Thursday, October 29, 2009

What Goes Around Comes Around - Karma & Marvel Superheroes

Since I mentioned Heroes Unlimited/Rifts the other day, and recently discussed "experience mechanics" in non-Old School RPGs, I figured this is as good a time as any to discuss that crazy mother-f’ing hybrid Marvel Superheroes.

[in fact, the original title of this post was going to be “That Crazy Mother-F***g Game” but I decided I’d save that for a future post about some other RPG]

I’ve played a lot of Marvel in the past, both the original RPG (released in 1984) and the “Advanced” version (released 1986); the latter being essentially the same game though with more bells & whistles. Part of this was certainly due to my age (from 11 to 13 were prime “comic book” collecting years), and part was due to the friends who owned it (including my old buddy Jason, whose Mom was NOT a fan of D&D once their family became Born Again Christians).

Anyway, we played quite a bit of MSH back in the day, though our longest running campaign was the Advanced version and involved ZERO characters from the Marvel universe. Not that we didn’t like the characters in the Marvel universe (my friend, Jocelyn was a big X-Man fan), but we certainly were more interested in creating our own superhero soap operas and a lot less concerned with whether or not Peter Parker was going to make his dinner appointment with Aunt May.

Plus, with the advent of the Ultimate Powers Book, character creation was “off the hook,” so to speak, and we had too many cool options to worry about Marvel canon.

However, going with our own “Marvel universe” led to certain issues between game expectations and system rules; namely, what to do about that damn Karma stuff. Coming at the game with a gamist (i.e. “raised on D&D”) mentality, Karma certainly got us into trouble.

Marvel, similar to Palladium, is a bit of a hybrid game, at least a step removed from Old School gaming. However, unlike Palladium’s Heroes Unlimited, its game design is both innovative and elegant. Ron Edwards has pointed out that in some ways it is one of the first RPGs to facilitate a Narrativist creative agenda (though he also points out that the game is explicit in its text about also allowing the game to be played “gamist style,” simply duking it out between Marvel characters to prove once and for all who’s the toughest of them all). The reason it facilitates Narrativism is its excellent Karma mechanic (the same one I just mentioned that gave us headaches as kids).

For those who haven’t played MSH, Karma is the game’s version of “experience points.” It is a point pool and points are awarded to players based on their actions in the game. In a very Old School way, Karma informs in game behavior as it is awarded in specific amounts for specific actions (for example, foiling a robbery is one amount; defeating a villain gives a specific amount). It’s not perfect, but good enough (and with enough examples, especially in published modules) that it’s workable. However, unlike D&D experience points or Gamma World status points, Karma can also be LOST. Not just SPENT (more on that in a minute) but LOST through less-than-heroic action.

This negative penalty is the first example I can think of where behavior mechanics are truly enforced with an in-game penalty of play (losing a level due to “poor alignment play” notwithstanding as that is arbitrary and subject to DM adjudication). FOR EXAMPLE (and this is the big one right off the bat): if a player character kills anyone, for ANY reason, then the character LOSES ALL KARMA. That’s it…karma goes down to 0. It’s the biggest penalty of the game (committing crimes or being a tool in general will cause your karma to take a hit, but killing is the only thing that zeroes it out).

Can you imagine being confronted by this as a player recently arrived from a cutthroat D&D campaign? Of course, this is before Dark Horse comics and “heroes” like Dead Pool…hell, even before the ascendancy of Wolverine as a solo cash cow for Marvel (before Weapon X, in other words). I doubt that young comic readers, used to the regular death and dismemberment in, say, the Authority universe or the Ultimate Marvel imprint would, frankly, understand the big deal about killing. I didn’t LIKE the rule, but at least I UNDERSTOOD it.

So what’s the big deal about losing one’s Karma? Well, aside from the pool of points used to develop one’s character (increase ability scores, purchase new powers/skills, etc.), Karma as a pool could be spent to influence dice rolls. Does the fate of the free world (or Marvel universe) hinge on the outcome of a single dice roll? Spend some Karma to ensure a critical success. Did the Juggernaut just crush some New Mutant’s flimsy skull with a lucky shot? Spend some Karma to un-do the hit.

The end result is two-fold:

1) It allows PCs to do all that crazy stuff that makes them survive and succeed even when (apparently) out-classed by a mega-powered opponent. Squirrel Girl defeating Dr. Doom? Sure…with enough Karma expenditure.

2) This is more subtle, but equally present: it allows PLAYERS (not just game masters) to address premise, allowing them to make a statement about a story’s theme BASED ON THEIR EXPENDITURE OF KARMA TO INFLUENCE DICE ROLLS. Do you want the game to have bystanders be killed through wanton destruction and flagrant power use? Don’t spend karma to avoid it. Do you want to succeed in some areas of the story (to show what MATTERS, what is INTEGRAL to the plot) then spend Karma there. This is REAL narrative power in the PLAYER’S hands…much different from any RPG before it.

Of course, as a 12 year old, I didn’t get this. Instead I focused on “why can’t I kill this villain? He’s a total asshole!” And kill the villain I would. Hey, once you went to 0 karma who cares if you continue to kill people?

Well, my GM for one. Scott (of whom I've written before) instituted a NEGATIVE Karma penalty…continuing to kill would dig me deeper in the hole. Now, unfortunately, there were no real repercussions for having a negative Karma (except that it took that much more to advance into positive numbers) and so I was content to be a Karmic “dead beat.” It didn’t help that development in MSH is glacially slow (this is by design; characters in the comic universe don’t often change power levels and so HUGE amounts of Karma were necessary for even minute changes), so I had little for which to “save up” points.

In retrospect, negative Karma IS both logical and thematically appropriate (at least if you have any understanding of the real world metaphysical belief of Karma). Being a much wiser individual these days, I would certainly institute real and quite possibly severe consequences for individuals carrying a negative Karmic debt…possibly including losing your character as an NPC vigilante/villain with a warrant for your arrest!

I would also like to note that when I GM’d Marvel (this was one game where we rotated GMs fairly frequently) none of my players ever had a “negative Karma” problem. Either they were all more mature than me (quite possibly), understood the basic premise of Marvel better (also a good possibility), or learned from my mistakes (less likely as I faced no consequences besides ridicule for my negative Karma).

Anyway, Marvel Superheroes was certainly a step removed from its Old School predecessors due to its Karma meta-game mechanic. Its action table is little different from rolling a 20-sided dice on a Hit Chart (a la D&D); the elegant/innovative part is that the same color bar system was used for all tasks, resistance rolls, etc., including ability to purchase things (no need to track money in a bank account, simply make a Resource roll!). Chargen was definitely of the Old School variety (random dice rolls determine almost every aspect of the character). Definite objectives/expectations of game play are present (in the karma rewards table).

But it is the USE of that reward system that is Marvel’s true innovation.

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