Friday, April 3, 2015

Mutants & Marvels: Combat!

 When we left off we were making a new character in Mutants & Marvels….or rather I was making an old character from long ago and updating him to 2015. Here’s Dan Carver, alias the Arbalest, in his current guise as Agent 13 for the Nil Group:

Alias Dan Carver, alias Agent 13
Former sidekick, former rogue vigilante, current agent of Nil Group
Fighting remarkable (+4), Agility incredible (+6), Strength remarkable (+4), Endurance incredible (+6), Reason typical (+0), Intuition good (+1), Psyche good (+1)
Resources: remarkable (+4)
Powers: Armor +3, Hardened Fists +1, Regeneration +2
Skills: Martial Arts, Lethal +5, Firearms/Bows +7, Investigation +2
Contact: Nil Group
Weapon: arbalest (+3 damage, range 100’, skilled, lethal)

Combat in M&M is only two pages long. Think about that for a moment. You know with certainty you’re in OSR territory when combat takes only two pages. M&M is a game which expects a certain amount of reason on the part of both the GM and the players….and as long as the answer to a problem makes sense within the range of ranks and abilities of the game you should be able to find it.

To demonstrate combat we’re going to quickly roll up an equivalent foe for Arbalest. In this case, I’m going to make The Demon, Arbalest’s own “Doc Oc” if you will….

Allan Drake, alias the Demon, was a criminal who stole a super-serum from a more prestigious villain in the mid-eighties and after gaining both super powers and madness from imbibing he spent several years on a real tear before he was finally incarcerated. Away from his serum Allan began to deteriorate rapidly though sanity also returned to him….therapy in prison did not help. In 2008 at age 51 he was freed when a jail bust for the supercriminal Ravener took place, and Allan made for one of his secret lairs where he knew he still had serum, only to discover that most of it had gone bad….he created a new batch, but something wasn’t quite right….the madness and strength returned, but it felt like he was burning out even faster. The Demon built a power suit from his old equipment, and began a lengthy quest to hunt down the man who put him in prison: Arbalest. He’d seen Arbalest on television, and he looked younger than ever….if he could get a sample of his blood, he could recreate the old serum, he theorized, and make himself revitalized again….

Demon’s stats are:

The Demon
Alias Allan Drake
Fighting remarkable (+4), Agility excellent (+2), Strength incredible (+6), Endurance incredible (+6), Reason excellent (+2), Intuition typical (+0), Psyche typical (+0)
Resources: good (+1) – hidden safehouse base
Powers: super strength, super endurance, Regeneration +1
Power Package: Demon Suit Rank 6 (Energy Blast +6, Armor +2, Flight +2) – Demon wears this batlike suit of armor which he constructed from other gadgets he had stolen long ago.
Gauntlets: Claws +4 – these retractable gauntlets let him extend long wicked looking blades for lethal damage.
Skills: Martial Arts, Lethal +5, Inventor +3
Contact: an old mob connection for contract hits

The Demon’s  thing is his strength and regeneration. His suit makes him tougher and lets him fly; he cobbled it together from a glider weapon he stole a long time ago (similar to the one used by Hobgoblin in the Marvelverse).

The Demon has arranged to be on an exchange of Mutant Growth Hormone being sold at the warehouses down by the docks in Liberty City. He asked his contact to get word out to the right snitches, hoping to bait Arbalest into appearing. Arbalest, as Agent 13, took interest….especially after his Nil Group contact informed him that The Demon was a target and needed to be brought in.

The Demon makes himself obvious, and has about a dozen goons he hired to patrol the warehouse and alert him when Arbalest is spotted….half a dozen are overseeing the actual job of exchanging cash for the MGH. The goons look like this:

Demon’s Goons:
Fighting +2 Agility +1 Strength +1 Endurance +1 Reason 0 Intuition 0 Psyche 0
Skills: Firearms +2
Armor: +3 (bullet-proof vest)
Weapon: large handgun (+4 damage, range 100’, skilled and lethal)

We’ll assume Arbalest covertly reconnoitered the warehouse and dispatched a half-dozen guards and then moved in before the next one could call. From a high perch at a window overlooking the cluttered warehouse floor he sees the Demon and his men making the exchange. The seller is a panicky fellow with no interest in fighting.

