I’ve been running a superhero campaign for a few years now, and tonight we hit ninety-seven sessions. In contrast to our usual approach, this one was dice heavy – the heroes raided the compound of an demonic ninja cult, fighting lots of guys in black outfits along with mystically endowed sumo-wrestlers, shadow-warriors, claw-wielding pretty-boys, and evil spirits possessing the body of a stone-and-iron golem.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the system after sessions like this. We started the campaign using Mutants and Masterminds, back when the third edition was released. We shifted over to the Marvel Heroic RPG about nine months back, largely because it added a more dynamic element for folks who didn’t want to build their powers around hitting things, and it’s been…
It’s been great, and it’s been slightly nightmarish in equal measure.
The Marvel RPG has a lot of moving parts, compared to the Mutants and Masterminds system. It handles comic-style action pretty well, when everything’s working correctly, but getting it working correctly is an uphill battle. Partially this is a flaw with the layout of the book – information is spread across multiple sections and comparatively simple things like “how does the villain escape spider-man’s webs” are half-hidden in sections that don’t make instinctive sense to you’re scanning for a rule on the hop.
For instance, we’ve been using the rules for about nine months now, playing weekly, and I spent last week compiling a four thousand word document on all the things we’ve been getting wrong that have a major impact on how the game works. It becomes problematic to change things, now, because habits have become burned in and need to be relearned.
The other place the moving parts have the potential to get frustrating is in the shared understanding of a character’s powers, personality, and flaws. What’s possible and what’s impossible is largely a matter of everyone agreeing that, say, Spiderman can do X with his spider-sense, but he can’t do Y. Earning XP is based on mimicking Spiderman’s core traits, following the kinds of sub-plots that fill your average Spiderman storyline.
Which works great, if everyone is familiar with the character and the world.
It’s less great in a game world built from scratch, when figuring out what’s “normal” is a process of negotiation until everyone involved is on the same page. There’s a lot of very straight-forward powers – Super-Strength, for example – but start reading comics and you’ll quickly find a whole bunch of power sets where what’s possible and what’s not is basically at the mercy of the narrator.
For example, Stan Lee thought it was perfectly reasonable for The Human Torch to create Fire Sonar in some of the early Fantastic Four comics. Also, creating a fire-radio to broadcast messages. Basically, if a solution was needed, make it out of fire and you’re done.
Try doing that with a similar character in a superhero RPG – particularly one that’s not designed to replicate the goofier aspects of early comics books – and there’s going to be a moment of disconnect between the way you see your powers working, and the way everyone else does.
Disconnection is the bane of your existence when running game. Disconnection is where people start feeling cheated, because their understanding of the world doesn’t mesh with what’s actually happened. Disconnection is where people find themselves frustrated, because players find themselves in a narratively weaker position than GMs when it comes to figuring out how the game world works.
Disconnection, in essence, becomes the reason games that rely heavily on “shared story” mechanics are much, much harder work than things like D&D (particularly the third edition, which went out of its way to try and empower players and eliminate hand-waved narrative reasons for things).
Marvel relies heavily on shared-story mechanics. The complexity of the moving parts also means that I’ve ended up holding far too much control over the way powers are represented on character sheets.
The sessions of the Marvel RPG I’ve enjoyed the most have been the ones with the least disconnection. Tonight…well, I don’t think it was one of those, both because I’d shifted the rules on people in an effort to get them right, and because we exposed some instances where the way I saw someone’s power working probably didn’t mesh with the players understanding of it.