Mutants and Masterminds
Mutants and Masterminds Playtest Review by Cynthia Celeste Miller on 01/01/03
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A new blockbuster superhero RPG that takes the OFL to new heights. It has a few problems, but M&M is a gem.
Product: Mutants and Masterminds
Author: Steve Kenson
Company/Publisher: Green Ronin
Line: Mutants and Masterminds
Page count: 192
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Cynthia Celeste Miller on 01/01/03
Genre tags: Superhero
The last year or so has introduced a whole slew of contenders for the "definitive superhero RPG" throne. Sure, such a thing is purely mythical, but there's still a very peculiar war for the coveted title that goes on in the minds of many gamers. Don't believe me? Just go to the RPG.net Open forum and ask what the best superhero RPG is. You'll no doubt be greeted by a bunch of quotes like, "Oh boy, here we go again", "Another one of these threads?" and "This subject pops up on a near-monthly basis". You see, it comes up so often, that it's become something of a running gag.
The point is that there has always been a war between the superhero RPGs, but things have gotten more heated in recent months. Why? Because of the recent stream of really good enries in the genre. There's the very artistic Wild Talents, the versatile Silver Age Sentinels, the grandaddy Champions 5th edition and the underrated Deeds Not Words.
But, the one that really grabbed my imagination from the outset was Mutants and Masterminds.
Champions has been my RPG of choice since around '94, so I was initially reluctant to open myself up to the fact that there are newer games that may be just as good, if not better than the old master. In retrospect, I'm glad I took the plunge.
I've had M&M in my possession for a couple weeks as of this writing. Since that time, I've studied M&M extensively from top to bottom using every angle I could. This review will chronicle my findings.
The physical presentation is stunning. I'll say that up front. It's 192 pages of gorgeous full-color art and slick production values. Green Ronin and Super Unicorn have gone to great lengths to ensure that M&M will hold its own (and then some) with the other games sitting on the shelf next to it.
Looking over the book serves as a stark reminder of how far we've come since the days of old, in terms of production value. I feel M&M raises the bar in this area.
That said, I have to admit that, while most of the artwork is really spectacular, some of it isn't terribly good. At least in my opinion. The piece that really comes to mind is the full page affair on page 124. It just seems rather out of context. Ditto for the one on page 57. It was too cartoony to fit in with the rest of the art.
The vast majority of the art was dynamic though, conveying the genre masterfully. I'm particularly fond of the comic strips they peppered the book with. Very nice touch.
As for the layout of the book, it's well executed. Nothing spectacular but certainly not deficient by any means. It features double columned pages with easily identifiable headers and logical text placement, making it easy to read.
Even the greatest game system in the world can be sunk by lousy character creation rules. This is something I've come across more times than I care to mention. The way I see it is that, as Game Master, I'm going to be spending a lot of time designing characters. The last thing I want to do is trudge through a poorly patched-together set of char-gen rules time after time. So, it's fair to say that I tend to be harsh when it comes to judging character generation rules.
M&M character creation is, at its core, a point build system where the character's Power Level determines the number of Power Points (or PPs) you receive to build him or her with. The Power Level also dictates a few stat restrictions as well. This does a lot to help maintain balance.
PPs are spent on a variety of things, such as Ability Scores, Skills, Feats, Attack Bonus, Defense Bonus and, of course Powers. Pretty much standard fare. You pay your points and boost your character's stats. You can also opt to take Weaknesses. The list of Weaknesses is thin, but each one truly limits the character -- there's no filler here.
The book lists a swell arsenal of Powers, though a few obvious ones are absent, such as a power that enables the character to summon animals or one that gives you an animal companion. Fortunately, this is countered by a highly detailed set of guidelines for creating new Powers. Hopefully, Green Ronin will eventually publish their own version of the Ultimate Powers Book.
Character creation in M&M is a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. And you really can design just about any character you want to.
But it's not all peaches and cotton candy.
My main gripe is that the book really needs a good quality walk-through of character creation. While it's fairly easy to figure out most of it without such an aid, there were times that I really had to dig deep to figure some of it out. This is especially true of using powers as Extras and such. Mr. Kenson wasn't always clear on some of it.
