The little game that could

The tough part about this post is that it might end up being nothing but a love-letter. I’m writing about the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game, authored by Jeff Grubb and Steve Winter, published in 1983 by TSR; that’s Tactical Studies Rules, if you didn’t know, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. This was an unstable moment in D&D history, in terms of ownership and authorship – Gary Gygax was just about to lose his presence as the official face or voice of the franchise (his ownership was long gone), and Lorraine Williams would be purchasing the megillah soon in the future. I really don’t know who was in charge of media development and outreach at that point, but whoever it was, there was a brief, very strong integration with Marvel.

You do a game for our superheroes, we’ll do a show for your elf game.

Marvel was in a state of multimedia boom at that point, given the success of franchises like G.I. Joe and the surprisingly good comics built on Hasbro toy cross-over, like Rom: Space Knight and Micronauts. Cadence had bought outright the long-standing animation/media company that had served Marvel until this point, renaming it Marvel Productions, and a bunch of animated series were launched right away, like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, the Muppet crossover, The Transformers … the guy in charge until 1984 was David DePatie, and I don’t know what he had or hadn’t to do with D&D, but somehow that was one of the things that was looking around to be picked up while MP was looking around for such things. The D&D TV series came out of this and I guess that’s how the reciprocal game came about too.

It caught me at a point where I was neither watching TV nor had any interest in D&D, and as it happens, not buying or reading any superhero comics at all. Thus … I missed the whole thing. Only later, brought back both to comics and role-playing by Champions, did I find there was this other game (and its spiritual partner, DC Heroes). You may laugh now, but I submit I was not alone in thinking that MSH was a decidedly beta, kiddie knockoff for a role-playing game. “A silly little game,” as a friend put it. In the age of GURPS, the new Avalon Hill versions of the Chaosium games, and Rolemaster, as well as the rapidly-intensifying complexity of D&D just prior to the release of its second edition, MSH looked decidedly slim, simple, and no-account. I didn’t bother more than a cursory glance.


Fast-forward some years to this thing called the internet, which along with its obvious primary purpose of delivering porn and gossip exactly to one’s taste, became a venue for revealing what people were doing with their hobbies as practitioners, rather than solely as customers. One thing that was revealed was how incredibly widely-played and loved were some out-of-print role-playing games that commerce-fandom had long written off as dead-as-doornails – and MSH was first among them. Grubb and Winter had delivered a power-house of play, but no one had noticed except the people who were doing it, and now, the closet doors had come off to show just how many people that was.

I want to talk about how the game works. It’s easy to focus on the enjoyable resolution mechanics, and on the descriptive scores now called FASERIP, but my eye hops one level up at the two “consequence” mechanics, Karma and Popularity.

Karma: at the end of a fictional unit of some kind, “scenario,” “adventure,” “arc,” whatever you want to call it, a character’s Karma score gets increased or decreased based on what happened across a very long list of things. Crucially, both personal life and crime-fighting are assessed – stand up your date or fail to stop a crime, both dock you Karma. Some of it is a little subtle, such that a deep tension is set up between these demands, and also, the outcomes are consequential: one may choose or discover or develop “what kind of guy/gal this is” via play itself.

As for what you do with the Karma, it’s a spendable quantity, either for quickie improvements to outcomes (bonuses in fights and interactions, saving you from dying when badly damaged, helping manage your wealth) or for permanent increases to your various scores.

Along with an early appearance of the soon to be standard trade-off of a one-off bonus right now, ’cause you really need it, vs. banking for permanent improvement, something else should jump out at you: the role of fictional time. A lot of things about the character depend on his or her chosen routine, affecting all of the items below.

