Sunday, May 12, 2013

In which weaknesses are revealed [MHR post-game report]

Part of my ongoing report of my Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign.

Scene One
The action begins in media res as the Ultimate Posse (who swears they are going to change their name) respond to a report of two supervillains, Arrowhead and Headstrong, robbing a local bank.  The Posse, short Mr. Eternity who is working on building their new vehicle, mostly concentrate on taking down the gimmicky archer Arrowhead first while their tank Abrasax ties up Headstrong in combat.  Once Arrowhead is down, Headstrong quickly follows.
I've decided to open each session with one of these action scenes, rather than a "you're all hanging around the base one day..."

Scene Two
Outside the bank the heroes are approached by Agent McAdams of the US Secret Service.  Agent McAdams asked them to accompany him to the offices of Senator Pritchard, the political rival of their friend Senator Rybeck (see here).  High-tech agents attempted to kidnap Pritchard's daughter, Lucy, from her private school earlier that day, and Pritchard, not normally a fan of superheroes, has turned to the Posse for help.  The heroes agree to guard Lucy until the Secret Service can locate the kidnappers, but Samkhara thinks there is something fishy about the story.

Scene Three
Various members of the Posse position themselves around Pritchard's estate.  Abrasax the Guardian Gargoyle perches on the roof.  The Ferret lurks in the underbrush.  Union Galactic hangs out with the Secret Service agents on guard.  Doctor Mind mans the security camera consoles, and Samkhara stands guard outside Lucy's bedroom.
During the night, Senator Pritchard comes to Lucy's room and tells Samkhara that he wants Lucy in his and his wife's bedroom instead.  Samkhara refuses to let him move Lucy, but he insists.  Samkhara, suspicious, follows the senator and telepathically scans the room.  Instead of finding the mental patterns of the two parents and the child, she senses one criminal mind and two children.  Samkhara kicks in the door.
Meanwhile outside, the Ferret hears a telepathic cry for help, but doesn't immediately understand where it is coming from.
At that moment, an armored vehicle crashes through the front gate, and four supervillains--Soulfire, Mind Slayer, Torment, and Lady Mirage--emerge.  Abrasax and the Ferret rush to attack the intruders, while Dr. Mind and Union Galactic head towards Samkhara, who has sent out a radio call for help.  In the senator's bedroom they face off against Psimon and the child supervillain Blackout who are holding Lucy.  Psimon mind-controls Union Galactic while Dr. Mind manages to overwhelm him with physical (rather than psychic) attacks.  Psimon teleports away with Blackout and Lucy, while the other members of PSI also teleport out.

Scene Four
Upon being questioned by the heroes, Sen. Pritchard admits to being approached by PSI about their training his daughter, who appears to be some sort of telepath.  Faced with the notion of a secretive academy of villains training mutant children, Doctor Mind and Samkhara decide to make some inquiries at their own previous organization, a secretive academy of heroes training mutant children, the campaign's ersatz X-Men called The Shadow Cabinet.  The Cabinet's patriarch, Dharma, gives some background on PSI and uses his power to modify mutant abilities in others to enhance Samkhara's telepathy to allow her to track Lucy through the connect she has with the Ferret (they realize Lucy can telepathically communicate with animals, and since the Ferret is partially, well, a ferret, she can communicate with him).  Samkhara leads the team to a derelict sanitarium.

Scene Five
Skulking around the sanitarium the Posse is surprised by Omen, a precognitive member of PSI.  Rather than raise the alarm, Omen instead directs them towards a lesser-guarded entrance.  Omen clearly has an agenda of his own...
Despite being lesser-guarded, the heroes still manage to not enter unnoticed and encounter the bulk of PSI from the previous battle.  But this time the heroes (like the big battle last week) are ready for them, focusing first on Psimon, and then polishing off any injured PSI members who are affected by Samkhara's wave after wave of multiattacks.  PSI is forced to retreat, leaving Lucy behind.

After a heart-to-heart with Senator Pritchard, Samkhara and Doctor Mind take her to the Shadow Cabinet, although Samkhara has misgivings about Dharma's own unknown agenda.

Notes following the break (for those interested)

The villains and the scenario were lifted from the Champions sourcebook Mind Games, which outlines PSI and has some introductory adventures.  Given how Samkhara had been dominating the campaign with her emotion-driven powers and her background featuring the "not X-Men," I thought PSI would prove both a challenge and dark reflection of her own background.

That part worked.  What didn't work was that I realized in-game that Mind Control is woefully under-powered.  This surprises me given what a staple Mind Control as a plot device is in the Marvel Universe.  Essentially when a PC or NPC uses Mind Control, you create a complication of the same value as the effect die of the attack if the target refuses to comply.  To put it more simply, when you are Mind Controlled with an effect die of d10, you (the target of the attack) have two options:

1. Attack your friends.
2. Do your regular action, but your target gets an additional d10 to resist.

So what player, in their right mind, would pick "1" as an option, despite description of a d10 effect as being "the target is under the complete control of the attacker"?  What's more, it reveals again most clearly the "one game effect for all conditions" element of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

Encase your opponent in a block of ice?  That's a complication.
Blind your opponent with a flash of light?  That's a complication.
Completely control their mind?  That's a complication.

Talking in class?  That's a complication.
It's the same thing that has a person with invulnerable skin, remarkably agile, or completely intangible have the exact same die mechanic when resisting damage, despite the fact that I think there should be some sort of distinction there.  I get low-crunch, but sometimes the game feels like I'm just drinking milk from the bowl.

The other thing is now over-powered multi-attack is.  When you get four dice for your attack (affliation, distinction, power, and specialty) and an additional d6 for every additional target after the first, it isn't hard to drop a plot point to pick up three die for your total, then hit everyone in the room pretty hard, even if you are just getting a d6 for effect.  It's a great way to soften up the crowd for the other heroes to hammer away, now using their d6 damage against them for all your attacks. (I'll critique the death-spiral quality of MHR on another day).  Multi-attack has really no downside, except the rare chance of increasing the number of 1's you can roll.  What's more, according to rules-as-written there's no PP cost, no lowering of the highest die, etc. that sometimes accompanies these SFX.

As I was leaving one of the players mentioned how he wanted to bring in another character, a multi-attacking emotional/mental damage dealer.  I hope he was kidding.


  1. Yes, the Blamethrower was a shout out to one of the non-lethal WMDs from Mystery Men. Agree that multi-attack seems to be hands down the most powerful attack. Mind Control really seems like it should be totally reworked.

    1. If I thought the game designers were that interested in mechanics, I might give them the benefit of the doubt about a power that can often imbalance a game by being too powerful. But instead I suspect, as I mentioned above, that they instead just have a single answer to all things that don't do immediate damage.

  2. Marvel Heroic Roleplay just isn't very good. I wanted to like it. The poorly written rulebook, awful artwork, and emphasis on retelling bad comic book stories just make it even worse.