Friday, March 30, 2012

Things to come....

Hello Fearless Readers!

Starting this weekend, I plan to add a new column to Underwear on the Outside. "Marvel Burger" will marry my favorite bronze age comic, The Man Called Nova, and the roleplaying hobby I love. Not only will I give a short summary of the plot each of the twenty-five issues (one or two issues a week), but I will give you a write-up of each of the characters (heroes and villains) that appear in each issue for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game. I will, of course, only mention but not stat up heroes that we can expect to show up in upcoming supplements of MHR or the current Operations Manual, focusing instead on the characters we may never see.

I want to take a look at each issue with a gamer's perspective in the same way that Steve Kenson approached the first season of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest heroes in his Avengers Assembled column on his blog. And only hope I can do so with as much charm and skill as he did.

Interspersed with those articles, I will still toss in my usual posts including an update for my Blood Bowl team with some awesome pics.

Hope you'll tune in!


Reviews: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying- A Phenomenon in the Making

I wanted to give Marvel Heroic a couple weeks to simmer before I reviewed it. I wanted to have the book in my hands (which I do), and be able to dive into its pages in order to give a well reasoned review. But, like last month's review of DC Adventures, I also wanted to give this a bit of background first.

A History Lesson

Marvel Superheroes Role Playing Game - TSR (1984)

Ah, FASERIP you colored my superhero roleplaying from the get go...

In 1984, TSR scored the Marvel License based on the success of their pioneering Dungeons & Dragons. Marvel Superheroes (or sometimes "Marvel FASERIP"- a reference to the character attributes: Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche.) was a wildly successful superhero RPG in the early days of roleplaying. It could be argued that this game was a major influence for all superhero roleplaying that followed. I know it was probably the biggest influence for my work on both Smallville and Superhuman and singlehandedly brought the monstrous robot Dreadnoughts to the hearts and minds of superhero gamers everywhere.

The game was a percentile based game with attributes rated both in number and by varying degrees in levels like Feeble, Incredible, Amazing, Unearthly, etc (see below). Mechanically, it wasn't very difficult and emulated comic books pretty well. Even the game maps went off that premise, with spaces meant to show how far you could move or how large an area would fit in a single comic panel.While Marvel FASERIP had a robust character creation system, the emphasis was really more about playing existing Marvel characters (as there are many) and playing in a very well established universe. TSR released a metric ton of supplements for this game over a period of four years and even had a regular column in their popular Dragon Magazine called the "Marvel-phile".

My own memories of FASERIP started with playing Captain America in the Basic game in 1984 and eventually dovetailed into the Marvel Superheroes Advanced Game (pictured) in 1986 where I moved on to my own creations, Enforcer and El Capitan. Even years later, when that gaming group had moved on, I continued to break out this game in between games of Shadowrun or White Wolf and I'm delighted to see a strong following still to this day with awesome websites and a plethora of available materials still on the web.

Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game - Wizards of the Coast (1998)

The SAGA edition, as I will refer to it, was the first version of a Marvel RPG released after TSR was bought by Wizards of the Coast. I've heard that it was rushed out to avoid TSR losing the Marvel license, but it never felt that way to me. Despite my love of FASERIP, this version of the game quickly became my go-to superhero game until the release of Mutants and Masterminds  from Green Ronin in the early 2000's.

Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game uses a card based game system called SAGA that TSR created for their popular Dragonlance property.While not as successful as other versions of Dungeons & Dragons and Marvel Roleplaying, SAGA was well received critically and remains one of my all-time favorite game systems. SAGA rules eschewed multi-sided dice for a deck of cards called the Fate Deck. Fate cards were numbered and came from a variety of suits. Two or more of the same suit could be added together when played (called a "Trump") to get higher numbers. This was necessary when performing actions like skills and attacks, but also when removing cards from your hand for taking damage. Higher level characters had larger hand sizes allowing them greater opportunities.

I loved how this game allowed you to really express how much effort you were putting into a task. While low numbers showed the character not putting all that much effort into a project, big trumps showed going that extra mile- something not as easy to emulate with dice. Not to mention that the rules were simple enough that when playing a SAGA Dragonlance game, I was able to pull off 12 players without anyone feeling left out. That being said, FASERIP better emulated a comic book, but SAGA was the better game. SAGA even influenced Superhuman as major characters Chance and Downtown found their first incarnations in this game.

Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game - Marvel Comics (2003)

While full of innovation like the SAGA rules, Marvel Comic's first foray into self publishing a roleplaying game didn't hit the mark with me at all. Marvel put their all into the game, divining a system that centered on resource management, but I always thought it fell flat. Every action, if your ability was high enough to achieve it, required the use of red "stones" to represent how much of your energy reserves you were using.

Marvel was wise to use terminology that reflected the genre (like Panels to represent actions with in a round- or Page), and like it's predecessors, Marvel Universe centered on using existing Marvel characters with character creation still there, but not necessary. But the stone rules system never felt right for character driven games.. let alone a comic book game. It never organically gave me what I wanted in a Marvel game and so after several initial tries at it, I largely ignored the game and went back to SAGA or Mutants and Masterminds. The rule system isn't wholly objectional, however. I would have thoroughly enjoyed a stone system in a sci-fi game based around starships or a Mechwarrior variant- it just never belonged in my Marvel heroes.

