Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Return to Marvel Super Heroes!

My group has started playing Marvel Super Heroes for about three sessions now. Before that I don't think I'd played it since maybe 1991. I went through a phase in the 90s where I delved into increasingly complicated RPGs with crunchier and crunchier systems. I think that trend probably culminated with HERO Fantasy. Nowadays the pressures of kids, business ventures, career and other creative pursuits makes a fast, rules-light system like MSH pretty much perfect.



This is not some grognard post about how RPGs peaked in the 80s or how I don't need new games. No, what struck me about the system after returning to it after so long is how similar it is to a new RPG. People keep telling me that Fate is the best system for a supers game. Now I understand why. 

The Fate Core system and its streamlined version Fate Accelerated Edition share a common language with Marvel FASERIP. There is a ladder of adjectives describing both the ability of the characters and the intensity of the action. Granted, the language of MSH is more over-the-top with words like "Incredible" and "Amazing," but it is a comic-book game. Words like "epic" and "legendary" fit Fate's assumed fantasy setting even if they seem a bit dry in comparison. The feats and stunts of both games match up well enough that it seems like no accident. Both games also lack the lethal element you find in a lot of old school RPGs.

The real kicker though, is the special Fate Dice. Marvel Super Heroes uses percentile dice and a chart. In a single roll you get your result and the degree of your success (like how much damage you do). Charts fell out of favour sometime in the 90s (probably around the same time dice pools became all the rage). The fancy fate dice offer the same variation of success in a single roll that you get with the Marvel FASERIP system without the cumbersome retro chart from the dark ages of gaming.

(cumbersome retro chart from the dark ages of gaming)

The place where the systems diverge the most is the randomness of character generation. Even though you are allowed to choose powers after rolling the categories in MSH (so you don't end up with opposing powers or silly combinations), rolling randomly for everything is the default. Fate is all about choosing all the elements of the character to build something interesting. I find I get more interesting characters by discovering them through rolls. Had I chose my character's abilities I would have made them all water-based and had a character that could transform into a mass of fresh water so I could move freely and paralyze vampires with ease. Instead I ended up with the Crimson Cricket, an armoured strongman with a sonic attack and wings. The light manipulation power I rolled turned out to be pretty useful against vampires as well. Oddly, the player in our group who min-maxes (he calls it optimizing) his characters chose a similar power group, without the light manipulation. It will be interesting to see how we differentiate ourselves on the team despite that.

Certainly there are more differences than similarities between MSH and Fate, but gameplay for the two games has a common feel. I remember a lot of gamers having trouble moving between MSH and other systems back in the day. The distinct, loose nature of the Marvel system with its one-quick-roll-and-you're-done style of play might account for that. It also might account for why the game hangs on today. There is so much love for Marvel Super Heroes on the internet it is insane. There is even a website with free downloads of all the MSH rulebooks, supplements and adventure modules called Classic Marvel Forever. The site has existed for 14 years so it's safe to say Marvel is letting it slide. The fact that such support exists for an out-of-print game from the 80s blows my mind a little.

Our group isn't exactly playing Classic Marvel Super Heroes. We're using the revised basic rules pretty much as is, but the assumed universe is not the Marvel Universe. In true comic book style we're dimension-hopping through realities with Lamentations of the Flame Princess's Alice in Wonderland inspired setting, A Red and Pleasant Land, as our ultimate goal for long term campaigning. At the moment we seem to be moving through different fictional settings. Since our GM is a Robert Heinlein fan I assume we're moving through fictions like the characters in The Number of the Beast. While they spent a good while in Oz, our characters are destined for a jacked-up Wonderland.

If you are interested in the game you can find info from the GM's perspective over at the Dorkland! blog. If you are really curious or jonesing bad for some FASERIP, you can also check out our actual play videos on Youtube.