For today’s #ThrowbackThursday I’m taking a look back at a classic review of the Marvel Super Heroes “Yellow Box” from TSR.
This review was originally published on July 3rd 2011 after I dusted off my copy of TSR Marvel and ran a game for some of my friends.
Below you will find my original review, with only very minor editing. I’m trying to keep the feel and tone of the original post. I will, at times, insert comments or corrections, and you will find these in [square brackets]. After the original post, you can find my current thoughts on the game reviewed.
Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. As an associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Why This Game?
If you haven’t heard, G+ is going away. Along with all of the content that was published there. I was a beta tester for G+ and one of the first gamers on there. Due to that, I have a lot of content that I’ve posted there which is going to vanish into the ether when G+ is gone. I thought it would be worth trying to save some of that content, like this review.
The Original Review
For our third Single Session Sunday I decided to dust off my copy of Marvel Super Heroes by TSR. This yellow box is filled with memories for me. While most gamers I know started with a Red Box with a couple of Ds on the cover, my first role playing game was Marvel Super Heroes. I still remember ‘sneaking’ the box down from my Dad’s collection and expecting to find something ‘adult’ and hard to understand.
This was followed by shock and awe ten minutes later after I finished reading the very short battle book.
My cousin took the pregenerated character cards for Spider-man, Captain Marvel, The Thing, and Captain America and I got to be the Judge [this games term for Games Master] and tried to run the sample adventure included: [Day of the Octopus]. We were both hooked for life.
The “Yellow Box” was the first edition of Marvel roleplaying and came in the typical boxed set size of the time. It included three books, a fold out map, a sheet of character cards and some square chits representing various heroes, villains and objects like cars and crowds. [It was followed up by a second boxed set, the Advanced Set and many many modules and splatbooks].
The Battle Book
The first book you will find in this boxed set is the Battle Book. This contains the core rules of Marvel Super Heroes. It’s a whopping 16 pages long and contains all of the rules you need to play and fight out classic comic book battles. There is a 1 page intro followed by “What Is a Hero?” This section explains the FASERIP system. Each hero is defined by 7 main stats: Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition and Psyche. There are also two variable abilities that can change over time: Karma and Health.
Along with these stats all heroes have powers and talents. Powers are your super powers and talents are like skills in most traditional RPGs. Each stat and power is given a rating. These ratings are descriptive terms that also have a numerical value. The range is Feeble, Poor, Typical, Good, Excellent, Remarkable, Incredible, Amazing, Monstrous, Unearthly and Class 1000.
The next section of the Battle Book talks about FEATs. These are “A Function of Exceptional Ability or Talent”. FEAT rolls are the main mechanic for Marvel Super Heroes. To make a FEAT roll you find the appropriate stat or power’s value on The Universal Table and cross reference this with a D100 roll. The Universal Table has 4 colours on it, white, green, yellow and red. Generally a result other then white means that your character succeeds on their attempted FEAT. Yellow and red results usually only matter in combat. In addition, the Judge has the option to use the colours for degrees of success or to make a FEAT roll more difficult (requiring a yellow or red result for success). Players have the option to spend Karma to affect their die roll. The choice to spend Karma must be done before the roll and some Karma is spent even if the roll would have passed anyway. The last part of the FEAT section talks about objects which have the same ratings as stats and powers. For example Concrete is an Excellent strength material.
Page 9 starts off with the Movement rules. Movement in Marvel Super Heroes is done somewhat tactically. [The default assumption is that] cardboard chits or miniatures are moved on a map that is divided up into areas. Where Marvel differs from most tactical based movement is that the areas are not a uniform grid. One area could be an entire park while a small building could be broken up into 4 areas. This makes for a good mix of abstract and tactical movement. Character speed is determined by their Endurance Stat or some movement based powers. [I thought it was interesting that there are no “Theater of the Mind” style rules. The game expects you to use chits and a map for all encounters].
The final, and biggest section of the Battle Book is “It’s Clobberin’ Time!” This is the combat section and has the most detail. Marvel uses a system where players describe what they want to do before rolling initiative. You don’t see that much now a days but it works in this simple system. Once intentions are declared a simple initiative roll is used, 1D10 for each team (good guys and bad guys).
All of one side both moves and attacks before the next side. There are 6 vague combat options available to all characters. Slugfest is used for general hand to hand combat. Hack and Slash is used for melee combat with sharp objects. Shooting and Throwing is used for well shooting and throwing. Dodging lets a character give up their attack to make them harder to hit. Grappling is used for all wresting and pinning type moves [yes there was a game with actual grappling rules that worked in the 80s]. Lastly Charging is used for trying to run through or into an opponent.
Each type of combat move is a FEAT check on an appropriate power or stat. Yellow and Red results have additional effects defending on the attack type. For example, in a Slugfest a yellow result can knock your target flying. In a Slam damage is done based on Strength or weapon damage and is taken off of Endurance. In general all combat is non-deadly but Shooting Guns and using blades have a chance to kill on a Red (which is why most heroes don’t use swords or guns).
The remainder of the chapter includes rules for pulling punches, hitting multiple targets, weapons, body armour, grabbing objects and other special combat tricks. There’s a very quick example combat between Spider-man and Captain America to show off the rules. The last page tells you how you can use the included module with just these rules.
The Campaign Book
The next book is the Campaign Book. This has a lot more substance to it and comes in at 48 pages. This book contains the rules for running the game as more then a series of battles between established heroes. It starts off by diving into detail on the FASERIP stats, giving examples of each power level. The secondary stats are expanded upon and two new ones are added Resources and Popularity. Resources let you buy things and popularity shows how the general public and other NPCs react to your heroes.
