Marvel Super Heroes (role-playing game)
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Cover of Marvel Superheroes: Advanced Set
|Publication date||1984 (1st edition)
1986 (Advanced Game)
Marvel Super Heroes (MSHRPG) is a role playing game set in the Marvel Universe, first published by TSR as Marvel Super Heroes: The Heroic Role-Playing Game under license from Marvel Comics in 1984. In 1986, TSR published an expanded edition, entitled the Marvel Superheroes Advanced Game. Jeff Grubb designed both editions, and Steve Winter wrote both editions. Both use the same game system.
The basic game was designed to let players assume the roles of superheroes from Marvel Comics, such as Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and others. The game was designed to be easy to understand, and the simplest version, found in the 16-page "Battle Book" of the Basic Set, contains a bare-bones combat system sufficient to resolve comic book style superheroic fights.
Most game situations are resolved by rolling percentile dice and comparing the results against a column of the colorful "Universal Results Table". The column used is determined by the attribute used; different tasks are resolved by reference to different attributes. All characters have seven basic attributes:
Fighting, which determines hit probability in and defense against hand-to-hand attacks.
Agility, which determines hit probability in and defense against ranged attacks, feats of agility vs. the environment, and similar acrobatics.
Strength, which determines damage inflicted by hand-to-hand attacks as well as the success of tasks such as grappling or the lifting and breaking of heavy objects.
Endurance, which determines resistance to physical damage (e.g., poison, disease, death) it also determined how long a character can fight and how fast a character could move at top speed by exerting themselves.
Reason, which determines the success of tasks relating to knowledge, puzzle-solving, and advanced technology.
Intuition, which determines the success of tasks relating to awareness, perception, and instinct.
Psyche, which determines the success of tasks relating to willpower, psionics, and magic.
Players sometimes refer to this set of attributes, or the game system as a whole, by the acronym "FASERIP". Attribute scores for the majority of characters range from 1 to 100, where normal human ability is Typical (6), and peak (non-superheroic) human ability is Excellent (20). However, the designers minimize use of the numerical figures, instead preferring adjectives in the Marvel Comics tradition, such as "Incredible" (scores from 36-45) and "Amazing" (46-62). A "Typical" (5-7) attribute has a 50% base chance for success at most tasks relating to that attribute. For example, a character with "Typical" fighting skill has a base chance of 50% to connect with a punch. As an attribute increases, the chance of success increases by about 5% per 10 points. Thus a character with an "Amazing" (50) attribute has a 75% chance of success at tasks relating to that attribute.
Beyond the seven attributes, characters possessed superpowers, such as Spider-Man's wall crawling, or Mister Fantastic's elasticity. The powers function on a mostly ad hoc basis, and thus each character's description gives considerable space to a description of how his or her powers work in the game.
Each character had an origin, which put ceilings on a character's abilities and superpowers. The origins included: Altered Humans (normal people who acquired powers, such as Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four), High-Tech Wonders (normal people whose powers come from devices, e.g., Iron Man), Mutants (persons born with superpowers, such as the X-Men), Robots (created beings such as the Vision and Ultron), and Aliens (a blanket term used to cover non-humans, including extra-dimensional beings such as Thor and Hercules).
The game also features a simple skill system, referred to as Talents. Talents have to be learned and cover a wide range of areas of knowledge from Archery to Zoology. A Talent raises a character's ability by one rank when attempting actions related to that Talent. For example, a character uses his Agility score when attempting ranged attacks. A character with an Agility of Excellent would normally roll on that column when attacking with a rifle. However, if the character has the "Guns" Talent, they would treat their Agility as the next higher power rank (Remarkable). The GM is free to determine if a character would be unable to attempt an action without the appropriate Talent (such as a character with no medical background attempting to make a pill that can cure a rare disease).
Resources and Popularity
Characters also had two variable attributes: Resources and Popularity. These attributes were described using the same terms as the character's seven attributes ("Poor," "Amazing," "Unearthly," etc.). But unlike the seven physical and mental attributes which changed very slowly, if at all, Resources and Popularity could change very quickly.
