Systems, Sub-Systems, Super-Systems
First things first: this game was written by Spider-Man
. I know some people think it's gimmicky, but screw you. It's extremely kid-friendly, and these were the first set of RPG rules I read all the way through. The explanations are lucid and helpful. Between this game and the Mentzer D&D rules, TSR really nailed the teaching-text aspect of RPG presentation.
See that chart? Along the top, various ranks, from Feeble (borderline subhuman) through Unearthly (limits of human comprehension). People are rated in various categories along that chart. When you try to do something, roll percentiles and look down the appropriate column. Green, marginal success; yellow, solid success; red, spectacular success. (This could be converted into "yes, but" "yes" and "yes and" in improv terms quite easily.) Depending on the fictional context, you might have to shift over a few columns to the left or right to reflect hindrances or favorable circumstances.
The game's main reward system is Karma Points
, which you earn by performing heroic deeds. Foiling an arsonist is worth 20 Karma; getting defeated in public will set you back 30 Karma; finding time to get together with friends is worth 5 Karma.
Karma Points can be spent 1:1 to add to your percentile roll. So, on a really critical roll, where you need a red result and a zillion horrible circumstances have thrown you down into the Feeble column, you can still spend 100 Karma to nail the roll no matter how unlucky you are.Karma Chameleon
Although enormous quantities of Karma Points can be spent to buy new super powers or improve your attributes, that's usually not an economical choice: it's generally cheaper and more effective to just influence your rolls on an as-needed basis. You don't need to be as strong as
Thor: you just need to get red results as often as
Thor. It's a subtle distinction, but important.
From this viewpoint, your character's attributes are mostly important as a "gear" on a bike or automobile. Captain America has an extremely impressive Amazing rank in Fighting. He doesn't need to spend Karma very often to hit someone. In contrast, the Invisible Woman has a more commonplace Good rank in Fighting: if she wants to perform at Captain America's level, she's going to have to burn through Karma much more often.
Using up your Karma means you'll have to earn more of it quickly, so you'll either have to foil many crimes (and likely spend some Karma to do so, though hopefully you still "profit") or chill out with your family to earn Karma relatively risk-free.
Note that if you stare at the Karma reward list, a deliciously silly moral calculus emerges. If you knowingly allow a murder to occur (-15 Karma) because you're on a really fantastic date (+20 Karma) you still have a net +5 Karma profit and come out ahead morally. I can see what they're trying to do here--you have to balance your heroic activities with human obligations, and no hero will strike the exact same balance.
But it's also a little cut-and-dried: there's an objectively "correct" answer under this system. It also depends, in part, on the GM constantly trying to screw you with Hobson's choices. Sub-Systems
The basic game includes rules for vehicles, inventing new gadgets, accumulating money and fame, social interaction, and criminal trials.
Ron is right: the magic system in this version of the game is perfect for the genre. Here is the core: "The player simply tells the Judge what he wants to do, and makes a green, yellow, or red Psyche feat. Especially easy, don't you think?" In other words, if you know magic, you can turn the Statue of Liberty into pudding, travel back in time, edit people's memories, and so on. Naturally, these things might require very difficult rolls, and your willpower may not be enough to affect things on the scale you want, and there's a bit more to these rules, but it's effectively "you can kind of do anything," which matches the source material perfectly. (I find it works a bit better if you restrict a character's magic to a particular concept/theme/tradition, otherwise you end up with magicians who can only be differentiated by their respective Psyche ranks.)
If the magic rules are great, the rules for invention are kind of screwy, in part because you need money to afford inventions, and the underlying money system is a bit screwy. Both are partially fixed in the Advanced Set, though not as elegantly as I might wish.The Advanced Game
A few years later, TSR produced the Advanced version of the rules. My theory on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
is that Gygax & Co. took a perfectly workable simple game, and said, "This rule could be tweaked a bit to make it better... And this rule... And this rule..." and in isolation, all of those changes were quite nice, but in the aggregate it mutated into something very cumbersome. Same with Advanced Marvel Super Heroes
: any individual change is sensible and interesting, but when you put it all together, it starts getting complicated. (Much less so than AD&D
The really important changes in the Advanced set are revising the monetary system to work a lot like a super power, and introducing rules for Contacts, that is, people who would be happy to do your character a favor. Both of these are big improvements over the Basic game.
I happen to like the random char-gen in the Advanced Set, the build-your-own-headquarters section, and the defensive moves in combat, but these mostly are a matter of taste. I find the vehicle rules and revised movement rules to be kind of a drag.
The other big change in the Advanced game is the notion of "intensities" for certain types of rolls. Building a teleportation machine, for example, is a Monstrous feat of Reason, and thus just barely
possible for Mister Fantastic, and completely impossible for Tony Stark or the Mad Thinker. (Conversely, Mister Fantastic doesn't even have to roll in order to repair a household appliance.) This is one of those things that's a nice touch, except it starts getting applied to every-damn-thing. (Night is Typical-intensity darkness; a surface coated in oil is Remarkably slippery, and so on.)In Play
Works pretty well. I'm using the Basic Rules + certain rules from the Advanced set (Contacts, Resources/Inventing, Defensive Tactics, and a few others). I've also hacked the game a bit to include simple rules for minions
, and because Body Armor is extremely powerful in this game, I unilaterally halved its effectiveness--if, under the normal rules, your Body Armor soaks 50 points of damage, it now only soaks 25. All of this seems to work out pretty well in practice.
The Karma system works pretty well, though I generally have not used it to foist difficult choices on players (yet). I'll probably move toward that over time. We don't always have enough time to do downtime scenes with romantic interests, friends, and jobs, but I hope to get to that soon.