Marvel Multiverse RPG Playtest – A Review

Review in Summary 

From long-time game designer and award-winning author Matt Forbeck and the folks at Marvel comes the new Marvel Multiverse RPG. The initial version of the game is being released as a public playtest, with the full rules slated for release in 2023. The playtest rules are available in physical copies and via Demiplane, which is a DnDBeyond-like platform.

The Marvel Multiverse RPG playtest rules show promise. The rules for building characters support a wide variety of character concepts despite the intentionally small selection of character options, and the variety of powers allow a lot of opt-in complexity which will allow players of diverse tastes to enjoy the game alongside each other. Combat makes powers feel exciting and there are subsystems in place to support cool superhero stuff like throwing cars or smashing through walls.

The state of the playtests document does leave something to be desired. The organization of rules content often doesn’t make sense, and pieces of the rules are incomprehensible until you find the same subject re-examined in a later section of the book. Fortunately, cutting and pasting text into a more sensible location should be simple.

This isn’t a rules-light game. This isn’t Masks or something along those lines. It’s a little more crunchy than DnD 5e, but not as crunchy as Pathfinder 2e, and if you’re not comfortable doing addition and subtraction with two-digit numbers you will absolutely want a calculator on hand.

Big parts of the game are expressed as tables that are almost exclusively numbers, but fortunately you won’t need to stare at those constantly. If you enjoy character optimization in 5e or if you look at Pathfinder 2e and aren’t intimidated, MMRPG’s level of crunch won’t be a problem for you.

There are clear influences here from DnD 3.5 and from DnD 5e. There aren’t any hugely novel concepts here. The rules seem solid despite some clear editorial problems, and I think the designers managed their goal of building a system that could handle incredibly specific superheroic characters across a wide power scale without changing anything except the sizes of the numbers like you would in Pathfinder.

I don’t anticipate a flood of other RPGs that attempt to replicate MMRPG’s mechanics like we’ve seen with Blades in the Dark, Powered by the Apocalypse, and other popular indy systems, but assuming MMRPG gets traction, it may have a healthy life ahead of it fueled by players who enjoy the mechanical specificity of a game that’s on the crunchy side of average.

This is a Playtest

Like playing an “early access” video game, this is a playtest. There are undoubtedly going to be some rough edges, and things will almost certainly change between now and the official release. The “Narrator” chapter calls this out: “there are parts that might fall apart if leaned on too hard”. As of writing this, there is already errata issued to make corrections to the print copies of the rule set.

If you purchase the game and actually take the time to play it, please send the designers feedback. The fact that they’re doing a playtest at all is more than we get from most media tie-in RPGs, and we should encourage an honest, well-intentioned feedback process instead of many of the disappointing media tie-in RPGs which are kickstarted, published in terrible state, and promptly abandoned.

Any griping, complaining, and pointing to issues in this article is intended as constructive feedback, and by the time you see this I’ve already submitted it. I’m not one to pointlessly bash other people’s work, but I would like to see the game published as something that I would enjoy playing.

It is a little weird that they asked people to pay for the playtest materials, though. For comparison: WotC and Paizo both offer playtesting material for free. But here we are.

Roll me a d616 

The advertising materials for MMRPG are very specific about using the phrase “All-New, All-Different d616 System”. 616 is, of course, a reference to “Earth-616”, which is the official marvel setting. The playtest book is full of little nods like that.

The d616 system is “spicy” 3d6+modifier roll high to meet or exceed a target number. If you’re coming from DnD or Pathfinder, using 3d6 instead of a d20 gives you a bell curve of probabilities rather than a flat line, meaning that middling results are more common than good or bad ones.

The part that’s “spicy” is the “Marvel die”. If you’re using regular dice (and you are since they’re not selling the official dice yet), one of the dice should be a different color. The 1 face on the Marvel die both counts as a 6 (so your die goes 6*, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and gives you a “fantastic roll” (note that I didn’t say “success”) unless you get all 1’s, in which case it’s still a “botched roll” (a critical failure, a natural 1, you get the idea). If you still fail the check, something good still happens and the game calls it a “fantastic failure”.

If you do get a result of two 6’s and a 1 on the Marvel die, you rolled a “6-1-6” and automatically succeed with an “ultimate fantastic roll”. Rolling threes 6’s will probably succeed on most things that are Rank-appropriate, but it’s otherwise nothing special.

If you have an “edge” (a good circumstance), the player can reroll one die. If you have a “trouble” (a bad circumstance) the Narrator picks one to reroll to try to make you do worse. Edges and troubles cancel each other out on a one-to-one basis, and the explanation of this mechanic is accompanied by a picture of Spider-Man being hit by a car.

