The four books that comprise the DC Adventures RPG present you not only with a tried and tested superhero RPG, but also an incredibly deep roster of DC characters and the most comprehensive overview of the DC universe I’ve ever seen.
DC Adventures doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It uses the Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition RPG system, which is itself based on 3rd edition D&D’s Open Gaming License. That heritage means the basic mechanics of the game will be instantly familiar to new players. You have attributes and skills, you roll a D20 to try and hit a target number, and that’s how you know if you succeed or fail.
Mutants & Masterminds has never been slavishly faithful to the D20 rules (indeed, it never bore the official D20 logo, only the OGL license), and the changes made to the system nullify many of the problems with D20 that might otherwise render it unsuitable for a superhero game. When I spoke with president of Green Ronin publishing Chris Pramas, he told me that during development, designer Steve Kenson would find places where he wanted to alter the rules to better fit the superhero theme. In all cases, Pramas said, using the better rule for the theme took precedence over any kind of strict interpretation of D20. They took a reliable old engine and rebuilt it for a specific purpose, with all the horsepower upgrades one might expect.
What does this mean to the average gamer? DC Adventures/Mutants & Masterminds deviates from D20 in some pretty major ways. Attributes like strength and intelligence range from -5 to 20 instead of 3 to 18. There are no character classes or attacks of opportunity. Instead of experience points and levels, players gain Power Points which they can spend to improve their character’s abilities.
The use of Power Points is a good example of Mutants & Masterminds using tried and true RPG mechanics when needed. Most superhero RPGs use a point buy system for character creation because it lets you tailor your adventures to a specific sub-genre. Gritty street level brawlers are built with fewer points than heroes who wield the cosmic power of a thousand suns, and you can match the power level of villains to that of your players. Using a familiar mechanic like this is nothing to criticize – building off of things that have worked in the past is just good game design.
Hero Points are another “borrowed” rule, similar to Edge points in Shadowrun. These can be spent by players to achieve unlikely results, counter the villains’ attacks, or have just the right gadget at just the right time. The example given in the text is of a hero in a lab battling a plant villain. Does the lab have the chemicals needed to mix up some defoliant to defeat the villain? Of course the game master hasn’t planned this out ahead of time, but if the heroes spend a Hero Point, then the answer is yes! Players “earn” Hero Points when the GM uses one or more of the complications built into the character, like a secret identity, a strict “death before dishonor” ethos, or maybe a gay marriage. Those are great mechanics for tying story directly into the rules.
The vast possible array of powers a superhero might have can be a stumbling block for RPGs that try to spell out every last detail. M&M instead gives you broad categories of powers. Within each power are a variety of ways to customize it, and then you simply add descriptors, which are keywords that define the actual effect of a power more colorfully. You can take a ranged attack power, make it an area attack, then give it the fire descriptor. Simple fire blast. Or let’s say you’re interested in the Concealment power. For one Power Point you can buy concealment from any one sense – we’ll go with hearing. You might decide you’ve got a high-tech stealth suit that uses complex software to cancel sounds. Or maybe it’s a magical suit of silent armor. For another Power Point, you can add the ability to grant your silence power to a friend. You can add a flaw (it only works at night) to make it cost fewer PPs. Buying and customizing powers like this is a lot of fun, and much simpler than some other superhero RPGs have made it.
You may have noticed that I’m talking about DC Adventures and Mutants & Masterminds somewhat interchangeably. They are the same mechanical system, and this is a huge plus for DC fans. One of the biggest problems with licensed superhero RPGs is that comic book companies put a high value on their intellectual property, which is fair. Unfortunately, the tabletop RPG business is a niche market, and the demands of an expensive license make it almost impossible to make enough money over the long term. The Marvel Heroic RPG was a casualty of this issue.
Green Ronin has got around this problem by licensing with DC for a set number of books (four) instead of for a given amount of time. They knew exactly how many books they had to work with and could put everything they wanted into them, instead of leaving fans hanging when the license was inevitably canceled before key books could be published. And since all the M&M material that Green Ronin produces is perfectly compatible with the DC Adventures rules, you can continue to expand and develop your DC campaign, even if the books aren’t specific to DC.
For instance, take the Mutants & Masterminds Supernatural Handbook. There’s nothing about Zatanna or Swamp Thing in there, but the book provides lots of alternate rules systems for pushing a campaign in a more supernatural direction. There are detailed rules for casting spells, playing monsters as player characters, and conducting adventures focused on mystery and investigation instead of smashing skyscrapers in fancy costumes.
The four books that comprise the DC Adventures line has you covered for pretty much any corner of the DC universe you care you explore. The first book provides the rules, a brief overview of the universe, and stats for major characters and villains. A casual DC fan can get by with this book alone. Books two and three are exhaustive roster books, in alphabetical order, covering an amazing number of characters, including variants and different versions of characters at different points in their histories.
The fourth book is astonishing and frankly a bit puzzling. It’s a mind-blowing delve into the minutiae of the DC universe. Really obscure characters and teams get stats. Alternate universes are explored. Future timelines are explained. It’s so deep and thoroughly researched that hardcore DC fans who’ve never played an RPG and never plan to will still love it. I’m just not sure who’s going to use it around the gaming table. Do you really need detailed info on Opal City, Maryland? Or stats for Vartox the Hyper-Man?
As much as I appreciate the depth, and as much as I love the rules design, DC Adventures has a major flaw. Among all this material, you won’t find a single adventure. There’s a guide to creating your own, and a few thumbnail sketches of campaign ideas, but nothing written from start to finish. I think this is a huge flaw for any RPG, but to leave that out when so many pages were used to describe Earths zero through 51 (seriously), the lack of a full adventure scenario is quite disappointing (and a bit ironic given the name of the RPG). The saving grace is that there are quite a few Mutants & Masterminds published adventures that you can reskin and run within the DC universe. But I really wish they’d made some specifically for it.
(By the way, Green Ronin president Chris Pramas is currently raising funds to help pay for his spinal surgery. You can contribute by ordering a copy of Cadaver Bone, an anthology of dark fiction featuring Ed Greenwood, John Rogers, Richard Dansky and many others.)