Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Retrospective: Marvel Super Heroes

Released in 1984, TSR's Marvel Super Heroes is, in many ways, emblematic of the trends I so dislike in the post-Golden Age history of the hobby. It's all here: a licensed IP, the assumption that players would use pre-existing characters, "goodies" in the form of character tokens and information cards, and an auctorial voice intended to imitate its source material but which only succeeds in sounding condescending even to young children. Despite all that, I find it very difficult to dislike this game, as it's extremely well designed and fun to play -- so well designed, in fact, that it became a template for most of the RPGs produced by TSR in its wake.

The genius behind Marvel Super Heroes is its universal results table, an extremely elegant way both to present and to adjudicate any action a character might attempt in the game. Although a character's seven attributes (Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche) did have a numerical value associated with them, that value played minimal role in the game mechanically. Instead, it was an attribute's adjective -- Good, Incredible, Amazing, etc. -- that was more important, since each one was associated with a column on the results table. The greater a character's attributes, the more likely a chance of success in any action governed by it.

Difficult actions could be handled in two ways. They could either suffer a column shift, which meant using a "lower" column on the table, or they could require a specific level of success within a column, since each column divided its success range into color-coded bands of decreasing size. Normally, only a white success was needed, but difficult actions might need a green, yellow, or even red result to be successful. These two additional aspects of the results table made it very easy to model even complex actions with ease and, more importantly, on the fly, which is essential to any good superhero RPG.

Marvel Super Heroes included karma points. These points, earned by completing adventures and behaving in an appropriately heroic fashion, pulled double duty as both experience points and as a means to improve the success of rolls on the results table. Again, though simple mechanically, karma points gave players a lot of options, enabling them to emulate comic book action without placing a straitjacket on them. In my experience, players tended to try and accumulate lots of karma by behaving heroically and then hoard them for use at important moments in an adventure rather than spending them to improve their characters. I suspect that's exactly how designer Jeff Grubb intended it work.

The game's most serious flaw is the lack of anything other than a rudimentary -- and random -- character creation system. Marvel Super Heroes assumes, not without good reason, that players of the game don't want to make their own heroes but would rather play Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, and the like. Consequently, the need for official, pregenerated stats for every hero, villain, and incidental character of the Marvel Universe was high, creating both a regular column in the pages of Dragon ("The Marvel-Phile") and many adventures and sourcebooks that provided such information. It's here where my fondness for the game takes a nosedive and why I wonder about the hobby's fascination with licensed properties.

Still, Marvel Super Heroes was the superhero RPG I played the most, as I was too math-impaired to handle Champions for any length of time. My friends and I nevertheless bucked the trend and created our own characters, such as the geneticist who could turn into The Troll and a blind crossbowman known as Quarrel. They rubbed shoulders with the Avengers and battled Dr. Doom, of course, but they were heroes of our own imaginations and, as such, much more satisfying for us to play, as we were free to develop them through play as we wished rather than hewing to a script laid down by decades worth of comic books written by someone else. That's what roleplaying has always been about for me; it still is.


  1. Let's face it: superheroes are supposed to be role-models (at least that was the initial intent); they're a natural fit for role-play. From that point of view there is nothing odd about this particular license.

    Most wargammers play out their favourite historical battles rather than use points systems and invented terrain.

  2. Marvel Super Heroes was also phenomenal for gladitorial match-ups. In '85, I designed a scale Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation (which factored largely in Thing comics at the time, among others, incl. Capt. America) arena tile, complete with admantium cage modifiers and other such accoutrement.

    The Marvel rules were elegant for any variety of wrestling competition, and we ended up playing the UCWF arena "mini-game" far more frequently than we did any of the published adventures. We never had to debate whether Hulk could beat Thor in fight - we could puzzle it out in real time!

  3. Other than Sci-Fi (which I mostly played via Star Trek and Traveller), the Superhero Comic Book genre is perhaps my most favorite. I've played pretty much ever supers game and for my money, MSH was just not 'the one'.

    Oddly, its not for the reason you mentioned, as character creation for the advanced game was made super-wacky-crazy-awesome with the inclusion of MA3 - The Marvel Ultimate Powers Book

    I didn't really like the system itself and trying to remember if Amazing was better or worse the Incredible always confused the heck out of us.

    After years playing everything from Villains and Vigilantes to Superworld to DC Heroes, Champions won the day until the creation of Mutants and Masterminds. For my money M&M is the superhero gaming's Greatest American Hero.

