Buckets of Dice: AKA “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying”

Marvel_Heroic_Roleplaying

So recently I was going through that phase that (almost) every roleplaying geek goes through where they think; “Oh hey, I should totally make a roleplaying game….from scratch!”  Like most other gamers that get this weird itch, I had no idea what I was doing.  But I knew that I wanted to make a superhero roleplaying game that simulated the concept of playing a superhero inside of a comic book.  Long story short, I was getting nowhere pretty fast.  This was even after I had looked to various supers games that I knew and even a few that I didn’t.  I wanted to take little bits that worked from all of them and incorporate them into a simple, fast action, story flowing roleplaying system.  While I was doing this, of course, I took a look (again) at the latest Marvel rpg called “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying” by Margaret Weis Productions.  Somehow, my interest was derailed from creating something from scratch to tweaking the hell out of this system to that it wasn’t so damn complicated to follow on paper or to play at the table.

Now, I should probably point out that I have never played or ran this game with any group.  I’ve never even seen the game being played.  However, even after reading COUNTLESS reviews, forum posts and responses from one of the designers on the system, I have discovered that attempting to simplify this game may actually be a fool’s errand.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the game, MHR was advertised as a simple to play, unique system by which players can control their favorite Marvel characters and play out a gaming session that will end up feeling very much like playing through their favorite comics.  Sounds great.  Except that if you read what I read this past week on all these online forums for the game, you would probably be more confused and aggravated about the whole thing before you ever sat down to roll your first bucket ‘o dice.  Yes, this is a dice pool game.  A dice pool game that, apparently, has players rolling anywhere from 3 (minimum) dice to 12+ dice.  Keep in mind that the main mechanic in this game is:

“Choose which abilities/distinctions/specialty dice your character is using to do something and roll those dice.  From the results, keep two and add them together–that’s your effort/attack target number.  Then, you choose one of the dice you didn’t add up as the ‘effect/damage’ die for that action.  The GM rolls difficulty against your effort or a character being attacked rolls THEIR dice pool (using the same mechanics/methods) and compares their numbers and effect dice to yours.”

Sounds simple?  According to those who have actually played it, its a lot easier to play than it seems in the instruction manual.  Apparently, the manual for the game isn’t very easy to follow.  Whether its a layout or writing issue is anyone’s guess or opinion, I suppose.  But I have to admit, trying to grasp the immense amount of terminology the game uses made my brain explode and want to do something else.  Just to give you an idea, the GM “cheat sheet” that was put out by Weis Productions is three pages long!  Looking at it, it was like someone was trying to say, “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is as easy to understand as…” a Honda engine.

Behold: The Watcher Cheat Sheet

In writing this post, I actually found a much easier to follow explanation of the rules here.  Go ahead and take a gander at that one if you’ve never read the main book–its a really good indication on how overcomplicated this game is on paper.  For starters, there’s like six different things you can do with Plot Points/Doom Dice.  Then there’s the terminology:  Assets, Complications, Stunts, Push Dice, this list goes on.  Its an overly complicated game for what’s supposed to be a fast, easy to understand game where you play superheroes.  Its overly complicated in that there are so many little facets to the game that the mechanics seem to get in the way of creating a simple scene of actions.

There’s a fairly infamous example of play on the internet forums and blogs for this game that has Spider-Man using his super strength to rip up a piece of machinery on top of a building and hurling it at the Vulture (who’s trying to get away) in order to “Shutdown” his flying ability or his “Asset: Far Away” (whatever that means).  In the example, the author explains how that scene would play out via the rules of the MHR game system.  The fucking thing takes up almost three pages of text!  In any other supers system (yes, even M&M) this simple action scene would have taken infinitely less time.  Well, go ahead and read the example yourself.

Like I said, buckets of dice.  Buckets of dice for a scene that should have been resolved a little longer than it takes to read the illustrated version.

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Problems with Mutants and Masterminds

Mutants and Mastermind’s new 3rd edition still has trouble with its mechanics.

For me personally, I really don’t like M&M. I didn’t like it when I played it for the first time at a comic shop all those years ago. For some reason, it bugged me that their system utilized the D20 mechanics everyone (including myself) was familiar with from Dungeons and Dragons. I’m not a D&D purist but for some reason that just felt…wrong.

