Jan 282011

To finish off our Supers week at the Shack, we have Jonathan Baldwin’s take on the game – Mutants & Masterminds.

I love comic books. I always have (it’s not exactly a secret). I love everything about them; the over-the-top story-lines, the colors, the grand and exciting battles, the ridiculous speeches and origin stories, rings of power, radioactive spiders, last survivors of a dying world… okay, everything except the nineties with its excess of guns and shoulder pads, but I missed most of that at the time in my attempts to recapture the Silver Age. Lucky me.

Consequently, I love Mutants and Masterminds/DC Adventures. It’s the most natural thing in the world for me. It plays like a dream and turns on a dime; it offers all that comic-book craziness as well as the finely-tuned character creation engine that lets me create a reasonable set of stats for just about any character in fiction. Unfortunately, it’s ruined film for me; I can’t watch an action movie without thinking in terms of Minions, Complications, Hero Points and Extra Effort. It’s easy; it’s like the language of fiction.

And I’m here to tell you a few of the tricks I’ve worked out from my experiences with the system. Interested? Let’s go.

Note: For the purposes of this article, I will be treating “DC Adventures/DCA” and “Mutants & Masterminds/M&M” as synonymous with each other and using them interchangeably.

DC Adventures is a role-players dream.

If you like Fate’s Aspects, you probably have some idea of how Complications work already. Complications give your GM ideas for things to throw at you, they capture your nemesis and major relationships, your responsibilities, your Codes of Honor, your critical overwhelming Kryptonite-like weaknesses, or, say, DareDevil’s blindness. Invoking a complication – regardless of whether the GM or player invokes it – gives you a shot at earning a Hero Point. Thus, you get incentive to play your character well (even if it might otherwise be a disadvantage) and give the players more control over the game and the story, which can only be good.

Complications give you a way to define a character beyond mere numbers. Not that the numbers aren’t good… in fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re very good. But this was the first system I’d encountered that let me play the character I wanted, both mechanically and in terms of their personality.

DC Adventures Can Stat Anything.

Batman, Superman, The Flash, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Zatanna, Robin and Nightwing, Plastic Man, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Aquaman – all find a place in the DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook. The included Archetypes (prebuilt characters representing the most common character types in comics) include the Battlesuit (Iron Man lite), and the villains in the back cover a wide range between The Joker, Darkseid, and Gorilla Grodd.

The game system called Power Level governs the highest stats characters can have, and allows for certain trade-offs between accuracy and damage, as well as between avoiding hits and toughing them out. It’s very intuitive, and once you get a handle on it, the hows and whys of what makes a character tick start coming together pretty quickly – as well as how someone like Batman could measure up so nearly to Superman (Batman’s 12, Superman weighs in at 15). Using Power Level and a few decent rules of thumb, balancing encounters is perfectly possible (if a little unnecessary at times).

Comic books are well-known for having differently powered foes square off and use each other’s Complications (and weaknesses) to gain the victory. While the game normally recommends having everyone play the same PL, there’s no reason why you couldn’t just have everyone play members of the Justice League – or toss the recommended PL of 10 out the window the other direction and do a medieval fantasy/swords and sorcery game set around PL 6 or 8.

It’s a bit more scientific than D&D’s “Challenge Rating,” but there’s a lot of art to it, too – a little practice and you’ll get the hang of it in no time. I’ll talk specifics later, right now I’m just giving you the big picture view.

Mutants and Masterminds Does Spellcasting Right.

Okay, so this is more from the player’s side of the screen, but so what?

Extra Effort is how characters do the exceptional things that heroes are known for; pushing beyond their limits for brief periods, or using powers/effects in creative and unexpected ways – the “Power Stunts” mechanic. It gets tiring under normal circumstances (for the character, not the player!), but one of the things Hero Points are used for is negating that fatiguing effect – encouraging creativity.

So, a M&M/DCA spellcaster will have a short list of effects – “Spells” – that they use all the time, but be able to stunt others in battle if they’re needed at the cost of fatigue. Or Hero Points. None of this “Once per day” stuff written on their sheet – anything that’s used that seldom is just a power stunt. Or possibly a Ritual. Did I mention that this game gets rituals right the first time, too?

