The summer and fall of 1989 was my big introduction into the world of geekdom. I was ten, I had overcome the stigma of being the slow kid in school (ah, dyslexia!), and I had pocket money. Batman was the big blockbuster, dominating toys among my friends. My family rented a Nintendo Entertainment System with Zelda II right before school finished, along with some movie called The Princess Bride. I started reading old reprints of Spider-Man comics from the 70s, the first comics I paid for myself (Marvel Tales Featuring Spider-Man). And the local Kay-Bee-Toys in nearby Albany, Oregon put all their overstock of Marvel Super Heroes on sale for a buck each.
It was a discount bin filled with what I thought were the most ridiculous looking comic books I had ever seen. They were all shrink wrapped, and featured only a small window of art. It wasn’t until I picked one up, some issue called “Judge’s Screen” that I realized they weren’t comics at all. It was some sort of game, played with dice, where you pretended to be a superhero like Spider-Man, or one of the Fantastic Four. And they were only a buck a piece! My brother, a few years older than me, pooled his money with mine and we walked out of the store the proud owners of 6 different modules of Marvel Super Heroes. My first RPG.
What Is Role-Playing?
I didn’t know what Marvel Super Heroes was supposed to be. Was it a game? Well, it’s a role-playing game, whatever that meant. It didn’t have a box, or a board, so it couldn’t be a regular game like Sorry! It did have tri-fold paper miniatures, of all the top heroes and villains in the Marvel Universe, so it had playing pieces. Did it need nice? This thing called the Judge’s Screen is talking about column shifts and karma and percentile dice; did I need 100 dice? We had multiple copies of Sorry! and Monopoly in the closet, I guess I could raid those. And look! It does have a board, or at least some maps! One of New York, one of the Baxter Building, and here’s one of the X-Men’s Danger Room! For a dollar each I could go to town on this Marvel Super Heroes game!
Well, as it turns out, Marvel Super Heroes did have a box, except Kay-Bee Toys wasn’t selling the box set, the one with the rules, which explained which dice to use and how to play a role-playing game. Or, at least we never saw one for sale, going back time and again throughout the summer to see if anything new would show up in the discount bin. The closest thing we got to actual rules, besides hints in the modules themselves, was the Judge’s Screen. The Judge’s Screen wasn’t helpful for two kids who’d never even heard of an RPG before; we didn’t get a NES until that Christmas, and the first home computer aside from a Colecovision ADAM wouldn’t show up in my childhood until 1990. So not even CRPGs were a thing in my world. There was a color coded table that we glanced at and rarely used again. How do I get these numbers with the two dice we took out of Monopoly? Do we add them to the numbers next to Mr. Fantastic? There was another table that told us how expensive handguns were in Marvel’s New York. And there was the Manhattan map, which we used every time we tried to play.
Even though I say Marvel Super Heroes was my first Role-Playing Game, that’s only true from a certain point of view. My brother and I never saw a copy of the rules at any point in our childhood. As much as I saw ads and books for Dungeons & Dragons and some of TSR’s other games — Buck Rogers XXVc and the Forgotten Realms Box Set stick out in my mind — I didn’t understand what any of that meant. Dungeons & Dragons was a cartoon I liked until I was told it was super Satanic and my soul would be dragged to hell from watching it, just like Masters of the Universe and Smurfs. In fact, spoiler for the end of this story, my brother and I were told our Marvel Super Heroes collection was lost in the move to the Oregon Coast in October of 1989, but later my folks came clean about throwing it out. Something about the word karma in the modules, and the link that I didn’t know to D&D. And don’t worry; it might seem like I had one of those ridiculously conservative upbringings that stifled so many childhoods in the 80s and 90s, but my parents really mellowed out. Right when I went off to college. So, not a huge amount of lasting harm, since I’m still a dice-rolling freak (they also paid back the cost of all the “evil” music, magazines and games they could find and take away during those teenage years).
With Great Rules Comes Great Responsibility
The real rules for Marvel Super Heroes are simple; each character (Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Mr. Fantastic) has a number value associated with an attribute, of which there’s seven. There’s the fun acronym FASERIP to help you remember: Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche. The first four are straightforward. Like almost all RPGs since the beginning of time (ie, 1974), no one really knew what to do with mental attributes or what to call them or how they should work in game. Psyche’s willpower and magic. Reason is puzzle-solving and using computers. Intuition is instinct and paying attention, something I don’t think really fit together for most Marvel superheroes of the Bronze Age. These all had a number value from 0-100 (roughly) and a descriptor of how well you were at that attribute: Typical, Amazing, Incredible, and so on.
