Wednesday, October 21, 2009

RPGs I Like: Mutants and Masterminds, 2e (Part One)

Another overly long article I'm breaking into two parts...

RPGs I Like: Mutants and Masterminds, Second Edition

I like the superhero genre and Mutants and Masterminds has become my go to system for those games. I say that having run and played in a lot of superhero systems (Champions, City of Heroes, Superhero 2044, Villains and Vigilantes, DC Heroes, Marvel Superheroes, GURPS Supers) and read still others (Godlike, Underground, Enforcers, Superworld, Beyond Human). For the kinds of games I'm running now- faster and more cinematic- M&M works well.

M&M builds from the d20 OGL in a fairly different direction. While at heart there's the basic d20 system, in execution it feels quite distinct. I'll admit I avoided it for some time because of that link, but I was really pleased when I finally sat down with the first edition. I had been running demos of CoH at Origins when I had a player explain the mechanics of M&M to me. Honestly, that's my favorite part about cons, getting solid face-to-face explanations from people who've played the game.

Edition Notes
I started with Mutants & Masterminds in the first edition and eventually moved up, somewhat reluctantly, to the second. I hesitated initially as I'd bought most of the sourcebooks and was pretty happy with the play of the game. However the quality of the changes from first to second finally won me over. Every change seemed for the better, including some substantial retooling of the game elements. While Green Ronin made some major changes, learning the new system was easy. I had only a couple of problems converting existing characters between the two editions. Materials with mechanics (like characters and powers) from the first edition don't port quickly unfortunately and some things (like Gimmicks Guide to Gadgets) ended up obsolete. Overall though I was pleased with my choice to move to the newer version.

System Basics
As with other supers systems, M&M uses points to build your character. In a holdover from the OGL a character's power level sets limits on how high anything can be bought. I generally dislike levels as a concept, but here it works. Here characters don't “level-up” per se, but instead when they gain enough spendable hero points they reach the next power level increasing those caps. That helps keep balance in the system and give players a goal to shoot for. I like that the system builds those limits in, as opposed to having to figure out and recalculate ratios and points as we used to have to do in Champions.

Points can be spent on characteristics, saves, combat values, feats, skills and powers. Characteristics mainly serve to feed bonuses for basic actions, skills and saves. They don't feed directly into the combat values. Attack and Defense- used for the basic combat rolls are bought up independently. You have four basic save types (Fortitude, Reflex, Will and Toughness) with the last being the standard damage save. The skills list is basic but comprehensive, with the ability to buy specializations. Players can buy ranks in skills relatively cheaply, which works given their place within the genre. The feat list is excellent-- a nice range of choices. There's little in the way of overstacking, chained requisite feats (i.e. Master Improved Overrun Bullrush II). Instead most feats have a basic function. For those which need to have an evolving power level, players can buy ranks in the feat. For example, Defensive Roll which grants a Toughness save when not caught flat-footed. I like this system as it allows the player to tailor their abilities nicely- for example Uncanny Dodge allows you to maintain your Dodge bonus when flat-footed, but how much depends on the rank you've bought it to. I also like that feats and ranks in feats all cost the same thing- one point per rank.

That's one of the things I like about M&M. There's a point system, but it doesn't feel as crunchy or difficult as some other games. It takes a kind of middle path regarding abstraction and balance. The mechanics across the board are easy enough that things feel right, without feeling like every bit has to be perfectly defined and made exact with each other. That may not appeal to everyone, but the results have been satisfying in the groups I've run for.

Of course the question of powers is the big one. Here M&M tries to strike a happy medium between reducing powers to their base effect and having some colorful options.

Powers have a basic thing that they do and players buy ranks in those powers. The effect and scope of that power determines the cost per rank. So, something like a Blast power, a simple ranged attack, will cost 2 points per rank. Something like Astral Form costs 5 points per rank to represent the effects involved with that. That rank doesn't affect the attack roll, but rather determines the resistance or the number used for contest resolution. So some powers end up more narrowly defined, while others serve as groupings with more than one effect. One could reduce all of these to “base effects,” but the book provides a nice mix of the two-- providing the kind of color that helps this kind of game. For those who want to see and tinker with the engine, the Ultimate Power supplement provides that framework. It isn't necessary, but can be useful.