When you roll a check, you roll 3d6, add your character’s ability score, add a modifier to that score provided by your archetype which increases with Rank, and compare that to a target number (TN) which is also rank-dependent.

Weirdly, you will never roll more than 3d6 in this game. Damage starts at 1d6 at Rank 1, scales up to 3d6, then starts adding flat modifiers. Captain Marvel isn’t throwing 30d6 when she rolls damage, which honestly is probably the right choice because at that point it’s a counting exercise conducted every single turn, which would make the game nightmarishly slow.

The huge flat bonuses which take the place of rolling a mountain of dice are drawing a lot of criticism online. People are complaining that modifiers like +36 feel out of step in today’s games where the number scales are typically smaller. This “number inflation” is very much intentional, putting high-Rank characters mathematically out of reach of low-Rank characters, and Rank-appropriate challenges have suitably high TN so that the 3d6 still remain an important part of your roll. Pathfinder 2e does the same thing and it works really well.

Character creation and advancement

Speaking of Spider-Man, let’s talk characters.

Characters have a whole bunch of moving parts.

Rank

Think “level” from RPGs where advancement is level-based, but even that isn’t quite accurate.

Rank 1 is basically a slightly above-average human. Rank 25 is Captain Marvel and other impossibly powerful characters. Unlike level in DnD or something, your character’s rank might never change depending on the kind of story your group wants. Your group might also set a “rank cap”, which sets a ceiling on how far characters can progress. 

If you’re telling a game about characters like Luke Cage or Daredevil, you might set a rank cap at a low number like 5. Higher ranks add bigger numbers and unlock progressively more impressive super powers.

Ranks and how to deal with them are explained further in the Narrator section. Advancement happens whenever the Narrator deems appropriate, typically between plot arcs. If you’re coming from DnD 5e, it’s basically milestone leveling.

Archetype

Think “class” from DnD or Pathfinder, but even that isn’t a perfect comparison. There are 6 very broad archetypes. Most are a specific sort of character, but Polymath is a mostly blank template if you can’t decide. 

Everything you care about from your archetype is expressed as an intimidatingly large table full of numbers, but the table only gets looked at when you build your character or change ranks, so don’t let it spook you.

There are 6 archetypes that can be roughly categorized into roles you might recognize from other games:

  • Blaster: Ranged DPS.
  • Bruiser: Tank. Fights in melee, has tons of HP.
  • Genius: Also ranged DPS, but more of a glass canon than the Blaster.
  • Polymath: Generalist. Average stats across the board. A good blank template.
  • Protector: Support or caster. Lots of Focus to fuel powers.
  • Striker: Melee DPS.

Ability Scores

“By no coincidence, the initials of these spell MARVEL.”

…but they’re identical to DnD’s ability scores with different names. That should make it easy to understand which score is which, but I also feel like separating Strength and Constitution (sorry, Might and Resilience) don’t really make sense in most games except DnD because the idea of a character with impossible Hulk-like Strength and -2 Resilience feels laughable.

Scores are added directly to rolls, similar to ability modifiers in DnD and Pathfinder, so they didn’t port the archaic tradition of a numerical score whose only purpose is to give you a modifier.

Your ability scores have a “cap” of 4. Your archetype raises two of those caps, so your Genius will have a ton of Vigilance and Logic. Some caps may be raised by powers, but most characters will only want to go beyond 4 on their two key ability scores because there’s an opportunity cost. Like DnD, specialization is rewarded within a multiplayer game.

You get a pool of ability score points based on your rank and can increase/decrease ability scores from 0 using those points, and as your Rank increases you get more ability score points and your Archetype will raise the cap on your two key Ability Scores, allowing you to improve your base stats as you see fit. You could start at Rank 1 with high scores in your two key abilities and dump everything else into the negatives, or you can spread it out a big. I like that flexibility.

Other Stats

Hit Points, Focus (think like mana or stamina or something), and Karma (luck to use for rerolls). Karma gets recharged by a night’s sleep and you can earn more by doing heroic stuff like rescuing someone.

Origin and Profession

Origin is a rough description of your character’s backstory similar to DnD 5e’s backgrounds. Comes with one or more traits. The rules include a few options, but also suggest talking to your Narrator to homebrew new ones.

Profession describes your day job or occupation prior to being bit by a radioactive Stan Lee. Grants one or more traits.

Traits

Minor general stuff. Sometimes minor powers, skills, personality stuff. Usually positive, sometimes negative, sometimes both. Some come from your origin/profession, but not all of them. Characters seem to get a ton of these and they don’t appear to be tied to Rank.

