by Aaron Einhorn
If you’ve played any sort of Role-Playing Game in the past two decades, odds are pretty decent that you’ve read something that has Steve Kenson’s name on it somewhere. This is even more true if we’re discussing superhero RPGs. Kenson’s bibliography over the past two decades includes titles for Shadowrun, GURPS, White Wolf’s World of Darkness, The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, White Wolf’s Aberrant, Silver Age Sentinels, and of course, Mutants & Masterminds, for Green Ronin Publishing.
With the recent announcement of Mutants & Masterminds, 3rd Edition, and the announcement that Green Ronin and DC Comics were uniting to publish the DC Adventures role-playing game, I contacted Steve Kenson to see if he would be willing to share some thoughts on these two games, as well as another superhero RPG he has developed with Adamant Entertainment, titled Icons. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Steve Kenson on a number of occasions, usually at the Origins Game Fair, or at GenCon, and have even played in one Mutants & Masterminds demo that Steve ran at Origins when Mutants & Masterminds was still on its first edition, so it was quite a pleasure to have him agree to speak to me about his upcoming superhero games.
The first, and obvious question when it comes to DC Adventures is what provided the spark for the game? After all, DC has had several other RPGs published through the years. What made them decide to work with Green Ronin, and create a game “Superpowered by Mutants & Masterminds? “We started talking to DC about the possibility of licensing,” Kenson told us, “And DC expressed interest because this year is their 75th Anniversary, and they were looking to do a lot of projects related to the anniversary. DC made it pretty clear that they wanted to work with us. They were aware of Mutants & Masterminds, and they really liked what we had done.”
With the announcement that DC Adventures was going to be arriving this summer, with Mutants & Masterminds, 3rd Edition close behind, there are obvious questions about what sort of relationship will exist between the two games. Kenson explained to us that “The rules content from DC Adventures and Third Edition Mutants & Masterminds is going to be 100% compatible. There aren’t going to be any changes [between the books] as far as that goes.”
So, is there a reason you need both DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook and Mutants & Masterminds Hero’s Handbook? “No,” Steve told us straightforwardly. “Basically, the way it’s going to be set up is that DC Adventures is going to be a big, really pretty, hardcover book. Mutants & Masterminds Hero’s Handbook is going to be a softcover, and lower price-point, and slightly shorter because it won’t contain any of the DC material, obviously.”
“The M&M Hero’s Handbook is just going to be the rules. The relationship is somewhat like the Core Rulebook and Pocket Player’s Guide in Second Edition, but not quite. The Mutants & Masterminds Hero’s Handbook will still be a full-color book, and they’ll still be the same size. But otherwise, it will be a shorter, low-cost version for folks who just want the game.”
We got into the discussion about the setting material for Mutants & Masterminds later on, but basically there will not be any background material in the M&M book. Fans looking for Freedom City will have to refer to their 2nd Edition books for the time being. “You could use DC Adventures as your core rulebook, and just buy Mutants & Masterminds material, and be just fine.”
So, why is DC Adventures being sold as its own game line then? “Because DC wanted a game,” Kenson replied. “DC was not interested in being source material.” That said, this shouldn’t hurt future licensed worlds coming from Green Ronin Publishing, like they did with Wildcards and Nocturnals. “The Mutants & Masterminds game system remains Green Ronin’s property. DC has no claim on the system, nor any interest for that matter. Part of the reason we’re doing the Hero’s Handbook is to maintain the separate identity of Mutants & Masterminds as a property, and to maintain a clear division between the game system and the license.”
The DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook will be published in August, 2010, and should be available at this year’s GenCon. “After that, we have a two volume set called Heroes and Villains, which are set for fall and winter of this year. And those are basically the big character books. And by big, I mean BIG. They’re both 300+ page books, and really packed with characters. Jon (Leitheusser) and I sat down and hashed out a big master list of all the characters who are going to go in the books, and broke everything down by how many pages everybody was going to get. And we really wedged in as much as we possibly could into those two books, so they’re pretty comprehensive. Volume 1 is in development now, and most of the primary writing is done.”