Nevertheless, in my quest (hur hur) to take part in supero rpgs of any kind, I tried playing in various games that utilized the system. The games themselves left a lot to be desired from me but I took them in stride and did the best I could with whatever character I was able to play. What I found consistent from game to game was that no one agreed with how several character properties were portrayed by the rules (or how some players portrayed those same characters). Toughness rolls felt stupid to me. Also, the rules regarding group attacks (gang-up style) felt really ridiculous. But despite all of those nitpicks from me, the one glaring problem I found with this game is that players tended to start around the same “power level.”

Now here is where I seriously draw my line of disbelief. Its where characters like The Punisher and The Sentry can stand next to one another in a scenario and consider themselves “equal” in terms of game balance. For a game system or a GM to ask for game balance between two such characters is completely insane to me. There is no “balance” between Superman and Catman, nor should there be–ever. Sure, every hero brings something different to the table. The Punisher doesn’t possess the strength of a thousand suns but he has a certain set of skills he can use to hunt you down and kill you with any weapon (look out, Liam Neeson). In M&M, if Superman successfully punched Catman, the player controlling Cat still makes a Toughness roll and could use a Hero Point to negate damage or stave off negatives, etc. In the comics, Catman would be out with one hit from Superman, period.

This isn’t to say that M&M is a bad game system to use to create super hero characters.  In fact, I can make the argument that the system has too many options for players to go with-at least when it comes to portraying characters from Marvel and DC.  Trust me, when you see a Wolverine build with “Invulnerable 4” instead of anything that says “Regeneration” on his sheet, you know you’re in rpg bizarroland.

So, to me, M&M doesn’t portray established characters very well through their mechanics.  The very idea that The Silver Surfer should be portrayed “with balance” when entering a game with power level 8’s is completely outside of my reality. That might work with D&D or some other supers setting, but it just doesn’t work with licensed characters from Marvel or DC, for example.  Not for me.

Now with that said, the most enjoyable (or at least memorable) M&M games I took part in were actually low level games that didn’t use established heroes and villains. Instead, the players were told to make their own characters with unique powers. Now the power levels were ok with me. I know its strange to say that, but it just worked for me. This may vary for many other people but, for me, M&M works when players are made to make their own characters in their own made up universe.  I think this is where players can get the most enjoyment out of that game system.

By doing that, it avoids situations where one player says to the other, “Batman can’t do that?! WTF bro?!” According to my friend Stephen, this exact thing happened to one of his players that was portraying the Dark Knight Detective.  It was a case where this player felt that the game mechanics were not doing justice to Batman’s ability to outsmart and take out foes tougher than he was. As a result, both of my friend’s players pretty much quit the game partway through the second session. This surprised me because; what is a system?

A gaming system is just a delivery vehicle for a story, really. If roleplaying game stories were plays, the game mechanics just serve as the stage, lighting and acoustics so that the actors (characters) can perform as they should and create a “suspension of disbelief” for the audience (the players). If I enjoyed the story of a game but found that the mechanics to a game was getting in the way somehow, I would ask that we change systems to something else that will allow for a better flow of story, handle on character actions, development, etc.

Perhaps the story was lacking in strength (not surprising, since I contributed to it) or maybe M&M was just getting too much in the way of the player’s portrayal of their favorite characters. Either way, a good time was not had by all and the game was suddenly cancelled. Did this have something to do with the fact that it was a super hero game? I think yes.

When I imagine running a super hero game, I think of an easy to run system with benchmarks for abilities, without complicated or silly rules when it comes to adjudicating damage, etc.  One system that did this very well was the out of print Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game.  My friends have successfully played that game for years and it still continues to entertain with its elegant simplicity.  In fact, it was so simple that my friends and I made up house rules for it to make it a little more interesting (we added a die roll for initiative, for one).  Maybe making the game your own is one way to having a better time with a system overall.  I think of all those “old school” D&D lovers who still enjoy the old system.  Of course, that old system is usually house ruled almost into a different game altogether.

As for the best systems I’ve used to run supers, I nominate the old DC Heroes game (with some slight modifications, perhaps), the obscure and equally out of print Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game…and that’s it. Neither one is flawless, despite how much I liked running and playing them, but they run much better than M&M.  The new Marvel Heroes game (at a glance) from Margaret Weiss productions seems…just OK.  There are some nice bits in there but the game mechanics are way too gamey for my taste.  Not a fan of lots of dice rolling.  Happy gaming.

Dying is half the battle

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So recently I thought that it would be a cool idea to do two things:

1) Try out a new generic rpg system I purchased called HeroQuest with a group of friends.

2) Run a GIJoe one-shot based in the dark and gritty IDW comics Joeverse.

Like most things, I thought wrong.

Short version:  It was another disaster.

