Vive la difference

So there’s this game called Fourth Edition D&D, and this other one called Mutants & Masterminds. One’s fantasy, the other is superheroes (though can handle anything else along the way). They’re both d20-based, so what’s the differences, mechanically?

Well, I’ll tell you.

No classes – except there are, kinda
Mutants & Masterminds gives the player a completely free hand when it comes to character generation. Your character sheet is yours and you’re completely free to generate anything or anyone you want, provided you’ve got the character points to spend. Want a magic-using super-strong thug? You got it! You’re limited by your imagination, not the imagination of the game designers.

In 4e D&D you’re limited by the choice of Class and Race given in the Core Rules and supplements. If you want to play a catfolk ninja your only option is to adapt what’s already there to your needs. Don’tget me wrong – 4e char gen is pretty flexible and nicely hackable – but you’re working with the designer’s pre-conceived notions of how you play the game.

M&M is designed to emulate the heroics found in comicbooks, and that’s a pretty broad church. It’s got to be able to handle everything from Swords & Sorcery to the Golden Age of Superman and the tougher, more Iron Age feel of comics like The Authority or Midnighter. And it does.

As M&M is points based and there’s Power Level limits set in place by the GM, the worst excesses of min-maxing are limited. The limits control anything that involves a saving throw. At Power Level 10 your character might be able to teleport anywhere in the known universe but they can’t destroy the world with a single thought.

Sometimes though, we don’t want a blank character sheet. We want a template that defines a generic type of hero who we can either pick up and play as-is, or tweak to our liking. That’s a quicker route to take during char gen, and a great source of inspiration to boot. M&M offers those too, with the Core Rules providing 13 Archetypes that are ready to play or tweak, and supplements such as Instant Superheroes providing many more. They’re a great resource for the GM too. Just replace the word “hero” with “villain” on the sheet, and you’re ready to crack skulls.

Here’s the list of the ones provided right in the Core Rules. Pick four, and you’ve an instant Superhero Group.

Battlesuit: Want to play Iron Man? Pick me!
Costumed Adventurer: Covers everything from Batman to Nightwing or Daredevil
Energy Controller: Magneto, Human Torch, Mr Freeze, Johnny Blaze, Dazzler, Cloak and Dagger, Storm…. the list goes on
Gadgeteer: Tank Girl, Booster Gold or Mr Fantastic if you add Stretching powers
Martial Artist: Iron Fist!  Iron Fist! Iron Fist!
Mimic: Super Skrulls, or anyone else who can copy the superpowers of others
Mystic: Raven or Doc Strange-a-like
Paragon: Superman, Power-Girl, or anyone else who’s super-strong and can fly. 90% of the heroes out there. Replace Quickness 3 for Blast if you want eye-beams
Powerhouse: The Thing or Hulk. Strong. Ugly.
Psionic: Professor X, Psylocke and other obscure psionic heroes
Shapeshifter: Want a hero who can change into animals? Why?
Speedster: Flash, Flash II, Flash III, Anti-Flash, etc.
Weapon-Master: Bullseye, Katana, Hawkeye or anyone who uses a weapon

Phew! Compare that to the number of pre-generated characters provided in the 4e PHB. Oh, wait………..

In a way, Archetypes are M&M’s answer to classes; pre-built standard characters that fit the tropes of the default setting. But M&M doesn’t limited you by providing them as the only option.

No levels – except there are, kinda
M&M doesn’t have class levels, but there are Power Levels. These range from PL1 (normal man) to Power Level X (unlimited, godlike) with the “default” starting Power Level being PL10. That’s NOT the same as playing 10th level D&D characters though – your PL10 hero could well have ablities that outstrip even a 30th level D&D character. Don’t confuse the two!

Power Level sets limits on the maximum amount of damage and effects that the characters have access to. Essentially, anything that requires a saving throw has to adhere to PL limits. There’s trade-off options too, so if you want your character to do massive amounts of damage it could be inaccurate, and vice versa.

The PL limits help reinforce the tone of the setting. At PL 10 your characters will be doing the kind of damage (and receiving the same in return) roughly on a par with the kind of action seen in the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spiderman and the like. While they’ll occasionally face city-threatening foes from PL156 and beyond, most of their opponents are in the PL8-12 mark. Going down the line, PL6-8 is good for street-level or aspiring heroes (Spiderman in the first movie would be PL8) and PL12 for more experienced, established heroes.