The books will be divided alphabetically, as opposed to trying to rank characters by “priority.” “We talked about other ways of organizing it, and they were all just nightmarishly complex… We apologize to the Wonder Woman fans, because she ends up in Volume 2. There was nothing we could do about. On the other hand, Wonder Woman is in the Hero’s Handbook.”
“After that, in the first quarter of 2011, is DC Universe, which is basically the big, comprehensive setting book. That’s the focus on the cities, like Metropolis and Gotham, and the various fictional countries and everything beyond Earth from Thanagar and Rann to the Vega System to parallel universes, and the whole nine yards, as well as the entire past and future of the DC Universe. So, it’s going to be a big book.”
“Our arrangement with DC, and the general approach to the books has been to try to do what we’ve been referring to as Iconic versions of most of the characters. So, for example, when you’re dealing with the truly iconic characters – the Big Three, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – the focus is very heavily on the elements of those characters that are timeless. You’ll see, for example, in Batman’s write-up, it will talk a great deal about his origin, and about Bruce Wayne being a billionaire and his role in Gotham City, but it really does not get into the minutia of Batman’s career. It doesn’t talk about all of the various iterations of Batman that there have been over the years. It’s a really, pretty classical take on the character, that could apply equally well to the comic book take on the character, as well to the animated series Batman (for the most part). The focus is on ‘What is iconic about the character?’” In other words, yes, Wonder Woman’s write-up does have the Invisible Jet.
“The idea is to reconcile the character as much as possible, and not to focus too much on the version of the week, that may or may not be around next month,” Kenson explained. “And that’s forced some choices, obviously, but we try not to get too heavily bogged down into continuity minutia when we can.”
That said, some of the important variants may get sidebar or website write-ups. “Some of the characters who have important, significant variants, you’ll see a sidebar. Aquaman has one, for instance…. There are sidebars and digressions as far as ‘Oh, if this is your favorite version of the character, you have some options.”
When writing up fan-favorite characters, there is always going to be some room to deal with the “Who would win?” arguments, and Kenson and company were aware of that going in to this project.
“Thus far, DC’s been pretty good with our interpretations. Fortunately, we have a little bit of wiggle room in some regards, in the sense that the ability scale in DC Adventures, while it’s reasonably fine, it’s not hairsplitting detail, so we can get away with a certain degree of vagueness with some ability assignments. For example, I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that Superman and Captain Marvel have the same score for strength. Is one slightly stronger than the other? Maybe. But not so much that it would matter in game terms. Likewise, we started out with a pretty decent benchmark ranking for things, to allow authors to compare and contrast. When you stat out the really major, iconic characters of the universe first, and provide them to everybody to run comparisons on, so that if someone wants to know if a character is a better or worse fighter than Batman is, they can compare it to Batman’s stats, and work from there. So far, things have been going pretty smoothly in that regard. We see more conflict between the writers then we do from DC in that regard.”
Our conversation then went to discussing what sparked the need for a Third Edition of Mutants & Masterminds. “Well, I’d said that the impulse was largely because of DC, in that DC sort of provided the deciding factor,” Kesnson explained. “Given that DC wanted a stand-alone game, meaning that by definition we had to produce a new edition, whether we changed the rules or not, we saw it as an opportunity to address the growing list of ‘we should fix this’ sort of things, that every game has. The longest and most involved playtest process of a game is when it’s out there and being played by lots and lots of people on a regular basis. So, we had five years worth of feedback on Second Edition, so we had a pretty good sense of what the games strengths were, what its faults were, and we figured if we were going to be putting a new game out there anyway, rather than enshrine or preserve those faults that we knew were there, we figured we would take an opportunity to fix them and make a better game. And in order to keep Mutants & Masterminds competitive and compatible, we decided to do a new M&M Hero’s Handbook so the games would be in synch and keeping pace with each other.”
Although he couldn’t get into detail regarding what supplements were going to be coming out for Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition, Steve did tell us “The primary initial releases for M&M 3rd are going to be rules supplements.” This means that, if you’re looking for source material, for now, you’re going to need to refer to your Second Edition books (or DC Adventures).
