Capsule: A near-clone of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that throws out the good while keeping the bad. Useful if you're a fan of the Valiant Universe.
I've been looking forwards to this game ever since Free RPG Day this year, although with some trepidation. The rules were sketchy, and the free booklet promised more detail when the main rulebook came out. I also snagged most of the additional free material Catalyst Games had put out as PDFs on DriveThurRPG, which gave me most of the major characters from the Valiant Universe.
Quick side note about Valiant comics, for those who don't know. Originated in the 90's during the whole big indie comics movement that spawned Malibu, Image, and a host of others small publishing companies. The early Valiant characters included a pseudo X-Men mutant youth team (Harbingers), a archtypal "Iron Age" gun guy (Bloodshot), the high-tech alien armor guy (the bizarrely named X-0 Manowar), and a quirky no-capes duo (Archer and Armstrong). There were others too, like the mystical Shadowman and the weird science Doctor Mirage. The whole thing faded away only to be completely re-launched a couple of years ago. The characters were freshened up a bit for the modern times, with a real focus on somewhat gritty, realistic storytelling (as much as having a Visigoth wearing alien armor in modern times could be "realistic.")
Catalyst games (known for Shadowrun these days, among other RPG's) snagged the license and promptly cranked out a game using the "Cue System." (Editor's note: in the original post I said the Cue system came from the "genetic root stock" of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying' system. A commenter below pointed out that another RPG from Catalyst used the Cue system in 2010, two years before MHR. I've corrected the statement.) Cues are descriptors of PC's, NPC's, or encounter elements to help players roleplay the pre-generated characters from the comic book correctly. Unlike an RPG from the big two comic book companies, most people haven't read anything from Valiant, so at some level this makes sense.
What doesn't make sense is why you have not only "Cues" but also "Tags," which also describe PC's, and "Action Cues" which also describe PC's when they are fighting. What's even more strange is that there is no tangible rules benefit to the tags, unlike Distinctions for MHR or Aspects from FATE. The Cues and Tags are just there to help you play the PC right, or give you ideas how to run a scene (we'll get around to a subtle problem with that later). Half a PC's character sheet is made up of little quotes and two-word descriptions of the person, but there's nothing to be gained by a player using them except for genre emulation. Maybe that's enough, but why not add some carrot of gameplay?
Now for the dice part of the rules. PC's have five stats: Might, Intellect, Charisma, Action, and Luck. The first four are rated by dice, so you might have a Might of D6 or an Intellect of D10. Action is generally how good you are in combat (like the "Fighting" stat from M&M, but now for all kinds of combat). Generally most PC's run between a d6 and a d10. Luck is just a number, usually between 1 and 6.
When you want to try to do something that isn't in combat, the formula is a D12+your stat die vs. a d20. If either of your dice come up with your Luck number, you automatically do it (which is why I suspect most people will want their Luck number to be 1). When you do something in combat, it's (Action Die + stat die) vs. (Opponent's Action Die + stat die).
Powers are essentially extra stat dice that can either be swapped in for the stat, added to the stat die, or have the higher of the two die rolls used. There's the odd +1 or -1 to reflect situation modifiers too, but there not a lot of hard-and-fast rules about how that works. All told the rules are pretty straightforward and easy to understand.
They are also prone to flukey dice rolling, which I complained about in MHR and may do so again, except that Catalyst claims this isn't a bug, it's a feature. That inherent flukey quality, combined with the very limited spectrum of abilities when you only have five levels (D4, D6, D8, D10, and D12) is meant to reflect the genre that has low-powered heroes go up against high-powered villains and win. Toyo Harada, the archvillain of the Valiant Universe (imagine if Professor X had Magneto's ideology), would, said the rulebook's explicit text on this very issue, have a "D1000" in power abilities, but that would not work from a gaming perspective or reflect what happens in the comic books.