A section on Magic follows the expanded stat rules. These are pretty odd and include rules for various power sources like Dimensional Energies or Personal Energies. [There was a rules supplement released later called Realms of Magic that really deep dived magic in the Marvel Universe and included much more detailed and improved rules.]
The second chapter is Hardware. There are full vehicle rules including land, air, and sea craft. Rules for heavy weapons and artillery come just before rules for powered armour. Full rules for characters trying to build new things are included as well.
Chapter 3 gets into campaigns. The majority of this chapter deals with gaining and loosing Karma. In the basic game Karma was just something you started with that could be spent to improve rolls. In the Campaign game Karma is a ‘living stat’ in the fact that it’s constantly changing. You gain Karma for doing Heroic things and you loose it for doing non-heroic things.
Defeating bad guys gets you Karma, while destroying the mall you are in while defeating them causes you to loose it. There’s an extensive list of Karma modifiers as well as a ton of examples. After Karma the Campaign book gets into more Campaign specific info. Generating random encounters, NPCs and NPC reactions, the Government and the Law, Animals, Special Environments and of course Villains and other Bad Guys.
The fourth chapter is all about making your own characters. Two methods are given, the first is interpretive, where the players decide what stats and powers their characters have based on existing marvel characters. The second method is a purely random character generation. It’s worth noting that this system does NOT make balanced characters.
There are also rules for character advancement. This is interesting because Karma is used to improve your character, so now your XP is also what you earn and spend during play for deeds and what you spend to improve die rolls. The last page of the Campaign book is a Character Sheet that can be photocopied for personal use.
Day of the Octopus
The final book in the boxed set is a sample adventure called “Day of the Octopus” which pits Captain Marvel, Spider-man, The Thing and Captain America against a variety of minor villains and eventually Doctor Octopus himself.
The module is divided into chapters and each chapter has a Battle Section and a Campaign Section. For players using only the Battle Book, you play just using the battle sections. The campaign section is used when players are using the full rules. At the end of each section are typical Karma Rewards.
TSR Marvel Super Heroes was my first system. It was the game that made me fall in love with roleplaying. I was worried that dusting off [this game] after all these years might be disappointing, and that my love of the game would be stuck in the realm of nostalgia. I was happily wrong.
This is still an excellent system. Today, it would be called Rules Light and as a rules light system a lot relies on GM (or rather Judge) Fiat. To me this is a strength of the system. The openness of the system really works well for a supers game, especially when you have creative players who use their powers in ‘out of the box’ ways. The simplicity of the system also means that the game plays very quickly even in combat with multiple characters [on both sides].
The Universal Table or 4 Colour system for resolving actions works really well. As a Judge I like having the yellow and red regions as options so that I don’t have to say no to players. Instead of saying ‘no you can’t do that’ I can say ‘sure you can try but you are going to need a red’. In addition I find it very easy to interpret results using the colours. Getting a green on an investigation roll means something totally different then a red.
I will say that playing with just The Battle Book is a little too simple for my tastes. This box set shines much brighter with the Campaign rules. Even just adding in the Karma rules really helps the game, as it adds consequences for character actions. Though outside of the scope of this review, the Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set rules really brings these rules to life and makes this boxed set seem pretty basic. I actually suggest to anyone thinking of trying the game to start with the Advanced Set and not this original boxed set. [If you are an experienced gamer I suggest waiting to actually play until after you’ve read both books and using the full campaign rules].
I think the biggest issue most new players will find with this game is the fact that it’s old. The rules are still good but all of the information on the heroes and their stats and costumes are based on a 1980s Marvel Universe. A lot has changed in the Marvel Universe since the 80s and a lot has changed in world politics as well. For example you will find a lot of Cold War references that seem somewhat out of place now. I had one player at my table that had a hard time coming to grips with the 80s X-Men vs what he was used to reading and seeing on the big screen.
I still love this system. I grew up on Marvel Super Heroes and, surprisingly, the rules stand the test of time. This is still an excellent rules light superhero game system that is great for creating [or recreating] pretty much any comic book series.
I will suggest you skip this boxed set if you are looking to get into Marvel and that’s only because the Advanced Set is so much better and more detailed. This is still a fun romp though even if the heroes and themes are a bit dated.
My thoughts now
It’s been almost 7 years since I wrote this review and almost 35 years since I first opened my Dad’s copy of this very special yellow box. Even after all this time I still love TSR Marvel Super Heroes deeply. They say you never forget your first, and in this case that is definitely true.
I still don’t think it’s all nostalgia. I think there was some real innovation in this system and that it stands the test of time rather well. Okay maybe not in so far as the Marvel Universe and where it has gone but in the fact that the mechanics still work and don’t feel overly dated and clunky. Sure Karma could probably use a bit of a twist and with comics going much darker since I was a kid the punishments for playing an anti-hero could use some house rules, but I would happily run this game RAW to this day.
Since writing that review in 2012 I did get another group together and play through the module The Breeder Bombs. Now that module was terrible. Really terrible. But the game was great. The system worked and we had a ton of fun. That was also a long time ago though and I think I may need to dust off TSR Marvel yet again sometime soon. Maybe this time I will try out the Advanced Set and skip over my beloved “Yellow Box”
Have you played this classic roleplaying game? Does it hold a special place in your heart as it does in mine?