A Game Per Year: The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game (Bonus 1985)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game boxed set

I recently watched the first season of the Netflix documentary show The Toys That Made Us. The episode about The Masters of the Universe was fun because the origins of the franchise were so ramshackle yet there was clearly also a streak of genius running through the whole process.

In particular, it was interesting to hear about the emotional design of the toy series. The designers had noticed that boys fantasize about power. This insight was implemented in a very straightforward manner: He-Man’s most famous line is: “By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!”

I’m the right age for The Masters of the Universe to be part of my childhood and I remember a neighbor’s kid who had the Castle Grayskull playset. I never went too deep into it because my father, an architect, admired the toy design of The Transformers and was happier buying me and my brother those.

Inspired by Toys That Made Us, I read The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game, published in 1985. It’s a boxed set that comes with premade characters such as He-Man and Teela, a game board representing Skeletor’s lair, tokens, dice and a rules booklet in the form of a comic book.

In terms of presentation, it’s a fun set! The design is very simple, bordering on being a basic board game. Unmarred by the vagaries of character creation, it lets you play as one of the heroes who go to retrieve the Eternian crown jewels from the clutches of Skeletor.

There’s a system for determining what happens at each step as they explore Skeletor’s lair, the enemies and treasure that appears, so no GM is needed. There’s a clear victory condition: get the jewels and get out.

One interesting detail is that because the players are limited to a set of premade characters, the enemy design can incorporate specific reactions to each. Thus, Skeletor reacts differently to He-Man than he does to Orko.

The impression you get of Skeletor’s gang is really quite cozy: They each have their own quarters at Snake Mountain like a bunch of goth roomies forced together by the unreasonable rent in evil lairs. They even have robots who take care of all the housework and spiders for pets.

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