In the multiverse, there are an infinite number of roleplaying games. There are also an infinite number of roleplaying games based on the Marvel comics IP. I observe all that transpires here, but I do not, cannot, will not, interfere. For I am The Reviewer.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been on board with Marvel roleplaying games from the start. For a while, I played almost as much Marvel Superheroes as I did Dungeons & Dragons. I missed out on the Marvel Superhero Adventure Game (the one with the cards), and the Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game (the one with the stones), but I dove hard into Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Roleplaying (the one with the dice pools).
The first two Marvel roleplaying games were published by TSR, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was published by Margaret Weis Productions. Both the Marvel Universe Roleplaying game and the product we’re looking at today have been published by Marvel. Marvel publishing their RPG is an interesting turn in the RPG industry, but as noted, it’s not without precedence.
The Marvel Multiverse Roleplaying Game is currently in playtest, which is why this is a first impression article. The game isn’t done and isn’t attempting to present itself as done. It was available in an array of formats, most of which hovered around the $10 mark, although it is notable in RPG circles that PDF isn’t one of those formats.
I purchased this product on my own, in multiple formats, to write this first impression. I was not provided with any review copies. I have not had the opportunity to play the game with other players, but I did create several characters and ran some solo scenarios with multiple opponents clashing with one another to see how the scenarios would play out.
The Marvel Multiverse Roleplaying Playtest Rulebook is available in multiple formats. This includes a paperback version, an electronic comics version, a version for Roll20, and a Nexus on Demiplane. The only version I don’t have is the actual physical copy of the book, and all three were used in this review (with a few notes on implementation along the way).
The Roll20 version is incorporated into the VTT. If you aren’t familiar with how the website presents products on the site, in this case, the rules are included in their Compendium, which is a series of reference pages that present the contents of the book, with hyperlinks to other sections where applicable. There is also a map of the sample adventure, tokens for all the presented characters, and a character sheet. The character sheet automatically calculates rolls based on input and can figure damage, etc. However, if you have only used Roll20 for D&D, there is no Charactermancer, meaning you still must look up the rules to input the values into the included character sheet.
The Nexus version available on Demiplane is very similar to what you may be used to if you have ever used D&D Beyond. The information from the rulebook is presented in a manner like a Compendium in Roll20, where different chapters of the book are presented as web pages, with various hyperlinks. Unlike Roll20, you can hover over different highlighted rule elements and see a window showing that data. Clicking on some of the hyperlinks brings up a sidebar that shows the rules element that you are referencing without taking you away from the current page.
I had initially started making characters with the Comixology version open, then started referencing the Compendium in Roll20. It was by far easier to navigate the data in the Demiplane Nexus version of the material when making characters.
It may seem like a logical assumption, but each format has its benefits. I read through the rules in the Comixology implementation, when reading the rules front to back. The Roll20 implementation works well for referencing items when using the VTT to run the game. The Demiplane Nexus was excellent as a rules reference.
The “book” format of this product is 122 pages long. That includes a credits page, a table of contents, a three-page glossary/index, a two-page sample character sheet, and a two-page rules reference. There is also an ad for the final version of the book, due out in 2023, along with the website to visit for entering playtest insight.
The Long View
The book is divided into the following sections:
- Core Mechanics
- Character Profile
- Creating a Character
- Backstories and Traits
- Marvel Heroes
- Enter: Hydra (An Adventure)
Let’s take a closer look at what’s included.
The Core Mechanic
The core system is called the d616 system, which does not mean you roll a 616-sided die, although that might be interesting. Rolls are adjudicated with three dice. The dice should be two different colors, with two of one color, and one of another (we’ll call it the Marvel die). If you roll a success and you also roll a 1 on the Marvel die, it is a Fantastic Roll. If you roll a 1 on all three dice, it’s a botch. If you roll a “616,” it’s an Ultimate Fantastic roll, and if you roll a 1 on the Marvel die, don’t roll a 1 on both other dice, and still fail, you still get a beneficial extra, even though you fail at what you attempted to roll.
