Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mutants & Masterminds 3e: System Guide for New Players

This began as a quick reference document for players in my upcoming Mutants & Masterminds campaign. I’m migrating them from M&M 2e to 3e. As you can see, my brevity escaped me. In the end, I wrote this for two audiences: M&M players who haven’t made the switch and superhero gamers curious about the system. Obviously I’m in the tank for M&M, having run it successfully for many campaigns. I know superhero rpgs generate more “Don't play X, you should play Y” posts than other genres. I play and enjoy several different systems: Venture City Stories, Base Raiders, Worlds in Peril, Marvel Heroic, etc. I’m not weighing M&M’s value against other systems; I’m just supplying an overview. Feedback’s welcome.

tl/dr: Buy some version of the core book and then Power Profiles

M&M 3e is a d20 system, built around single roll resolution. While it has roots in the d20 OGL, this edition moves further. Players build characters using points; an average starting PC has 150. While the system has levels these serve only as benchmarks and limits to purchases. Points buy attributes, advantages (i.e. feats), powers, skills, and attack/defense ratings. M&M feels much less complicated than GURPS Supers or Powers and a bit less than Champions. It’s in the ballpark with Mutant City Blues and Rotted Capes; maybe a hair more involved. Your reaction will depend heavily on your experience with point construction mechanics. If you haven't used those before, it may feel overwhelming.

Power creation is central to the system. One of my players describes it as “object-oriented.” You define an effect for a power and then construct attributes around that. So an energy blast is a Damage effect, with the "Extra" usable at range. This gives the power’s base cost per rank, in this case 2 points per. You can apply additional Extras and Flaws to change costs. Most powers operate this way. A sub-set has your rank allow for a choice of effects. In this case, you "spend" ranks to select from a menu of options. Immunity and Movement work this way for example. The advantage system follows this pattern. The feat-like qualities are presented as micro-powers, covering simple effects.

At heart, M&M works like other d20 games. Rounds cover six seconds and initiative determines action order. Distances are given and can be determined from movement tables, but in play feel fairly abstract. I suspect most GMs will rough those out, given the nature of supers flying around a battlefield. Players roll most attacks by adding a rating to a d20 roll and comparing the result to a defense value. If they equal or beat that target, they hit. The defender then rolls a resistance versus the effect. In the case of a damage, the target # is the attack’s rank+15; in the case of other power effects the target # is the attack’s rank +10. If the defender saves, nothing happens. If they fail, they check how badly. M&M breaks this into four degrees, one for each 5 points of failure. Damage effects have specific results: miss by one degree and you gain a cumulative -1 to further damage saves; miss by two degrees and you get that -1 as well as becoming dazed; miss by three and you get the -1 and become staggered. If you miss by four degrees, you drop. Non-damage effects usually have three stages of severity as well, without the a stacking penalty. So a Poison effect might cause Impaired/ Immobile/ Paralyzed, depending on degree.

The end result is that as they take damage, characters become more susceptible to being KO'd. Teaming up becomes a strong tactic, allowing players to raise the resisted damage number. In practice it feels very comic book. Though the system seems complex at first glance, a small set of mechanics run through everything. Once you get a few of the pieces, the rest fall into place. Players who gain that mastery can then explore more complex options and maneuvers. In my experience combat's faster than Champions, but not as fast as something like Fate.

I ran M&M 1e for several years and then reluctantly transitioned to 2e. That turned out well and I came to appreciate the changes. I've written about 2e in a previous post. When M&M 3e released I held off making for a couple of years, continuing to run 2e campaign. I’d invested heavily in resources and supplements for that edition. I think gamers considering the shift to 3e have the same questions I did. What are the changes and what can I use from previous editions?

