|Marvel Superheroes™ Role Playing Game|
TSR , 1984
Designed by Jeff Grubb, Written by Steve Winter
The museum does not have the full boxed set.
The Marvel Superheroes™ Role Playing Game (we'll dispense with the ™ from here on; assume it's there, but invisible) was not the first superhero RPG, coming far after both Superhero 2044 and Villains and Vigilantes. But it was the first superhero RPG to have a license from a popular comic book line, beating Mayfair Games DC Heroes by a year. We cannot say if players preferred taking on the role of a well-known hero to creating their own characters. But it must have been a thrill to encounter the well-known personalities of the popular comics. Besides the characters, the used of a licensed line gave GMs (judges, in the terminology of the game) access to the setting, developed over decades of comics.
The most prominent feature of the game was the simple mechanic: a universal table to resolve actions, essentially the same as Pacesetter's Chill game mechanic. The game was also memorable for being pitched to beginning role players. The authors attempted to write the game in the voices of Marvel characters, with Spiderman serving as the main narrator. This was not done as well as the Ghostbusters RPG rulebook and it was also not nearly as amusing, especially to older readers.
In line with the idea of being an introduction to roleplaying for a new (and young) audience, Marvel Superheroes (MSH) tried very hard to make the game playable right out of the box with limited preparation work. The game was bundled with all that was needed for play: dice, a map, pregenerated characters, an introductory scenario, and the rules were separated into two books, the first one explaining character abilities and the combat system, with the bulk of the rules, including character creation, being left to the second book, to be read after playing. The rules were well-illustrated with Marvel characters, and the Battle Book used two single page comics to illustrate how to play the game and how to conduct combat.
The Battle Book did not include character creation rules, instead using eight pregenerated characters, including Spiderman, Captain America, and The Thing. Characters in MSH had seven characteristics: Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche. (Some fans referred to the system as FASERIP for this reason.) A character's score in each of these would be described by a Rank: Feeble, Poor, Typical, Good, Excellent, Remarkable, Incredible, Amazing, Monstrous, and Unearthly. Each of these had a corresponding numerical value, found on the Universal Table, but the numbers were unnecessary in most circumstances. While the FASERIP characteristics were relatively fixed, heroes also had four additional abilities that would change during play: Health, Karma, Resources, and Popularity.
Health was a character's hit points, calculated as the sum of fighting, agility, strength, and endurance. Karma was a luck characteristic and could be spent on a point for point basis to modify die rolls. Starting Karma was the sum of Reason, Intuition, and Psyche. Resources and Popularity were reserved for the campaign game.
Characters also had superpowers, of course, and a couple of talents, which are skills that normal mortals might have. These were all provided on the character cards.
To generate new characters, one had to read the Campaign Book. A player could either stat out a Marvel character not contained in the set, or could create an original hero by describing his or her abilities. The player then went to the "power roster," which listed one or two characters at each rank for each ability. This allowed a player to estimate their ranks. For example, one might rate a character's fighting ability as about equivalent to the X-Man character, Rogue, which equated to an ability of Good. Players would calculate their variable abilities (Health, Karma, etc.), and choose their powers and talents. Powers were relatively loosely described, giving a lot of latitude to players to decide what they could do, subject to the judge's approval.
A player might also choose the random character generation system, where they rolled on a set of tables to determine what type of hero they had (mutant, altered human, high tech wonder, robot, or alien), their ability ranks, how many powers and talents they had, and what broad classes their powers came from (resistance, movement, nature control, etc.). Players chose their specific powers from each class's list, chose talents, and described their character's personality and background.
The Universal table was flexible, easy to use, and easy to interpret. One used the Rank of the appropriate ability to find the right column, and rolled percentile dice to determine the row. The result was either white (a failure) or a color (success). Colors were green, yellow, and red, indicating higher scores.
Actions were called Feats, an acronym for Function of Exceptional Ability or Talent. A desired Feat would be matched to the appropriate characteristic (such as Agility to dodge), the player rolled d100, and the result was checked on the proper column of the Universal Table. A Feat's difficulty could be easily adjusted in two ways. One was to require higher colors for success (for example, only a Yellow result or better will succeed). This was an optional rule in the Battle Book, but we assume most players leaped to using this rule very quickly. The second was the concept of Shifting. If a task was supposed to be harder, one shifted columns to the left, making success less likely. A shift right meant a higher probability of success.
Players could spend Karma to achieve better results. The player had to announce that he was spending Karma before the die roll. If the roll failed, then his Karma pool was depleted by enough to raise the roll to success, on a point for point basis. If the roll succeeded or failed by so much that the character lacked Karma to turn it into a success, the player paid ten points instead and the result stood. Players could also choose to reduce other characters' rolls by spending forty points to drop the result to the next lower color. Referee-controlled characters could also spend Karma, but no more than twenty points per roll (so they could not reduce the heroes' results).
