There hasn't been a Marvel roleplaying game in print for almost seven years, but the release of Margaret Weis Productions' Marvel Heroic Roleplaying might prove that MWP is the best at what they do, and what they do best is pretty awesome.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is the fourth Marvel RPG, and it borrows a few elements here and there from its predecessors (TSR's classic FASERIP system, the amazing but rare SAGA system, and a short-lived diceless system produced by Marvel). Mostly, the game is built on MWP's Cortex System, a set of game mechanics that emphasize creativity and storytelling over mindless dice rolling. It's the same core system used to create the Smallville and Leverage RPGs.
A character's data file contains a list of attributes, like any other RPG. You won't find any core stats though – there's nothing like FASERIP or D&D's STR/DEX/CON scores. Every stat is tied into the character's specific history, personality or powers. Instead of a static score, each stat is given as a die, a D4, D6, D8, D10, or D12. A larger die indicates a better ability.
For example, as a result of the Super-Soldier program, Captain America has Enhanced Strength, which is a D8. Colossus has Godlike Strength, a D12 (note the names of the strength rankings – while not directly taken from the original TSR Marvel RPG, the naming convention does feel like a call-out to the classic. If only they'd gone with Unearthly instead of Godlike).
A common problem with superhero RPGs is finding the balance between exhaustive, complicated rules to explain every possible superpower, or generic, simplified powers that leaves characters feeling a bit too cookie-cutter. Marvel Heroic keeps things simple by grouping multiple abilities into broad power groups for each character. Cap, for instance, has a bunch of powers within his Super-Soldier Program powerset, including Enhanced Strength, Enhanced Stamina and Enhanced Durability. Wolverine has similar abilities, but they fall under his Feral Mutant powerset. This approach enables seemingly complicated groups of powers (like all the stuff included with Iron Man's armor) to be handled with relative ease.
So how does the game make Wolverine and Cap distinct from each other if they have very similar powers? SFX. These are unique ways to tweak an ability. Wolverine's Healing Factor SFX lets him spend a plot point (one of the game's resources) to reduce physical stress. Cap has the Patriot SFX, which lets him use his fame and symbolic value to affect public opinion.
When it comes time to make a roll, you gather up all the dice from all the relevant stats you can think of in a given situation. Let's say your hero is trying to hack a computer. You might use a D10 from a power that lets her interface with computers, a D6 for her training in code-breaking, another D6 because she's pretty good at working alone, and maybe a D8 because it's a government computer, which means the whole situation fits her Fight the Power distinction. You roll all the dice (D10, D6, D6, D8). Any 1s are set aside – those are opportunities, chances for the Watcher (aka the GM) to throw a wrench in your hero's plan. Then you pick two dice to add together to represent the effort expended, and one die to represent the effect.
The effort number is what determines if you succeed or fail in your task. The Watcher is going to have some dice to roll to oppose you, based on the stats of the computer system, in our example, although more commonly it might be the stats of a super villain. The effect die determines how big the effect is – how much damage you do, how high of a security clearance you've gained on the government computer, etc. It's more complicated than your basic, "Roll a 20-sided die and beat the monster's armor class," but allows for a lot more nuance and variety, especially in non-combat situations.
One of the elements that Marvel Heroic borrows from the Marvel SAGA RPG is the concept of the Doom Pool. These are extra dice the Watcher can throw in to a roll to make things extra challenging for the heroes. It represents the brutal twist of fate, the cunning evil of the archnemesis, or even a hero's own fatal flaw manifesting at the worst possible moment. Whenever you roll poorly, the Watcher has a chance to add dice to the Doom Pool. What's really ingenious is that many of the game's powers and SFX use this Doom Pool as a resource than can be manipulated by the players. Some powers let you steal dice from the Doom Pool, and others let you increase or decrease the size of the dice in the pool (making a D10 into a D8, for example).
Integral to each character is a set of motivations known as milestones. These are based on the character's history and personality, and they give you ways to earn experience points. Mr. Fantastic is motivated by his love of science and his guilt over his family being turned into superpowered freaks. Villains have more basic motivations most of the time. Adventure scenarios also have milestones tied to the situation, which any character can achieve. The XP thus earned can be traded in to unlock certain things, like reforming a villain, learning more about your amnesiac past, or gaining greater control over your powers. The whole "unlockable" concept is pretty fun in video games, so it's interesting to see it applied like this, and it's a nice alternative to the usual RPG mechanic of leveling up.
The core rulebook includes a small adventure based on Brian Michael Bendis' first few issues of New Avengers, when a breakout at the Raft superprison allowed dozens of supervillains to escape. This is a great choice for a core adventure because it's relatively straightforward, lets any hero join the fun (including ones you create yourself), and provides an opportunity to offer up stats on a ton of B and C-list villains. There are some nice guidelines for fledgling Watchers too, like using the three-act structure to create adventures.
The last section of the book gives you data sheets on a bunch of Marvel heroes, most of the big names you'd expect to see. We'll no doubt see tons more in upcoming supplements – MWP has an ambitious slate of "Event" books planned for 2012, each one based around one of Marvel's big crossover events like Civil War or Age of Apocalypse. This gives them the opportunity to create stats for a character at multiple points in that character's career as well as alternate reality versions. I think I might prefer the traditional team-based roster book, but this way you can get a big adventure, a bunch of character stats and probably some new powers all in one book.
The design of the core rulebook is beautiful. Look, I'm not going to be coy here. It's gorgeous. Lick the pages gorgeous. Great graphic design, with vivid colors, clear icons explaining the rules, and tons of art drawn from Marvel's archives illustrating the many heroes and villains you'll play and encounter. The PDF version has been carefully seeded with links, so when a sidebar mentions that the milestone rules are on page 105, one click takes you there. The index is fully linked as well.
There are a few things I'm less pleased about. The emphasis on replaying Marvel's big storylines doesn't especially interest me. Even if it's a story I love, I already read it. I'd much rather be presented with detailed areas of the Marvel universe, then turned loose to play in them. I also found the rules a little tough to parse. I'm a pretty experienced gamer, and I've read dozens of RPG books, but some of the rules explanations feel a little fuzzy to me. It's not that the rules themselves are too complicated, I just think they aren't explained in the clearest manner possible. Things are scattered a bit between the introduction and some later chapters. The many examples are very helpful, but I wish there was one solid chunk of example play showing off a lot of the different aspects in action at once. A flow chart showing the progression of a scene and a panel (the game's term for a turn, borrowed from Marvel's 2003 RPG) would also be a huge help.
Quibbles aside, the Marvel RPG license couldn't be in better hands. With an innovative, flexible system that gives players tons of room for fun superpowered shenanigans and the promise of a lot of support from Margaret Weis Productions for at least the next year, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying earns its place alongside Green Ronin's DC Adventures RPG (and the Marvel RPGs of yesteryear, if you're lucky enough to own a copy). You can purchase the PDF at RPGNow, or order the print version, which will ship on Feb. 28.