Moving from "bundled" powers to effect-based builds changes things the most. Originally M&M had some effect-defined powers and a larger pool of essentially pre-built common ones. The supplement Ultimate Power began to redefine that, offering a way to get under the hood of powers and construct even more interesting options. If you know Ultimate Power, then you'll recognize that system in M&M 3e, though even more stripped down. That shift has in turn driven the designers to make effects consistent across systems. Affliction-type effects now clearly echo damage template and advantages more clearly fit with the power system. M&M 3e also changes up Abilities, with a new selection and ratings now only modifiers (rather than classic “3-18” values). Other factors like Defenses have also been streamlined. The game consolidates advantages and skills. Now only 16 skills exist, and some of those represent combat abilities. M&M 3e has other changes scattered throughout: putting more focus on motivation, standardizing modifiers (+2, +5 now), and retooling (but not really reducing) conditions.

All that means conversion from 2e to 3e can’t be done “at a glance.” With 1e to 2e, I could mostly make that shift in my head (with some significant exceptions). Conversion here requires more effort. Green Ronin has provided conversion guidelines- but only on their website, not in the core book or Gamemaster’s Guide. I suspect companies do this to keep focus on the new edition, but it isn’t my favorite design choice.

The mechanics shift means that some M&M 2e releases aren't useful to GMs of the new edition: the core book, Ultimate Power, the Masterminds Manual, Beginners Guide, and Instant Superheroes for example. Collections of foes and modules require retooling: Freedom City, Paragons, Crooks, Lockdown, Freedom's Most Wanted, etc. They remain useful because you can always use inspiration. As well GR smartly hasn't duplicated most of these materials in their releases. For example, instead of doing Freedom City again, they chose another urban locale. New edition GMs will get the most use out of the M&M 2e genre books. While they include character examples which have to be converted, they mostly contain general setting material. So Silver Age, Mecha & Manga, Golden Age, Worlds of Freedom, Iron Age, Hero High, Wild Cards, Book of Magic, etc are worth keeping or picking up. Green Ronin has kept these materials available for pdf purchase.

This is the system’s core book. A smaller, non-Deluxe edition came out in 2011. The more recent edition, the only one currently available in print, adds a little under a hundred pages. That includes adventures and a 50+ page Quick Hero Generator. The Deluxe edition fixes the errata. It's a heavy book, amazingly illustrated. The text can be dense and a little overwhelming if you're coming into it for the first time. Powers get the longest treatment (along with the Quick Creator). What's striking is how tight the actual resolution and play rules are. There's a 12 page overview at the front and then all of action resolution and combat fills only 17 pages (including examples). In fact, you may wonder where the resolution rules are, since they don't pop up until page 235. The last fifty pages of the book offer materials for the GM. It's a solid production overall.

My only real complaint is the placement of the Quick Hero Generator. It's an excellent GM tool and perhaps a good one for the starting player. But for veteran players or those wanting to get to the meat of the game you have to flip past this large early section. It's a small thing but it breaks up character creation and makes it harder to find things in this hefty volume. For M&M 2e released a stripped down Pocket Player's Guide, cutting out GM sections. Something like that would be awesome. Alternately- players looking for something streamlined, should consider picking up the DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook. It has the same rules, but with DC examples and illustrations in a shorter, lighter format. I've also been able to find copies of online at a decent price.

Some version of the core book is essential. To play you need either the Mutants & Masterminds Hero’s Handbook or the DC Adventures version.

The screen for M&M 3e; your reaction will depend greatly on whether you use a screen or not. The original version of this set included the Quick Character Generator later rolled into the core deluxe book. The revised GM kit contains a solid, landscape format screen, four reference charts, and a laminated action tracker. It skips the classic "GM add-in" booklet in favor of something more practical.

GMs should consider buying if they run face to face and use a screen.

