Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game... What Have We Here?

Strange how things happen...

A couple of weeks ago I dreamed of a comic shop. This one was tucked away, hidden like an adult video store, in the back of gas station, doorway complete with hanging beads, located in a more run down, but not necessarily seedy part of town. I don't often dream of comic shops, haven't in years, but when I do, they are always somewhat hidden. Two days later, another comic shop dream, another vaguely odd place, though I don't recall exactly where...

Why am I dreaming of comics?

These are hidden treasure dreams. Occasionally, in my youth, I would dream of amazing toy stores -- toy stores you could only dream about. Stores that had everything and then some -- awesome toys that didn't exist.

Then I stumbled across the Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game, written by Matt Forbeck, published by Marvel. I had actually heard about it some time ago (months, a year?) and scanned a preview of how it works then promptly dismissed it. Marvel is long overdue for a good role-playing system, because over the years there have been nothing but duds. 

I can't remember what recently brought this game back to my attention (dreams aside) but I bought it on Amazon for about $30, which is approximately 45% off. So why not? Because, apparently, super-heroes are on my brain.

I've eternally searched for the perfect super-hero system. My two favorites, and I've stated this plenty of times, are the Marvel Super Heroes game (FASERIP system) from the 80's and Palladium's Heroes Unlimited, two utterly and completely different games.


Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game is 320 pages, has a high quality binding, and is jammed full of quality, Marvel Comics art (of course I would've preferred art from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but, that ain't gonna happen.) The layout is good, but the pages have this subtle background hex-mesh (kind of like the stuff hero uniforms are made of in the movies) that threatens to annoy your eyes. A plain white background would've been better, then again, this might not bother younger eyes. Overall, it's a very nice book.

There is branding all over this thing. You have six abilities that spell MARVEL...

  • Melee -- hand-to-hand combat, including throwing
  • Agility -- acrobatics and most ranged attacks
  • Resilience -- your health
  • Vigilance -- your focus and initiative
  • Ego -- magic, leadership, psychic powers
  • Logic -- reasoning and telepathic powers

Notice that there is some blurring between melee and agility, and between ego and logic. Are telepathic powers not psychic powers? This will certainly lead to arguments. Each power states what ability to use and some powers don't require a roll.

Also notice, there is no strength stat. In this game strength is a super power, or rather, a set of super powers (they could have added strength at the bottom and had the stats spell MARVELS.) Stats are ranked from -3 to 9. Average citizens have all 0s. Nowhere is this book are there metrics given for how much your character can lift in actual lbs./tons. I've never seen this before in a super-hero game. Super strength here is kept vague. 

Characters are ranked in power level from 1-6; average citizens, Hand Ninjas*, and Hydra Agents* are rank 1, Hela and Magneto are rank 6. Spiderman(Peter Parker) and Captain America are both rank 4. If you're a fan, Miles Morales is rank 3. Daredevil and Elektra are both rank 2. 

*Hydra Agents are actually tougher (more health) than Hand Ninjas (same health as Aunt May!) -- something I find unbelievably bizarre. I'm sure the author is trying to set up scenes of Daredevil or Wolverine plowing through ninja-hordes, but in my mind, one Hand Ninja would slaughter several Hydra Agents... easily. Debates on the accuracy of character stats can be found on various forums -- this is inevitable for such a game. (Since when does Sam Wilson have super-strength?)

You have two hit point scores, Health and Focus, obviously physical and mental, which equal 30 times your Resilience and Vigilance, respectively (though Focus functions as a combo of physical and mental endurance.) A Resilience of 3 gives you 90 Health and a Vigilance of 5 gives you 150 Focus. Using some powers requires you to spend Focus. 0 Health equals unconscious while negative Health equals dead (thankfully they didn't shy away from death in this game, but then again, comic book death...) 0 Focus equals demoralized which means you can't use certain powers and you have the equivalent of disadvantage (here it is called trouble) on all rolls. Negative Focus equals shattered, meaning your will is completely broken, so not dead, but definitely taking a hiatus (perhaps your title got cancelled...)

