Back in 2010, Margaret Weis Productions released one of the best Superhero tabletop rpgs on the market: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (MHR). Using a permutation of their already impressive Cortex+ system, MHR did what most Superhero games do not and emulate the nature of comics, as opposed to emulating superpowers.
In most Superhero games, the majority of the rules’ space is spent describing how Superpowers work. There will be an entire chapter reserved to the powers themselves, with each power usually having a long list of rules exceptions to support it. The main bulwark of the rules will be focused on handling superheroes as if they were operating in a living, breathing world with laws of physics similar to our own. Essentially, most games try to emulate superheros as if they were in the real world.
MHR diverged from that school of thought entirely. Very little space is spent explaining how Superheroes interact with the laws of the world. In its place, the rules focus on how to emulate the feel and loose-nature of comic book writing. This bleeds into powers which, while the SFX and Limit system apply depth, are rather simple.
The reality is that, when comic book writers sit down to write, they do not carefully consider the physics and reality of the real world. Instead, they set down to write a story that focuses heavily on the main characters. MHR understands this and its rules support this approach.
As a result, many things that would not work in most Superhero games work amazingly well in MHR.
In most Superhero games, putting the Hulk and the Punisher in the same party would be a recipe for disaster. Hulk would outshine Punisher in most endeavors do to the nature of Hulk’s superpowers. He’s just on a different level: super strong, invulnerable, etc. vs a guy with a gun.
However, in MHR, their focus on the narrative of comic books would make this a fine matchup. Punisher would have lower stats in his powersets than Hulk (though, would have high specialties), but the difference in power is lower than in most games. Hulk would simply roll with larger dice and, even then, only able to add one die from his powerset anyway. Punisher’s high specialties could completely compensate and, even if it didn’t, the difference is negligible. Even still, those with lower stats roll 1s more often, thus getting plot points more often, thus giving them more of a powerful resource.
Most Superhero games use a difficulty system that is somewhat objective. At least in theory. Difficulty is set by the GM based on the suggestions in the book. This is often used to establish power’s utility: if something is too hard, only a superpower could boost someone to success.
MHR, alternatively, sets the difficulty based on the tension of the scene. This done through the Doom Pool. The Doom Pool is a wonderful mechanic that self-balances for party size, serves as Fate-Point-esque resource for the GM, serves as a pacing mechanic, and follows the nature of comic book narratives.
I’ll let the article I linked handle the first point I listed. I would also say that, if you check this game out and like it, to follow Marvel Plot Points as its a great resource for MHR.
Moving on, giving the GM their own pool of resources puts a fun bit of strategy on the GM’s side. It also gives a flow to combat and helps restrain the GM from going all out or doing too much.
Whenever the Doom Pool grows large enough, the GM can try to end a scene early on their terms. Obviously, this is bad for the players: it encourages the players to not only work fast, but try to force the GM to spend from the Doom Pool. In other words, it encourage dynamic action as well as allow scenes that simply went on too long to end.
As a scene goes on and grows more dire, things become harder to accomplish and complete, just like in most comics. The action is growing more tense so there is a higher chance things may fail or take a turn.
Frankly, as a forever-GM, the Doom Pool is one of my favorite mechanics.
The last real seller for the system is how it handles campaigns, which it calls “Events.” While, tragically, only Civil War and Annihilation were released before Marvel pulled the plug (with Age of Apocalypse 90% complete!), the system behind them is very clever.
Dividing Events into acts, the system was focused on how comic books actually tell stories. Players were encouraged to swap the character they were playing from time-to-time to see things from different angles, there were special resources that could be unlocked for the purpose of the event itself with XP (think Spiderman getting the black suit in the original Secret Wars), and allowing players to alter their datafiles with Event specific character traits (such as getting XP when playing towards certain themes of the Event).
The whole system really worked to drive play to that right “feel” of a comic book. However, it is one of the system’s weakness.
It does require a fair bit of planning on the GM’s part. That said, one could argue that is inevitable for most Superhero games.
More troublesome, to me at least, is that its focus on big events makes it hard to come up with ideas for Events. Sure, you can do shorter, more localized stories, but it does put an odd pressure on bigger types of tales that can muddy GM planning.
And the worst issue is that, while it is great that it recognizes how these stories involve swapping perspectives and different groups, it can drive down player involvement.
Since most trait advancement and unlockables are lost after the event, characters don’t change much from your time in play. Sure, some credence is given to keeping some, but it is discouraged to treat things like a traditional RPG. You can always change around your datafiles, but the range stats can go up is very limited: most change will be lateral.
Some players will simply not go for that, even if it is very accurate to comics. There is a clear indication the game was meant to be played “disposably” for Marvel fans: play your favorite superheroes in your favorite stories then throw most of that out and play some of your other favorite Superheroes in your other favorite stories or even new stories.
As a silver lining, one can argue this aspect makes the game work better for those with busier schedules who can’t commit to longer games. In that, they aren’t missing much if they can’t go from “1 to 20”, so to speak, and get the full experience from their short time with the title.
Here comes the big issue: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is out of print. Marvel dropped the title in 2012. Getting your hands on a copy is is difficult, though copies still remain on Amazon. Good luck ever getting a copy of Annihilation, though.
There is hope, however. The creator of MHR has recently kickstarted a book on the Cortex+ engine which will include a generic version of MHR. From the already-released-to-backers System Reference Document (SRD) (a document designed to help 3rd party devs know what they can legally use in their own products), all of the mechanics of MHR are present there already. The full book will include a generic version with some custom settings.
If you find a copy at a friendly local gaming store or online, I highly recommend giving it a try. If the fact that Luke Cage and Sentry are equally effective characters and that Jubilee can beat (though, it would be hard) Galactus makes you weary and you don’t get why MHR shy’s away from handling Superpowers in grave detail, just remember that Squirrel Girl beat Thanos once.