The Mastermind's Manual for 2e provided a host of options and mechanical insights. The Gamemaster's Guide for 3e might look like the parallel volume, but it has a very different objective. Where the earlier book delved into the game’s crunch, the GM Guide almost studiously avoids that. Instead it's more of a basic superhero GM primer. The first section goes over superhero setting tropes, the second & third looks at villains, and the fourth & fifth cover general plots and scenario planning. Only the shortest chapter offers any mechanical options, surveying mass combat, fighting styles, and how to handle wealth & reputation. Some of the Masterminds Manual concepts ended up folded into the new core book, like the richer treatment of skills. But some smaller, useful elements have vanished, like a discussion of scale and using miniatures. On the other hand, the Gamemaster’s Guide book has a much different purpose. It wants to orient new superhero GMs and perhaps provide a refresher for GMs returning to the genre. In that regard it works. I can imagine flipping through this for inspiration. It's no Villainy Amok, but few supplements are.

Useful for new superhero GMs. Optional for GMs with some experience under their belts.

Green Ronin has used online distribution as a development tool for this edition. Four major supplements bundle together materials released as weekly pdfs, and there's at least two more series in the pipeline. I'm curious about the economics of this. The number of books they've done this way suggests it works better than releasing the book cold.

Power Profiles consists of short (on average four pages) overviews of power archetypes: Electrical, Luck, Size-based, Teleport, and so on. Each covers common descriptors, features, and complications. They also provide example powers for that archetype in several categories: Offensive, Defensive, Movement, and Utility. This presents an excellent starting point for players and GMs armed with a basic concept. The book also includes several brief essays on related topics: boosting powers, point account, shifting powers, etc. Power Profiles doesn't offer new mechanics, instead it shows the flexibility and strength of M&M 3e.

While you don't have to own Power Profiles to play M&M 3e, it's the most useful supplement in the line. This should be the second thing you purchase, especially if you're a GM. If you're a player, pick it up if your groups transitioning to M&M 3e for the long haul. Otherwise consider just buying one of the individual pdfs related to your character archetype. Highly recommended.

The parallel product to Power Profiles, Gadget Guides covers areas left out: equipment, armor, and devices. While the earlier volume's materials can be adapted to gadgets and foci, this book concentrates on item creation. Twenty-two chapters cover different kinds of devices and how they can be used in M&M 3e. Topics include Biotech, Computers, Mecha, Steamtech, and Vehicles. There's advice for different genres and how to handle that kind of tech. Two appendices look at related topics: Inventing and Rituals.

This is a solid offering if you're into tech and the nitty-gritty of equipment. I'll admit I've never been a big fan of working out all the points to build devices. Things like GURPS Robots, Mekton Zeta, and HERO's vehicle design system left me cold. Usually I handwave things, making these powers with the removable flaw. But M&M 3e offers depth without too much strain. Players and GMs who like those details will find this hugely useful.

As I mentioned above, DC Adventures uses the M&M 3e system. So you can substitute the DCA Hero's Handbook as your core reference. While the DCA version isn't that much shorter (276 pages vs. 320), it uses a lighter-weight paper which means it's about half as thick. The pages look fine; there's only bleed through when you hold it up to the light. Obviously this edition uses DC examples and spends time covering that setting. It also lacks much of the GM extras and material. Ironically or awfully, DC Adventures came out just before DC launched their "New52" reboot. I imagine that's a little irritating and it reminds me of DC Heroes getting hosed by Crisis on Infinite Earths back in the 1980's.

Besides the Hero’s Handbook, Green Ronin has released three additional volumes. Book 2 and Book 3 are massive collections of Heroes & Villains. If you're planning on running M&M these are an awesome resource. On the one hand, you get premade adversaries you can reskin. On the other, when someone says they want to run a character like "Batman” or “The Flash" you can reference this. These books also note characters who have point costs corresponding to their power level. You could use these straight as pick up PCs. Book 4 covers the DC Universe as a whole. This is super useful if you're planning on running there. If not, it does have tons of example NPCs- both normals and supers. I think there's actually more characters here than in either Heroes & Villains volume, just without full background write ups.

In short all of the DCA volumes are useful to GMs. The Hero's Handbook offers a good starting option for players.

