Thursday, October 22, 2009

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

RPGs I Like: Mutants and Masterminds, Second Edition
Part Two

Part One here

Strengths
Mutants & Masterminds provides a detailed system for character creation while still remaining relatively simple. Players have access to a comprehensive set of powers with the mechanics behind those powers being fairly easy to grasp. Green Ronin's adaptation really reworks the OGL engine base, but there's enough connection to the base form that players coming to it from d20 will be able to pick up and run with it quickly. It strikes a nice balance between high detail crunch and abstracting concepts.

Combat, as I've said, runs quickly but maintains the feel of the superhero genre. Players can easily begin with a basic level of play detail and bring in more as they get comfortable with the system. The completeness of the core book also works to the games advantage, requiring really only a single book for everything you need to play and play well.

Over the years I've taught and run a number of superhero systems. This was by far the easiest to get across to players. I measure some of that in the time it takes players to stop looking at their sheets all of the time and also the time it takes for them to seize initiative about their options and maneuvers. A few players I had who had been completely turned off by other supers games found themselves enjoying this immensely. They liked the flow of it and often commented that things felt balanced. In particular they felt they didn't have to have extensive background and familiarity with the game to do well. They'd tried other games where clearly there were “optimal” character creation and advancement choices-- where they saw themselves dropping behind more experienced players over time.

Weaknesses
One of my player's, more mathematically inclined, has some issues with the strength/lift chart. Since I handle most of that abstractly, that's never come up in play. The game does have an awful lot of conditions-- sickened, nauseated, shaken, etc-- some of which are close enough to be redundant. I usually stick with the basics. Most of those conditions come fro specific powers so some of the weight rests on the players to remember them.

I think M&M works as a Supers game, but I'm not sure how well it functions at lower powers levels. The range of numbers is fairly narrow, so I think a low-powered or normals-based game suing this system might feel a little unsatisfying. At that level most characters would be very close within the same range and might feel flat. I think that's always a question with engines that simulate superbeings. For example, GURPS 3e for me has the opposite problem. I think I handles low-powered and normal games well, but supers terribly, with a cumbersome system. I think likewise, Mutants and Masterminds' strength lies in handling superheroes and related genres.

Of course any point based system is open to what we locally call “goobing.” The abstract nature of the game does mean that a careful point cruncher could make an abusive character. I don't think it is any more likely here than in any other system except those that bore down to the atomic level for mechanics and balance. Mutants and Masterminds isn't exactly a high trust system, but is has a greater level of trust and freedom than those systems. There's a trade off between ease and character balance. If the latter is vital to your group or you have problem players who always goob out the system, then this might not be the game for you. I have quibbles with a couple of the powers (the potential problems of Posession ala Jericho from the Teen Titans or the relative weakness of Deflection as a power). Often when I've seen problems in play I've gone back to the rules and seen something I missed at first glance that explains some limit that was overlooked.

My one exception would be something which probably ought to be marked as a caution (or stop-sign) power. There are some arrays, like Alternate Form, which allow players to switch through sets of different powers. Each set can have several items in them, and each is bought an an Alternate Power feat. While a character can't have more than one set active from an array at a time, it does mean that this is a relatively inexpensive way to have characters with lots of power choices. There's the potential for characters to have essentially everything for any situation. There are some limits on it, but GMs will need to watch those kinds of power arrays closely.

Core Materials and Key Supplements
The core book for Mutants & Masterminds pretty much has everything you need to play. That's both a strength and a limitation, as most of the supplemental products work variations on those tools. For those who like lots of publications with new rules and mechanics, they mind find that disappointing. If you want a strong all-in-one system, then you'll be satisfied. Green Ronin also produces a Pocket Players Guide for M&M which has all of the core rules and mechanics in a B&W trade paperback form. Its a great supplement and cheap- if you have a group where usually only one person picks up the rules, you can probably convince a couple of others to grab this.

Ultimate Power, as I've mentioned before, breaks down the power rules into the core components. It is the most mechanically oriented of all the supplements. It breaks down into three major sections- a general discussion on how powers function, then a breakdown of all the base effects (plus modifiers) and then a section where it takes those tools and presents a hefty list of new powers built from them. I'd recommend this as the one book you definitely want to buy if you play and enjoy M&M. It isn't required, but it does nicely expand the information. As with the main books, there's also a pocket version of this available.

The Masterminds Manual is a useful GM resource for modifying gameplay. It walks through the various aspects of the game (character creation, characteristics, skills, feats, powers, device, combat, etc.). Each section goes over the logic of the system and possible variations. For example how you handle different tech levels of equipment, how to build new feats, skill synergy and group and how to add attacks of opportunity (...if you wanted to...). That's a nice full volume, but given that nearly everything here is optional, you may find yourself only using a small portion of the material.

Setting Products
Green Ronin has produced three very distinct superhero campaign settings for Mutants and Masterminds. It is nice to see those kinds of choice available. Generally I build my own setting, but I usually buy this kind of material for plot ideas and for villain and ally write ups. The diversity of the material here mean that if you're looking for a background to get a game started right away, you can probably find one to suit your group's temperament.

Freedom City presents a more fully fleshed out sourcebook for the setting from the core book. With an expansive history, a variety of sources for powers, hidden civilizations and aliens races it is a nice example of your classic “anything goes” super world. Think the Marvel or DC Universe or actually more likely the Astro City comic setting. The book covers the 'default' location of Freedom City and the world beyond. If you're looking for a basic supers setting, it works. As well other M&M products use this as the standard backdrop. There's also a pretty good module Time of Vengeance available set here.

