Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: DC Adventures

Comic book superhero roleplaying has been around for some time. And people have been trying to capitalize on the comic books' good name for almost as long. The first ones to attempt an actual license (kind of a necessity because the big publishers have trademarks on all the good names) were Mayfair Games. They had a reasonable run and I have a full box of books and papers to show for it. After them came West End Games' attempt, which I admit I didn't pick up because you should not have to treat a roleplaying game rulebook like a comic book you read once and put in a mylar snuggie.

Now Green Ronin, the publisher of several editions of Mutants and Masterminds, has taken up the mantle and attempted to honor the license. Let's put on some gloves, carefully pick up a corner of the cover, and look inside.


[The cover of the DC Adventures rules]

Premise? Oh, come on! It's the DC frickin' Universe! This is your chance to hobnob with iconic characters both old and retreaded reimagined! And, if necessary, to beat the living tar out of them. Oh, admit it, you know you want to.

The current incarnation of the licensed game has a full point-based character generation system, so you can flesh out your own character concepts and match them against the existing staples of the genre, some of which are fully statted. Given Green Ronin's experience with Mutants and Masterminds, this seems like a fairly natural fit. Its execution is interesting in certain ways too, but I'll talk about that below in Mechanics.


Tempting as it was to repeat the first paragraph under Premise with one word changed, I must say a little more here.

Have you ever noticed that comic books are often described in terms of their era? There's a Golden Age (which came first), a Silver Age (some time in the 60s and 70s), one or two other ages, an Iron Age, and I'm not quite sure where we are now? The Stone Age? I admit it's been decades since I've followed comic books.

I say this only to say that the book upholds the sensibilities of the current age, whatever that is. (The Flint Age? The Molybdenum Age? The Cambrian?) I'm not saying it's better or worse than the other ages, just that that's what it is. It attempts to take social realism and consequences just a little more seriously.

And yes, I'm aware that I'm talking about a game in which people can fly. I said social realism.


Primary writing and design credit goes to Steve Kenson, who has the #1 credit. Among other things, he's worked on supplements for (in no particular order) Shadowrun, Changeling, TORG, Earthdawn, In Nomine, Feng Shui, Champions 4th Edition, Pathfinder, and GURPS as well as for Mutants and Masterminds, He also has a design credit on the core rules for ICONS, both editions of Mutants and Masterminds so far (see below), and Shadowrun 3rd and 4th editions

[The cover of Ray Winninger's Underground]

A second name caught my eye: Ray Winninger. What I most remember him for was the lead on Underground, or more formally "Ray Winninger's Underground." (Let's just say the setting was more memorable than the system.) He has a pedigree in other product lines, like the Mayfair editions of Chill and DC Heroes (Hmmm...), FASA's Doctor Who, the first edition TORG core rulebook... But I'll always remember him for Underground, y'know?


The book is a hardbound affair containing 280 pages of color headings and fairly copious illustration, enough to suggest the action but not so much that it edges out the rules. In a book like this, art serves two purposes: branding, and inspiration.

The title on the front cover says DC Adventures, below that Hero's Handbook, and at the bottom Super-Hero Roleplaying in the DC Universe. That's the main draw.

On the spine, though, five characters that pose a warning: "Book 1." The rules are internally complete, covering character creation and combat fully, but only a handful of charaters are described in the back. There are the iconic ones that you'd expect in a DC-branded game, and a handful of the villains, but they wouldn't have room for all of them. Why, that could take its own book! (Wotta surprise, right?)


Mechanically, it's like D&D 4e... without the D&D. Yes, of course I'm going to explain.


But first, let me explain a little about this debilitating condition that some systems have succumbed to. It's a side-effect of D&D being "the one to follow," and the Open Gaming License being a highly virulent transmission vector. Many systems have expressed this condition which I call, not surprisingly, "Fourthitis," by paring its system down to 6 attributes, three or four hauntingly familiar defenses, and a short list of skills which encompass a wide range of activities.

