Let’s Roll: Marvel Universe

In this episode, Siskoid and special guest Ryan Blake look at the Marvel Universe RPG, not to be confused with TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG, the Marvel Saga RPG, nor the Marvel Multiverse RPG... this is the one with the stones! All the deets on this funky little game which had a lot of people curious, plus GameMaster advice about aggro... oh, did someone get angry? Who fights who?

Relevant images and credits in the Let's Roll Supplemental.

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5 responses to “Let’s Roll: Marvel Universe

  1. Excellent episode, Siskoid! I think you and Ryan did the best job you could trying to find the bright side of a system that neither of you were enthused about. And Ryan’s closing comments that there is half a good idea in here is quite accurate – I’ve seen the DNA of this system appear in subsequent heroic RPGs. The “panels / pages” kind of framing has appeared in several RPGs following this one.

    This is a system I have a lot of direct experience with as well. I grabbed all three of these books when they came out, and for a while this is THE game we played around the house. You see, one big draw of this game was that it was diceless. My partner at the time was a notoriously poor roller, and seemed cursed by whatever spirits control the results of die rolls. So having a game where this randomizer was removed was a bonus in her books. As well, we tended towards a heavy narrative style which the game meshed well with.

    This isn’t to say that your complaints about the game weren’t accurate. We developed a sort of etiquette for the GM to not spend more than a certain amount each round, and with that gentleman’s agreement in place the players were able to manage their resources better. I think we also increased the red stone recovery rate, even moving it away from Durability (or Intelligence) and turning it to a more flat value. Like Ryan, our game became increasingly house ruled to make use of the system. But I cannot say we didn’t have fun, because we played the heck out of this game.

    A few direct comments.

    1) Lines of experience was referring to the method you would use to keep track of your progression. On the back of the CAD you had an experience section where you would write down these “lines” of experience; something akin to “Tricked Mystique into giving herself away” or “Clocked Ultron on the jaw” and so on and so forth. This did, as the game suggested, turn into a bit of a fun way to recount former adventures. And yes, we gradually stopped worrying about these lines and just reverted to experience points. Writing those lines on the undersized CAD was a nuisance.

    2) Durability was king. Like Ryan expressed, characters with high Durability, or even better regeneration, functioned so much better in play. This got house ruled at our table as it was just too strong.

    3) We actually used the white stones for character creation, and this was helpful. One of the players in my group has been mathematically challenged when it came to point buy systems; audits of his character in most systems would reveal he was significantly over or under points / character templates. With the white stones, the physical component seemed to help.

    4) Red and white stones. So at the time this came out, small glass beads were commonly available in game stores for use with Magic: the Gathering. These were basically ubiquitous at the counters of every game store, so it was trivial to go out and get enough red and white stones. I still have a tupperware full of them, which I use for all of my RPGs – the red stones are good to indicate wounded foes on a tabletop, or progress points. I’ve got so much use out of these stones that I can’t regret ever buying them for this RPG.
    We stopped using them in the RPG itself after a time, not because of cat problems (we actively forbid cats from the table) – rather because after a while it became so easy to internalize what you were doing. A little scratch pad was more efficient for allocation of red energy and white health. For the GM, from day one both myself and the other GM in my group using this system just noted down where red energy stones were being placed. After a while, because of the aforementioned gentleman’s agreement, we basically didn’t need to as foes became more “mechanical obstacles.”

    5) The way we evolved our game strongly resembled some of the indie game innovations that followed. Having more static, arbitrary targets is very much the style in PbtA games nowadays, or the static foes in Buffy/Angel and the Black Hack. I therefore see this game as a sort of middle child in indie games.

    6) Resource management RPGs that are purely “manage this stat to play the game” are really not my style. In fact, while we enjoyed this game, the disappointment in what we got in these books was real from almost day one. I had high hopes about the game, and we played faithfully for around 18-24 months trying to get the game to really work for us. Some of this was “sunk costs”, but we liked the core idea of the game – just not the execution. In time, as I picked up more games like this (Nobilis comes to mind), I began to see that the core idea of “points to spend each turn” really did remove too much of the random fun involved in RPGs. Rolling dice is fun!

    7) My friend went on using this game for quite some time after I’d abandoned it. He really grooved with it. But he used it more as a framework for narrative diceless play than a “system”, which worked for him. Myself, this game creeped dangerously away from interactive game experience and more towards “mother may I” kinds of play, which has the distinct disadvantage of being too tied to the GMs whims.

    8) I was working on a time travel Marvel adventure last year which was going to start in this system. Then, after a time shift, I would remove the stones and CADs, and replace the players sheets with TSR Marvel Superheroes FASERIP Sheets and percentile dice. This would be followed by another time shift, where sheets would be replaced again and I would break out the deck of Marvel SAGA. When I heard about the Multiverse RPG coming out, I decided to pause until that book exited playtesting.
    Then, while I own TSR Marvel, and can borrow back my MURPG books from the friend in #7, I looked up the costs for repurchase Marvel SAGA and immediately shelved the idea.

    9) As I recall, Mutants & Masterminds 1st edition hit the shelves shortly after this book came out. It was much more fun to play than this. In fact, let me acknowledge what Ryan expressed here: the actual nuts and bolts of this system weren’t fun. We told fun stories with this game, and had some wonderful moments, but those were all in spite of this system.

    10) The note about the Ultimate art being used here. As I recall, there was some speculation going on at the time that Marvel was going to retired the 616 universe and replace it with the Ultimate Universe as the first honest to goodness reboot of the MU. This ended up being false, but there was that vibe at the time.

  2. Hey, really enjoyed listening to this one. This is not a superhero RPG I’m familiar with and now I think I know why. I thought you both did a great job of making sense of what sounds like a pretty nonsensical game. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the new Marvel Multiverse RPG if you get round to it at some point.
    On a tangent, I wondered whether you have ever played Golden Heroes, a super RPG produced by Games Workshop in 1984? There is a link to your topic in this episode as when Golden Heroes was acquired from author Simon Burley, GW we’re trying to get the rights to produce an official Marvel RPG and there is apparently a version of the GH rules written by Simon which featured write ups of the Marvel characters of the time. The license ultimately went to TSR off course and Golden Heroes was published as a generic game instead. It’s my personal favourite superhero RPG and it does work well when emulating Marvel comics of the mid 80:s. Anyway, thought you might find that interesting. Look forward to the next episode.

    1. I have not, but then GDW games were tough to find in my area even after we finally got a hobby story in (checks) 1989 or 90. This is when we first tried FASERIP and actually started to play DCH.

      1. The game is hard to find even now unfortunately. It was supported a bit in White Dwarf, GW’s house magazine and there were two scenarios published for it. It died out fairly quickly though. Has a great randomised character generation system and the mechanics are quite wargamey but I guess that’s a hallmark of the time. The author released a second edition of the game in the mid 2000’s called Squadron UK but was then quickly shut down by the legal position with GW. He released a different version of the game to get around the legal issues but it wasn’t the same.

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