Paragons, on the other hand, has a more complicated look at a superhero campaign. It presents a campaign backdrop with a little more realism, though I use that term loosely. Campaign powers come from a single source, and there's information on how to set the coming of those powers as the start of a campaign or in the relatively recent past. While the book provides information on NPCs and organizations, it also presents a lot of options and discussion of the implications of those options for this kind of campaign. I like it as a toolkit, but building the right atmosphere for this kind of campaign will take more work than the more conventional setting of Freedom City. There's also a module available for the Paragons' setting, A More Perfect Union, but I have not read that.

The most recent setting adapts the Wild Cards series of books to the M&M system. Some may remember that being done before for GURPS. This is a complicated world setting but the author does a great job of presenting, adapting and summarizing the material from the seventeen plus books in the series [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Cards]. I really like the setting, but I suspect that you'd have to have some players with a handle on the background to make it work unless you started from a new ground zero event. Still this may be the best adaptation of source material to an existing game system I've ever seen. It is comprehensive while at the same time being usable. There's also a module All In, available for it.

Other Products
Crooks presents your classic collection of villains and organizations for M&M. It's based in the “Meta-4” universe which appeared in the 1st edition of M&M but hasn't been followed up on. Despite that the characters presented can easily be used outside that context. My only criticism would be that there's some really dark bad guys in here which certainly don't fit with a four-color game. Lockdown presents your classic supervillain prison, with plenty of character material. That's a staple of superhero games and if you like it, this book certainly fits the bill.

Agents of Freedom provides a campaign style framework for running super-agents. As I mentioned before, I don't think M&M works as well at the lower power level. There some recognition of that in the set up here-- providing more points per power level for super-agent characters but keeping the caps in place. It has a nice discussion of typical options & equipments, skill systems, and outlines for running several different kinds of campaigns. As well it provides several extensive example agencies. Golden Age provides campaign suggestions for running pulp, WW2 and Cold War-era games. There's some nice stuff on what “Golden Age” means, history, advice on appropriate character design, discussion of WW2 in the context of the Freedom City setting and quite a bit more. For GMs who want to run in this era is has a lot of useful material. I'd also suggest Fires of War from BlackWyrn, another WW2 sourcebok which has a version doen for M&M.

My two least favorite products so far have been the M&M Annual #2 and Book of Magic. The former product is about one-third general super campaign notes and two-thirds quickie adventures which had been available on the web previously. That's a little disappointing. The first annual for the first edition of M&M had some nice material in it. I bought the pdf for Annual #2 expecting more of the same and was disappointed. With Book of Magic I was hoping for perhaps some more specific structures and options for how to make a magic-centered game. Perhaps some style ideas and things which would help make magic feel less like a special effect or a generic power class. Instead there's some example characters, devices, and a lot of very general discussion about magic that goes all over the place. I ended up skimming through that as little felt new or novel.

Mecha and Manga is the most recent sourebook from Green Ronin. It has advice on adapting the system to a wide variety of related genres. From the classic anime goofiness of Tenchi Miyo, to mecha settings like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Patlabor, to Martial Arts for Ranma ½ or Naruto, to the Pet Genre of...yes, Pokemon. I like what've they've done here and there's a nice mix of mechanics, character archetypes and general gamemastering advice for the genre. While not as comprehensive or dedicated as something like BESM 3e, if you like M&M you'll find this incredibly useful for porting game sin that direction.

There are a few products available I haven't picked up so I can't say much beyond what they appear to be. Worlds of Freedom is an alternate worlds sourcebook. Iron Age presents material for running the dark and gritty heroes of the 80's and '90's (think Lobo, Wildcats, and The Dark Knight). Warriors & Warlocks tries to spirit of fantasy comics (like Conan)- which seems a little odd given that some of the core engine for doing fantasy seems to have been done with True20. Hero High presents material for a teen/school based campaign. Freedom's Most Wanted is another antagonist book set in the Freedom City universe. Time of Crisis is an epic adventure of worlds colliding (ala Criss on Infintie earths) Instant Superheroes is a collection of ready-made archetypes, and the M&M Beginners Guide is a 32 page quick overview of the system.

I should also note that Green Ronin has a number of Archetype pdfs available-- some with a focus around a particular kind of character (example one) or related to a specific sourcebook (example two). I don't find these as useful, but your results may vary. They also have nice third-party support through the M&M Superlink license which allows other companies to publish materials for the game.

Summary
Mutants & Masterminds does what I want a superhero system to do. It plays fast, can simulate high powered events, has room for deep character moments, and new players take to it quickly. Of the supers systems I've used, it best matches my play style and focus.

Portability
As a basically a system, I don't think M&M is portable out to other games. The one exception might be the damage resolution mechanic which is a nice one. Doing away with hit points or wounds and providing an easy system to simulate wear down over combat could work elsewhere. In the other direction, I do think M&M can be used for other genres, but I suspect that would take some work. True20 and Blue Rose take some of the concepts but apply a narrower and more strictly based advancement system, doing away with the points. I think Mutants & Masterminds, points and all, can work as a generic engine (ala Hero System or GURPS)-- and certainly the Mecha and Manga and Warriors & Warlocks supplements try for that. But for some kinds of genres I'd be put off by the amount of mechanics you'd have to reconcile.