The version of Wolverine (Rank 10) in the playtest materials has 15 of them, while Captain Marvel (rank 25) has 17. There’s an “Extra Traits” table in the section on Traits, but it’s not well explained what the table means until the Character Creation chapter. The rules encourage the Narrator granting extra traits as part of the story, but it’s not clear why the Extra Traits table exists, and since some traits are outright negative. I don’t know if there’s supposed to be a cap. It’s generally just very unclear.

Traits are going to be a big source of character optimization since traits like “Honest”, which makes a character good at persuasion but bad at lying, have the same cost as “Signature Attack”, which gives you an Edge on all of your attacks of one type (Pistols, etc.).

Powers

The really fun stuff!

Powers are handled as a skill tree system of specific “power sets” such as “Spider Powers” and “Super-Strength”. The playtest rules include 12 sets which are presented mostly in alphabetical order, plus a collection of “Utility Powers” which include stuff like Flight and Healing Factor which don’t fit neatly into any specific power set.

The designer has promised more will be in the core rules, but they tried to keep the playtest materials small and focused, which was the right choice in my opinion.

You get a number of powers chosen from a number of Power Sets determined by your Rank (x powers from y skill trees). If you don’t want to use one of your available number of Power Sets, you can instead get an extra power for each set you don’t use (x+1 powers from y-1 trees), allowing you to choose between depth or breadth, which is a fun decision point and feels like a fair trade. The rate of powers is one-to-one until Rank 10 then slows down a bit, so low-Rank characters accumulate powers more quickly.

Powers are often gated behind prerequisites like a minimum Rank or another prerequisite power. This keeps things from going too far off the rails, but you can still combine powers to create some really cool builds.

As an example: You can get Armor 1 at Rank 1 and be insanely durable (pistols deal 2d6+Agility damage, Armor 1 gives your DR 10 to all damage). Add Healing Factor when you hit Rank 2, and you’re nearly unstoppable unless someone focuses their attacks on you with something like a submachine gun, which is basically the scariest thing you’ll encounter at Rank 2.

Building a Character

Like I said: lots of moving parts. It’s maybe slightly more complex than 5e’s characters, but since there are so many decision points, it feels more like Pathfinder 2e’s level of complexity.

The chapter on Character Creation is good, and demystifies a bunch of the stuff which wasn’t explained well in previous chapters.

Download a character sheet and try it for yourself, or if you just want to kick the tires of the mechanics, the playtest rules include several iconic Marvel characters as pregenerated characters.

Supers Punching Each Other Through Walls

Combat is a bit of DnD 3.x’s mechanical depth, a bit of DnD 5e’s action economy, a rules-light approach to positioning, and some subsystem for superhoic things like throwing cars and punching people through walls.

Combat uses DnD-style initiative. Rolling a Fantastic Success gets you an extra turn in the “Bonus Round” before everyone who isn’t as cool as you. MMRPG allows players to delay their turns and hold actions very similarly to DnD 3.x, so your initiative might change throughout a fight.

Actions follow fall somewhere between DnD 3.x and DnD 5e: An “easy action” (bonus action in 5e), “standard action” (action in 5e), and movement action (not a thing in 5e, but it was in 3.x), and one Reaction per round (like 5e). Like 3.x, standard actions are for attacking, but there’s no “full round action”.

All characters have the option to Interpose or Skulk as a Reaction, allowing you to take a hit for an ally or make them take a hit for you. If your team has a brawler with Healing Factor, you might use that a lot.

Attacking is pretty simple. “Fight” for melee attacks and “Ranged” for ranged attacks. Your damage is based on your archetype and rank, so Strikers do a lot of Fight damage and Blasters do a lot of Ranged damage.

There are rules for things like putting a rope around someone and smashing them into stuff or hitting them so hard that they fly for huge distances and smash into stuff, all of which feels very superheroic. There are rules for hitting people with improvised weapons of various sizes illustrated by Spider-Man picking up a car and hitting people with it.

There are rules for smashing/blasting holes in things, and rules for “plowing through” objects like walls if they take enough damage. You can be knocked far enough that the damage you deal plows through several walls in succession.

MMRPG uses DnD-style hit points and hit point-like pool for Focus. You can accumulate negative hp and eventually die, but it’s not so brutal as DnD 3.x: you get up to your max hp rather than -10 or something.

Movement is explained in the Narrator section, which is a choice I disagree with strongly. Characters have a base speed of 25+Agility, which may be modified if your size changes. The rules suggest that if you want to use a grid, you should round speeds to the nearest 5-foot increment, allowing you to easily use a DnD-style grid despite having 28 ft. speed.