  4. I actually learned to play RPGs on the Marvel game. My first experience creating a character was both exhilarating and disappointing, mainly because the GM was my friend's older brother who insisted we make our own characters from the random chart. My first character was an "energy body," I think, who--on the GM's insistence--couldn't project or shoot energy. He just WAS energy. (Gee, thanks...)

    In any case I loved the universal table and eventually got a copy of the game myself--finally making up the heroes I wanted to play. :)

    FYI, the character generator is online in the form of a random-roll generator. Ah, memories!

  5. FASERIP!!!! Marvel is my all time favorite rpg that I have ever played. Our last campaign lasted 5 years:-)

    I have to admit though that the groups I played with nor I ever thought that the game was restricting me to just playing the actual Marvel characters. I think they had so many of those Marvel Files and the like because players wanted to fight along side their favorite heroes or subdue their favorite villains. Also, who didn't want to see how certain Marvel favorites stacked up against others in the universe?

    If you are looking for a new superhero rpg, do yourself a favor and take a look at BASH! Ultimate Edition. In my opinion, it takes the best elements of Marvel (a colored task resolution chart)and the point buy, non effect base of Champions and blends it together very nicely. I suck at conveying just how good it is and I apologize for that.

  6. Our group started with the Marvel Heroes, but that didn't have the right feel. So, we quickly turned to generating characters. We actually really enjoyed it, and developed our own team of heroes. The guys we're really creative with this. The Marvel heroes were NPCed, like guest stars. For a brief period of time (couple months). We played it more than AD&D. Over 30 years of playing, Marvel Super Heroes RPG is the only RPG that claim that among my group.

  7. @ Barking Alien

    Yeah. The name system worked okay as long as you were distinguishing between the poor/typical/good, but tended to get fuzzy when you got into excellent/remarkable/incredible territory, if you didn't have the chart right in front of you...

    Still a fun system. I agree with James' big beef, the smothering blanket of established canon vs. brewing your own universe. That's not to say I didn't have fun playing the X-Men in the Secret Wars module.

  8. I was pretty fond of this mechanic for awhile even though I didn't play much Marvel Heroes - Victory Games' James Bond RPG used a similar resolution system but it was scaled way down. In fact, the big problem with that game was you quickly hit the ceiling - everyone went for maximum speed to be fastest on the draw and you wound with pretty much identical characters. TSR's Conan game also used a similar system but was so vague where magic was concerned (not many spells described) that I quickly gave up on it - many old-schoolers and REH fans, myself included, would probably consider that vagueness a plus nowadays!


  10. In the late eighties, my gaming friends and I had a pretty decent capaign going for Advanced Marvel Superheroes. We never used characters from the Marvel universe for PCs, but made our own characters. I think the advanced version had a better character generation system, I'll have to go back and re read the system.

    I had a character from West Germany (It was still the cold war after all) called Captain Blitz. He had electricity derived powers. I remember doing an attack against Mandroids that proved pretty successful. Creating a forcefield of electricity over my character and then just ramming them!

    Fun game!

  11. MSH was the "other" RPG I played (ok, Star Frontiers got some table time, too), but there was a point where I enjoyed it more than D&D. Specifically, during AD&D 2E. Much like you, our group created our own heroes, though most of our sessions were just slugfests.

  12. Also played a lot of MSH, probably at least as much as anything else at that time. Good observations that a lot of the design is counter to my philosophy these days, but it was relatively simple and seemed to fit the source material pretty well.

    The Advanced game managed to void a lot of those simple advantages, and was not a good idea. Another observation: MSH was very well suited for one-off skirmish games with the licensed characters, but not so great in campaigns (divergence from ongoing comics became trouble). Even interactions between unique PCs and any book-NPCs would do that.

    Typo in posting: "Normally, only a white success was needed..."; actually, white was always a failure, green was the first general success category.

  13. I'm with Barking Alien on this, though I suspect I have a stronger affection for the FASERIP system than he. And James, I implore you: Why would you play a Marvel game if you didn't want to play Spider-Man, or Captain America, or someone like that?

  14. MSH is still my favorite among superhero rpgs. Just call me Captain Grognard! Yes, MSH wanted you to play with their heroes, but so did DCHeroes.

    They both had the benefit of a large reference base of character types and abilities. If you wanted a character like Iron Man, there he was...pick an armour type. If you wanted a Green Lantern, but didn't like green...BOOM! there was a template for you.

    Heck, doing DC Heroes to MSH conversions was incredibly simple (I forget the exact factoring & my notes aren't available) and too often did similar powered/type Marvel & DC superheroes' abilities fall within the same range. It is great!

