Both of us at lategaming are fans of Super Hero games. For Matt, it’s because he misspent his youth reading comic books. For me, it’s because they’re the pinnacle of escapism, and one of my favourite campaigns I ever played in was a supers game.
In this supers game, we used the old Marvel system (not the old-old one, the one after that). Matt was the GM at the time, and his reason for choosing Marvel (when not playing in a Marvel universe) is that the system is very simple for resolving things, keeping the game fluid, and reducing the rules-lawyering or number-crunching which can plague other games (*cough*DC Heroes*cough*).
(Incidentally, we were talking the other day (again) about how all role-playing games are essentially super hero games–you have a character who probably has fairly broad strokes of personality (at least initially) and who has some kind of abilities which makes that character stand out from the crowd. Think about it: Vampire, D&D, Ars Magica, SLA Industries and so on ad infinitum. They all give you special powers and let you wreak havoc.)
So, when I first heard about the Saga system, which used cards for resolution in an effort to reduce the rules and numbers and promote role-playing and storytelling, I thought this was going to be excellent.
Enough rambling, let’s discuss some nitty-gritty. The game was actually published in 1998, but often that doesn’t mean much in the RPG world–I hadn’t even heard of it till last week. It was released in a boxed set (as were all the Marvel games) that comes with two books: one for rules and one with Marvel character stats in it. It also comes with a deck of cards that are used for all the resolution in the game.
The books are colour-covered but black and white on the inside. My first gripe with the game is that the font is some kind of Comic Sans-derivative font, which is incredibly hard on the eyes for reading long stretches of text, and of course should be banned. I think it’s acceptable in a comic book because those books are hand-drawn, so why not hand-written? In any other book, it smacks of amateurism. The cards that come with the game resemble those you might find in your average collectible trading card game. Full colour images of comic book heroes, with various semi-cryptic numbers and symbols wrapped around them. Having only black and white on the inside doesn’t bother me – this was after all in the age before the rise of very cheap digital printing.
The system itself is … interesting. You hold a certain number of cards in your hand at any given time (somewhere between 3 and 7, with 4 or 5 being normal for the X-men level characters). These cards are your hit-points (you discard cards when you get wounded), your dice rolls (they have random numbers on them which you use to determine success or failure) and your character/hero/karma points (i.e. using them in a particular way allows you to affect things more than you normally would be able to do). Having a hand of cards is a bit like saying you have five dice rolls to choose from each time you want to resolve something, and when you use one of them you have to roll that dice again to bring the total back up to five.
The cards have five suits. Each one is a different colour, is based on a different stat, and is named after a different Marvel character who exemplifies that stat. Resolution is as you might expect: take an ability/stat/skill/power and add the value of the card to beat some target value. The more experienced your character is, the more cards he/she can play at one time. The different suits also function as trumps for their relevant stat, so playing a “5 of Agility” from your hand for an agility based action allows you to draw a card from the top of the deck and add that to the total (and continue to draw and add for as long as you continue to draw the same trump suit).
One suit (Doom/Dr. Doom) has the added drawback that the GM (or Narrator as he’s known in this game) gets to keep those cards and use the numbers on them against you at inopportune times. This is a nice little thing the players have to keep in mind when they play those cards.
The downside of the cards is that they are completely relied upon for resolution of everything (even things like the weather, if you want). So what happens if you lose some or all of them? It’s not like dice where you can just go buy a new set. Perhaps in 1998 TSR planned to make the available to buy, but eBay is about the only place you might find them now. Also, I found the rules at times difficult to understand, but that could be just because I haven’t yet played it. Reading them didn’t make them become clear, and the examples they gave just served to muddy things even further.
The game is clearly intended to be used to play in the Marvel Universe, and with Marvel characters and a large number of the most popular are included in the Roster Book. The game itself is light on source material–it expects you to read the comics (or possibly some supplements) to fully understand anything about the universe or the characters. There’s no history or timeline as you might find in other game settings. Perhaps it’s naive of me to think that it might be necessary for those of us who haven’t read all the Marvel comics since the 1960s.
Character generation is fairly simple, but relies heavily on GM adjudication. In fact, the system is intended to be used to generate those characters that weren’t quite popular enough to be included in the Roster Book but that still feature in the comic books. It even goes so far as to say “bring the comic book with you to every session, so that everyone knows what your character looks like”.
In summary then:
+ Cards are a neat idea
+ System emphasises roleplaying
– Cards can get lost/damaged and aren’t easily replaced
– System wasn’t easy to understand, examples even less so
– Lack of background info not so good for people who don’t read a lot of Marvel comics
– Bad font choice
Overall score: 3d6 (out of a possible 6d6)
If I played this game a bit to see how well the system actually worked, this might go up to 4d6.