Characters are built with a sort-of point buy system (yuck). Decide what rank your game will be and build heroes accordingly. Rank mainly decides how many powers/traits/ability-points you have and how much damage you do. Gaining ranks is handled vaguely, basically you rank-up whenever the Narrator (FASERIP's Judge was a better GM title, Narrator sends the wrong message to my ears) feels is reasonable, perhaps every 4-6 sessions (a graphic novel) but this would be far too fast. How do you explain a rank 1 rookie becoming a cosmic power in a matter of months? This isn't D&D. To the game's credit, it states that the official Marvel characters can't go any higher than they are and does sort-of warn against advancing your own too quickly. I would probably come up with some sort of system reminiscent of FASERIPs karma advancement. It would be very slow with plenty of limitations. Comic characters take years to change just a little bit. It is a curious genre that way. Almost all others RPG genres expect a fairly regular pace of improvement. Fighting crime is truly for the love of the game.

Your hero will be made up of the above mentioned stats plus an origin, occupation, tags, traits, and a multitude of powers. And by multitude, I mean multitude. Powers are built like feat trees, meaning certain powers have prerequisites, and those prerequisites have prerequisites. For example, in the super-speed category of powers, you can't take catch bullets until you take speed run 2 and your hero must be at least rank 3. Captain America's ability to punch someone with his shield is a power called shield-bash, so if you want to build a shield-bearer (this is a power set) you might want to start with shield-bash!

Power trees.

(Of note: Specific powers like penance stare exist in the game, but Daredevil's radar sense does not. Instead, his powers are summed up under the moniker of heightened senses. Nowhere on Daredevil's character sheet is radar sense even mentioned. Likewise, Psylocke's famous psi-blade is not mentioned either (not even in parenthesis.) This power uses the generic term of mental punch, a melee attack that damages Focus instead of Health and stuns on a fantastic success. I've never seen her psi-blade not stun someone, of course, I only recall ever seeing her stab targets through their skull, perhaps a psi-blade to the arm merely hurts.)

Origins nicely cover the usual tropes: Various Aliens, High Techs, Mutants, Monsters, etc. These give you certain tags, traits, and even powers (with some limitations) these are powers you must take before choosing any others, and sometimes, as with vampires and werewolves, these are the only powers you get.

Occupations offer more tags and traits, e.g., lawyer, entertainer, journalist, outsider, spy.

Tags are mere fluff descriptors like: mysterious, streetwise, rich, secret I.D., young, etc. These offer no mechanical benefits. 

  • But, they could... What if the hounded, hunted, and enemy tags meant that if you roll a fantastic failure (see below) or a new dice combo like triple 1s (1M1) members of an enemy organization or an arch-nemesis shows up to complicate your current situation? Or if you had the dependent tag, in the middle of the fight you find out a loved one is in danger somewhere else? Tags could have positive effects too if you roll a 6M6, such as allies arriving to help turn the tide (there is a backup tag.) This is what I would absolutely do.

Traits are like the old FASERIP talents which offer a slight edge to this or that roll. They sound just like tags though: iron will, loner, pundit, small, sneaky, etc.

Sample characters and sheets...

This is what Spiderman would look like if you created him yourself (on the right.) There would be a back page with the rest of his powers listed. See what I mean by a multitude of powers? BTW, there is a power-group of spider powers for people who love the spider-verse and wish to create their own spiderman (spider-verse book due out around the end of the year.)

Also, I would add an Action section to this character sheet. Everyone gets 1 standard action, 1 movement action, and 1 reaction. The trait combat reflexes gives you 1 additional reaction. It would be nice to see this at a glance. All powers fit into one of these action categories.

Most likely I'll be designing my own sheet.

Game Mechanics... Make or brake time. The stat block below is really the core of your character:

Of your 6 standard abilities, you can attack and do damage with 4 of them --melee, agility, ego, and logic. As already stated, resilience and vigilance set your health and focus. All 6 are important. All 6 also have a defense score, an armor class if you will, your score +10 + power bonuses. In melee combat, you roll against your targets melee defense. When shooting, you roll vs. their agility. Now, I love opposed rolls, but this is certainly the next best thing. For non combat rolls, you simply add your score (which may have a power bonus) to the 3D6 roll. And there in lies the mechanic... 3D6.