    I used several variations of heroworlds in different time periods, and never did I have a problem with it losing its comic book appeal. What's wrong with a 40 to 80 year history of comics to fall back on? My latest campaign excursion is to leave the current comics' history as just that: history! The players will be encouraged to make their own way with their own stylized heroes. Any major hero NPC's will be much, much older than they appear in the comics nowadays.

    Think Dark Knight Returns & Kingdome Come with a dash of Earth X & Watchmen. These are the dark days the new younger heroes will following. It's their time to step into the dawning light.

    Viva the Renaissance Age of Superheroes!


  15. Man, I loved this game. While my friends and I did create our own characters for the occasional slugfest, we mainly played Marvel Super Heroes to actually PLAY Marvel's super heroes.

  16. Didn't the Marvel game have a way of making your own superhero hideout too? I seem to recall something...

  17. Ah, yes, Marvel Super-Heroes, the gold-standard of superhero RPGs...

    Marvel was a long-time favorite of mine and the basis for the longest-running campaign I ever created (although it later transitioned into Champions and other superhero RPGs. What can I say? It was college and I was feeling experimental...).

    Great overview of the game. I must disagree about Marvel's random character creation as a flaw, however. There was a time when I thought so, too, but I've since had my eyes opened to the kind of inspirational wackiness randomly-rolled superheroes can provide.

    Just like Traveller's random sector and planet creation, some of the odd corner-cases of Marvel's random hero creation led to some very creative explanations to tie everything together, ideas players might not have come up with if they stuck to tried-and-true comic book archetypes. Take the super-strong guy with the fiery aura becoming Volcano, prince of the sub-terran Magma Men!

  18. I never played MSH back-in-the-day, but it is the favorite of one of my friends in my current group. So, I’ve played it fairly regularly in recent years.

    We always make our own heroes. We like the random generation. Though, sometimes the GM (or is it “Narrator”?) will do free-form chargen. Describe what you want, and he’ll choose the ranks and powers.

    We also don’t feel constrained to Marvel canon. (Heck, it’s not like even Marvel manages to keep a single, consistent canon. And uncanonical “what ifs” have always been a popular comic thing.)

  19. All of the players I played MSH with insisted on making their own heroes. The random generation system was just too fun NOT to use!

    The problem was, and it was a major problem, that each and every player was at a different power level just based on the luck of the dice. And I'll tell you, it's no fun being Captain Average when you're team mates are equal to Thor and Hulk. Doesn't leave a lot of bad guys for me to mop up.

  20. We played a bit of Marvel Super Heroes, but it was never our Super Hero RPG of choice. I suspect that the only reason we played it was because the GM was a fan of Alpha Flight back in the day (as was I). Personally, I much preferred DC Heroes as it felt more flavoursome than did MSH.

    Of course, being English, our Super Hero RPG of choice was Golden Heroes. It was a decent enough system, it was written to our sensibility, and the too few scenarios were good -- Queen Victoria and the Holy Grail is not just a good title.

    The game is still available as Squadron UK via

  21. Although never really a fan of comics & superheroes myself, I always enjoyed the occasional break we took from D&D to roll up heroes for MSH. Once again, years of fun CAN come in small boxes (hint, hint powers that be...).

  22. MSH has been my go-to supers game for 20 years!

    recently I branched out to BASH! to make it different and try something else, though to be sure I miss the easiness and eye-balling power that game had.

    Need a villain, through him some powers, make them up, give it a rank and move on. No need to do math and balance everything out.

    A GM's (or in their case Judge's) dream!

    I have played that game from out-of-the-box, to vastly house ruled to back to by-the-book.

    4C was not what I had hoped for, which is why I have promised this year to release, or at least get working on "Mighty Super Heroes!" my free retro-clone of MSH Advanced :)

    Sigh, thanks James, you took me back today, as did everyone's comments.

  23. "We also don’t feel constrained to Marvel canon. (Heck, it’s not like even Marvel manages to keep a single, consistent canon. And uncanonical “what ifs” have always been a popular comic thing.)"

    Not a bad point, but if I were doing another campaign I'd set up that up as a premise in advance at the start. Having it happen accidentally unawares as the game was played out didn't work well for me in the past.

  24. "4C was not what I had hoped for, which is why I have promised this year to release, or at least get working on "Mighty Super Heroes!" my free retro-clone of MSH Advanced :)"

    One thing you might want to keep in mind is tht the phrase "Super Hero" is jointly trademarked by Marvel/DC, and they've taken action in the past on that point. (Such as the comic "Super Hero Happy Hour", forced to remove the "Super").

  25. @AslanC:

    You could also call it 'Excelsior!'

