As long-time readers may remember (and new readers would not care), I’ve recently finished a massive D&D campaign that lasted several years. Having done that, I’ve set out on an odyssey, to try out some of the other systems out there. My attempt at combining Don’t Rest Your Head with Portal is an example of what I’ve been up to. But I’ve been neglectful of this blog lately, and the reason is simple enough. As I only spend a few sessions on each system I’m trying out, I don’t build up enough system mastery to write the in-depths posts I tend to. But staying quiet for so long is bad for my writing skills, and defeats the point of the whole exercise: to learn and analyse new games.
Hence, a different approach: I’ll document my first impressions. Immediately, a very important caveat, and one that I want to avoid typing every other sentence. With experience, a gaming group would learn to mitigate many of the issues I’ll be raising, whether through tricks, rules interpretations or not thinking about them too much. And of course, some of them may not even be issues, but rather demonstrations of my limited understanding. With that in mind, I’ll call ‘em as I see ‘em. I can criticize other games, not just D&D! So. Not an essay, not a review, just my thoughts.
And what game best to start with, but the one that’s no longer in production. Perfect timing. Yes, sadly, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is not being published anymore, and all the announced supplements won’t be released. They don’t even appear to be selling the pdfs anymore, which confuses me to no end. It’s not like the ones out there will magically disappear; only the ability to actually pay for them has done so. But hopefully this is a temporary snag while the licensing details are being worked out, and the books will be sold again soon.
To get the main question out of the way: MHR is fun, you should try it. We played through the intro scenario, Breakout. Action was ridiculous, heroes were over the top, Wolverine got briefly trapped inside a dead t-rex. This is particularly remarkable as only me and one more member of our gaming group actually read comics. In this, characters’ Milestones were a big help: each character has two, either personal or scenario-specific, and they describe their current story arc. Milestones consist of several occurrences that demonstrate the arc, and culminate in a decision the character has to make, thus resolving it. Of course, trying to resolve the character arc in a single session led to heroes being somewhat caricaturish.
Milestones are weird. The game has a focus on pre-made campaigns, and they fit right in, by prescribing narrative goals to players. At the same time, there is no mechanism for players to pursue said narrative goals, other than hope they align with gameplay. For instance, one of the scenario-specific Milestones’ minor goals is to rescue people from escaping prisoners. Reasonable enough, unless the GM forgets to put some hostages in your way. Naturally, the GM should read everyone’s Milestones and try and accommodate them, but they quickly multiply with the number of players, turning it into a burden. Many Milestones should significantly affect the adventure, and thus be discussed ahead of time – and that goes against the “show up, pick a character and play” promise of the game.
Still, an interesting concept, and one that can be easily adapted into other games. Writing up Milestones for your character would cause you to consider their story arc, and help others to know it, thus enabling them to play along much better. Also worth noting that in MHR Milestones are the main source of XP for characters. At the same time, most of the things you’d spend XP on are story-advancing rather than character power advancing, so… call it story XP? I wonder how this would combine with my Directed plug-in.
MHR’s main mechanic is a dice pool. Players assemble it by picking applicable traits from as many categories as possible, one per category. From the resulting roll, they pick two dice to add up (the Total), and another die to be the Effect. Only the size off the effect die matters. Any 1-s rolled are set aside, and represent opportunities arising during that action, for the opponent to draw upon. Mostly, they’ll feed the Doom Pool: dice the GM uses when an action is not opposed by a specific villain. It is set by the nature of the scenario, and will be constantly expended and replenished. It’s mirror reflection are Plot Points, spending which enables heroes to achieve even greater things.
The dice pool mechanic is… strange. The very act of assembling one causes players to tell a story as they justify the inclusion of various dice. On the other hand, that takes time. I’ve actually avoided using an area attack on PCs repeatedly because the first time I did, it took us a few minutes to go over who does what to resist it.
