Monday, August 20, 2018

Review: Mutants & Masterminds Basic Hero's Handbook

Most of y'all know that superheroes is kind of my best genre. Certainly the gaming I've done the most of and (I'd like to think) know the most about. I've played plenty of supers games (though hardly all anymore), and -- regardless of system -- have a pretty good handle on the dos and don'ts.

So, it may be a surprise that I'd even give a gaming book with "basic" in the title the time of day. To be honest, when I first saw mention of the Basic Hero's Handbook (BHH) for Mutants & Masterminds, I kind of shrugged. I've been playing M&M for a very long time, and since third edition, it's been my go-to for any sort of supers game where a degree of crunch is required or desired. But, I heard +Steve Kenson and Crystal Fraser talking about it on a podcast, and it piqued my interest, so I grabbed the PDF. I'm glad I did. Because this is a model for how a "basic" rules set should be done.

It starts off with your typical "What is an RPG?" introduction. This one is in the form of comics pages, showing a group getting together, as well as illustrating in-game action. I particularly liked two items on the very first page:

1. One of the players describes making up his character in the course of a single word balloon and reveals him in the next panel. It stresses that it's easy to get started and jump into the action, something the rules themselves back up quite nicely.

2. The prospective GM compares roleplaying to Improv or Writing Fanfic. It's a nice update from the usual "Cop and Robbers with rules" explanation we get. It feels a little more relevant.

Anyway, once that's out of the way, we get a brief rules mechanics overview, covering about five pages. This is broad-strokes stuff, enough to get up to speed, without overloading the details.

This is followed with another single-page, more traditional, example of play. I think this is a really great idea. We've seen the basics in a comic, and now we get one that shows off the details a bit. It's also fun and entertainingly written, something you don't always get.

Next we get to Creating Characters, which is really the heart and soul of the book. Those who have played M&M, or other point-based rules (HERO, SAS, GURPS) know things can get seriously bogged down and technical here. M&M3 is a good deal less crunchy than some of its forebears, but there's still lots of potential fiddly bits you can get lost in. The BHH addresses this by breaking this down into a series of steps (eight, to be exact) that largely involve selecting from menus. The process guides the player from a broad archetype through additional refinements until the final product, the new hero, is complete.

For, example, let's say I'm making a character. I'm going to choose something I don't normally play, a character with animal powers. So, I'm going to pick the Primal Archetype. This gives me a set of base ability scores. Then, I need to choose one of three Primal types: Gallant (majestic nature), Hyper (energy and magnetism, which I admit, I don't get), or Tested, (weary, perhaps in conflict with the animal nature). I'll go with Tested. This gives bonuses to Fighting and Awareness. If I'd gone with one of the other, different stats would've gotten the bonuses.

After that, I write down my base defenses. These might be adjusted later on.

For Skills, I automatically get some in Close Combat and Perception. Seems reasonable. I'm beginning to think this guy is going to be some sort of a skin-walker or something. I also get to choose two additional packages of skills based on broad categories. I'm going to choose Mysticism and Tracking. The former reinforces the skin-walker notion, the latter is a handy crime-fighting tool set.

Next up come Advantages. Like the character type, this is tied to something more than just mechanical benefit. I'm to pick three words from a list that describe my character. After a bit of thought, I go with Alert, Fearsome, and Shadow. Each descriptor yields Advantages for my character.

This brings us to Powers. Rather than going through all the work building powers from scratch, the BHH has the player pick a power suite, a handy collection of powers providing a good starting point for a character of that type. Primals can choose from Arachnid, Carnivore, or Raptor (Avian) power suites. Given the way I've gone so far, I choose Carnivore. This provides enhanced stats, natural weapons, a healing factor, and senses. I also get one more set of Skills from the previous list. While Investigation might be handy, I go with Gymnastics to get some bonuses to my heightened physical skills.

Once that's done, it's just a matter of totaling things up and choosing Complications. Which gives me a chance to figure out what my character is about. Let's see. Shadow Wolf is a ninja. A crime-fighting ninja. He's on the run from his clan (the Tatsu Brotherhood), who want him for the clan artifact he stole when he fled from them - a wolf pelt that houses a powerful kami. When he wears the pelt, he is imbued with the powers of a wolf. He's motivated by remorse and wants to make amends for his actions as a Tatsu operative. He needs at least two Complications, but I like having three or four. So let's do Motivation (To make amends for my past), Enemy (The Tatsu Brotherhood), and Power Loss (Must wear the Kami Pelt to have my powers).