Since The Demon is looking out for Arbalest, and Arbalest is trying to gain an edge, the GM declares that Arbalest should roll an Agility check for stealth and the Demon should roll an Intuition check to notice him….high roll wins surprise. Arbalest rolls a 15+6 for 21, and Demon gets a 19+0 for 19….Arbalest has the drop on him! For our example we assume a DC (difficulty class) of 10 for the goons, so they are clueless.

In M&M there is apparently no surprise rule, so this is the point where a 3.5 D20 era player might panic….but don’t! It’s a system that’s meant to be played fast and loose, within the structure of the rank system, so this is easy. The GM rules that Arbalest can take an action before he is spotted and actual rounds of combat begin.  

Arbalest decides that one-shotting The Demon is probably not going to happen….but he’ll never get a better chance than now to get the drop on him. The GM decides an unaware Demon defaults to 10 for his “roll” on Agility to defend… his passive defense is 11. Arblaest rolls an attack and gets 16+7 for his ranged skill, totaling 23…a nice hit. Demon immediately has to make a damage save. This is based on a DC of 12 plus the difference between the attacker’s successful roll and the target’s failed defense roll….in this case 12, so the DC is 24, as well as +3 for the weapon damage so DC 27. But….there’s a problem…

M&M doesn’t actually tell you what a Damage Save is (that I could find), just when to roll it and how to figure the DC. At this point I am inferring from other stat blocks in the book that a Damage Save is based off of Endurance and adds in any relevant power defense such as armor (also, regeneration says to add it in), because that makes sense, but it would be nice if the rules actually explained it a bit (also, some surprise rules….and attacking two or more opponents….more on this later). If this is correct, then the Demon would roll D20+9 for his damage save: he gets a 9+9 for 18, a failure. He takes 1 level of damage for every 3 he fails by….3 levels in this case. Ouch! That puts him at “stunned” on the damage track….he can’t act for the next round, and when he snaps out of it he is in an “injured” state with -4 to all rolls until he makes a proper recovery.

Now regular combat begins. Initiative is a D20 with Agility ranks added. You can play with static initiative or re-roll every round; for our purposes we’ll stick with static initiative. Here’s what we get (rolling for the Demon even though he’s currently stunned this round):

Arbalest 8+6 (14)
The Demon 10+2 (12)
Goons 3+1 (4)

Sucks to be the goons!

At the beginning of each new round an injured character gets a recovery save. Demon is injured already and this is a new round, so we check: DC is 15 plus 2 per health lost, and Demon is down 3 so his DC is 21. He rolls 11+7 (including regeneration) for 18….failure (if he had made it, every 3 over the target recovers a health).

On Arbalest’s round he decides to take The Demon out, figuring the goons will flee if the boss drops. He shoots, rolling a total of 8+7 for 15 this time. The GM figures that the Demon’s passive Agility was 11, but now he’s stunned and injured (which makes all rolls a -4) so he’s at 7 for defense now…a hit. The damage save would be DC 20 this time. Demon rolls 13+8 (endurance and armor) but -4 (injured and stunned) so 17….missed it by 3, so he takes another wound. Wow…..quite a contrast from the EGS fight! Demon is now unconscious. (For the record, the final two steps are disabled and dying).

The GM decides that the Demon’s got a safety feature in his armor suit: it powers up and flies on autopilot to his safehouse when it detects that he is unconscious. It will wait one round before doing this, though.

The goons are in a panic, so they open fire on Arbalest. There are some rules in the book for multiple foes on one target, but it’s aimed at en masse melee fighting, not ranged gunplay. The goons each roll a D20+2 for their firearms skill, and we’re assuming Arbalest is within 100 feet. It’s a cluttered warehouse so the GM could say Arbalest has a cover advantage, maybe +2, but there are no specific guidelines in M&M on combat modifiers so that sounds as good as anything.  Anyway, the six goons roll (totals) of 19, 4, 21, 11, 9 and 15. Arbalest gets six Agility rolls to dodge. His totals are: 14, 12, 8, 22, 16 and 22. He is hit by the first and third bullets….

Damage Save time for Arbalest: He needs a DC 21 and DC 29 against the two handgun shots that hit. These are lethal! Arbalest has Endurance +6, armor +3 and regeneration +2 for a bonus of +11 on his soak. He rolls a total of 26 and 18. The first one grazes him, not even a real wound. The second one hits dead center: 3 wounds, meaning he is also stunned this round. Ouch!