Long Version (go ahead and grab a drink):

I like narrative based role playing games.  I really do.  Maybe its a thing with getting older, but I really dislike games that feature overly complicated rules.  This is especially true of systems that tend to pigeonhole your player’s characters into a specific role.  Ironically, I think those type of systems fit the GIJoe modern-military-adventure-genre much better than ones like HeroQuest.

With that said, I really like HeroQuest and wanted to try to make it work for this game.  Even after the repeated failures of running the horror-mecha-military-action based Cthulhu Tech with HQ, I foolishly thought, “I think can make it work!”  I even sent a draft copy of the scenario I wrote to my friend Stephen (who is a HUGE GIJoe-phile, like me) and he said “…it sounds like an awesome one-shot!”  Well, after that confirmation, I got to work.

For days I wrote, re-wrote, researched the characters, consulted real world maps, consulted my friend’s advice, spent $40 on printer cartridges in anticipation of all the printing I would be doing.  I even made themed “filecard” style character sheets for the players, printed out 13 black and white photo profiles of the Joes and had them individually laminated so that they just sit on the portrait area on the character sheets (much easier and cheaper than printing out 13 different blank character sheets).  I printed out a roster sheet, the adventure (of course) and even a cheat sheet for rules.

Note:  The laminating was done ENTIRELY by my lovely wife as I possess NO technical or crafty skills whatsoever.

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The main idea was fairly simple; the players would portray 4 of the “original 13” GIJoes.  The story would alternate between their nighttime raid on Cobra Island (set in the recent past) and cinematic interludes (in the present time) where Generals Joseph Colton (the original GIJoe) and Lawrence Flagg testify before a senate select committee on intelligence.  So, if you can imagine beginning an action scene with a hard cut to some boring back and forth between two old guys (always a bad idea, btw) that’s what this game was kind of like.  Strike one.

The mission would involve the 13 splitting up to complete different tasks around the island in order to achieve an overall goal; find and kill Cobra Commander.  Breaker and one other Joe would end up jamming Cobra’s communications and shutting down the power to the Spanish fort that served as a headquarters.  Some other Joes would be part of a massive assault on the base in order to draw away the majority of Cobra forces away from the fort so that the rest of the team (the players) could successfully infiltrate the fort via underground escape tunnels.

As for the opposition, I only had a few small fights planned.  One had the Joes easily taking out a small patrol of Cobra Troppers as they HALO jumped into the island’s forested areas.  The second involved the Joes fighting some crocodiles in the tunnels on their way to the fort.  The third fight was against two Cobra agents (Crocmaster & Guillotine) and was purposely designed to be difficult since everything else was supposed to be simple.  Even the showdown against Cobra Commander was supposed to be pretty easy.  There’s a rhyme and a reason for this that I will touch on shortly.  The last fight was supposed to either be really easy or somewhat difficult.  The players were going to face off with Cobra Commander and his personal guards, after all.

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The scenario I wrote ended with Cobra Commander dead and the Joes flying away in a chopper.  But just as the players were supposed to be flipping out about how they popped a cap in Cobra Commander’s blue clad ass, Firefly steps out of the shadows on the island and shoots down the chopper.  The chopper crashes into the ocean and the subject of “who died, who didn’t die” was purposely left ambiguous.  Once again, there is a rhyme and a reason for this.  One of the last interludes that switches back from the action had Joe Colton admit to the committee that he didn’t know what went wrong with the operation and that he’s not sure who’s alive or dead at the moment.  He then storms out of the committee chambers after they effectively shut down the GIJoe program for good.  Almost immediately after this, a guy in a long coat approaches Colton and shoots at him three times.  Flagg tackles Joe to the ground, trying to shield him, but fails to do so.  When Flagg looks up, the shooter is GONE and Colton has three bloodstains on his chest. Then somewhere in a dark office a phone rings and the REAL Commander answers the phone.  Firefly reports that GIJoe is dead, mission accomplished.  Cobra Commander says ‘nice work’ but then is interrupted by Firefly with some other news; Joe Colton is also dead but no one knows who did it.  The Commander is surprised at this but doesn’t give it too much thought.  Good riddance, right?  Cobra Commander then tells Firefly to proceed and hangs up the phone.  The end.

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OK.  So, to sum it up; In this one-shot the Joes assault Cobra Island and kill Cobra Commander.  Firefly then kills the Joes and Joe Colton gets plugged in Washington by an unknown attacker.  The game was intended to encourage discussion and questions about the plot.  Shit like “you just killed Joe Colton?!” and “did we just die?!” or “oh shit, it was a setup!” or even “OHHH Firefly!!!!!11!”  Intense!  Right?  Well, not so much–as it turned out.