There are a lot of decisions to be had with each roll. Do you go for higher total, or for greater Effect? Do you break up your Specialty die into more dice of lower value? Do you use the SFX (extra ways to modify the dice pool) your powers grant you? That’s not a given. Consider the generic attack power SFX, that comes under names such as Claws & Fangs or Leaping Charge: “Add a d6 to your dice pool for an attack action and step back the highest die in your pool by –1. Step up physical stress inflicted by +1.” You may have to re-read that. Far as I can tell, you use it when you have several dice of highest size, so that losing one still lets you upsize the effect another would create – physical stress inflicted on the enemy. And that’s a relatively simple “I bite you” SFX. Powers that deal with other powers are a headache.
While decisions are good, they get overwhelming at times. It’s not trivial and not intuitive if you should use abilities your character has, which should never be the case. It’s all maths, of course, but it’s different maths, not one we have learned to evaluate on the fly. Now heap on top of this mess Plot Points, which enable you to add extra dice to your roll, or to the Total, or to the Effect. Oh, Plot points, you deserve a special mention. They have about a dozen applications, and while the idea behind them is fairly simple, the multitude of similar-but-not-quite-same options is very hard to remember.
This adds up. I’ve stared at my NPCs trying to figure out what to do, used some of their abilities, and still didn’t know if that was the right choice or not. One may potentially see this as a good thing, an arcane mechanic discouraging meticulous calculation of probabilities in favor of just doing things, but I certainly don’t.
Further, each of those dice and abilities are meant to represent something, to affect the narrative of the action. It’s a lot of information packaged into pieces of plastic, and as is the typical case with narrative games, they don’t always cooperate with interpretation. There is often that awkward moment of silence after a roll as everyone stares at the dice to try and reconcile the mechanical result with the narrative implications. And in the case of MHR, the multitude of ways to manipulate your dice pool turn into noise. It’s dice faffery.
Everything is a die
This is the exciting bit. Figuring it out will make a lot of the rules fall into place. Everything is a die. Stress you inflict and suffer is a die. Lamp post you wrap around your enemy is a die. Your stats are dice. And all of these dice can be affected by Effect dice. And be used in your own dice pool. A “d10 car “is both how hard it is to break the car by punching it and how hard you can hit someone with said car. This is how the system models targeting individual powers: Super Strength d10 is just that, a d10. The trick, of course, is to be able to justify your action. But once you do, the mechanics of it are simple. That is a very powerful idea, related to Fate’s Fractal (everything is a character).
It’s a pity the game doesn’t quite use it to its fullest, though. For instance, consider another interesting element, Distinctions. Either belonging to a character or a scene, they describe their uniqueness. “Dark maze”, “the best there is at what I do”, that sort of thing. If you declare an aspect helps you, you add a d8 to your pool. If you declare it hinders you, you add a d4 (probably won’t do you much good, high risk of rolling a 1 thus creating an opportunity for GM) and gain a Plot Point. Again, this is similar to Fate’s aspects. But why is there suddenly a different way dice can hinder you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to add the hindering Distinction die to the opponent’s pool, just like you would do with a Complication? The mechanics of it would need to be seriously considered, of course. But using different mechanics to model the same concept is unfortunate.
Despite me grumbling at the uneven bits, I like the game. It is an interesting attempt at marrying dice-heavy mechanic with a narrative core. Being able to do ridiculous things is essential to a superhero game, and MHR lets you do them with flair. We really got into the spirit of it when we played, and though I’m not sure how much of it was due to the system and how much due to the theme itself, at the very least the rules didn’t get in our way.
And as much as I begrudge it dice faffery, it’s what makes this into a game. So if I were to hack this game (and I might, at some point), I’d probably simplify most SFXs, as well as remove a lot of options from Plot Points. Though, obviously, I should wait for the final version of the recently kickstarted Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide before I embark on any such journeys. It just might be useful in hacking the system. Imagine that.
P.S.: The idea of constrained GM resource (Doom Pool) is fascinating, and probably deserves its own post at some point.