by Karl Brown
Threatened with extinction from beyond:
Governments unleash secret programs,
Corporations rush breakthrough technologies to the field,
Secret societies step out of the shadows,
Sleeping gods wake!
United we stand is a setting outline for Mutants and Masterminds Third Edition (MnM) a super-hero genre rpg by Steve Kenson of Green Ronin Publishing. This is the first of two articles. Though written for MnM the approach described in this pair of articles could be used with many super hero RPGs. This article introduces the setting outline and acts as a player’s guide. Another short article with give guidance for the referee. These two articles are not a detailed campaign setting but an outline that enables you to work up a detailed setting during play using the real world as a familiar foundation. The only book required to use this article is the Hero’s Handbook (HH), the core book for the game. I do reference other books for the game but they are not required to use this article. One of the pro’s of MnM is that you could run games for years using only the Hero’s Handbook. Most page numbers (p) refer to the Hero’s Handbook. All the referenced material is also within the newer Deluxe edition. Other books referenced are the Supernatural Handbook (SH), Cosmic Handbook (CH), Gamesmaster’s Guide (GG) and Threat Report (TR). These additional books are not required to use this article.
Create a setting that:
? Embraces the diversity and creative freedom of mainstream comic universes,
? Showcases how Mutants and Masterminds (MnM) models that diversity,
? Is quickly understood by players,
? Is a universe that is our own to mess with without worrying about canon,
? Where the PCs are not in the shadow of established canon heroes,
? And is fun to play in.
Additionally, this article provides help in building characters to those new to Mutants and Masterminds.
Up until the real date you start playing the game world seems to be identical to the real world from the point of view of the typical citizen. There is no known history of superheroes or of proven strange powers. On the real date you start play this all changes. An alien armada is detected as a bright flash as it comes out of hyperspace just beyond the Oort cloud at the very edge of the solar system. For a second a new super-bright star appears in the night sky of Earth then is gone. Eleven days after the flash radio broadcast message easily detected by ham radio buffs the world over is detected on multiple frequencies and in multiple languages, it plays in a loop:
“We will make all these world like our own. Your biochemistry is not compatible with the conditions we will create. You are unable to resist. Extinction is inevitable.”
Powerful telescopes are able to track the flare of the aliens slower than light drive or drives. Drive(s) that are incredibly powerful are driving the ship or fleet toward the solar system. Doing the math our experts realise that unless the aliens stop they will be near Earth in about 5 years.
All around the world powerful groups begin to respond to this message. Public unrest and crime begin to soar providing a proximal problem for the first few adventures. The situation soon leads to a no-holds bared environment where powerful organisations invest everything thing they have into maintaining control (or seizing it) and then countering the alien threat. Governments prepare to launch nuclear weapons and activate top-secret psi programs, corporations rush breakthrough devices into the field, criminal organisations try to profit from the chaos, rebels cause riots, secret societies of arcane power move to repel the invaders, and ancient sleeping gods stir in their slumber when they sense a great threat.
That’s it. You want more background make it up. Just remember that any differences from the real world are unknown to the general public before the alien threat.
For me the main attraction of the super hero genre is the breadth of creative freedom when it comes to creating characters. This minimalist setting is really just a set of guidelines into which a great variety of character origins can be slotted. We assumed the standard starting power level (PL) for MnM because most published material is geared to this level. At PL10 characters are much more powerful than those of other genres and even those from other super hero games. One of the advantages of MnM is that it is built to accommodate powerful characters, just to give you an idea of the kind of power you should be aiming for in a character concept starting characters might be able to lift an Airbus A380 or run at over 100 000kph. You could still build an ‘unpowered’ Batman or Daredevil style vigilante but this person would have incredible skill levels and/or resources.
Heroes are only limited by power level, power points, and a campaign specific set of limits that describe what the best unmodified humans can achieve.
To ensure that the world’s history seems like ours on the surface and to give super-humans a chance to shine unmodified humans are limited as below. These limits are one rank better than real-world Olympians.
Most Abilities: 4
Defences: all 15.
Skills: Maximum bonus 15. Note this is the total bonus not the rank.
Most PC’s will have some kind of technological, biological, or paranormal source of powers that enables them to exceed some or all of these limits. Ideally, if the PC is a human any ability that is to exceed these limits should not be added to the ability directly but through a power. For example to create a super-human with strength 10 assign STR up to four then create a power complete with descriptors etc. to add six more STR. If you are using a pre-created archetype (HH34+) then this guideline would not have been followed for these characters. To fix this if you character is human simply declare the excess points are an Enhanced Trait (HH106) and add descriptors (the point cost is the same even if the effect is permanent). Alternatively, you might be an alien.
In this setting where there are almost no limits on your background. When it comes to creating super heroes the sheer amount of free choice is both a joy and a curse. Without a solid concept to guide your choices, choice paralysis is inevitable. Work through the core rules HH30-33 to determine your:
Then you will need to determine at least two Complications HH27-29. The complications rules are very flexible they can represent loved ones, disability, horrific appearance, even being a dog.
Players and the referee should feel free to make up all manner or strange cults, advanced technology etc. to fit back-stories with one restriction, all of these must be very secret before the alien transmission is received.
Stuck for ideas? Consider the following broad categories of heroes:
Most PCs are likely to be elite individuals. Armies will choose their best soldiers to make better, secret societies of psychics or wizards will urge their most powerful members to step out of the shadows, and the most brilliant minds will use machines or super-science to become heroes. The Ray Gun hero (CH39), Battle Suit (HH35), Crime Fighter (HH37), Gadgeteer (HH39), Martial Artist (HH40), Mystic (HH42), Psychic (HH45), Weapon Master (HH49) and Warrior (HH48) are good examples.