Reach works like it does in DnD, but there are no opportunity attacks, so it may be hard to pin fast enemies down in melee. If you build melee characters, plan to have something handy for them to throw at people faster than you.

This also means that your squishy Genius in the back with a ray gun will need to be rescued from time to time when an enemy rushes past the group’s Brawler. That’s totally fine, and most games don’t have that sort of “stickiness” built into their movement rules.

I think the intent here is to support characters of all sizes, so ant man shrunk down to ant size can fight enemies of equal size without trying to figure out where everyone is on a 5-foot grid.

Enter: Hydra and also Enter: a Playtest Scenario

The introductory scenario is short and almost exclusively combat. This is a playtest, so the designers want you to put the crunchy parts of the game into play. The scenario recommends 3 to 6 players of Rank 10 to 15, but I’d estimate you could go as low as rank 3 and it wouldn’t require adjustment. That’s not to say that the scenario is exceptionally easy, but it is built to handle a wide range of Ranks.

Of course, all of the included heroes are Rank 10 and up, so if you want lower-Rank heroes, you’ll need to make them yourself. If you have more than 3 players, you’ll either need to make heroes or play with published heroes of different Ranks. Both answers work just fine, but maybe don’t bring Captain Marvel into a game with a bunch of Rank 3 original characters.

I don’t want to spoil the scenario for people who intend to play it, but a table included in the adventure includes this glorious entry:

Unfortunately the playtest scenario contains a puny roster of published enemies to use, so if you want to play anything beyond this scenario you’ll need to build the enemies yourself. Fortunately, it looks like you can just use the same character creation rules for players and for antagonists.

Pain Points

Tables. This game really likes tables. It’s not quite so bad as pre-2000 RPGs where you frequently needed lookup tables for every attack, but the prevalence of extremely dense tables is going to prove very intimidating for players who aren’t already comfortable with TTRPGs. If you enjoy games like Pathfinder 2e or you played games older than 3.0 DnD, I’m sure this is fine. But people coming straight from DnD 5e or from rules-light games are going to have some heartburn.

Still worse, many of the tables are explained so poorly that I still don’t know what they’re for. The “extra traits” table makes no sense on its own, and it’s not explained until the Character Creation chapter’s section on backstory and traits. Why not just put the table there in the Character Creation section?

The “Sizes” table describes relative sizes, but that is explained three full paragraphs above the table, which makes both its purpose and function somewhat unclear, especially since reach is also listed in that table and reach is the only number there which isn’t relative. 

The tables for archetypes are so wide that on Demiplane you have to scroll horizontal to see the Health and Focus columns. What? Didn’t know those were there? Yeah, that’s kinda my point.

Guns. Reloading every turn as an Easy Action (Standard for submachine guns) is intended to be a convenience, but in a 5 second round that seems out of step with how real-world firearms work. Most people won’t completely empty a rifle in 5 seconds unless they’re actively trying to do so.

Also: “Shotgun: Can attack up to adjacent Average-sized targets”. Note the lack of a word between “to” and “adjacent”. Most players will likely opt for pistols beyond low Ranks because your character’s Ranged Damage overrides the weapon’s if it’s higher.

Bleeding. “A character that takes 10 or more points of damage from a piercing or slashing attack starts bleeding.” The average roll on 3d6 is 10.5, and it’s higher with the Marvel die’s additional 6, and that doesn’t even account for adding Might to the damage. Beyond very low ranks, any character with a knife is going to cause bleeding every time they hit, so why would you ever use a bludgeoning weapon? At high Rank the 5 points of bleed damage won’t be significant unless fights go for a long time, but it’s also a Standard action to try to stop the bleeding, so no one will be dumb enough to waste their turn on it. I would accept Bleeding as a benefit for a Marvelous Success with piercing/slashing damage, but it’s too annoying to be available on just any attack.

Organization. Where the designers chose to put information is easily my biggest complaint. The full rules for individual things are like Rank are split across multiple parts of the rule book, some of it in the Narrator section when players might not think to look. This makes it harder to grasp the rules, which makes the system feel inaccessible.

The Aftermath

I think this could be a good game. It looks fun to play, and there are enough options that you could have fun here at any power level and tell basically any Marvel story. I prefer games on the crunchy side of average, so this fits nicely into a space where I’m comfortable playing. But more rules-light RPGs have been gaining a lot of traction among RPG enthusiasts, and those players might not find the Marvel Multiverse RPG to their liking.

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