There are a lot of superhero RPGs out there, many of them quite good, but one that always stood out in my mind for its unique system and fun, fast gameplay was TSR’s SAGA system. Now out of print and rather difficult to acquire, this is a game that has aged well in the last ten years. In fact, thanks to HeroClix, this RPG is better than ever!
The Marvel SAGA system is a diceless RPG. Characters have basic attributes (Strength, Agility, Intellect and Willpower) along with skills, powers and a few other variables. During gameplay, the players hold a hand of cards from the game’s fate deck. Each card has a number on it along with a suit that corresponds with one of the core attributes. Taking an action is simple — take the appropriate ability score, then play one card from your hand to add to that score. If the resulting number is equal to or greater than the difficulty number set by the GM (here called the Narrator), you succeed. If you play a card of the same suit as the relevant ability, you get a draw a card from the top of the deck to add to your score. This is known as trump.
Here’s an example: Iron Man has found Dr. Doom’s time vortex device, which is about to activate and suck part of Pittsburgh 10 centuries into the past. He can’t just smash it, because he needs it to get his friend Rhodey, who was previously sent into the past. Doom is a genius, so figuring out his machine is pretty tough. The Narrator calls it a Daunting difficulty task, which has a score of 24 (these numbers might be off, as I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment). Tony Stark is no slouch either, he has a pretty high Intellect of 10. First he plays an 8, which happens to be an Intellect card. Since he trumped, he draws a card from the top of the deck, hoping for at least a 6. He draws a 4, but it’s also an Intellect card, which is trump again. He gets another free draw and pulls a 5, succeeding…or did he?
The Narrator has access to the fifth suit, the Doom suit. Whenever a player plays a Doom card from her hand, the Narrator gets to keep it, then add it to the difficulty of any later action. Pretty devious, and it makes for some interesting tactical decisions when the heroes have a tough challenge and a high-numbered Doom card in hand. You can spend it for a sure success, but you know it will come back and bite you later.
There are a few other ways to boost scores, and fights involve a fast series of opposed checks, but that’s the basic system the game runs on. There’s no bookkeeping involved, because characters take wounds by losing cards from their hand.
Playing this game brings up a couple of interesting points. First, while there is a really fun character creation system in which you draw a bunch of cards, then assign them to various character attributes, playing the pre-generated Marvel characters is pretty cool. It opens up a lot of role-playing doors when the characters have established personalities and relationships (not to mention catch phrases). It’s a very different style of role-playing, and it’s a fun change of pace.
Second, anyone who has a half decent HeroClix collection has an amazing variety of pre-painted miniatures to use with this game. Even if you didn’t play HeroClix, you can acquire a great Marvel miniatures collection for not much money by getting singles online. Since you won’t care about the HeroClix stats, you can buy cheap rookie versions when available. The HeroClix maps are invaluable, too, although some 3D papercraft cities would be another step up. When you combine a fun game with a full suite of minis, you can’t go wrong.
Sadly, the core boxed set goes for upwards of $50 if you can even find one, and the roster books are scarce as well. Apparently, there was a Dragonlance game that used the SAGA system, but it’s rare enough that I’ve never actually seen one.