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Mutants and Masterminds
Reviewed by Mark Finn, © 2003

Format: Game
By:   Green Ronin (publisher)
Review Date:   September 14, 2003
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

The War of the Supermen, part 2: Mutants & Masterminds

Green Ronin has emerged as one of the new darlings of the D20 publishers, and perhaps rightly so. Their products are slick, professional, and well-produced. Mutants & Masterminds is certainly no exception. Full-color graphics litter the book, both as full-page illustrations to introduce rules sections and as simple two-to-four panel progressions seemingly culled from a comic book. It's a nice touch; something I admired greatly about the late, great Villains & Vigilantes rulebook.

Indeed, M&M shares much in spirit with the old V&V game, if nothing else: a large list of powers, many of them open-ended to allow players to customize their character's attacks and defenses, lengthy tables with things to calculate and write down, and a mildly Byzantine character sheet full of numbers. It's to be expected, after all. Most role-playing games are really good at simulating a man with a pointed stick. When you slap powered armor on that man and turn the pointed stick into a Cosmic Rod, well, things get more complicated, right?

Green Ronin does an ample job of taking the inherent limitations of the D20 system and opening it up to include super powers. There's math involved, and it really taxes the D20 system, but it does it. One of the ways Steve Kenson sidestepped the limitations is by doing away with levels and classes, and experience points. Don't worry, you won't miss them. It's a good thing, all in all. He also did away with hit points...and while I'm not a proponent of hit points, per se, it's been replaced with a saving throw system that makes full use of the attack and defense numbers. Because super characters can do so much more, you have to really pay attention to which plusses apply, and which minuses apply, and when, and how, and under what conditions. It's a lot of +2's to keep track of, thanks to skills, feats, super feats, and super powers.

It seems like a lot of work for what boils down to a single die roll to hit, and a single die roll to save vs. damage, with fairly automatic results: no damage if you make it, a stun or kill point registered if you don't make it, you're stunned if you miss it by 5, and unconscious if you miss it by 10. It took a lot of time for me to build a single character, a martial artist, at that, and figure out his attack numbers, only to find out I toss a single D20 and that's it.

Not that it's not elegant, and in its own way, really clever. This means not having a table full of clattering dice when you want to do something. It allows you to quickly assess and control combat (provided you have a cheat sheet to figure out all of the plusses and minuses that combat brings forth), score the results, and get back to role-playing. That's the idea, anyway. There are a ton of optional rules presented, so if you want the hit points back, you can have them. Damage, then, reverts to a number of D6s.

M&M, believe it or not, is open ended enough that you can build Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman (not with the same points, however) and they would all work together, if not be grossly powerful. Moreover, you can create a character right out of the gate that feels like a super hero. Since it's based on the wildly popular D20 system, many of you will pick it up in no time flat. The sample characters, too, are great: clever, with interesting abilities, drawn and colored very nicely. Source material, too, is well done. The world building material is written with an eye toward flexibility and doesn't present the novice GM with only one style of play. The Mutants & Masterminds website has a decent section full of errata, character sheets, and lots of samples to peruse.

I have to be honest: this would not be the super hero game system I reach for if I were running a campaign. However, if all of my players were 3rd edition D&D geeks looking for a change, I'd hand them this book immediately. It's a well-designed system, and the packaging is out of this world. In using the modified D20 system rules, however, I had creepy D&D flashbacks while I was learning the rules, and those flashbacks ultimately were realized in the 'one roll to rule them all' style of combat. I personally don't like saving throws in my super hero games. Maybe it's the terms I object to. Maybe it's the dice. For D20 fans, have at it. If you're not enamored with the D20 system, you might want to give this one a pass.

Mark Finn is the Games Editor for RevolutionSF and the author of two books of fiction: Gods New and Used and Year of the Hare.

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