D&D 3.5e had a similar issue: many copycats seeking to emulate the original's playability failed dramatically at being good in their own rights. You can even see where the second edition of Mutants and Masterminds borrowed heavily from its progenitor.

Continuing the Tradition of Bucking Traditions

Mutants and Masterminds established certain traditions, which flew in the face of the way D&D did things. Character generation is completely point-based, and the only place "level" is referenced on the character is starting points; as a rule you get so many points per "level" to create a character of a given range of competence. 10th level, or 150 points, is a good starting point for a mid-range super. Those points would be used to buy attributes, powers, and anything else you needed to make your character extraordinary. In other words, not terribly D&D-ey.

DC Adventures continues the tradition of using only certain tropes from D&D in novel (and radically different) ways. Rather than buying starting attributes ranging from 8-18, you buy the bonus levels that would be derived from those starting attributes, and those are in essence your attributes.

Rather than six attributes, DC Adventures uses eight: Strength, Stamina, Agility, Dexterity, Fighting, Intellect, Awareness, and Presence. DC Adventures keeps Will and Fortitude, and replaces AC and Reflex with Dodge, Parry, and Toughness. Combat maneuvers and powers, the things you'd get in dribs and drabs at each level of growth, you buy instead from an a la carte menu. Skills are handled similarly, each covering a wide range of endeavors, but they too are bought up individually and there is a slightly longer list as befits the new setting.

I mean, you can kind of see where 4e D&D was used as the host for this intriguing new creature, but after bursting forth, the resemblance is merely superficial. This is a different beast, and for that I applaud it. It's not directly copying, it's not reinventing the wheel, it's taking an existing system's intents and building on them in new and sometimes unexpected ways.

Why Reinvent the Wheel More Than You Have To?

As of this writing, please note that Green Ronin has also announced their upcoming third edition of Mutants and Masterminds. What does this have to do with DC Adventures?

If you compare their character sheets, everything. The layouts are very nearly identical. They have the same stats, the same defenses, the same spaces for hero points, power points, initiative, powers and devices, notes and conditions, advantages, complications, equipment, information, and the same list of skills (with the same number of blank lines under Close Combat, Expertise, and Ranged Combat).

If the evidence is to be believed, DC Adventures and Mutants and Masterminds will share a system. This amuses me for some reason. Does this mean having one means you don't need the other? I'm not sure, and frankly that intrigues me too.


Characters are based on some number of points, determined by the GM and/or agreed upon by the players. Power levels are 15-point increments. Power Level 8 characters ("Masked Adventurers") are based on 120 points. Power Level 10 characters ("Super Heroes") are based on 150 points. Power Level 12 characters ("Big Leagues") are based on 180 points. And Power Level 14 characters ("World-Protectors") are based on 210 points. It becomes a matter of how much responsibility you want, how tough you want your opponents to be, and how much you want to have broken if you fail.

Those points will go into buying attributes, powers, equipment, skills, and combat maneuvers. Furthermore, you can supplement your points by picking up Complications. You can also affect the effectiveness of your powers by adding advantages or limitations, and by similarly affecting the costs of them.

If this sounds familiar, that's because you've played Hero System before. Or GURPS, come to think of it. A lot of the same principles are in play here: buy your attributes, customize your powers, and create your character the way you want. It's probably just a little jarring to see that kind of structure in a game which claims D&D as a predecessor—I know it is for me.

(By the way, Batman is defined as PL12, and Superman and Wonder Woman are both defined as PL15. Let the arguments commence.)


We're talking about a game here based on a comic-book multiverse which is notorious for creating alternate worlds and stuffing them to the gills with different versions of their front-line characters. Gosh, what kind of variations do you see possible?

Play This Game If...

  • You're a fan of the DC universe
  • You're a fan of Green Ronin Games
  • You're a fan of superhero roleplaying in general
  • You're a fan of point-based character generation systems
  • You want to beat the tar out of some DC villains
  • You want to beat the tar out of some DC heroes
  • You want to see just how loosely a system can be based on another system

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