Hello readers! I’ve recently noticed that one of the local area RPG meetup groups has someone wanting to run a game of TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG from the late 80’s and early 90’s. I have very fond memories of this game, and spent many lunches, afternoons, and weekends rolling up characters and fighting supervillains with my friends in high school. The nostalgia factor of my memories may be coloring those times with more epic than was actually present, but I seem to recall some pretty amazing storylines, compelling characters, and climactic clashes with arch-enemies.
The one, the only. This is the name of the game folks.
Jeff Grubb and Steven Winter built the original set in 1984. The 1991 revised edition credits Jeff Grubb as the primary designer, with assistance from Timothy Brown and Steven Schend. Seven years between editions isn’t bad!
The Marvel Super Heroes game is one that truly embraced acronyms. The game itself is often abbreviated into TSR MSH, or FASERIP (an acronym representing the individual attributes of a character). Performing an action in the game is known as a FEAT (Function of Exceptional Ability or Talent).
The many faces of awesome.
The game also is fully aware of its comic-book roots, and abilities are represented by both a number and a title; Spider-Man’s Strength score is 40, which has the title “Incredible.” Captain America’s Fighting score is 50, which is “Amazing.” The Thing’s Endurance of 75 is “Monstrous.”
Each of these titles is not merely a name – it also represents a column on the Universal Table, a cross-referenced chart of values, dice rolls, and results. The system uses a d100 (also called percentile) system, most often represented on the tabletop with two D10’s, one as the tens column and the other as the single digits. The higher your character’s score with any ability, the better his column was on the chart. Each column had a number of colored blocks; white results were generally bad or represented a failure, green results were a basic success, yellow results represented a success with a bonus, and red results (at the high end of the scale) were a critical success. As an example, a character with a Typical ability (a score of 6), received a white result for any die roll of 01-50, a green result for 51-80, a yellow result for 91-97, and a red result for a roll of 98-00.
Behold the chart of DOOM!
The game also includes a resource known as Karma. A hero earns Karma for doing things that a normal Superhero does in a comic book – saving lives, rescuing cats from trees, dealing with complications arising from his secret identity, and roleplaying his inner turmoil. Karma is not normally earned by defeating enemies per se (like XP in Dungeons and Dragons), but rather for resolving the battle without someone getting hurt (although there is a slight karma loss for the hero being defeated). Karma is reduced if the hero commits crimes, kills people, or generally does not act like a classic superhero.
A hero can spend karma to increase his odds of doing something amazing and cool during the game. Basically, a hero could declare he was trying to do something that would require a yellow or red result and roll the dice. The difference between his roll and his desired outcome is the amount of Karma that is spent, or 10 Karma if the roll succeeds on its own. Aunt May might need a 100 to hurt Galactus with a butter knife, but the old girl has earned plenty of Karma taking care of Peter Parker, so she’s got a chance to succeed!
Power Stunts are another cool mechanic featured in the game. Basically, any character can declare he is using his powers or abilities in a creative and unusual way—anything the character can theoretically achieve with his powers but isn’t specifically mentioned in his writeup—and declare a Power Stunt. A good example is Spider-Man forming a shield out of his webbing to deflect a blast; this is not normally a feature of his webbing, but the ability is plausible and Spider-Man can declare a Power Stunt to do it. Power Stunts cost Karma to perform and require a yellow result or better, but it is a cool feature of the game where you can have your speedster spontaneously run around in a circle to generate a whirlwind if you want to try.
Sadly, Power Stunts are missing from the revised basic set…
Karma also acts as experience points, and is the resource players spend to increase their character’s abilities or to gain new ones. In my opinion, it is a cardinal sin of game design to have the resource you use for advancement the same resource you use for any other purpose… since the majority of players (or at least, every single player I’ve ever met) will hoard their points for advancement and never even consider spending them on anything else.
The powers in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG are at once specific and general. There are different powers for fire generation and electricity generation, and each has specific abilities that they have different from each other. However, there are many other powers that have very broad descriptions and applications (such as Force Field and Teleportation). The Talents section describes abilities that are not truly powers (more like Super-Skills), including a variety of martial arts styles that each grant their own specific benefit.
What is interesting to me is that character advancement is optional in the revised basic set – I think this makes Karma a much more engaging feature of the game, since you aren’t saving it for improving your character. Instead, it becomes the resource it always felt to me it should have been; something you earn by doing hero stuff and spend to do even more heroic stuff.
If you’re a fan of this game, rejoice! All the materials for it are available for free at classicmarvelforever.com.
Some products may be a little more outdated than most...
The Marvel Super Heroes RPG Is relatively rules light – it provides mostly guidelines for how to resolve actions in the game (and the majority of these are in the combat section) but it doesn’t feel complex or difficult to learn. The game allows for a lot of freeform action, and it specifically rewards and encourages good roleplaying in the comic book hero style. The random character generation can be very fun for casual games and short campaigns.
