The year 2012 was an important year for me when it comes to both superheroes and roleplaying games. In 2012, I first encountered Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, a game which utilized the Cortex Plus system (actually a set of subsystems that work similarly, but emphasize different elements in different genres). I was not initially a fan of the game, but it grew to become one of my favorite games and is a large part of why I moved into exploring games with more narrative elements, over more traditional RPG structures. Because of Marvel Heroic, I started to explore games like Fate and the various Apocalypse World-derived games like Monster of the Week.
That is also the year that I first picked up the initial set of the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game, which became my pre-game warm-up for my DC Adventures game. Because the game reinforced so many comic book superhero tropes, it was a great lead-in to a night of playing costumed adventurers.
The reason I mention both of these super-powered games in the lead up to this review is due in part to the fact that several of the designers of Marvel Heroic were tapped to design the Sentinels of the Multiverse Roleplaying game, and it doesn’t take the Wraith’s portable forensics kit to see those fingerprints on the game.
How Do These Heroes Assemble?
My review of this game is based on both the physical Starter Kit and the PDF version of the product. The artwork and layout are simple, colorful, and evocative for both versions of the product, but this is one case where I think the presentation is hurt a bit if you are utilizing only the PDF version of the product.
The physical version of the product has a cover with references on the inside, that wrap around the bundle of other booklets. Inside this cover are two bookmarks advertising the upcoming Kickstarter for the core rulebook and The Letter’s Page, the podcast dedicated to discussing the fictional history of the comic book setting portrayed in the Sentinels games. In addition to the bookmarks, the following booklets are present:
- Gameplay Guide (20 pages)
- Character Booklets (six total, for Absolute Zero, Bunker, Legacy, Tachyon, Unity, and Wraith; all 4 pages plus covers, which have references and character histories on them)
- Issues (six linked game scenarios titled and numbered to be consistent with an ongoing comic book series, all 10 pages, except the final issue, which is 14 pages)
These all feature the same style of artwork (from Adam Rebottaro) that appears in the other Sentinels games, and there are numerous color-coded call outs and bullet-pointed lists throughout. The biggest issue is that the content being sequestered in different booklets works well for the physical product, but makes the PDFs a little unwieldy.
The Gameplay Guide walks players and GMs (here designated as the Game Moderator) through how to take actions and resolve scenes and then spends some time talking about how to utilize the other material in the Starter Kit.
Marvel Heroic used some terminology from Fate but did so in a manner that was a little different than how those elements are used in Fate. The Sentinels of the Multiverse game takes this Fate emulation one step further, and borrows the concept of having a list of basic actions under which almost everything in the game will be defined. The actions as defined by the game are:
- Boost or Hinder
Taking those actions involves assembling a die pool from applicable traits, rated in die sizes, from a character’s sheet. The three sections that you refer to are Powers, Qualities, and Status. If your flight power is the most relevant to the action you are describing, that’s the one you add to the pool. If you have nothing in a pool that is relevant, you can use a d4 instead of the rating of any of your traits, which are similarly expressed as die sizes.
For Overcome or Boost or Hinder actions, a chart will determine how successful you are with your action, while Attack directly subtracts from Health and Defend allows a character to subtract their result from incoming attacks. For most rolls, your result die is going to be the middle number of the three you rolled, but different abilities might allow you to use the highest die as your result die, or to add others together.
In the end, it comes across as using even more of a Fate framework, while still retaining the die step Cortex mechanics, but eliminating the Doom Pool for some set opposition values and adding in a Health pool to characters.
Abilities allow you to add extra effects to one of the standard options when you use certain abilities under certain circumstances. For example, when Absolute Zero uses his Cold power, if he uses the Defend action, he can use the highest die to defend an ally, and use the smallest die to boost them as well.
Villains are built in a manner similar to heroes, but lieutenants and minions are represented with a single die type, which is the only die they roll on their turn. Attacking them causes them to attempt to roll over the damage or be removed from the scene, or have their die type lowered by one until they are removed.
People familiar with the card game probably remember that the environment gets its own turn in that game, and that is true of the RPG as well. The environment gets a turn, which may allow it to do things like taking one of the standard actions or spawning new opposition. Additionally, there is a Scene Tracker that advances once everyone has taken a turn. If the Scene Tracker advances to the end of its track, there is usually some detrimental effect that the heroes have failed to stop. This may mean a bomb goes off, the villains escape, are any number of other plot elements.
In some cases, heroes can accept a twist, which can be minor or major, which allows them a partial success in situations that otherwise went against them. This may mean new opponents appear, or the hero is hindered for the rest of the scene, and both the sample heroes and the environments have example minor and major twists to draw from.
Characters can also pick up hero points or develop collections. Heroes can gain up to five hero points in one session which they can convert to floating bonuses in the next session, and for each game session they can give that session a “name,” and once you complete a story arc, you can gather those sessions into a Collection. Each collection you have allows you to invoke the collection for several special effects. To do this, the player cites something that happened in that collection that could be a flashback or an editor’s note in the current comic, which allows the players to manipulate the scene.
