Rant for October 14, 2000
Marvel Saga System Vs. Everybody
Warning!: This one's a long one...
I have been playing role-playing games for well over 12 years now. I worked in a game store for 5 years (I was also the manager). I have run games at conventions and have even written a few of my own. Does that make me a gamer-geek? Perhaps, but it also means I know a whole lot about games and their systems.
Now that I have given some of my credentials (sorry, it didn't mean to come out that way), I would like to go on record as saying that the Marvel Saga system is the best gaming system for a Superhero genre that I have ever seen. Period.
Before the hate-mail starts flowing in, let me explain. The Marvel Saga system best captures the essence of a comic book, which is the medium where the Superhero genre started and is most commonly identified with. I really feel that the Marvel Saga system is the first to capture this feel as completely as it does. Before I continue with this line of thought, I would like to look at a few other gaming systems (all I could think of at the moment) and point out a few of the reasons they fail to capture this "feel". Keep in mind I'm talking about the system as they are, "by the book". I am very aware that most of these problems can be overcome by creative house rules, as I've created a few (too many) myself.
Aberrant - Funny, before this game came out, I figured the White Wolf system would be the best system for the Superhero genre. I mean, it has a difficulty system (a must for a Superhero genre - more on that later), and the general game system is only a skeleton, which means if they did it right, you could have unlimited possibilities for characters and adventures. But that's the problem. White Wolf didn't make it a generic or even universal system, instead they tied their game setting in with their system. They tied it together with two pieces of metal and a blowtorch. Without massive modifications, you really can't use their rules to play this game in a different setting or style. Because of that, this game got relatively little play from most of the gamers I know. So how does this game compare to the Marvel Saga system? Without the flexibility needed for any Superhero game, this one doesn't even come close.
Champions - For a very long time, the core book to this game was considered a bible to many. I, however, was not one of these people. Champions is a good system, don't get me wrong, but it had a few drawbacks that I just couldn't look past. First of all, the character creation was very flexible, allowing for almost any superhero type, but I was very put off on the way you could save character points and cheapen the overall cost of a character by purchasing package deals. It was inconsistent, and not very fair to beginning gamers. You could have 4 versions of the same character, with the exact same power levels and abilities, and have 4 completely different point costs. For the most part, however, that was just me and was fairly forgivable. Next, the actual system was bulky, large, and required a lot of your time to master. It had over-detailed rules for just about everything. In a sentence; The Champions system was over-complicated. Period. I could waste a lot more time on its drawbacks, but I won't. So how does this game compare to the Marvel Saga system? It's lengthy character creation system means that the GM better make all those villains re-occurring and while it has flexibility, the game does not lend itself to the fast-paced play that compliments a comic-book style game.
DC Superheroes/Blood of Heroes - My experience with this system is a little limited, but it's not too difficult to pick up. This system falls into the Champions/GURPS line of systems, and if you like those two games, you may actually wanna check this one out. It's a little more simplified than the other two, which makes it an easier game to play. It also uses a hero point system where you can spend them to increase your chances of success on a particular task. While it lends itself more towards a comic style of play, the system is still a little clunky. So how does this game compare to the Marvel Saga system? Not too far off actually. It's main drawback is that it's patterned after the 80's style uber-system type games, and even though it's been polished a little, it still shows through.
GURPS - See also Champions. Seriously, but Champions did it better.
Heroes Unlimited/Cosmic Enforcers - Aaahhhh, the Palladium system. A system that is near and dear to my heart (after I modified the hell out of it). The problem with Heroes Unlimited is that it's not a game. Oh, they may sell it as a game, and they may claim it's a game, but it's not. It's a supplement. All Palladium books are, they are all a supplement to the Palladium system (or Megaverse, or whatever). Now, you can try to play it as its own game, and you might find a varied amount of success. The system, however, was not designed for Heroes Unlimited and it shows when you look at the power listings and descriptions. It's not a superhero game, the powers don't interact with each other, just about every powers has a stat bonus or damage effect and that's it. That being said, the second edition of this game improved the game quite a bit, but I'm gonna stand firm on this one. Cosmic Enforcers is included with this game, since it's mainly the Heroes Unlimited book without the rest of the Megaverse and a slightly altered system. So how does this game compare to the Marvel Saga system? If you want to play this game by itself as a superhero game, you are in for a very shallow and limited gaming experience.