  26. And yet we still have games like "Basic Action Super Heroes" and such.

    I think so long as you aren't going after their markets (TV, Film, Comics, etc) they don't really care. And since I will be releasing my game for free, they can send cease and desist letters, since I am not making profit off of it.

    But thanks for the head's up :)

  27. "anarchist said...

    @AslanC: You could also call it 'Excelsior!'"


    If I get a cease an desist letter I will do this :D

    Cheers! :)

  28. Not a bad point, but if I were doing another campaign I'd set up that up as a premise in advance at the start.

    Oh, yeah. We make it clear from the start. Though, I suppose at this point it can go unspoken with my group.

    (And it ought to be the default assumption of all gamers. Never assume the monsters, magic-items, or setting canon are 100% in effect.)

  29. @Aslan, count me in for a retro-clone supers game called Excelsior!

    That has some serious WIN behind it!

  30. MSH is a great game!

    As much as I loved MSH, I think it is unfortunate that TSR went crazy trying to mash Gamma World and whatever else into this style of game and essentially abandoned emulating classic D&D in their post MSH game releases.

    Indiana Jones also suffered from the same design flaw, which is sad because IJ was actually a fun game, but it was mercilessly criticized for not having a character creation system.

  31. Thanks for all the comments and analysis. It is good to know the game that Steve Winter and I put together still stokes warm memories in the players.

    The original "Yellow Box" of MSH was not supposed to have character generation because of the license - Marvel felt that you should be playing Marvel Super Heroes. When we started the Advanced "Blue Box" set, Marvel's number one comment was "Be sure you put in character generation".

    MSH itself came out of homegrown campaign in college called Project: Marvel Comics. It was set in the Marvel Universe but the players created their own unique heroes - so we had Super Pin (the pro-bowler of steel), the Crimson Ram, and the Somewhat Surprising Alloy Man (also known as Somewhat SAM). They were a Junior Achievement branch of the Avengers from before they even set up the WCA.

    Jeff Grubb

  32. I ran two Advanced MSH campaigns back in my college days. Players always created their own characters, but we never regretted having the stacks of stats for all the various Marvel characters - it just meant we had lots of NPC's to beat the crap out of...

    After an almost two-decade hiatus, I've started using the MSH rules once again, this time to run an online game, set in the 1960's, separate from the Marvel universe (or any other published one, for that matter).

  33. Jeff, I always like the excellent combat/results table and adapted it to other games we played.

    The one MSH game I remember was when the GM had us play ourselves as superheroes, in our own city. Our fight with the villains trashed most of the town, which made it even more memorable. Man that was fun.

  34. Jeff I want to thank you for giving me and my friends 20 years of some of the most fun gaming we have ever had.

    While no system is perfect, MSH was perfect for us and still is.

    Cheers and well done mate.


    Pardon me, off-topic.

    WOTC is apparently releasing a Red-Box Old School product.

  36. I really loved this game.

    Only odd thing--I remember them having to put in a Beyond column, and then a few years later Marvel nerfed the Beyonder by making him an egotistical cosmic cube?

  37. I'll add in another "thank you" to Jeff if he's still reading. MSH gave me some of my longest-lasting, most enjoyable gaming experiences.

    They I got his Thor entry in the Marvel-phile is still one of my fondest memories. :)

  38. Just so you know, I'm pretty sure that 'Excelsior' is trademarked by Stan Lee himself.

  39. Oh, and last bit of gushing: The last few days I've also been re-reading my "Secret Wars" compilation. That was a good time for comics, gaming, and synergy between the two.

  40. One of the greatest RPGs of all time.

    In fact, I might rate this 2nd to D&D.

  41. I am not sure I agree with your assumption that MSH was intended to be used with pregens. They were provided yes, but as much for team-ups and oppositions as for playing.

    The character generation system allowed for both random generation and a method called "modelling" in which a player was allowed to work with the Judge to create a character that was thematic as opposed to random.

    The creation of the Marvel Phile was not intended exclusively to provide more pre-gen characters but to provide a steady stream of supporting characters for your games. Anybody who's read Marvel comics knows that at some point all heroes team up with Spider-Man and that nearly every hero is in some way affiliated with the Avengers.

    Heck, they put out several three-hole volumes detailing, alphabetical listings of practically every character in the Marvel universe.

    I do gree with your review of the system, though. Simple, elegant, and very much one of the most organic and loyal superhero RPG systems out there. The GM's job was so easy in that game almost never ground to a halt, even when the players might otherwise have thrown him for a loop.

    The system also allowed for and encouraged the development of a characters' powers throug hthe use of Karma (XP) during game play to create new "power stunts". Spend the points and perform the stunt enough times and it became a permanent part of your character's bag of tricks.

