The 1980s Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game is a wonderfully fun and eccentric game that can lend itself to wild and memorable superpowered action. It’s also a relic of its time, combining some strangely forward-thinking ideas with backward and unnecessary slog that doesn’t belong and is often just nonsensical.
I’ve been using the system to run games of various types for over almost fifteen years now, and I’ve gradually buffed out some of the more awkward or needless bits while incorporating aspects from other game systems that I think fit well and make the game more fun. I’ll try my best to summarize the basics of the system as I run it today.
Every character in the Marvel system has seven core attributes that affect various aspects of their competence and define their strengths and weaknesses. Those abilities, and the actions they affect, are:
Fighting: your character’s skill in close-up combat, whether that’s through training, instinct, or some combination thereof. You use Fighting when you want to land a melee blow, regardless of whether you’re armed or unarmed. You also use it to take the Evade reaction, which involves you giving up your combat turn and focusing on avoiding incoming attacks while setting up your opponents for counterattacks.
Agility: your character’s balance, flexibility, reflexes, and coordination. You use Agility to score a hit with a ranged weapon, whether you’re using a gun, a bow and arrow, or a thrown weapon like a shuriken or a rock. You also use it to take the Dodge reaction, where you attempt to give your opponent a penalty to their attack roll, which could cause their attack to be less effective or to miss altogether.
Strength: your character’s pure, physical might. You use Strength to determine how much damage you deal with melee attacks, as well as how much you can lift. You also use Strength to take the Grapple action, in which you attempt to get an opponent in a hold, keeping them still and inflicting damage. In addition, Strength is used for the Block reaction, where you attempt to give yourself temporary protection from an incoming attack, lowering or outright eliminating the damage you take.
Endurance: your character’s stamina, constitution, and healthiness. If you have room enough for a running start, you can use Endurance to make Charge attacks, which deals damage to an opponent based on your Endurance. You will also use Endurance to resist various negative effects, such as being knocked backwards, being stunned, being knocked out, or dying.
Reason: your character’s intelligence, knowledge, and memory. Reason is most often used to create or alter machinery, but you can also use Reason to recall certain facts, figure out a puzzle, or perform challenging acts of intellect.
Intuition: your character’s awareness about their surroundings, as well as about other people. Intuition is most commonly used to determine your character’s initiative bonus, allowing you to act earlier in combat, although it’s also used to notice potentially important things in your environment.
Psyche: your character’s willpower and connection to the mystical. Characters who use magic use Psyche to cast their spells, although all characters can use Psyche to resist intimidation or psychic influence. Psyche is often a stand-in for your character’s charisma and ability to influence people through force of personality alone.
Ability Scores and Ranks
Almost every ability that a character has will have a number, or score, associated with it. This applies both to the core attributes above (Strength, Reason, etc), as well as to superpowers that are rare or unique to characters (Super-Speed, Flight, Energy Projection, etc). A higher score represents an ability with a greater degree of power, effectiveness, and reliability. The scale goes from 1 to 100, with an average human’s attributes probably falling somewhere around 5 to 7, to give you an idea of how insanely high this scale can get (we are dealing with superhumans, after all). It is possible to go beyond 100 on this scale, even up to the thousands, but such high scores are typically reserved for beings of world-shaking cosmic power.
An ability will be further categorized by a rank. Ranks represent a certain range of ability scores; therefore, your ability ranks will be determined by your ability scores. A rank is a descriptive word giving an idea of how powerful the ability actually is. For example, if you have an Agility of 6, your Agility rank is Typical, but if you have an Intuition rank of 40, your Intuition rank is Incredible. The scale is as follows:
Ability Score Ability Rank
Again, there are ranks above Unearthly, but they are reserved for unusually powerful characters.
Health and Karma
The seven core attributes help to determine two secondary attributes: Health and Karma.
Health is pretty easy to understand, particularly for anyone who’s tried role-playing or video games before. Health is an abstract concept representing your character’s ability to stay on their feet and keep fighting. Attacks on your character, if they hit, will reduce your character’s Health—when your character runs out of Health, they are incapacitated and may be in danger of dying. Your Health is equal to the sum of your Fighting, Agility, Strength, and Endurance scores.
Karma is a more unique aspect of the Marvel system. It represents a combination of luck, personal conviction, and the hand of fate, and how much those elements are in your character’s favor. Characters receive Karma periodically through a game when they accomplish significant tasks (similar to how experience points are distributed in other game systems), but your starting Karma is equal to the sum of your Reason, Intuition, and Psyche scores.