There were superpowers that could modify what each character could do (spin a web any size, phase through walls, stretch), and Talents that would let you roll on a higher descriptor. So Hawkeye’s Agility is Incredible, but when he uses his bow, it’s Amazing. You could also roll on a higher or lower column if the Judge — the fancy term used for Game Master — decided the task was easy or difficult for the character. The results of the percentile dice (d100, or two ten-sided dice rolled together, with one being tens and the other ones) would be compared to the column, with any number range in white being a failure, and green, yellow and red being more impressive successes. Very similar to the Combat Resolution Tables of hex and chit wargames from the 60s on.
But we knew none of that. Nor did any of our friends, who we forced to play with us, this monster of a game with no rules. We treated the modules like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, taking turns reading the boxed text, setting up the paper figures and maps, and then using our shitty house rules. Are they really house rules if you don’t have any other rules to use?
One of the modules was the Adventure Fold-Up Figures, so that was a nice bonus. Minis and maps, the two least required things needed for an RPG, but we had them. There was the Weapons Locker supplement, giving us more guns and battlesuits that we didn’t know how to use. Then there were the three adventures; Murderworld!, The Breeder Bombs, and Thunder Over Jotunheim.
I “played” Thunder Over Jotunheim a few times, a solo adventure featuring Thor. It’s gimmick was a Magic Viewer, a transparent red bit of plastic that would reveal hidden information in the module. This is where I invented my first set of house rules; when it combat, roll 2 six-sided dice. Doubles means Thor succeeds. Anything else and the supervillains succeed. Compare their Fighting Numbers to see what happens. It’s not a clever rule, or balanced, or much fun if I remember correctly. But it made it possible to complete the module. Each time I played, I picked a different gift from the beginning, and tried to take new paths each time. Mostly I tried to avoid fights. Thor the Sneaky Ninja.
Murderworld! my brother and I played once, and then tried to get some neighborhood kids to play with us. Our rules had adapted; roll 2 six-sided dice, add to one of your stats, describe what you are doing. It was a pretty freeform system, little better than whatever unspoken rules kids used for GI JOE or Star Wars action figure battles. Sometimes we’d look at the Judge’s Screen as if that was granting us secret information while playing. Our friends indulged us for one hour, then we all went to ride bikes on railroad tracks or whatever kids did with self transportation and little supervision.
Murderworld! was hard. Murderworld! used the Fantastic Four, only with She-Hulk in place of the Thing. Now I understand that it was supposed to take place post-Secret Wars, but all my comics at this point were 70s back issues of Secret Society of Super-Villians and Captain America and the Falcon. I had a Kang Secret Wars action figure and that was the sum knowledge I possessed of one of Marvel’s major events. The biggest challenge, besides our rules not working very well, was the trap rooms once you get inside Arcade’s stupid Murderworld. Each room is designed to absolutely lock down whatever hero is inside, and you could either brute force (possible only with She-Hulk, really) or luck into what the module believed to be the obvious course of action.
The Breeder Bombs was little better for us. Neither of us were X-Men fans; it really did require more buy-in, and players, than Murderworld!. We spent most of our time goofing off in the Danger Room, or just freeform exploring the maps and locations in the module. After the sit-and-read debacle of Murderworld! we decided to pick and choose what to use out of the 16 pages of material. My memory is really fuzzy on this one. I remember a Wolverine robot, and a fight against the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I had to look at Wikipedia to jog my mind over what the Breeder Bombs were (I had no recollection).
Powered By Your Imagination
Honestly the most play we got out of Marvel Super Heroes was using the fold-up figures and maps. It was our GI JOE adventures, with superheroes and a more defined map than just describing the carpet as lava. But by the fall of 1989 we were moving across the state, the Marvel Super Heroes booklets and fold-ups were all put into a shoebox and never seen again. For all I mock the ‘What is a Role Playing Game?’ introductions in books now, I really wished anything like that was included in the old modules.
Or that Kay-Bee sold the basic box set.