Armagideon Time

Ever since my first fumblings with Champions’ third edition rules and TSR Marvel Super Heroes in junior high, I dreamed of discovering a superhero-themed roleplaying system that accurately captured the spirit of the source material.

Comprehensive power lists and character creation mechanics, while complex, are the easy part of such games — rack your brain for every possible example or contingency, then set about codifying it. The difficulty comes in putting it all into practice around the gaming table. Traditional superhero comics are fluid and fast-moving, using the time compression of panel sequencing, exposition, and wide-angle action scenes to keep things moving at a brisk pace. Combat in role-playing games, however, tends to be a plodding affair of dice rolls and modifiers and regimented turn order. It’s especially acute in superhero-themed games where the variety of skills and superpowers in play make streamlining difficult without resorting to obvious fudging from the gamemaster.

Champions and MSH and all the other superhero RPGs I dabbled with had their individual virtues — well, maybe not Palladium’s Heroes Unlimited — but they all fell short on one front or another. No matter how much the player and I tried to lean into the quirks and make them work, at the end of the session they just felt like D&D games reskinned to incorporate power armor and eyeblasts. They couldn’t capture the vibe of the source material I knew and loved, where Scarlet Witch could KO some worldbeater with a lucky sucker punch or Captain America could plow through a dozen enemies without taking three hours to resolve the fight.

The quest continued even after I gave up on tabletop RPGs as an active hobby, though with diminished intensity. That’s how I ended up buying the “New Millennium” edition of Champions and why my ears pricked up when a still-avid gamer pal mentioned a new-ish offering titled Mutants & Masterminds. My interest cooled a little when he mentioned it used the “d20″ system spun out of Dungeons & Dragons‘ third edition, but he insisted it drew heavily from both classic Champions and MSH. An affordable used copy showed up on shortly after, so I decided to check it out for myself.

It was one of the first packages to arrive at the House on the Hillside, the modest little abode Maura and I moved into after legally formalizing our relationship of thirteen years. (Actually, the package arrived at my old place and I had to make a trip after work to retrieve it from my grandma’s kitchen counter along with a stack of junk mail.) I flipped through the book during the down time between adjusting to married life, starting with the cool parts and working my way to the nuts and bolts of the game’s mechanics.

The hybrid systems used in Mutants & Masterminds sounded utterly unworkable when they were first described to me, but made perfect sense after I got a clearer sense of how they worked as a whole. Its combat mechanics and stat lines were straight out of 3rd ed D&D, but experience levels only existed as brackets to determine hard caps on power/skill ranks and the amount of “power points” used to build a character. The points-based creation system was less robust than Champions, but also easier to slot into all but the most esoteric character concepts. Power customization was set up as a more intuitive version of MSH’s, where associated “stunts” (i.e. added utility), related powers, and flaws could be added to the base ability by adding/subtracting points per rank or through an expanded version of d20′s “feat” system.

To make things even easier for players, the manual offered a roster of plug-n-play templates covering most superhero archetypes — martial artist, gadgeteer, speedster, et cetera — which were set at the recommended starting level with various customization options. They even included one for the Superman-inspired “original,” which shocked me by how simple, balanced, and workable it was while capturing the spirit of the source material.

The biggest break Mutants & Masterminds made from both the d20 system and previous superhero games was its decision to ditch the concept of hit points in favor of “damage states.” Depending on the strength of the attack and the defender’s damage save, a stiff blow could result in a spectrum of outcomes between “briefly winded” to “severely incapacitated.” Not only did this minimize the bookkeeping hassles for the GM and players, but it better reflected the fast-paced (and reversal-filled) nature of funnybook fights. It even featured specific rules for dealing with hordes of hapless minions, allowing for a would-be One Person Army to fight like a whirlwind through a dozen disbelieving goons in the space of minutes instead of hours. It’s one of those ideas that seems so damn obvious in hindsight, yet no other system managed to hit upon it until Mutants & Masterminds did.

Although the system could be tailored towards any style of superheroic adventuring, Mutants & Masterminds‘ aesthetics and overall tone strongly lean towards the “New Traditionalist” approach exemplified by Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek during the late Nineties and early Aughts. It wasn’t a repudiation “deconstructionist” and Chromium Age excess, but a genuine effort to incorporate the lessons learned, to embrace giddy exuberance and high concept metaphors intrinsic to the superhero genre within a contemporary context (and minus the defensive embarrassment). It’s a strong foundation to build a 21st Century superhero RPG upon, even if the trend had difficulty maintaining traction in the real of Big Two releases. (It also makes the rulebook something of a bittersweet historical artifact.)

So, yes, eighteen years after I cracked the spine of my mail-order copy of the Champions 3rd edition rulebook, I finally found the superhero RPG of my dreams. Unfortunately, it was at least a decade too late for me to put it to practical use. I’ve been told by a few friends who have played the game that the balancing in first edition Mutants & Masterminds is a bit broken and ripe for exploitation by devious metagamers, but I’m convinced that’s going to be the case with any superhero RPG. There are just too many permutations for character builds to consider, and certain powers and abilities (read: super-speed) will always be unbalanced if they accurately reflect the source material.

The only way a superheroic campaign can be sustained is by a group of players who are genuinely committed to the concept and willing to restrain themselves for its sake. The superhero genre depends on some fairly absurd logic, so it’s important that everyone in a superhero RPG campaign is on the same page regarding it. It can be really tricky to pull off (especially if your group includes That One Dude With a Punisher Decal on the Bumper of His 1987 Honda Civic), but can be an absolute blast when everything aligns properly.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Chromium phage
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: I’ve paid my dues
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Grail and farewell

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