  • Expenses, which obviously impact Resources, which therefore limit Inventions for those character inclined toward them
  • Practice, which impacts Karma directly
  • Scheduling of encounters

Therefore you don’t just play as of the moment the GM says, “You’re patrolling and you run into Mucus Man robbing a bank,” you play your character’s life-style, his or her trade-off among the conflicting demands of regular and superheroic relationships. This is subtly but powerfully very Marvel, hot out of the early 1960s titles. Reed Richards loses all his money on a bad investment, Peter Parker stays up late to cram for a test, and in either case, it impacts how the character deals with super-threats and problems. There is no such thing as a generic story, into which this or that hero can be slotted without modification. Or … well, hold on, there’s another point coming about that a few paragraphs down.

Popularity looks at first like another personal/descriptive quality like Resources and Health, but it’s actually a fully parallel value with Karma. They’re both assessed at the end of a given story-event, and unlike all the other values, which are involved with the “Karma wheel,” they’re independent of one another; you can’t spend one for the other.

As a system feature, Popularity is so simple you don’t need to diagram it, or rather, it’d be a single consequence right where Karma is, with a single “return” arrow straight back into scenarios and encounters. It’s much less nuanced, limited to visible crime-stopping and visible criminal or otherwise unpopular acts. It’s much less qualitative, too, based not on what the character does exactly, but on how publically positive those actions may (or may not) have been. Finally, you don’t use it or spend it … it’s just “there” as a deeply qualitative influence on how everyone else is going to regard that character.

The changes in Karma and Popularity, simultaneous but only tenuously connected through slight overlap for criteria, therefore yield tons of subtlety:

  • What the character does vs. how it’s regarded socially; how well he or she is liked in-fiction
  • How the character chooses to parse being a person and being a social good
  • How the character handles the travails of life, especially money
  • How much flexibility and benefit the character has in terms of fine-grained “plot” – basically, beating the odds a little
  • How much tougher and otherwise high-performance the character becomes

I have to pause for a moment to laud the incredible two-page magic system, which, unlike most RPGs, features no special rules for resolution, but instead ramps up the consequences for both Popularity (being too well-known draws entities’ attention) and Karma (doubled penalties). It’s so good, so consequential for the problems one causes just by being a magic-hero at all, that an all-magic game can be run outta the box, perhaps with the later Champions supplement Mystic Masters in hand, if you felt like a bit of game text crossover. I still have my notes for doing that very thing sitting in said box.

My thinking about role-playing had undergone some shifts through the early 1990s, with The Fantasy Trip side of me warring with the RuneQuest side, so upon recovering my interest and upon appreciating the game’s in-play traction for over a decade, I knew I had to play it. On doing so, what really hit me was how sledge-hammer unavoidable the consequences of play were for the next events of play. How had the character’s plain old life gone so far, financially, socially, attention to super-stuff, and anything like that? Had he or she gained and lost Karma, and for what, exactly? Spent it how? What did Popularity look like, and is that a big change from last time, and which way? Note that neither of these scores is ever re-set – it goes where it goes, from where it left off last time, period.

Furthermore, and this is pretty different from either Champions or DC Heroes, the heroism as such is surprisingly amoral, or rather, morally agnostic. You play the hero (presuming an original one of yours) as you will, killing or not killing, building Popularity or sticking to the shadows, stopping or not stopping specific problems as you see fit, putting time and attention to the aspects of life you decide to prioritize … in the total absence of pre-set textual commitments to any “type” of character you are in moral terms. No alignment, no designation of vigilante vs. do-gooder, no stated code vs. killing. You just … play to find out. Cripes, even the in-fiction legal consequences of trials and prisons are merely built right into play mechanics, for any character whatsoever including your hero. Nothing – nothing – stops you from going Full Villain and playing right on from there.

My experiences in play bore this out so well we even had to stop for a second to get assured that one of the players, Ashley, really meant to do what she had her character do – you just didn’t see that much “yes, this story is happening” power in habitual role-playing of the mid-1990s.

There is a big shadow side to it, though. It’s right there in that first adventure-book in that original box, and as far as I can tell, took over every single publication of that type thereafter. Bluntly, they all stink – utterly canned set-piece fight scenarios, with a very strong emphasis on playing the canonical characters in canonical, thespian ways. Junk all that stuff about Karma and Popularity, forget long-term life-style play, never mind making up your own characters completely aside from Marvel Universe this-or-that.

