Saturday, August 7, 2010
Tommy's Take on The DC Adventures Hero's Handbook
Their first release in the new line is the DC Adventures Hero's Handbook, which is the rulebook and, essentially, the rulebook for Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition before 3e is officially released. I say essentially, because according to Green Ronin themselves, the only differences between the two will be hardcover vs softcover, the price and the presence of DC material.
The Hero's Handbook PDF is a whopping 281 pages, fully bookmarked and searchable, and chock full of licensed DC art, starting with an Alex Ross cover featuring a selection of iconic DC heroes with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (of course) serving as the centerpiece. As is always the case with stuff like this, the art ranges from awesome to so-so, and that's going to be largely a matter of opinion as to what is what.
I'll say this right up front: I'm not going into super heavy detail on the system, except where I see changes worth noting. It's the d20 system, which has deeply permeated the RPG industry, for better or for worse, since the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. I will say that I have only played one iteration of the d20 system that I truly, truly enjoyed, and that was the version presented in Star Wars Saga Edition.
The system itself has undergone some changes, but nothing incredibly radical. At the core, it's still rolling a d20 plus modifiers and, usually, applying it to a target number to determine success. Graded checks are added to the mix, which is an action that has more than just a standard “success or fail” quotient to it, and adds levels of success for every five points you roll above the target number. Another change, and one that I like, is Team Checks. Essentially, Aid Another has been replaced with Team Checks: Rather than the standard +2 for help, the Leader of the Team (though this could be adjusted easily enough to any primary acting character) makes the normal check against the difficulty, while the rest of the team makes a roll against a DC 10. All the degress of success and failure are totaled and if there's a net failure by two or more degrees, the Leader gets a -2 to his total. A net success grants +2, and if the team manages three or more successes, it becomes +5. It's not a massive change, but I prefer it over the flat +2.
Ability Scores have been reduced to the Ability Modifier that has always been present in d20 games, and the effect this has had on character creation is to change the cost of Abilities from 1 point per rank to 2 points per rank (since you no longer have the “in-between” ranks). The skill list has been somewhat condensed, but still uses the rank system, and is now 1 point for 2 ranks, rather than the 1 point for 4 ranks from 2e. Saves are now Defenses, Feats are now Advantages and have retained the same point costs, while Powers have their own formula based off of the modifiers you select.
Power Level itself is largely still intact from 2nd edition, with a sidebar helpfully noting what would be a good Power Level for a given type of campaign, with a Golden Age game being closer to Power Level 6, while the Justice League is much closer to Power Level 14. Power Level dictates not only the starting number of points, but the limits the PCs can have for Skill Modifiers, Defenses and so on.
Every character must select at least two Complications, with one of them being a Motivation. Whenever the Complication comes into play, you score Hero Points, which let you do creative scene editing, improving die rolls, recovering quickly and adding new Advantages for the scene.
As noted, Ability Scores did get overhauled a bit with some name changes, and Base Attack Bonus moved into “Ability Score” status. The new Ability scores now are Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Fighting, Intellect, Awareness and Presence, and are now on a -5 to 20 scale (coinciding with the d20 Ability Score Modifiers).
Defenses have been expanded somewhat and now include Dodge, Fortitude, Parry, Toughness and Will, with Dodge and Parry being your defense against ranged and hand to hand attacks, respectively...essentially splitting Reflex and keying Parry to Fighting.
Skills got trimmed from 29 to 16, which is a huge improvement to me...I just wish they had also reduced the ranks closer to Star Wars Saga's “Untrained/Skilled/Skill Focus” type approach. Still, you can see why skills are now a touch more expensive in DCA than they were in M&M2e,
The skills section is very clearly written, covering most of the biggest uses of each skill providing target numbers for different effects as needed. For instance, Gather Information has a generalized “Degrees of Success” chart to guide you through setting up your own specialized charts for a given adventure or situation. Close and Ranged Combat are now skills, however they are not broad skills but most be specialized...such as Ranged Combat (Power Ring) or Ranged Combat (Guns) or Close Combat (Swords) and Close Combat (Unarmed). Frankly, this is one of those things that I think is unnecessarily tedious for a supers RPG although, with a high enough linked Ability, you eliminate the need for a lot of ranks in a lot of areas: i.e., if you have Fighting of +4 and Swords of +6, that gives you +10 when sword fighting, but you still have +4 in a fist fight. A guy with +10 in Fighting and no skills is going to whip you in a fist fight and go toe to toe with you in a sword fight.
For me, the skills system is and always has been a deal breaker in M&M, and this just doesn't do enough to fix that for me. We get a condensed skill list...except for all the Close and Ranged Skills. Overall, I would still call it an improvement, just not enough to make me excited about playing.
Advantages are still Feats, under a different name. They are even still organized under the same subheadings of Combat, Fortune, General and Skill. In fact, one area where they actually took a step back in the new book is in the big summary chart, where they no longer helpfully mark which Advantages are ranked and which are not. The short sentence description on the table doesn't even always note it, so without going over the full descriptions list, there is no handy reference as to what is ranked and what is not when making characters. Honestly, other than no longer using the Feats name, I don't see how this is supposed to be any different from Feats, and the lack of quick reference for which Advantages are ranked and which are not is a very annoying knock here.
The same basic structure is still in place for Powers, taking a base cost plus extras, minus flaws, times ranks plus flat modifiers to equal the number of points spent. The list has been broadened far more, relying more on modifiers and descriptors to differentiate powers, shrinking the included list from two full pages to a little under a page and a half. I'm not sure if this makes it better or worse when trying to write up a character, as the excessive modifiers and points totaling was one of those things that turned me off in the past, and it's certainly no less pronounced here.
