I asked Cam Banks a while back if it was cool to do an analysis of the product design for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, and he seemed interested in learning more about why I was initial super excited about the game, still think the game system itself is pretty solid, but was disappointed in how it was presented as a product. This analysis will mostly touch on really big picture stuff, mostly the organization and contents of the book, even though there are a lot of other important parts of product design for a game like this (visual design, usability, evocativeness, how it transmits, etc.).
We have a unique opportunity here, I think. Because Marvel Heroic was canceled as a gameline, there’s less risk that this analysis will be seen as a diatribe against an existing product. That’s all water under the bridge at this point. Nothing we say or do will help or hurt Marvel Heroic anymore, for better or worse. So it makes a great (and recent!) example to use to talk about identifying your audience and publication goals, and then trying to craft a product to suit those needs. But most of these comments could also be applied to something like Dragon Age, the upcoming Firefly game, or D&D Next. (Also, Marvel Heroic just won the Origins Award, so hopefully that gives Cam the confidence to accept some constructive criticism without too much soul-searching.)
I’m not a totally dispassionate critic when it comes to Marvel Heroic, of course. The canceling of the game line left a bunch of the freelance work I’d done for it (on the Age of Apocalypse and Exiles, most prominently) eternally unpublished. But my feelings about the game’s presentation predate both my working on the gameline and its cancellation. This isn’t sour grapes, except in the sense that I vainly wish that the game had been presented more effectively, in case that might have enabled it to find even more commercial success and avoid cancellation. But I’m not privy to the details of the cancellation decision or sales numbers, so it’s difficult to know if anything would have helped. Maybe Marvel just had unrealistic expectations about tabletop roleplaying sales.
Let’s get to it!
Audience and Goals
Who do we (the hypothetical product designers) want and expect to pick up and play Marvel Heroic? What are their needs and desires and how to we make a product that meets those?
Personally, my feeling is that a license like Marvel (or DC, Buffy, Firefly, Game of Thrones, Dragon Age, or what have you) doesn’t come along very often. Really Marvel is a bigger deal than all the other things I just mentioned, due to the recent success of its movies and it’s ability to appeal to all ages and demographics. The audience for tabletop roleplaying games – as I think most people now agree – has been steadily declining for the last decade or more, and I think that when you get a license like Marvel, you ideally hope to:
- Attract the attention of existing roleplaying audiences, to give you a built-in base of customers
- Get existing roleplayers to share the game with other folks: their kids, their friends’ kids, peers, other teenagers and 20-somethings they know, boardgamers, adults open to creative or geeky hobbies, Marvel comics fans, people who liked The Avengers film, etc.
- Have people who are totally unfamiliar with roleplaying but like board games, video games, Marvel comics, and/or the Marvel movies (kids, teenagers, and 20-somethings, mostly) pick up the game book on their own and teach themselves and their friends to play
What kind of product do we need to design in order to attract these crowds? What do these somewhat different audiences need? I would argue that what all these audiences want, when they pick up a game, it to be able to play it effectively (and entertainingly) as quickly as possible, with the least amount of struggle or work. For example:
Existing roleplaying audiences are probably the easiest to design for because they are already involved in the hobby. However, many are strictly tied to the existing games that they play and are skeptical about new rules systems. We hope that the Marvel license will convince them to give the new game an honest chance and to actually try it out, but we need to make that process as straightforward as possible.
Existing roleplayers may use games that they might not ordinarily play extensively on their own as a way to introduce the hobby to others. It’s hard for new folks to join a long-running D&D game, but if a bunch of friends are interested in playing Marvel, then that makes it easy. Ideally, though, we want these new players to become new GMs as soon as possible, so they’re not dependent on other people to continue to play the game, assuming they enjoy it. Once they’ve played 2-3 sessions, they should feel confident enough to pick up the rulebook and run it themselves, and the book should empower them to do this.
Finally, brand new audiences really need the game to help them get over the hump from being complete novices and become increasingly experienced roleplayers by helping them play the game effectively right out the gate. If they have a couple of terrible early sessions, this may not be something they’re willing to struggle through and continue.
Of course, the game also has to look and feel like Marvel comics and movies, but I think everyone probably agrees that Marvel Heroic does a great job on that part of product design. The place where I think it isn’t as strong is in empowering the audience with the knowledge and support they need to actually play the game effectively.
What’s in the Book?
So I’ve picked up the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, assumedly because I want to play it. Most likely this means that I’ll serve as the GM, since I actually bought the book. But, even if I have experience, I may be unsure about serving in that role or about the game in general. I may be reading it to see if it’s something I feel like I can do. Or, if I’m completely new to this, I might even be unsure about this whole roleplaying thing in the first place. But I’m excited and hope that the book will make me feel confidant and up to the job. The book should channel my excitement into productive action that gets me ready to run the game.
If I’ve somehow bought it because I’m going to be a player and not a GM, that’s cool; the game should direct me to the stuff I should focus on (what my job is as a player, what I should expect the game to be like, how I should think about the specific character I’m going to play, how I can make fun and effective choices during play). But in order to make the market and reach of the game as large as possible, the book should also help players feel comfortable about running the game.
