04 June 2022

Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game Three-Shot Recap (Pt 0)

Part 0: Intro

Dropping clues for the PCs...
I pile almost all my creative energies into the Christmas/New Years holidays, basically because that's the only period I get enough free time. Case in point: I ran a three-shot of Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (MSHAG) over the holidays and I'm only now finding the time to talk about it.

My enthusiasm for running MSHAG again for the first time in over 20 years, coupled with an average reading pace of three comics a day, resulted in a pretty dang good game if I do say so myself. Sure, I was pretty rusty at GM'ing but at the end of my second session one of my players said "that was like a movie!" Music to any GM's ears.

A firm grasp of the source material and motivation isn't enough for RPG success. I think three more factors played key roles in the positive outcome of this three-shot: proper scope, willing players, and good prep.

Proper Scope: I knew that other time pressures in my life would prevent me from running an ongoing campaign but I also realized that I wanted to develop the story more than a one-shot. I settled on a rough outline of a story, with enough material for four sessions, anticipating (correctly it turns out) that we'd probably lose one session.

Willing Players: Only two of my AD&D group had the time to play and both were unfamiliar with MSHAG. Not only were both of them willing to put aside their skepticism of the card-based mechanics, both players had strong concepts for their PCs and a love for the Marvel Universe.  One of the players was mostly familiar with the MU through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while the other player shared my fondness for 70s and 80s comic books but without any recent reading.  Each player therefore found plenty to discover during the game but also familiarity in the iconic characters in Marvel New York.  Most importantly, both players "got it" when it came to our time constraints. They knew implicitly that this was a three-to-four-shot and eagerly pursued the adventure hooks I dangled in front of them.

Good Prep: My prep work consisted of choosing a setting and fleshing out all the places the PCs might end up, based on the hooks presented. I settled on NYC since that's where most of the Marvel Universe action seems to take place; it helped immensely that one of the players had familial ties and familiarity with Manhattan. I chose 1980 as the timeframe because I wanted to play in that era of Marvel, with the established characters as I remembered them from my childhood. My players of course generated their own heroes... as it should be.

Microsoft OneNote helped my prep work immensely; OneNote is definitely my new RPG campaign management standard. Since I was running weekly sessions, the Tags in OneNote worked beautifully to keep me on track with to-do lists of prep tasks.

NPC generation was a snap with OneNote. I download huge databases of names from public records (Yellow Pages, building permit applications, etc.) and randomly swap out first and last names so I'm not using real people in my games. I can very quickly generate a list with scores of names and I keep this on a OneNote page labeled "Master Name List". When I need NPCs, I'll cut-and-paste from this list onto another appropriate OneNote page. For example, if I'm fleshing out the cops the PCs may meet, I'll have a "NYPD" OneNote page and I'll cut-and-paste maybe seven names on that page. I can very quickly write short descriptions for each person right after the names or take it one step further. Sometimes I'll use the "Link to Pages" option which allows one to generate multiple new Pages, each linked to an entry in a list. So with my NYPD example, I'd just highlight the seven names and use "Link to Pages" and instantly each cop would get their own hyperlinked page. It's amazing how quickly one can generate details for an NPC when one has a whole page to play with.

My story revolved around the aftermath of Iron Man issues 36 and 37, from 1972. Basically a throwaway story, the issues featured four alien robots so immensely powerful that, working in tandem, they could level the surface of the Earth into a global plain of glass! Despite their power, the robots needed direction from a humanoid alien, the Foreman. Iron Man barely defeats a fifth robot, the scout known as "Ramrod", before trashing the Foreman's control helmet and freezing the four "Changer" automatons in their far-flung locations around the globe, just before they could activate their world-leveling power. The astounding thing about the story is, despite their awesome power, the Changers never surface again in the Marvel Universe. At the end of issue 37, the Foreman is dead in midtown Manhattan with his interstellar craft landed in the middle of the street and the four robots stand motionless in distant lands.  Issue 38 starts with a totally different storyline with no reference to these life-altering events.  

Answering the "what happened" regarding these abandoned plot points gave me a perfect touchstone to the canon Marvel Universe with some ready-made tools of mass destruction just waiting for a super-villain to find (and my PCs to thwart). Adding both Atlantis and Wakanda to the mix obfuscated the real plot while providing more Marvel flavor.

With a story outline in hand, I kicked off the three-shot by pushing my players a front page of the Daily Bugle over Discord a few days before our first session. I created this handout not only to provide clues but, using real world events from that week in history, to establish the exact timeframe and atmosphere. The newspaper worked better than I imagined...my players thought every word was a clue and provided their own red herrings! I included the Carter/Kennedy story just to establish that it was 1980 but the players immediately assumed the plot was political and thought Ronald Reagan was behind the dastardly events in the city!

Online MSHAG board; PC Card highlighted
Since one of the players lives in another city and the other player joined in from work, we needed a way to play online.  The site Playingcards.io was perfect for this, and I built a custom game board for MSHAG, complete with my DIY Marvel SAGA cards, character cards, areas for the Doom Bank and Narrator card, and buttons for auto-draw for when the players play matching suits (we don't use the "T" word around here).  Voice comms were via a Discord server created for the game.


  1. Yay! You got in some gaming. Your planning seems to have paid off in an enjoyable game all round.

    1. Yeah Shaun, it was great; much better than I could've hoped.

      The prep time for RPGs seems so colossal but I'm thinking this autumn I may have time again. The same two players expressed interest in another three-shot so I'm hoping our schedules will sync up.