With relying on previously printed source material, the question then becomes one of how difficult it will be to use the older books. “It’s going to be pretty compatible,” Kenson assured us. “There are going to be some changes in terminology – some things are not called the same thing in Third Edition that they are called in Second Edition, but overall, the numbers themselves are very compatible. I hesitate to say 100% compatible, because I’m sure that somebody will find an example that proves me wrong, but the numbers are as close to 100% compatible as you can get. So, you can take the stats of a 2nd Edition Mutants & Masterminds character and convert them on the fly, for use in Third Edition. I’ve done it, so it’s relatively easy… We’ll probably do some conversion guidelines on the website.”
“I don’t mean to needlessly panic people by being cagey… [but} the vast majority of the game is – especially the core of the game – is completely unchanged. The core mechanic is exactly the same. I mean, we’ve had people go ‘Are you using different dice?’ No. It’s still d20. The core mechanic is still exactly the same. The Difficulty Classes are still the same, we even still call them Difficulty Classes. The way powers are figured out is still basically the same. Power point totals, Power Levels, all of that stuff, still the same. Characters still start with the same number of Power Points, they’re still largely spent the same way. A few of the costs have been changed around a little, largely based on that extensive amount of feedback, but it’s not a new system, in the sense of people aren’t going to recognize it.”
When asked about previews, Steve laughed a bit before answering. “We’re going to have quite a few previews as time goes on… We already have people rattling the forums wondering when the Design Journals will be out. We’ll do a lot of previews leading up to the release, but we’re trying to pace ourselves as well, and not just say ‘Here’s the entire draft manuscript’, which is what some people would like to see, obviously.”
So, did he throw us any sort of bone? Well, yes, he did. “A lot of the changes are going to be… I hesitate to call them cosmetic, but a lot of them are in the form of removing a lot of the d20 appendixes that the game has had since its inception. The d20 market has changed a whole lot, and the Open Game License market has changed a whole lot, and Mutants & Masterminds is not really all that well served by trying to maintain a lot of similarity to other d20 material. So, we made an effort to clear away some of that stuff, especially in cases where it wasn’t working very well, or really didn’t do anything at all.”
“One example is we finally did away with ability scores in the game. And by that, I mean what 2nd Edition Mutants & Masterminds called the Ability Modifier is now the Third Edition Ability Rank. So, characters have an ability score that ranges from -5 to +20 and beyond, rather than the current ‘take your ability score, subtract 10 from it and divide by 2′ to get the number that you’ll actually use in play, and then ignore that ability score for the rest of the characters existence.”
“We get away from a fair amount of the d20 terminology, and focus on a consistent terminology within Mutants & Masterminds as a game, rather than making sure its compatible with the way a lot of d20 games work.”
Along those same lines, Feats are kind of going away, but not precisely. Kenson was a little cagey as he explained. “I can tell you we’re not calling them Feats anymore, for one thing. And they are definitely undergoing some modification.”
Kenson also talked about the future of the Superlink program, which previously existed to allow other parties to publish supplements using Mutants & Masterminds as a base. The program is going away this summer, to be replaced by the “Superpowered by Mutants & Masterminds” license.
“The key change to the license is that there is an actual license that people can download, fill out, sign, and send to us. And by agreeing to the terms of the license, they get free, unlimited access to publish “Superpowered by M&M” product, within the terms of the license guidelines, which are essentially the same as the Superlink program,” Kenson explained. “The key difference is that they don’t have to run things by us. In Superlink, we had to approve all the product, and with “Superpowered by M&M”, as long as they sign the license and agree to the terms, they don’t have to have us approve anything. They can publish whatever they want, at their own pace. They don’t have to wait for us to approve it. Saves everybody a lot of work. And it lets the publishers handle their own business, basically.”
“So, that’s the primary difference. Otherwise, it’s still a completely free license. They still have the right to produce the same products that they did before. That’s really the only significant thing that changes.”
“Icons is sort of a pet project that I tinkered with in my spare time, and it was a bunch of different things that I sort of wanted to fool around with in terms of a superhero game,” Kenson said. “I was interested in playing around with the basic framework of the FUDGE system – which I’ve always admired the design of – and a lot of the economy of the Aspects system from FATE, which is one of FUDGE’s descendants. I initially started out with sort of a weird combination of FUDGE and the original Marvel Superheroes game, that I nicknamed the Superlative system. I set it aside for awhile, and then came back and revisited it when I had some experience playing around with Spirit of the Century to implement some ideas from that version of FUDGE.”
