Mutants & Masterminds Deluxe Hero’s Handbook review

Well these days I’m all superhero-y since I started running a small Mutants & Masterminds campaign. I see and hear things in my day-to-day life and my mind is constantly trying to scan and rotate and resize those inputs in an attempt to make them superhero-y enough to use in my game.

So I’m going to review the Mutants & Masterminds Deluxe Hero’s Handbook for M&M 3rd edition. I’m going to touch on things specific to the M&M 3rd edition rules and to things regarding the physical product itself.

This book is, as 2015 RPG product value goes, a pretty decent deal. It’s a sturdy 320-page hardcover book with full-color glossy pages and a retail price of $39.95. The art in the book is not what I would call “high end” work, but in all cases it is evocative and appropriate. Best of all, the book is a bit light on the art and heavy on actual content. Compare that to the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition core books, and you end up with a product that is, by current standards, a good value. I recommend buying this book from a local bookseller or friendly local gaming store (FLGS), but if you’re more inclined to online purchases this book generally hovers around $28 on Amazon, which is a spectacular deal.

I’ve played this game off and on (mostly off) since 1st edition and although this newest iteration is a smoother, more-polished version than its predecessors there is one thing that hasn’t changed about M&M since its inception: it is a game for advanced players and GMs. There is nothing casual about it and I would say that if a brand new GM bought this book and attempted to teach him- or herself how to play the game the odds of success would be low.

For those who don’t know, M&M is an Open Gaming License game. That means it is based off of the d20 rules developed by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. So if you already know how to play D&D 3.0 or 3.5, then you already know the basics of M&M. At its core, it’s a set of rules that are about rolling a 20-sided die, adding some modifiers, and attempting to roll equal to or greater than some target number. There are enough things about Mutants & Masterminds that closely (or closely enough) mimic D&D 3.5 that players familiar with 3.5 will find plenty of anchor points to grab ahold of this new system.

That said, damage, level and powers are the three biggest departures from core d20 rules. There are no hit points in this game. Instead, damage causes a build-up of conditions ranging from cumulative -1 penalties to resist future damage all the way to incapacitated, dying, and dead. That’s easy enough to get used to, and represents a relatively minor change.

Unlike D&D, there is no character level in this game. Instead, the campaign itself has a level called power level (or, simply, PL). The default starting PL is 10, meaning that PL 10 is roughly an analog to starting a D&D campaign with 1st-level characters. Your GM can can start his or her campaign at a lower PL (for example, teen heroes or a gritty campaign in which futuristic tech or superhuman powers are either rare or nonexistent) or a higher PL (for example, very experienced, superhuman heroes). As the campaign progresses and the player characters are awarded power points (think experience points in D&D), the GM has the option of raising the PL of the campaign. This is important to do because there are several aspects of player character abilities and powers that are capped by the campaign’s power level.

But (drumroll please), powers are where &#%$ gets real in this game. If you are of a careful, analytical, mathematical mind then you can probably piece together the power rules on your own from the material presented in the book, else it will likely become an exercise in frustration. I mean, creating some straightforward, basic power like an energy blast isn’t much of a problem. But when you start getting into power arrays, partial ranks, alternate effects, or the dreaded dynamic alternate effects you better buckle up because you’re in for a rough ride. I doubt I could have done better, and a system that allows pretty much any power you can conceive of to be created for player characters necessarily has to be complicated.

Essentially, Chapter 6: Powers is filled with what are called effects, which are generic ways that a character can affect the world around him or her. It’s up to the players to piece those generic effects together, including optional add-ons called extras and flaws, to create bonafide powers for their characters. Let me give an example. This comes from the Mutants & Masterminds Power Profiles book, which I consider an almost-mandatory product to play this game. It consists of pre-assembled powers made up of the aforementioned effects, extras, and flaws.

Let’s say you wanted your character to be able to project a protective shield similar to the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman, you might start off with the effect called Protection. Like all effects in M&M, Protection is generic. Quoting from the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook page 174, “Protection shields you against damage, giving you a +1 to your Toughness defense per rank.” You would use this generic effect as the foundation for any power that protects you from damage, be it a protective shield, hardening of your skin, psionic deflection, etc. You could then start adding extras and flaws to fine-tune the power: ‘Impervious’ to eliminate the need for a die roll from sources of damage that are of a low-enough difficulty, ‘Sustained’ so the power can be turned on and off, and perhaps ‘Area: Shapeable’ so you can mold the protective shield into the form in which you want it to manifest. You do this by sifting through a 63-page chapter full of generic effects, extras, and flaws.

Or you could turn to page 86 of Power Profiles and choose the Kinetic Shield pre-made power (full disclosure: I did add ‘Area: Shapeable’ myself). Veteran players will likely have little difficulty constructing their own powers, but in my opinion newer, less experienced players should consider Power Profiles to be a mandatory purchase. (Note: Because gadgets in M&M are assembled in much the same way as powers, there is a book called Gadget Guides that does for gadgets what Power Profiles does for powers.)

The book itself is beautiful, well-organized, and overall a very solid value. Each chapter is printed with its headers, footers, section heads, and other graphical elements in its own unique color making it extremely easy to tell at a glance which chapter you’re reading. The table of contents is detailed enough to enable you to find most major concepts at a glance, but still concise enough to only take up two facing pages. And what you can’t find in the ToC, you can find in the detailed and logically arranged index.

Deluxe Hero’s Handbook even contains two introductory adventure modules at the back: Ghost Town (for 3-5 power level 10 heroes), which takes place in 3rd edition’s signature campaign Emerald City, and Time of the Apes (for 4-6 power level 10 heroes), which takes place in Freedom City, the campaign from 1st and 2nd edition.

So a recap? Well, first I think Mutants & Masterminds itself is a rich, detailed game system in which the rules act to enable GMs and players to bring into fruition anything they can imagine from the world of comic book and movie superheroes. However, the price of that flexibility is a complexity that all but bars entry to newer GMs and players. The Deluxe Hero’s Handbook is an outstanding roleplaying product. It is self-contained (i.e., GMs and players who can make sense of powers without resorting to the above-mentioned Power Profiles and Gadget Guides can buy just this book and never need anything else), internally consistent, well-organized, and overall a solid value for the money. So if you don’t mind a slightly steeper barrier to entry than most RPGs, Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition and specifically the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook are well, well worth the effort.

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