Halfway Heroes – Session 1

The yellow box TSR Marvel Super Heroes Basic Set is my first love in role-playing games. TSR weaponized the game to appeal to young children via the three-color Universal Table on the back covers of the books. There is also a game for adults embedded in that box set. I have never played it to its full potential. Our Halfway Heroes game is an attempt to realize the potential of the yellow box set.

Asides from my intuitions about the potential of the game, Ron’s video Make Mine Marvel and the series of posts and discussion between Ron and James in A Remedy For Oppression are an influence on this game. James is the only player at the moment, but we hope to add more players so that we can explore the group Karma rules.

One of the first decisions I made during preparation for the game was to throw out Marvel canon. With few exceptions, this is how I have always played Marvel Super Heroes because I always found it more satisfying to build up our roster of heroes and villains in play. It freed us up to make our own stories instead of towing the party line concerning events in the Marvel Universe.

In addition to the Basic Set, we’re using Realms of Magic for the magic rules, including the suggested metaphysics and cosmology. I have also included some bits and pieces of setting and rules from the
Deluxe City Campaign Set and Nightmares of Future Past. We’ve made a few calls on how the magic system works — abandoning the text in the Campaign Book in favor of Realms of Magic. We’ve also made a few decisions on how villain Karma and Popularity function.

The premise of Halfway Heroes is that the characters served time in the supers section (cell block K) of Ryker’s Island. We started the game on the day that the character was released. The game is set in the modern day, starting on May 5th, 2022 (also the day of the first session).

The way I plan to run this game is to work through the calendar as characters deal with the issues of being a returning (super-) citizens, working with the Karma rules around fulfilling weekly commitments while they pursue their own goals. I am doing this to establish the the rhythm of the game and dig into the various issues and themes. We can shift the focus afterward as needed.

James is playing a magic wielder named The Huntsman (real name: Samuel Holt). He is an environmental  activist who turned militant. He was imprisoned for these militant activities.

The beginning of the session was an info dump on the overall Situation. I will spare the reader that part and instead introduce things as they come up in play.

The first scene has Samuel interacting with another returning citizen named Ramirez as they wait for the bus to take them off of Ryker’s Island.  Ramirez is a former meth cook who was serving in the non-super division of the prison. He was trying to do honest time and resisted affiliating with the prison gangs, causing him much grief. Ramirez signed onto the experimental Enhanced Rehabilitation program to gain a conditional release from prison. The conditions are that he will work for Damage Control (a company that cleans up the aftermath of super battles). He will also agree to wear a tracking and control collar. As part of the program, the prison granted him superpowers.

In contrast with the conditional release Ramirez obtained by volunteering to be a guinea pig, Samuel gained an early release by snitching on a Nazi ecoterrorist named Iron Cross. Samuel is now out on parole.

While waiting for the bus, Samuel shared a known hack with Ramirez for bypassing the collar for 15 minutes (based on a successful Reason FEAT roll). This act was Samuel’s first crime in the game, resulting in a reward of 15 Karma for “Committing Other Crimes”. Samuel started with zero Karma as Karma erodes in prison. In exchange for the tip, Ramirez agreed to mess with the hero who arrested Samuel if an opportunity arises. The hero in question is named The First Responder.

The next scene has Samuel drop by his parent’s place, where he will be staying. In that scene, Samuel also calls his ex-wife Deirdre to apologize for the trouble he has caused and get the information about the rented storage she maintained while he was in prison. The storage locker contains his magical gear and other personal belongings.

Later that night, Samuel will try to commit another crime — stealing back his gear from the storage locker. Samuel casts the Apparition spell to become immaterial so that he can pass through the walls of the storage building. I call for an Agility FEAT to sneak past security. James spends Karma on the roll and fails, losing 10 Karma points in the attempt. He bails on the job, so no crime is committed. A security camera recorded his ghostly form floating up to the third floor of the building without attempting to enter.

