[Note that I submitted the first version of this review in May, at which time it was not published. Maybe it's something I said, or maybe the Submit button didn't work right. This is a revised version after some more playtesting -- shortened and updated, but basically the same as my original opinion.]
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (MHR) is a 228-page glossy softcover that uses full-color throughout. The game organizes its content in an odd way: The first section, weighing in at 125 pages, is the “Operations Manual”. An Introduction starts by demonstrating how the game's dice-rolling system works. It then describes how the heroic action is framed in Events, Acts, Scenes and Panels. Then it goes into further details about how players apply the dice-rolling system to the game. Got it? Because only now does the game go into character stats, what the stats mean, and characters. A few pages at the end of this 125-page section help “the Watcher” (a.k.a. gamemaster) set the pacing for adventures.
The second section, called “Breakout”, has a more logical progression: The first 48 pages is a complete set of adventures in two Acts. Another 50 or so pages of the book is a compilation of about 30 villains and about 24 heroes from the Marvel Universe, with each including a brief (for villains) or lengthier (for heroes) biography. The book concludes with a Glossary, blank character sheet and an Index.
Before diving in, I have to make two disclaimers. First, I like running and playing in Supers RPGs. But I don't own a comic book collection, and while I know the major heroes and villains, I'm not overly well versed on the Marvel or DC Universe. Second, while I've admired Cortex from afar for years, this is my first direct experience with any Cortex System game. So my review is limited based on what I know as a long-time RPG fan.
Let Them Roll Dice!
MHR uses a dice pool system. Unlike, say, World of Darkness dice pools, the size of each die in the pool varies depending on the strengths, abilities, and things that make a particular hero special. The idea is for the hero to take actions that hit enough “hot buttons” in their categories of stats to be able to assemble dice – generally that will be as few as three, or as many as six, maybe seven dice. The player adds the best two for determining success/failure. The Watcher (gamemaster) does something similar for handling NPC opponents, or uses a “Doom Pool” of dice when a hero tries an unopposed action.
There are Plot Points, which give players a bunch of ways to twiddle the rolls and the results. There are some ways for players to gain Plot Points, and many ways to spend them. Instead of Plot Points, the GM gains and spends the dice themselves from her/his “Doom Pool”. It sounds complicated and it is. There are a lot of moving parts.
Strip away the complexities of the dice-rolling system, and it looks like to me like the foundation is a storytelling game where players and GM bid against each other for success or failure of actions, governing control over the direction of the plot.
I first wrote this review in late May, and our group has played several sessions of MHR since. (Margaret Weis Productions has also since come out with a 232-page Civil War supplement). My original review had at least another 500 words about how the dice-rolling system works. I've dropped that here to go straight to the verdict, because the level of detail got to be superfluous.
I love my dice gimmicks as much as the next gamer. But something about MHR's approach rubs me the wrong way. It seems to me that switching between the narrative element and the dice-rolling system doesn't mesh well. After playing MHR for a bunch of sessions, our group has dropped much of the more complicated dice-rolling strategies to keep the storytelling aspect moving more smoothly.
MHR seems to me a game designed for mashing heroes against each other in fights – success and failure are determined by the dice-rolling subsystem, not by the creativity (or lack thereof) of players using their heroes' powers in new, resourceful ways. Also MHR's characters power scale is off. Pit Daredevil against Sentry, and Sentry (“The Power of a Million Exploding Suns”) doesn't seem to have much of an edge. DIY character creation and adventure design also seems sketchy – for adventures in particular, there game could've used a bestiary of generic foes, even just a couple pages of stat blocks.
Style: 5 Stars. Heck, Margaret Weiss got the Marvel license and put together a beautiful 228-page softcover book that costs $20 retail. That's a great value. The pages are packed with content to the point that I find them sometimes too busy. I find the organization of content odd, the dice-rolling subsystem should've been presented shorter and tighter. The relatively small sampling of heroes and villains of the Marvel universe – and a lack of “generic” foes and adventure-building advice – are issues, which maybe Civil War addresses. Then I come back to MHR's 228 full-color pages at $20, and that's an amazingly good deal.
Substance: 4 Stars, which I award reluctantly. The book deserves a high rating because it does a good job delivering on its intent. But to me, MHR feels like a mash-up of a narrativist storytelling game with a gamist dice-rolling system that doesn't mesh well: I “get it” about classic supers RPGs (crunchy like GURPS Supers or Hero, mid-level like M&M or lighter like Savage Worlds Supers, Icons or BASH)... and I can also make sense of a storytelling supers game (for the twisted, Fiasco RPG with a Supers twist?) The way MHR falls somewhere between is a miss for me. On the other hand, MHR presents a different set of mechanics from other superhero RPGs, and in terms of mechanics, the game certainly works.