The Power Level sets the maximum, not a target. If a character has +10 attack and +10 damage at Power Level 10 he’s probably the best fighter around; characters less combat-focused should have lower amounts. Your PL 10 Magic-user would most likely have a lower based Attack score but several ranks of Attack Focus (Ranged) and a suitably beefy magic Blast – within PL limits, of course.

No Powers – except…. oh, you get the idea
Now, of course M&M has Powers. It wouldn’t be much of a Superhero game if it didn’t now, would it?

What it doesn’t have though is 4e D&D’s concept of Powers being something that’s limited in use at-will, per Encounter or per Day. By default, every Power can be used at-will, as often and as frequently as you want provided you’re willing to pay the points cost during character generation. That’s more in line with the comicbooks where heroes rarely run out of charge of their most useful abilities.

On the other hand, 4e’s system is designed to simulate action movies where a hero will most likely use a killer move at most once or twice in the whole 90 minutes. We don’t stop to ask why Jedis don’t throw their lightsabers or Katate Kid use that kick all the time; we just think it’s cool when they do.

If you want to simulate 4e D&D using Mutants & Masterminds (see below), just give Powers the Limited 1 (per Encounter) or Limited 2 (per Day) Flaw. This’ll make the Power cheaper to buy too, meaning it’s perfect for those more expensive-but-powerful abilities. Which, of course, is the whole idea of limiting them in the first place.

When 4e D&D was launched, a big thing was made that it’s an exception-based system where the Core Engine was relatively small and Powers, Monsters, Magic Items, etc could bring their own exceptions to those rules.

Ask any programmer and they’ll tell you that Exception-based design is a Good Thing provided there’s a limited, tightly controlled number of exceptions. The problem is that it’s possible to reach saturation point pretty quickly. Right now we’ve just got the 3 Core Rule books and it all works splendidly. Further down the line when we’ve multiple Players’ Handbooks, Campaign Settings, Monster Manuals and Third Party supplements and we’re in danger of looking at Exception-based chaos with lots of contradictions, inconsistency and rules duplication to contend with. Ask any GURPS 3rd Edition player what that felt like!

In contrast, M&M is an inclusive-based design where each Power works according to a framework laid down in the Core Rules. There’s a Time and Progression Chart that controls everything from ranges to durations to area effects. There’s a rationale to the points cost of every Power, and it all works like clockwork.

For example, the Blast power is the same cost as the Strike power with the Ranged feat added. Strike itself is the Strength attribute with the Flaw:doesn’t effect lifting limits. That’s all buried deep – we only see, and have to worry about, the points costs. But it’s good to know that it’s there.

Inclusive-bases systems sometimes fall down because they’re not inclusive enough, meaning new rules have to be added as supplements are released. Going back to GURPS 3rd Edition again, that’s what caused its consistency problems. Thankfully, 4e GURPS is a MUCH better beast in this regard.

M&M gets it right. There’s a whole legion of fans and supporters on the Atomic Think Tank forums who’ll testify that the system can be used to generate damned near anything using just the Core Rules. No exceptions needed, or desired.

Action Points, better
I like 4e’s Action Point mechanism as far as it goes, and I’m certain the uses for those Action Points will grow over time. Just being able to spend one to get a free action is a wonderful (and, I suspect under-used) thing. In one game our Rogue used his Dazzling Strike to daze his opponent (an evil Wizard), and immediately spent an action point on Trick Strike + Sneak Attack. Net result: one Wizard dazed, pushed in the path of our Paladin and down one whole load of Hit Points. He didn’t last long after that.

M&M’s Hero Points go much, much further. Here’s what they can be used for, in short:

– Improve a dice roll. Roll again and take the best roll. If the second roll is 1-9, add 10.
– Gain a Feat, including a Power Feat such as Alternate Power
– Double your Dodge Bonus for one round
– Instantly Counter a Power used against you
– Cancel Fatigue, recover more quickly or stabilize a dying character (including yourself)
– Get a clue from the GM

Want to bet some of these will see light of day in a 4e D&D supplement Real Soon?