Here's his statblock:

Shadow Wolf - PL 10


Strength 7, Stamina 7, Agility 5, Dexterity 2, Fighting 7, Intellect 0, Awareness 4, Presence 0

Advantages
Daze (Intimidation), Hide in Plain Sight, Improved Initiative, Skill Mastery: Stealth, Startle, Uncanny Dodge

Skills
Acrobatics 8 (+13), Athletics 8 (+15), Close Combat: Unarmed 6 (+13), Expertise: Magic 8 (+8), Insight 8 (+12), Perception 14 (+18), Stealth 8 (+13)

Powers
Claws: Strength-based Damage 5 (DC 27; Penetrating)
Enhanced Ability: Enhanced Stamina 3 (+3 STA)
Enhanced Ability: Enhanced Strength 4 (+4 STR)
Healing Factor: Regeneration 10 (Every 1 round)
Leaping: Leaping 2 (Leap 30 feet at 8 miles/hour)
Predator Senses: Senses 7 (Accurate (Type): Scent, Acute: Scent, Low-light Vision, Tracking: Scent 1: -1 speed rank)
Protection: Protection 2 (+2 Toughness)
Speed: Speed 5 (Speed: 60 miles/hour, 900 feet/round)

Offense
Initiative +9
Claws: Strength-based Damage 5, +7 (DC 27)
Grab, +7 (DC Spec 17)
Throw, +2 (DC 22)
Unarmed, +13 (DC 22)

Complications
Enemy: The Tatsu Brotherhood
Motivation: To Make Amends
Power Loss: Must Wear Kami Pelt

Languages
Japanese, English

Defense
Dodge 10, Parry 11, Fortitude 8, Toughness 9, Will 5

Power Points
Abilities 50 + Powers 46 + Advantages 6 + Skills 30 (60 ranks) + Defenses 11 = 143
 
And there ya go. Honestly, this is kind of a riff on the random power generator that came with the GM's screen, but the fact that it requires the player to make some choices that might impact personality and ties them to mechanical bits is a great way to show players how to use mechanical bits to reinforce personality traits.

After this section, we get a couple of pages on fleshing out the hero in non-mechanical ways. Good solid beginner advice. This is followed by a fun two-page comic showing our completed group of heroes (from the players on page one) facing down a very unimpressive villain. It also very handily shows a hero using his powers for something other than hitting, an important step in the development of any supers player.

Our next chapter gets into the nuts and bolts of the character rules. It's not enough information to let you build a character from scratch, but it does explain Attributes, Skills, Advantages, Powers, and Equipment to the extent necessary to understand the words and numbers on the character sheet.

We get another two-page comic spread (these things are great). I especially like it because -- again -- it's showing off features of the game that aren't, strictly speaking, basic. Like a villainess with a Perception Range power, which means she automatically hits if she can see you, and a character using Agile Feint to set up a heavy hitter. This is so much better than just a discussion of mechanics, it's cluing players in on strategies to play the game well, and illustrating them in a style that immediately relates them to the source material.

The remaining chapters gradually transition over to GM territory. The next discusses game play in terms of different types of scenes (Challenges, Conflict, Investigation, and Roleplay), then goes into the combat rules. There's nothing really new here, compared to M&M3, but it's spelled out with good examples (including more comics). The chapter is rounded out with rules for conditions, which are a big part of M&M3 conflicts (two pages are devoted to spelling them all out), and hazards.

The Gamemastering section is clearly aimed at a beginner. The information provided is simultaneously good and useful AND encouraging. Nothing I didn't already know, but you don't have to spend half your life like I did figuring it out for yourself.

The book is rounded out with five sample adventures (four short and one medium-length) can can help pad out a new campaign. Stats for seven villains of various power levels are provided, along with a half-dozen different minions. Good and useful stuff.

So, if you think supers are neat but haven't known where to start, this could be the book for you. If you want a supers game with more mechanical depth than ICONS or BASH! or Masks, this could be the book for you. If you want a handy set of guidelines to knock out ready-made supers in short order in M&M, this is definitely the book for you.
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