Monday, October 04, 2010

A review of DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook

Green Ronin is the latest company to get the license to produce a DC Comics role playing game. Over the years, there have been some good and bad takes on the DCU. It has been a while since the West End Games version, which in my opinion played okay at the lower levels, but fell apart pretty quickly at the higher levels (Superman needs to make an extra effort attack to destroy a motorcycle? Really?)

I’m something of a Green Ronin fan, although I found Mutants & Masterminds first edition (their first pass at a super hero RPG) to be a little easy to break – even accidentally – although full of good ideas. DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook uses the Mutants & Mastermind 3rd Edition rules, and they have come a long way.
The fact that this book uses the M&M third edition does show – take out a couple of chapters, do some quick edits in the Advantages section, swap out the artwork, and you pretty much have removed the DC from the book. This can be considered either a strength or a weakness, depending on your perspective.

The book is very nice to look at. Cover art by Alex Ross, and interior art by some of the most well-known DC artists.

The system, overall, is easy to understand. It is focused around one base mechanic, and they keep to that throughout. This means that once you get started, it is easy to play. The chapter on Gamemastering is well-written and informative. The chapter on the DC Universe has just enough information to give an overview, but not so much that future supplements can’t expand on it. And the flow makes sense, for the most part.
That said, there certainly are some flaws. Most of these are organizational. A couple of examples:

Do you want to know what happens when you punch someone? How they resist and what the effects are? That is under the “Damage” power. Trying to hit them can be found in the “Abilities” chapter or in the “Action & Adventure” chapter. How they resist can actually be found in the “Actions & Adventure” chapter, as well. But the effects of failing to resist is in the Powers chapter under damage. Sort of. It will tell you there that your opponent is dazed until the end of their next turn. Then back to the “The Basics” chapter to find out the game effects of being dazed. The “Actions & Adventure” chapter really needed a few things – the chart from the Damage power as to the impact of failing a resistance check, a list of the conditions, and an example of combat. If the example can be taken from an actual page in a comic book for flavor, so much the better, but at very least, an example of how combat works between some original characters would have been helpful. But again, this is an organizational issue – I shouldn’t need to look in three different chapters to run a combat. And granted, after playing even just a session or two, you’ll have the mechanics down well enough that it won’t matter. But in trying to learn the game, this was a complication.

Want to know how fast your character can run? There is this line in the “The Basics” chapter: “with normal human ground speed being 0,” which is in ranks, by the way, not their actual speed. Does this mean Batman moves at normal human ground speed? Does Agility, which is said to be “balance, grace, speed and overall physical coordination” play into it? I’ll be honest. I don’t know. Batman clearly cannot run at his Agility rating, or he is running a 12 second mile. That’s 300 miles per hour. That becomes 600 miles per hour if he uses the Athletics skill to increase his running speed by 1. I cannot find any other reference to ground speed for characters, other than the Speed power, but that isn’t really what I am looking for. (If I run a campaign, I’ll be house ruling that the Athletics check to increase speed is a graded check, at least on the success side. This gives Batman a chance to run a 4-minute (or less) mile).

And while I think those complaints are valid, they are not game breakers, especially not for an experienced gamer. And the combat page-flipping one, by the way, is avoided if you download the Quick Start PDF from Green Ronin, which also has stats for a couple of characters not included in the game itself.

There are also some concessions to game balance that won’t necessarily make sense to everybody. Batman, trying to hit Superman with a punch misses only on a roll of “1” on a twenty-sided die. And a 1 always misses. Which means Batman is as likely to hit Superman (super-speed and all) as he is to hit a thug, or even a normal civilian. He won’t hurt Superman of course, but he will hit him. Conversely, Superman, who can move so fast that he can’t be seen, only has a 40% chance to hit Batman. If he does, Batman is pretty likely to be out cold, or at least staggered (that’s defined in “The Basics” by the way). Bats needs a “3” to tag the Flash.

The Power system in DCA is flexible, and this section of the book does have good examples. Combined with the descriptions of DC characters included, it gives you some insight into how to put together the power of your dreams. This is a solid part of the book, for sure.

And lastly, on to my favorite part of any licensed product: Stats for the licensed characters. In the heroes section, we find stats for Aquaman, Batman, Black Canary, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Nightwing, Plastic Man, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman and Zatanna. This gives us a look at three different power levels of “non-powered adventurers” in Batman, Nightwing and Robin, as well as gadget-based heroes, a mystic, and a chance to explore the difference between having combat skills through stats and having them through skills and advantages.

On the villain side, we have Black Adam, Black Manta, Braniac, Catwoman, Cheetah, Circe, Darkseid, Gorilla Grodd, Joker, Lex Luthor, Prometheus, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy, Vandal Savage. This gives us an interesting cross-section of power levels, power types and even allows the chance to have a character with a negative ability and a non-existent ability show up in the form of Solomon Grundy.

As with any licensed product, I had some issues with the stats (Batman’s Agility higher than Nightwing’s? I realize they gave Nightwing the better Acrobatics skill, but Nightwing should have better base Agility than Batman – anywhere in that area that Batman outdoes him comes from training that hard, not from greater natural ability. The Flash doesn’t have some kind of Damage power to represent a flurry of superspeed punches, instead doing terrible damage, or relying on whirlwinds and such.) but my biggest problem was that with the awesome Alex Ross painting on the cover portraying all of the characters statted out on the hero side except Zatanna, it also had the Atom and Hawkman and Hawkgirl on the cover. I’m something of a Hawkman fan, and would have loved to see him in there. Atom would have been cool too. That said, I enjoyed this book enough that I am looking forward to the upcoming books DC ADVENTURES Heroes& VillainsVolumesI& II.

Overall, this seems to be a playable game. I’m not sure the system is ideal for DC characters, but it is definitely a solid system, once you get over the organization issues. It has gotten me intrigued enough that I am considering running a game for the first time in a long time.

Overall, this game has some real strengths - it is great to look at, has a system that is easy to play, having one core mechanic, and is easy to teach others - learning it the first time is harder than it needs to be due to the page flipping issues, but still much easier than many other games. It does an acceptable job of modeling the licensed universe, with a couple of oddities that stand out for game balance as noted above. I took a crack at whether or not I could make up some of my more unusual character ideas in the system, and I was able to do so. If you like super hero RPGs, and are a fan of DC comics, this is a solid purchase. However, if you are not a fan of DC, then you may want to wait until Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition comes out, which is purported to be using the same system, but without the DC flavor elements.

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