What does the game provide me with, and in what order? Here’s an outline of what you get when you open the book (imagine reading it in order):
- premise of the game (1 page)
- “how to read datafiles” (2 pages)
- resolution mechanics (24 pages)
2. Playing the Game
- how the game is structured / scenes (12 pages)
3. Taking Action
- more resolution mechanics (15 pages)
4. Understanding Datafiles
- character creation? (45 pages)
5. Understanding Events
- running prewritten adventures (5 pages)
- designing your own adventures (2 pages)
- example adventure (50 pages)
7. Hero Datafiles
- characters for you to play (50 pages)
There’s a lot to discuss here, but I think the most glaring thing in my mind – the one thing that I couldn’t believe when I first started reading the game – is that, out of the 225 pages in this book, there are 19 pages (Playing the Game + Understanding Events) on how to think about and run the game effectively and, to make matters worse, they are not grouped together and highlighted as being really important, but instead separated in sections 2 and 5 and deemphasized in comparison to the other content of the book. The product design places some serious obstacles in terms of somebody new to roleplaying (or even an experienced GM) picking up this book and learning to play the game from reading it. Basically, the example adventure has to do nearly all of the heavy lifting, since there’s so little in terms of general instructions, and it still leaves the would-be GM dependent on future adventure releases, because the book places so little emphasis on how to design adventures yourself (2 pages!).
The organization of the book also doesn’t seem to follow a logical order in terms of at what point prospective GMs (or even players) need to know certain information. When I flip through the first few pages of the book, I’m greeted not with an overview of how the game works or an example of play (ideally one in comic book form!), but 2 pages on datafiles (I don’t know what datafiles are or why I should care about the different parts of them, and they don’t appear in the book for another 125 pages) and then 24 pages on resolution mechanics (What are we resolving and why? How is this related to telling stories about Marvel heroes?). Then comes the overview of play, finally (though only part of it, since the other 7 pages come later), but then we get more resolution mechanics and 50 pages of detailed descriptions of what various stats and powers mean – and the latter are not actually necessary or useful in play, just in character creation, which we don’t really need to do, especially not right away, because there’s 50 pages of characters we can play in the back. New players, especially, likely picked up the Marvel game because we want to play Iron Man and the Black Widow.
Honestly, I’m not sure what’s going on in the organization; it just seems so counterintuitive to how you might actually try to teach someone to play a game. It’s really presented more like a reference text, one that assumes you already know how to play the game, have played the game a bunch, and just need to reference the book in order to look up specific things every once in a while. But even then, you have to remember whether the mechanic you’re looking for is in section 1 or 3, or whether the piece on scene structure is in section 2 or 5. And the three parts on reading datafiles, understanding datafiles, the datafiles themselves are separated by two different gaps of 50 pages each.
A Few Comments on the Text Itself
While the organization is the issue I want to focus on most, there are also a few other issues in the contents of the text itself that make it more difficult for new audiences.
In general, the rules text is almost entirely focused on what a player can do, not on why or when they might want to do that or how to effectively achieve their goals, including potentially as the GM. This is most obvious in the first rules text new players and GMs are likely to read (OM6-OM19, which explain the basic mechanics). This section essentially offers a giant list of choices you can possibly make, but no real guidance for how to choose one option over another. Why would you use a Push die instead of a Stunt die? When should the GM do any of the things they can do with the Doom Pool? Etc.
In addition, Jenskot – who is an experienced convention GM, very open to new styles of play, and a huge Marvel fan – spent what must have been hours trying to put together a 1-2 page overview of how the game worked and, after all that effort, still came across a bunch of things that didn’t seem clear. That should be impossible! Both because (1) the game itself should provide a clear and concise overview of how it works and, even if there’s a huge oversight made and the book doesn’t include that stuff (as happened here), (2) players should be able to flip through the pages and easily compile one. That’s not the case here, both because the book isn’t structured in a way that makes that easy, and the sections on individual mechanics are sometimes opaque or confusing.
Finally, and this was a big deal for me, there are a lot of character powers in the game that don’t seem to represent anything in the fiction, but just an ability to shift resources around. That’s potentially okay, but it’s a bit weird for it to be your turn to do a thing and then to spend it shifting resources rather than actually making anything happen. And even when it’s clear that an ability is supposed to do something fictionally, often it’s unclear what that is. Here’s an example from Beast: Oh My Stars & Garters! Spend 1 PP to borrow the highest die in the doom pool as an asset for your next action, then step back and return the doom die. What happens in the fiction when you do that? What does borrowing, stepping down, and returning the die signify? What kind of asset is it? Here’s another one from Cyclops: Ricochet: Step up or double Force Blast against a single target. Remove highest-rolling die and add an additional die to the target. A ricochet is something bouncing off something else, right? Why does this increase your damage to a single target, then? What’s ricocheting off of what? Many of the powers read like this.
Ultimately, it’s more difficult for the game to be intuitive when players can’t just say what they’re doing and have that easily translate into what they roll. Instead, the rules for powers and other special abilities require a lot of system mastery just to understand what they do or even what aspect of a character they represent.
Anyway, that’s probably enough to demonstrate the concerns I had about it. There’s a great game under there somewhere, but the presentation of it makes it difficult, time-consuming, and onerous for new audiences, especially those unfamiliar with roleplaying, to find it and make it happen at their tables. Given the opportunity the Marvel license provided to really help shape this generation of roleplaying games and its audience, it’s too bad that Marvel Heroic wasn’t easier to pick up and immediately enjoy playing at a high level.
Hopefully you found this interesting, and it helps you think more about product design, even if you don’t agree with my specific impressions of or conclusions about Marvel Heroic. Disagreement is expected, since we all have different brains and undergo different experiences.