Game: Mutants & Masterminds
Publisher: Green Ronin
Review Dated: 7th, December 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 10/10 [ Breathtaking ]
Total Score: 57
Average Score: 5.18
“The World’s Greatest Superhero RPG!” – so announces the front of Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds.
I decided to put Mutants & Masterminds to the greatest test possible. I dropped the hardbound collection of glossy colour pages into the lap of a friend of mine. He has the unnatural ability to ‘parse’ rules and mechanics faster than any computer, he has a vast and extensive range of fan-boy knowledge about superheroes, their artists and comic book series but who was not only suffering burnout from his long experience of comics and suffering burnout from superhero roleplaying in particular. He had time to look through Mutants & Masterminds because just a few meetings ago he’d cancelled his own superhero game on us. I told him Mutants & Masterminds was a new d20 superhero roleplaying game and he didn’t look impressed. I mentioned that Green Ronin had bravely forgone the d20 logo on the book so they could get better control over the game mechanics. He still didn’t look very impressed. Do you know what? This nameless friend of mine flicked through a couple of pages of the book and then put it down. I had the sense he was just humouring my request that he look at it. He put the book down but picked it up again later. He picked it up again, then again and then suggested I ought to try running the game. In fact, the suggestion that someone should run Mutants & Masterminds was made several times that night. So much for being burnt out on superhero RPGs? Heh?
I think Mutants & Masterminds is that good.
Ditching the d20 logo was the way to go. In a stroke it broadens the appeal of the book. In a stroke the rules can be specially targeted to a superhero game. I’ve seen some brave attempts to get classes to work in superhero games but I’ve never been convinced by the presence of prestige classes in the genre. Classes tend to get boiled down to archetypes in hero games anyway. In Mutants & Masterminds character classes are kicked out. Gone. So is alignment. Attacks of Opportunity go too – they’re an easy target for any scalpel being taken to the d20 system. Hit Points aren’t immune to scalpels either. They’re gone and not replaced by wounds and vitality either. Hmm. What else? Mutants & Masterminds is actually the first d20 game that I can think of which works by rolling a d20. In the core rules presented in the Player’s Handbook you have to roll d20s and other dice too. Mutants & Masterminds uses a single d20 and tries to cut out all the extra noise.
It’s a gorgeous book. Ever flicked through a comic and just soaked up the general ambience? You can do that with this roleplaying game. The paper quality is high and the bright colour looks great on it. The layout design is top-notch too. The illustrative sidebars that quickly become the now boring norm don’t make an appearance here; instead there’s an inch thick skyline soaked in a colourful but neutral hue (dark purple, gentle green, rose) that runs at the top of the page but not from edge to edge. Trust me. It works. We can all thank Super Unicorn for their work on the design. Then thank them again.
I haven’t even mentioned the artwork yet. Guess what? It’s great! You’ll find full page, full colour illustrations of the game’s heroes at the start of every chapter. It’s a particularly powerful effect because the other page of the start of every chapter is just a wash of blue-grey with the name of the chapter just under half of the way down. There are, of course, comic strips in the book. The same heroes are used again and again. I’m sure these characters must appear in a full- fledged series of their own somewhere because they seem so richly detailed but if it’s true then I can’t find hide nor hair of it.
The list of skills is intuitive even if you’ve not been primed with the usual d20 suspects. Whatever the case the skills are all explained in their own chapter and you don’t need any other book. Since there are no classes there’s no major hurdles to overcome if you want to create any new skills yourself. Bonus.
There are feats though. Heh. If the world ends then I expect the cockroaches will still hang around. If the RPG world ends then I wouldn’t be surprised to see feats mysteriously appearing other books. There are always feats. Mind you, feats are particularly suited to the superhero genre. Mundane people don’t have feats, heroes do. Character generation handles feats in the same way as skills and super powers. You pay power points for them. Feats sit nicely between the two; between the low power of skills and the high power of, eh, super powers. Super-Feats manage not to confuse the issue. Darkvision and the ability to change between your hero costume and your mundane identity are examples of Super-Feats; they’re like super powers but not quite.
