Marvel Plot Points

A fan site for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game by Margaret Weis Productions

Sideways Development – The Marvel Way to Level Up

Editor’s note: I’d like to welcome our newest contributor, Filipe Mascarenhas from distant Brazil! Welcome to the crew, Felipe. You can see Felipe’s bio over on our Contact Us page.

The other day I finished my first Marvel Heroic RPG session, Watching the game for my brother and a friend. The game ran smoothly, save for the occasional pause to flip through the book to figure out some nook and cranny of the ruleset. When we were wrapping it up, I asked the dreadful question that all Game Masters should ask after a new game:

“So, did you like the game?”

The general response was:

“Great game!”

“We should do it again!”

“You are the best GM ever!!!!” (okay, not this one)

But, one comment struck me like being stabbed with adamantium claws through the heart:

“When do we level up? From what I saw, I felt like playing this character will be the same even 20 sessions later. How can I get more hit points and more attack bonuses?”

The question haunted me for a couple of the days, because it is somewhat true. Unlike most RPGs, in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game there is no such thing as leveling up.

However, that’s not a design flaw, because it does not make much sense on raising Wolverine’s stats to make him able to kick even more butts, and eventually make him capable to single-handedly dealing with Galactus. Since power levels only have 4 possible ranks (d6, d8, d10 or d12) each step makes a huge diference. So how could I keep my players interested in a long-play campaign, if their characters would be essentially the same from start to finish?

The answer to my dilemma was simpler than I thought.

I went back to comics I analyzed how the characters have changed throughout the years. The interesting thing is that the Marvel characters do not necessarily get stronger, or faster, or more powerful as the years, and issues goes by, instead they usually just change. Let’s look back at some major Marvel Characters, and some iconic changes they went through.

1. Gets six arms
2. Unites with Symbiote
3. Gets Iron-Spider armor from Tony Stark

1. Becomes Mr. Fixit
2. Gets smart
3. Splits from Bruce Banner
4. Becomes a gladiator

1. Gets adamantium bones from the Weapon X Program
2. Loses an eye and becomes Patch on Madripoor
3. Loses adamantium bones and becomes a savage animal
4. Becomes Horseman of Apocalypse and regains adamantium

Most of those changes are not the standard “level up” linear kind of development and power increase that we commonly see on most RPGs, but they still represent major changes on the characters.

That’s sideways development.

Like in Marvel Comics, in MHR, the characters do not need to become more powerful to remain interesting, they need just to change as the story goes by. Those changes should be consequences from the story, and make sense plot-wise.

Back in my game, after having resolved the question, I talked to the player. We decided that his character Wolverine, would start developing spider powers, since he is the new host of the Carnage symbiote after he killed the original host during the the Raft Breakout.

Can’t wait to see how the story goes.


15 comments on “Sideways Development – The Marvel Way to Level Up

  1. Matthew AC
    March 28, 2012

    I recently blotted about this. Sideways leveling is a good term. The bottom line is that most togs feature an upward curve in character growth; comic heroes spike, however. And, they always regress to the mean. Nice post.

  2. Matthew AC
    March 28, 2012

    Just blogged about this myself. In most games, the hero an upward growth arc (think d&d levels). Comic characters spike but often regress to the mean. Nice post.

  3. Barking Alien
    March 28, 2012

    While this is a fantastic idea…it is only a fantastic idea. Do you have any recommendations as to how to do this mechanically in the game rules? Or is it simply, “Since you can buy new SFX and Power Sets, here’s an excuse as to why you might have them.”

    • felipenerdcore
      March 28, 2012

      The ideia is not just to add more powers, but more likely to trade the old ones for new and diferent powers.

      I strongly recommed that the new powers are somewhat tied with the story.

      In my game the Carnegerine (Wolverine + Carnage) will probably lose or tune down some of his mutant powers. I picture that the symbiote infection will overload his healing factor so he can retain control and don’t become insane.

      On the bottom line Wolverine will end up with Stamina d8, lose the Healing Factor SFX and gain tentacles d8 and wallcrawlling d6.

  4. buzz
    March 28, 2012

    I think this is a great idea, and is in keeping with MHRP’s “just eyeball it” method of chargen.