Freedom City's been the flagship location for Mutants & Masterminds since the first edition. It's a classic Astro City-like locale, with a history explored in a dedicated sourcebook and imbedded in other supplements like villain collections and era books. M&M 3e adds new major campaign location to the world. Emerald City lies in the Pacific Northwest, a pseudo-Seattle (which makes sense since that's where GR's located).

The full Emerald City set is massive. It comes in three volumes, plus a map. The smallest book (96 pages) is the Player's Guide to Emerald City. It opens with a player-facing tourist guide, and moves into classic territory. That means a ton of information. I'm never sure if this work. Is it’s better to hand something like this off, write a summary, or just present it in play? The Player’s Guide does discuss how to integrate characters into the setting. The second book, Secrets of Emerald City (128 pahes), gives the GM rundown of events, characters and secrets. It expands on the Players Guide and adds new areas and adversaries. Finally Emerald City Knights is an introductory campaign for the setting. It’s intended as a starter to bring new characters in and grow them as they tour the location.

Your experience will vary with this product. I'm of two minds about city books, something I've talked about before. I've rarely seen GMs use them whole cloth. Often they steal elements for their campaigns. These volumes offer good value for the GM: villains, organizations, and plot hooks. Nicely Green Ronin also makes the Player’s Guide available apart from the set. That could allow a group multiple copies of this important resource.

Recommended for GMs if you use city-books as a resource. The Players Guide's useful for those playing in the setting.

A large villain collection from Green Ronin. They have released several of these over the years and this one continues the quality. Originally a series of character pdfs, Threat Report brings nearly everything from that together. It avoids rehashing earlier characters. I think everything here is new (except maybe Doctor Sin? I'm not sure). The collection includes 39 solo villains (plus assorted allies) and six villain groups. Each entry has background and hooks as well as full stats. Several have nice color commentary like database entries you could hand out to players. Threat Report includes two useful indexes. The first lists name, power level, and page number alphabetically. The second does the same, but organized by power level. GMs can quickly hunt down balanced foes for their team. While there are other sources of enemy write ups (the DCA Heroes & Villains, third party pdf books), Threat Report offers a solid and well-presented bestiary with great ideas. (Notably is has fewer supernatural psycho-killers than earlier collections).

Recommended for GMs.

Mutants & Masterminds turned it's attention to sorcery with the Book of Magic for 2e. Initially I'd assumed the Supernatural Handbook would cover the same ground. I'd missed the implications of the title. Where the previous book considered mages in the vein of Dr. Fate, Dr. Strange, and Justice League Dark, this instead aims for horror. That surprised me as I hadn't considered that genre for M&M. But then I thought about some of the more over the top sources like Tomb of Dracula, Elsa Bloodstone, or Van Helsing. The Supernatural Handbook offers that, but also more subtle things echoing Constantine, Swamp Thing, and non-comic book horror. Designer Lucien Soulban's worked on both horror and supers previously: Aberrant, Mage, Vampire, Orpheus, and earlier M&M editions.

This genre book primarily covers many different kinds of horror campaigns (Monster of the Week, Post-Humanity, The Ancient Ones, etc). The first chapter considers using those tropes and placing campaigns in different time periods. Chapter two discusses appropriate character creation and includes template for monstrous types. It also has a brief section on investigations. Chapter three goes over the elements of horror games, adding fear & corruption, running horror tales, and handling otherworldly evils. Chapter four contains adversaries and short adventures. The last chapter presents a supernatural investigation group, Arcade.

Recommended for GMs planning on running horror with M&M or introducing significant horror elements to their campaign.

