The Marvel Role-Playing Game Is Unwieldy And Nostalgic Fan Service

The Marvel Role-Playing Game Is Unwieldy And Nostalgic Fan Service
Image: Marvel Entertainment

One of the draws of playing a franchise’s licensed tabletop role-playing game is the ability to role play as your favourite character. This is, unfortunately, also one of the big pressure points I commonly see in adapted games. The game becomes dedicated to the ability to play these characters, built up to serve the fan’s desires to make their own stories in any specific universe for these characters, often at the expense of other game design considerations.

Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game has this problem. I was given a first look at a playtest rulebook — an abbreviated version of the game’s rules that doesn’t emcompass the entire game, but is sent to reviewers to give them an idea of what the book will be like. This means that I am working from an incomplete, but priority-driven ruleset, and I have geared my review towards a critique that analyses what’s here in front of me, knowing that more might be added.

Now, I don’t blame the designer for attempting to accurately replicate one of the most beloved parts of the Marvel franchise — Matt Forbeck has written two editions of the Marvel encyclopaedia in addition to writing for Dungeons & Dragons; he’s an industry vet who absolutely knows what he’s doing. But the outcome of this attempt to capture all the deep lore and nuance of hundreds of comic book characters into character-sheet-applicable power slots is an unwieldy game that relies on fan investment rather than proving itself a worthy game for any roleplayer. This is what I find truly frustrating about so many of these licensed TTRPGs — they are built to appeal to fans, hoping to port over the joyful investment of the fandom into a new medium, without truly working towards creating a wholly cohesive game that can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the fandom.

Fanservice is always first in the Marvel Multiverse RPG, from the unique dice system — the D616 engine — to the stats assigned to each character: Might, Agility, Resilience, Vigilance, Ego, and Logic. Get it? MARVEL. While these sorts of winks back to fans are fun to recognise in the moment, they rarely translate to actual usefulness within the system.

Break out your calculator

The key source of mechanical friction is a two-parter: the D616 system (a 3D6 system with extra rules) alongside the scalability of power sets and the overwhelming reliance on combat mechanics to carry emotional weight without any mechanical instigation. The D616 system utilises three D6 dice, but with one set apart (by colour, the book suggests), representing the “Marvel die.” If the Marvel die ever shows a one, it changes the outcome of the roll, but it does not guarantee any success. While this seems needlessly complicated for the sake of a gimmick, the problems come up when we get to the Archetype stat blocks.

Archetype stat blocks describe how a power set scales when a hero becomes more powerful, called gaining ranks. It makes sense that as a character gets stronger, the stat buffs also increase. However, around the middle levels of the rank structure, we’re faced with buffs of +8 and +18 for different stats. But the D616 system’s best roll is an 18, and the median roll is a 10 1/2, so the limitations of the dice rolls are immediately felt. Instead of creating a system where dice rolls can feel meaningful to a character at any rank, Marvel Multiverse places more weight on rank and gaining levels in-game, creating an imbalance of power that shifts gameplay from a combination of skillset and luck towards a near complete reliance on rankings. At rank 25 (the highest possible) some buffs are even +52. You can almost triple the best possible roll with a buff like this, making it hard to imagine that +9, give or take, will really make much of a difference in the midst of the crunch of it all.

I can see so many ways to make this book better by simply focusing on how to enact power scale without relying on a gimmick of a game engine. The most frustrating part about these mechanics is that Marvel already did an incredible job with the D100 FASERIP universal table mechanics in the ‘80s! This could have been streamlined and adjusted for modern gameplay, but instead, in an attempt to make something new, Forbeck has over-engineered a calculations-based game rather than a results-based game, and the game suffers for the sake of breaking the fourth wall to wink at the audience.

Combat is turn-based, which is pretty standard for crunchy, numbers-heavy games like this. However, the book is always competing with the fan’s imagination, hoping to pre-empt any questions or narrative control by providing rules for almost any situation. An example of this is when the book describes the difference between “Making Holes” and “Ploughing Through Objects,” both of which require knowing the hit points and attack power of the characters, the objects, and, in the case of Ploughing Through Objects, the relative soak damage of an interior wall vs an exterior wall. This is, even for a crunchy, numbers-heavy game, a lot.

Image: Marvel Entertainment

My second mechanical issue with this book is that there is so much time spent detailing combat and power that it almost completely disregards the storytelling part of an RPG, and comics in general. There is little to no space dedicated to emotional conflict, the heavy weight of decisions of life and death, or the interpersonal relationships that people have with their team. None of this is addressed, and there’s one combat rule that hints at this — “Holding Back.” This rule reminds us that most superheroes don’t want to kill people, and if their punch might unalive someone, they have the option to reduce their HP to one instead of zero.

What about your best friend-competitive rival? Your archnemesis? Your family? Why don’t we get any hint about how this game handles relationships, when so often it’s the relationships between characters that get people invested in the comics to begin with? I know this isn’t the complete book, but it feels like an incredible oversight to have explanations of the four different calculations that players have to perform before they can determine whether or not their character can punch through a wall, and nothing about the mechanical considerations for, at the very least, teamwork. Teamwork, for what it’s worth, never appears in this book.