The target number is modified by difficulty, which is a positive or negative number applied to the target number before determining success or failure. The target number itself is a base number determined by the rank of a character. So target numbers not referencing an opposed value from another character are all contextual to the rank of the character. A lowly Hydra agent must roll a 15 to get something done with an unmodified difficulty, but to do the same thing, Carol would have to roll a 31.
Characters can have edges and troubles on their roll. An edge allows you to reroll a die, while a trouble lets the Narrator tell you what die they would like you to reroll. Edges and troubles cancel out 1 to 1, but you can have multiple edges or troubles when you make a roll, meaning you might have any number of rerolls to work through before you get to your final number.
Characters have Health, which is a measure of their physical well-being, and Focus, which is their mental well-being. Focus does double duty by also serving as a pool that a player can spend to activate or boost some powers, representing them using their extreme mental fortitude focused on a specific goal.
Karma is a currency that allows a character to spend a point of Karma to reroll a single die, once per turn. Not the “spend it point for point to increase a die result” from the Marvel Superheroes days, but still a callback.
In general, rank is how powerful and competent your character is in context to other characters in the setting. This gets a little confusing because rank is both scale and experience. For example, Thor, by being a god, was never Rank 1, but he may have been Rank 15 in the Silver Age and gained enough experience with using his powers in the modern era to move him up to Rank 20.
As I mentioned above, rank determines a character’s target number for their checks, but it also interacts with another game element, Archetype, to fully understand how all of this works. A character will reference their bonuses and defenses based on their rank, in the context of Archetype. For example, some archetypes have much higher bonuses and defenses related to how physically powerful they are.
Archetype is another rules element that tells you something important, but not everything, about how a character does their job as a superhero. The archetype may suggest certain powers, but powers aren’t directly related to the archetype. The archetypes are as follows:
- Blaster (ranged attacker)
- Bruiser (close fighter)
- Genius (skewed towards mental ability scores)
- Polymath (balanced between different approaches)
- Protector (higher defensive abilities)
- Striker (higher offensive abilities)
For example, Cyclops and Hawkeye could both be blasters, but their powersets are very different from one another. A lot of heroes with a variety of powers end up being polymaths. For example, Spider-Man and Thor both get into close fights and used ranged attacks.
I’m still trying to get used to the term “polymath” for the balanced hero archetype. I know it means someone that is well versed in a range of abilities, but its usage here is more “average, but average in the context of being a superhero.”
Ability scores spell out the word MARVEL. They include the following stats:
This gives us three physical ability scores and three mental ability scores. There are some quirks to this. For example, Might, by itself, doesn’t always determine how strong a character is, because they may have a certain Might score, and ranks of the “mighty” power, which creates kind of a secondary measurement for overall strength.
Power Sets and Powers
Power Sets are the family of powers from which a character can draw their powers, with individual powers under that family. Based on a character’s rank, they have access to X number of power sets and Y number of powers.
Both the power sets and the powers can be very specific. For example, one powerset is “blades,” and there are powers under that powerset that enable you to score extra damage on a fantastic success or attack multiple targets. To use parlance from other games, the powers are a combination of powers and “stunts” that you might learn which lets you specialize with those powers.
The power sets are also not grouped by a general theme, but by themes that might be extant in the Marvel source material. These include:
- Energy Control
- Martial Arts
- Shield Bearer
- Tactical Mastery
- Weather Control
Utility powers don’t count against your number of power sets, but they do include some interesting options that I would have assumed would have fallen under other topics, like Healing Factor, Tough, and Fastball Special.
Like the ability scores and the dice resolution, this feels a little reverse-engineered from the desired endpoint. Spider-Man has a wide range of powers, so to make sure he can get all the powers he normally has, there is a power set just for spider powers.
This is a playtest document, so I’m not criticizing the game for this so much as noting it: there aren’t enough power sets here to really represent some Marvel characters. You might be able to piece together a magical practitioner, for example, but there aren’t a lot of summoning/banishing/traversing dimensions in any of these powersets. From my experiments, I’m interested to see how you would model a character like Doctor Doom with these rules because with what’s here, it is hard to make him feel competent in both magic and science.
It was also strangely difficult to build Beast using this. I think I narrowed in on a build that feels more like him after trying various powers, but it took some piecemeal bits from utility, blades, super-strength, and martial arts.
