Character Traits

MHR continues the Cortex Plus system’s experimentation with drastically altering character traits to key them to the specific genre in question. Smallville uses Values and Relationships as its primary traits while Leverage uses Attributes, Distinctions, and Roles (with the attributes being a bit broader in scope than the RPG norm). The crossover is that there will be a couple of types of character trait that form the core die pool for any action, and those core dice always speak to the genre being emulated.

As noted last week, MHR tends to include more dice in general than the previous entries. In addition to further normalizing the result, it makes it more likely that you’ll keep the three dice required to generate a two die total and a one die effect. This is accomplished by providing more core trait types (and, thus, four different dice that you can usually add to your pool without plot points or special abilities) and effects and other rules to further increase that number fairly easily.

Core Traits

The trait types are: Affiliations, Distinctions, Power Sets, and Specialties.

Affiliations

Each character has a die associated with Solo, Buddy, and Team (generally a d10, d8, and d6 arranged to taste). This is the easiest die to add to a pool, as it requires no other justification other than whether the character rolling is alone (or with a group but not, you know, with them), in a dynamic duo (or whatever the Marvel-approved variant of that term is), or with a group of three or more.

Wolverine has a d10 for Solo, d6 for Buddy, and d8 for Team, meaning he gets to use a big die alone, the middle die on a team, and his worst die with a partner. This strongly encourages the player to roleplay character tropes: if you’re playing a guy that is constantly splitting off from the group, he probably has a high Solo die to encourage that mechanically.

The highest active affiliation die is also the cost to the GM to force the players into different group dynamics: if the party is hogging a d10 Team die and refuses to split up, the GM can expend a d10 from the Doom Pool to narrate a plot complication that forces them to split up for a while (or forces them back together if they’re stronger as Solo or Buddies).

Distinctions

These are very similar to Fate‘s Aspects, and are three phrases that can have a positive or negative connotation. They’re usually pretty broad, so at least one of them can often be used on any roll with some kind of superficial justification as to why the character would be good or bad at what’s happening based on character history or motivations. And if you can’t figure out how to use any of them, there are probably a couple on the scene itself that could do in a pinch.

They have a high utility in at least keeping the character’s personality at the forefront of the player’s mind when describing actions. Describing a distinction positively lets you add a d8 to your pool, while describing it negatively gives you a d4 (which is more likely to roll 1s and be useful only to your opponent) but nets you a free plot point. (If I’d already done a Leverage review, I could have just said, “they work pretty much exactly like Distinctions in Leverage.”)

For example, Wolverine’s “I’m the best at what I do” Distinction gives him a clear option to add a d8 to most anything violent and a d4 to things outside his particular sphere of expertise.

Power Sets

The meat of a character’s traits reside in this category. These are basically high-concept supers traits like strength, durability, senses, or attack that are associated with a die.

Unlike some other supers systems, these are not necessarily specifically flavored, but instead pick up context from the other powers in the set and the special effects and limits associated with the set. For example, the Invisible Woman’s d12 (Godlike) Durability is understood to be a personal force field while Colossus’ identical trait is because he’s made of organic steel. In addition to effects that modify the power, players and GMs are encouraged to be good sports about the limitations of a power based on character concept: Sue is expected to not defend with Durability against light-based attacks and Peter might not get his against attacks potent against metal.

Characters can add one power die per power set (see below) for free as long as it’s appropriate: Human Torch has no defensive power traits except Flight, so might not get a power die for defense while grounded, but can add a d10 for Flame Blast in his attacks automatically and could spend a plot point to add his Fire Mastery d10 as well.

Specialties

The last category reflects character skill, and will be either a d8 for Expert or a d10 for Master (with an optional rule I’ve seen bandied about of using a d6 if you don’t have an appropriate specialty). These dice can be stepped down to split them (e.g., instead of a d10 Specialty you can roll 2d8 or 3d6), giving characters stronger in skills an option for more dice or bigger dice. The skill categories are very broad (Acrobatics, Combat, Crime, Tech, Vehicles, etc.), but most characters don’t have very many of them.

