Friday, June 4, 2010

"The World's Greatest Superhero RPG"

Or so it says on the cover. It put me to sleep in about 5 minutes of reading, a feat previously only accomplished by the 4th edition Champions.

But after a couple hour nap with the beagles, I did go back and read the rest of the game, and managed to keep my eyes open for the remainder. That's one-up on Champions.

Yes, I broke down and bought Green Ronin's Mutants & Masterminds. Well, "broke down" isn't entirely accurate...I've been looking for a used copy of the game for about a week, ever since I saw Iron Man 2. But today I was able to get a copy of the 1st edition rules (suggested by one of my readers) down at Half-Price books...and for the bargain basement price of $8. I may be hard on D20 (that's putting it mildly) but I'm a sucker for a deal. And as I've written many times, I'm also a sucker for most any superhero RPG.

In fact, I almost picked up a copy of Wild Talents: Essential Edition for $10 when I was down at The Dreaming, earlier. However, I'm still holding out for the deluxe version with the Ken Hite essays...and while The Dreaming had one $50 copy on the shelf, a dude bought it about thirty seconds before I could even pick it up (yes, Gary's has a copy as well and I'll probably get it there...I'm still saving my pennies).

Plus, I've only begun to toy with M&M.

I've yet to actually attempt making a character with the game, though my first impressions of the character creation system was "not bad." Which isn't saying a whole lot since D20 has always had fun character creation, and starting as a 10th level character gives you a lot of points with which to play.

Which is interesting...even as a D20 game, chargen is even farther removed from D&D roots than standard D20. No random rolls at hit points, no random ability scores, no starting cash. Everything balanced against each other, designed to work with a single D20...a true "D20" system I guess.

Anyway, I actually like the combo of feats and powers...the use of power points and power levels (or just "levels" to me), is pretty nifty. The thing is, I LIKE levels in superhero RPGs. Villains & Vigilantes, Heroes of the cool things in these games (& M&M) IS the use of levels.

Why levels? Because for the most part the superhero/comic book genre is one of the few that features protagonists that actually grow and evolve in power over time.

Most comic book supers have to start with an "origin story," after Issue #1 in which the character gains great powers and has to learn how to use 'em. They're nervous and unsure of themselves (or they're cocky and over-confident, needing to be taken down a peg)...but after a couple hundred issues they're confident veterans, looked to by younger heroes as mentors. To me, this is easily modeled by an experience/level system.

Of course, Mutants & Masterminds doesn't start with level 1.

But of course, that's just your average D20 madness...5th level beat cops and 3rd level bystanders, I suppose. No "Normal Human" monsters to be found.

But that's enough whining on that particular issue. There's plenty of other things to complain about.
; )

For example, I was fine with the first three pages of combat. But then the next 15 was more than I could stomach. I skimmed it, mostly for the pretty pictures. But despite a stated desire to "adapt the world's most popular game system to the fast-paced world of superheroics" (page 3 of the introduction) I found it to be fairly tedious and clunky...still.

Then there's this little quote from the Gamemastering chapter. Regarding Altering the Outcome of Dice Rolls, the book says:

Isn't this cheating? Well, yes, in a matter of speaking it is, but it's "cheating" in order to make the game more interesting and fun for everyone involved. So long as you don't alter the outcome of die rolls unfairly or maliciously and you do it to help ensure the game is fun, interesting, and challenging, you shouldn't have a problem. Besides, the players don't have to know that you change the occasional dice roll. That's one of the reasons it's a good idea for Gamemasters to roll their dice out of sight of the players.

That's ugly. I mean, it's not just irritating, but offensive to my about three or four different, separate ways.

- "in order to make the game more interesting and fun for everyone involved" ...well, actually, it is making the game more interesting and fun for the GM and whatever is the GM's idea of "interesting and fun."

- "so long as you don't alter the outcome of dice rolls unfairly", isn't a random dice roll kind of the definition of fair and impartial? When you ignore what the Fates have decreed you are ignoring what is (hopefully) a game system designed to be fair and balanced.

- "besides, the players don't have to know you change the occasional dice roll" ...the conspiratorial tone, especially the included emphasis just makes me cringe. Is this us against them? Are the players just a bunch of suckers to be played?

- "it's a good idea for [GMs] to roll their dice out of sight" ...just keeping the trust-building going, huh? 'Cause the players couldn't take it if they saw you fudging the rolls and working off GM fiat of what YOU think is interesting? Or because the players will (rightly) pound your ass for preempting the game with what YOU think is fun?

Just so long as it's not "malicious," I guess. Jeez.

Anyways, there's probably more nit-picking I could do but again, some of these complaints about the attitude of D20 games is nothing new. I knew what I was doing when I bought it...which is why I was un-willing to pay more than I did.