When a character receives Karma, they can choose to put it either into their Karma Pool, or into their Advancement Fund. Once Karma has been put into one of those two categories, it becomes locked in there until spent—you can’t move Karma from your Pool to your Advancement, for example.
Karma in your Pool can be spent to improve your dice rolls. Before you make a roll, you have the option of declaring that you’re going to spend Karma on the roll. Making this declaration locks you in to spending at least 10 Karma on the roll, so if you end up with a naturally good roll, that 10 Karma may be wasted—that’s the risk you take. Then, after you make the roll, you can choose to spend as much of your Karma as you’d like (at least 10) to improve your roll by the same amount (so if your dice roll came up 32 and you decided to spend 18 Karma, you would get a +18 to your roll result, bringing it up to 50). This allows you to decide which rolls you really value and helps give your character the extra “oomph” they need to get it done.
Karma in your Advancement Fund can be spent in between sessions to improve your character, either by improving their existing attributes or powers, or by unlocking new abilities or equipment. I as the GM provide my players with a list of Advancement options so that they can make informed decisions about how to distribute their Karma.
The Universal Table and Resolution System
Alright, here’s where we get into some of the nitty-gritty of running this bad boy. I’ll try to keep things breezy, but forgive me if I delve into the weeds a bit on this.
A quick image search for “Marvel Universal Table” will show something that looks a bit like a color-coded periodic table of elements. This is the Universal table, and it’s what we use to determine success and failure in the system.
Looking at the main table, we can see the ability ranks running in a row across the top, while numbers from 01 to 100 run down the column on the left. This table provides the resolution mechanic for the Marvel system: when you want to attempt something, simply take a d100 (a one hundred-sided die) and roll. Find your result on the numbered column on the left, then cross-reference it with the ability or power you’re checking along the top. The spot where the rows and columns cross will give you a color: White, Green, Yellow, or Red. This shows you how successful your attempt was.
In general, a White result indicates a failure. A Green result usually indicates a minimal or marginal success, although with certain difficult tasks, a Green can indicate a failure instead. A Yellow usually indicates a solid success, while a Red result represents an overwhelming success.
Above the table itself is a row of common actions that a character can take. This area shows what sort of result will come from rolling a White, Green, Yellow, or Red result on this action. In short, the actions (and their possible results) are:
Blunt Attacks (BA): Any attack that one character makes using a blunt weapon like a fist, foot, club, hammer, or staff. Blunt Attack rolls use Fighting. A White result means the attack misses; a Green result means the attack hits and damage is inflicted; a Yellow result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Slam (below); a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Stun (below).
Edged Attacks (EA): Any attack that one character makes using an edged weapon like a sword, spear, or claws. Edged Attack rolls use Fighting. A White result means the attack misses; a Green result means the attack hits and damage is inflicted; a Yellow result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Stun (below); a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Kill (below).
Shooting (Sh): Any attack that one character makes using a ranged, non-thrown weapon, like a bow and arrow or a gun. Shooting rolls use Agility. A White result means the attack misses; a Green result means the attack hits and damage is inflicted; a Yellow result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the attacker can dictate exactly where the attack hits (which may result in additional complications); a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Kill (below).
Throwing Edged (TE): Any attack that one character makes using a thrown edged weapon like a knife or a shuriken. Throwing Edged rolls use Agility. A White result means the attack misses; a Green result means the attack hits and damage is inflicted; a Yellow result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Stun (below); a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Kill (below).
Throwing Blunt (TB): Any attack that one character makes using a thrown blunt weapon like a rock or a thrown car. Throwing Blunt rolls use Agility. A White result means the attack misses; a Green or Yellow result means the attack hits and damage is inflicted; a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Stun (below).
Energy (En): Any attack that one character makes using non-kinetic energy like fire, cold, or electricity. Energy attacks often use Agility, but if the attack is power-based, sometimes they will use the ability rank associated with the power itself. A White result means the attack misses; a Green result means the attack hits and damage is inflicted; a Yellow result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the attacker can dictate exactly where the attack hits (which may result in additional complications); a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Kill (below).
Force (Fo): Any attack that uses energy designed to deliver direct physical force, like a telekinetic shove. Force attacks often use Agility, but if the attack is power-based, sometimes they will use the ability rank associated with the power itself. A White result means the attack misses; a Green result means the attack hits and damage is inflicted; a Yellow result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the attacker can dictate exactly where the attack hits (which may result in additional complications); a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Stun (below).
