There’s a new game in town that you may or may not be familiar with, Margaret Weis Productions ’ iteration of the latest Marvel superheroes RPG, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Having run every iteration of every Marvel RPG to date, I must say that the Marvel Heroic version may not only be the best but the first RPG in several years that has made me pause and appreciate the underlying mechanics within. Or in other words, made me feel like I wasn’t just doing the same old narrating exercise that I’ve been doing for 30+ years.
The Core Mechanic
At its heart, the Cortex Plus system in Marvel Heroic can simply be described as your basic die pool game where you assemble your polyhedrons, roll a gaggle of dice, and pick out the best two values to generate your action score and set aside a third die type (not value) as your effect. Simple. Done.
Everything else in the game—and I do mean everything—is built on this underlying mechanic. There’s no skill system, no special way to make attribute checks, floating penalties that you use to pull dice from your pool; not even an initiative test before you start tossing cars around. It’s a welcomed simplicity that creatively hides an underlying complexity that only becomes apparent the more you play.
As with most games, everything from this point is built around breaking this rule by adding in additional powers into your pool, keeping additional effect dice, triggering a special effect (SFX) and more through the use of plot points (PP). Plot points are the currency that drive the game.
Now these rolls are opposed by other characters or, in most cases, by the Watcher (GM in Marvel-speak) who has a special die pool called the Doom Pool. As the descriptive name strongly implies, the Watcher—via the Doom Pool—is the obstacle that stands in front of the characters and success. More on that later.
The Watcher, much like the players, spends dice from the Doom Pool to break the rules and cause interesting things to happen within the story, fuel the villains thirst for victory, or introduce new complications to hinder the characters.
Actions are narratively described as with most RPGs following 21st century design conventions by both the Watcher and the players. When you build your die pool and add in a d8 distinction die from your datafile, you describe in rough terms how your character is motivated by said distinction on their next action. Similarly, creating an asset die on the fly and handing it to your fellow player, describing what effect they’re receiving that provides an in-game reasoning for the additional die to their pool. It’s all very fluid and cooperative, which contrasts nicely with the big attraction of Marvel.
Marvel Heroic, by virtue of its clever system, is the most adversarial GM-player game I’ve played in a long time, if not ever. The Watcher and the heroes are directly in opposition to each other, not only in goals, but the mechanics also further drive the two groups into conflict against one another.
Now I say “adversarial” but it’s not like the players and GM are tossing chairs and smack talking each other (although the latter could happen quite easily); instead I am describing a mindset that Cortex Plus instills into the game itself. And it is a wonderful thing to behold!
The game shamelessly pits the Watcher characters against the heroes and, honestly, it being a superhero game and all, we’re pretty sure the heroes are going to ultimately win. But the Watcher can make it very, very painful and interesting. And that’s the great thing. The Watcher is empowered—and downright encouraged—to introduce barriers, new scene distinctions, complications, additional threats, even in some cases the ability to outright end a scene and narrate the resolution as they’d like.
Because the core system is so easy, Marvel Heroic has no need for screens or hiding of dice; everything is out in the open. The heroes make an action, setting the difficulty, and are pretty much daring the Watcher to beat their roll. The Watcher looks at their Doom Pool and with a knowing smile, ups the stakes and spends dice like candy to inflict stress or complications on the heroes, perhaps with a counterattack of their own. There’s a simple ballet that happens from action to action as the rolls are made, each side forcing the other to up the stakes. The best part is as the stakes are mechanically raised at the table, so too is the narration. In a matter of rounds buildings are being torn open, giant rooftop air conditioners tossed like weapons, and the Watcher introduces a new scene complication of “Trapped Victims” huddled before the rampaging villains, daring the heroes to resolve.
The genius of how Cortex Plus does this—aside from the resolution order and open die rolling—is the aforementioned plot points and Doom Pool. The heroes need plot points and the Watcher needs dice for the Doom Pool. Both sides start with a token amount but that’s gone in a flash. To create a scene-long asset costs a PP. To introduce a new threat requires the Watcher to permanently spend a die from the Doom Pool, and so on.