Samuel checks in with his parole officer, The Silver Shield. The Silver Shield is a medieval knight in polished armor who possesses a mirrored shield that can detect lies. Samuel makes the appropriate jokes (The Silver Shield has heard them all before). They set up a weekly appointment so that The Silver Shield can check in on Samuel.

In the next scene, Samuel applies for a job with Damage Control. They accept his application and inform him that he will need a hard hat and steel-toed boots.

Samuel then sets up to steal a hard hat from a Damage Control worksite.  He succeeds at an Intuition FEAT to find a current worksite. He found a site that was damaged in a battle between the superhero Bugmorph and his opponent, The Whispering Snipe. There is acid damage at the site as this is one of Bugmorph’s modes of attack.

Samuel successfully casts Illusion on the site workers to convince them that acid-spitting beetles are crawling out from the cracks. He follows up with the Fear spell to drive the workers from the site. The workers fail both Psyche FEATs and flee the site. Samuel steals a hard hat and a belt sander. He gains 10 Karma for “Commiting Theft”, putting his Karma total at 15.

Samuel then visits the storage locker to put it into his name and drop off the belt sander.

The Campaign Book suggests making a custom random encounter table for each character. Near the end of the session, I rolled on this table and determined that Samuel would be jacked up by the police. This is a
“random” stop and frisk by the police because they don’t like the look of Samuel. They engaged in a short dialogue with the typical questions. Samuel rolled a successful Popularity FEAT, getting the cops off of his

The last scene has Samuel buying a baseball bat and flowers for his mother. We calculate this to cost 1 Resource point, leaving him with 99 to spend.

Samuel intends to enchant the baseball bat. Before the next session, we’re going to have a look at the invention rules and put together a variation to cover enchanting.

The Huntsman/Samuel Holt started with zero Karma in this session and ended with 15. He also started with 100 Resource points and finished with 99.

7 responses to “Halfway Heroes – Session 1”

  1. We’re Not So Different, You and I…

    Everyone familiar with this game talks about, "Hey, you know, we could totally play this as super villains…" and then (so far as I can tell) never do that.  For the last twenty years I''ve casually paid attention to threads discussing actual play, and I don't think I have ever seen a "we played villains" post.

    Supervillainy is not just theoretically possible: it's easy and fun, and you ought to try it.

    The Huntsman is your standard Daredevil / Luke Cage type of street-level villain, but one with ruthless ambition.  

    From the character sheet attached to the post: "Sam Holt is trying to save hundreds of millions of lives at risk from climate change.  He’s concluded that this goal cannot be accomplished through legal action or conventional politics, forcing him to put on a spandex costume and blow stuff up with magic spells. If that makes him a supervillain, he doesn’t care. . . . . [The Huntsman] has three big problems: (1) he has to rebuild his life as Sam Holt. His wife divorced him and moved on; he can’t get an apartment or a real job. (2) Iron Cross’s Nazis are looking for him [after he sold them out]. (3) The Huntsman’s mission [to save billions of lives] isn’t over yet, he’s under constant surveillance, and he simply doesn’t have the power to do what needs to be done."

    The Huntsman is also almost unique in my history as a player: during character generation a lot of things connected and I suddenly saw everything about this guy.  Typically when I play, I'm discovering the character as I go along; this is an instance where I want to channel someone.  We'll have to see whether that's good, bad, or neutral in actual play!

    Regarding the first session: I came in really hot.  This is a protagonist with an agenda, unafraid of conflicts fought on his terms, and he's utterly driven and ruthless.  (He's also, sort of in spite of himself, a vulnerable dumbass.)  David's playing the world pretty even-handed.  The setting doesn't know what trouble it's in yet, and so hasn't begun to push back.  But it will, and I've got to set up for that.

  2. Hero or villain?

    Oh fantastic! This really comes at a perfect time! I started to dive head first into Marvel Superheroes myself and have started to translate parts of it to swedish to set up and hopefully play it in a Stockholm that never was in a 1990 that could have been. The setup you've described almost mirrors the one I've started to tinker with so looking forward to see what happens!