Power can, of course, be modified. Some have their “Special Effect” built in, like Light Control. Most assume the player will assign the source or type of the power. Powers can have Power Feats, Extras and Flaws. Power Feats cost 1 point and add a little something to the use of the power, like Improved Range or Subtle. The most important Power Feat is “Alternate Power.” Many powers suggest “Alternate Powers”-- for example Light Control's standard effect is to control the amount of light in an area. However, players could also buy Blast, Dazzle or Illusions under that power as well. What that means in practice is that the player can use one of those powers at a time. So if they'd taken those options, they could use Blast or Dazzle on a turn. (Sidebar: yes, a Mutlipower with Ultra Slots). I like this system as it does make things pretty easy to calculate and for new players to understand. The cost savings of these groups, called arrays in M&M, is at a trade off for that single use at a time and the fact that an ability which neutralizes or drains that power affects all powers in the array.

Extras for powers significantly affect the scope and strength of the power. For example affecting a different saving throw than the power usually does, increasing duration, or autofire all fall into this. Generally those Extras raises the cost per rank by one, depending on the effect-- but the range of change is fairly narrow, so the math stay simple. On the opposite side, Flaws reduce the overall effect of the power (decreasing range, tiring, and so on) at the same time reducing the cost per rank.

A character's level generally sets the maximum power rank, but there are some exceptions. Since there's a difference within Super Strength between effective lift and combat ability, players can by things like that above the limit. So a character could be really super-strong for narrative purposes but he'd still be balanced in power. Some powers have the player buy ranks and then assign them to specific utility abilities, such as Super Movement or Immunity. In the case of the latter, things like immunity to aging, disease, and poison each take up one rank. More comprehensive or powerful immunities, like critical hits, suffocation or a particular type of damage require more ranks. Essentially the Gm has the discretion to allow powers with generally non-combat effects to break the PL cap.

Mechanics and Combat
Combat's usually at the core of a superhero game, and the M&M system works pretty smoothly. It does change things up a little which takes players some getting used to. To attack, you roll your Attack Value + d20. Your Attack value can be modified by feats, range and circumstances, but generally it remains pretty static. You try to beat your opponent's Defense Value +10. Some powers don't require an attack roll which can be easy to overlook.

The system has a unique way of handling damage. When hit by a standard attack, the target rolls their Toughness Save + d20 against the attack's power level +15. It they make the roll, they take no damage. If they miss the roll less than five, they take a Bruise, which gives them a -1 against further damage saves. Those stack, so over time a character will become worn down as they take more damage. If they miss by 5-9, they take a Bruise and are Stunned for a round. If they miss by 10-14, they tale a Bruise and are Staggered. If they miss by 15 or more, they're knocked out. Lethal damage is handled in much the same way, with the consequences being more severe.

This system feels a little odd at first, but it works in play. It does mean that a bad damage save and no hero points for rerolls means that a player can get knocked out in one shot. We typically use the optional rule that the first hit of a fight cannot KO a PC, but can only do Stun + Bruise. There's a trade off here for the players-- they get to roll actively when hit to resist damage. But they don't get to make a roll for damage against their target. I've only had one player who didn't like the change up.

Some powers, such as mental blasts, follow the same process but use a different saving throw for the damage. For powers which cause an effect, like Paralyze or Dazzle, the target makes the appropriate saving throw against a target number of 10 + the appropriate power's rank. There's a symmetry to the system and once a group has played through a sample fight they understand the basic mechanics well. There's more chrome to the mechanics which can be applied and player's have to get used to their powers and feats, but once they do they can run with it. The has has more depth than I'm presenting here-- maneuver options for example-- but those are options and players naturally move to those after they've done a few fights.

What really sold me on the system, besides the ease of putting characters together, was that fights went smoothly and quickly. We could play out two full fights in a session, plus investigation, plus character interplay, plus bookeeping. Even a big set-piece battle where I fill the table with bad guys, have environmental obstacles and other twists, usually won't take more than an hour. Most fights will be shorter than that and because of the speed and pacing, players feel satisfied-- they've gotten to take a number of actions and had their moment in the spotlight. I think that sense of participation and action is key to a good session. At least some of that comes from having the players make their damage saves-- they're able to react to damage being done to them, even if it is just making a roll (and they can spend hero points if they do botch a roll). That keeps them in the scene.

Tomorrow- strengths, weakness, and an assessment of the products out now for the system.