In M&M, Hero Points aren’t just for combat encounters. I’ve known characters use them in brilliant ways, including burning one to gain Animal Empathy for a round to calm down a Tyrannosaurus, gain Inspire to lead Minions into battle or gain Contacts. Easily the most common use for Hero Points is to do clever things with your Superpowers. Want your Blast to explode for maximum effect? Spend a Hero Point to gain Area:Explosion for a round, and it’s done.

It’s also possible to temporarily gain a new Superpower by spending a Hero Point provided you can rationilise it and/or bribe the GM. If you flaming guy suddenly feels the need to fly just point straight down and spend that Hero Point to gain Flight. I’ve known great players who create characters with one or two simple Superpowers then note down cool Alternate Powers and Feats for their characters to spend Hero Points on, taking them on a more permanent basis as their character advances.

Which leads us to………

Unlike most d20-based systems, M&M doesn’t reward the players with XP. Instead each hero who survives a session gets another Character Point to spend; more at the discretion of the GM for end-of series climaxes and great role-playing. These can be applied straight to your character to improve Powers, Stats and Skills, or buy completely new stuff! If you liked that Alternate Power you burnt a Hero Point to use last session, spend that character point and get it as another permanent addition to your arsenal, or add something completely new – with the GM’s permission, of course.

This means that each session the players can see their character develop. There’s no speed-bump levelling, but rather small, evolutionary changes over time. Because of the Power Level limits the players can’t just min-max their most potent Attack Power either, so the characters diversify in their abilities.

Every 10-15 sessions, the GM can raise that bar a notch (shifting from PL10 to PL 11, etc) as the players face increasingly tougher opponents. In one of our campaigns the change from street-level Power Level 8 to Justice League style Power Level 12 took almost 60 sessions and about 3 years play. The pace is controlled by the GM, not the number of kills.

No Hit Points
M&M combat isn’t a war of non-attrition with the bad guys working at full effectiveness until the very last hit. It’s a dynamic thing where a flubbed Toughness save can bring down the hardiest foe in a single blow or a battle rage for… well, rounds. Each successful hit wears down your opponent’s Toughness meaning blows are more likely to make a significant impact as the combat continues. Foes can be Stunned, Staggered or Knocked back depending on the result. Combat Modifiers, Feats and cunning use of Aid Another and Hero Points can mean the difference between defeat and rapid victory, though there’s always the risk that the dice will turn against you.

As there’s no Hit Points to track, combat is quicker than D&D and there’s plenty of room for role-playing amid all the action. There’s little point using Battlemats and minis when heroes can fly hundreds of miles an hour or teleport foes to the moon, meaning it’s all in your head gaming. Unless you want to use battlemats, of course :D .

M&M is also a game where combat can be a plot point. Sometimes you lose the battle to win a war, and having the heroes defeated and captured only to beat the Bad Guy on his home turf is a classic Superhero trope. Players earn Hero Points for things like this, meaning there’s rewards for playing to the genre.

Both D&D and M&M have rules for Minions, and they work pretty much the same in-game. The key difference in Mutants & Masterminds is that Minions only drop if they fail a Toughness save, meaning it IS possible for a Minion to still be standing after taking a hit!

I remember one session where the heroes were fighting against super-powered Triad members and one of their “regular” Triad Minions just would not go down. All of the heroes hit him, but he wouldn’t drop. In the end we all collapsed laughing at his Awesome Dice Skillz and let him go to spread the word that the heroes were in town. The next time they saw his Minion he was all super-juiced up with metahuman drugs – and they took him down in 2 rounds. Good times.

Mutants & Masterminds also allows Minions on both side of the fence, so if you want a hero who’s leader of a huge gang (ninjas, honourable thieves, skrulls, whatever) just take the Minions Feat and build your own army. A mere 12 points will get you 2,500 30-point Criminal Minions (or 1,000 45-point Ninja Minions) at your beck and call. Nice.

One book, complete
250-ish pages. 11 fully-stated and ready to play Archetypes. Complete character generation. Full combat rules. Vehicle building and combat. 14 complete ready-to-run villains. 20 Statblocks for generic ninjas, soliders, criminals, thugs, etc. A further 21 statblocks for animals and another 18 for monsters including Dragons, Colossal Robots, Werewolves and Giant Spiders. Two starting adventures including an overview of Freedom City. GM and world-building advice. Lots and lots of Powers.

