RPG Thursday – Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game

Courtesy MWP

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has received great honors this year, winning the 2012 Gold Ennie for Best Rules and 2012 Silver Ennies for Product of the Year and Best Game. The game, from Margaret Weis Productions, is the latest implementation/evolution/application of the Cortex Plus system that I first became acquainted with in MWP’s Smallville RPG.

My first impressions are framed by the Ennie awards. Since it won the Best Rules and was the Runner-up for Best Game and Product I have high expectations.

Rules – I have to admit the presentation of the rules is very good. I especially like how the rules are cross-referenced in the text and margins. If you look at my Smallville comments above, you see that I was having a hard time wrapping my head around several game concepts. I have used the Cortex system since Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPG’s and it has certainly evolved over time (better to say “changed significantly”). This is by far the best explanation of the Cortex Plus system I have yet to read, in part because of the numerous helpful graphics and gameplay examples used. However, I feel the Datafile Creation rules are incomplete. Indeed, they come across as more guidelines than rules. In one case – Assigning Specialties – the book directs the player to “compare your hero to those heroes and villains known throughout the  Marvel Universe….” This is an example of being too closely linked to your license; makes being a Marvel fanboy a near-necessity to play. I don’t think this is really MWP’s intention but it comes across as such.

Product of the Year – My product is the Basic Game, which includes the Operations Manual and the Mini-Event “Breakout.” The Operations Manual weighs in at 126 pages (page OM00 is unmarked) and as I already stated is lavishly illustrated and assisted by helpful graphics and play examples. The blank Datafile, Glossary, and Index are here but numbered as part of the Breakout Mini-Event. The Mini-Event is definitely geared towards learning the game. It is 97 pages long and composed of two Acts (the second Act is optional) and has 23 Hero Datafiles and 48 Villains/Minor Characters/NPCs. This large selection is very helpful in designing your own character. It is also provides insight, especially comparing Black Widow the Hero (Natasha, BR58) with Black Widow the Villain (Yelona Belova, BR32). Overall, this does well as a stand-alone product. Minus the dice, of course. But for $19.99 retail this compares very favorably with the 2012 Ennie Gold Winner for Best Game, Savage Worlds Deluxewhich is also a rulebook sans dice.

Best Game – I have not compared all the 2012 Ennie nominees so I cannot judge if this is really the game of the year. What I will say it that this game is not a hack-and-slash supers game, but much more narrative in approach. To get the maximum enjoyment out of the game will demand a high level of player involvement as it is the players and not the Watcher that creates most of the action. The rules also require more than a passing acquaintance to understand and get the most out of. Regardless of the genre, this game is probably best with seasoned RPG players and not players just starting RPGs or kids.

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RPG Thursday – Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide

Courtesy Green Ronin

Creating a setting guide or a campaign guide based on an established property is surely a formidable challenge for any RPG company. For many years I have looked at Maragret Weis Productions as the standard bearer for the RPG industry, especially their Serenity and Battlestar Galactica product lines and even Smallville. More recently I have delved into Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and gained a new respect for that company. I especially like the new Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition because, well, its relatively spoiler free!

From the Introduction:

“Specifically, the game focuses on the last year before the start of A Game of Thrones. As a result, no details about the plots and fates of the various characters are revealed, and each house and individual is presented as they are at the opening of the novels.” (p. 4)

I really appreciate the effort Green Ronin is making to avoid railroading characters into actions and settings. The real challenge will not be the setting, but players who have read the books or watched the series and use that meta-game knowledge.

Random Thoughts – Smallville RPG

Courtesy MWP

A few weeks ago I was in a local Barnes & Nobles and looked over their $2 clearance table. To my surprise, I found several hardcover copies of the Margaret Weis Productions Smallville RPG Corebook. Now, I am not a Smallville fan (I have never seen one complete episode) but I do like the Cortex System as used by Serenity RPG and the Battlestar Galactica RPG. So for two bucks I figured I could not go wrong.

The game I found is very much unlike any other I have played before, and in some ways it defies explanation. The Smallville RPG is not a supers hack-n-slash game nor is it a pure narrative storytelling RPG. Some have described it as “indie” which I take to be almost anything not hack-n-slash. The core mechanic is known as Cortex-K or Cortex Plus. It uses the standard Cortex dice pool of various size dice which are rolled to get your number. Plot points serve as meta-currency for the game.

