Thursday, January 24, 2013

TSR, MSH, & FASERIP: A review of Marvel Super Heroes

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.

The Creators

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 System

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

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…

Making Characters

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:

Cyber Commando. A creation of my friend Scott Venable, Cyber Commando had Incredible superspeed, Amazing telescopic sight, and… alas… Feeble ability to generate fire. Scott joked that his character could see an attractive lady with a cigarette a mile away and zoom over there to offer her a light.

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:

Fighting: Incredible
Agility: Poor
Strength: Good
Endurance: Remarkable
Reason: Excellent
Intuition: Incredible
Psyche: Remarkable

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)
Powers: 1
Talents: 0
Contacts: 2

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 for more examples of crazy superheroes created for the Marvel Super Heroes RPG.

Final Analysis

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!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Interview Time: Andy Hoare

Greetings readers!

January is a crazy month full of madness -- from looming project deadlines to illnesses. These are not excuses, just letting you know what's up and why I haven't been as blog-post-making-guy as I used to be. :)

This week's blog post is all about Andy Hoare. Andy is an exceptionally gifted writer and game designer who I came into contact with when I was working at Games Workshop back in the early 2000's. Andy is a great human being who has conquered some amazing challenges and continues to inspire legions of fans with his books.

Behold the mad genius himself.

I brought him into the 40K RPG side as soon as I could when I was working at Fantasy Flight Games from 2008-2011 and he always provided top-notch writing even under some heavy deadlines!

Andy's fantastic work helped build some great games, amongst them Deathwatch, Rogue Trader, Black Crusade, and Only War amongst others.

I'm very pleased to count Andy as a friend and colleague, and I'm very proud to have interviewed him for the blog.

If you want to learn more about Andy, check out his blog at: Mr. Andy Hoare, Esq

As always, my questions are in red.

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional? 

Andy: As a gamer, it all started with red box D&D at school. I bought my first blister of miniatures around about the same time (a Citadel Lord of the Rings blister containing Gandalf, Ranger and Frodo). The blurb on the back of the blister mentioned White Dwarf and Warhammer, so a week later I bought White Dwarf issue 86 and that Christmas I received 2nd edition Warhammer, which I fell in love with. The next year (1987) 1st edition Warhammer 40,000 came out and that was the best Christmas gift ever!

 A prolific crafter of worlds!

As an industry professional, I worked in the Games Workshop Design Studio from 2001 to 2009 as a games developer. During that time I worked alongside or met some of the leading lights of the industry, both past and present. Since leaving GW I’ve been fortunate to work with several other companies, including Fantasy Flight Games, Wyrd Miniatures, Architects of War, Wargames Illustrated, Mantic Games and others. I’ve also written a number of novels for Black Library. 

RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry? 

Andy: It started when I heard that the Dark Heresy roleplaying game was to be expanded into Rogue Trader. I was working at Games Workshop at the time and knew a few other people in the business had been brought in as freelance writers. I contacted one (John French, who I’d say is one of the least well known best writers at Games Workshop) and he put me in touch with a guy at FFG called, oh, what was his name.. Ross something? I’d met Ross a few years earlier when I was a guest at Baltimore Games Day when he was working for the US White Dwarf, so clearly the stars were in alignment. Loving the 1st edition of Warhammer 40,000 as much as I do there was no way I wanted to miss out on a chance to work on a roleplay version and as it happened it was the start of a really good working relationship that continues to this day. 

I think Andy is a Rogue Trader at heart!

RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry? 

Andy: Anyone who can genuinely say they work in the industry they most want to work in is fortunate indeed, so that’s how I feel about it. 

RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry? 

Andy: While not specific to the rpg industry, perhaps the biggest downside is that everyone’s an expert when it comes to critiquing your work! We all do this of course, whether we’re denouncing the latest Hollywood blockbuster as uninspired or slating a novel for a lack of pace, so you have to cultivate a certain degree of empathy with the consumer and not regard such critiques as the work of the antichrist or as personal attacks. 

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years? 

Andy: There seem to have been a lot of changes in the four years or so I’ve been most involved in the rpg side of things. The enormous rise in social networking has brought writers and players into direct contact, especially at the smaller end of the scale. Bigger companies can’t really communicate that way of course, so I doubt that’ll change enormously. On a less positive note, I’ve seen a lot of unpleasantness being aimed at individual writers, but that’s more an issue with human nature and the platform of social networking than anything specific to the industry. 

RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of? 

Andy: It’s inevitable that you’ll look back on past work and see immediately how you’d do it differently – in fact I’d worry if that wasn’t the case! 
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher? 

Andy: Something I’ve seen in many would-be freelancers and in fact in some newly minted ones, is the desire to reshape a setting or ruleset according to their particular view of it. For me, the ability to zero in on what makes a line popular and to accentuate that element, even if it’s not how you personally would do it if you were in charge, is key. Writing for someone else is not an exercise in vanity and you have to set aside your own wants in order to fulfill the brief and serve the needs of a product that is the result of many peoples’ creativity, not just your own. You also have to be able to respond to feedback positively and not expect your first draft to be accepted without comment, which is another area many fall down on.