Legacy over in-game worldbuilding

One of the biggest problems I had was that this game is so reliant on previous knowledge of the Marvel universe that it feels limiting rather than expansive. There’s a portion of the Narrator’s section that says, “there are large gaps in the rules still, and there are parts that might fall apart if leaned on too hard.” This is especially frustrating to read, not because this is a playtest, but because this is already a 100+ page book full of rules and explanations. Rather than providing a way to maintain an expansive world, the book truly reads like an encyclopaedia of how to understand the Marvel universe, rather than a way to create a game at the table. The rules are focused on detailing every possible option, rather than giving those options back to the players. The constant boxing-in and categorization of powers, combat, and reactions already apparent in this book feels like an attempt to outwit the players, appealing to the kind of fan who loves to have a way to categorise and understand every part of a fandom rather than creating a framework for imaginative improvisation.

An example of this is how the Archetypes are defined. Archetypes are a character creation mechanic where players broadly choose what kind of reactions their superhero’s power allows them. Some Archetypes are straightforward: Blasters shoot things with eye beams or special arrows; Bruisers use their toughness to absorb damage and punch back; Protectors focus on keeping everyone safe, either through barriers or teamwork. But then there’s Polymath, the game’s solution to overpowered characters that can do just about anything. It’s a catch-all category that includes examples like Carol Danvers, Miles Morales, and Misty Knight… three characters that I would not put in the same kind of fight or in the same kind of power classification system.

Again, in an effort to create a system that has a “catch all questions” mindset, we end up with more questions than answers, as many different characters at many different points in time could be relegated to the Polymath category. Iron Man is given as an example of a Polymath while Doctor Doom is a Genius, despite the fact that there have been multiple runs where Doctor Doom and Iron Man either switched places or became the other person. Because the game is reliant on the lore that exists over 70 years of comic book legacy-building, there is an intrinsic hope that players will come in with a knowledge of these characters and their arbitrary designations, rather than a desire to create a game that will appeal to fans of the superhero genre in general.

Image: Marvel Entertainment

Ultimately, the ability to world-build within this game is sacrificed for an overcomplicated combat explainer. This is an arena game, best suited for tournament arcs and gladiator fights. There’s no direction on how to create conflicts, enemies, other worlds, settings, or even a team. I’m sure the full book will have this, but the fact is that we’ve been given 120 pages of “how to throw a punch” and nothing about how to set up the actual storyline that people are expected to play through. Even the final section, an adventure play-through of a Hydra Base, is a beat-em-up module with no emotional stakes and a loot drop of Silver Surfer footage. There’s no explanation of how to make this important to the characters, how to bring the team together, or even how to prepare the characters for a mission. The focus is so set on making sure that people understand the mechanics that it loses all storytelling cohesion entirely, relying on a Marvel fan to know that Hydra is very bad and cannot be reasoned with and the Silver Surfer is very important. This clear reliance on a massive legacy of lore is flawed game design.

Cohesion isn’t just a part of the mechanics, but should apply to the presentation itself. All of the art in this book is taken from comic books. In reading, it feels like a collection of greatest hits of covers and panels, from many different artists with many different styles, without much of a through-line when it comes to the context of these illustrations within the TTRPG core book itself. For a game centered around fanservice, I’m not surprised this is the case, but I am surprised that none of the artists are credited. The exception are the cover artists, but the front page lists the writers, editors, letterers, playtesters, and special thanks–a list of about 100 names–but the people who drew the iconic art that fills these pages is noticeably absent.

Games should have focus, not fanservice

All of this results in a game that has old-school sensibilities and none of the innovation of modern TTRPGs. There are many fans of TTRPGs out there who enjoy this kind of crunch, and many Marvel fans who will jump at the chance to play as their faves, but the combination here feels exhausting. I’m a seasoned role-player and a comic nerd, and I would hesitate to say (even after reading the book twice) that I’m able to run this game effectively.

Now, I know this is a preview, and I’m interested in reading this in its entirety, but I firmly believe that a preview will highlight the most important aspects of your game, regardless of the expansiveness of the full book. If Marvel is asking for people to comment on the effectiveness of the combat mechanics, they have made the choice to prioritise that aspect of their game. This playtest is in progress, yes, but it is also a statement on what this game will value and emphasise, which is, according to this playtest, combat and power creep. This may appeal to some players, but it does not appeal to me, and I fail to see how this is an improvement over previous Marvel TTRPG iterations.

Why do we love superheroes? Why do we go to watch a Marvel film? Why do we love to hate our favourite characters? Because of who they are, because of the stories that they tell us. Because these over-the-top, exaggerated stories about responsibility, power, relationships, and love are weighty topics, metaphorically analogous of the kinds of stories that we play out every day in our own lives. Superhero stories can be radically political and existential, providing a way to find hope in hard times. We love superhero stories because they are emotionally cathartic power fantasies, and, sometimes, the explosions are really cool too.

But Marvel Multiverse fails to address the heart of superhero stories. It wants to show off for the fans, and in doing so it delivers a crunchy combat explainer rather than a creative exploration of how to role-play beloved comic book characters through their stories rather than their stand-offs.