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Sunday, 28 April 2019

Mutants & Masterminds' Basics

Originally published in 2002, Mutants & Masterminds is one of the few roleplaying games and the only superhero roleplaying game to survive the d20 System boom of the first decade of the new millenium. Published by Green Ronin Publishing and now in its third edition, it is grounded in the Four Colour subgenre and Silver Age of superhero comics, so that its tone is positive and uplifting with some wackiness and weirdness thrown in. There is room, of course, for it to be tweaked to fit other genres and comic book ages, and over the years, such as Golden Age and Iron Age, as well as setting supplements like Freedom City and Wild Cards. The Basic Hero’s Handbook is designed as an introduction to Mutants & Masterminds, streamlining the mechanics, simplifying character creation, and providing the Game Master with a handful of adventures, decent advice, and a half dozen adversaries, all ready to run. 

Now the Basic Hero’s Handbook is a complete roleplaying game and a complete superhero roleplaying game, but it is incomplete. The players can create their heroes and they can get roleplaying with fairly quickly and the Game Master can create villains—or use the ones in the book—as quickly and run the adventures in the book, but what neither the players nor the Game Master can do is create characters from scratch, from first principles. Instead, the process for creating a hero—and thus a villain—is done by selecting options in an ‘identikit’ fashion to build a character. The first choice a player makes is his hero’s archetype. There are eight given: Crimefighter, Energy Controller, Gadgeteer, Mystic, Paragon, Powerhouse, Primal, and Speedster. Each archetype provides a hero with his Ability Ranks, modified by the archetype type, of which three are given. So a Crimefighter would be Brooding, Clever, or Observant, a player selecting just one. A hero is automatically given some skills, but five or six areas of study provide the hero with further skills, for example, Academics gives Perception 8, Technology 8, and Treatment 4, whilst Investigation provides Expertise (Streetwise) 4, Insight 5, Investigation 6, and Perception 5. A player selects two of these. Similarly, a hero is automatically given several Advantages, but his player selects two or three keywords—depending upon the archetype—each of which grants two further Advantages. For example, Fortunate gives Connected and Luck, whilst Shadow grants Hide in Plain Sight and Skill Mastery (Stealth). Next, the player chooses a Power Suite, essentially his hero’s superpowers, from the three given. In the case of the Crimefighter Archetype these are Archer, Detective, and Martial Artist. Penultimately, a player selects two or three Complications, one of which has to be a Motivation, Complications earning a hero a Hero Point when they come into play. Lastly, a player can adjust his hero to make him more fun to play, swapping Skill Ranks, Advantages, and so on.

The result of the hero creation process is not to create something that is necessarily fresh or original, but rather build variations upon the familiar. So working backwards from the Power Suites for the Crimefighter and the Martial Artist might be a character like Ironfist, the Detective a masked vigilante like Batman or The Question, the Archer a hero like Hawkeye or Green Arrow, and so. These are only approximates, but select Martial Artist and then the Athletics and Larceny skill packages, the Defensive, Shadow, and Squirrely Advantage packages and a player or a Game Master has a Ninja character. Although limited, this flexibility is present in each of the eight Archetypes, giving some variety to the twenty-four Power Suites given. On the downside, it means that some superpowers are missing, for example, Intangibility or Stretching. That said, most commonly appearing powers are detailed, including gadgets, it covers several easy to identify with superhero archetypes, and it avoids the decisions and arithmetic usually required with Mutants & Masterminds and other roleplaying games of its ilk which use a point buy system for character generation.

Our sample superhero is a Powerhouse, Lionel Morgan, former American Football player who won championships, made millions, and acquired fame before notoriety as a drug addict and a prison sentence for manslaughter. In prison he received a radical new treatment for his addiction, but he reacted poorly to the cocktail of drugs intended to wean him off drugs and instead he gained great strength, endurance, and toughness. Since being released Lionel has gone public about his new-found powers and dedicated himself to using them for good to atone for his crimes.

Character Name: Lionel Morgan
Character Type: Powerhouse
Personality: Gentle Power Suite: Brick

Strength 4 Stamina 4 Agility 0 Dexterity 1
Fighting 6 Intellect -1 Awareness 2 Presence 3

Toughness 4 Dodge 8 Parry 10 Fortitude 4 Will 7

ADVANTAGES (Lucky, Protective)
Beginner’s Luck, Interpose, Luck, Power Attack, Teamwork

SKILLS (Piloting, Sports)
Athletics 6, Close Combat (Unarmed) 6, Perception 4, Ranged Combat (Throwing) 2, Vehicles 8

Invulnerability: Enhanced Stamina 8, Immunity 15 (Cold Damage, Heat Damage, Fatigue), Toughness 12 (Impervious), Regeneration 5
Leaping: Leaping 9
Strength Powers (Array)

  • Extraordinary Strength: Enhanced Strength 7, Enhanced Strength 6 (Limited to Lifting)
  • Groundquake: Affliction 10 (Vulnerable, Prone, Resisted by Fortitude, Burst Area, Limited Degree)
  • Thunderclap: Damage 10 (Cone Area)

Fame, Motivation: Doing Good

The core mechanic in Mutants & Masterminds is simple enough. Roll a twenty-sided die against a Difficulty Class, adding in any appropriate modifiers to succeed.  If it is necessary to know how well a character does, then simply succeeding at a task counts as one Degree of Success, and for every five-point threshold on the roll after that, a further Degree of Success is achieved. Conversely, failed rolls under the Difficulty Class generate Degrees of Failure.