Overall, the game feels like a nice refinement of what was introduced in Marvel Heroic. The actions are clearly defined, and I like the idea of powers adding “kickers” to standard actions. That said, the way hero points are explained feels a little clunky. It feels nonintuitive to earn something for the next session, but to track it in the current session. Additionally, I don’t think I fully understood how the bonuses worked until I saw them expressed on the character sheets. I like the idea of invoking past collections to selectively use continuity from the past to modify the present—there is something very appropriate to that reasoning in a comics RPG.
Each of the six character booklets contains a character sheet, a summary of the rules, and a walk-through of the various parts of the character sheet. The back page of each character booklet has a multi-paragraph history of the character, explaining who they are and how they got their powers.
- Each character has principles that guide their actions and provide some minor or major twists, and contribute some of the abilities that can modify their die rolls
- There are sections showing the die ratings for their Powers and Abilities, and the health range where they shift from green, to yellow, to red
- When either the character or the environment is in the yellow or red zones, more abilities are available to the character than when both are in the green zone at the start of a scene—essentially, a hero is pushed to accomplish more the higher the stakes become
- There is an “Out” ability at the bottom of the track that the character can use to contribute even when their character has been removed from the scene due to their health dropping to zero
The Freedom Five and their former intern are a good cross-section of heroes to use as introductory heroes, and include a character with cold powers, a power suit hero, a flying powerhouse, a speedster, a martial arts and gadget using vigilante, and someone that manipulates technology and electricity.
There is no section anywhere in the rules on building your own heroes, so while you might be able to mix and match some of the other rules to make your own scenarios, it will probably take a little bit more effort to reverse engineer the principles and abilities to create heroes that aren’t at least a little similar to the ones presented.
The Starter Kit includes six issues, linked scenarios to play to introduce the game and the status quo of the setting going into the new core RPG. Each booklet is designed to be about a two-hour session, and the middle three “crossover” issues can be played in any order, until everything funnels back to the final issue of the collection, and reveals the villain behind all the events portrayed across the rest of issues.
The overall story arc involves helping another team of heroes come back together after they have gone their separate ways, while discovering the identity of a mysterious villain that has been manipulating the course of the whole series of events.
I love how these adventures are laid out. There are very clear sections explaining the starting point of the adventure, what adventures should feed into this one, what the stakes are for the individual scenes, what happens if the heroes succeed or fail, and the assumed steps it takes to complete various tasks.
I knew I was in love when I realized that things like tactics were bullet-pointed, and resolution steps are given checkboxes to call them out.
Again, I love how the adventures are laid out, and all the setup and connective tissue sections in them. I really wish more adventures looked like this. That said, the specific impact of bringing the other team of heroes back together, the new heroes encountered, and the revealed villain don’t feel as if they are going to have as much impact if you are picking this game up because it looks like a fun supers RPG versus if you are picking this up because you already follow the card or miniatures games and have delved into the lore of the setting.
It’s even a little tricky to give the players a primer on why the villain reveal might be important, since it turns into “hey, this guy is really important to the setting and has been a thorn in your side for a while—who knows where he went, but he’s probably not coming up in these adventures, right?”
Green Zone Resolution mechanics are simple, and adding a secondary effect for the standard actions is a really nice way to model specialized uses of powers.
The artwork is wonderful, the formatting calls out rules and examples well, and the bright colors are in perfect keeping with the source material. Resolution mechanics are simple, and adding a secondary effect for the standard actions is a really nice way to model specialized uses of powers. I really like the visual representation of the zone tracker and scene objectives, and how they help to highlight the stakes in the scene.
As a Starter Kit, this is designed to primarily play the included heroes for the 12 hours of assumed play. There are some guidelines for coming up with very basic scenes of your own, but building new heroes or villains will require some reverse engineering that may be beyond the time you want to invest in the game. The mechanics are simple and work well for the genre, but in a few places, the explanation for those mechanics feels a little clunkier than it could be.
Qualified Recommendation—A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
This game looks like a lot of fun, and I hope that it helps to nudge other publishers towards more table friendly adventure presentation. It seems to emulate fast paced super heroics well. Unfortunately, some of the impact of the product is based on knowledge of the setting, and as an introductory product, it’s hard to maintain excitement when we don’t have a date for the actual Kickstarter yet, or a projected release date for the core rules (a recent episode of The Letters Page mentioned a possible early 2019 release date, meaning that there could be over a year from Starter Kit release to full rules).
Definitely worth checking out for people interested in adventure formatting, dice step mechanics, or the setting itself, but it may be worth noting that the full version of the game may still be a little way off. From all indications, it should be worth the wait, but the degree to which you want to get a sneak peek may be a determining factor on how soon you pick this up.
One further recommendation that I don’t usually make—because of how the components are structured, this is one where I recommend the physical product if you have the space for it. Additionally, make sure to pick up the PDF from an outlet other than the Greater Than Games site, as the webstore limits your downloads.
What do you think of supers games? Where you a fan of Marvel Heroic? Are you more likely to check out a supers game with a strong connection to a setting, or would you rather have a solid framework without a setting? I’m looking forward to hearing from all of you, and thanks!