Some Thoughts on Disconnection and Narrative in Marvel Heroic

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.

  21 comments for “Some Thoughts on Disconnection and Narrative in Marvel Heroic

  1. 03/07/2015 at 6:30 AM

    There would have been disconnection last night regardless of the system in use. Nothing but dice-rolling with this group is not ever going to go well. Particularly against a villain we'd never met before and who – with the possible exception of Nic – didn't mean anything to us.

    This is not to say there aren't significant problems with the MHR rules (and the transparency of the GM's narrative power is among them IMO). But it's not like M&M3 didn't have plenty of issues of its own.

    If you want to catch up offline about it, let me know.

    (at least the mob rules are much less stupid now we're hopefully doing them right 🙂 )

    • petermball
      03/07/2015 at 8:51 AM

      Arc pacing is another one of those things I'm still trying to wrap my head around, especially since it too has an impact in game mechanics. In retrospect, the shadow ninja thing should have had a longer sub-plot with a one-act arc at the end of it, given it's tie-in with Shock as a character, but ambition outstripped my ability on that one.

      I'm still moderately confident the more significant problems with Marvel are human error on my part, both in terms of getting rules wrong and using the doom pool in one or two narrow ways.

      For all the problems with last night, the one thing I was happy with was the doom pool being far dynamic – bad guys actively built it up by taking distinctions as flaws, and they used it on things other than trying to counter rolls. It's why it went from full to empty to half-full again, in the space of the round. It also showed me, on my end, why banging in big lots of D6's and handing over multiple power-points is a useful approach, as opposed to looking at multiple opportunities and going "well, one dice is all I need."

      What I probably shouldn't have done was experiment with that in a session where you were also coming up against a name level bad guy, when most of the folks you fight tend to be operating with mob or henchman-level dice pools.

      • 03/07/2015 at 9:01 AM

        Unless "things you've got wrong" includes the basic die pool mechanics, the effects of complications and stress, and pretty much everything about the Doom Pool, we will have to agree to disagree on that 🙂

        • petermball
          03/07/2015 at 9:19 AM

          It does. Spending PP/Doom Pool Dice before a reaction is rolled changes the doom pool/PP economy in some subtle-but-important ways.

          • 03/07/2015 at 9:38 AM

            I would disagree that that is a subtle impact, actually (definitely an important one, though – and for the better IMO). My issues with the Doom Pool are rather more foundational in nature than that one aspect though.

            • petermball
              03/07/2015 at 10:03 AM

              Fair enough. What do you see as the foundational issue?

              • 03/07/2015 at 11:04 AM

                I don't like HOW it enables narrative control to the GM – either in terms of how it fills up (which is probably at least 50% an issue with the die pool mechanic rather than the Doom Pool itself – but as I said above I don't like those either) and in terms of how the control is achieved. I don't like the determinable and observable metamechanical nature of it and the way it impringes on in-universe decisions, and I don't like that it feels like an attempt to eat its cake and have it too, in that it sneaks in a way to have GM fiat decide how a scene will end, without just saying "the GM has fiat to decide how a scene will end".

                • 03/07/2015 at 11:04 AM

                  I would literally be happier with an in-game system which said "The GM specifies immutable outcomes of the scene ahead of time, as well as the stakes the PCs can actually affect". e.g. "The bad guys are definitely getting away with Bear this scene. The stakes you're fighting for are whether you or not you capture one of them for interrogation." rather than in effect "If you somehow roll no 1s you can save Bear, but otherwise I am going to bee-line 2d12 in the Doom Pool and he's going to be kidnapped."

                  I admit I'm surprised the mechanic irks me as much as it does – I wouldn't have expected it to if I just heard it described – and also that it probably doesn't really merit it. But for some reason it really rubs me the wrong way.

                  • petermball
                    03/07/2015 at 11:45 AM

                    I'm not surprised it irks you that much, but I think that's more GM idiocy using the system than inherenet system flaw. I'm pretty sure I can get around that by separating the end-a-scene-early mechanic from the kidnapping-bear mechanic using the timer rules (which, surprise-surprise, we've been getting wrong).

                    So the scene should run more like:

                    – GM spends a doom die from the doom pool to create a "Ninjas Have Bear" complication in the scene at that level. That becomes the thing you act upon, instead of the Doom Pool.

                    – The complication steps up every action, as per the timer rules. If it steps up from a D12, the ninjas focused on kidnapping bear get away.

                    – The complication can get targeted by player action, but it can't be eliminated from the scene entirely, only reduced to a D4 (since everyone is focused on keeping ninjas from snatching Bear away while doing other things, and stopping that from happening means beating up all the ninjas).

                    – If the bad guys loose interest in getting Bear out of there at any point, the complication die gets returned to the doom pool at it's current state.

                    Removing that feeling of success/failure from the doom pool leaves it as a thing that affects NPC actions only and keeps victory conditions (for lack of a better word) as something PCs could control. The 2d12 Doom Pool thing is intended to be a pacing mechanic, more than anything – and the thing that I've definitely been missing ('cause, as always, the rules are spread across six different parts of the book) is that it should always involve giving players a choice.