Some powers scale rapidly, and I feel like a lot of characters live in the space between that scale. For example, when trying to give Beast a Jumping speed, you can go from matching your running speed to moving over 300 feet in one leap. Neither of those felt like Beast’s usual bounding movement to me. Other forms of movement, like flight, scale-up just as rapidly.
I mentioned this elsewhere, but Mighty is another one that feels strange because Might seems to be the default measure of strength, but Mighty creates a secondary measure for Might, that uses a virtual boost in size to change how much a character can carry, and how much physical damage they do in hand to hand combat.
An example of how confusing this can get is that Spider-Man has a Might of 5 and Mighty 1, and Wolverine has a Might of 6. Human maximums are suggested at around 4, so according to Might scores, Spider-Man is just a little stronger than the strongest unenhanced human, but Logan is stronger. However, Spider-Man is also treated as being “big” for purposes of what he can carry. I’m not sure what scale we’re comparing anymore with the Might score at this point.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with abstractions. I get the concept from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying “Hulk has a d12 because that’s the impact his strength has on a story.” But the Might score and the boosts for Mighty are measuring specific weights.
My initial assumption was that the power sets contained in the book would be the power sets connected to the heroes presented as examples, but we don’t get a Mister Fantastic or Ms. Marvel stat block, but we get Plasticity as one of the power sets.
The bottom line for the playtest is that you may be able to make a wide variety of characters, but if you are trying to make a specific character, you might run into some problems trying to get them to feel “just right.”
How anyone one part of a character’s build will work is heavily dependent on the interaction of Rank, Ability Score, and Power. Because rank determines relative difficulty for checks, if you use Polymath as your baseline, characters that are above average are going to make some things look easy, and struggle at others, because their bonuses aren’t keeping pace with the relative target number. This is why a lot of heroes end up being Polymaths.
Bonus to hit in hand-to-hand combat, ranged combat, defenses based on different abilities, starting health, and focus are all based on the character’s rank and what archetype they are. Defenses are target numbers, meaning that someone acting against a character is usually the “active” party, against a “passive” defense. While most combat is going to be driven by bonuses to Might or Agility, mental abilities like Ego drive some mental attacks. This means, theoretically, with the right build, Doctor Doom can defeat you with his ego. This makes sense.
Archetype and rank also determine hand-to-hand and melee damage. If a character uses a weapon, they use that weapon’s listed damage, unless their archetype has higher damage at that rank. For example, for a Rank 1 mook, they will do better taking a pistol’s regular damage, but Punisher picking up a pistol is going to do immensely more damage using his archetype damage–he still needs to have a pistol to do ranged damage.
One thing to keep in mind right up front is there is a limited number of characters available for this playtest.:
- Black Panther (T’Challa), Rank 15
- Captain America (Steve Rogers), Rank 15
- Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), Rank 25
- Groot, Rank 15
- Iron Man (Tony Stark), Rank 15
- Rocket Raccoon, Rank 10
- Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Rank 10
- Spider-Man (Peter Parker), Rank 10
- Storm, Rank 15
- Thor (Thor Odinson), Rank 20
- Wolverine (Logan), Rank 10
If you want to know what villains are available in the playtest, here you go:
- Hydra Agent, Rank 1
The scenario included in the book relies on Hydra agents that have powers identical to existing heroes from the book.
Spoilers for this playtest if you are going to be a player:
The adventure is two set-piece fights against Hydra forces. The first scenario throws a ton of Hydra agents at the player characters, and the second scenario involves a hostage situation, meaning that the PCs may need to decide on how they want to rescue the hostages before the Hydra versions of the heroes show up for the final fight.
It’s not a particularly long scenario, and the main point of roleplaying/planning will be the hostage situation. The Narrator is told to roll with however the PCs want to handle that situation, so if they barrel in like Juggernaut, the hostages aren’t really in any more trouble than if the PCs sneak in and free them first.
First Contact, Building Beast
The first character that I wanted to build was one of my favorites, Hank McCoy, i.e. Beast. I used Spider-Man as a benchmark for Beast. They seem like they are the same “rank” character, and Spider-Man and Beast are in the same broad category for strength (depending on what point in their career you look at them).