I DID like the random disaster/opponent tables and would totally steal 'em (or make my own knock-off versions) for any superhero RPG I design. That was a good thing. Also, it's a plus for any game to have an introductory adventure included in it, and while I totally hate those over-stuffed stat blocks the NPCs (both the Freedom League heroes and the villains of the "rogue's gallery") are quite good. But then, I'm a fan of supers...

And the artwork is all excellent, too.

All right, that's enough back-n-forth. I'll try crafting a couple characters later to try out the system...maybe even run a couple mock combats to see how workable it is.

Later, gators.


  1. Mutants & Masterminds is a cool system, I think, though like you suggested, I find for my tastes it could be a little rules-lighter at times.

    The "DM fudging the occasional die-roll thing." I suppose that might worry player's in games where they felt they were adversarial with the GM--but even with utterly transparent die-rolls the GM's control of the antagonists, setting, and set-up would seem to stack the deck in his favor, anyway.

    Laregly, I think the harms you suggest are remedied by the player's trusting the GM and seeing him as sharing their goals (i.e. everybody's fun)--something I don't think die rolls alone are likely to create.

  2. @ JB - I heard a pod-cast on "The Game's The Thing" (episode 68) about this game called Basic Action Super Heroes (BASH). You might be interested in this rules system for Super Heroes. It seemed more in line with the old school asthetic and actually says he aimed to create something similar to the "old DnD basic book" and talks about playing basic dnd and why he really liked that style of gaming. It has a point buy system but the creator is working on an "Awesome Powers" book that would have pre-crafted powers and a random generation system. You should at least check out the podcast.

  3. If you're looking for "Old School Aesthetic" in a Supers game, I recommend ICONS, developed by Steve Kenson, the same man behind the Mutants & Masterminds game.
    It's based on the FATE system and has full random character creation, powers and all, for quick character creation, a sort of Silver Age anything goes sensibility, and quick and fun gameplay.
    He talks a bit about the system here:

  4. @ Trey: I don't think it's a problem of the GM not being trustworthy or being a "good guy" (or "gal"). But the conceit lies in letting the GM decide what is best or "most fun" for the players.

    Let's say the session starts with Dr. Destructor blasting a hole in the brownstone, and grabbing my character's girlfriend for some nefarious plan. My PC, the Welshman, grabs his trusty longbow, visions of past girlfriends being left in refrigerators, and fires an arrow at the fleeing villain's back.

    By fortunate happenstance, I roll a critical hit, inflict maximum damage, and the GM blows his save, and the fiend is disabled. Yay!

    Except the GM doesn't WANT the villain to be disabled...he's crafted an elaborate story around Dr. Desctructor's plot and the kidnapping of the girl and doesn't want the foe to be taken out of action so early in the session. To the GM, it will be "more fun and interesting" for the villain to evade the arrow, or be un-damaged by it, and make off with the girl.

    But to ME, the player, it is both MORE fun and MORE interesting for my character to be effective at what he does...saving his girl with his trusty bow. I WANT to take down the bad guy, I made the good rolls, and now I'M the one getting the shaft instead of the GM's pet NPC.

    That f'ing blows. Why bother rolling at all if the GM is going to fudge, based on fiat? Hell, why bother showing up to the game at all if my decisions don't have an impact when they are IMPORTANT and DESIRABLE to me?

    Because *I* did NOT want my lady-friend to be absconded. It mattered to my character, and now *I* am NOT having fun and am, frankly, a bit DISinterested in what happens next.

    See? Both I and the GM started with the same goal in have fun playing a superhero game. But somewhere along the way, our ideas of what were "fun and interesting" diverged from one another...and the game explicitly comes down on the side of the GM as if only the GM can decide what is fun and interesting.

    Looked at another way: what if the GM had NO interest in whether or not Dr. Destructor got away with the Welshman's girl...but I, the player, cared A LOT. But instead of rolling a critical hit, what if I roll a Natural 1, instead?

    To me it would be both more fun AND interesting to fudge this dice at least get a hit and wound the bad guy instead of looking like a jackass, maybe give the character and NPC chances for banter about the scratch/scar later in the adventure. But the rules don't give the PLAYER the option of fudging the dice or hiding his rolls.


    @ Rich: I HAVE been checking out BASH. I know it's been working well for some folks. I'll take a gander at the podcast. Thanks.

  5. Actually, JB, M&M *does* give the player the ability to fudge his rolls, in the form of Hero Points - you can spend one to reroll (with a guaranteed result of 11+). You can also spend it for a one-time use of a feat or power you don't actually have (the equivalent of the old MSH "power stunt"), shake off fatigue, get a hint, etc. Hero points are an enormous part of what lets M&M run like a comic book.

