Monday, October 5, 2020

Marvel FASERIP: Power Stunts

The Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Game (i.e., the 2nd edition of the FASERIP rules in 1986), by Jeff Grubb, has a novel rule called "Power Stunts". Basically, it gives a formal way to extend a character's super-powers by paying a fairly hefty amount of Karma (quasi-experience awards) for a chance to do some previously undefined ability. Here's what it says on its first appearance in the Advanced Players' Book (p. 16-17):

There are some cases when a hero may use a Power in a way it was not originally intended to carry out a certain task. These are known as Power Stunts.

For example, a character with the Speed Power suddenly decides to run in a circle very fast, creating a whirlwind. Or a character with Leaping Power decides to use his powerful leg muscles to disrupt the ground, knocking over an opponent. Or our example above, the wall-crawler decides to use his stick-to-it-ness to grapple a thief. These are Power Stunts. Certain Powers, such as weather elemental controls, almost entirely consist of these stunts.

The players will, without a doubt, come up with an innumerable amount of stunts for their Powers (and the Judge will be told how to decide if a Power Stunt is possible in his Judge’s Book). The basic question to be asked is: Has this hero done this sort of thing before?

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time. Example: In one issue of X-Men, Nightcrawler uses his power to make three quick teleports, behind three separate opponents. He does it again several issues later. This means he has pulled this Power Stunt twice.

If you are playing a hero of your own creation, or a hero that you have never seen perform this stunt, this means you have never performed it before. In either case, the Judge may say "no" to a stunt, it he feels it unbalances the character. The type of FEAT (made against the Power rank) needed to make a Power Stunt is determined by the number of times your character has tried it.

Never tried it — red FEAT roll
Tried it up to three times — yellow FEAT roll
Tried it more than three times — green FEAT roll

In addition, a character making a Power Stunt must lay out 100 Karma points to make the roll (in addition to any other Karma he may spend -- see Karma). Spending the Karma does not guarantee success; it only ensures that yes, the character can try the stunt. If the stunt is ruled impossible by the Judge, no Karma is spent.

If a player character has tried a stunt more then ten times, it is considered to be part of his or her bag of tricks for that Power, and a FEAT roll is not necessary to say if it is possible (this is similar to purchasing another Power in full, but allowing the player to use the Power as he is paying for it).

Now, some people love this rule to death, and consider it to be a way to unleash creativity in the use of one's super-powers in one's Marvel game. Admittedly it's pretty common in classic Marvel comics for a hero to pull out a surprising deus ex machina with a previously-unseen power in a tense fight (more on that below). And maybe for custom characters this is an okay way to advance the character. However, I'm a lot more ambivalent about this rule in terms of the established Marvel comic book characters -- which is the way that I've most often see the game being played, then and now.

First, it's extremely interesting that Grubb calls out one specific power in the game as being most intimately tied to this rule -- weather control, which will of course will affect my favorite character of Thor quite a lot (e.g., see our recent live plays on the Wandering DMs channel of MH-6 Thunder Over Jotunheim):

Certain Powers, such as weather elemental controls, almost entirely consist of these stunts.

Secondly, and far more critically, is the call to player recall of the published appearances of the classic Marvel Super Heroes character that you're playing. The more well-read you are in that character, the more functionally powerful he or she becomes at the table. In some cases, this could incite certain players to research the whole back-catalog of that character to gain as much advantage at the table as possible. And presumably the powers in question expand more as time of publication history moves forward in time. And also: How does the Referee confirm a certain fanboy's claims that their favorite character has done power stunt X 10+ times is actually accurate?

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time.

Surely only an insane player could be expected to actually go track down every researched use of super-powers that a long-running character has ever made. So perhaps this bifurcated rule was perhaps reasonable for custom characters, but I'd argue that it's highly problematic for pre-established Marvel characters (even though that use-case is the first one presented in the rules text above). 

I think that many old-school referees would be happy to adjudicate novel or creative uses of super-powers on an ad-hoc basis for reasonability, without the bookkeeping overhead of tracking how often a particular stunt has been used or appeared in publication. I know for myself I'd be a lot happier with a general of Karma payment + FEAT roll with difficulty based on judge's assessment of overall reasonability, without that documentary clause in the rule. 

Did you love or loathe the Advanced FASERIP Power Stunts rule? Did you actually apply, count, and document the number of times each power stunt was used?

Scheduling note: Over on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel, we're planning on having Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP creator Jeff Grubb as our guest in two weeks, on Sunday Oct-18 -- so I'm making a note to ask him how he feels about the Power Stunt rule these days. Hope you'll join us and get your burning questions in the live chat when he joins us!