The first of the variables, Resources, represented the character's wealth and ability to obtain goods or services. Rather than have the player keep track of how much money the character had in the bank or with him, the Advanced Game assumed the character had enough money coming in to cover his basic living expenses. The Resources ability was used when the character wished to purchase something out of the ordinary like a new car or house. For example, the referee might decide a character with Typical resources would probably be unable to purchase a brand new sports car, but with a Yellow Resources roll might be able to afford a used car in good condition. The game books note that a character's Resources score can change for a variety of reasons, such as winning the lottery or having a major business transaction go bad.
The second variable, Popularity, reflected how much the character was liked (or disliked) in the Marvel Universe. Popularity could be used to influence non-player characters. A superhero with a high rating, like Captain America (whose popularity is Unearthly-the highest most characters can achieve), might be able to use his Popularity to gain entrance to a club because the general population of the Marvel Universe admires him. If he were to try the same thing as his secret identity Steve Rogers (whose Popularity is only Typical), he would probably be unable to do it. Villains also had a Popularity score, which was usually negative (a bouncer might let Doctor Doom or Magneto into the aforementioned club simply out of fear). There were several ways Popularity could change. For example, if Doctor Doom defeated Spider-Man in front of the general public, Spidey's Popularity would go down for a short time. But if everyone's favorite web-slinger managed to foil one of Doctor Doom's plans and the word got out, he would enjoy a temporary Popularity boost. Since mutants were generally feared and distrusted in the Marvel Universe, these characters start with a Popularity of 0 and have a hard time improving this attribute.
The game was intended to be played using existing Marvel characters as the heroes. The Basic Set and Advanced Set both contained fairly simple systems for creating original superheroes, based on random ability rolls (as in Dungeons & Dragons). In addition, the Basic Set Campaign Book also allowed players to create original heroes by simply describing the desired kind of hero, and working together with the GM to assign the appropriate abilities, powers, and talents.
The Ultimate Powers Book, by David Edward Martin, expanded and organized the game's list of powers, making a fairly comprehensive survey of comic book-style super-powers. Players were given a wide variety of body types, secret origins, weaknesses, and powers. The UPB gave a much greater range to characters one could create. Additionally, the book suffered from editing problems and omissions; several errata and partial revisions were released in the pages of TSR's Dragon magazine in issue #122 "The Ultimate Addenda to the Ultimate Powers Book", issue #134 "The Ultimate Addenda's Addenda", issue #150 "Death Effects on Superheroes", and issue #151 "Son of the Ultimate Addenda".
The game's equivalent of experience points was Karma, a pool of points initially determined as the sum of a character's three mental attributes (Reason, Intuition, and Psyche).
The basic system allowed players to increase their chances of success at most tasks by spending points of Karma. For example, a player who wanted to make sure he would hit a villain in a critical situation could spend however many Karma points were necessary to raise the dice roll to the desired result. Additional Karma points were distributed by the referee at the end of game sessions, typically as rewards for accomplishing heroic goals, such as defeating villains, saving innocents, and foiling crimes. Conversely, Karma could be lost for unheroic actions such as fleeing from a villain, or failing to stop a crime: in fact, in a notable departure from many RPGs (but strongly in keeping with the genre), all Karma was lost if a hero killed someone or allowed someone to die.
In the Advanced Game, Karma points could also be spent to permanently increase character attributes and powers (at a relatively moderate cost, ten times the attribute number raised, powers were steeper, at twenty times the number). The Karma system thus united two RPG mechanics—"Action" or "Hero" points (which allow players to control random outcomes) and character advancement (e.g., "experience points")—in one system. Though this system could frustrate both referees and players (the former because a player willing and able to spend Karma could effectively overcome any challenge at least once; the latter because advancement was slow compared with most other RPGs), it had the virtue of emulating two central features of super-hero comics, namely, that heroes almost always win, even in improbable circumstances, and that heroes' power levels remain mostly static. Furthermore, the system encouraged players to keep their characters' behavior to the equivalent concept of their alignment by giving an incentive to behave heroically and morally correct.