    I can't dig up my M&M1e book, but the second edition says explicitly that if the GM uses GM Fiat to the players detriment, they should receive a hero point. Allowing the villain to escape is one of the examples given.

    By handling it this way and attaching it to the hero point resource, M&M brings fudging out of the realm of cheating and fun-killing and makes it a part of the actual game. It feels a lot less like you're getting the shaft if the GM hands you something that makes you more effective later.

  6. @JB: Let’s look at your example again:
    First, no villain worth his black boots would try to kidnap the hero’s girlfriend without planning a diversion for our hero. Then the Welshman must decide between saving a dozen innocent strangers or the woman he loves. Even if the Intrepid Archer makes a desperate shot to rescue his lady-love, and the arrow strikes true, our hero and his breathless companion find that what they thought was Dr. Destructor himself was in fact one of his many decoy robots!!!

    What could be Dr. Destructor’s dastardly plan? Why would he want to kidnap our hero’s girlfriend? Could this have all been a diversion to keep the Wiley Welshman away from something much bigger?
    Bidding his golden-tressed girlfriend a tearful adieu, the Welshman speeds off in his nearby Welsh-mobile, determined to trace Dr. Destructor’s path back to his lair and uncover the nature of the villainy his arch-enemy has planned….
    But, as the Welsh-mobile’s dust cloud begins to settle on the horizon, an inky black figure emerges from the shadows and inches closer to our hero’s lady-love. A hand reaches towards her neck. She gasps as hands of darkness wrap around her tender throat. She tries to scream, but she cannot!
    As the shadowy figure carries her limp form out of the shattered ruins of the brownstone, it is made clear that her emergency signal locket has fallen to the ground, inactive.

    Ultimately, if your biggest beef with the system is that it says it’s okay to fudge a roll once in a while, then that’s not much of a problem.

  7. @ drnuncheon: If player fudging is limited to a finite resource like hero points (and one with very specific rules/limits on how far the "fudging" can be pushed)...well that's not really equitable.

    THAT being said, tying the GM fiat TO the resource (awarding hero points for using fiat) isn't a bad idea at all. That particular system isn't in the 1st edition rules however.

    @ Sovereign-E: : )

    @ Psiko-N: I will take a look for it. Thanks!

  8. JB: there will always be a power inequity in traditional GM-and-players games, so that's nothing new. A DM all the way back to OD&D could set up any number of unbalanced situations with the only check being the willingness of his players to show up every session for the abuse. He could stack the odds to impossible heights against the players even if he rolls everything in the open.

    You can't have "equitable" when one side of the table has the final say on everything- the best you can hope for is that the person with that power is trustworthy enough to use it for the enjoyment of everyone.

    But enough of that! It's been long enough since I've played 1e M&M that the differences between the two editions have faded out - 1e was great but 2e has that extra bit of polish. It sounds like 3e (and DC Heroes) will shed even more of the d20 trappings, so you might want to check that out when they become available.

  9. fairly tedious and clunky should be the M&M tagline. It could be in one of those big red starbursts, letters increasing in size, seeming to leap off the cover!

    M&M is a good effort, but misbegotten.

  10. THAT being said, tying the GM fiat TO the resource (awarding hero points for using fiat) isn't a bad idea at all. That particular system isn't in the 1st edition rules however.

    In 1st ed, Villains got equitable Villain Points to spend fpr that stuff. The idea being that the villains would blow all their Villain Points in the first round (thus escaping with the girlfriend while the hero has to ctach falling masonry to save the bystanders), but the heroes woudl then have more in the rematch and beat up the baddies.

    Steve basically said that, though he felt it wa sa good idea, it didn't work out so well in play, because the heroes woudl quickly get into a pissing mtach with the villains and feel compelled to win the first round. Which actually gets to the crux of this discussion:

    How far should supers-game emulate supers-comics?

    See, D&D, though informed by many sources, isn't directly emulating any of them. It is it's own thing. But supers-game tend to want to emulate comcis i.e. emulate particualr kind of stories. And that's a very different thing. If you want your game to model comics, then the game has to be fairly rail-roady. If yuo don't want that, then yuo have to accept that the game is going to play out in it's own, different fashion.

    Oh, and I feel compelled to add two things:

    1. Even though I think 1 st edition M&M is more fun, I fully supported the way in which 2nd ed added Complications. I thought it was an amazingly good idea when I first saw it in Truth & Justice (before 2nd ed M&M) and can no longer imagine going back to the HERO-style way of getting more character-points for that kind of thing.

    2. I've been posting a bit on old-school gaming and supers-games via a random-roll method for Truth & Justice. It may--or may not--be of interest to you. The most recent post is