Comics : Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: Dec 2015.

Background...

The "Marvel Heroic Role-Playing Game" (MHRPG) is the fourth role-playing system to be built around the Heroes & Villains of the Marvel Universe. I reviewed the original Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game rules a while back.

This "Civil War" was to be the first of many "Event" books expanding and enhancing your role-playing pleasure (while contracting the contents of your wallet).

In Detail...

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War
Sep 2012 : SM Guest
Find ISBN 9781936685158
Summary: Spider-Man Appears
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The "Civil War Event Book" is available in "Essentials" and "Premium" versions. Both are hardback, 7.4" x 11.1". The Essential version is 232 pages, while the Premium is 368 pages. The difference is that the Premium version contains a complete duplicate copy of the "Operations Manual" (i.e. the basic game rules) copied right out of the previously published Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game book.

Looking purely at the new material, this book is what (in my day) would have been called "a scenario". Actually, given the sheer number of pages, it's probably fairer to consider this book the equivalent of three scenarios.

Inside, you'll find:

  • Scenario-specific triggers for characters to gain XP.
  • Description of relevant locations.
  • Description of relevant factions, along with non-player character profiles.
  • The "transition" and "action" scenes which make up the event.
  • A slew of player character profiles to use in the Event.

In General...

I didn't like the original rules, and I'm equally unimpressed by this Event Book.

I've already stated how much I dislike the "Cortex Plus (Heroic Variant)" dice-rolling system which I find unnecessarily complex. Yes I understand how any role-playing system has to come up with an original mechanic which it can claim as its own. And I guess all the simple systems have all been used before. But this fist-full of random-sized polyhedra seems entirely arbitrary, especially once you then start swapping dice in and out of the various secondary dice pools.

But that's really a comment on the underlying game. What about this particular Book?

Well, one thing the book isn't short of is character profiles (each with their own unique dice-based abilities). In fact, it feels like a good 50% of the book is dedicated to defining an ever-expanding cast of player and non-player characters.

What the book is rather short on, however, is the things that I would demand from a decent scenario:

  1. Maps and Resources.
  2. Structured Plot.

The Location Descriptions are pathetic. I know what a S.H.I.E.L.D. Heli-Carrier is, thank you very much. What I really want is a gridded map of the particular one that appears in this scenario, with the location of the various guards and prisoners, weapons caches, escape capsules, computer access consoles, and all the other little details that are likely to become relevant during a rescue attempt.

The Plot Support isn't really much better. Yes, the book provides a chain of scenes ("transition" and "action"). And this does give some sort of outline to the story. But there's such a terrible amount of hand-waving to try and disguise the lack of detail. The writers of the book seem entirely reluctant to do any real research or creative work.

Example: "Final Battle with A.I.M. or Hydra: ... An A.I.M. base is likely underground, probably even right underneath some national landmark or iconic location."

Well, thanks for nothing! You can't even tell me who the villain is for the final battle? It's A.I.M. or Hydra? You can't even pick one?

Once upon a time, a self-respecting scenario would have given you some real support: "The final battle with Hydra will take place at their master control base which is on the harbour floor, just north of Liberty Island. The heroes will need to extract this location by interrogating one of the guards at the safe house from the previous scene."

But wait... I want more! I want a scenario to tell me... "If the Hydra agents managed to raise the alarm in the previous scene, then all patrols at the master base will be three Hydra agents instead of two, and all guards will receive +2 on their Awareness rolls. The second mate of the tourist ferry-boat is a Hydra agent. If the heroes travel on the ferry while wearing costume, he will attempt to use the radio to raise the alarm. If the heroes take any notice of the crew when boarding in costume, they will notice that the second mate is extremely nervous."

And then... "The city-smasher bomb in the master control base is primed with two detonators, which must be disabled at the same time. Use an alarm clock set for 5 minutes and let it count down in real time. The heroes must disable the bomb in that time or else it will explode (see "Consequence of Failure")."

Oh no! What can our heroes do? Well... "Each crystal amulet worn by the two Senior Agents (in room R3 and U3) can be used to de-activate one detonator. Alternatively, the video room (V1 on the basement level) has captured playback of the activation sequence, which can be followed in reverse to deactivate. Alternatively each detonator can be disabled by a Tech Roll (difficult). Capturing and interrogating a scientist Persuasion Roll (moderate) or Psionic Roll (easy) gives +1. Each of the three consoles (if not destroyed in the fight) can be examined by Tech Roll (moderate) for an additional +1. Attempts to physically destroy the detonator will fail, and will increase the difficulty by..."

You know... useful details to make the poor Referee's job a bit easier! As it stands, these 232 glossy pages of content still leave the Referee to do nearly all of the work themselves. Sure, a good Ref will improvise when necessary, and won't follow these scripts slavishly to the letter. But new-comers to the unenviable task of directing a role-playing session really need some sort of detail to fall back on, not just the vague suggestions which are all that you'll find in "Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War".

Overall Rating...

The book provides detail in all the wrong places. It specifies formulas for XP assignment which would be best left at the Referee's discretion. It specifies complex dice rules which limit the Referee's ability to guide the outcome of important turning-points. But it fails to offer the supporting details and reference material which would make the scenario convincing.

Given the US $40 price tag on the Essentials version ($50 on the Premium), I really would expect much, much more support in running the adventure.

Even more annoying, there's quite a bit of unused space in the book. There's a thick patterned margin on many of the pages which does nothing but take up room that could otherwise have been used for actual, valuable content.

Sure, the book is very pretty. Sure, it's a chance to roll lots and lots of odd-shaped dice, and perform extended arithmetic on the results. But as a Referee, this Event Book does very little to help me run a structured, interesting scenario for my Players to enjoy.

As far as I'm concerned, this Event Book rolled a "1" and fumbled the Skill Check.

One-and-a-half-Webs.

Footnote...

Why was the "Event" book was published in two different deluxe hardback versions, while the original book was published as a nice, simple, cost-effective paperback? I don't know. Presumably some marketing executive decided that they needed to "clear more margin-per-unit".

In any case, it didn't work. Sales of this first Event Book were disappointing, and all the planned follow-up books (four more Civil War tie-ins, and two Annihilation Event Books) were cancelled. I believe that some of the sequels are available informally in electronic format.

Hey, no problem. You can still buy old scenarios from the 1980's Marvel Super Heroes Game (TSR Role-Playing Game). They're not in glossy hardback, but honestly, it's a much better game!