Marvel Superheroes was driven by two primary game mechanics: column shifts and colored results. Both essentially influenced the difficulty of an action.
A column shift is used when a character is attempting an exceptionally hard or easy action. A column shift to the left indicates a penalty, while a shift to the right indicates a bonus. For example, Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) has an Intuition of Excellent, making him significantly more perceptive than the average person whose Intuition is Typical (two ranks lower). The GM might determine that spotting a trap hidden beneath a few sticks and leaves will be fairly easy, and give the player running Mr. Fantastic a +1 column shift. His Intuition will be treated as Remarkable (the next column to the right). However, a trap buried underground might be considerably harder to spot, and the GM might give the player a -1 column shift penalty. In this case, Mr. Fantastic's Intuition will only be treated as Good (the column to the left).
The column for each ability is divided into four colors: white, green, yellow, and red. A white result is always a failure or unfavorable outcome. In most cases, getting a green result was all that was needed to succeed at a particular action. Yellow and red results usually indicated more favorable results that could knock back, stun, or even kill an opponent. However, the GM could determine that succeeding at an exceptionally hard task might require a yellow or red result.
Additional rules in the "Campaign Book" of the Basic Set, and the subsequent Advanced Set, used the same game mechanic to resolve non-violent tasks. For example, if a superhero needs to figure out how to operate a piece of alien technology, the hero would have to succeed at a Reason roll, where the chance of success is modified by the complexity of the device.
Official game supplements
The original Marvel Super Heroes game received extensive support from TSR, covering a wide variety of Marvel Comics characters and settings, including a Gamer's Handbook of the Marvel Universe patterned after Marvel's Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. MSH even received its own column in the (at the time) TSR-published gaming magazine, Dragon, called "The Marvel-phile", which usually spotlighted a character or group of characters that hadn't yet appeared in a published game product.
Steve Kenson commented that "it's a testament to the game's longevity that it still has enthusiastic fan support on the Internet and an active play community more than a decade after its last product was published. Even more so that it continues to set a standard by which new superhero roleplaying games are measured. Like modern comic book writers and artists following the greats of the Silver Age, modern RPG designers have a tough act to follow."
Later Marvel RPGs
Before losing the MSH license back to Marvel Comics, TSR published a different game using their SAGA System game engine, called the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game. This version, written by Mike Selinker, was published in the late 1990s as a card-based version of the Marvel role-playing game (though a method of converting characters from the prior format to the SAGA System was included in the core rules). Though critically praised in various reviews at the time, it never reached a large market and has since faded into obscurity.
In 2003, after the gaming license had reverted to Marvel Comics, the Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game was published by Marvel Comics. This edition uses mechanics that are totally different from any previous versions, using a diceless game mechanic that incorporated a Karma-based resolution system of "stones" (or tokens) to represent character effort. Since its initial publication, a few additional supplements were published by Marvel Comics. However, Marvel stopped supporting the game a little over a year after its initial release, despite going through several printings of the core rulebook.
In August 2011, Margaret Weis Productions acquired the licence to publish an RPG based on Marvel superheroes, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was released beginning in 2012. Margaret Weis Productions, however, found that although the game was critically acclaimed, winning two Origins Awards, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War "didn’t garner the level of sales necessary to sustain the rest of the line" so they brought the game to a close at the end of April 2013.
- "The History of TSR". Wizards of the Coast. Archived from the original on 2008-10-04. Retrieved 2005-08-20.
- Michael A. Martin, "Superhero Role-Playing Games" in Gina Renée Misiroglu and David A. Roach, The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia Of Comic-Book Icons And Hollywood Heroes. Visible Ink Press, 2004, ISBN 9781578591541 (pp. 512-515).
- Kenson, Steve (2007). "Marvel Super Heroes". In Lowder, James. Hobby Games: The 100 Best. Green Ronin Publishing. pp. 196–199. ISBN 978-1-932442-96-0.
- Press release: http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/22075.html
- Copy of the press release