Larger Than Life
Stuck for ideas? One advantage of the setting is that you can imagine that larger-than-life real people might become heroes, or villains. Good candidates are those that have access to wealth and/or power as well as one or more above average attributes. J. Craig Venter, Paris Hilton, Richard Branson, Prince Harry, Vladimir Putin, and Usain Bolt are all good candidates.
The ordinary person who gains super-powers is a harder concept to incorporate into this setting. There is no effect such as a ‘mutant gene’ or ‘energy wave’ that gives a proportion of the population) powers at random. This is deliberate to create the feeling that the heroes are unique with some special role to play in the coming invasion. However, two origin types might grant powers to ordinary people.
Accident: as corporations, universities, and nations rush the testing and development of experimental technology the chances of haste causing an accident increases, perhaps empowering scientists, technicians or even the cleaners. Archetypes which focus on powers rather than skills are a good fit for this concept. Examples include: Energy Controller (HH38), Mimic (HH41), Powerhouse (HH44), and Psychic (HH45).
Endowment: sleeping gods and demons stir and see their Earthly domains under threat. Who knows why the weird and fickle minds of ancient deities choose to gift ordinary people with great power, perhaps they see destiny.
The Cursed Adventurer (SH37) and Infected Hero (SH39) are especially appropriate. However, with the right backstory those listed for Accident could easily be used in this category.
Hidden among us
Another idea is the hero is a non-human hidden on Earth, perhaps in plain sight. Examples include: shape-shifting aliens, Faeries hidden by glamour, secretly psychic dolphins, ethereal ghosts, and genetically engineered animals buried in secret labs. A lot of these concepts will have complications related to physical limitations. For example the complication of 'Dolphin' would come up every time the PCs powers and allies can't compensate for lack of hands, inability, to walk etc.
Heralds from the Stars
Perhaps the invaders are not the only aliens to come to Earth. Your PC could be a herald from an advanced spacefaring alien civilisation sent to aid humanity or maybe just a mercenary who will help for a price. The Cosmic Corsair (CH36) would be a good example of the later. Alien Paragons (HH43) are a genre staple but an alien herald could be much stranger than either of these archetypes. The PCs could even be part of a small force of helpful aliens, you could apply one of the Alien Templates (CH45) to all members of the same species.
After you have a fully detailed concept only then are you ready to create your character. Like many other super hero genre rpg’s, MnM enables a great diversity of super powers by giving players access to design tools normally only seen by the designers of more class-based rpgs. For those new to super hero gaming the system resembles the points based system of GURPS. Every hero is a brand new ‘class’ that must conform to certain mechanical limits particularly those imposed by the power level (HH23). MnM character creation can be simple or quite involved, particularly if you want an array of flexible powers but there are ways to simplify and speed up the process.
One way characters can get overly complex is when players try to assign points to every conceivable use of their powers. Don’t do this. Just assign points to the core one to three uses of your power, the ones you will use every session. Everything else can be covered by power stunts (HH20). These are one-off tricks allowing you to use your power in an unusual way. Say your character is Major Voltage. You mostly want to blast villains with lightning and short out electronics so at character creation assign points to those. Then during play say you come across a man dead from a heart attack, you want to use your electricity control to jump-start his heart, no problem it’s a power stunt. Power stunts use up a game resource called Hero Points (see ‘Recovery’ MnM21), so if you find yourself using a particular stunt often during play it’s worth spending a few xp on it.
Every power has descriptors. Is your flight power due to a jet pack, telekinesis, magic levitation, or what? Every power should have at least one descriptor and in most cases I’d want to see two or more. The rules tell you what effect the power has, descriptors tell us how. This can be important, does the villain’s magnetic dampening field negate your flight power? Can you use a power stunt with your blast power to start a forest fire? This is important, take time to jot down descriptors for each of your powers.
Archetypes are a quick way of generating heroes of common types.
All the archetypes in the core rulebook are suitable but you will need to describe the background of your hero, add descriptors to the powers, and complications. It might be better to avoid shapeshifter, mystic, and mimic concepts that require some work to detail their variable powers and create a short ‘spellbook’ of commonly used options. If your character has multiple forms, or if you go outside of the options given with the archetype, then you need to check all forms against the power level limits. Only a few of the archetypes given in the supplements the correct power level for this setting (PL10).
If you have a character with only a few skills, powers, and advantages investing most of your allowed power points in just a few places, then you could easily create your character on paper from scratch by hand. When you are done be sure to check your creation against the power level limits (HH23) and tweak if required.
The Templates (SH44, CH45) are helpful for quickly allocating a portion of the power points available to you.
A very flexible way to design characters is with HeroLab, a character design computer program. Hero Lab provided alerts for when you break the limits and gives optional advice on building a character. However, Herolab does not guarantee you are within the rules, its pretty good but there are a few things it misses. For example it will let you create combat skills that are too broad. HeroLab offers no guidance for Expertise skills often resulting in expertise skills that are too narrow. Be sure to check out the rules for these skills.
Once play begins the world of the game will begin to diverge from the real world. The referee article for this setting will provide a broad outline of the progression of the campaign but much of the details and the tone will come from the kind of characters you make and the actions they undertake in play. How do they feel about the news of invasion? Do they try to work with the authorities or do they mistrust the government? Do they feel that great responsibility come with their abilities or does the power go to their heads? What about the people they care about? Are your characters true heroes or are they normally flawed and crack under the stress?