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.
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.
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.
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!