I’ll be turning 40 this month, and I’ve been a gamer for 30 of those years. To commemorate that “achievement” I’m writing up my Personal Gaming History. Part 1 is my first experience with RPGs, in the form of TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes. Enjoy!
In the summer of 1989, the Kay-Bee Toys in Albany, Oregon had a discount bin filled with the most ridiculous looking comic books my nearly 10 year old eyes had ever seen. They were all shrink wrapped, for one. They loudly proclaimed MARVEL SUPER HEROES across the top, 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.
Except, Kay-Bee Toys wasn’t selling the box set, the one with the rules, which explained which dice to use and how to actually 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.
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 supervillians 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 induldged 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 posessed 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).
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.