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game - Margaret Weis Productions (2012)

Marvel Heroic.. ah yes. I'm not going to go too far into detail about the rules here because, well, just type Marvel Heroic Review into Google- EVERYONE has already done that for me. But I should give full disclosure here: I've worked for Margaret Weis Productions before as one of the writers of the Ennie Judge's Award Winning Smallville Roleplaying Game (shameless plug)- the first game honored with the fantastic Cortex Plus system. I consider MWP's staff, especially their creative director, Cam Banks, to be some of my most valued friends in this industry, and in general. I was among the playtesters for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and I will be working on a supplement in the near future for this game. That being said, I like to believe I will always call a spade a spade and call them like I see them rather than pad my resume and social circles. If the game sucked, I'd be the first to say so.

That is in no way close to what I'm saying here. I love this game. L-O-V-E.

Early Cortex products never seemed exactly right to me. With its escalating dice types, Cortex felt like the bastard son of TSR's sci-fi gem, Alternity, and didn't change much from property to property. While Firefly was my favorite television show, the Serenity Game felt lackluster in comparison: Not bad like the Farscape or Buffy Roleplaying Games, just not inspired. The rules felt like they were just stapled on, and I felt the same with Demon Hunters and Battlestar Galactica. Supernatural felt like a better fit, but that seemed to be a simple increase in quality coming out of the MWP braintrust.

I learned of Cortex Plus while working on Smallville. Cortex Plus took the heart of the old Cortex system, and made it adaptable. From property to property, no two Cortex Plus systems were the same.. the core was there, but the variations were large and noticeable. This is a very good thing. Smallville absolutely displays the back and forth banter and tropes of the modern television drama, while Leverage dives deep into the type of crime capers that not only show the charm of the source material, but films like the Italian Job and the Ocean's flicks.

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game takes that idea and runs with it.

From comic terminology to an inspired initiative system, MHR embraces its comic roots and wears it proudly on its sleeve. For me, there are three parts that really stand out and make it my new go-to gaming experience.

First, Affiliations. While Smallville relies heavily on its relationships, and MHR follows suit in a very Marvel way. Rather than centering on the interpersonal relationships, the Affiliations reflect how well the character interact with each other and with three simple stats show you the cardinal difference between characters like Captain America, Luke Cage, and Wolverine. The fact that it is circumstantial offers a great deal of ROLE-playing opportunities simply to negotiate that simple attribute.

Character Creation in Marvel has been called nonexistent by some, but to me, better emulates the discussion between writers and editors in developing characters for a comic series. Of course, MHR offers lots of spandex-clad premade Marvel superheroes to play, but the character creation rules are more about imagining who your character is and putting that to paper. For the naysayers, MWP was happy enough to release a random character generator, but honestly, I'd rather create a good story about a hero and build from there than just lump in a bunch of numbers that I can ignore for story anyway. But then, I'm not as much a fan of number crunching for roleplaying. I'd rather center on the character's story and development than a bunch of numbers that belong in a board game. I'm a ROLE over ROLL kinda guy.

Finally, Milestones, the MHR experience system, appeals to me most of all. Milestones essentially reward you for acting in character or within the confines of the story. They encourage you to be true to certain characteristics (like Iron Man's alcohol issues) or to play out certain scenes that appeal to the character (Captain America's teambuilding). What I like most is that they are an agreement between the players and the gamemaster (called the Watcher) in which the player will make his character act if the Watcher frames the scene for them.  Great stuff.

Final Rating:

Underwear on the Outside uses a FASERIP rating system derived from TSR's beloved Marvel Super Heroes Role Playing Game from 1984. We will give a numerical score somewhere between 0 (for the REALLY GODAWFUL) and 1000 (for the "slit your wrists because now you can die it's that good"). These numbers fall into categories on the chart above. Through varying degrees of dislike we would likely not recommend things from Shift 0 up to Typical. We feel fairly "Meh" about Good and Excellent. We'd spend money on Remarkable and Incredible but anything above that we get into varying levels of like, love and geeking out.  There's also a little space there numerically. We may give one item a rating of 35 and another 38. Both are considered REMARKABLE, but we think one is a little better than the other. 

As a Marvel Game, Marvel Heroic stands out above the rest. But my love of two of the previous incarnations makes it only stand out barely. That isn't to it's detriment. Among a pair of games that sit as an Incredible 48 and Amazing 55 respectively in my book, Marvel Heroic rates an Amazing 60 (with Marvel Universe falling far behind as Typical 8).

However in a broader category, Marvel Heroic shines a great deal. With its comic emulation and unlockable experience usage, Marvel Heroic is pure gold as a comic book superheroes game earning a much higher rating. The usual Cortex Plus adaptability makes this one of the most hackable games in recent history and in my opinion, one of the best games of my generation. Final score: Shift X 150.