Remember my points in At corporate, they only sell paper? About how the comics were written to show you how to play with the toys? Well, as far as the scenario/adventure publications were concerned – which is really how people learn to play an RPG, in practice – that’s what the game was for too. If the converse, actual quality play of a quality game, hadn’t been demonstrated by all those user-base, fun-as-hell webpages in the mid-late 1990s, I’d be pretty upset about that.

Say … anyone playing this right now, or recently? Tell us about it. I still have my notes and stuff from our old game in my box too, so if I can wrangle some scans, I’ll toss info into the comments.

Links: Classic Marvel Forever (this has all the books & stuff, legal too), MSH Gamer (a good example of user-driven love & demonstration of play)

Next: A blog to a book? Really? (July 16)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on July 9, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. MSH was…Excellent (20)…for it’s time. Basic Marvel was the first game I actually tried to run.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really, really gnash my teeth over those wretched adventures, though. Right in line with what TSR was developing in spades for D&D – adapting both the convention model of canned fights and move-along plot hooks (literally) with the new awe for gamer-turned-author and author-writes-game-sourcebook, to produce the railroading juggernaut that dominated RPG publishing and design for about twenty years.

      But you knew I had notions about that.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Over at Classic Marvel Forever, there is also a large fan following, with multiple fan-made creations in the spirit of the original books. It’s great how the game still has legs after so long!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. American Hawkman

    We’ve been playing it in the same campaign for over twenty years. (Heading closer to thirty, actually…) Only the recent ICONS rpg comes even close to it in versatility, fun, and playability.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What are your experiences with the dynamics that I focused on in the post? Do Karma and Popularity have a systemic role?


      • Popularity as a subsystem really only played a few minor roles for us… The magic-user using it to rally forces for his own dimensional war, for instance. Karma was different, and we had a lot of play there for various moral dillemas. I will say the “willful murder series out karma” rule does a lot of railroading to keep things in the mighty Marvel manner . The adventures considerably improved in the later years of the game, with the Night trilogy being my favorites. I suspect that they were designed more to provide maps for reuse and villain stats and NPCs than as straight adventures.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved the game. Absolutely. Played by myself. Many hours spent sitting on the floor with the maps unfolded, the little icons all around, making up stories. The system was simple and left me alone to let my imagination work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Santiago Verón

    Yesterday I was reading your post about the gutter. So it made me smile when I downloaded one of the Marvel RPG books from one of those links and it says something like: “A turn lasts six seconds, which is roughly the time that passes inside a single comic book panel”. Fuck McCloud, Thierry Groensteen and all comics theory, the answer was there all along! 😛 I find it funny that they just threw it out without a second thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve come to regret picking DC Heroes for my first go at running a superhero game two-plus decades ago, and sticking with it doggedly for years despite never really ever actually enjoying it. Blame a juvenile craving to be pettily contrary and a lack-witted assumption that the underdog was always the more legitimate choice. I didn’t actually get around to playing MSHRP until someone brought it to a meeting of New York Red Box just a few years ago, and I was delighted/chagrined to realize it deserved it’s glowing reputation, and even better/worse it was particularly well suited to my tastes. Particularly noteworthy was how the system spends only a modicum of effort on physics-modelling, a stark contrast to a field dominated by systems for playing people-with-superpowers rather than superheroes. I’ve gotten to play a couple more times since, most recently at a satisfying Gary Con IX game, playing a party composed of Marvel’s 70’s second-string Manhattan vigilantes, and I’d like to try it some more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have you seen my post about DC Heroes, Getting it just right? I should have linked to it in this post because the two were supposed to be sister posts.

      (Editing: I just reviewed that post to find your comment in it!)