One die needs to be a different color from the other two. This die is called the MARVEL die. Official dice are sold in packs of 12, so 4 sets, for $16 -- not bad. The MARVEL die reads MARVEL in place of the 1.

The basic mechanic is: Roll 3D6 (referred to as D616, more branding, the Marvel earth is earth 616.) Anyway, if you're trying to punch someone, roll 3D6 + your melee score and meet or beat your target's melee defense. That's it, those are the basics. The same applies to agility, ego, and logic.

If you hit, the MARVEL die represents damage. Take that number and multiply it by your damage multiplier (limited by your Rank, e.g., rank 4 = x4 damage multiplier, some powers expand this) then add your melee score on top of that. 

If the MARVEL die comes up, MARVEL, it's called a fantastic success and you do double damage. 6MARVEL6 (6M6) is an ultimate fantastic success for triple damage. Powers and weapons will trigger other effects too, like stunning and knockback.

You can have a fantastic failure as well -- you fail but something strange happens that benefits you, sort of like failing forward. That's OK, but a missed opportunity for classic tropes like spiderman running out of web-fluid (if using a web power.) 

Some powers, traits, situations, give you edge or trouble, meaning you reroll the best or worst die. You can have double edge and double trouble too.

There is also Karma (a nice throwback to FASERIP.) You get a number of karma equal to your rank and can spend it to give yourself an edge or an opponent trouble, and to recover some health. BTW, edge and trouble are mentioned throughout the book without being in italics or bold print, I find this odd as they are terms that should always stand out.

The mechanics are simple and elegant. I actually like them. Lucky rolls can quickly knock people out of combat and also allow you to survive against powerful foes. There is however, one philosophical flaw in this game: Setting target numbers for non-combat challenges...

Target numbers are set based on your hero's rank. So, jumping from one roof-top to another (if set at challenging) will be TN:12 if you're rank 2, but for a rank 4 hero it's TN:14. What if they were jumping at the same time? Shouldn't it be easier for the rank 4 hero? This is an all-things-equal storytelling mechanic... not a fan. I think this assumes all heroes playing are the same rank, something else I'm not a fan of. I would set one TN regardless of who's attempting the feat. Easy fix, not a game-breaker.

Another thing, your damage multiplier is based on your rank. So rank 1 has a x1 multiplier and rank 6 has a x6 multiplier (remember this multiplier is applied to the results of the MARVEL die.) This applies to all 4 attack types, melee, agility, ego, and logic. Jean Grey is rank 6 so her melee damage multiplier is x6. Her melee score is 1, so not a great fighter, but if she did hit you she would do more damage than Daredevil and maybe even Captain America or Wolverine! Her mental powers do more damage than her fists, so she shouldn't bother trying to punch you, but if she did... This is a weird byproduct of this system. Obviously you could just say there was a little telekinesis in that punch (even though she has a separate telekinetic punch power, which is a logic vs. melee roll, just so you know.)

All in all, as it stands right now, I call this is a good game. So I'll say: Well done MARVEL (not a company I've praised in a long time -- the movies are terrible and it looks like they'll continue to be.) Time will tell though, as this RPG is still very new. The more people that play it, the more optimum power-builds will be revealed and then every created hero will look the same. Every one is going to take the equivalent of "super-strength" in their preferred damage mode and they will also take damage reduction in both Health and Focus -- you'd be dumb not to. And you'll have one attack that targets Health and one that targets Focus enabling you to zero in on a foe's weak spot. Also, EVERYONE will take the trait combat reflexes. Everyone will have flight. And these will only be half of your powers. This is why random character creation will always be superior to builds

Two books are out, the core rules and the Cataclysm of Kang Adventure which stats out a bunch more heroes/villains (the adventure part, I could care less about -- published super-hero adventures are always rail-roads of the highest degree.) An X-Men book is due out in August and a Spider-Verse book after that. These books are slated to have tons of hero stats and new powers and new rules. Eventually, I imagine, there will and should be, a Powers book. They should call it Ultimate Power (FASERIP had the Ultimate Powers Book.)

What I would love to see, and will most likely end up doing myself, is a random character generation system, not concerned with or limited by balance and rank. The actual X-Men aren't balanced nor are the Avengers and nor should your game be, well, my game anyway.

Now go clobber something!

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