Which I kind of get. But what frustrates me a little is the way the rules suggest you actually jack up the villains' abilities at the beginning of story arcs and downgrade them later to make sure the heroes win. Because, you know, genre emulation. Which starts to sound like railroading. Which is the game's biggest flaw.
You see, one major rules tweak the game is super-excited about is the notion that the "Lead Narrator" (their terminology for the Gamemaster) switches between players after each scene. That's right. Everybody gets to play, everybody gets to GM. But how do you keep the game from just running off the rails? By pre-generating every encounter beforehand. You know, that's what the Cues are for--to make sure your "Lead Narrator" doesn't go off track. And of course the game features several story arcs based on popular storylines from Valiant comics. Which is the same damn thing MHR did and which I thought so very little of then. What is the point of re-creating existing plotlines? Honestly, explain that to me. I ground my teeth when MHR suggested I kill off an NPC in their "Civil War" story arc at a certain point so that it could mirror when Black Goliath (or whatever he was called at that point) died in the comics. Um, no. I'll kill a person off when I feel like, which is usually when the dice and player agency suggest it.
Moving on, damage is flat. Hit a guy, he takes 1 or 2 or 4 points of damage. Attacks with random damage are rare, and everybody has enough "armor points" followed by a pool of "health points" that you can get hit or shot or whatever quite a few times before you have to start worrying about it. What's weird for a comic book universe that features a lot of psionic characters is that there really isn't any special rules about psionic attacks, except a few circumvent armor points. The rules for mind control are downright vague and feature a lot of hand-waving. So you don't see the one-hit KO's that you might see in other games, which could be a good thing in some people's minds. I kind of appreciate it from a "keep players from grumbling when a flukey die roll takes their PC out of the game early and they spent the next hour sitting around" perspective.
Finally on the subject of rules there are Plot Points, which are basically handed out when players do something neat (subjectively in the opinion of the Lead Narrator) which are then cashed in to create plot twists in the story, or heal your PC a few points, etc. The plot twist thing seems prone to abuse, but a good Lead Narrator can handle that, assuming you have one this scene.
There's a point-buy system for building your own superheroes, which is more than MHR had to offer. There's no list of powers, however. You just pick out whatever you want and slap a die value on it (which costs points based on the die value). Some powers aren't even powers. You can purchase what would be called skills or strong personality traits in other game systems. Zephyr, for example, has "Pop Culture" at a D6 in her powers which the game swears can be helpful. There's no real guidelines about what powers do or even how they are used--that's the more freeform gaming style in play here. I'm not sure, for example, when I'm attacked if I use my attack power to suggest I'm attacking back, or my force field as defense, and why if I get to do damage as well as avoid it in the former why I'd ever pick the latter. There's also no real in-game notion that certain powers are more efficacious than others, so superhuman vision is just as expensive as cosmic energy control. Which really makes you wonder why you have a point-buy system at all and just not go with the "whatever is allowed" model of MHR. I know there are mature players out there who will deliberately pick powers based on character concept, even if that concept is limited, but why not reward that in some way?
It sounds like I'm being pretty consistently negative, but I suppose that is because I keep hoping to find a solid system for superheroes with the right balance of crunch and flexibility for me. What the Valiant Universe RPG turned out to be was a game with all the looseness of MHR without some of the clever tweaks like Emotional and Mental damage or Assets or Complications. I could see trying to port over their point-buy system to MHR, not to mention doing some pretty straightforward conversions of the Valiant characters (it helps that the stat values of d4 to d12 are virtually identical).
What I don't understand is why, if the Valiant license was available, Margaret Weis Productions didn't snap it up, or why Catalyst Games, if they were just going to almost a straight up copy of the Cortex system, didn't try to cross-market that aspect of the game on their end. I can't honestly suggest people buy this game--too much of the product is available for free from DriveThruRPG, unless you happen to be a big fan of the Valiant comics (like me) and want to see how all your favorite characters are depicted, which for $40 is still a lot.