      They both have the luck/oomph currency concept (MSH: Karma, DC Heroes: Hero Points), very early to say so explicitly in the text, in an era when that kind of thing was generally kept in-house. I need to follow up with a very tight dissection of how they compare, and why, without resorting to hobby terms like “metagame.”

      They also both show the same pattern of rather powerful create-story-in-action mechanisms which get completely sidelined and silenced by GM-controlled and fixed set-piece expectations. You see that in early Champions design-and-pub history too.


      • I came to DC Heroes during it’s second edition, which had few published adventures but many source-books, and that’s a strong indication of the line’s aim: cataloging the DC Universe, codifying how things were, pinning down the benchmarks. Subtly resisting activity that flowed against the canon (not all that surprising after DC had spent all that time and effort promoting continuity as the primary preoccupation of their universe). I feel the mechanics themselves were aimed that way to; the main design goal was the scale where the physical strength of both Ma Kent and Superman could be assigned distinct clear numbers, like survey measurements. Even though it had a meta-currency, it seemed reluctant about it.

        Comparativelyy, my impression is MSHRPG is that it was designed mainly to create scenes that felt like action sequences from a comicbook, quoted in-fiction numbers but didn’t care much about validating them and dove headfirst into the rushing churn of it’s Karma cycle.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree and I’ll elaborate a little.

          In DC Heroes, the cycle of gain-and-spend for Hero Points is a bit bloodless. You get’em because you play, you spend’em as you play. So either they’re a hamster wheel which you might as well jettison in favor of lower target values throughout (which is pretty much my view of most FATE play), or they’re the real meat of success and failure, which means the elaborate attention to points and probabilities is not meaningful.

          If I were to play more DC Heroes, I’d actually diminish the quantity of Hero Points considerably, so they were a treasured resource, only spent at bleeding-edge moments. The dice rolls would count for a lot more in general, and I’d have to think about prep in such a way that it wasn’t always a pseudo-maze ending at “hero beats villain and/or puzzle, see you next issue!” I think I’d study the Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited with even more care than I already have, toward that end.

          Whereas in MSH, there are two key differences. First is that Karma and Popularity are very tenuously connected via certain acts, but they can vary independently and widely based on other actions, let alone by the effects of spending Karma. Second is that spending Karma is unpredictable – you don’t know how much you’re going to give up, above the minimum of 10.

          To play more MSH, what I’d do is really concentrate on Karma and Popularity as drivers, such that, per hero, high-both, high/low, low/high, and low-both were serious framers for each session. I’d also play it like I did Champions in outmatching the heroes by default, so in this case, spending Karma for bonuses would be contemplated often.


        • One more thing occurred to me. I have no experience with DC Heroes second edition, at all. The first is full of a very curious uneasiness about the DC Universe setting, using the phrase frequently but always qualifying it with “no one’s really sure” and “when the Crisis is resolved.” It smells strongly of a corporate mandate to promote the upcoming or development-in-progress Universe with all the corporate hallmarks of not giving anything away, since the whole point of the Universe at that time was to tease the fans into buying every title’s outlet for the Crisis. There’s even a whole section of the GM book which is practically a portrait of this attitude, enthusing and promising but conveying literally nothing besides “read the Crisis to find out.”

          Your description of the second edition doesn’t surprise me as it seems consistent with that attitude – now that the cat’s out of the bag, and thinking of the game as the corporate entity must have, as nothing more than accessory and promotional gear, the whole point was to nail the Universe down and make damn sure it was canonized.

          Marvel Super Heroes underwent a similar transition, I think. Or perhaps more among the user base than in the publications, which went down a “face-off this guy vs. that guy” road. Among the fanbase, it seems as if the obsession set in to sit down with the Campaign Book and the Official Handbook, thus to convert every imaginable thing back and forth between them, to discover the “real” Thor or whoever. The dynamics and potential that I wrote about seem to have persisted at many tables – as revealed later in the homebrew stuff posted on the early internet – but they weren’t evident before then.


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