For the first time, I can play a magic user and actually LIKE it without ever feeling limited by what my class does and doesn’t offer – regardless of the GM’s setting of choice. Heck, I could probably do a game set in Golarion, and like it.

DC Adventures is a GM’s Best Friend.

Let me let you in on a little secret. The last game I ran using the DC Adventures system had almost no prep time, and the villain that my buddy’s PC fought didn’t even have a proper statblock. He hardly noticed.

I sketched out a rough idea of the plot, gave my bad guy a Power Level and a few trade-offs, noted about 3 powers, and called him good. He was, after all, a one-shot villain who was basically a one-trick pony – more effort than that really didn’t make sense. Anything I needed him to have, I just noted down in my notes and added it to my rough sketch of him while I kept up projecting the baddie’s character.

From the GM’s side of the screen, M&M gives you all the tools you need to be as detailed or abstract as you want about the baddies you throw at your players. Some sample bad guys are included (as well they should be), but you can get a LOT done just using the Power Level charts and some imagination.

I’m a proponent of the “Lazy” style of GMing, so the less thinking I have to do in order to get the game happening and moving – the better off everyone is going to be. On the other hand, if you poke around Atomic Think Tank for awhile, chances are good that SOMEONE will have made stats for something similar to what you want already, which makes it easy to just borrow, plug, and play. Call it an online monster manual, if you will – or just run with the sample statblocks that are provided in the core book. A little imagination combined with those will give you plenty to play with, and customizing an opponent is easy – just add whatever effects/powers, Advantages, or whatever else you need to and make note of any changes to the Power Level.

DC Adventures Can Handle A Fight Scene.

Quite a few of them, actually. Including everything from a nice one-on-one type brawl to a simple mugging to a boss fight with dozens of minions.

Yes, minions. Minions work better here than they do in 4th Edition D&D, thanks in part to the damage system abandoning Hit Points in favor of a Toughness Save – minions go down on their first failed save, and players get to make Routine Attack Checks against them – taking a 10. They go down fast, which is what they’re meant to do, but a little blind luck could still keep them on their feet for an extra round.

My rule of thumb? Any NPC who isn’t marked “Important” is by default a minion. It simplifies thing quite a bit for me as a GM, and simulates the genre fairly well. After all, minions exist to make the PC’s look good.

Mutants & Masterminds Can Do Anything.

It’s a universal game system …

… cleverly disguised as a superheroes game. No, really. I’d use it for fantasy, I’d use it for anime, comic books (anything from Silver to Modern to Iron Age), games set in the Star Wars universe, or some video game world (Assassin’s Creed: The RPG, anyone? Anyone?), I’d use it for grim and gritty detective stories, or even lighthearted school stories. And all that using only the core book.

Yes, it’s that awesome. One book, infinite possibilities. One might even say it’s . . . magical.

Okay, there’s one little caveat to that statement – tactically oriented, squad/grid-based combat. But if you want something that feels like you’re part of a book or a movie (or anything with battlefields that aren’t measured in 100’s of feet), yeah. I’d use this one.

In closing: Make Mine Mutants & Masterminds!

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Jonathan Baldwin

Jonathan is a firm believer that the best way to make friends is to game with them, and that nearly any problem can be surmounted with a well rolled d20 and a sense of humor. Regrettably, his professors do not agree with him, which leaves him with the challenge of balancing his gaming habits with his studies. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  4 Responses to “The Best of Mutants and Masterminds”

  1. Thanks guys! I’ve really enjoiyed the superhero posts! Takes me back.

  2. Amen to all that!

  3. Although I’m not really a fan of comics or the superhero genre in roleplaying, I’ve really enjoyed these articles and love reading ones that are written with passion by true fans.

    Great article!

  4. I”m convinced enough to possibly revise my Dundracon game wish list if this is one of the offerings… Thanks Jonathan and Greywulf!!

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