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Polyhedrons Assemble! A Review of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game


Marvel RPG PictureWho doesn’t want the opportunity to be a superhero?  Mutants & Masterminds, Savage Worlds, Champions, and other tabletop roleplaying games have already given us their take on creating and playing a superhero, and now, with the blessing of Marvel Comics, Margaret Weis Productions have given us their take on the genre.  MWP has a reputation for tailoring games for a specific feel using their Cortex Plus system such as heists and capers in Leverage and relationships in Smallville.  This is not the first game to bear the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying name, but it is nothing like its predecessor, having been reworked from the ground up.


The Basic RPG has a beautiful comic book look to it.  Every page is colorful and adorned with trademark images from Marvel comics suited to the topic at hand, whether that’s a character sheet, a scenario, or a game mechanic.  All of this color can be expensive when it comes to printing off character datafiles or part of the rules for easy reference.  While the datafiles are all in blue in the main book, ordering the .pdf through DriveThruRPG also includes a serparate file with printer-friendly versions of the datafiles.

The mechanics are introduced in a clear and fairly logical order.  The complexity of the mechanics (see below) sometimes requires them to mention an unexplained game mechanic in the text of other mechanics, which can lead to a bit of confusion due to the symbiosis between the rules.


Rules for governing superheroes tend to be complicated in order to cover all the different things we see heroes and villains do in comics.  MHR both makes this system relatively simple and more complicated than any of the other superhero games to date.

On the simple side of things, powers are grouped into power sets, such as Mutant Healing Factor, Spider Powers, or Vibranium Shield, with only one of the powers under the grouping being able to be used in a specific action.  For example: Cap’s shield can function as either the Durability power or the Weapon power depending on how our all-American hero is using it at the time.  The actual mechanics behind the powers are the same, even if the flavor is different.  Both Captain America and Spider-Man have super strength, the only difference is the feel; Cap received his from super serum and Spidey from a radioactive spider.  Power sets have a set of limits and special maneuvers called SFXs that can be performed with them.  Cap can be disarmed of his shield is an example of a limit, while his ability to throw his shield and ricochet off several enemies is an example of an SFX.  Likewise, the list of skills (called specialties) are small, emphasizing the power sets and roleplaying traits of the heroes, instead.  A lot of the other mechanics behind the characters are tied more into roleplaying such as Milestones, which are a set of goals or challenges a character has to overcome in order to earn experience points (XP) and distinctions, character traits that can be roleplayed for bonuses, such as Captain America being from the 1940s or Wolverine’s past life as a samurai.

The complexity comes from the rolling itself.  Any given action requires anywhere from 5-10 dice regardless of the action’s complexity, and, once rolled, different dice from the pool determine the number rolled while others determine the relative effect, and any 1s rolled power a separate set of mechanics known as Plot Points and the Doom Pool, tokens to aid the players’ and Watcher’s (the game master in MHR) rolls, respectively.  On paper it sounds like a basic attack will take an hour to figure out.  Fortunately, MWP is doing a good job of clarifying the rules such as their posting of a play example.


Which takes me to perhaps my favorite thing about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying to date, all the tools MWP and others have already provided for it and the physical copy of the book isn’t even out yet!

Inside the basic book are two scenarios covering a break out from the supervillain prison, the Raft, and an adventure into the Savage Land.  “Breakout” is a good introduction to the rules, taking the players through several varied fights and scenarios as they play their own version of the New Avengers storyline of the same name.  A set of 23 Marvel heroes for use as PCs are also included.  The datafiles cover a wide list of heroes, from Avengers to X-Men, characters as popular as Spider-Man and as obscure as Armor.  While 23 characters doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of Marvel’s line-up, it is more than enough to ensure everyone can find someone they want to play.

Ordering from DriveThru RPG, the game came with severally additional files, including a set of quick references notes for both the Watcher and the players; the before mentioned example of play; the printer-friendly set of character datafiles, which also made navigating the .pdfs for hero details so much easier; and even a document for randomly creating new heroes.

MWP hasn’t slacked on providing a look at the game for those who are interested but aren’t sure about dropping the money.  The series of Marvel previews included an example of what a character in MHR looks like, an example adventure, and even a few of the rules

And, to top it off, a fan community has already risen, talking about their experiences, good and bad, with the game, and some sites, such as Marvel Plot Points, are already creating new content such as hero and villain datafiles that didn’t make it into the main game such as Nightcrawler, Hawkeye, and Doc Ock.

Impression from a Playtest

My roleplaying group was gracious enough to let me run a one-shot game of MHR.  From my brief time as a Watcher, a few things stand out to me about how the game plays.  The actual dice pool mechanic works better than I thought it would, reading about it in the book.  It is a slow mechanic at start but once you get the hang of it, it does speed up.  The initiative system is a welcome break from more traditional RPGs but in a large group with a lot of foes, it can be a long time between turns.  Personally, I’d recommend a smaller group for MHR of about 3-4 players for the ideal rotation time.

The Doom Pool mechanic was both a great tool as a GM and a very restrictive one.  As a Plot Point mechanic for the GM, it’s great, directly pitting heroes vs. villains with their actions building up the power of each.; however, players can earn Plot Points on their own while the Watcher is regulated to activating player opportunities (when players roll a 1 on a die).  If lady luck is with the players this can lead to an unsatisfactory game since no opportunities mean no Doom Pool, and no Doom Pool can lead to easy obstacles and rather anticlimiatic fights.

If you’d like the opportunity to hear gameplay in action, there are some actual plays already out there.  Vigilance Press gives a clear, easy to understand, roll-by-roll play of a session.  The Walking Eye also recorded an MHR session, though theirs goes a little off the rails.

Overall Impressions

Personally, I’m still on the fence about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.  I think it represents comic book heroes well, but the style of play is really more suited to a one-shot game, short campaign, and con events.  I intend to run a series of adventures in the future to see how MHR supports consecutive games and will be running a session of MHR using the team the Runaways for Origins 2012.  Once I’ve had more an opportunity to play the game, I’ll have to do an updated set of impressions and advice for players and aspiring Watchers.

If you’re interested in checking out the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game for yourself, you can order a copy of the .pdf directly from Margaret Weis Productions, DriveThruRPG, or wait until the physical book comes out on April 17.



Kristine Chester, Fanbase Press Senior Contributor


Favorite Comic Book SeriesAtomic Robo Favorite D&D Class:  Wizard Favorite Ice Cream Flavor:  Cookies N' Cream


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