                    If it happens when you're in a position of dominance in the scene, it should be "win/win choice" – in the instance we're talking about, it should have been either "you can capture Tenta and let the ninjas steal away with Bear, or you can save bear and have Tenta there when you finally confront the boss", and when it's done while you're in a position of weakness, it should be posed as "you escape, but at what cost?"

                  • petermball
                    03/07/2015 at 12:06 PM

                    Basically, If I'm doing the doom pool right, it should be a way of creating/enhancing the narrative obstacles you're attempting to overcome, rather than becoming a GM Fiat resource. The metamechanical nature of it, however, is probably baked into the system.

                    One thing with the dice pool system – and particularly the rolling 1s – is that it should always be driven by narration first. When I activate opportunities to be building up the doom pool, you guys should be telling me why that's happening – did Awesome knocking back a badguy through a wall, causing property damage that built up the doom pool by a D8? Did the fact that he hit a bad guy and didn't cause any damage cause a sense of concern in the onlockers, or did the impact wave of the blow knock some news helicopters off their flight path?

                    My suspicion is that Marvel is at its worst when you're just constructing dice pools and rolling them – it's got the same merit/flaw as Feng Shui, when it's at its best when everything is being described and giving other people stuff to bounce off.

                    • 03/07/2015 at 12:31 PM

                      Fair Warning: In my FS experience the narrating actions thing is fun for about two sessions, and then "Oh let's just roll the dice and get through this" becomes more and more common.

                    • petermball
                      03/07/2015 at 12:52 PM

                      There's less connection between the description and the effect in FS – there can be a dramatic difference in terms of a villains ability to defend between "I fling daggers at ice at him" and "I'm surrounding him with frigid air, rapidly lowering his body-temperature," for example, but they probably both use the same dice pool on the players side and cause physical stress.

                      Which is not necessarily everyone's thing, but the game accounts for that to a certain extent – Awesome is built to bludgeon people, not necessarily take advantage of SFX hi-jinx – but the Superhuman Senses ability is one that *should* be getting narrated in terms of how it helps a particular action, 'cause you're basically engaging with the world in a Daredevil-esque level of detail rather than fading into the background when you slug someone.

                    • 03/07/2015 at 2:01 PM

                      I'll just answer "God told me" every time 😛

                      More seriously, such things do tend to bog down into repetition pretty quickly.

                    • petermball
                      03/07/2015 at 2:07 PM

                      Yes, but *what* is god telling you?

                    • 03/07/2015 at 2:16 PM

                      "The best course of action" of course 🙂

                      I think you'll find that requiring in character details bogs down the game – especially when it has to be done twice for every roll (attacker and defender) – or prompts the generation of a rote list of half a dozen answers.

                    • petermball
                      03/07/2015 at 2:58 PM

                      And yet "and what does that look like?" generated the bit of last night's game that I liked the most and took the fight in a far more interesting direction.

                      Admittedly, Awesome is the worst example for this.

                      He's the equivalent of Thor and the Thing, in narrative terms – he hits things – but even once an issue or so, Thor will talk about his mighty uru hammer and the Thing will yell "It's Clobbering Time." Once the conceit is established, it only needs to be commented upon when it's disrupted.

                    • 03/07/2015 at 3:15 PM

                      I don't recall the fight getting more interesting.

                      But I will allow that it works as an occasional thing. If you do it every roll, it becomes a chore. Or at least, that's my experience.

  2. Lois
    03/07/2015 at 7:22 AM

    And also it's important to note I wasn't firimg on all cylinders yesterday, either. I'm not at all unhappy with yesterday — I would be if I felt unheard, and that is not the case at all. I am frustrated, but it's by my own misunderstanding of the rules, and seeming ability to not grasp them even with help (the lack of cylinders is largely a culprit there), and by my inability to square the sense I have of a character with my already shaky grasp of the rules.

    I do like the way mob rules work now, though.

    • petermball
      03/07/2015 at 8:29 AM

      The mob rules were a big one to fix, since one of the things Xo should be brilliant at was sweeping mooks out the way and getting them wrong made that an all-or-nothing affair. Which is great if there's just one of you, but with three people who have mook-sweeping powers in the group, it meant a lot of fights where you *should* have been contributing big were either over fast, or characterized by the feeling of doing nothing.

      I think I figured out where the confusion about Xo's powers came from too – it may have been a situation where the Limitations of Magic limit came into play during an action, which mean you weren't able to add Magic dice to an attempt to cause Stress/Damage.

    • 03/07/2015 at 8:35 AM

      One thing to remember about last night is that you freed Shock with the first action of the battle – which narratively was a pretty significant moment. And if was anyone but Shock, would have probably at least got you a "thanks!" 🙂

  3. 03/07/2015 at 11:06 AM

    Huh. Apparently if you are posting as a guest you have to keep your comments short – couldn't post that last reply all in one go.

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