When you’re playing M&M, it really is the only book you need. Other supplements (particularly Freedom City and Instant Superheroes) are nice to have, but they’re far from essential. 98% of my M&M gaming is provided by this one book. That’s no mean feat considering I’ve been gaming it since… uh… ever.

Seriously, if you think D&D needs three (six… nine…) Core Books you need to get off your blinkered high horse. There’s no shortage of COMPLETE one book systems out there that provide everything you need to play in 250-320 pages. M&M isn’t printed in 6 point type. It’s not rushed. It’s not incomplete, text heavy, devoid of artwork or any of those ridiculuous excuses folks put up for D&D “having to be” three books. One book means that’s all new players need so they don’t buy the PHB and feel cheated because it’s not the whole system. I’ve seen that so many times it hurts. Imagine if they bought a computer game then found out they had to buy another game to get the bad guys. Would it sell? Heck no! That’s D&D for you.

But anyhow. I could rant about why D&D so desperately needs a one book solution for months. And probably will.

That’s all well and good, but if Mutants & Masterminds is so darned great, can you use it instead of 4e D&D? Oh yes! Simply pick your stats, skills and feats as normal, then re-create any Powers you want. Use the Flaw:Limited to set “per Encounter” or “per Day” limits on the Powers (Limited 1 or Limited 2 respectively) to get the more powerful stuff cheaper, and use Alternate Powers to buy a whole raft of abilities that are only usable one at a time (like, y’know, most spells).

I’d set 4e D&D around PL 6 meaning your typical starting hero has 90 points to play with. That’s enough for a quick and dirty character like this:

Evon Darkmantle
Str 10, Dex 15, Con 14, Int 18, Wis 14, Cha 12
Toughness +2/+8, Fort +4, Ref +6, Will +9
Defense +4, Melee +2, Missile +6

Bluff +3, Gather Info +4, Investigate +5, KS:Arcane Lore +9, KS:History +11, Languages (Common, Elven, Draconic), Notice +7, Ride +6, Search +7, Sense Motive +7, Sleight of Hand +5

Artificer, Attack Focus (Ranged) +4, Defensive Roll 6, Master Plan, Ritualist

Magic 6 (Magic Missile, Blast 6), 60′,
– AP: Fireball (Blast 5), 250′, Increased Range 2, Area:Explosion 40′, Limited 1 (per Encounter)
– AP: Illusion 3, sight & sound, Slow Fade 2 (5 minutes), Indirect 1, Subtle 1, Area:Shapeable (20 cu ft)
Teleport 12 (20 million miles full action), Long-Range, Limited 2 (per Day)

Mystical Awareness (Super-Senses 1)

Shield 3

Evon has an all-purpose Shield spell, can sense magic auras and cast Magic Missile or create an audio-visual illusion. Once per encounter he can lob a Fireball, and once per day he can Teleport anywhere on the planet. He also has the Ritualist and Artificer Feats so he can brew potions, make magic items and read scrolls & spell books. That’s enough for a taster of how things would work in a M&M-run D&D-style Fantasy game. As a play character I’d probably shave a few points off the stats to buy more Spells, but that’s just me.

The flip-side to all this is to ask why we aren’t shifting wholesale to M&M. We’ve thought about it, honestly. It runs and plays brilliantly, and we jokingly call it 5th Edition D&D anyhow. I’ve used creatures from the D&D Monster Manual in our M&M games before. AC maps onto Defense and saves and attack rolls stay the same. Set Toughness bonus equal to the Monster’s Level and adjust to taste. For Damage I’ve found that (half the max dice value) -1 gets a pretty good result, so a Longsword (1d8) becomes Damage 3. Add one for multiple dice and add Strength bonuses as normal. This means I could pick anything from the MM, not worry about the point cost, and run as-is. Nice, eh?

Again, why not? The thing is that all this freedom comes at a price. Players like a framework to work with. They like having set templates for the various Races and fixed Class-based abilities. There’s a structure to D&D that makes the game; take that away and you lose the D&D-ness of it all. It would be simple enough to make Racial and Class templates for M&M, but why bother? You’d end up with D&D again.

Instead, we play and enjoy both. Sure, M&M is arguably a better game, but D&D – well, that’s the daddy, ain’t it? :D .

Vive la difference, indeed.

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