Anytime a roll is made that includes a value of 1 on a die is what the game considers an opportunity. The Watcher can use an opportunity rolled by a player to add—or step up an existing die—to the Doom Pool. Conversely, as a reward for doing so, the player is fed a highly-coveted PP. Players can spend PP when the Watcher rolls a 1 on their roll to similarly activate something unique, such as a scene long resource that the players will potentially be able to work into future rolls. The Watcher can add a die to their Doom Pool to make an important roll that normally goes away afterwards. Should the Watcher keep the die and return it to the Doom Pool, the hero affected receives a PP. It’s less about giving the player that PP as a “reward” and more about weighing whether you want to arm the player with another PP versus the strength of your own Doom Pool. An important distinction.
It’s this interaction that for one side to gain a resource then so must the other that is so great. The Watcher giggles with glee as a player rolls three 1s, adding a d8 to the Doom Pool and stepping up a d10 to a d12, handing the player two plot points in return. Conversely, when the Watcher rolls a series of 1s the players latch on to the opportunity to wrest narrative control away—albeit for a brief moment—to steer the story in their direction.
And that’s where Marvel Heroic excels: creating a semi-combative narrative experience where both sides are vested in the story and are trying to adjust it to their benefit but both sides, ultimately, cooperatively making an enjoyable roleplaying experience.
Another element that builds into this collaborative/competitive play style is how XP is handed out. Well, actually, it isn’t handed out at all. The Watcher doesn’t award XP; the players earn it by completing their milestones. Each character has two personal milestones as well as milestones made available in the Event (adventure) that they are playing in. Pick two. Each milestone has 1XP, 3XP, and 10XP thresholds to achieve. If you’re able to do one of the milestones in play, you earn the XP.
So what’s unique about this? The milestones encourage the players to become active participants in the story. So a character that has a milestone built around self-sacrifice may receive XP for throwing themselves in the way of danger, sacrificing themselves to aid another, etc. If they can narrate this action into the game—it’s their responsibility, not the Watcher’s—then they’ve earned the XP.
Another way to earn XP is when the Watcher screws you over, such as rolling a d12 against you (the highest die type used in the game) or spending 2d12 to end a scene. Marvel Heroic essentially says, “The Watcher just boned you over good. Take 2XP for your troubles!”
Like most games XP can be used to further characters and make them more powerful but the more interesting use of XP is to purchase “unlockables” during an Event that provide a tangible story-based effect. Buy the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents into working for the heroes during the next Act, for example.
And if you’re able to complete your milestone during play? No worries, you just pick another.
For the Watcher the XP system takes them out of the equation, which I love. You don’t need to measure or weigh XP awards to keep the heroes on equal footing; the players determine their level of involvement and are encouraged, by the game, to be active participants in helping craft the story. Honestly, in a game where the Black Widow can hang with Ms. Marvel on the power scale, character advancement is something of a side note.
Make Mine Marvel!
As I said, this wasn’t intended as a review but I’m obviously pretty high on the game. It’s a rare game where I’m engaged enough as a GM and a designer to pull back the layers and dig deeper into the system and how its mechanics interact. Cortex Plus’ use of terminology (assets, complications, resources, etc) is so non-descriptive to be confusing at times; this is a game you really need to play and see in action to appreciate its nuances. What I really enjoy is how the system encourages a style of play that is befitting the material it’s seeking to emulate.
It just so happens that both Gnome Stew’s book, Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any RPG  and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying are nominated for “Product of the Year” in this year’s ENnies. While I’ve great affection and pride for the work done by myself and the other gnomes on Masks, if I can’t have Marvel Heroic’s man babies they at least will get my vote for an awesome game.
(Speaking of which, have you have voted for Gnome Stew and our three ENnie nominations? Do it now !)