Where this game is much different is the characters. Each character (either a Lead or Feature) is described by Values, Attributes (Distinctions and Abilities), Resources and Relationships. These are created using a Pathways system which I read has been used in some form or variation elsewhere. The Pathways Map lays out all of the above. When you try to do something you pick the value, attribute, and relationship to roll against. For example, as used in the Corebook, Oliver shoots arrows at a thug trying to run off with Lois over his shoulder so he used Love (Value) + Lois (Relationship) +Tricked-Out Compound Bow (Attribute) as his dice pool, rolling all three and adding the highest two. A series of scenes make up an episode, where the GM (“Watchtower”) used Wedges (i.e. conflicts between Leads) to make players challenge their characters beliefs and relationships.

While I find the Pathways method of character generation interesting, I have had a hard time wrapping my head around how scenes and episodes play out. What I get out of the book is that this game is all about challenging the other Leads and less about working with them. On the surface this looks to be mighty confrontational and is not what I really expect in an RPG.

In my quest to understand the Pathways method I created three Leads and mapped out their “life.” For lack of better terms, I labeled them The Jock, The Nerd, and The Princess. For this example, I carried their Pathways through five of the nine stages, which carries them from “Origin” to “Youth” to “Focus” to “Road” and to the “Life-Changing Event.”

The Jock starts out as an Ordinary guy. The two most important people in his early life are his Coach (Led By) and a Booster (Advice, Money From). He hangs out at the local Cafe which the Booster owns. However, at his Life-Changing Event he discovers he is a Technopathy; able to control technology. He now has a Secret Basement in the stadium as his refuge. He is rather stand-offish with the Nerd but wants to “save” the Princess.

The Nerd starts out Gifted. He works for a Scientist who hates him at a Lab that also supplies high-tech games to the Arcade where he likes to hang out. Unfortunately, this is also where the Jock has bullied him in the past. He is a clever genius with a super iPad which he has customized to support his hacking and computer activities. He also has an autistic brother who depends on him but who he tries to hide from the world. The Nerds Life Changing Event was First Contact when he gained knowledge of Extraterrestrials. He despises the Jock but recognizes the Princess has money he needs.

The Princess is the most complicated. As a Rich girl, she of course loves her Daddy who owns the Bank which the scientist has hacked into in the past. She also has a secret Bad Boyfriend who knows the Jock takes money and is blackmailing him. Her Daddy also had an affair with the Booster’s Wife making those two men rivals. Along the way, she has discovered that being attractive not only allows her to manipulate others, but she may even be able to influence their dreams. Her Life Changing Event was a Tragedy when she slept with the Booster, became pregnant, and secretly got an abortion. She is much more balanced in her relationships with the other Leads, favoring the Jock a bit more than the Nerd.

Sounds like a soap opera, right? Well, it is Smallville. Right away we have conflict between the Technopathy Jock who can control technology and the Genius Nerd who depends on it. Maybe the Nerds autistic brother is not autistic, but alien? And how will the Jock, the Princess, the Bad Boy and the Booster keep their secrets away from each other?

Maybe I am a bit too old-fashioned to fully understand and embrace this game. But for $2 I am not shedding any tears. I am looking for how to use the Pathways in other games because it does do a great job defining how players are related to each other as well as their drives and motivations. Much more useful than dropping players into a bar in some distant spaceport and letting them go from there.

A Spate of New Purchases

As one can see looking at the middle column under New Game Acquisitions, I have been on a bit of a spending spree recently. Thanks to Petries and their monthly 15% off I was able to pick up Quarriors after a recommendation by Cameron and Rebecca. I used the Borders close-out 40% off to get D&D Players Essentials: Heros of the Fallen Lands. I then browsed a used book rack at Gamer’s Haven and found the old West End Games Star Wars Miniatures Battles and Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising sourcebooks. Finally, I was in Barnes & Nobles and found Smallville in hardcover for a mere $2. Each will be the subject of a review/commentary in the near future.