Movement and combat had to be conducted on a map. The game came with a simple map of a small area of Marvel's New York City, considerably simpler than the real Manhattan, with far fewer buildings per block. The map was divided into areas, and characters could move one to three areas per turn, depending on their Endurance rank. There were simple rules for climbing, running up stairs, and falling off buildings (lose ten Health points per story fallen). Characters were represented by large cardboard counters supplied with the game, and there were additional markers to represent a cluttered area or one filled with a crowd, either of which would impair heroes' fighting abilities.
The combat system was a more detailed application of the basic game mechanic. Each round was defined as a single comic book panel (approximately ten seconds), so players generally had a good idea of what they could do in a round. Each side rolled a single d10 for initiative, with the higher score going first.
Most attacks were normal Feats. However, attackers had to indicate which type of attack they were making, because the different colored results had different effects for depending on the type of attack. For example, one might attack with one's hands (a Slugfest attack) or with a weapon (a Hack and Slash attack). A Strength attack might be Grappling, Escaping, or Snatching. For a Slugfest attack, a green result meant a normal hit; a yellow result indicated a possible Slam, and a red result meant a possible Stun effect. Slams and Stuns required the target to make Endurance checks. A slam meant being knocked down, possibly into another area, while a stun meant a character lost their action for this round.
Damage depended on what one attacked with, and was deducted from one's Health score. Fists did damage equal to the character's Strength Rank number. (For example, Remarkable Strength had a value of 30.) Most weapons did a fixed amount of damage (an assault rifle did ten points of damage). Blunt weapons shifted the attacker's Strength right one column for damage.
Armor reduced damage. The Rank value of the armor was subtracted from the attacker's damage. Physical armor mainly protected against physical attacks, with a four rank shift left for energy attacks, while force fields and the like could protect from energy attacks as well.
If a character's Health dropped to zero, they had to make an Endurance Feat. A white result meant the character was dying; colored results meant he was unconscious until the end of the battle in his area on the map, plus one round. A dying character shifted his Endurance one column left each round; when it reached Feeble, the character was dead. Any first aid would serve to stop the process and simply leave the character unconscious. There was an optional rule in the Campaign book that had the duration of unconsciousness depend on the color of the Endurance Feat result.
The Marvel Universe had magic, of course, but details are much less important in a superhero game than in a fantasy universe. Basically, a spell-casting character could describe any effect they wanted, and roll against their Psyche Rank to see if they succeeded. The character's Psyche determined not only the probability of success, but also the maximum duration of the spell and the area of effect and range of the spell. In addition, the described effect of the spell determined what energy the spell caster would draw from. Spells that affected the caster or a willing target drew from one's personal energies. After every spell, the sorcerer made an Endurance Feat, which a failure meaning the loss of ten Health. Spells that affected the environment drew from the universe's energy, and in this cast, the failure of the Endurance Feat meant a temporary loss of two Ranks of Psyche. Special spells require the aid of extra-dimensional beings such as Dormammu. Here, after casting the spell, the caster made a Popularity Feat, and a red result meant calling the attention of the extra-dimensional being of great power one was tapping: this being might attack or demand a service, which could be dreadfully inconvenient in the midst of a battle.
To borrow modern gaming terminology, the Karma economy was key to the campaign game. As noted above, players could spend their Karma points to avoid failing Feats. But Karma did not simply regenerate after each session: instead, characters had to earn it through heroic action. There was a table that showed the Karma reward one could get for various actions, such as stopping a crime in progress or arresting a villain. This being the Marvel Universe, one also earned Karma for actions outside of stopping crime: spending quality time with one's family, dating, celebrating normal life events, signing autographs...all of these were worth points. One could lose Karma for one's activities, too: failure to stop a crime, getting beaten in a fight, missing family or social obligations all cost points, as did failing to practice (either by going on regular patrol or going to the gym). Killing somebody lost your character all of her Karma.
Most rewards were small relative to what a character might spend in a single battle (only forty points for stopping a world-wide conspiracy!) so players were always under the gun to raise their Karma scores. While the books don't suggest it, we expect that fiendish referees made sure that family obligations kept heroes very busy! We note that this feature of the game was gently mocked in the notorious comic Murphy's Rules, where it was pointed out that a hero lost more Karma for missing a date than for stopping a theft. This was technically true, but only in the purest sense: while one could lose up to twenty Karma for missing a date, and gain only ten for stopping a theft, if your hero ignored that theft in order to make the date, the hero would lose ten to forty Karma. In any case, it hardly matters: many Marvel superheroes had social lives that were a shambles because of the strain of being a superhero, and this kind of bad Karma could make the character's life interesting indeed.
While building up a large pool of Karma effectively made a hero more powerful, MSH also allowed players to spend Karma to improve their character's basic abilities. This was sufficiently expensive as to make advancement extremely slow, and most players probably didn't bother. First, the player had to give up two hundred Karma to permit the process of saving points to begin. Once that price was paid, it cost a lot more to actually boost a character: improving abilities or powers cost the new rank multiplied by one hundred, buying an entirely new power cost three thousand Karma, and new (mundane) talents cost five hundred.
