain from experience points spent are immediate, or limited to the current Event, and make no lasting changes to the character. In fact, a sidebar discussion suggests that it’s okay for players to play new superheroes on each new Event, starting with a fresh datafile from the stock. Again, this might sit werll with some gamers, but most RPGs are based upon characters growing and advancing over time and with experience, and not being forever held in a static basic form.

One major downside to the MHR Basic Game is the lack of a selection of villains, threats, and overall “world mechanics” to create further home-brewed Events. It’s a bit perturbing that the designers fail to offer a nascent Watcher anything in the way of resources to create his or her own Events, which leaves the game in stasis once the players finish with the Breakout Mini-Event included in the rulebook. And for those fanboys and fangirls who have read and enjoyed Marvel Comics The New Avengers series #1 to #6, the Acts and Scenes in the Breakout Mini-Event are going to seem maybe a bit too familiar, and lack the spontaneity of truly new material.

In fact, the structure of MHR Basic Game seems more geared for Watchers to run future releases of “Event” products, rather than taking material and running their own Event Series in the Marvel Universe. Lacking basic Event building materials, such as villain and monster datafiles, real-world threats like speeding cars, crashing buildings, and other resources really hampers a Watchers’ ability to make the game their own.

Overall Score: 2.8 out of 5.0

Conclusions

Ive always been a huge fan of Marvel comics, and that made me really want to like the Marvel Superhero Roleplaying Basic Game, but I simply could not due to what the game actually offers to the comic book fan/roleplaying game enthusiast. While the Cortex Plus system is interesting and innovative, it is not an easy system to pick up, and it makes comparing superheroes to supervillains, or to each other, not an easy task. The lack of a character generation system essentially forces players to adopt one of the heroes from the Marvel Universe, and only 23 of the thousands of heroes were offered, and some were frankly non-iconic compared to others that could have been included. And while there are some rules for Watchers to create their own Events, there are practically no resources whatsoever for villain stats and scene material, other than what can be cannibalized from the included Mini-Event: Breakout – which was also adapted from an existing Marvel comic series that many fans have probably read.

So in essence, the Marvel Superhero Roleplaying Basic Game ends up being a couple hundred pages of rules and pre-made character sheets, just so a Watcher and his (or her) players can re-enact an adventure based upon a seven year old Marvel comic series of The New Avengers. Without considerable additional material, or further releases of Event products, Marvel Superhero Roleplaying Basic Game ends up being a pretty package, but a very limited one-shot adventure for a few super-heroes in a tiny corner of the Marvel Universe.

So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Author’s Note: This author received a complimentary advanced copy of this product for use in writing the review above.

Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)

  • Presentation: 3.0
  • - Design: 2.5 (Rulebook was adequate, but system still difficult to learn from the writing)
  • - Illustrations: 3.5 (Awesome illustrations from actual Marvel Comics, but not really illustrating the rules)
  • Content: 3.0
  • - Crunch: 2.5 (Cortex innovative, but no character generation, and no Watcher resources)
  • - Fluff: 3.5 (Plenty of fluff for the superheroes included, but little beyond that for the Marvel Universe)
  • Value: 2.5 (A lot of cool material, but basically nothing more but a one-shot pre-made adventure)
 
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Agamon

Adventurer
I'm not sure what's difficult about MHR or Cortex Plus in general. It's different than D&D, I guess, but that's a good thing. RPGs shouldn't all be D&D clones.
 

Felon

First Post
I'm very grateful to have a review.

I went to the MW Games website, where the Marvel gets front-page billing, but after clicking on the link, I was stymied. The page has nothing more to say than "this game exists, click here to buy it". There was a link to one preview of the character sheets, and a link to a little design diary. Apparently, there are other prveiws and design diaries, but I found no links to an archive. For a license that should be a coup for them, it's inexplicable that the Margaret-Weiss guys aren't promoting and teasing it for all its worth.

So, a review is really handy.
 

bartendr

First Post
Hi Felon,

I encourage you to read other reviews. I have GMed/played MHR several times, and I feel that this game has something positive to offer the roleplaying community.
I would also suggest finding a local store and actually playing it yourself...

Cheers!

I'm very grateful to have a review.

I went to the MW Games website, where the Marvel gets front-page billing, but after clicking on the link, I was stymied. The page has nothing more to say than "this game exists, click here to buy it". There was a link to one preview of the character sheets, and a link to a little design diary. Apparently, there are other prveiws and design diaries, but I found no links to an archive. For a license that should be a coup for them, it's inexplicable that the Margaret-Weiss guys aren't promoting and teasing it for all its worth.

So, a review is really handy.
 

Felon

First Post
Got a friend who's playing the Breakout scenario. Luke Cage, Spider-Man, and Silver Surfer. Talk about a power curve! I'm curious about how the system handles that.
 

Evenglare

Adventurer
Although im sure MWP has done a very good job with this I simply must take the time to point out the HERO system. It was the first to do the super hero thing. And now it does everything awesomely as a universal system. If I even get one person to look at it, my job will be done.
 

Greg K

Legend
Although im sure MWP has done a very good job with this I simply must take the time to point out the HERO system. It was the first to do the super hero thing.

Nope, it was not the first
1977 Superhero 2044 (Gamescience)
1979 Villains and Vigilantes 1e (Fantasy games Unlimited)
1980 Supergame (DAG Productions)
1981 Champions 1e (Hero Games)
 

Astrosicebear

First Post
Got a friend who's playing the Breakout scenario. Luke Cage, Spider-Man, and Silver Surfer. Talk about a power curve! I'm curious about how the system handles that.

