First, I would like to start this review with a little background. Several years ago I purchased TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes Basic Set off of eBay for a very reasonable price. I intended to start a campaign with some friends, but alas we never got around to it. Towards the end of the summer of 2012 I decided to dust off the rulebooks and start a Marvel campaign with a group I had hooked up with at my local game store. I intended to run a short campaign, three months at the most. As it turned out my group got really into the campaign and the system. One year later, my “short” Marvel campaign ended. During that time my group went from stopping petty criminals to fighting major super villains, getting trapped in Murderworld, getting flung into the X-Men “Days of Future Past” scenario, tangling with Loki, preventing the assassination of Senator Edward Kelly, fighting through Dracula’s castle, going back in time to fight Red Skull alongside the Invaders during World War 2, meeting with Uatu the Watcher, saving Galactus’ life, journeying through the realm of Mephisto, and finally saving the world from one of Dr. Doom’s schemes. Whew…never let it be said that TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes (hereon referred to as MSH) isn’t versatile!
MSH went through several changes not unlike Dungeons & Dragons. I haven’t played the original edition of the game, but after it there came the Basic Set and Advanced Set. For this review I will be focusing on the Basic Set because that is the edition I have the most experience with. Of course, TSR released a plethora of supplements to support MSH. The product line included setting handbooks, updated character stats, cardboard stand-ups, metal miniatures, and many adventures. All of them are useful, and I like how many of the adventures (at least the physical ones I have seen) include large fold out maps. If there is a fault with the adventures it is that most are written for a specific group of heroes in mind like the X-Men or Avengers. This can make it challenging to run the adventure if you aren’t using the heroes the adventure was designed for. I’ll explain why later on in this review, but first the basics.
MSH allows the players to take the role of established characters like Spiderman and Captain America or create their own original heroes. A MSH character has seven ability scores: Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche. Together these seven abilities form the acronym FASERIP, a nickname gamers have given the system itself. These abilities are used to determine the character’s health and karma. Characters also have two abilities that can change: Popularity and Resources. Popularity is a measure of how liked and respected the character is in the Marvel universe. Resources measure how wealthy or connected the character is. In addition to super powers characters also have Talents, which include weapon skills, martial arts, and various non-combat skills. The main purpose of Talents is to increase a character’s chance of success when performing a certain type of action.
The character creation process for MSH is quick and easy. Players start by choosing or rolling for an origin (altered human, mutant, high tech, robot, or alien) and roll their ability scores. The next step is to roll for powers and Talents. From there just choose your character’s name and you’re ready to go. This makes it real easy to bring new players into an existing campaign because character creation usually takes 10 minutes or less. As much as I like the character creation system it does have one fault, and that is there is no balance between characters. It is entirely possible to have a party where most members are on the same level as Spiderman but one member is more along the lines of Punisher. The game does allow players to select powers instead of rolling for them which can help balance the party out, but there is no guarantee that power levels will be balanced.
Ability scores, resources, popularity, and powers are measured using ranks. Each rank has a name and numeric value from Shift 0 at the worst to Shift Z at the best. The abilities between have colorful names like Excellent, Amazing, and Unearthly. There are higher ranks, but those are reserved for cosmic entities. The higher the rank the more likely the character is to get a better result when attempting an action.
The core mechanics of MSH are based on a percentage roll and consulting a table divided into columns. Each column represents one of the ranks and is divided into four colors: white, green, yellow, and red. A white roll always fails, a green result will succeed for most basic actions, yellow and red results are used for more difficult actions. In addition, yellow and red results can produce different effects based on what your character is doing. A red result with a blunt weapon has the potential to stun an opponent while the same result with an edged weapon has a chance of killing the target outright. The game master might also decide the character needs a yellow or red result if a player is attempting something exceptionally difficult, like trying to disable a complex doomsday device.
Another way the game master can increase or decrease the chances of success with an action is by using column shifts. These shifts can be positive or negative. A positive shift moves the column that a character uses to the right. A negative shift moves the column to the left. This takes the place of numeric modifiers seen in most games. This is where the aforementioned Talents come into play. For example, any character can use a gun, which uses the column equal to the character’s Agility rank to determine the chances to hit. If the character has the Guns Talent then he is exceptionally good with firearms (and similar weapons like energy blasters), and treats his Agility as one rank higher when trying to shoot something.
I would have to say one of my favorite things about MSH is that the game mechanics for the player are pretty easy to pick up on. All the player really has to do is tell the game master what he or she is doing, make the appropriate roll, then tell the GM what the result is. The game master decides whether the action succeeds or fails. The game master can also rule if an action is impossible or automatically succeeds based on the circumstances (Thor, for instance, would have no problem smashing through a brick wall with Mjölnir). Rules for powers are kept short and open ended which gives players and game masters a good deal of flexibility. In fact, one of the things I enjoyed about the group I gamed with was how they would often find creative uses for their powers! There are also guidelines for combining powers. For example, a character with the ability to control (but not create) fire could use his power to increase the effectiveness of an ally’s fire attack.