Super powers cost different amount of power points to buy and you can buy multiple ranks in them. A force field is cheap, astral projection is not – but then you need to be sure you’ve bought enough ranks in your force field so that it can stand up against the all-to-common energy blast. The list of powers runs over the page and halfway down the next. There are enough powers. After the list of powers along with their cost per rank the rest of the chapter runs through the exact details of each and helpfully points out tempting options and useful clarifications along the way. For example, along side the Flight power you’ll find the optional rules for flight manoeuvrability.
If you can’t find the power you want – and I think half the fun of the genre is inventing new power shticks – then there’s a thorough set of instructions to help you invent your own. Rather the instructions help you invent your own power and apply it correctly to the game rules as to keep everything balanced and that’s the sort of thing that I want.
The characteristics chapter seems to be a mixed bag of stuff. You’ll find the rules for hero points here but also tables for super-strength lifting values and that sort of extra.
There’s a whole chapter on devices. If a hero game is going to cut out a chapter and save on space it’s likely to be this one but since Mutants & Masterminds is all about being the greatest superhero rpg ever it’s not likely to do such a thing. Devices include such things as weapons, battlesuits, vehicles, constructs (golems) and even headquarters itself! Why not? Let’s all design headquarters with training simulations, defense systems and a swimming pool while we’re at it.
The start of the book suggests GMs will get to grips with the rules by quickly reading the character generation and then jumping straight to the combat rules. I’m not a fan of having the combat section dominate RPGs since I think it tends to bias how the game’s played. Perhaps the note in the front of the book but the actual chapter being left until later is the compromise that works. The combat section does help you get to grips with the rules and tucked back here near the end of the book no one can accuse it of leading players into equating rpgs with dice-bound brawls. Combat is a little tricky but it’s vastly improved by not having to deal with hit points and by only needing to roll a single d20. Combat’s trickier than in other genres because heroes throw into the mix super-healing, super-speed and other complicating powers. If you’re familiar with the d20 system then you’ll not be confused. It’s the same basic approach but without Attacks of Opportunity. It’s not all about “biff” and “pow” though; the types of damage include poison, disease, radiation and more.
The Gamemastering section keeps the level of quality in the game high. It would be better if it was called Gamesmastering but that just comes down to personal taste. The chapter exhibits a real understanding of the superhero genre; terms like “four-colour” and “grim & gritty” are mentioned explicitly. I started to expect to find a debate on the evolution of comics and how the silver age gave into the dark-age. Extra merit goes to the GM section for its discussions on the styles of play. You will get your money’s worth from of Mutants & Masterminds. If you want to do a X-Man style game then you can, if you want to do a New Titans game then you can, you could do a Watchmen style, Dark Knight or even Dark Horse style of game if you want and I even though you might be cutting some bits out of M&M to do so – they’re all possible. The discussions in the GM section lead naturally on to the creation of villains and super-villains as well supporting cast.
There’s an adventure in the book too. It’s there for people who just can’t wait, who want a sample adventure to set the tone for them or even for those people who just like pre-written adventures. For the rest of us it’s an excuse to see yet more pretty art and see what the author picked as an adventure worth adding to such a top class book.
The appendix (and do check out the smoking gun picture which starts this off) is home for a whole gallery of rogues. This is where you’ll find stats for pre-made villains and they’re a scary bunch. There is a multi-paged character sheet and a multi-paged detailed index. A detail index! Huzzah. There are even two pages of colour templates of hero characters that should be photocopied, cut out and stuck onto card in order to make paper minis. Photocopy this page or go to the Green Ronin website and download the printable version of this page. If I catch anyone cutting the actual page up and blemishing this 10/10 book then I’ll set Ben Grimm on them myself. Finally the book ends with an extremely useful summary of the rules.
“The World’s Greatest Superhero RPG!” – that’s what it says on the front cover. The front cover is probably right.