Overall, mechanically, Mutants & Masterminds is derived from the Open Game Licence, itself taken from Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, but it uses a very much a pared down version of it. Most obviously, it is not a Class and Level system, although Mutants & Masterminds does measure characters by their Power Level. (Characters created using the Basic Hero’s Handbook are set at Power Level 10, but Power Levels in Mutants & Masterminds typically range between five and twelve, depending upon the style of game being played.) Nor does it use traditional attributes like Wisdom, Charisma, Dexterity, and so on, on the three to eighteen scale. Obviously, there are more attributes, but here they are straight modifiers which can be added to dice rolls, rather than modifiers which have been derived from attributes. So rather than the average person having a Presence of ten and thus a bonus of zero, in Mutants & Masterminds, a character has straight value of three. 

Similarly, the roleplaying game eschews the traditional use of Hit Points. Instead, when a character would suffer damage, his player makes a Toughness Save against the damage that the attack would do. Succeed and the attack has no effect and no damage is inflicted, but fail the Save and the character suffers an effect rather than losing Hit Points. The effect is dependent upon the Degrees of Failure rolled. Thus, one Degree of Failure and the character suffers a -1 penalty Hit to further Toughness Save rolls; two Degrees of Failure and the character suffers another penalty Hit and is Dazed; three Degrees of Failure and the character suffers a further penalty Hit and is Staggered; and four Degrees of Failure and the character is incapacitated. So essentially there is a slow spiral effect to taking damage which then ramps up, a player likely to accrue a number of Hits which penalise his character’s Toughness Save sufficiently enough to roll worse Degrees of Failure. This means that just as in the comics, superheroes in Mutants & Masterminds can withstand a lot of damage, but still be floored by a lucky punch or strike.

There are also two ways in which a superhero can push himself. One is Extra Effort, used to overcome great difficulties, use a superpower in a new way, push himself just that little bit further, and so on. This causes the character to become Fatigued, a Fatigued character to become Exhausted, and an Exhausted character to pass out. The other is Hero Points, which represent his good fortune and capacity for him to overcome both crime and evil. These can be used to gain a re-roll, edit a scene, gain a flash of inspiration or an Advantage, instantly counter another power, or recover from a condition like Dazed or Fatigued. A character starts play with one Hero Point and can earn more his Complications make his life more difficult.

Superhero roleplaying games have a reputation for complexity, in some cases, well deserved. The Basic Hero’s Handbook works very hard to avoid this, with clear examples and explanations of the mechanics, including Challenges like facing an ‘Aggressive Interview’ or making a ‘Deathtrap Escape’. Right from the start, the player is guided through the game with sections on ‘How to Play’ and examples of play both drawn as a comic strip and written up, whilst the Game Master is guided through how to run the game and how to create and run the game’s various types of scenes—Challenge, Conflict, Investigation, and Roleplay. The Game Master is further supported with five ‘Adventures to Astonish’, from ‘The Doom Room!’ and ‘The Heist’ to ‘Disaster Strikes’ to ‘Shadow of the Past’. These grow in length and complexity, but nicely showcase archetypal superhero adventures just as the character Archetypes showcase how Mutants & Masterminds does familiar superheroes. Lastly, there is advice on handling villains and a ‘Rogues Gallery’ of villains, including thrill seekers, mercenaries, villains, and masterminds. There are just seven here, fully stated out and given full write-ups, but of course, the Game Master can create more using the Archetypes given earlier in the book.

Physically, the Basic Hero’s Handbook is bright and breezy in its style and colour palette. The artwork is excellent throughout depicting a wide variety of heroes and villains in action, and the book’s three double-spread cartoon strips are actually nicely done. The writing is clear throughout and the book is easy to read.

Although the Basic Hero’s Handbook does not include the full Mutants & Masterminds rules—the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook is needed for that—it does provide a complete superhero roleplaying game. It is also very much more than a ‘Quick-Start’ introduction, offering a solid, if familiar, set of options in terms of what players can roleplay accompanied by a solid, if familiar, set of adventures ready for the Game Master to run. This familiarity does mean that the Basic Hero’s Handbook does not offer the full scope (or indeed, the full complexity) of Mutants & Masterminds, but it does still provide plenty of opportunity for superhero roleplaying and serve as an excellent introduction to one of the best superhero roleplaying games available. 


  1. I'm really wanting this. Great review as always!

  2. Found the power creation rules to be extremely vague and non-intuitive. Gave up on it pretty quickly.