Sunday, June 24, 2012

Post Mortem: DC Adventures (Mutants and Masterminds 3rd Edition Game Engine)

If you have been following my blog, you might have noticed that:

a.  I have been running a DC Adventures campaign for a while now, and

b.  it recently ended.

After I finished running a Star Wars Saga campaign, and again after I ran a few Pathfinder campaigns, I wrote my Post Mortems for the campaigns and how the game system worked in those campaigns, so its only fair to get ready for the autopsy on DC Adventures as well.

This one is a little trickier, because DC Adventures is a separate game that uses the same engine  (but is completely compatible with) as Mutants and Masterminds 3e.  That having been said, some of what I'm saying has to do with DC Adventures as a stand alone game, and some of it focuses on the official builds of the characters in the game.

First off, I really enjoyed the game.  Unlike my Star Wars and Pathfinder games, this game actually pretty much ran a natural "beginning, middle, and end" arc that told a story.  Great players, interesting characters.



The Good


The d20 resolution mechanic for the game is familiar to d20 RPG players, but is much more flexible. There is a lot more that works on similar principles than modifying them the way most d20 games go.  For example, you don't track hit points separately, you track a penalty to your toughness check, which determines if you are still up and kicking.

Hero points are fun to hand out and give the players some control over their own fate, especially options like editing scenes and the like.  It is also nice for the GM to have an official "rule breaker" meta rule that lets him hand out a hero point to to those affected when he breaks the rules to move the story forward in some way.

Power Stunts, Artiface, Invention, and Rituals allow for a lot of effects and powers to be used in the game that don't require the player to buy powers they hardly ever use, and allow for the characters to do those "once in a hundred issues" tricks that super heroes often pull out of their hats.

Challenges are a quickly resolved version of what other games try to do with complex skill checks or Skill Challenges, but with the degrees of success and failure rules, it's much easier and more logical to determine how these play out, and keep the flow of the game.

The effects based powers are able to be put together in a lot of different ways to come up with even some off the wall, difficult to quantify powers, especially the Affliction power, which allows for multiple effects to occur depending on the degrees of failure against the power.



The Bad


The d20 range for checks does mean that you can have a tough, heavy hitter go down fairly quickly if you roll really low right off the bat.

Without more detailed guidelines on how to use the "hero point payoff" to let the GM bend the rules, it can feel very arbitrary when you decide to invoke your "right" to do this as a GM.  If you have players that are very trusting of their GM, it works okay, but even if they trust the GM, if they are used to game systems with much more detailed rules on this sort of thing, it might not sit well with them.

While the "building block" approach to building powers from effects is great, it means that people trying to take advantage of Power Stunts, Inventions, etc. might be reluctant to do so, or even slow down the game trying to build said "on the fly powers," because there aren't many example "pre-built" powers, outside of the hero and villain builds  (and more about that later).

Challenges are mentioned very briefly and without much in the way of examples, meaning that if you blink, you probably missed it, and if you only have the DCA games, you may never end up using Challenges in your game.

For a game that is moving towards a "trust your GM" and "tell a good story over mechanics" approach, several rules are needlessly complicated, almost like a throwback to the more "nitpicky" d20 rules that the game was based on.  Environmental adaptions, some immunities, and senses are all examples of rules that have finicky, points devouring minutia involved.

It really seems like if you want to play a speedster that isn't immune to friction, or an aquatic character that isn't immune to deep sea pressure, you would take that as a complication, rather than having to remember to buy those adaptions for your character.  There are so many tacked on extras for senses that I continually forget what they mean, and I don't think once in a year of playing any of them ever came up.

Abilities scores are kind of superfluous.  You can buy most of the stuff that they do separately, and they don't evenly effect game stats, and yet all cost the same to advance.  It seems like another pass on the rules and the will to do so could have eliminated ability scores from the game altogether.



The Official Problem


I'm creating a separate section to talk about the official builds because, well, some are great, some aren't, but I don't want to bounce around and give the impression that my complaints about the official builds have anything to do with if X has ranks of this obscure power he hasn't used in 10 years.

The of the builds and the entries in the Heroes and Villains books are great.  Some of them are not.  However, what is most jarring is that there is a lack of editorial discipline on the project.  Not about typos or game rules mistakes, per se, but in the overall feel of the book.

I know that there are a lot of freelancers working on the book.  I also know that a lot of ways to express the same powers with the tools that the ruleset provides.  That having been said, the format for different characters and teams are all over the place.

I don't care if one character that can blast people and create objects doesn't have his powers built like another character, but if you are going to put the stats for an item that defines a lantern corp in one entry, you should probably do the same for all of the lantern corps.