The goons close in. Characters typically move 30 feet in a round, so assuming Arbalest was 80 feet away the goons are about 50 feet away at the end of the round. He really needs to make a recovery roll….

Round Two.

Demon attempts a Recovery, rolling 11 against a DC 23 for 4 wounds….he’s out. Arbalest rolls Recovery (6 for endurance and 3 for regeneration)  getting a total of 13 against DC 21 for 3 wounds….he’s still stunned this round then.

The goons realize they have an edge on Arbalest, and close another 30 feet while shooting at the injured hero. One goon, named Mario Gastoni, slides away from the pack and moves over to the demon, realizing that anyone could be in that suit…..only to see the suit fire up and rocket off through the roof.

The other five fire at Arbalest: they roll 7, 4, 16, 4, 12. The GM applies the same logic to Arbalest as an injured, stunned opponent with passive defense: 10-4 plus Agility +6 totalling DC 12. Somehow only two of them hit this time. The Damage Saves are 16 and 12 respectively….Arbalest rolls D20+11 for each getting 21 and 20….he soaks it, piece of cake.

Round Three.

Arbalest will get up this round from his stun, but everyone still gets a recovery roll: Arbalest rolls an 18 vs. DC 21…no recovery. The Demon, currently on an automated flight path home, rolls 18…still unconscious.

Arbalest shakes off the stun and is now able to act, but at -4 on all rolls. He targets the closest goon to him and fires, getting a total of 22. The goon tries to dodge, rolling 13….he’s hit for a difference of 9, or three wounds….he’s stunned.

The four remaining goons open fire….Mario is elsewhere, trying to run outside to see where the Demon’s power armor is taking him. The four roll well this time: 20, 17, 12 and 20! Arbalest rolls his dodges: he gets 15, 7, 23 and 20 this time….so he’s got to make a damage save against DC 17, DC 22, and DC 12. He rolls his D20+11 for each: 23, 12 and 29. Ah, cruel fate….10 points difference from the second shot means he failed by 3 more wounds, reducing him to dying.

The goons think they’ve offed Arbalest, and maybe they have! They leave, to grab the goods and run. Next round the GM has Arbalest roll a recovery once more, but with a wopping DC 27. He rolls his recovery and somehow scores a 28 (natural 20!). The kindly GM rules that he stabilizes (by RAW I think he'd be stable, just doesn't gain a health point...maybe?)….later he is found by some cops who get an ambulance and rush the vigilante to the hospital.


Wow! I see a trend here. Admittedly, each combat example I’m providing puts a bit more in the “foes” department than is wise for a character to handle, but given that the superhero genre is rife with villains who employ a lot of goons I was curious to see how it worked out. Had it been Arbalest vs. Demon alone with the dice rolled the villain would have gone down without a fight…..which is in itself a bit interesting. The recovery checks are brutal....tougher, I think than True20 or MnM, both of which use a similar mechanic. 

The combat system is exceptionally minimalist. It is missing rules for all sorts of stuff that we’re used to having some guidelines on, and not just in 2015…I think I’d have liked some of these rules in 1985 as well. A short chart showing sample penalties based on cover and other factors, some rules on surprise, taking out two or more foes at once (if it’s in there I couldn’t find it) would be nice, too….my first thought was, “Arbalest should split his attacks and take out all six goons” but it wouldn’t work in the RAW….or more accurately, it would require the GM to make a call and figure out a penalty without many guidelines. Also, this may be the D&D 5E in me talking, but I think an advantage/disadvantage mechanic would compliment MnM really nicely, and also help dramatically on affecting the swinginess of the D20 rolls.

The hero and villain dropping was interesting….the recovery mechanic is nice but it’s pretty much impossible to get back on your feet without some serious endurance and modifiers if you’re down and dying. In a game with two or three allies this is okay, but a one-on-one like this demonstrated that solo heroes in the comics, under these rules, are all just one low roll away from death. In comic books characters tend to go down quickly but are rarely out, and never dying unless its a summer miniseries or big marketing event.

It would be interesting if M&M included some sort of hero point or inspiration mechanic….it would grant players some agency, such as letting them spend a hero point to automatically succeed at a recovery, or boost an attack. That would really help lend to the cinematic style of the genre M&M is aiming for.

