One Hit Wonders: Mutants & Masterminds

Home with a nasty bug, figure I can at least work at catching up with this a bit.

The next OHW we did was Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds, the d20-derived superhero game.


I’ve wanted to try out some different superhero systems for a while. Aside from Amber-derived systems, freeform games or an adaptation of “With Great Power,” the only superhero RPG I’d ever played was Hero System 5th Edition. It bears noting that Hero System is the one game I absolutely refuse to play. Or, at least, I will only play with the proviso that I don’t have to understand the rules. Between having a GM who remade my character the first time I played because I didn’t power-game him enough, to the baroque combat rules, I just gave up. I played with the GM because I liked his games, but got tired of the system. I could have probably sat down with the rules and made sense of them, but at a certain point I just stopped caring. It just seemed so non-intuitive that it didn’t seem worth the effort.

I’ve also run a few freeform games that featured superheroes. “The Tomorrow League,” my WW2 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen knockoff that I run at ACUS, has featured several Golden Age superheroes.

(Technically, I also worked on some rules stuff for a sourcebook from Guardians of Order that never saw the light of day. It used a variant of the rules from their Tri-Stat Silver Age Sentinals. At no point can I say I ever fully understood how the Tri-Stat system worked, despite having been paid money to work on this book. And this, my friends, is how crappy rules end up in your favorite RPG sourcebooks.)

Mutants & Masterminds has long been on my list because it seems positively streamlined compared to the Hero System. And, really, the art is phenomenal and is really evocative of the source material. Sadly, most superhero RPGs don’t have much of a comic book vibe. I have several superhero games on my shelf (Aberrant, Brave New World, the newest Marvel Universe RPG, one or two of the DC Universe RPGs, Silver Age Sentinals, The Authority, GURPS: Supers, Truth and Justice), and this is the first one that got greenlit by the group.

Character Creation

For the players, it seemed like character creation was a pain in the ass. For the most part, M&M is a point-buy system. It borrows concepts like levels, feats and skills from d20, but uses them in a more grab-bag approach. Most of the players opted to simply use an online character generator for their characters and made them in advance. As GM, I opted to use some the NPC villains presented in the back. The main challenge to that was really just figuring out what all of the feats and powers did. The amount of notes I took felt like I was making a character from scratch. Overall, it didn’t seem like something you’d just make up on the fly.

In Play

Once we got past the burden of the character stats, the game seemed to run pretty smoothly. The concepts from D&D 3.X made things very familiar. M&M replaces hit points with a series of saving throws. You never use a die besides the d20, and it greatly reduces the bookkeeping involved. All of that was really awesome.

The system has some fun narrative aspects, allowing the GM to compensate the PCs for being subjected to comic book tropes: The villain getting away, the heroes all getting knocked unconscious and captured, etc. And it also has a mechanic for those weird one-off abilities that superheroes sometimes whip out as a plot device. This last seems fun at first glance, but the mechanics behind it make it cumbersome to try and do on the fly. What seemed a neat way to pull off cool one-time stunts really appeared to be something you’d want to prep in advance as “powers I want my character to have, but I don’t think I’ll use them often enough to want to spend points on.” It was also very good at maintaining “comic book physics” instead of trying to be hyper realistic.

Another challenge was that it seemed a bit too easy to end up with characters of vastly different power levels. The first villain I pulled out was the Kung Fu Killer template from the back of the book. Though it is listed as being at the same starting power level as a starting PC, I found him largely ineffective against the powerhouses. Similarly, when one of those powerhouses got mentally dominated by the Brain in a Jar, it nearly turned very, very ugly for the PCs.

The main concern I have with the mixed power levels is the ability to create a fair and balanced challenge for the group. How do you do that when the PCs are of such variable power levels? It draws into question the age old question of, “Can you run a game with Green Arrow and Superman on the same team?” In theory, the answer is “Yes,” but it seemed really hard with this system. There may very well be rules I missed on it, ways I have villains push their abilities or things the PCs could have done differently, but overall it was frustrating.

Compared to the Leading Brand

The main superhero game that people mention is Hero System/Champions. It’s an old standard and some people really love it. It’s easy to say that I’d readily play Mutants and Masterminds in lieu of Hero System. But then, I’d also say I’d readily drive rusty nails through my genitals in lieu of playing the Hero System. But, seriously, M&M is much more intuitive and streamlined than Hero System. It’s also a significantly smaller book.

One flaw for me, that I’ve noticed in a few different games, is the desire to define every last inch of a character’s powers: range, strength, area of effect, yadda, yadda, yadda. Which involves a whole lot of fiddling with numbers. You mostly get past that in character creation, but usually if you are a character with some sort of variable power (like a sorcerer supreme or a shapeshifter) then you either need to prep stuff in advance or know the rules well enough to create stuff on the fly. Neither of which seems ideal. I’m not sure how games like Aberrant or Brave New World handle these sorts of issues.

Final Verdict

Roleplaying, for me, is about a degree of immersion. (I can actually say that word now without throwing up in my mouth.) When I play a superhero game, I want to feel like I’m having fast-paced action straight off the pages of the comic book. Even with some frustrations for me, this game definitely lived up to that. The combat moved smoothly enough that I didn’t feel like it was an exercise in wading through numbers.

