Way back in the late 1970s, well before we had summers filled with superhero movies, I was a comic book collector. Those were the days when my younger brother and I bought our weekly fix of Marvel and DC superheroes off a squeaky rotating rack in a corner store, all for under a dollar each. Eventually our collecting graduated to visiting comic book shops, flea markets, yard sales and small regional comic book conventions in Western New York. As our collection grew into thousands of books by the mid-1980s, my brother and I were receiving weekly warehouse wholesale shipments and were bidding on lots of older books through auctions by mail. Both of us sold-off the majority of our collections in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the market became glutted, eBay arrived on the scene and CCG-graded comics became the new collecting norm.
I still have a significant, albeit more scaled-down, interest in comic books to this day. Yet as I recall those peak collecting years in the early 80s, my mind eventually takes me to memories of 1984 and TSR’s release of Marvel Super Heroes: The Heroic Roleplaying Game. The game arrived during big expansion years for TSR as the popularity of their flagship Dungeons & Dragons franchise continued to grow in player fandom and pop culture infamy. Winning the Marvel license allowed TSR to launch a new game with a built-in base of players which had a lot of cross-over interest in comic books and gaming (like myself). Despite the promise of the total package of the Marvel Universe delivered in a RPG by the makers of D&D, the Marvel Super Heroes game never really delivered.
The core box came with a quick start “Battle Book” and a more detailed “Campaign Book.” Also included was an introductory scenario, “Day of the Octopus,” plus a fold-out map, character reference cards and some rudimentary markers. TSR quickly expanded the game with a number of accessories including a couple sets of poor quality metal miniatures and quite a number of game adventures following the module model which had proven so successful with D&D. An eager collector, I snapped up a bunch of adventure books, including “Time Trap” featuring the Avengers and “Murderworld!” starring the Fantastic Four. Expansions also included a number of adventures which featured “adventure fold-up figures.” Unable to help myself, I happily bought the Hydra-themed “Pit of the Viper” edition along with a few others.
Drawing on the stable of established Marvel characters, the game looked great. Mechanics borrowed broadly from D&D with “Attributes” establishing the primary strengths of a super hero on a scale of 1-100. “Superpowers” defined unique abilities while “Talents” were a set of skills a character could draw upon. A system of “Karma” (similar to D&D Experience) allowed for character upgrades. The problem I quickly found with the game was that you played characters within an established set of backgrounds and relationships. Spider-Man, Thor or The Human Torch carried enormous backstories, robbing players of the opportunity to create and grow a character from the ground up like in the more pure RPG realm of D&D. Eventually, I was buying the expansions simply to read the text and assemble the little cardboard figures and terrain pieces.
Despite the mediocre quality of the game overall, TSR went on the release a revised version of the game in the late 1990s. More than anything else, the second edition of the game was probably an effort to retain the license from Marvel. Even so, Marvel and TSR eventually parted ways by the early 2000s.
So much of my generation was defined by the first modern wave of toy licensing with Star Wars that I can hardly fault TSR for jumping on the brand-extending bandwagon with Marvel. It’s amazing to me the game lasted so long given my memory of its lack of interesting play. This is one game I can’t foresee ever returning to. Its true superpower lay in how deep the marketing of those characters was a part of me then and stays with me today.
Collector’s Note: Most probably owing to the low quality of the game, the original TSR Marvel Super Heroes game starter box set and most expansions can be found on eBay for under $20 each.