DC Adventures: Hero’s Handbook – Available For Pre-Order Now
by Aaron Einhorn
Superhero role-playing games are faced with one of the most extreme challenges of any game. Most RPGs have settings that are somewhat constrained. Either they’re mostly realistic, or the powers and abilities that break the laws of physics are very specifically laid out. Superhero games, on the other hand, have the challenge of trying to create a setting where nearly every character can do things that no one else on the planet can do. And they quickly run into the conflict between being detailed and being vague. Some games go extreme on the detail, allowing characters to create any power in imagination, but only by figuring out every tiny detail of that power. Others are vague and open-ended, allowing a lot of room for player and GM creativity and interpretation. And other games give characters a very limited set of powers with very precisely designed effects, more similar to traditional fantasy role-playing games. All three approaches have their benefits as well as their downsides, and while either extreme will find their fans, most of the successful games try to find common ground in the middle.
One of my favorite games was the first edition of Mutants & Masterminds, published by Green Ronin, and lead-written by Steven Kenson. It allowed for a lot of flexibility in power creation, but was fairly uncomplicated to run. So I was thrilled when I heard that they had the license to develop DC Adventures – which would also be the debut of the third edition rules for Mutants & Masterminds.
The books should be headed to distributors now, and the PDF is already available from Green Ronin. Myself? I dashed off to GenCon to pick up one of the copies of the book at the convention, so I could take a look. And overall, I like what I see. Let’s dive in, shall we?
DC Adventures (DCA) and Mutants & Masterminds are both based off the d20 System from Dungeons & Dragons. In this system, nearly every challenge is resolved by rolling a d20, adding a bonus that comes from your character’s statistics, and comparing it to a Difficulty Class (DC) determined by the GM. For example, Batman has a +21 Criminology bonus. If one of my players is playing Batman, and is trying to analyze a clue, I might determine that the difficulty is 30 (absurdly difficult, but not beyond Batman’s abilities). The player rolls his 20-sided die, and gets a 14. 14+21 is 35, and so I tell the Dark Knight Detective what it is that this clue can tell him. Simple, right?
Well, it is actually exactly that simple. The complexities in the game come from three areas. Character creation (in other words, figuring out what bonuses the character has to what task, and exactly what those bonuses are), combat resolution (where it is never as simple as a single task resolution), and the use of Hero Points. Let’s look at these in reverse order.
Hero Points are that extra something special that marks the heroes as being just that. Superman doesn’t fall to Doomsday because he had one bad roll of the dice. Players can use Hero Points to allow the use of Extra Effort from their powers, to recover from a damaging effect their character is suffering, and to re-roll a die. Each character starts with one Hero Point, and they gain additional points by virtue of acting like heroes, or from when the GM exploits one of their weaknesses (called Complications).
Combat in DCA follows the same principles as regular task resolution, with the main difference being that the DC is determined by the statistics of the characters you’re fighting. So, while the GM will determine the DC for static challenges, like picking a lock, or analyzing a clue, or climbing a wall, the DC to hit someone is determined by their Dodge statistic (plus ten).
The big thing that DCA and M&M do differently from most RPGs is that characters don’t have any sort of Hit Points that determine when they are knocked out or killed. Instead, being hit by a damaging attack forces the character to make a Toughness Save, with the difficulty based on the damage bonus of the attack. The damage save is the damage bonus of the attack plus fifteen, and if you fail to save, the amount that you fail it by determines what happens to your character. A small failure will usually only impose penalties to further saves (representing the character being worn down by small blows until a powerful one hits), or it might daze the character, or even incapacitate them.
For example, let’s say that Superman has been mind-controlled into attacking Wonder Woman. The Man of Steel swings a punch at the Amazonian Princess, and manages to hit her. Superman has a damage bonus of +19, while Wonder Woman has a Toughness of +14. This is probably going to hurt. Wonder Woman’s player must make a save against 34 – meaning that she needs to roll a 20 to escape completely unscathed. Wonder Woman rolls an 18, an impressive number to be sure, but one that only gives her a total of 32 (14+18). Wonder Woman manages to mostly absorb that blow, but as the fight continues, if Superman hits her again, she will effectively only have a +13 to save against future attacks. The next round, Superman hits her again, and this time, Diana only manages to roll a paltry 3, giving Diana a total of 16 (14+3-1 from the previous hit). A 16 is far below the DC of 34 that this hit would require, and so Diana is incapacitated. (And don’t worry, there are charts in the book that summarize exactly how badly hurt you would be based on how badly the roll is failed – it’s not all up to GM interpretation).
Unless she spent a Hero Point, of course.