Grappling (Gp): A maneuver where an attacker attempts to grab or hold an opponent as a way of hindering their movement. Grappling rolls use Strength. A White or Green result means the attack misses; a Yellow result means the attacker has gotten a partial hold (such as an arm or a leg) and the target will take a -2 CS penalty to their actions while held in this way (see below for an explanation of modifiers); a Red result means the attacker has gotten a full hold—the target is completely restrained and may only attempt to escape the grapple (unless they have a power that they can use without moving physically), and the attacker can automatically inflict Strength-based damage to the target every turn.
Grabbing (Gb): A maneuver designed to take something that another person is holding, like a weapon or a plot-important MacGuffin. Grabbing rolls use Strength. A White result means the maneuver misses; a Green result means that the attacker manages to get control of the item if the attacker’s Strength is greater than or equal to the Strength of the person in control of the item; a Yellow result means that the attacker gains control of the item regardless of the respective Strength scores of the two characters; and a Red result has the same effects as a Yellow result, but another roll has to be made based on the material strength of the contested item—on a White result, the item breaks.
Escaping (Es): A maneuver used when attempting to break free of an enemy grapple (see above). Escaping usually uses Strength, but I will usually allow players to use Agility instead if they prefer. A White or Green result means that the character remains grappled; a Yellow result means that the character has escaped the grapple; and a Red result means that the character has actually reversed the hold and is now grappling their opponent.
Charging (Ch): An attack in which a character runs at a target and uses their weight and momentum to deal damage. This requires enough space to get a running start, usually about 15 feet or so. Charging rolls use Endurance. A White result means the attack misses; a Green result means the attack hits and the attacker deals damage to the target equal to their Endurance; a Yellow result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Slam (below); a Red result means the attack hits, damage is inflicted, and the target has to roll for Stun (below).
Dodging (Do): This is a reaction that a character makes in an attempt to remove themselves from the path of an incoming attack by applying a penalty to that attack, potentially weakening the attack, if not avoiding it altogether. Dodging rolls use Agility. On a White, the character fails to dodge and the incoming attack is resolved normally; on a Green, a -2 CS penalty is assigned to the incoming attack; on a Yellow, the penalty is -4 CS; on a Red, the penalty is -6 CS (see below for an explanation of modifiers).
Evading (Ev): This is an action in which a character devotes the entirety of their focus to avoiding incoming attacks, with the hope of also setting up the attacker for a stronger counterattack. When the evasion action is taken, the character can do nothing else that round and nothing is rolled immediately; the rolls only apply when there’s an actual incoming attack that the character will be attempting to avoid. Evading rolls use Fighting. On a White, the character accidentally jumps into the incoming attack and the attack resolves normally; on a Green, the character manages to completely avoid the attack; on a Yellow, the character avoids the attack and their next action against the attacking character will receive a +1 CS bonus; on a Red, the character avoids the attack and their next action against the attacking character will receive a +2 CS bonus.
Blocking (Bl): A reaction where a character attempts to meet the incoming force of an attack with their own physical might in an effort to reduce or negate the attack’s damage. Blocking rolls use Strength. On a White, the character reduces the damage of the attack by an amount equal to their Strength -6 CS; on a Green, the damage is reduced by the character’s Strength -4 CS; on a Yellow, the damage is reduced by the character’s Strength -2 CS; on a Red, the damage is reduced by the character’s Strength +1 CS.
Catching (Ca): This can be either an action or a reaction, depending on the circumstances, and it allows a character to catch a falling item or person. It can also be used to catch objects that are thrown or launched at the character. Catching rolls use Agility. On a White, the character is hit by the object they were trying to catch and takes damage appropriately based on the mass and speed of the object; on a Green, the character doesn’t catch the object; on a Yellow, the character catches the object but damages it in some way; on a Red, the character catches the object with no ill effects.
Stun? (St): Many attacks and effects have the potential to stun their target. Rolls checking for Stun use Endurance. On a White or a Green, the character is stunned for one round; on a Yellow or a Red, the character is not stunned. (Note: in the original Marvel system, a White result meant that the character was stunned for 1d10 rounds, but in practice I found this to be much too punishing, especially when this happened to player characters—turns out, having to sit out of a fight for ten rounds isn’t the most fun mechanic.)
Slam? (Sl): Many attacks and effects have the potential to slam their target. Rolls checking for Slam use Endurance. On a White result, the character has been “grand slammed,” and flies back a great distance—usually a number of areas equal to the tens digit of the damage of the incoming attack (minimum of 1); on a Green result, the character is slammed backwards one area; on a Yellow result, the character is staggered—they don’t technically move anywhere, but they are momentarily knocked off balance and, depending on the circumstances, could stumble into something nearby or drop something they’re holding; on a Red result, the character isn’t slammed.