Another genre book tuned to classic supers tropes. Think series like Guardians of the Galaxy, Legion of Super-Heroes, Silver Surfer, Green Lantern Corps, Adam Strange, Omega Men, and beyond. We haven't seen that many superhero sourcebooks cover this: Ion Guard & The Great Game, Aberrant, and licensed books like 2995: The Legion of Super-Heroes Sourcebook & Annihilation come to mind. The Cosmic Handbook follows the same structure as the Supernatural Handbook. Chapter one covers campaign types and elements. Chapter two looks at character creation and offers several templates. Chapter three talks about what a cosmic campaign entails and how to manage it as a GM. The last two chapters switch gears a little, connecting the material to the Freedom City Universe. Chapter four presents the cosmic history of the setting, from the birth of the universe to alien invasions to galactic empires. Chapter five jumps forward five centuries to present a LSH-like setting, Freedom City 2525.

Recommended for GMs wanting to run high-tech future or off-Earth scenarios or campaigns.

13. Electronic Resources & Miscellany
As I mentioned above, Green Ronin has supported M&M 3e with many electronic series. Three haven't yet been bundled into printed collections. The Wild Cards SCARE Sheets offer NPCs for the Wild Cards setting (though the original sourcebook's for M&M 2e). There’s a pdf compilation of this. Another is the Atlas of Earth Prime, still ongoing. It covers all of Freedom City Earth. Finally Rogue’s Gallery is a new series of villains write ups. I expect these last two will have a printed collections when they wrap. I should also mention that there will be a new version of the popular Hero High setting from 2e. I believe that will be a single-book release, rather than done as a pdf series first.

There are several online resources available for M&M players. You can find the M&M 3e SRD here. It contains all of the OGL material, though it does change a couple of the key terms to comply. The Atomic Think Tank is the active online board for M&M at Green Ronin. It's an excellent source for answers, ideas, and existing character adaptations. Hero Lab has a M&M 3e module if you’re willing to spend the money on that. We’ve always used user-made spreadsheets for calculations. Fantasy Grounds also offers a M&M 3e module. Finally Roll20 has a built-in M&M 3e character sheet. It isn't automated for creation, but is useful in play.

14. Third-Party Sourcebooks
Several companies have released larger sourcebooks for M&M 3e (100+ pages). They include pdf compilations, reskins from other systems, and new material.
  • Better Mousetrap: One of the few supplements offering mechanical elements. Better Mousetrap covers many topics. New skills & advantages, new powers, and new rules for things like chases. It has some good material on villains, new archetypes, organization building, and example builds. It has new gadget options and a major section on headquarters building.
  • Deus ex historica: A nearly 400-page character sourcebook. The framework is a future historian looking back at these heroes and villains to examine their stories. Characters are drawn from across different eras: Golden Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc. That's a nice conceit. I like game books which use the tales of multiple NPCs to sketch out the setting. If it's compelling, that can make for a great read (see The Algernon Files or Omlevex). On the other hand drawing across different eras potentially makes some characters less useful, depending on the kind of campaign you're running.
  • Extreme Earth: The Kickstarter for this game supported releases across several systems. This is a complete, Iron Age dystopian superhero setting. It's pretty dark and strikingly put together.
  • Iron Bay (AHC): Iron Bay offers two urban centers for the "Adventures Have Consequences" setting from AHC Studios. It splits between light and dark locations (I imagine a little like Gotham and Metropolis adjacent to one another). The broadersetting has many supplements which could be converted.
  • Larger than Life: One of the most unusual supplements, this covers characters from American folklore (Paul Bunyan, Iron John). It offers 20 archetypes, 24 full write ups, and 100+ biographies for significant 18th & 19th Century characters. It breaks these down by eras (Colonial, Tall-Tale, Wild West, and Post-War). While it doesn't offer an over-arching campaign, it does have a timeline and bibliography.
  • Watchguard Sourcebook: Offers a sketchy world background, re-released for 3e. The book has a short overview of a campaign city followed by several dozen character write ups and a number of scenarios. Watch Guard has a strong Valiant vibe to it, but you have to piece the world together from various entries. A solid and useful resource for any supers GM.

15. Third-Party Series
Several companies have released pdf series supporting M&M 3e, primarily villain and character books. I'll limit this to series with more than ten releases.