    I also find it interesting to see people react to this game with expectations ingrained in them by traditional RPGs. Ralph Mazza made a great point that the XP system in MHRP seems almost tacked-on, as if the designers assumed that all RPGs needs to have an advancement mechanics, so they’d better put one in here, too. I’d argue you could even say that about chargen; if it’s a game about playing int he Marvel universe, why does it need to have rules for creating characters?

    Felipe is thinking outside the box, which is exactly how one should approach MHRP, IMO.

  5. Seth T. Blevins
    March 28, 2012

    I also throw those “Unlockables” on the table at the start of a session, and add more as the game goes.

    Like when I ran the Raft, Colossus’s player said he was actually here to bust a Russian friend out that had been wrongfully accused (I love it when players do that sort of thing). I was about to throw Carnage at them as an escaped prisoner, instead I said Carnage was here for the same guy Colossus was.

    We created a new symbiote that went mad shortly after crashing to the planet. It ended up taking over Beast in the end. So now our Spider Man player and our Beast player took Milestone buy offs to separate from the group to figure out what this symbiotes goals were.

    It was quite awesome to see it all come together.

  6. Shawn Schmitting
    March 28, 2012

    This exactly the Marvel way of leveling up! I think the hard part, even for me, with playing this game is we are so use to “I make roll and hit the villain, now I level and loot up.”

    To be honest that is not how Marvel Comics play things out. It is about the story and how the character deals with it. Things change for better and/or worse. Spider-Man for example; in the Other he gained Organic Webbing and enhanced powers. Yet after Brand New Day, pretty much went back to regular ole Web Head. To me what is important is not what I can spend my experience points on to make my character better. The question should be how has this event changed my character? Did that hero try a new stunt to use with their powers and now wants to make it a SFX? Did they evolve/mutate into something stronger? Did the Scarlet Witch wish away all their powers and now have to rely on something else. This is what I enjoy most about this system. It is so flexible and there is no right or wrong answer. Just what is good for your group and if it is fun.

    • thadrine
      March 28, 2012

      I love the fact that in this game you do not even really “Roll to Hit” you are rolling to resolve the success of your panel.

      In our game I saw a prime example of this. Spiderman swung in front Nefaria while Graviton was trying to blast him, and hit ended up hitting Nefaria instead. This was the players description of how he was attacking Nefaria.

  7. Andrew Gatlin
    March 28, 2012

    I would add that the Watcher can make use out of these sideways developments too. To use the Wolverine/Carnage symbiote example, Wolverine now has access to symbiote powers. If he is mentally stress-out, instead of being taken out of play he becomes a Watcher character as the symbiote takes over (similar to the Sentry/Void dynamic). Or look at the Iron Spider armor. Spider-Man gets a power boost, but there are strings attached. He is in debt to Stark, and Stark has an armor kill-switch.

    In the comics getting new, or better, powers rarely comes without a cost.

  8. Matthew AC
    March 28, 2012

    Barking alien – while I agree with some other commenters unnoticed needing to worry about the rules of this idea, offers a few mechanical tweaks that do just that.

  9. Bobby
    March 28, 2012

    The best part about this is if you skip between events, the character you portrayed in the previous event can do this sideway reinvention via the timeskip.

    You could bring any historical character you’ve already developed into any future marvel event this way.

    • thadrine
      March 28, 2012

      The game really encourages playing a rotating cast of characters. And with the “Buy off” Milestones you have some good incentive to take your self out of the next story event.

      • felipenerdcore
        April 10, 2012

        I really don’t mind chance my character every other session, Marvel has a catalog of over 8.000 characters and most of them would be fun to play, so why stick around with the same guy? Even for people who just like to be Spiderman or Wolverine, they need to understand that characters must grow to be became more interesting not more powerfull.

  10. Pingback: Hero Datafile: Rogue « Plot Points

  11. Jeremiah Vile-kin Nitzschke
    August 14, 2012

    I love the way the “leveling” works in MHR. Right now my character is spending what few xp he manages to get on upgrades for his containment suit, and one of my milestones will completely change one of his powersets when it is completed. The game’s leveling system is perfect in its attempt to emulate comic book-style character changes.

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This entry was posted on March 28, 2012 by in Tips & Tricks.

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