    As a question, what changes did you implement to karma and popularity? When looking at the list for karma awards through the lense of a villain they are a bit more flexible than I first thought. Like "plan and perform/stop a destructive crime" for example is straight up there with blowing up stuff for the good of mankind. 

    • The changes are pretty minor

      The changes are pretty minor (they are more clarifications than anything). For example, a negative Popularity score can be used to inspire fear in people (this is a rule from Revised edition).

      For villains, the wording of Karma rewards like "Stop Theft" becomes "Commit Theft". I made my own table that lists the values for villains. Some values have two levels, denoted by a slash (for example: "Commit Theft 10/5"). The first reward for villains is if they committed the crime themselves. The second reward is if they had a henchperson do it for them.

      We also made a call about the maximum amount of Karma that a villain can spend on rolls. The book states that GM controlled characters can spend a maximum of 20 karma on rolls. So we have interpreted that to really mean GM controlled characters and *not* player character controlled supervillains. 


    • It is almost disturbing and

      It is almost disturbing and certainly delightful that the more I played Marvel Super Heroes, the more it seemed to me that playing the villains was not only possible, but more ethically and socially coherent than playing heroes … using exactly the rules I was looking at, with no tweaking or adjustments at all.

    • As we’re seeing in the first

      As we're seeing in the first session, villain play is very pro-active. They make things happen in the world as opposed to waiting for things so that they can react to them.

      I totally agree about being more socially and ethically coherent. The two page "A Word from the Bad Guys" section in the Campaign Book does a really great job of communicating what supervillains are and how to play them. They are everything superheroes are plus the extra stuff in this section.

      This is the formula they lay out: commit crimes with pinache, gather henchmen, plunder stuff, put heroes in deathtraps, and gloat. If they get too big, the Maggia will come knocking on their door. They also lose twice the Karma for being bad at life. There is so much potential packed into those two pages.

      In the bigger picture, villains seek to be understood and appreciated, and it is only superheroes who can fully do this. It actually makes the superheroes seem rather hollow in some sense, if they are just there to become a captive audience for the supervillains to explain their brilliant plans. 

    • My experience with play is

      My experience with play is that eventually chosing sides, hero or villain, isn't really the joice of supers play. I mean you can play with all aspects of morality and ethics if you wish, and that can be interesting in itself. But relying on the tropes of Hero/Anti-Hero/Villain became tiresome and I do not enjoy them as much anymore. 

      But the MSH system handles a wide range of play and I am a bit surprised it did not end up as the basis of more games. 

    • The written Karma rules refer

      The written Karma rules refer to "villains" (rather than GM-controlled characters) and explicitly state that villains can only spend 20 Karma at a time, except in very limited circumstances.  This is a huge limitation, since it means there's a decent chance of failure on the really important rolls.  This presumably models the source fiction, where heroes generally have enough pluck and determination to rally at the last minute and thwart the bad guy.  (Luckily for me, David reversed this rule–which is probably appropriate for a villain-centered game.)

      Villainous Karma is also affected by how hard it is to plan and pull off a crime.  When I was running MSH a year ago, several villains kept *trying* to commit crimes, but the time scale to build enabling inventions, put gangs together, and so on, made super-crime a "sometimes" thing for special occasions.  (I suppose that as a GM I could have declared those enabling events "just happened," but it's a luxury I certainly don't have on the player's side of the screen.)  So a lot of Karma gains are going to be small, built from ordinary life events, rather than crime sprees.

      Making it worse, the Huntsman uses magic, and for magic-users Karma losses are doubled for "foolish or cowardly" acts. 

      All of that adds up to spending the stuff as soon as you get it, and maybe committing a lot of little crimes along the way to keep yourself afloat. 

      It's hard out there for a super villain!

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