My first attempt at Beast was straightforward. I pumped up mighty, senses, and regeneration, and gave him some moves like knocking heads together from Martial Arts. His Mighty seemed too high, but I was still working out how this squared with the Might ability score.
I also built a Hydra Battlesuit trooper to test characters. At least as far as the playtest rules are concerned, NPCs are built the same way as PCs, so I made a Rank 10 Polymath using Battlesuit and Firearms as the primary power sets.
For my run-through of this scenario, I had Captain America and Beast square off against two of the Battle Suits that I made. Beast got his lunch handed to him, in part because a lot of builds, like power suits and shield bearers, get damage resistance if they pick up the right powers. The Power Suit’s firearms powers also gave it some reaction damage when being attacked, which doubled down on the issues with Beast not having any damage reduction.
Another issue is that Best didn’t have much of an incentive to move. On a tactical battle mat, he could jump past Cap to reach the second Battlesuit, but once he engaged, since he is a hand-to-hand fighter, he might as well stay in front of the Battlesuit, which didn’t feel quite right.
Cap, on the other hand, outpaced the damage reduction of the Battle Suits, and even when standing still got to do things that felt dynamic, like attacking both suits in the room by ricocheting his shield.
I dropped Beast’s Mighty a bit so that he still didn’t outpace Spider-Man. I also gave him the Ram ability, which added extra dice to his damage whenever he moved a certain amount before he attacked. The downside is that he ended up prone after making the attack, which didn’t feel Beast-like, but at least it made him more mobile and more dangerous.
This time around, Beast fared a lot better, even though he had to waste movement every other round to stand up. That said, Cap breezed through the scenario again. Keep in mind, that I wanted this in the hero’s favor, because we had a rank 15 and a rank 10 versus two rank 10 characters.
I ran another scenario with the battlesuits where I had Spider-Man and Captain America fight the two suits. This went a lot faster than the fight with Beast, and both characters were in much better shape after the fight. I then had a second stage where they fought a custom-built Viper with a ton of Hydra troopers.
This is where I found some interesting quirks with the pre-made characters and their abilities. There is an open-ended trait called “signature item” that says you can work out the details of the bonus that the weapon gives you with your Narrator. The bonus Cap was given for this was to let him break the rank cap on damage reduction by taking a rank in the shield ability that he couldn’t take at rank 15. That means Cap was ignoring more direct damage than Iron Man because a very open-ended rule was interpreted generously.
The other problem is that Spider-Man has an ability that paralyzes opponents when he hits them with a ranged attack. In theory, I don’t have a problem with this. The problem is, that there is no way to remove the paralyzed effect once he hits them. Characters can’t move or take action, and even if they could, there is no target number mentioned for a character to act against. As a stopgap, I let the power suits roll against the standard target number for rank 10 to break free. Later, when Spidey got a Fantastic success on one of these attacks, I ruled that they were unable to even attempt to break free.
Viper got a few shots in on Spider-Man, but as soon as Cap managed to clear out the remaining Hydra troopers, He steamrolled her easily (Viper was also built at Rank 10).
There was a bit of a hiccup in playtesting this in Roll20. While the character sheet is great for calculating rolls and damage, the roll is “final.” That means that all the rules in the game that allow for dice rerolls like edges, troubles, and Karma spends, aren’t as easily modeled. This isn’t too bad when you are only rerolling a single die, as the dice results are clearly marked, but when you get into situations where there are multiple rerolls on the same resolution, this can be cumbersome.
This is kind of nitpicky, and it’s probably a bigger ask for a playtest implementation, but it would also be nice if the character sheet would auto-populate set numbers from the charts for rank and archetype since those are set numbers. It would save a lot of table referencing.
On the Demiplane Nexus side of things, while it was a great reference site, some of the larger tables don’t reformat, so you have to scroll across to see all of the information. This comes up on the larger tables like the archetype tables, and this can be a pain because scrolling right covers up the rank numbers on the left-hand side of the table.