    Great game!


  42. I doubt the word 'Excelsior' by itself is owned by anyone; Stan Lee didn't invent the word, and a couple of other people have apparently used it in the same way he did (see )

  43. I just got it!

    It's funny how you can look at something 20+ years later and see it in a completely different light.

    Marvel-Phile as in "lover of Marvel" and also "The Marvel-File." LOL!

    It didn't help of course that the last time I looked at an old Dragon magazine I was reading "Marvel-Phill" whatever that meant.

    Can't say I didn't learn anything in college.

  44. I loved the super flexible Marvel mechanics. In the late 80's & early 90's I used it's universal table to create a custom games like a Pulp campaign based on Temple of Doom, a Dawn of Dead-like zombie campaign, a Marvel game based on Project Wide Awake campaign with the players playing straight laced G-men taking down freaky mutants, and a campaign based on Marvel's horrible New Universe. I even know of a friend's 12 year old who is currently using the Marvel mechanics to run a Lord of the Rings/D&D-like game.

    Not only did Marvel supplant D&D with my group, but I spent my spare time after school creating a "random character roller" on my Commodore 64 which would spit out random characters with "hollow bones" and the "Power Cosmic" which would show up in my games as random baddies/mutants.

    I think the Marvel Universal table is probably the easiest, rules light system available.

  45. @ Eli Arndt

    Simple, elegant, and very much one of the most organic and loyal superhero RPG systems out there. The GM's job was so easy in that game almost never ground to a halt, even when the players might otherwise have thrown him for a loop.

    Perfect summation!

  46. Barking Alien: incredible is to amazing as the Hulk is to Spider-Man. (Didn't you ever take the SATs?)

  47. @Matthew: Yet, curiously, Amazing is a higher rank than Incredible in Marvel Super-Heroes...

  48. The game's most serious flaw is the lack of anything other than a rudimentary -- and random -- character creation system.

    Not to me; I dumped even that "system" and went to free-form modeling! The many examples of familiar characters served very well in providing benchmarks.

  49. Hi, I would just like to add my gratitude to Jeff and Steven for creating such an elegant game.

    I have been running a superhero campaign, set in its own world and with totally original characters, that is now in its sixteenth year and still going strong.

    In addition, I have found the system so flexible that I and my friends have run everything from zombie horror adventures, to all-out sci-fi and wild west (with some creative tailoring of new skills such as Quick Draw and Hard Drinkin').

    For my regular role playing group it is our favourite system of all time. (And believe me, we've played almost every system under the sun.)

    Thanks once again, Jeff and Steve, for almost 2 decades of role playing entertainment.

    Brady Webb

  50. Thanks to all for your kind comments. They encouraged me to get around to telling some of the secret history of MSH, over at my Grubb Street blog. Enjoy.

  51. When I was eleven or so, we played the advanced MSH ruleset with the Ultimate Powers Book every day after school. I rolled a sentient vegetable with the Nemesis power (copy one power from anyone within range) at Monstrous rank. I modeled my character after Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot, and I had some truly ridiculous adventures, culminating in becoming the herald of Galactus, whereupon I became the Silver Carrot.

    Great game.

  52. Even at the age of 15 I suppose my group and I were already looking to customize as much as possible. We loved comic books but never wanted to 'be Spider-Man' or 'be Batman'. We wanted to be our own guys. As Jeff Grubb himself stated, that wasn't the primary goal of the game when it first game out and so that soured our initial reaction to it I'm afraid.

    Additionally, I am more of a DC fan. ;)

    By the way, Mr. Grubb, its a pleasure to read your blog and so cool of you to come here and rap with us. The ol' guard dudes just rock.

    Regarding the names for levels of power thing - BigFella hit it right on the head for me.

    @Matthew...Yeah. I took the SATs...but anything that reminds me of high school gets a boo hiss.

  53. Typo in posting: "Normally, only a white success was needed..."; actually, white was always a failure, green was the first general success category.

    Not a typo but a memory lapse. It's been years since I last played the game.

  54. And James, I implore you: Why would you play a Marvel game if you didn't want to play Spider-Man, or Captain America, or someone like that?

    You mean like the way that someone playing Star Wars wants to play Han Solo or Luke Skywalker? For me, playing a licensed RPG is about playing in that world but not playing different characters rather than those we already know. I don't see a lot of point in using an existing character; doing so removes one of the key elements of fun for me: creating my own character.

  55. Jeff,

    Thanks for stopping by -- and thanks for giving us all a great and memorable roleplaying game. We are in your debt.