  1. Power stunts, great. Bookkeeping (of Marvel issues, or your own character's history with a stunt) is right out! I would likely base the difficulty shift on how far of a stretch the stunt wants to be.

    1. Well put, I agree! I can sort of see a tension in the rule above between (a) Judge fiat on the difficulty: old-school and minimalist, but subject to Judge bias or mishandling, vs. (b) a more formalized system that take judgement away from the Judge: more rules and number-crunching but a more dependable basis for the players. I guess that's a lot of the struggle in systems design in the decades since then.

  2. Most of the people I ever played Marvel Super Heroes with had closets full of comic books to pull out these references. This was the high point of their games where they and other players would argue whether X was a power stunt or not.

    My main problem was that getting 100 Karma by the rules was routinely difficult. Most of the GM's I played with gave out awards strictly from the rules and so if you were a custom character you had multiple games before you got 100 karma and then it would be gone with a Red til the next mission 20-30 games away. It was better to play even a character who had been in comics as backup for 12-24 issues because you could pull out those, and show where it had been run 10 times. [

    1. Great point: 100 Karma is a hefty price. I sort of see where it came from new powers cost 3000 + more for the rank, and under the "allowing the player to use the Power as he is paying for it" idea, this is actually at a rebate (only 1000 to get to the 10th try).

      Another thing I've found (playing Thor a lot) is that the Karma economy is on a sliding scale by power of hero. If you're beating up Unearthly foes all the time (+100 each) then the Karma builds up very rapidly.

    2. Honestly, I think that's the root of the problem - the scaling rewards. You gain less Karma as a low power hero, but you have to pay just as much as Thor would to boost a roll or develop a Power Stunt. Learning a new power has an element of added cost for higher ranks, but even then the 3000 base cost is a steep hurdle. I think you'd need to normalize the rewards across power levels in order to have any kind of reasonable advancement in a long-term game.

      Interestingly, even though the system was made for Marvel superheroes, I feel like this type of advancement is actually well suited to modeling Superman gaining new powers over the course of his publication history.

  3. I don't remember Karma being that hard to get, but I do remember thinking it wasn't all that useful. Maybe it was my mindset at the time (that Karma = XP, and it took so much Karma to improve a power that it was basically impossible), but 100 Karma to get a chance to make real progress in improving the character seems like a pretty good deal.

    1. I actually kind of like wiping the Advancement rule off the table (or keeping it secret) so players really focus on the in-fight uses. Maybe that's easier in one-off games.

  4. I liked the concept, still do on the whole (though the specific mechanics are potentially a problem as you note), but these days I'm happier with the approach of GURPS Powers, which essentially allow a player to define new power modifiers on a temporary basis by taking a negative modifier on the roll to use it, then allowing that combination to be bought up by treating it as a "technique". This allows a little more recourse to the rules as "court of appeals" without having the Referee abdicate their power of interpretation.

  5. I loved rolling up characters using FASERIP as a kid, but only got to play once or twice with my older brother. BUT I do remember playing Mutants & Masterminds and immediately seeing a connection between Hero Points and Power Stunts.
    A big complaint from others who played M&M was that Hero Points were always being saved in case of failed Toughness checks, but we consistently used our HP to emulate feats and power add-ons. This felt to us like captain America learning how to bounce his shield off multiple targets, or the occasional use of teleport/phasing to directly attack someone with stress.

    1. I hear that. It kind of feeds a bit into my usual complaint about Fate/Luck point type stuff that only serves to keep a PC from dying (worst of all: down and unplayable but not technically dead yet).

  6. I agree on that point 100%. The nice thing about using HP for stunts, though, was that they were pretty easy to come by, so why not use them. Karma though...ugh, so costly.

  7. We played a LOT of MSH (especially Advanced) over a couple years, but always with our own characters (rather then using the Marvel universe). As such, we NEVER used power stunts...none that I can recall anyway...because the karma cost was too damn high!

    Trying to come up with something creative "on the fly" is tricky enough; but karma (which rarely comes in the bucketful) was a resource that was expended as quickly as it came in.

    I like the idea/concept of the power stunt, and use a version of it in my own supers game (still being developed) but the design/execution in MSH just doesn't work for me. It would ONLY seem to work in a very loosey-goosey, Marvel-heavy campaign. Maybe.

    1. Interesting take! I bet there are different playgroups that slid into grooves of either save-Karma-for-stunts/advancement-only, versus never-use-Karma-for-stunts/advancement.