Finally, the Comixology version of the book has a problem with formatting on pages 70-71, where facing pages are formatted as a single page, making them very hard to read, which causes even more problems since this is in the powers section.
My first impression of this is that it was engaging, and I had fun building characters and trying to make them work in different ways. I also felt like there were some “reverse engineered” ideas in the system, where people started with something like ability score names or a dice resolution system and worked backward to get them to work. I’m not saying they don’t work, but I’m not sure how much the novelty of getting them to work is worth making it very obvious that some workarounds were created for those assumptions.
I have seen a lot of online discussions about the big numbers in this game. At the highest ranks detailed in the game, characters are throwing around 3d6 + 19 to resolve rolls, meaning that the modifier to the roll is higher than the range of the dice. I don’t think this is as bad as it has been portrayed in some examples, although 3d6 + 19 is way more predictable than 1d20 + 19. That said, some of the predictability can be mitigated by the dice reroll mechanics. That said . . .
The dice reroll mechanics can lead to a lot of rerolling, especially when you aren’t limited to a single source of edges or troubles. After you resolve your edges or troubles and your Karma, you may have been doing a lot of dice juggling to resolve a single roll.
It does feel a little off that powers include “I learned a new power” and “I learned a new trick with my power.” In some cases, this feels appropriate, like Cyclops learning how to blast multiple opponents. In other cases, it just feels like training, like Wolverine learning how to more efficiently cut people with attached sharp implements.
I fully understand that the playtest roster wasn’t going to be anywhere near as broad as the final list of superheroes in the game, I kind of wish they had been more targeted in who was included. The scenario is very much an Avengers scenario, so it feels a little weird to have Rocket and Groot take up a couple of the slots. I also would have loved to at least have two or three iconic villains showing up in the rules.
The resolution didn’t feel cumbersome to me, although the implied tactical nature of the game does lead to having a character potentially feel less dynamic than comic book characters feel. I had to intentionally build in some powers to encourage movement to make it worthwhile. I don’t mind that as much in D&D, but I want my heroes moving from left to right in the panels, so to speak.
I don’t think building a character will be as daunting as building a character in a more granular, “build a power from chained together effects” games like Mutants and Masterminds, but I also think it’s very easy to build a character that will feel way less effective than other characters due to some of the quirks of the rules, such as those characters that get access to damage reduction, and the fact that more damage reduction powers are available at different ranks. I would say that the character creation complexity is on par with the Sentinel Comics Roleplaying Game, but with less consistent boxes to house those choices.
When it comes to showcasing the rules in a scenario for playtesting, I wish the included scenario had a bit more to it than fight, deciding how to rescue hostages, and fighting again. I want to see what extended tests might look like to stop a disaster or to fight a fire, those other larger-than-life things that superheroes do other than just beating up supervillains (and superheroes).
Future Wishes I had fun making characters and running solo scenarios with these rules, but I would love to see something “in-between” this version of the rules and the final version to get a better idea of what was always planned that we just haven’t seen in a document with limited scope, and what may need to be addressed that wasn’t in the original design.
I’m not going to take up too much space wishing for more powers or example characters, because I know this is a playtest document. I don’t know if this is a possibility, but it would be nice if there were something a little bit down the road that allowed for testing a few more elements of the game.
I’m not sure if I’m sold on this idea myself, but it does feel like some of the number escalation could be solved by changing the range of ranks. For example, nearly everything in the game is predicated on multiples of five. Tiered powers usually are available at 5/10/15/20, the example characters are all at some multiple of five in rank, and the example styles of play are all laid out in multiples of five (neighborhood defender, city defender, world-class hero, etc.).
The book does briefly mention that if you want to play out a character arc, you could start at one rank and work towards another. For example, starting Spidey off as a Rank 5 character that works up to a Rank 10 character, which is probably a fair example of Spidey developing from the Silver Age to the present. But without many more rules that deal with character arcs and advancements, I’m not sure how key those intermediary ranks are to the experience the designers want to present.
I had fun making characters and running solo scenarios with these rules, but I would love to see something “in-between” this version of the rules and the final version to get a better idea of what was always planned that we just haven’t seen in a document with limited scope, and what may need to be addressed that wasn’t in the original design.