As a side note, one of the M&M fans created an excellent walk-through, which can be found here: http://www.valdier.com/roleplaying/Character Sheets/Mutants_and_Masterminds/tutorial.html .
My other complaint is one that is easily fixed. As it stands, Skills are just too expensive to be worth much (1 Power Point = 1 Skill rank). A very common house rule has emerged that enables you to spend 1 Power Point in exchange for 3 Skill ranks. I've used this and it works like a charm.
Antway, I've created seven characters for M&M. With each one, I tried to do something different in order to flex the system. Here's the run-down, starting from the least powerful and working our way up:
The Hungry Battle Axe: A goofy armor-wearing, axe-wielding villain. He was one of the villains who appeared in the old Hostess ads from the '70s and early '80s. Power Level 5
Chairman: A dork whose musket turns people into chairs. Another Hostess ad villain. Power Level 5
The Mist: A pulp-style masked man with a tommy gun and the power to disappear in a cloud of mist. Power Level 6
Corkscrew: A mercenary with various arm attachments. His main attachment is a drill. A very big drill. Power Level 8
Hothead: A fiery hero with a lot of Feats and four Weaknesses. Power Level 10
Bonechiller: A classic shadowy crimefighter who uses his gadgets and power-glider to assist him. Power Level 10
Powermad A nasty villain with a wide array of powers and abilities. Power Level 18
The character creation rules are fantastic, but the game system is where M&M really shines like a lighthouse in a foggy bay.
At first glance, it looks like the basic D20 mechanic. Roll a twenty-sider, add your bonuses together and compare it to a target number. From there, however, the designer takes the D20 thing and contorts it into something entirely different...and, in my opinion, better.
The design of M&M goes a bit off the beaten path, which only adds to its charm (at least to me). To satisfy those who want the rules to be a bit more conventional or detailed, Mr. Kenson added sidebars that offer optional rules. This strikes me as a wise decision. The more gamers you can please, the better off you're going to be and I think he bent over backward to ensure that nearly everyone would be happy.
Now, we move on to combat.
The "to hit" system is essentially an extention of the task resolution rules, which is fine by me. Just roll that D20, add in your bonuses and hope you roll equal or higher than the opponent's Defense. Simple, effective and consistent.
The part of combat that really stands out though is the way damage is handled. When a character gets smacked (or shot, blasted, poked in the eyes or whatever), he has to make a Damage save versus a DC based on how powerful the attack is. If the save succeeds, he shrugs off the damage effortlessly. If, on the other hand, it fails, the character suffers damage. The more the roll failed by, the worse the effects are.
In true comicbook fashion, death only occurs if a deliberate attempt on a character's life is made. The book contains an optional rule that makes death more common for those GMs looking for a more realistic treatment of the genre.
The damage mechanic may look wonky at first, but it works beautifully, especially in conjunction with Hero Points which can be spent to alter the effects of damage. The only other game I've come across that had a similar mechanic was the second Buck Rogers game. Needless to say, I think the M&M version works much better.
The combat section of the book covers all the bases as far as I can tell. It features maneuvers, gang-ups, destroying surrounding terrain, mental combat, modifiers and a lot more. I was unable to find any glaring omissions, nor any mishandling of the stuff it did cover.
All in all, combat is a breeze to run. Moreso, in my opinion, than any other superhero RPG since the original Marvel Super Heroes game. And frankly, I'm not even sure that even MSH can equal M&M's combat system.
Mutants and Masterminds definitely has some snags, just as all games do. Fortunately, these are relatively minor and are easy to patch up. As a compulsive systems-tinkerer, I don't mind tweaking things hear and there, so long as I don't have to practically rebuild the darn game. And M&M's problems aren't that big.
The system is simple enough to attract rules-lite fans, but has enough "meat" to keep the rules-heavy fans interested. Best of all, Mr. Kenson has made it easy to drop rules or add new ones into the game without disrupting the rest of the system. This is a difficult thing to accomplish in game design, so my hat goes off to him.
In my opinion, Mutants and Masterminds is the best thing to come out of the D20/OGL crowd. At first, I had my doubts about it, but those doubts were washed away quickly upon closer inspection. This is proof positive that it's possible to use the OGL and still be innovative.
The world of superheroic gaming has just become more exciting thanks to Mutants and Masterminds!