Mr. Hoare is THE White Scars expert.

In terms of the publisher, I think they have to walk a fine line when dealing with freelancers, who are often in a precarious position themselves! Communication is really important, as I’ve often seen people given almost carte blanche within a project only to be told on handover they haven't produced what was wanted. Good briefs that set solid milestones whilst identifying which parts the writer can really go to town on are very important. Managing creatives is a tricky business though, and I’ve seen some people get it very wrong and others get it very right, so there’s no simple answer. 

RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be? 

Andy: The obvious answer would be more money and paid in advance, but that would be madness! 

RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work? 

Andy: Well firstly, I dislike the term ‘fan’ because it implies the work is passively consumed by a spectator, which isn’t the case in this industry as people actively engage with it in the process of playing. To be honest, I’m not really one for pushing myself into the limelight (I know I probably should though!) but I hope I’m open and friendly and if anyone asks me something on my Facebook page or blog I’m always very pleased to answer. 

RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional? 

Andy: A couple of things stand out actually. One is the Lure of the Expanse adventure book Owen Barnes and myself wrote soon after Rogue Trader was released. There’s a couple of things I’d do differently of course, but on the whole I’m really proud of it and consistently see positive chat about it.

There’s also the settings for Black Crusade and Only War (the former written alongside lycanthropic tabletop wargames veteran Andy Chambers). Developing a background like that is a real challenge as you have to provide a broad but necessarily shallow sandpit that everyone can play in, whilst seeding numerous ideas that you and other writers can expand on later on (which means you can't be too precious or jealous about these ideas). I’ve seen this happen with the Black Crusade setting, where little ideas I included in the core rulebook, often no more than a paragraph, sentence or name, are now being expanded on and because they’re rooted in the core description of the setting the whole process is pleasingly organic. 

RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional? 

Andy: Being a generally positive person it’s hard to say, but I hate missing a deadline, though if I do its usually only by a very small margin and I’m sure to agree an extension with the client before it becomes an issue. I’ve occasionally had to turn a job down due to other commitments, which I really hate doing as you’re never quite sure if that client will come back (they have so far!). 

RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own? 

Andy: I have no problem at all doing so, but I appreciate that others do. For me it comes down to seeing the issue in black and white or as shades of grey. I’ve seen some people objecting to the idea that GMs should add in their own rules on the grounds that they could do that anyway, so what’s the point in buying a rules set in the first place, while others want a game that allows the GM lots of leeway to jam along as they see fit. The way I see it is you have to provide a balance between the two; you have to provide a usable and stable framework and when you build in leeway you have to provide examples of how to do so. There’s very little point in saying ‘make stuff up!’ if you don’t give a couple of examples to demonstrate what you mean. Ultimately, any game has to appeal to a wide range of people to be commercially viable but, paradoxically can never be all things to all players. 

Professor Hoare's latest adventure involved some squidly fellows.

RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…? 

Andy: An old school sword and sorcery barbarian :-) 

RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)? 

Andy: I cut my teeth on West End Games Star Wars and have a soft spot for their D6 system so I’d say that’s still my favourite. I still enjoy a good old mechanical dungeon bash though! 

RW: What is your favorite part about writing for games? The background, the rules, the adventures? 

Andy: I’ve always tried to occupy the exact point where these things all come together and spark the player’s creative drives to go off and do something. When I was writing codexes and White Dwarf articles for Games Workshop I’d always try to provide those small gems of background, rules or hobby inspiration that make you go off and collect a new army, write a new scenario, start a new campaign or whatever. 

RW: What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the game industry? 

Andy: To get there in the first place, take part, contribute, be a positive influence and promote your creativity in a way that inspires others and ultimately gets you noticed. Maintain a blog and fill it with examples of your work and lively discussion so that when you approach potential clients you can show them what you’ve been doing (and they may well have heard of you already). Be rounded and don’t obsess over little details (at least not in public!). Don't indulge in rants or hyperbole. Be humble and polite, and respectful of other people working in the field, even if deep inside you think they’re fools of the worst order - remember that one day (if you’re lucky) you might be working with them or given a brief to write something in a way you wouldn’t choose to do yourself and it might all look very different indeed. 

RW: What is a project that you have always wanted to make but never have had the chance? 

Andy: I’ve been plugging away at a set of narrative tabletop skirmish rules for a while, aimed at non-setting-specific ‘sword and sorcery’ wargaming and if I ever get the chance I hope to develop them to a publishable point and get them out there. If they proved viable I’d expand the core rules into other genres too so you never know… 

RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission? 

Andy: I think you primarily look for people who can demonstrate that they truly ‘get’ the setting. This doesn’t have to be an intimate knowledge of the canon (though that helps) but rather an affinity for the themes, feeling etc that it promotes. In terms of turn-offs, I’d be on the look out for the writer’s ego seeping into the work too much – like I said before, if they’re trying to re-write the setting or rules to better fit their own idea of how it should be done they’re doing it for the wrong reason. 

RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…? 

Andy: FFG’s Rogue Trader, WEG’s Star Wars or (red box) D&D, all for very different reasons!