Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is the greatest comic book RPG you haven’t played
When you ask most fans about a roleplaying game involving the Marvel universe, they think of TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes, first published in 1984 inside a yellow boxed set that immediately triggers a wash of nostalgia in gamers of a certain age. FASERIP - as it came to be known thanks to the unusual acronym of the character attributes - offered a chance for players to slip into the shoes of their favourite heroes like Captain America and The Incredible Hulk, or even to create their own superheroes to fight alongside the comic-book icons.
FASERIP also provided a more accessible engine for superhero gaming compared to contemporary RPGs like Champions or Heroes Unlimited. Those games offered a way to build a variety of characters, but Marvel Super Heroes opted for a faster, easier style of gameplay to open the door to fans of superheroes who wanted to hit the streets of New York City where Spider-Man swung from the Baxter Building.
Nearly 40 years later, another Marvel RPG came out that looked to do the same. 2012’s Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was only available for a year, but it’s gained a reputation as one of the best superhero RPGs on the market. It focused on delivering comic book-style gameplay while advancing some of the more interesting ideas that had come from the indie RPG explosion of the early 20th century. It was in the right place at the wrong time as one of the last productions made for Marvel as a comic book company before it became a pop-culture powerhouse.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was built on an iteration of Cortex, the house system used by every game under the Margaret Weis Productions banner. Later RPGs used Cortex Plus, which pushed the games in a more narrative direction inspired by designs such as Fate Core. The basis of the system saw a player collecting a pool of dice based on various traits, rolling them and keeping the top two. Whoever opposed the player would collect their dice pool, roll it and keep their dice. Whoever’s final total was higher succeeded.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying's system helped to get players thinking like comic writers.
In many games these would be skills and attributes, but the traits for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying started to have players make choices based on the narrative. The first choice a player made was whether to use their solo, team or buddy die. This idea really helped to get players thinking like comic writers. Spider-Man usually works best with someone to play off, while Wolverine is the best at what he does when he’s doing his own thing. Next were distinctions that offered a binary choice; pull in a big die if the trait works for the character, or a small die and a plot point to spend later if it works against the player. Players who know these characters know how these traits affect them. Hulk Strongest There Is could be a positive to stop a runaway subway train, or it could be a negative if Hulk causes more collateral damage smashing up the subway system.
The element of choice really shone when getting to power suites. Powers were rated by die types and also contained SFX - dice tricks that changed the size or type of dice depending on the narrative situation. These tricks allowed players to pull the stunts that heroes use all the time, like Captain America bouncing his shield off the faces of several Hydra goons via a multi-attack SFX that gave him more dice. Every power also offered a shutdown which put the player in control of their character’s weakness. Spidey’s player could choose when their web-shooters ran out of web fluid rather than a bad roll or a GM fiat. In exchange, the player got plot points they could use later to keep more dice when the rolls had serious consequences. When you’re firing up that big gizmo to zap Thanos into another dimension, you want to make every die count.
Rating abilities in die types was a fantastic way to combat one of the challenges of superhero games. How does Jean Grey survive getting punched by Juggernaut? Why do Thor and Daredevil hang out on the same team when Thor should be better in almost every conceivable way? Rather than finding benchmarks, these ratings were relative, which meant that on any given day, a character could unexpectedly beat another, and left the reasons why as something to explore in the narrative. Why did Daredevil beat Thor in the arm-wrestling match? Is Thor losing his powers because he did something to be unworthy of Mjölnir?
Teaching people to play the RPG is as easy as asking them who their favourite Marvel hero is, handing them the sheet and getting into the game.
The game also put established heroes front and centre. Most licensed games wall off their most famous characters for a variety of reasons. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying did a great job in making the most famous characters playable. The game was ideal for teaching RPGs to the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe fan base. People know how to play Iron Man, Black Panther and more thanks to their films. Grasping mechanics is easier when players already have the character nailed down. The starting adventure in the core rulebook, where heroes have to stop a breakout of baddies from the famous superprison known as The Raft, is based on a specific element from a Marvel storyline, but works with almost any assembly of characters. Teaching people to play the RPG is as easy as asking them who their favourite Marvel hero is, handing them the sheet and getting into the game.
It also made new creations feel right at home. The die rating system for traits and abilities made it easy for players to make a character that combined character traits in a new way - someone with Quicksilver’s speed and Hawkeye’s trick arrow shots - that felt like how comic books often create new characters by synthesising their characters in new ways or coming up with their own riffs on characters from a different comic company.
Not much is publicly known why Marvel pulled the licence in 2013. There were books in the process of being written when the end came. Comments from developers of the game made on social media and forums over the years allude to it being a sudden, unexpected decision made by Marvel. The game was released in an unusual way, focusing on published event storylines rather than the usual collection of sourcebooks featuring popular heroes. Only the Civil War series was released in full. Still, these books occasionally crop up in used stores or misfiled in comic shops and are definitely worth checking out. It disappeared from digital storefronts as well, making physical copies valuable on the secondary market.
The legacy of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying lives on. A big part of the design team worked on the Sentinel Comics Roleplaying Game set in the world of the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game. SCRPG refines a lot of the ideas from Marvel Heroic and uses a lot of the same design sensibilities. Cortex Prime collected many of the mechanics used in the Cortex Plus games in one book to allow gamers to create their own RPGs based on media. The upcoming Masters of the Universe and Tales of Xadia games show the influence of the game, such as the ability to play whatever version of He-Man a table prefers.
In the end, for the best comic book RPG out there, make mine Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.