The final big complexity to the system is determining your character’s abilities. Characters in DCA are defined by a series of different bonuses. There are your seven basic abilities (Strength, Stamina, Agility, Dexterity, Fighting, Intellect, Awareness and Presence), which every human being has. These bonuses will, in most cases, range from -5 (abyssmal) to +5 (about as good as a human being can get), with the average human having a 0 in each score. Superheroes, of course, routinely have one or more attribute well above this range. Characters also have skills. These represent the things you know how to do. In almost all cases, the points you put into a skill are added to an ability score to come up with a total bonus, so if you have an Intellect of +3, and have a +4 to Expertise: Criminology, your total bonus is +7.
Most characters will also have Advantages. These are things that help your character out, but aren’t superpowers or skills, and there is a huge variety here – everything from specialized combat advantages, to being lucky, to having a sidekick, to the ability to use skills in special ways. Equipment of the more mundane variety is also found here – and it’s interesting to me that DCA classifies Batman’s utility belt and Batmobile, as well as Green Arrow’s trick arrows, as Equipment instead of as a superpowered device.
Which brings us to Powers. Not all characters will have Powers, but this is a superhero game, so many will. Powers in DCA are “Effect” driven. So, rather than looking for “Fireball” in the powers list, you figure out what you want your Fireball to do. In most cases, this would be Damage, Ranged. One nice option is the ability to create alternate effects off your power at a greatly reduced cost. Imagine for a moment, a character who manipulates light. You want this character to be able to shoot a laser beam, create a blinding flash of light, and create holographic illusions. In a lot of games, you would need to select each of these powers individually. In DCA, you purchase the most expensive power first, and then can describe the other two as alternate effects for a significant point discount. This is a very nice feature, and while most superhero games have some variation on it, it’s still worth noting.
Finally, characters have Complications. These would be disadvantages in many other game systems, and would usually reward your character with additional points to spend when creating the character. In DCA, Complications don’t do that. Instead, whenever they come up in-game, you automatically get a Hero Point to reward you for your troubles. It encourages characters to actually play their disadvantages, and is a move I rather like.
On the subject of character creation, DCA uses a point-based system AND a level based system. Characters are defined by their Power Level (PL), which among other things, determines how high you can get any particular bonus. Superman, being PL 15, can have a much higher damage bonus with his punch than can the PL 8 Robin, for example. But characters are also defined by the Power Points they have to build their characters. In most cases, each PL is equal to 15 Power Points, but by manipulating the two, a GM can really affect the tone of their game. Creating a group of PL 5 characters who are built on 125 Power Points will give you very skilled and versatile PL 5 characters – which might be appropriate for, say, a game based around being Checkmate Agents. Conversely, you could set the PL of the characters at PL 12, but only give them 90 points at character creation. This would allow some seriously lopsided characters, which might be appropriate for characters who are supposed to have immense power and/or potential, but little training. The book generally recommends PL 10/150 points for characters, which allows you to make a character that can fit in with the JLA, but falls far short of most of the serious powerhouses, and all of the sample archetypes are built to this standard.
There are a ton of small differences between DCA/M&M 3rd Edition and M&M 2nd Edition, more than I can go into here – and many of which are only notable to people already familiar with the system. If you want a full list of the changes, I suggest you hit Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds forum over at The Atomic Think Tank. Be warned – the forum is full of hardcore fans of the game, so they may go into levels of detail intimidating to a newcomer. They’re friendly folks, of course, but you may be overwhelmed at first impression.
One final note, people looking for detailed, realistic games, should look elsewhere. DCA is a superhero game, aimed at replicating DC Comics. Even if you’re going for the grittier books, realism isn’t a halmark of the comics, and it isn’t going to be found here.
Here is both where the book shines, and where it fails somewhat. Physically, this is a beautiful book. At $40 for a price point, it kind of needed to be, but it doesn’t fail. The book is hardbound, printed on glossy paper, and is full-color. The art, of course, is superb. With 75 years of DC Comics to draw on, there’s really no reason it shouldn’t be. The colors are attractive, and make flipping through the book feel not unlike reading a comic, and that is a good thing.
At the same time, there are elements of the book that feel rushed. There are quite a few typos spread throughout the text, and several of the example characters and devices have erroneous point totals. It isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s kind of unfortunate. Green Ronin provides great games, and I like them a lot, but seeing mistakes that should’ve been caught in proofreading in the final book leave an impression of unprofessionalism that is disappointing from one of my favorite game manufacturers.
Another complaint is there are some questionable layout choices. Remember back in the rules section, I talked about a chart that tells you what kind of damage a character suffers when they blow a Toughness Save? Well, it’s there. But only in the Powers Chapter, under the Damage Effect. It would’ve been nice to reprint that – since Damage is the most common effect in combat – in the Basics Chapter – or the Action & Adventure Chapter. There’s also a great Measurements table, that tells you how fast things move, how much a character can lift, and many other important bonus-to-real-world-measurements that a GM will need. This is printed early on in the book, and then reprinted in the index at the back. However, the first print lists measurements in the English Standard system familiar to Americans, while the reprint lists Metric. It’s not that I don’t think having both systems available is worthwhile – but it needed to be noted a bit more clearly.