Were someone to run this game, I would readily play. I would probably not use it for my own superhero games in the near future. The amount of rules that I would probably need to learn to feel confident running it is more than I have patience for at the moment.

I am not sure what I would use in lieu of it. I know there are a couple popular story-gamey superhero games out there. And they do seek to resolve that Green Arrow/Superman disparity that you invariably run into. But I am hesitant to go that route. I want the cool story aspect to it, but I also want to have the big throwdowns as well. The pitches I’ve heard from friends about games like Truth & Justice or With Great Power do not make them sound like what I want out of a superhero game experience.

More likely I would end up cooking up some basic Amber Diceless spinoff, assuming I wanted something ongoing.

The next game we did was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Just one more of these posts and I can finally get to my ACUS recap!

4 thoughts on “One Hit Wonders: Mutants & Masterminds

  1. colomon

    My experience from playing in an M&M campaign was that the system was simple enough to draw me in, but so flawed as to throw me out again a short time later. I think I may have complained about this to you before. My character’s powers were more or less Cannonball’s — fly fast, hit things really hard, invulnerable. Early adventures the power was awesome — he could take out three or four minions in one turn, and take a good stab at the big bad too.

    Then our GM beefed up the minions a bit by our fourth adventure, and suddenly my guy couldn’t handle them any more. Or rather, I’d make four non-lethal attacks, and the first three would do nothing what-so-ever, and the fourth one would knock the minion back a mile, presumably killing him dead. It was the d20 versus d20 mechanism that was the problem, I think — I would only hit if I made my attack role and he failed his save, and when that happened he was in a world of hurt. And everything seemed to be like that, eventually — the rules were simple, but they didn’t feel right.

  2. admin Post author

    Sorry for the delay in responding. Life and stuff.

    I do recall your complaint about that. I don’t know what the answer is to that. Because I want a simple dynamic that helps make combat more fast and dynamic, but often that seems to sacrifice something in the process.

  3. colomon

    Revisiting this, I’ve got a few thoughts on it:

    1) If one of your physical combat-based heroes can’t quickly deal with physical combat-based mooks, you’ve got serious problems somewhere. It’s just plain out-of-genre. (Now imagining how my Star Wars players would react if the Empire suddenly redesigned the Stormtrooper armor so it would shrug off blaster bolts and lightsaber attacks…)

    2) If non-lethal attacks are an important part of the system, then you’ve got to actually allow them. Non-lethal attacks that are only effective when they kill are just insane.

    3) It seems to me the mechanic should be that if I roll my d20 and hit, the other character is knocked back; if he saves, then he is not hurt by it, or is not thrown back as far, or something. That would at least allow a character like mine to clear the field, so to speak, even if he cannot easily damage his opponents. And it seems to me this is at least as common a superhero fight cliche as landing a huge punch on someone that doesn’t make him give ground. (I mean, sure, if you’re fighting the Blob, whose main power is that you can’t knock him off his feet… but that’s the exception, not the rule.)

    Not sure how much of the blame should fall on the GM and how much on the system.

    In general, I think I have a lot of issues like this with the current wave of d20 games — I’m all in favor of simplifying the system, but it feels like they have lost important aspects of modeling the genres by doing so.

  4. admin Post author

    I can’t speak for your experience. I know in my instance, it was a disparity of what it meant to be a “physical combat character.” I put the party against a villain of roughly equal power per the rules. This wasn’t an outright mook, this was a full-fledged villain. But the problem with comic books is: Sure, Elektra and She-Hulk are both physical combat characters, and you could even stat them out so that they have the same number of points. But even if Elektra is a better technical fighter, she’s not going to overcome She-Hulk’s damage resistance and strength. The best she might manage is a stalemate if she can avoid getting hit.

    One of the PC martial artists was able to deal with a room full of mooks singlehandedly. And she really shined in that instance. But these were pretty much full-on mooks. I think used the “ninja” or “thug” stats for them. They were meant to be cannon fodder, and they worked well for that. In retrospect I can’t recall if we worried about non-lethal. We were aiming for more of an “Authority” style game than “Justice League.”

    I don’t think the simplifying of dice rolls is necessarily a d20 thing. Sure, Star Wars Saga Edition and D&D4 have tried to clean up their rules, but most of their ideas seem to have been poached from other sources. And for d20 proper, I can’t think of a company beyond Green Ronin (with their Mutants & Masterminds and True 20 stuff) that really took simplified d20 as far as they did.

    But there are other games that went the fast and simple route: Eden Studio’s Buffy/Angel/Army of Darkness, Savage Worlds, the new World of Darkness come immediately to mind.

    I think if you are playing a game based off of “these rules can simulate anything,” then you run the risk of the GM’s foibles. Your game could very easily start to become more like D&D where you need to feel like you are challenged all the time in order for the game to be “good.” And, as I saw with M&M, it’s really hard to know what the power levels you’re playing with can end up.

    But the solution people tend to come up with tends to be more “storygame,” which doesn’t really solve it for me.

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