If you have a character that has had multiple incarnations, and one entry has a sidebar about their Bronze, Silver, or Golden Age versions, you should probably have something similar for any character that has other version.  I know some versions are really obscure, but in some cases, the omission is glaring.

For example, if you just read the entries, you would never know there was ever another Tattooed Man, but you have details on everyone that has ever been called Starman.  You have sidebars on the silver age versions of Pied Piper and the Top, but Mongul's entry doesn't even touch on his bronze age appearances, and handwaves "Mongul" as more or less a family of aliens that have been a pain to Superman and the lantern corps.

I know these got edited for grammar and game mechanics, but there is no uniformity of style or format, and overall, the collections almost feel like you could have cut and pasted some of the builds from the M&M forums into the book and had the same level of cohesion between entries.



Meta-Issues


I don't want to point fingers, but this game is a nightmare from a publishing standpoint.  Originally a product line that was going to support DC Comics 75th Anniversary in 2010, here in 2012, the final book of the four book line has yet to come out.

DC Comics, before this line was even finished, rebooted the entire universe.

I don't know who is responsible for what, though I have my theories.  What is in evidence is that this line of books seems to be taking much longer to publish than originally planned.  This seems to have the effect of not only dragging out how long it takes of DC Adventures to be completed, as a line of products, but seems to be causing issues for the main Mutants and Masterminds line as well.

I have a feeling, and I may be wrong, that the lack of an editorial template is at least partially related to the fact that this project has taken so much extra time that even more delays to create a better feel of uniformity would be sales suicide.

Whatever the case, it's a problem.  No matter how big a fan you are of DC Comics, you have to admit that taking this long to put out four books, missing the 75th Anniversary by two years, and publishing this material after the entire universe has been rebooted has to take some of the wind out of the sales of this line.



Overview


I really do like the core system that powers DC Adventures.  However, DCA by itself is not as robust as I would like in order to run a campaign.  If it weren't for the additional M&M releases such as the Gamemaster's Guide and some of the examples given in the Power Profiles and Threat Reports, I would have been much more frustrated as a GM.

I like the game, but I really wish that the Heroes and Villains books had been supplements to Mutants and Masterminds instead of a separate line, and that more of the M&M products would have gotten out the door at this point.  I really wish there was more uniformity in the builds and presentation.

Like the DC Universe itself, I love so many of the elements that I can't help but buy this stuff, and give it a whirl for a campaign, but there is so much potential that wasn't realized that it's frustrating.  Great elements, great material, not tied together as well as it could have been.

9 comments:

  1. Hmmmm, i'm going to have to respectful disagree with the statement " If it weren't for the additional M&M releases such as the Gamemaster's Guide and some of the examples given in the Power Profiles and Threat Reports, I would have been much more frustrated as a GM."

    Maybe its just because i am more familiar with the system then you are, or maybe i'm just more fanatical about my comic reading, but i never required anything other then the main book.

    What exactly where you finding frustrating out of curiosity? The builds, the characters, or trying to create compelling ideas on the fly?

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  2. There are some things the core book just does not provide anywhere near enough information of. For example, let us say your super hero team wants to hire an army of strippers to do the cooking, cleaning and yard work at their base. The team wants to make part of their pay a full ride scholarship all the way through their doctorate so that once they graduate they can be promoted into various positions that require higher skill levels, such as developing new equipment for the team or handling the finances for the 2 billionaires and 2 millionaires on the team. The people with wealth can't pay for it according to the base book and that type of philanthropy doesn't really fall under base construction.

    The base book doesn't really address how to handle the team having Kryptonian robots or Hephaestus working for them either.

    I also noticed that the core book, and really a number of the follow on books, fail to really examine the amount of power that a PC with cosmic level presence has. It is more than a little broken.

    My final note is that if you want to be useful in combat at the higher PLs you need to either only do combat related things or have a gimmick (like shrinking down small enough to get inside the guy or going intangible). Otherwise, you have to focus on support skills to be useful. With this system you cannot dabble in combat. You either do it or you don't.

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    1. You can do all of that using the rules. For instance your army of strippers helping with the HQ are just "personnel" as part of the HQ rules (appears on page 162). Everything else is just descriptor.

      As for the cosmic level presense, did you remember to keep in mind that there are limitations to how high you can go? As someone who designed a villain around the concept of phermone induced "love powers" that were nothing more then Enhanced presense, combined with enhanced attractive advantage, i can say that there are serious limitations to what presense can actually do.

      As it stands, presence only feeds into 3 skills: Deception, intimidation & persuasion, none of which can exceed the skill cap for the power level game.

      But even if you ignore the cap, presence based skills are pretty limited, in terms of what they can do. for instance the persuasion skill cannot be easily used in a combat situation & further attempts in a non combat sitations always defaults to the original attitude: So for example if someone starts at unfavourable & you get them down to indifferent & you want to try for favourable, you need to role against unfavourable again as it was the original attitude score (and requires levels of success, not a whittling down of attitude).