I also have some minor issues with the DC characters included in this book, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Which seems like the perfect time to seque over to…
With DC Adventures, you already know what setting is in the book. It’s the DC Universe. And while you could certainly use the M&M 3rd Edition rules here with a different setting – the M&M license has been around for ten years after all, and there are plenty of 1st and 2nd Edition books you can easily use with the new rules – the book is designed around playing in the DC Universe. I’ll avoid the debate over whether or not the DCU is a setting worth playing in – if you’re reading this site, you probably already have your opinion on the strength of the DCU firmly in mind. Instead, we’ll talk about how well the setting is presented in the book. And my answer there is “Not bad.”
The overview of the DCU is fairly cursory, but then, it kind of has to be. The book is only 278 pages long, and most of that is filled with rules and sample characters. So, the description of the DCU is fairly short. Green Ronin is already planning a full DC Universe setting book, which will come after the two Heroes & Villains books, and that will help. But it’s also fair to assume that most GMs and players who want to use the DC Universe already know the comics pretty well, so this omission is acceptable for me.
But the big weakness in how the setting is presented is the sample characters. Most of the characters are no-brainers. You need Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, after all. The Flash and Green Lantern are also important archetypes and major figures in the DCU, and rightfully belong in the book. Zatanna, Martian Manhunter, and Plastic Man both represent some seriously strange builds, and make good blueprints for players and GMs looking to build some odd character types. Black Canary is another good example of a martial artist character, and Aquaman is just a well-known, iconic character, and so he belongs.
But when you’re only giving us 14 characters, do we really need Batman, Nightwing and Robin? While Bruce, Dick, and Tim are all very different characters, and deserve a full write-up in the Heroes & Villains books, they’re close enough to being scaled versions of each other that I don’t want to see them all in the book when important and very different character build examples are left out. I can extrapolate how to build Robin by scaling down Batman. But no one in the book is going to give me a good example of how to build a shrinking character like the Atom, a transmuter like Firestorm, or a winged fighter like Hawkman. Add in the fact that Green Arrow is also in the book, and in practice his bow effects aren’t all that different from the Bat-family’s utility belts, and it really feels like an inefficient use of space. And despite my personal fondness for the character, the same can be said of including Captain Marvel when we have the build for Superman.
On the villain front, I actually have fewer complaints. On the one hand, I don’t really want to see Black Manta as one of the “iconic” villains, but who else among Aquaman’s rogues gallery are you going to include? I have a similar complaint about including Sinestro and Black Adam. Both characters are worthy villains, but with such a small selection, do I really need their write-ups when they’re only slightly different from the heroes they mirror?
As far as the write-ups of the heroes and villains themselves, no two fans will ever agree completely on any characters abilities. So, while I might personally be dismayed to see Black Canary with a lower Fighting ability bonus than Batman or Wonder Woman, I’m willing to let that slide. What I am less willing to let slide are notable omissions like Superman’s Superbreath, or the fact that Green Arrow is statted out as PL 10, but his point total only comes to 145 points. So, not only is the very experienced Oliver Queen the same PL as the “suggested” starting level for PCs, he actually has fewer points than them. That’s a bit of an insult to the character and his fans.
That said, one thing I like is that characters were built to fit the idea that the writers of the game had for the character, and not shoe-horned into a specific point budget or PL. For that reason, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman each have well over 275 Power Points in ability, even though they’re “only” PL 12, 15 and 15. Robin, despite being built on 177 points (or slightly under the points afforded to a starting PL 12 character) is only PL8. In other words, despite being far more versatile than most of his Teen Titan teammates, the Boy Wonder still fits well into their power level.
Despite some criticisms of the book layout and the choice of included sample characters, overall I am very impressed with this book. It is a good-looking book, and in a day when core rules for a game system are starting to be spread out between two or three books, each in the $35+ price range, getting the complete game in one $40 package is a nice deal. The sample characters are more than enough to let you get started playing in the DC Universe, and while most GMs (and some players) will want the Heroes & Villains volumes, you won’t ever need them. (Truthfully, by the time the books are available, you’ll be able to find a half-dozen write-ups for most of your favorite characters online.)
Also of benefit, the Mutants & Masterminds Hero’s Handbook is slated for later this year, and will be a less expensive, softcover book, that includes all of the needed rules to play and create characters. So, if the GM grabs DCA, the players can wait for the M&M Hero’s Handbook to buy their own copy of the rules. For anyone trying to convince a group to play, this can only be a benefit.
As far as the game itself, Mutants & Masterminds has always hit the sweet spot between complexity and versatility, and the new edition continues that trend. While I’m unlikely to try to convert any of the games I’m currently playing in to DCA/M&M, picking up this book has given me a half-dozen ideas for new DC Universe-based games I’d love to run.