Also, I think minion rules would be really appropriate for M&M. It talks a bit about minions (what they are) but one could easily implement a minion mechanic similar to the mooks in Feng Shui or Savage Worlds....basically one-hit wonders. It would fit M&M really well to include this, since right now even a few minions are potentially deadly to PCs. Arbalest was not really a match for six average goons with guns, for example....and I'm not sure even being epic level with 10 extra points would have necessarily saved him.

Outside of that, if you play the game straight I don’t think you’d be disappointed….especially if you're in the mood for a grimdark era Watchmanesque campaign....but be prepared for an occasional hero death!

I’ll compare and contrast with a couple other Superhero systems next: Powers (a D6-based RPG) and Icons, the cute little sidekick to Mutants & Masterminds. I’ll think about MnM. It’s a big boss of a game, and while it’s probably got all the detail I could ever want for superhero gaming, it sort of looks like drinking from a firehose full of pudding, if you catch my drift. I might also finally delve deeper into the Supers Companion for Savage Worlds.


  1. Excellent write-up! I am seeing all of these weaknesses, and mentally fixing them in my head. A couple of your points are already in the works. I've already added a description of the Damage save (your guess was right). And related to that, I have reworked the damage system to include "hit points" in a sense, but maintaining the levels of Health. Should be a little less deadly. Good call on surprise, cover/concealment, and mooks. These are all things that I sometimes take for granted as a player, so they slipped past me in the writing process. Be sure they will be in the new edition, as well as some other items that have come to mind.

    Speaking of the new edition, my plan is to simply update the PDF at RPGNow, so if you bought that, it will just be a matter of re-downloading the file. I don't want people to have to buy the game again.

    Thanks again for this!

    1. I'm really excited to see the revision. Even as it stands this is probably the one superhero genre RPG I will try to get my group to play right now (Icons looks cool, but...M&M is something I actually have time for LOL).

      Let me know when the revision is up so I can download...also when the POD version is available!

  2. I played a game or two of M & M just last year and there were a few things I liked. It certainly did feel more cinematic and I think having the track helped accomplished that. The sad thing is 2 of the 5 players min maxed their heroes to the point where they could do everything all the other heroes could do and more. This might have been the GMs fault as I look back but it really made it a lousy experience that makes me grimace when its brought up in discussion. As far as the combat above, I think your hero would have done better if his super power was to reflect bullets. I think Agent 13 just didn't make a sound tactical move jumping in the middle of a bunch of guys with guns.

  3. That's certainly true....I tend to push these encounters hard anyway. The thing is, an Agility +6 in M&M is pretty extreme (can dodge a bullet level extreme), and his armor, reflexes and endurance are tough....but the problem isn't with the #s in M&M its with the die roll...a D20 is very swingy, and this has been a known problem with D20-system derivatives for a long time now, so not necessarily M&M's fault in that sense. Ironically an advantage of the old chart-based method of conflict resolution from the old MSH and DC Heroes days was you could scale the chart to generate results more consistent with intended outcome.

    OTOH the real killer in this scenario was the tough nature of the recovery check.

    I could see how a min-max approach to M&M would be problematic, though. That don't get that many points to work with, but if you spend them wisely you'll probably have a real beast of a character without too much effort.

  4. Thanks for the posts about this game. It wasn't even on my radar. It looks pretty cool, and I like alot of what I have read. May have to pick this up, still have a soft spot for the old MSH game.

  5. In my opinion, the best way to fix the dice problem is change the dices rolls from d20 to 3d6, you going to have the same results, but with much less swingy for both ends.

    1. Actually, that is exactly the fix I'd use. With 3D6 or 2D10 you get a bell curve and remove swingy results in one fell swoop. It requires a change in how you place value on higher levels (a +10 or +15 in this system is way more useful now) but yes, it's what I'd do as well.

    2. I use that in Mutants and Masterminds 3e and True20, its work much better there too.

    3. I have considered the 2d10 option, simply because using it also adds in other options, such as a percentile if you want to use that in a given situation. I may have to revisit that idea for the revision.

    4. Darcy using it to fix True20 and MnM 3E is an interesting fix, too. I remember when I ran True20 in the past running into a similar "swinginess" but haven't messed with MnM 3E yet.