Kill? (Ki): Many attacks and effects have the potential to instantly reduce their target to 0 Health. Despite the name, this result won’t necessarily instantly kill the subject—often the attack will only knock out or otherwise incapacitate them. Rolls for checking for Kill use Endurance. On a White, the character is reduced to 0 Health; on a Green, the character is reduced to 0 Health if the triggering attacked used an edged weapon or an energy attack—there is no effect otherwise; on a Yellow or Red, the character isn’t taken out.
Once a character is reduced to 0 Health, they are unconscious and begin to die. Every round on their turn, the character must make an Endurance check—on a White, their Endurance drops by 1 rank. Once it drops below Feeble rank, the character dies. On a Green or Yellow, the character doesn’t lose any Endurance this round, but they don’t stabilize either and must continue making Endurance checks as long as they remain unconscious. On a Red, the character stabilizes—they are still unconscious, but no longer lose Endurance.
Often, circumstances will alter the probability of success of an action. When an action has a greater than usual chance of success—maybe a character is trying to strike an enemy from stealth, or is trying to upgrade a weapon using exceptional materials, or has a Talent for the action they’re attempting—the GM may decree that the character’s check will receive a bonus. Conversely, when an action has a lower than usual chance of success—maybe a blinded character is trying to strike an enemy, or a character is trying to perform a medical procedure with substandard tools—the GM may decree that the character’s check will receive a penalty.
Bonuses will be referred to as “+X CS,” where X is a number (usually between +1 and +4, +1 representing a slight advantage, and +4 representing a huge advantage). “CS” in this case stands for “column shift”—it represents you moving to the right on the Universal Table. Let’s say that your character has Good Fighting and is trying to strike an unaware foe. Under normal circumstances, you would roll your d100 and cross-reference your result on the Good column of the Universal Table. However, because your opponent is unaware, the GM gives you a +2 CS bonus to your roll, meaning you would shift two columns to the right. Instead of rolling on Good for this attack, you’re now rolling on Remarkable.
Similarly, penalties will be referred to as “-X CS,” and represent you moving to the left on the Universal Table. If your character with Good Fighting was instead trying to attack an opponent using an awkward, improvised weapon, the GM might give you a -1 CS penalty on the attack, meaning you’d be rolling on the Typical column instead of the Good column.
The original Marvel Superheroes RPG had many pages of powers to choose from, many of which were taken from preexisting Marvel characters. Extraordinary League, however, has many more characters to consider. While Marvel can establish a hard and fast rule for the way all force fields work in their universe, it’s clear that the force fields we see in Star Wars behave differently from those in Star Trek. As a result, many powers have to be developed during character creation on a case-by-case basis to ensure that they remain consistent with their original appearance without totally unbalancing the game. When I publish my notes for League games here, I’ll try to give a brief explanation as to what the powers listed under NPC stat blocks do and how they work.
The original Marvel RPG gave characters access to Talents, which were combinations of skills, training, and small perks granted by backgrounds. However, the benefits they granted a character were highly inconsistent, the naming convention for many of them (particularly the martial arts talents) were entirely unhelpful and unintuitive, and there were a number of Talents that one would expect to find but were absent (no Stealth Talent? Really?).
As a result, I’ve completely overhauled the Talent system for Extraordinary League. I’ve liberally ripped off the skill list from the 3rd edition of the superhero RPG Mutants and Masterminds, then added in a number of talents which give bonuses to certain combat actions, such as dodging or shooting.
Talents in my version of this system are very simple: Talents will be listed with a number, usually 1, although occasionally a particularly skilled character will have a 2 or 3. Each Talent is associated with a narrow subset of actions—for example, the Athletics talent deals with climbing, jumping, running, and swimming, while the Deception talent deals with disguising, lying, or tricking. When a character performs an action and they have a Talent associated with that action, they receive a column shift bonus equal to the number next to that Talent. So if a character has Sleight of Hand 2 as a Talent, they will receive a +2 CS to any checks related to picking pockets, concealing small objects, or other acts involving using manual dexterity to misdirect others.
Alright, that’s my version of the Marvel system in a nutshell. I’ve tried to walk the line between being concise and being clear, so if I’ve left you more confused than when you came in, I’m happy as always to answer any questions you might have.
Now that you hopefully have at least some level of understanding about how I run this system, feel free to move on to the notes associated with specific episodes of Extraordinary League, starting with episode 1: Escape from Phyrexia.