The Campaign Book
The campaign book included a lot more information that was needed for the game: vehicles, heavy weapons, figuring out alien equipment, random encounters, NPCs and NPC reactions, animals, and special environments (under water, in outer space, or in alternate dimensions). There were also very clean rules on inventions that fit the setting nicely, including Reed Richard's ability to cobble together virtually anything he needs in a short time (he "kit-bashes," which reduces the time needed to build a device, but ensures the device is a single use item) and the occasional non-hero who builds a power armor suit in his spare time in his basement (it costs a lot of Resources, takes a very long time, and is likely to fall apart in its first use).
The book gave two pages of very basic advice on how to be a judge, and some very helpful advice on creating villains. Villains were classified as conquerers, thieves, planners or maniacs, and the rules pointed out that most villains should be complex and might not fit a single category. Villains earned karma, too, albeit for committing antisocial acts, of course. The karma rules served to motivate villians to act in genre-appropriate ways, including points for putting heroes in death traps and explaining their plans to the heroes.
The Day of the Octopus
The scenario had two goals: to introduce the game to beginners, and to show off how the game worked. In this, it succeeded, but we found it intolerable. The writers made poor use of Doctor Octopus, and his behavior felt completely out of character. The writers were ham-handed in their use of the Karma mechanics, and every situation felt forced. The scenario also had a series of poorly handled deus ex machina rescues waiting should players fail. The Day of the Octopus was only appropriate for the very young.
Marvel Superheroes Advanced
The table made more use of color results to differentiate task difficulties, with default Feats requiring a yellow result instead of the green required by the basic game, and the advanced game introduced the idea of a Power Feat, where heroes might attempt new uses of their powers not originally contemplated by the rules. It cost loads of Karma to attempt a Power Feat, and the chance of success was lower than for a conventional Feat, but after ten successes, the Power Feat became part of the hero's regular repertoire, to be used without penalty.
Character creation was very similar to the original game, but each type of superhero (Altered Human, Mutant, High Tech, Robot, Alien) used slightly different tables to determine abilities. Other aspects of the game were changed as well. Using Resources now meant making a Feat roll instead of spending points, Talents were used to shift columns, and there were rules for characters with negative Popularity (usually villains). Karma rules were clearer as well, especially on when Karma should be awarded. The magic rules were also adjusted. Rather than making up spell effects, players used spells to create the same effects as the game's normal super powers. In addition, the caster's relationship with extra dimensional beings determined the results of a failed dimensional spell: if you were on good terms with the entity, a failure meant a weakened spell, while an entity you were on bad terms with would likely attack. Finally, spell casting difficulty was adjusted by the situation, through the use of column shifts.
The game stepped away from the map-based limits of the original boxed set by allowing for character movement using rulers rather than areas. The game also expanded out in the heroes lives by adding extensive equipment lists for characters to spend Resources on, adding to the basic set's weapons and armor lists with tools, living quarters, and means to outfit secret bases.
As introductory RPGs go, this was a very good one. The rules were simple, and the Universal table was far easier to understand than D&D's numerous combat tables. The game was evidently very popular in the day, and a google search will find a number of sites providing information and resources on this game. We suggest you start with Classic Marvel Forever, which appears to keep track of all of the materials produced for this game.
TSR tried a completely different game a decade later with the SAGA game engine. While SAGA has its admirers, it does not appear to have as much fan support as the original MSH rules.
As a game, the rules set a good balance between a hero's relatively fixed physical characteristics while allowing characters to develop in Resources, Popularity, and Karma. The pursuit of Karma would be the most immediate driver for the game, forcing players to not only beat up villains and foil crimes, but also to adhere to a heroic code for behavior and attend closely to the soap-opera elements of a character's personal life. Players ignored Karma at their peril, as it was needed for characters to be truly effective in their Feats. The Advanced game offered hints of extending the Karma system even further, showing GMCs that had personal codes of honor that offered additional penalties if a character violated those codes.
In the advanced game, players would probably choose to develop their characters by creating new power stunts instead of developing enhanced or completely new abilities. In this, the game fit the source materials rather well, as heroes used new tactics and tricks, but only rarely develop new powers.
The Universal Table with its adjectives was a clever system. The descriptors constantly reminded players that they were playing superhumans, and the three colored results were reminscent of the strong colors of Golden Age comics. While the game may not have aged well—the Karma mechanics are intrusive for modern role playing—it represents excellent game design for the day, and stands up well against its peers of the day. The advanced rules represent a valuable fine tuning of the system, and amazingly, the designers avoided the unnecessary complexity that typified designs of the period.
A Personal Note from the Curator
This game was one of the very few that I originally owned and didn't keep, but my reasoning was sound: I gave it to a friend who was a big-time Marvel fan and RPG player, and my group wasn't interested in superheroes. I began to miss this game recently, as the Museum expanded and a superhero division began to make sense. I remember admiring the Universal table mechanic. I also remember disliking the game, but I thought it was because the writing style was grating to an adult. I was wrong. Re-reading it for the museum, I couldn't see what my younger self found so objectionable until I read the excreble Day of the Octopus scenario, which was so juvenile that I felt creepy for still being interested in superheroes or even role playing at my age. The game is fine; I just hope the other scenarios TSR published were much, much better quality and were pitched to a more sophisticated audience.