Doing It Wrong with Marvel Super Heroes

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Growing up in Podunkville, Cascadia  in a conservative family in the 80s was a great way to miss out on large chunks of cultural zeitgeist. I first saw a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988; up till that point I thought it was all Atari 2600s and Intellivisions. We had the supremely large ColecoVision ADAM as our home computer, since Apple IIs and C64s would be, I dunno, too mainstream? The only time I saw episodes of the A-Team was when my brother and I could trick a babysitter into allowing us to watch. First comic book? Also 1988. Most likely purchased off the spinner rack at Thiftway or an IGA; I want to say it was a STAR comic, something like MadBalls or ALF or Muppet Babies. Certainly not anything like Spider-Man or Action! Comics.

Tri-fold standup paper miniatures. Seriously, why don’t we use these now?

The summer of 1989 changed everything. My family moved, got cable (we hadn’t had cable in 5 years), plugged into different social networks, became slightly less conservative. I won’t say liberal but leaning in that direction (the cycle wouldn’t be complete until I was nearly out of high school). So my brother and I had one year to dive deep into 80s child culture before we’d be in the hip 90s. We watched Saturday morning cartoons, scoured flea markets and dime stores for comics, and, with a newfound love of Captain America and Spider-man, stumbled into our first role-playing game.

If the X-Men fight a Sentinel, finish your drink. If the Danger Room goes haywire, chug.

A nearby Kay Bee Toys was clearing out stacks of material for Marvel Super Heroes. It was mostly modules, but it was all a dollar each, so we picked up a handful of shrink-wrapped packages and dove head first into the game.

Or, we tried.

See, all we bought were modules, the stand up heroes pack, and the Judge’s Screen. Not the basic rules, not the advanced rules, no rules.  Without ever seeing a game that wasn’t  some track game like Sorry!, we literally had no clue on how to start. Therefore, we made up our own rules, based on what would now be called  universal game mechanics.

Cover of Judge's Screen, MSH


Aside from doing whatever the modules said – we thought of them as instructions – we had 3 simple rules for our games of Marvel Super Heroes:

  • Roll two dice (always six sides, as there’s no other dice in the world, right?);
  • Doubles means something awesome! happened. What, exactly, we didn’t know, and had to make up something awesome! on the spot;
  • Move around the map according to the numbers rolled.
  • So Marvel Super Heroes became some weird amalgam of Monopoly, Aggravation, and comparing numbers off the character sheets  – “The Thing’s Fighting is higher than the mugger, so he wins”. And we just read through the modules front to back, playing through the story. It was straight up railroad-y, but how were we to know? We were house ruling before even knowing what was possible for the rules to be, let alone how to “properly” role play.

    We tried getting some of our neighbors and friends to play, but that was a no-go. It was hard enough trying to piece together a rule set from the tools we had. I can’t imagine how it must have been to have two hyperactive kids trying to teach you a game they mostly made up but also having to reference essentially a story outline at all times. Out of the 10 or so times we ran through Muderworld! alone, we had one person play the whole way through with us. Most people dropped out before we even left the Baxter Building.

    This solo adventure was set up Choose Your Own Adventure style with red reveal hidden text. My copy was not in German.

    By the fall of ’89, my brother was done with Marvel Super Heroes. He was in junior high, and playing games with an uncool younger brother wasn’t high on the list of Things To Do. But I was hooked on gaming. Over the next year I was playing (with anyone I could rope in) old Avalon Hill wargames rescued from garage sales – Blitzkreig –  and two other boxed games I saved up for: Star Fleet Battles (super fiddly! tiny pieces! only played it 3 times!) and BattleTech (also fiddly, but a game I still play to this day).But I wouldn’t get back into, tabletop role playing until years later in college.[](/gold-box-games/)

    It’s Post Secret Wars, so no ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing.

    Note: the images above are the modules my brother and I secured from Kay Bee Toys over 30 years ago. If memory serves, none of the modules or fold-ups survived our basement flooding 2 years later.