Marvel Super Heroes (old system) - This is where I'll probably get crucified. This system was a staple for gamers. Basically, if Champions wasn't your game, then Marvel was. The problems I have with Marvel are fairly slight and could be easily overlooked, other than the fact that the new system just seems to work better (as you can see, I was in the Marvel camp back in the day). The first problem with the old system was the it was clumsy, and very quirky. It never flowed very well, and you pretty much had to refer to that damned table every 5 seconds. Of course, the table was not all that easy to remember, and if you did have it committed to memory, I'm sorry (for you). The system was pretty innovative at the time, however; column shifts, rolling high on percentile dice (I hate that), and of course, the Ultimate Powers Book. Here's a little side-note; no matter what Superhero game you play, if you are serious about superhero RPG's then you absolutely must find a copy of this book (those of you who own it already know why). Okay, back on track. Other than being clumsy, quirky, and constantly having to refer to the chart, this game suffered from the same problem as most of the other games; too much system. So how does this game compare to the Marvel Saga system? Very close, in fact there is still a huge fan base (mostly on the web) for this game. They both allow for very flexible characters, but the new system runs much more smoothly and quickly in most areas (combat, character creation, task resolution, etc.).
Alright, now that I've taken cheap jabs at some of the Marvel Saga system's predecessors, what makes the new Marvel system so much better? The answer is simplicity and flexibility. You see, superhero gaming is unique in the fact that in addition to creating a story, you are also trying very hard to create a good visualization of what's going on. In most other genres, it's okay to say "I hit him with my sword". But in the world of comics, that's a no-no. After all, with combat being such an illustrated part of comics history, no one wants to buy a comic where two guys swing swords at each other all day, or even always use the same attack. We superhero gamers are spoiled, our combats have to be large, with heroes and villains using their powers or their surroundings in unique and interesting ways. A simple, flexible system allows the GM as well as the players to do this, in a fast-paced manner, to keep up the tempo of the game. It really sucks when you are playing your hero, and to escape a situation you want to knock over a water tower to slow the villains down, and the GM spends ten minutes looking for the material strength of the tower, checks your strength against it, rolls some dice, compares the result... That's all fine and dandy, but why go through all that when your GM can blurt out a number for you to beat, and then you try to beat it.
Using a difficulty system really allows the GM to let players surprise him and be innovative. When the players want to do something out of the norm, the GM can use his best judgment and make a number up (Yes, I know you can do this in other games as well, but the more "realistic" the system, the more debate afterwords (or sometimes during) there may be regarding the GM just making stuff up). The difficulty system also allows for the GM to truly shape a story, by curbing difficulties for things that do or don't need to happen. Also by not telling your players what they need to achieve an action (not announcing the difficulty number) you can alter the feel of the whole campaign, adding an element of uncertainty.
I think that everyone can agree the the Marvel Saga System is innovative. One of the things I like about it is the ability to push your powers well beyond their capabilities in times of duress (a constant theme in comics) and the strategy that is used while playing. Most heroes know themselves or their powers well enough to know how much power to use, or how effective it will be. It's that sorta built-in confidence that makes them heroes and it makes a created hero more than just numbers on paper. By utilizing the cards, a player can re-create that knowledge and confidence. He can vary his effort to suit his needs. He can save his power while fighting the goons, knowing that the real threat is up ahead. It's the built-in strategy of the Marvel Saga System that makes this game one of the most enjoyable games for players, as they have more control over their character's actions than in most other games.
I realize I'm starting to get rather long-winded. To wrap this up, everything I mentioned lends to the comic book feel, that's what makes this system the best for superhero gaming. I'm not saying it's the best gaming system for everything, as realism has it's place in gaming (I love Millennium's End).
Simply put; for the best in superhero gaming, make mine Marvel.