      Those rules are very balanced.

      As for higher level games, i've never found it to be a zero sum equation of either hella damage effects or gimmick. I ran an adventure where i specifically set out to destroy the world, with the heroes playing PL 15 characters, in a classic Justice League mold, an we had characters with both panache & combat effectiveness.

      Heck i had a Superman analogue functioning right next to a Batman analogue & while my Batman analogue admitedly had more skills then my Superman pastiche, both could hold there own in a fight to essentially the same degree of effectiveness.

      An these characters functioned in a group with a human mentalist (playing the martian manhunter role), a energy constructor utiliser (the green lantern role) & even a shrinking tech guy (The Atom role). Not one of them had any problems with either damage or gimmick (an they were PL 15 characters built on 225 points).

      If you were having problems with the higher level stuff (specifically with running out of build points), chances are good that you were doing something wrong. Were you using alternate powers & arrays?

      As for having Kryptonian robots or Hephaestus working for your players it depends what capacity they were working for them in. If we are talking about the Kryptonian Super-bots that guard the fortress of solitude then they are personnel.

      If its just background stuff, like Hephaestus making a hero’s magical mc guiffin then its just descriptor & doesn’t require any stats.

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    2. PL 13, 20 Presence, 4 in the 3 presence related skills, very attractive which ignores the cap. 26/31 minimum non-1 roll and a 44/49 on a 20. Everybody loved my character, at least mechanics-wise.

      Fascinate is a great combat skill which is directly linked to presence and presence related abilities. I could remove a villain from a fight indefinitely just by talking to them as long as my companions didn't attack him--all for 1 whole power point. Not many villains had the will or insight to seriously challenge my DC. I kinda stopped using the skill for just that reason.

      And no, my character did not make use of alternate powers or arrays. They would not have made sense for his back story or with the powers he had. I also avoided luck like the plague. My character lived and died by my rolls and my ability to earn/spend hero points.

      I am in no way saying it is a bad system. I enjoyed the game immensely. I like the simplicity of the system compared to some other superhero games.

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    3. If i'm reading you correctly then you were most certainly using fascinate incorrectly. Fascinate only functions as long as you are using it, taking a standard action & only works until any immediate danger presents itself. Sure it has combat uses, but given the limitations of it, including an oppossed check every round to maintain it its not over powered.

      A check that can be denied by either Insight or Will. A PL 13 Will is 13 points of the bat (an thats if the opponent hasn't defense shifted or has a high insight).

      Oh and don't forget that not everyone is going to find your character attractive. The rules specify that it only works on people who would normally find you attractive (as adjudicated by the GM).

      Of course this entire trick can be decimated with a single 2 equipment point flash bang.

      In combat its only really effective until someone throws a punch. As soon as a punch is thrown anywhere near the villain the effect is immediately ruined. But it sure can be well combined with power attack, improved aim & a close damage 13 effect (done it & it is devestaing if the dice are with you).

      Its not really all that unbalanced given the extreme point cost & the likelyhood that if you keep on using the effect the GM will eventaully plan accordingly to hamper it (which given the system is pretty easy).

      As for alternate powers, thats probably where your problem was: I've made countless villains/heroes (heck i have a rogues gallery file of over 70 villains & those were just the ones players didn't hate outright)& i've never found a character who design didn't end up using an alternate power somewhere, even if its just a different application of an already existant power. Same goes for power stunting for alternate powers.

      As for luck, i was never a fan of the advantage, unless it was specific to a villains build concept, kind of like Dominos luck powers or Longshots ability to be in just the right place, or hit just the right spot by luck.

      An yes, it most certainly is easier to play then other supers games... Especially Champions. Speed alone in that game, is excruciating.

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    4. Thank you for a fascinating chat.

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  3. To defend my incompetence a bit, I didn't call for the opposed role every round, but he did maintain his use of fascinate.

    Often the group was divided, using the same initiative rounds in fights that were in different areas. Felt fairly comic book like to me, and as such, Myrmidon might be with someone else fascinating them while others on the team were beating up bad guys.

    Also, there were times when I made a ruling that a natural "break" in combat would allow for the use of fascinate.

    I regret any time my handling of the rules is less than adept or might lead to a lack of enjoyment by anyone.

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  4. If it helps KnightErrantJR i made exactly the same mistake with the Fascinate too. :)

    Its a very easy mistake to make & only one of a dozen mistakes i personally made as a GM.

    To repeat what i said initially, i was wondering what exactly you were getting out of the extra products, like Power Profiles and Threat Reports? An is it something you think you wouldn't have needed if you had more experience with the system?

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