Review: Mutants and Masterminds

Copyright Sean McGinity © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"People love or hate D20, so clarification needs to be made"

A couple of years ago, Steve Kenson, a contributor to Heroes*, Champions* and various other RPG systems* made a pitch to Green Ronin. Steve had approached the company about publishing a superhero supplement called Freedom City. Freedom City was an RPG world that Steve had created and ran as a GM in various other game systems he had played. Green Ronin did him one more better: Green Ronin would publish Freedom City if Steve Kenson could come up a rules system to accompany it.

What started out as a simple supplement for some other game system ended up becoming Mutants and Masterminds, the multi-award winning superhero role-playing system. And Freedom City, which followed shortly afterwards ended up garnering its own fair share of awards.

Gamers heralded Kenson as a genius and Mutants and Masterminds (called M&M by the fans) as the easiest most complex system for supers ever designed. Its homage to the Fantastic Four comic with the sub-line World's Greatest Role Playing Game the fans were saying was true.

This D20 knockback revolutionized the superhero and gaming worlds. First with a superior product and secondly with Kenson and the Green Ronin crew. They provide support at with more hits than a pumped up Sammy Sosa. Kenson personally answers many of the fans messages.

M&M has done so well that Kenson now works for Green Ronin in an official capacity, heading M&M. The fans' faith in Kenson is unwavering. Some fans buy everything M&M related. Why? Because Green Ronin and specifically Kenson would never let them down.

Green Ronin has put out a host of M&M since then, including Crooks (a villain's compendium), Lockout (a supplement on super villain imprisonment), Noir (a film noir approach to super hero gaming), Nocturnals (a horror approach to gaming) among many others. M&M has also started Superlink, which allows publishers and fans to publish their own M&M supplements.

Each M&M book is beautiful, with full-colored original art, wonderful layout and well-written material. Steve Kenson and the M&M crew are obviously large comic book fan as every book is littered with homages to favorite comic book characters and creators (most prominently featured in Freedom City).

But what about the nitty-gritty? How are the rules?

People love or hate D20, so clarification needs to be made. Mutants and Masterminds was created under the Open Gaming License, and therefore is a D20 compatible product. In this case, D20 is the base of the system, which makes it easy to pick up for most people. But it is not so deeply entrenched that D20 haters need to avoid this product. The D20 rules have been revised and yes, improved upon for M&M.

The Similarities:

The game features Abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma), Attack Modifiers, Skills, and Feats. These pretty much work in much the same way as they do in D20 with a few slight changes. Overall, a rookie can come in pick the core of the game, following these D20 precepts.

The Differences:

Giving and Taking Damage. The biggest change is the way physical damage is dealt with. The Damage DC assumes a base DC15 plus the Power Level of the attack in question. There is no rolling of dice to determine how much damage is done. Damage is what damage is and does not fluctuate upon the rolling of the dice (in most cases). The attacker only needs to make his attack and that is all.

It is up to the defender on how bad the damage is. Much like the other Saving Throws like Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, resistance to damage is reflected in the Damage Save. The Damage Save is made up of Constitution modifiers, Feats, and Powers. This Base plus the defender's D20 die roll will determine the result of being hit against the DC of the damage. If the defender meets or beats the DC, they manage to shrug off the damage. The severity by which your character fails a Save determines how bad the character is hit:

· Fail by 5 or less, your character takes a Hit,

· Fail by more than 5, your character is Stunned for 1 round,

· Fail by more than 10 and your character is unconscious/disabled.

Regardless of the level of failure, every hit your character doesn't shrug off causes them "damage". How this works is that every failed Damage Save results in the character's Damage Save being less effective each time, implying a cumulative --1 penalty to each future Damage Save. You may have managed to stay in the fight, suffering only a Hit or a Stun, but sooner or later with the penalties applied to your Damage Save, you will fail by more than 10 and be knocked unconscious or disabled.

So unifying everything, every kind of attack requires a Save of some kind, whether it be a Will, Fortitude, Reflex, or even a Damage Save.

Classes, Levels, and Advancement. Classes have been removed from the game entirely. Instead, everything is based upon the characters' level, measured in Power Points. Power Points are granted after each encounter, anywhere from 1 to 3 Power Points per session. 15 Power Points equal a level. Each Power Level sets the limits applied to the following areas: Base Attack Bonus, Base Defense Bonus, Skills, Powers. Except in the case of Skills, no level can exceed the character's Power Level (Skills are Level +3). With no classes in the game, Power Points are spent freely (with the level limitations) on anything the Player wants from Abilities, Attack Modifier, Skills, Feats and Powers. This classless system allows the Player to spend points creating anything the Player wants.

Powers. Superhero role-playing games are all about the powers they have. M&M brings in a level playing field of powers to choose, with no limits on which powers to choose, save their individual cost. Powers have a cost attributed to them. Some powers are more expensive than others, while other powers are simply cheap. The cost of each power is based upon the number of effects they have. General Powers cost two points per level to purchase, while others can cost as high as 8 per level of purchase.

For example Teleport has a cost of 2 points per level. The power allows you to move from point A to point B without crossing the distance between. That's it. One effect. Now if the teleport power allowed the character to teleport other things with them, the effective cost would rise to 3 points per level. And if teleporting others inflicted a nauseous condition to the passenger, then Teleport would cost yet another point per level.

Super Strength on the other hand has a cost of 4 points per level. Not only does it grant the user the ability to lift heavy objects, it also gives bonuses to all Strength related skills and gives bonuses to damage. So with the base cost of a power at 2 for lifting things, and Super Strength provides two extra things (bonuses to Skills and bonus to damage), resulting in a cost of 4 points per level.

The powers that are cheaper have some inherent flaw in them that makes cheaper to buy per level. One such Power is Weapon, which basically grants the user a weapon that allows them to inflict some sort of attack on an enemy. This power is ranked at 1 point per level because the weapon is considered a device that could be stolen or damaged, effectively depriving the character of that power for some amount of time.

Hero Points. Hero Points represent the times a hero is reaching past his own abilities to get the job done and save the day. Spending a single Hero Point allows the character to do any one of the following (among others): extra damage, extra action in a round, re-roll, increased Defense. A Player can spend one Hero Point per round so keeping track of Hero Points and when to use them must be chosen wisely. Most notably, a Hero Point can prevent your character from getting taken out of the fight with one hit (as can happen with Damage Saves).

Is Mutants and Masterminds the perfect superhero RPG? The system is a good one, providing lots of opportunity for fun heroic battles against dastardly villains, but it does have a few drawbacks to it. The most talked about complaint on the M&M boards are Skill Points. Although Skills can be purchased as easily as anything else, most Players are frustrated that the cost for them is too high. Another complaint that pops up is the cap on all Abilities at 20. And one that is debated on the boards all the time is that some Powers are not balanced cost-wise with other Powers. To counter complaints with the system, many sets of House Rules from players and feedback from Kenson himself on the boards address find some workarounds for the inequities. Mutants and Masterminds may not be the perfect system, but it is such an easy and fun system to use, its strengths far outweigh its disadvantages.

And these weaknesses in the system have not fallen on deaf ears. Kenson has heard every complaint and critique of the system. This September, Mutants and Masterminds releases its second edition. Kenson appears confident in the release, having spent a long time developing and testing the new edition. It revamps the system, streamlining some things, simplifying others, and basically fixing what was wrong in the original edition, while keeping everything that worked in the first place. I will reserve judgment until I get my own copy, but I have faith in Steve Kenson and Green Ronin like the majority of his fans. Second Edition is only going to make a near perfect RPG that much closer to perfection.