The system handles this well. Basically, lower powered characters keep up quite well with even the "strong" characters. The main mechanic is Plot Points here. Plot Points, like Hero points, allow you to add dice to your pool, increase theme etc. Lower powered characters are rolling lower dice, and therefore through the system getting more plot points on average, allowing them to do many many things.

I must say, though, I feel this review is a bit shortchanging this system. Its a great book, and for a core rulebook for 12.99 (RPG/amazon) I dont see how that's not a 5 in value.

I'm not the biggest superhero fan and I purchased the book out of curiosity and I am definitely enjoying it. I have played one game and everyone at the table was having a blast. Whereas a D&D session is most often filled with sidechat and waiting and banter, the MHR session was interest to the max. Everyone was helping to create a great session. It truly is new age design with the Cortex system.
 

Felon

First Post
The system handles this well. Basically, lower powered characters keep up quite well with even the "strong" characters. The main mechanic is Plot Points here. Plot Points, like Hero points, allow you to add dice to your pool, increase theme etc. Lower powered characters are rolling lower dice, and therefore through the system getting more plot points on average, allowing them to do many many things.
That's cool. So, it's gote FATEsque traits, like the way Dresden Files gives more fate points to mortals. I've been working on my own homebrewed Supers FATE game, and it does something similar.

In general, superhero games tend to be pretty lame, because they devote way to much energy building characters rather than playing them. In actual gameplay, most players just wind up mashing the attack power button every turn.

As to shortchanging the game--hell, this review does more to advocate it than the Margaret Weiss website does. "This game exists now, feel free to buy it". Sorry to harp on that, but really the question in my mind is "why aren't more harping about that?"
 
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Cam Banks

Adventurer
What else would you like to see on our site, Felon? We do a great deal of social network communication thru our Facebook page, Twitter, and with my own accounts in those places, as well as host our own forums. I've also started up a blog on the MWP site. Always keen to hear other suggestions.

Also, PP aren't used like Dresden's Fate Point refresh limits to balance out heroes of different levels. Instead, the game play itself provides most of the screen time balance, chiefly because no matter how many dice you roll in your pool, you only start out with 2 dice added together for your total. This brings all characters together at a comic book narrative baseline.

Cheers,
Cam
 

TreChriron

Explorer
Supporter
BSG and Serenity use the classic Cortex rules (also available in a generic format), not the Cortex+ rules. Leverage and Supernatural are Cortex+. :-D Just a minor nit pic.
 

Allensh

Explorer
Not even remotely accurate. Villains and Vigilantes 1st edition predates the release of Champions (V&V in 1979, Champions in 1981) and Superhero 2044, while bad, predates both of those.

Allen
 

Allensh

Explorer
The lack of a point-based munckinizing system in MHR is a feature, not a bug. All it takes is for the player to bring his idea to the Watcher/GM. Then you cut down most of the D12's they want to D10's and D8's and you're good to go :)

Allen
 

Jared Rascher

Explorer
As someone that was actually critical of the game in my blog, once I sat down and read through the Operations Manual, I have to say that I'm often confused by comments about the game being hard to learn or understand. I honestly think that some of that might be "unlearning what you have learned," and taking the rules at face value instead of reading more into them than what is actually there.

Having read through the actual rules and really trying to reset my expectations, I don't have any problems with how the game would run, or how well it would model a comic book narrative. I think it will do an excellent job doing that.

The only real misgivings I still have after reading the rules is about players that want a longer term campaign than what a single event, no matter how long, might provide. I think it is a valid concern, but at the same time, I think (as I haven't gotten to play it yet) that the game delivers what it promises . . . a viable RPG that is paced to tell a comic book style story for "event" length story arcs.
 

Greg K

Legend
BSG and Serenity use the classic Cortex rules (also available in a generic format), not the Cortex+ rules. Leverage and Supernatural are Cortex+. :-D Just a minor nit pic.

Lol. Not quite. I think you meant Smallville is Cortex + rather Supernatural. Supernatural uses classic Cortex (although someone did a Cortex+ hack for Leverage for Supernatural).
 

TreChriron

Explorer
Supporter
Lol. Not quite. I think you meant Smallville is Cortex + rather Supernatural. Supernatural uses classic Cortex (although someone did a Cortex+ hack for Leverage for Supernatural).

Thanks for clarifying. It's important to realize there are two flavors of Cortex. I don't think C+ enthusiasts will be as enamored with classic, but it seems like conversions are not too complicated.
 

Greg K

Legend
Thanks for clarifying. It's important to realize there are two flavors of Cortex. I don't think C+ enthusiasts will be as enamored with classic, but it seems like conversions are not too complicated.

I don't know that I would consider it a conversion of the Classic Cortex version of Supernatural.

Anyone interested, can look here
Some Space to Think: Superage (or maybe Levernatural)

It is the first of five(?) entries from January 2011 (to help make it easy to find the remaining entries).
 

Shoe

Explorer
Curse you MARVEL!

Why couldn't you just follow DC's lead and sell the liscence to the best superhero RPG out there!? Every other good comic related game (heroclix and VS system CCG) all had rights from both companies, it's not like they are trying to start a competiton or anything!

GAHHHH!

I love Marvel comics, but whoever is in charge of their non-digital games needs to be shot!
 

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