While it’s easy to understand the desire for a good, simple superhero RPG, compared to the significantly more complex games like Champions, GURPS, and Mutants & Masterminds, why did Kenson go for a random character creation system? “ I got inspired to work on it again when I was thinking a lot about the process of random character generation,” Kenson explained. “One of the things that I really liked about some of the old-school superhero RPGs like Villains & Vigilantes and the original Marvel Superheroes game was that random character creation system. While it tended to sometimes be kind of wacky, it would often times be very inspirational. And I liked the idea of a character creation process that was fun in itself… I had been talking with somebody about the Planetary profiles for the old Traveler game and how, like with all random generation systems, you get some weird corner cases and some seeming contradictions and things like that. Like with the Traveler thing, you would end up with a planet that had a really high population and no atmosphere, or something like that. And the way some people chose to view it was ‘Yeah, sometimes those oddities crop up,’ but it was also a really interesting creativity challenge to figure out how does this work? Let’s assume that this is in fact the case. How do we get there? And that was often the case for these superhero characters too. You’d end up with this weird combination of powers, and it’d be like ‘Really? Ok. How can I make this into a coherent character?’ And it was funny, because it really does force people to be creative, and often results in characters that they would never have created on their own if you just sat them down and said ‘Make up a superhero.’ The popular example that cropped up early in the discussion of Icons was Saguaro the Man-Cactus, who was an actual playtest character.”
Kenson went on to describe how the player took the rather random mixture of superstrength and some sort of damage aura, and developed the idea of a spiny humanoid cactus. “And he had a blast,” Kenson concluded.
When Gareth-Michael Skarka of Adamant Entertainment mentioned to Kenson that he was looking to produce a lite superhero game using the FATE system, Kenson e-mailed him to say “That’s a coincidence, because I happen to have designed such a game.” The rest, as they say, is fate.
Icons will be supported primarily through adventures, and the entire game is a light book, consisting of only 128 pages, with roughly two-thirds of that game rules. “The main idea of the game is to be a simple, pick-up game,” Kenson explained. “If you’re hanging out with your group and you can’t do your regular thing, or you have a yen to play a superhero game, take twenty minutes to create characters and you’re good to go.”
We couldn’t resist the opportunity to finish up by asking Steve Kenson what he’s excited about in the world of superheroes. “I just saw Iron Man 2 last week, and enjoyed it. It was a good movie. I’ve been reading, not surprisingly, a lot of DC stuff lately. I really enjoyed the ending to Blackest Night, so it got me to pick up Brightest Day. It’s been good so far, but it’s hard to say much about it since it’s only been two issues. I’ve been enjoying Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern… the jury is still out on his Flash book, but again, it’s only been a few issues, so it’s hard to really say. It’s weird, having Barry Allen back… And I’m really disturbed by the not entirely unfounded impression that Barry Allen is now younger than I am.”
At this point we got off onto a side-discussion of the weirdness of seeing a character who has been dead most of the time we’ve been reading comics looking like a twenty-something hipster, before Steve finished up with a few other books he’s been picking up.
“I got Grant Morrison’s first issue of Return of Bruce Wayne, which was really good fun, because anyone who doesn’t like Caveman Batman simply has no poetry in their soul,” he said with a chuckle. “Especially Cave Batman vs. Vandal Savage.”
Sadly, Mr. Kenson was mostly deaf to my dismay at seeing Dick Grayson’s run as Batman cut so short, saying “Well, it’s not over yet. And everybody knew Dick Grayson as Batman was temporary.”
Steve finished up by saying “And I’ve been reading a lot of back issues. You gotta say, one of the best things about my job is I get to sit down and read through a stack of comics and call it ‘research’. And be like ‘No, I’m working! I need to compile this background information!’”
Thanks to Steve Kenson for taking the time to discuss these projects with us. You can get your hands on a copy of DC Adventures this summer at GenCon. Failing that, expect to see it in store probably around August or September. The Mutants & Masterminds Hero’s Handbook will also be in stores this fall. Icons should be hitting your local gaming shop in June, with the PDF available in June as well.
(Source: Green Ronin Publishing)