As an aside: After the one shot I was planning on running a directly related storyline that explored what happened to the Joes after they were shot down (surprise! not all of them died), who shot Joe Colton and why (it wasn’t Cobra!), stuff like that.  I had thought up a semi-episodic style of gameplay that involved the players choosing new Joes that would be tracking down the original Joes who were either dead, captured or captured and brainwashed by Cobra.

Anywho, the combats were fairly clumsy and awkward.  There was little to no roleplaying by the majority of players.  In addition to that, there was no sense of danger at ANY point in the adventure–even when I improvised some traps in the underground tunnels.  I received a lot of blank stares, and long silences when I prompted the players for a response to something that was happening in the game.  There was a lot of that especially at the end of the game when the chopper crashes and Colton gets shot.  Lastly, there was no feedback.  None.  Somehow, that’s worse than, “awww man, wtf?” or “man, this system sucks!” or even “what was that all about?”  Folks got up one or two at a time and emigrated out of that game room faster than I could realize what was happening.  Needless to say, no one mentioned the game or GIJoe after that at all. Well, after the game I had a loooooong time to think about what went wrong and why.  This sort of thinking, by the way, keeps me up at odd hours of the night when I have to get out of bed to pee.  Fun times.  But the next day I sorta kinda figured out what happened and why the game sucked so fucking bad.  I broke it down into 3 possible culprits:

1) The GM

2) The system

or

3) The players

It’s not the players.  Normally, they’re the first ones I target when I ask why things went wrong.  For instance, I have always said and adhered to the idea that it doesn’t matter what game you’re playing, just with WHOM you’re playing it with.  Granted, there wasn’t a lot of roleplaying on their part, some kept playing with their fucking phones or walking out of the room to chit chat with someone else not playing and at times and I needed to prompt them to action, but that part gets explained in the next portion.  So despite my hangups with the group, they were not at the crux of the problem. It wasn’t the system.  HeroQuest is not perfect, it has problems just like any other roleplaying game–quibbles, if you like.  Even with those problems, I really like the system and would love to use it for every genre of gaming.  Having said that, even I can agree that some genres are better fitted with other gaming systems.  This game, for instance, I know works really well with Savage Worlds and D20 Modern.  I know this because my friend Stephen that I mentioned earlier wrote some pretty awesome games set in the GIJoe universe with both systems–most recently Savage Worlds.  So although the game proved to be lackluster in the crunchy bits for the crowd that’s used to rolling lots of dice and getting excited whenever they rolled a crap ton of damage, the game system was not the problem.

I was the problem.  Here’s why:

1) After the game, I thought of much better ways to have utilized the system to my advantage and created a much better flow for combat.  Just by doing that, I would have probably engaged the players better, generated interest in their character’s fates and stir up some mystique with Colton’s murder.  So, in short, if I would have had more time to prepare, if I would have thought it out more, it would have been a better running scenario and thus a better running game.

2) Not enough visuals.  Here’s the thing about this gaming group; they LOVE board games.  And the roleplaying games that they do play depend a lot on the use of miniatures (not so much tactically but definitely for visual representation) maps, tokens, etc.  Again, after the game I had all sorts of ideas of what kind of visual representations I could have used to constitute Result Points (abstract hit points, for lack of a better term, in HeroQuest), Heropoints (used as both xp and ways to boost successes and turn failures into successes) and other things.  Action figures like Heroclix would have been great to have, for instance, if I couldn’t get my hands on actual GIJoe figs.  So no visual cues = bad.  Got it.

3)  Different system.  These guys were used to much more traditional rpgs.  You know, the ones with rulebooks that resemble tomes or phone books?  The ones that have a gazillion sourcebooks that cost upwards of $30-50 each?  Yeah, those.  Actually, I can’t knock their preferences since the only rpgs I’ve played in the four months I’ve been gaming with them are D20 Star Wars Saga Edition (not a big fan) and Savage Worlds (BIG fan).  That being said, in retrospect, I should have gone with Savage Worlds or something like it to simulate something like GIJoe.  Having played it before with Stephen, I knew it worked but I wanted to both experiment with a new system AND run a one-shot with it.  Nothing out of this world with that idea.  But ultimately, the system just didn’t seem to fit with both the genre and the players, despite how easily they made characters for it and were underway playing and understanding the mechanics.