TTRPG Roll 23-15: Not feeling the heroic Marvel in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (Margaret Weis Prod., 2012)

One of my gaming intentions on this blog for 2023 was to go through my roleplaying game collection make at least one character for each game from 2008 and later. The next game that should be on my list is Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game from Margaret Weis Productions, 2012. This game is powered by the Cortex Plus game engine in a design effort led by Cam Banks.

Like the Smallville Roleplaying Game I covered in TTRPG Roll 23-11, it is important to note that I am not a superheroes fan. I picked up Marvel Heroic Roleplaying in part because I was fascinated at the time with the Cortex game engine. Alas, Cortex was undergoing many changes, the least of which was the departure of the original Cortex designer Jamie Chambers, who had penned Serenity Role Playing Game and Battlestar Galactica both of which used an earlier version of Cortex now called Cortex Classic. Smallville was the first title in Cam Bank’s new Cortex Plus system and now it was time for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

One strength of the Cortex game engine is that it is incredibly versatile. The game engine can be used for almost any genre or setting. The latest version, Cortex Prime, uses the slogan “Pick Three and Add Cortex.” Just pick three genres (or tropes) and add whichever Cortex Prime rules you feel best make that game.

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying uses a dice pool system. The problem was that this version felt like too much of a formula to me. When you wanted to do something, you created a dice pool which consisted of:

  • Your Affiliation die (every character is rated in Solo, Buddy, or Team)
  • One Distinction die (D8 is using it for you, or got D4 if
  • One die from each Power Set
  • One of your opponent’s stress or complication die, if any
  • One asset, if any
  • One push, stunt, or resource die, if any.

This literally means a player character (PC) in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying could be rolling between four and seven dice for each attempt. Then the opposition—which needed to be fully fleshed out—was rolling dice. Plot Points flowed freely back and forth between the Watcher and the players. The rules actually called for using sticky notes to track assets as they were created or used and resources and the like.

The part of character generation I like the least in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is that players are actually encouraged to use known characters from the Marvel Universe and to stat them up according to the rules. This makes me feel like I’m playing Marvel’s game, not my own. Somewhere along the way Marvel Heroic Roleplaying just stopped feeling like a game to me. Any “story” was reduced to collecting dice…often the same ones regardless of the situation. So I stopped playing it.

While I don’t play Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, I do keep it about because it is good study material for designing my own setting. It is one instantiation of Cortex Plus (now Cortex Prime) and a good example to draw inspiration from. Inspiration because characters in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying are not described by classic attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, etc.) but instead by:

  • Affiliation (Solo, Buddy, or Team)
  • Distinctions (defining background, personality traits, catchphrases)
  • Power Sets (superhero powers and special effects)
  • Specialties (skills, contacts, knowledge, training; rated Expert or Master)

…all of which are assigned dice. Dice that you roll to do everything. The nuance between characters seems reduced to…dice steps. The challenge is to take what you are given and turn it into a believable character. A character that is often bette thought of not as a superhero…

So while Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has a different approach to character design, the use of those characters in the game fails to connect with me. It’s all my fault because I am not a superheroes genre player.

As different as Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was to me at that time, the next RPG in this retrospective makes me just want to run away. That’s coming next time, after I doctor up a new post…

Feature image courtesy © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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