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Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game
TSR/Wizards of the Coast, boxed set RPG

Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game
Additional Details
The boxed set includes Game Book (207 pages), Roster Book (144 pages), and Fate Deck (96 cards).
Cover Art: Carlos Pacheco, Scott Koblish, and Bongotone
X-Men Roster Book Cover Art: Dave Johnson with Pul Mounts and Bongotone
Adventure Book #1: X-Men - Who Goes There? Cover Art: Steve Skrove and Chris Dickey

TSR Catalogue

A review by Don Bassingthwaite

Tremble, villainy, before the awesome might of Commander Xenon, the Inert Man!

Ahem... well, maybe not. But that's definitely the mood of TSR's new Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game. Yes, you too can take the role of your favourite Marvel super hero, defending law-abiding citizens from villainous criminals, protecting Earth from cosmic menaces, and worrying if maybe your costume shows off just a little bit too much muscle.

Nawww... you can never have enough muscle.

The idea behind the game is certainly nothing new. After all, TSR first published the Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game back in 1984. I remember that game. The descriptive rather than numeric ranking of powers and abilities (from Feeble and Poor through Amazing, Monstrous, and Unearthly), and the FEATs system of determining successes were interesting ideas at the time and captured the comic book spirit of super hero role-playing nicely.

The new Marvel Super Heroes improves on that system dramatically. The game is based on the SAGA game system that was introduced with TSR's Dragonlance: Fifth Age game. SAGA resolves action using a deck of cards (the Fate Deck) instead of dice. Don't worry, a complete Fate Deck comes in the game box -- this isn't a collectible card game. Characters succeed at an action when players lay down cards from their hand with a total value that, when added to an ability or power score, match a difficulty number. By using cards of an appropriate suit, the players can draw additional cards off the Fate Deck to further increase that total value (very important when attempting those fantastic, super-heroic actions). It's a nice flexible mechanic. Various elements of the cards can also have effects beyond simply resolving actions. The more I see of this system, the more attracted to it I am. There is still a strong random element (the players don't always know the difficulty number that they're trying to beat), but the play of cards permits greater and more interesting control of the action.

The comic book feel of the game is great. As the rule book states, the game action is always resolved from the heroes' point of view, just like the comics. This has, for example, an interesting effect on combat: if a villain is attacking your hero, the villain doesn't have to try to hit you -- you have to try to dodge. There are some optional rules presented that also add to the drama. A couple are simple -- piling on in combat and pushing to the limit -- and it's nice to see them included. Two other options are a little more complex but bring the cards directly into role-playing. The first is the use of the events described on the cards. These can influence the actions of heroes with matching personality "callings," leading to things like the necessity of saving innocent bystanders in the middle of energy blast firefight. This means that combat isn't always just a slugfest. The second dramatic card option is the use of the Doom suit. One of the five suits in the game has the mask of Doctor Doom on it -- heroes can play these cards for their full value, but the Narrator gets to pick them up and use them against the heroes later on. Heroes have to choose their actions wisely!

In fact, the consequence of action is the subject of a whole chapter in the rule book. A very tightly-written ten pages give one of the best, most succinct guides to role-playing I've seen in quite some time, covering hero qualities (name is important!), how heroes get along in society (there's more to crime fighting than just beating up the bad guy), and a day in the life of a super hero:

"A glimpse at a darkened street clock, and you realize that it is 9:55PM! The danger has passed, and so has the critical 4:00 meeting you swore up and down you'd attend. It's also far too late for you to meet your friends for the Broadway show they paid a cool mint for."
This is just an outstanding bit of work.

One area where the new game makes a definite improvement over the old is in character generation. The old version of Marvel Super Heroes relied pretty heavily on random throws of the dice. Were you a mutant or an altered human? Did you get to fly and throw fireballs or did you just have extra arms and a bunch of sensory powers? The new game leaves most of the character definition up to the player, randomized by the suit and value of cards drawn from the Fate Deck. You can fly and throw fireballs if you want to, but you'll have to pay for them. After making up a few trial characters, I liked the system. Even a lousy draw of cards can be worked into an interesting character. The only criticism I have is that the skills lists are radically limited and could have stood some serious rethinking. Strength-based skills, for example, are almost all combat-oriented, while Intellect skills are very top heavy in the trained sciences. Otherwise, lists of callings and powers are broad and quite complete. The powers all seem well-defined and retain the old game's system of stunts to emulate various uses of a basic power (for example, the base power of magnetic control is the ability to manipulate ferrous metal objects, with flight by riding magnetic waves as one possible stunt).

With the basic game set, you get the rules book (officially called the Game Book), a Fate Deck, and a Roster Book featuring a good selection of heroes and villains (each with full game stats and a short history, of course). These are more than enough to get you started. As the game says, if you need more inspiration or background reading, go pick up some comic books. The rules have instructions for working out the game stats of established comic characters.

If you're looking at doing a longer running game though, picking up some of the accessories for the game would be a good idea. Two are available already: the X-Men Roster Book and Adventure Book #1:X-Men - Who Goes There?. These are probably just the first of more to come -- I can easily see Avengers and/or Fantastic Four Roster Books on the horizon, and Adventure Books aplenty.

The Adventure Book #1 is probably a good thing to pick up if you want some pre-made adventures and ideas for how to structure your own. It's a thin little book with seven quite short and mostly unconnected adventures. If you're a confident gamer, though, you may not need it. If you're planning an adventure campaign based on the X-Men or any of the related mutant teams (X-Force, Generation X, Excalibur, Alpha Flight), however, you'll definitely want to pick up the X-Men Roster Book. This is almost 150 pages of stats and history on mutant heroes and villains, with histories of the various mutant teams. It's printed on nice glossy paper, and illustrated in colour. Heck, even if you're not planning on running an X-men campaign, pick it up. It's good. I had fun just reading through it, catching up on what my favourite heroes have been doing. I might even go out and pick up some of the Alpha Flight comics I've been skipping!

Good, clear mechanics, quick flow, strong atmosphere and good background (the support of hundreds of comics doesn't hurt!) -- I think TSR has a winner with this game.

Copyright © 1998 by Don Bassingthwaite

Don Bassingthwaite is the author of Such Pain (HarperPrism), Breathe Deeply (White Wolf), and Pomegranates Full and Fine (White Wolf), tie-in novels to White Wolf's World of Darkness role-playing games. He can't remember when he started reading science fiction, but has been gaming since high school (and, boy, is his dice arm tired!).

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