Sentinels of the Multiverse spent the last decade building one of the best comic book universes out there without using comic books. Instead, they built it through a strong cooperative card game, great thematic expansions and even a podcast detailing the fictional comic company behind the setting. This month marks the release of the full Sentinel Comics RPG which puts the future of the setting in the hands of its quietly massive fanbase. Greater Than Games rocketed a copy to us from a dying planet to check it out.
When Greater than Games put the Sentinel Comics RPG on Kickstarter, they recruited Cam Banks, Dave Chalker and Phil Menard, who put out the late, lamented Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game for Cortex Plus. Sentinel Comics shares a lot with their earlier work, but it also draws inspiration from other modern systems like Fate Core, Blades in the Dark and Powered By The Apocalypse. Players take action by assembling a die pool of three dice various traits on their character sheet and roll. Usually, the middle number of the three dice is taken, but characters often have special traits that have use for the other dice. A fire-breathing character, for example, might also inflict a penalty on any target based on the lowest rolling die. Even if a character doesn’t have an ability like this, they can always take a risky action to do it in exchange for a twist.
Twists reflect the complications that happen in superhero stories. They exist at the heart of Sentinel Comics RPG and put forward an intriguing idea; failure is hard in superhero stories, but complication is easy. Superman rarely misses a punch. But knocking a Lexcorp bot into a lamp post that might fall on Lois Lane? That happens all the time. Characters can choose to add a twist to succeed even if a roll fails them. Minor twists are something that affect the current scene, like an unexpected fire or a fresh batch of goons coming to reinforce the bad guy. Major twists have longer lasting implications in the campaign. Maybe that car you threw at the bad guy was owned by the police commissioner who will now have a sour opinion of your team because of it.
What makes the twist mechanic work is that they are seeded all over the place. Player characters have two principles that offer open-ended questions that can inspire. A Batman style loner might have the Principle of Stealth, which asks “what trace did you leave behind?” to provide future badness when the bad guys know someone’s seen their plans. Players can choose to fail if they don’t want to accept a twist, but the examples in the book show good examples of negotiation at the table.
Environments offer twists as well. Environments are an important part of the card game and their design here offers some great ideas. Superhero fights are rarely slugfests. Cars are thrown, lamp posts used as clubs and heroes get blasted into billboards. Environments are designed with twists in mind as well as being ticking clocks for the battle. Spider-Man rarely fights Venom just to grind down his hit points. There’s usually something he’s got to stop, like a runaway subway train or a symbiote trying to take over Aunt May. The environment gets its own turn in combat, often introducing a twist, but always advancing the clock towards a bad end.
Luckily, this clock, called the GYRO system, also pushes heroes to push themselves. Every hero has abilities keyed to one of the levels of the system; Green, Yellow, Red, and Out. Heroes can use abilities from the current threat level or anything previously unlocked. This also doubles as the health levels of the main characters in the fight. It’s a fantastic mirror of comic books in that bigger abilities are available in the red zone as the hero, with a torn costume and ruffled hair, digs deep to stop their nemesis from winning. Heroes recover quickly in between action scenes, but the GYRO system keeps the tension up during the scene.
Heroes are built in one of two main methods; a guided creation and a random one. Players randomly roll or choose to assemble a hero from four broad elements; Background, Power Source, Archetype and Personality. Each of these categories is broad enough that two players could choose overlapping categories and have wildly different characters. Even the random roll option is about providing a handful of choices. Players also choose two Principles which, in addition to offering twist suggestions provides some narrative permissions. The aforementioned Principle of Stealth will also let that character know the best way in and out of a location.
Villains are built along similar lines but their construction offers something I don’t see a lot in RPGs these days; advice on how to play to their strengths in combat. The categories offer suggested matches that make it easy to build villains that have challenging mechanics while still feeling like full characters.
Continuing the comic theme, Sentinel Comics RPG doesn’t have a heavy XP system. Comic book characters tend to be static, and the experience options come out to “swap stuff around” and “rebuild the character for the next story arc”. I find that’s more of a feature than a bug, but folks who enjoy “zero to hero” level progression might get turned off by this element.
Sentinel Comics RPG is a fantastic comic book roleplaying game that offers depth without the massive point buys of yesteryear. Fans of the card game should definitely pick it up but anyone who ever dreamed of punching evil right in the face should definitely give it a look too.