The relatively rules-light and freeform system provided a fun contrast to its contemporaries, Heroes Unlimited and Champions, yet it has plenty of crunch of complexity for people who like that kind of structure.
The MSH product line had good production values and overall a high bang for the buck value ratio. Some of the supplements were lavish boxed sets during TSR’s domination of that market, and they look great on the shelf. The creators had access to the Marvel bullpen and archives, thus most of the books feature stellar artwork as well.
The Marvel Super Heroes RPG is not without its flaws; the insistence on random rolls for everything—especially in character generation—can be very frustrating and disheartening for new players. In addition, the game itself enforces a rather strict one-true-wayism of superheroic roleplay; this game discourages anti-heroes, street-level vigilantes, and Watchmen- or Authority-style games among others.
There’s a certain four-color, traditional superheroism cherished by the game (particularly in the Karma rules) that feels very bronze age. Punisher and Nomad are explicitly called out as characters that are “doing it wrong” even within the milieu of the Marvel Universe.
Another example of this approach is the Universal Chart, which has “Kill” results for shooting, edged weapons, and energy attacks. These kinds of powers are at worst actively discouraged and at best, the hero with such an ability should intend to be very careful with using it.
The Game Line
Marvel Super Heroes had a very robust game line in total. There were two basic sets, the advanced set, the Ultimate Powers Book (which I’ve mentioned before), some great adventures (including the Future In Flames series that I’ve mentioned before), and lots of additional supplements detailing the X-men, the Avengers, and Spider-Man. There were also the Handbooks of the Marvel Universe (collections of characters from the comics written up with game stats).
There are some great fan-made products out there too. I'm not sure what this is, but I want a copy!
All in all, this game represents a fantastic snapshot of the Marvel Universe between 1985 and 1993, and even now – almost thirty years later – the game mechanics are fairly solid. If you want to see my final analysis of the game, skip to the end. Otherwise…
MSH’s random character generation (particularly the enhanced set in the Ultimate Powers Book) resulted in some truly memorable characters over the years. Maybe these were not very /good/ characters, but certainly memorable! The rules were mandated to be random (the basic set allowed you to re-roll one single roll during the process, whilst the UPB allowed you to choose your origin). This meant that one could (and I often did) end up making lots of characters in order to find one that you like.
Placed here 'cuz I'm a fan of Joe Mad artwork. When I made MSH characters, this is what I had in my head...
Some of the most memorable characters from my experiences include:
My high school buddy Brad Wilson created a couple of great characters, amongst them Rudy Gonzalez – a street punk who could generate blasts of fire, and use those blasts of fire to propel himself in massive leaps through the air. Another character of his was generated from the UPB: Brad rolled “Plant Lifeform” with the power of “Martial Arts Supremacy.” Thus was born the Mighty Shroom!
Another member of my high school gaming circle was Mitch Beard, who came up with an android with retractable osmium blades in his arms and could shoot “electric fire” (a combination of electricity and fire generation) from his hands.
Messing around on my own I created Dave 2000, the Voodoo Robot (Ultimate Powers Book: Usuform Robot origin with Sympathetic Magic powers) and the Cloud of Steel (Ultimate Powers Book: Gaseous Life Form with Body Armor powers).
Random Character Example
Here’s a quick example of random character generation using the UPB:
Physical Form: 55 (Modified Human: Extra Parts)
I will choose Wings, gaining the Flight Power at Remarkable Rank.
Random rolls on stats gives me the following:
Clearly, our character is in overall fit shape; a good fighter who can take care of himself, but clumsy and slow. Perhaps our character is a form of gargoyle or dragon-man?
Resources: Incredible (Reduced to Good)
My luck was extremely poor with Powers and Talents, but the UPB allows me to spend Resources to get more of each. I’ll spend three ranks of Resources (dropping the stat down to Good) in return for an extra power and one Talent.
Time to generate our powers!
Power 1: Matter Conversion category.
Hmm, this looks interesting.
The dice roll and… Combustion (at Typical Rank). Our hero can make things catch on fire! Fire Generation is an Optional Power, but I’m going to roll randomly for the next one to see what I get.
Power 2: Lifeform Control category.
Another unusual result… I’m curious to see where this is going…
The dice roll and… Hypnotic Control (at Good Rank).
So, I have a winged, clumsy, hypnotizing superhero who can set things on fire. One randomly rolled Talent later, and the character is also a Photographer.
I have thus created the soaring Dragon-Lad, who fights crime by setting it ablaze… and then convincing any onlookers that any property damage is NOT his fault.
If this kind of thing entertains you, search RPG.net for more examples of crazy superheroes created for the Marvel Super Heroes RPG.
Marvel Super Heroes is a good game… possibly even a great game! I’m a big fan of this approach to superheroic gameplay and I’m looking forward to another chance to fight injustice in the Marvel Universe the way that Jeff Grubb taught me!