A key part of MSH is karma. These points are gained by accomplishing heroic deeds and defeating super villains. Karma serves two purposes. First, it is used to gain new powers, talents, and to increase ability scores. Karma can also be used to improve a character’s rolls. However, being defeated by a villain or performing un-heroic acts results in karma loss. In fact, killing an opponent (with the exception of robots) results in the loss of all karma! This might seem a little harsh but I do like what it brings to the game. This is a game of heroic role-playing, so you need to act the part. This does make it a little more difficult though for people who want to play anti-heroes like Deadpool or the Punisher.
But while karma does help encourage heroic role-playing it is not without its disadvantages. First, since karma can be used to increase a character’s rolls it can allow a player with a lot of karma to overcome nearly any situation. Also, advancement is incredibly slow. Unless the game master decides to create house rules for increasing abilities and gaining new powers it can cost hundreds or thousands of points of karma to increase an ability score or power by one rank. Even learning a new skill costs a hefty 1000 karma! This system of advancement might turn off some gamers but in a way it does make sense. We can’t all be the Silver Surfer and a superhero’s abilities usually remain the same. Spiderman, for example, has had a pretty constant set of powers over the years.
From a game master’s perspective I would say MSH is harder to run than play. The game has lots of minor rules that can be used to help simulate the feel of comic book physics, like if someone hits the Thing with a wooden baseball bat there is a chance the bat might break because that hero’s rocky hide is significantly stronger than wood. Looking at some of the pre-generated characters these rules make no sense. For example, when a character is using a sharp weapon he can try to inflict damage equal to his Strength or the weapon’s material strength, whichever is less. Because of this Wolverine, who has a Strength of Good (one step above average human strength), inflicts 10 points of damage with his unbreakable adamantium claws. However, he would inflict 20 points of damage if he hit someone with a metal pipe because blunt weapons inflict damage equal to the user’s Strength plus one column shift!
If MSH has a potentially unbalancing factor it is body armor. Armor has a rank, just like any super power. It will block a number of points of physical or energy damage equal to its rank, so for example Excellent rank armor will block 20 points of damage. Since there is no minimum damage rule a character with a high body armor rank will have little to fear from physical attacks. For instance, a gang of street thugs armed with shotguns couldn’t even scratch the paint job on Iron Man’s armor! This can make it tricky to design an adventure for a party where one or two characters have significantly stronger body armor than everyone else. If you increase the physical damage of an enemy so it will harm the tank of the party you risk doing too much damage to the less protected characters. On the flip side, if your party lacks exceptionally strong offensive powers then a fight with a heavily armored character can take a long time.
However, this is not to say a character with strong armor is untouchable. As mentioned before body armor only protects from physical and energy attacks. It is therefore possible to injure a heavily armored character with elemental attacks or mental powers. For all the protection Iron Man’s armor offers against bullets and lasers it does nothing against one of Professor X’s mental bolts, nor would it offer much protection against one of Banshee’s screams. As a game master running MSH you may need to find different ways to provide a reasonable challenge to your players depending on what their defenses are.
This is where it can be tricky running officially published TSR adventures. I stated before many of the adventures were written with a specific group of heroes in mind. As a result, there might be traps or dangers in the adventure that could be harmless or lethal to your players depending on what their powers are. For example, one adventure I have is called “Murderworld.” This adventure was written for the Fantastic Four. There are two encounters that involve enemies armed with water cannons (obviously, to counter the powers of the Human Torch). Unless one of your party members can surround himself with fire these weapons are little more than an annoyance to most characters.
Therefore, it becomes necessary to read over a MSH adventure ahead of time to understand what dangers are being presented and how challenging it will be for your players. This can be challenging since Marvel characters don’t have levels like characters do in Dungeons & Dragons. If you see a D&D adventure that says “for characters level 6-8” that is helpful because it gives you an idea as to whether it will be too difficult for your party. A group of first level characters probably won’t make it too far but a group of 15th level characters will likely find it too easy.
Determining difficulty with a MSH adventure isn’t as clear cut and simple. Generally, the heroes or villains pictured on the cover will give you the best indication of level of hero the adventures is written for. I often found though that I needed to make modifications to provide a suitable challenge because if I ran the adventure as it was published my players would have probably blown through it without much trouble due to their powers and defenses.
If MSH has a defining fault it is that once created a character has little chance of becoming something greater than he is. Here is what I mean: a 1st level D&D character has the potential to go from a lowly adventurer fighting goblins to a legendary hero who saves the kingdom from dragons and demons. There is little such hope of advancement in MSH due to the glacially slow power and ability advancement. Thus, if you play a character like Punisher or Night Thrasher you will be limited to fighting criminals, thugs, and low level super villains. The chances of your character ever reaching the point where he might defeat Dr. Doom or Magneto are slim to none (unless, as I mentioned before, your game master introduces house rules to help speed up advancement. Or he gives you a device that increases your abilities).
Yet despite the faults I pointed out with MSH it remains one of my favorite systems of all time. Why? The reason has to do with its ease of play for new players and the flexibility it offers. MSH encourages role playing and trying to come up with creative uses for your character’s super powers. Take those two elements and give them to a group of players that enjoy team work and you can have some memorable game sessions! Since MSH has been out of print for quite some time it can be difficult to find, but should you happen to see it at a used book store or on eBay for a reasonable price I recommend giving it a shot.