Problems with Mutants and Masterminds

Mutants and Mastermind’s new 3rd edition still has trouble with its mechanics.

For me personally, I really don’t like M&M. I didn’t like it when I played it for the first time at a comic shop all those years ago. For some reason, it bugged me that their system utilized the D20 mechanics everyone (including myself) was familiar with from Dungeons and Dragons. I’m not a D&D purist but for some reason that just felt…wrong.

Nevertheless, in my quest (hur hur) to take part in supero rpgs of any kind, I tried playing in various games that utilized the system. The games themselves left a lot to be desired from me but I took them in stride and did the best I could with whatever character I was able to play. What I found consistent from game to game was that no one agreed with how several character properties were portrayed by the rules (or how some players portrayed those same characters). Toughness rolls felt stupid to me. Also, the rules regarding group attacks (gang-up style) felt really ridiculous. But despite all of those nitpicks from me, the one glaring problem I found with this game is that players tended to start around the same “power level.”

Now here is where I seriously draw my line of disbelief. Its where characters like The Punisher and The Sentry can stand next to one another in a scenario and consider themselves “equal” in terms of game balance. For a game system or a GM to ask for game balance between two such characters is completely insane to me. There is no “balance” between Superman and Catman, nor should there be–ever. Sure, every hero brings something different to the table. The Punisher doesn’t possess the strength of a thousand suns but he has a certain set of skills he can use to hunt you down and kill you with any weapon (look out, Liam Neeson). In M&M, if Superman successfully punched Catman, the player controlling Cat still makes a Toughness roll and could use a Hero Point to negate damage or stave off negatives, etc. In the comics, Catman would be out with one hit from Superman, period.

This isn’t to say that M&M is a bad game system to use to create super hero characters.  In fact, I can make the argument that the system has too many options for players to go with-at least when it comes to portraying characters from Marvel and DC.  Trust me, when you see a Wolverine build with “Invulnerable 4” instead of anything that says “Regeneration” on his sheet, you know you’re in rpg bizarroland.

So, to me, M&M doesn’t portray established characters very well through their mechanics.  The very idea that The Silver Surfer should be portrayed “with balance” when entering a game with power level 8’s is completely outside of my reality. That might work with D&D or some other supers setting, but it just doesn’t work with licensed characters from Marvel or DC, for example.  Not for me.

Now with that said, the most enjoyable (or at least memorable) M&M games I took part in were actually low level games that didn’t use established heroes and villains. Instead, the players were told to make their own characters with unique powers. Now the power levels were ok with me. I know its strange to say that, but it just worked for me. This may vary for many other people but, for me, M&M works when players are made to make their own characters in their own made up universe.  I think this is where players can get the most enjoyment out of that game system.

By doing that, it avoids situations where one player says to the other, “Batman can’t do that?! WTF bro?!” According to my friend Stephen, this exact thing happened to one of his players that was portraying the Dark Knight Detective.  It was a case where this player felt that the game mechanics were not doing justice to Batman’s ability to outsmart and take out foes tougher than he was. As a result, both of my friend’s players pretty much quit the game partway through the second session. This surprised me because; what is a system?

A gaming system is just a delivery vehicle for a story, really. If roleplaying game stories were plays, the game mechanics just serve as the stage, lighting and acoustics so that the actors (characters) can perform as they should and create a “suspension of disbelief” for the audience (the players). If I enjoyed the story of a game but found that the mechanics to a game was getting in the way somehow, I would ask that we change systems to something else that will allow for a better flow of story, handle on character actions, development, etc.

Perhaps the story was lacking in strength (not surprising, since I contributed to it) or maybe M&M was just getting too much in the way of the player’s portrayal of their favorite characters. Either way, a good time was not had by all and the game was suddenly cancelled. Did this have something to do with the fact that it was a super hero game? I think yes.

When I imagine running a super hero game, I think of an easy to run system with benchmarks for abilities, without complicated or silly rules when it comes to adjudicating damage, etc.  One system that did this very well was the out of print Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game.  My friends have successfully played that game for years and it still continues to entertain with its elegant simplicity.  In fact, it was so simple that my friends and I made up house rules for it to make it a little more interesting (we added a die roll for initiative, for one).  Maybe making the game your own is one way to having a better time with a system overall.  I think of all those “old school” D&D lovers who still enjoy the old system.  Of course, that old system is usually house ruled almost into a different game altogether.

As for the best systems I’ve used to run supers, I nominate the old DC Heroes game (with some slight modifications, perhaps), the obscure and equally out of print Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game…and that’s it. Neither one is flawless, despite how much I liked running and playing them, but they run much better than M&M.  The new Marvel Heroes game (at a glance) from Margaret Weiss productions seems…just OK.  There are some nice bits in there but the game mechanics are way too gamey for my taste.  Not a fan of lots of dice rolling.  Happy gaming.