Superheroes: No school like the old school

I don’t know how many people even remember the old Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game anymore. It’s old-school — published by TSR in 1984 and updated with an advanced version in 1986 — and also short-lived, as was already out of print by the time I found it in the early ’90s.

It had been sitting in my RPG collection for 25 years, unused but fondly remembered, when I pulled it out a couple of weeks ago and asked the kids if they’d be interested in dusting it off and making some superheroes.

And were they ever.

Before I go on, a note about the kids: They’re 20 and 17, so “kids,” not children. They’ve done a little bit of Middle-Earth Roleplaying with me, as well as a Harry Potter roleplaying game that’s been going a couple weeks on, a few weeks off for a couple of years now. But I’ve been having a hard time coming up with interesting ideas for the HP game, and the daughter doesn’t enjoy the “you could die horribly at any time” brutality of MERP/Rolemaster combat (but I like her anyway), so we were all ready for something else to fire the gaming imagination.

The classic Marvel roleplaying game did it, and then some.

The kids have spent the week after each session (three so far) reminiscing about the great hits and hilarious moments and looking forward to more. I’ve got a plot (for lack of a better word) that’s been interesting so far, and that I should be able to use to spin out plenty of fun superheroing scenarios.

Now, about that old-school rulebook design… Sigh.

Our first session consisted mostly of me cursing the books as I looked for something I knew existed, but couldn’t find. RPG design has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and so have my default expectations of where and how to find things in a rulebook.

The books — the Player’s Guide, Judge’s guide, and the Ultimate Powers Book — are well-written and gorgeously illustrated in that goofy ’80s comic-book style, but the organization leaves a lot to be desired. The player’s and judge’s books are put together in a narrative style (good), with essential charts scattered throughout (not so good)…and the most useless attempt at indexing I’ve ever seen (worse).

The Ultimate Powers Book doesn’t even use page numbers, for hell’s sake! Well, they do exist, but they’re not used in the index; instead, you’re referred to sections with arcane headings like EC11 and MCo5 (what?). And you expected a table of contents? HA! The Old School laughs at the future’s reliance on such pathetic crutches!

Despite the frustrating experience of struggling against the books’ weirdly lacking (to me) organization, I love this game. My gaming group of two does, too. I’m remembering now why it took over my gaming life for a while back in the day.

The system is old-school robust — a strong framework that paints in broad strokes and gives the gamemaster/judge and players room to run it their way. And the Universal Table is BRILLIANT.

The Universal Table from the 1986 Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying manual.

Every action a hero or villain takes can be resolved right here. And it works.

It’s not opaque to the players, either. The Universal Table is printed on the back cover of the player’s manual and the judge’s manual, so everybody knows how likely (or unlikely) they are to succeed. (And then you roll a 3, and “likely” goes flying out the window.)

When I was pondering an action resolution mechanic for the FAR System, this was one of the first things that came to mind. And even as my game design ideas have evolved — far more over the past three years than the previous decades — this one endures. I loved it 25 years ago, and I love it now.

Also, apparently some people do remember the old Marvel Super Hero game:

  • Some dude writing for io9 (it’s actually a really fun article).
  • And even better, some people who maintain a handy website called Classic Marvel Forever, which preserves the original game’s resources and then some — so you could start playing right now if you wanted to.

UP NEXT: More about how our Marvel roleplaying game is going. Because of course you want to know.

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