Gadgets & Gear covers everything from basic weaponry through vehicles and headquarters. A basic weapons list is provided with relevant stats such as the ranks of Damage or Ranged Damage each weapon has, critical range and so on. The vehicle provides a standard list of common vehicles, the headquarters section a generic list of HQs...the same list from M&M2e, in fact, with “Sanctum Sanctorum” renamed “Wizard's Tower”. I know there are whole books set to come out covering the DC Universe in detail, but would it have been that bad to specifically list some DC examples such as The JLA Watchtower, The Batmobile and The Fortress of Solitude? To be fair, many of them are included in the character write-ups later on, but I'm not sure why the need to go QUITE so “generic” here, since this is a DC book.
Chapter 8 covers the bulk of the system, combat and non, and has some nice additions such as “Challenge Sequences” which are akin to “Skill Challenges”, though they are really only touched on here and not detailed, but if you have dealt with them in Star Wars Saga Edition or D&D Fourth Edition, you'll definitely see where they were going with it. One addition here I really like is the addition of poison and disease tables with ranks and effects: such as cyanide being a Rank 14 Fortitude Damage effect or AIDS being a Rank 10 disease that Weakens Fortitude, opening the afflicted up to other infections. It does provide some really nice framework to play around with your own poisons and diseases without getting too complicated.
The Gamemastering chapter does a really nice job of focusing on the game system and working with it, and talks about adventure design in broad strokes, but doesn't really get into DC specifics until providing four series frameworks at the end of the chapter. It is some good, if generic, advice with a basic adventure structure to hang your plots on.
The next chapter covers the DCU itself, hitting on all the essential points of the DCU, such as the notable fictional cities like Central/Keystone Cities (home of The Flash), Metropolis, Gotham, Fawcett City (Marvel family), Opal City (Starman), Star City (Green Arrow) and more, with a smaller listing of even more DC specific places of less prominence, like Bludhaven. The hidden city of Nanda Parbat, the nation of Atlantis, fictional Middle Eastern stand-in Qurac and more also get a paragraph or so before the chapter expands out to cover the important features of DC Space, like The Green Lantern Corp, Rann (home of Adam Strange), Thanagar (which has produced earth heroes Hawkman and Hawkgirl), as well as hitting on a handful of the worlds among DC's 52 universes. This is only meant to be a broad overview, as a book is slated for the line specifically to cover this, and rightfully so: The DC Universe is massive and needs that kind of treatment and I, for one, look forward to seeing the DCU covered in deeper detail, but this is a good start.
Chapter 11 selects fourteen prominent heroes and fourteen prominent villains of the DCU and stats them out in game terms, aiming for “iconic” versions of them. For the record, the heroes are: Aquaman (with harpoon hand and magic water hand sidebar variants), Batman (Bruce Wayne), Black Canary, Captain Marvel, The Flash (Barry Allen), Green Arrow, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan, without Yellow weakness), Martian Manhunter, Nightwing, Plastic Man, Robin (Tim Drake), Superman (without electricity powers...I know!), Wonder Woman, and Zatanna. It's a really strong mix, and the inclusions of Batman, Nightwing and Robin does a nice job of showing how you can take the same basic character type and remake it three (at least somewhat) different ways. People have already complained about some of the stat selections and I have my own issues, but overall, I heartily approve of the choices and would have to think really hard about who I would swap around if I were to change them.
The villains are: Black Adam, Black Manta, Brainiac, Catwoman, Cheetah, Circe, Darkseid, Gorilla Grodd, The Joker, Lex Luthor, Prometheus, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy and Vandal Savage. Again, a real strong selection. I dunno if Catwoman could even “iconically” be a villain anymore, she's been an anti-hero for so long...I probably would have replaced her with Two-Face, The Riddler or even Deathstroke, myself.
Then this chapter concludes with a selection of generic statblocks for bystanders, cops, thugs and other NPCs, as well as basic animal stats.
So...here's the thing: I was not the target audience for this game. I am a diehard supers geek comic fanboy...but: I'm not a diehard DC fanboy and I'm just not a fan of Mutants & Masterminds. I WANT to like it...a ton. The writing on the M&M books has always been just some top notch stuff. It really has been. I keep stacks of their books around just for reference, both in comics writing and in RPG stuff...but the system is just way, way more work than I want to deal with, and nothing in DCA has changed it to be less work...and that's cool, because they never said they were dramatically overhauling the system, some people (like me) had just hoped that would be the case. Green Ronin has been very up front that this IS M&M3e and that the eventual M&M3e release is basically this, in soft cover, with the DC IP excised. I do think that's hurt the presentation of the book overall, as they seemed to go out of their way to not “mix” DC material in with “basic” material (such as the lack of specific examples in the Gadgets & Gear chapter), so that it would make for easier editing when time came to release M&M3e. In just about every case, you can practically see the “break point” where the DC material will be seamlessly lifted as though it were never there at all.
If you're like me and don't really like the d20 system, there is not enough DC material here to make this worth your purchase. If you love the M&M version of the d20 system but have no interest in the DCU, then hold off for the M&M3e book. If you've been chomping at the bit for this because you love the DCU and you dig Mutants & Masterminds, then this is absolutely for you. For my part, I felt like they took some small steps forward but there is still far too much work to be done to have a good time. That said, I'll still be striving to understand the system so that I can take the character and setting books and indulge in a great many adaptations of DC characters for some or all of Marvel SAGA, BASH Ultimate Edition or ICONS.