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Pocket Marvel Patrol! and Balance in Game Design

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Last night I got together with a few non-gamer friends who had just seen the Avengers. I was thinking that we would play the new Marvel RPG, but they didn’t have a printer at their house to print up Marvel datafiles, so I hacked Pocket Danger Patrol on the fly for them.

If you’ve never heard of Danger Patrol…you should check it out: Danger Patrol Website

The premise of the Danger Patriol is Pulp Science Fiction RPG, and the writer, John Harper, has come up with a Pocket Danger Patrol version that captures most of what makes the game a lot of fun. In short, you roll dice against threats trying to get 4+ on each die. d10s are great; d4s are DANGEROUS! It makes it a little less of an RPG and a little more of a dice game, but it keeps the story moving for new gamers in a really great way.

You can find Pocket Danger Patrol here: Pocket Danger Patrol

Back to my group: I ignored Role and Style (which are usually used to define the characters), but made them pick the players pick some stats for Daring, Heart, etc. Then I let each player choose superpowers for their bonus dice:

Captain America – 2d8 Shield, 1d8 Super Strength, 1d8 Chivalry
The Hulk – 4d8 SMASH
Thor – 2d8 Lightning, 2d8 Hammer
Iron Man – 2d8 Mark VII Suit, 2d8 Genius
Human Torch – 1d8 Flight, 1d8 Fireball, 2d8 Flame on!

Photo courtesy of JD Hancock

We drew up a bunch of threats (some of which were more interesting than others) and the game went really well. Everyone had a good time rolling lots of dice, and we got in enough danger that new complications kept cropping up, like falling buildings and derailed subway trains. It turned out to be a great way to get them involved in an RPG and I think they would probably be willing to try regular Danger Patrol if we have another session.

But all of this got me thinking about the way the session handled the balance between the characters. Since all the players were working from the same sheet (limited to their stats + 4d8 in bonus dice), The Hulk was effectively the same power level as Captain America. On paper, that’s silly. Hulk is way more powerful than Cap, but no one in the game seemed to mind.

It’s possible that nobody cared because it was a pretty casual game, but I also think there was something deeper at play. It occurred me to later that everyone was willing to suspend their disbelief because everyone was willing to let someone else have the spotlight given that eventually the spotlight would come back around to them.

As a game designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make games balanced, working to give each character type or “class” an opportunity to shine. But there’s something simple and elegant about Pocket Danger Patrol; each player knows that the other players have an equal chance to shine at any given moment, and that their turn will come around soon. Maybe we should spend more time building systems that create that feeling in groups, and trust the social norm of cooperation to help smooth the narrative disconnect that occurs when everyone is “the same power level.”

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