Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #12 - Marvel Super Heroes

There have been a number of RPGs based on Marvel Comics but my favorite remains the original game, as published by TSR in the 1980s. It's been around 25 years since I've played the game but I still have very fond memories of the game.

I believe TSR made the game from 1984 to 1993. There were two main rules sets - the original basic game in 1984 and the advanced game which was releases in 1986. TSR later published a revised basic set. The game reflected the changing Marvel universe - it began with a strong Bronze Age of comics feel, though over time it acquired the Iron Age feel of late 1980s and early 1990s comics - the proliferation of X-Men teams, supernatural characters, etc. Though strongly rooted in the Marvel Universe, the game had rules for your own characters, teams, headquarters, etc. 

The mid-1980s saw a number of "table-based" RPGs - Chill, Gamma World, Marvel Super Heroes, and Conan are the biggies I can think of. Of the TSR games, I think Marvel did it best. Below is the "universal table" from the original game:

In terms of action, the universal table was great - it greatly mimicked the feel of comics, with characters going flying in battle, getting briefly knocked off their feet, etc. The characters had 7 abilities - Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche - to this day, remembered as FASERIP. Each ability had a comic sounding rank - Feeble, Poor, Typical, Good, Excellent, Remarkable, Incredible, Amazing, Monstrous, and Unearthly. It's worth noting I quoted the abilities and their ranks from memory - again, despite not having played in over two decades. That's how well the game was done.

Characters had Health and Karma stats as well. These were based off of their physical and mental abilities. Health was a fairly typical "hit point" style ability. Karma was a character's ability to influence fate - bonuses to dice rolls. In the advanced game Karma could also be spent to try "power stunts" - non-typical uses of power. Spending Karma was also used for improving abilities and getting new powers. Karma could be pooled by teams, giving a common resource. You gained Karma by being heroic - and could lose it by non-heroic actions. Characters who killed lost all their Karma - and a Karma Pool would also be wiped out by a character in it who killed (keep an eye on Wolverine).

Additionally characters had Resources and Popularity, reflecting their relative wealth and how well-liked they were. Villains could have negative Popularity, reflecting how feared they were - and sometimes even well-meaning mutants might fall into that category.

Marvel Super Heroes worked great both in campaign play and for quick games. As I wrote this overview, it occurs to me it had an influence on games like Fudge, Fate, and Icons. One of the things I remember most about playing the game is how much it felt like a Marvel Comic - clearly one of the game's design goals and one it realized admirably.


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