Monday, February 25, 2013

Do superheroes get better?

In the comments section of my last post, Barking Alien raised two of the most common critiques of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: the lack of PC improvement with experience, and the lack of tactical play. I'll tackle the first issue in this post, and the second in a later one.

The Experience Point question has several levels.  MHR does have XP, which are usually used to unlock plot elements that has a positive impact on the game.  There is some very desultory discussion about changing or improving powers, but like most things in MHR this is more of a plot issue, not a gameplay one.  In other words, the question is does the story support the idea of your character gaining new powers, not have you played your character enough to justify the improvement.

Part of this dynamic is MHR's rather consistent bias towards using their own characters in their own re-hashed-from-the-comic-book storylines.  This is my least favorite aspect of the game, to be quite honest.  I buy the sourcebooks these days to mostly glean ideas, rather than use them in the whole cloth.  Since theoretical gameplay is so tied to the Marvel Universe, you're not going to be tweaking their characters.

The other part of the dynamic has to do with the general feel of the source material.  To wit: do comic book characters improve with time?  I think it has a lot to do with the nature of the character.  Comic book characters who started as "teen heroes" like the Dick Grayson Robin, the Peter Parker Spider-Man, and most of the younger X-Men who then grew out of adolescence and into adulthood in the comic book continuity do in fact improve.  Kitty Pride is a lot better at superheroics than she used to be.

The many costumes of Peter Parker
Superheroes that started out as adults, on the other hand, seem to be a bit more static, especially if their starting point was as a fairly competent individual to begin with.  Captain America, for example, is still pretty much the same.  So, I could argue, is Wolverine, Batman, and Superman.  Different writers may dial up or down their powers, but for the most part they are still the same highly-effective heroes they always were.

Another factor is how much attention has been given to the character.  "Marquee" heroes, the ones that often define the publishing house franchise, have more often than not been around for decades and usually had their own solo books.  Heroes that have consistently been a part of teams and rarely if ever had their own solo series are, by their nature, less developed and less likely to change or specifically improve over time.  They might have major plot events surrounding them or even see their powers change in dramatic ways (i.e. Wonder Man) but they don't seem to grow in ability.

All of this takes the back seat to a much greater question: regardless of how the founding material may or may not support the notion, how willing are players to give up the notion of an improving PC?  Getting better over time is one of the real constants of RPG's (with the one notable exception: Traveller).  People are very used to the idea of having their PC's be able to face increasingly powerful opponents and achieve greater heroics.  After a point, a MHR character can only get so much better--he or she can go from a d8 to a d10 to a d12, which represents a Captain America-to-Hulk increase in Strength, for example--but that's it.  There's no small, incremental, graduated increase in ability that is more prevalent in other games, largely as a result of the light, abstracted rules set.

Is it a deal-breaker?  That largely depends on the group.  I think that unless there's a real shift in expectations, MHR won't suit most traditional players for long-term play.  We haven't even gotten into tactical versus narrative play, which creates a whole 'nother set of changing expectations.


  1. The subject of improvement of Superhero characters over time, both in comics and games, is one near and dear to me. Well, at the very least, I find it extremely interesting to think about.

    One of my favorite comic books growing up was The Legion of Superheroes. One of the most intriguing and significant elements of Legion history is that it had the same writer for 10 years or so in the form of Paul Levitz.

    Levitz, as well as a number of previous writers, had created a self-contained continuity for Legion, a paradox of sorts since the team's very existance was inspired by tales of Superboy. Be that as it may, LSH was very much a universe in a single book. Characters who died in the Legion did not come back as had happened in other series. Why? Simply put, they weren't tied to any other book or merchandising.

    This also meant that character, story and power elements could advanced and change unlike most other comics. Rarely did their powers seem to improve except subtley (Brainiac 5 improved his lab, his force field belt and the serum the cured Mon-El's lead poisoning for example) but the heroes' ages and statuses changed greatly over time.

    For me, the Levitz run on Legion, followed by Keith Giffen's run where he definitely depicts improvements in the powers and tactics of the now adult Legionnaires, is the penultimate example of a Superhero RPG campaign. That series is the feel I am going for in terms of development and advancement.

    Also, as is noted above, I do have a group that is more traditional at present. They do want to get better. One must always be aware when running Supers that they are attempting to do something quite tricky and astonishing, combining the tropes of comic books with the mechanics of a game.

    And one final note (for now)...I don't know a single person I've every played Traveller with (running or playing) who didn't change that 'you don't improve' malarkey. ;)

    1. I think teen superhero books lend themselves to character development more than others, although can I also say how much I love the LSH? I need to build a few in MHR, starting with Matter-Eater Lad.

  2. I like the champions 2 book option from 84ish - redesign character and play as novelty for a while or keep changed version. When party all have related origin easy to make improvements for whole team - but temp power costume changes or powers misbehaving should be regular.

    1. This would be very, very easy to do in MHR, as evidenced by the changes in Spider-Man between the original rulebook (the "New Avengers" era Spidey) and Civil War sourcebook (the "Iron Spider" Spidey).