This is an area where I’m not too thrilled with the level of granularity, as players with access to the Combat Specialty can add it to pretty much every roll in a fight, while those that don’t have it will have to increasingly contort their behavior to try to vaguely justify using whatever Specialty they do have. For my group, Distinctions already provided the idea space for “you only need a flimsy excuse to justify this trait” and Specialties moved into “increasingly repetitive justifications to keep adding my d10.” Part of that was due to a high combat-focus in the playtests I’ve run so far, and players would probably mellow out if they had more opportunity to use good Specialties that aren’t combat-focused, but for subsequent runs of the game I might look into making them more focused and giving out more of them. Your mileage might vary.

Other Traits

Multiple Power Sets

One of the really neat thing about the system, as hinted at above, is that powers are conceptually linked together to generate context. For example, Daredevil gets the power traits Reflexes, Stamina, and Senses as different elements of his “Hypersenses” power set, but, meanwhile, has traits for Durability, Attack, and Movement to represent his gear (“Billy Club”) power set. Similarly, Captain America has one set for his super soldier benefits and another for his shield. And while this division is commonly used for an “innate powers” vs. “gear powers” concept, some characters merely have multiple power sets for abilities that are just conceptually disassociated (e.g., Spider-Woman has “Bio-Electric Metabolism” and “Spider-Powers”). Most non-gear reliant heroes only have a single power set.

The neat thing about treating powers this way is that you can get the players thinking about how their power traits are just system manifestations of a central character power source. Since you also associate SFX and Limits (see below) with a particular power set, you can make characters that have a lot of various power traits feel like cohesive wholes. Iron Man isn’t just a huge raft of traits, but is, instead, a core of “Powered Armor” that happens to be supporting a “Weapons Platform.”

However, the use of multiple power sets does have a minor system issue, in that it’s nearly always advantageous to have more than one power set, because you get to add a die from each set for free. A character with one power set with two offensive powers has to pay a plot point (or have certain SFX) to include the second power on an attack, while if he had them across two sets he could add both automatically. It’s a small problem, but it does have an effect on the system that I’ll hopefully get around to talking about next week.

Special Effects (SFX)

Most similar to Talents in Leverage or Distinctions in Smallville, SFX are basically small exceptions-based rules that a player associates with a particular power set. Like power traits, they are pulled from a short list of very broad options and take their flavor from the power set. Some might need to be specifically customized (e.g., the Afflict SFX helps create penalties for a target, but the type of penalty must be predefined). In general, they’re designed to cover aspects of superpowers that can’t be specifically modeled with more dice.

The game manages to round out a pretty broad spectrum of superpowers with only 18 categories of SFX. As noted above with the power traits themselves, the granularity is pretty low and you’re encouraged to narrate minor quirks of your powers at the table rather than giving them specific structures, but the game does manage to cover a pretty broad possibility space of superpowers without a lot of complexity.

Limits

Each power set also has at least one limit. These are generally a circumstance where the power set gets turned off (gear can be broken or lost, the Human Torch can be extinguished, etc.), but might be something more broad (like the social stigma of a mutation-based power set). Players can voluntarily activate a limit when it seems appropriate and get a plot point, or the GM might force the issue by expending a Doom Die if the player doesn’t take the bait. Generally limits are customized from a short list of broad classifications, but players are encouraged to make their own if none of the existing ones work. Like Distinctions, they’re a low impact way to give flavor to a character and, like most good implementations of flaws, only pay out when they actually impact the character.

Milestones

The last major element of a character is a list of milestones. These are player-directed XP: each milestone lists a (potentially frequent) circumstance where the character gets 1 XP, a more rare circumstance where the character could get 3 XP, and a capstone circumstance where the character gets 10 XP and retires the milestone. Each character can have two of these at a time, and they’re the major source of experience points for the game (characters also get them when the GM expends a d12 from the Doom Pool).

In principle, I like the idea of player directed XP. The first place I saw it done was Apocalypse World (or at least the Dungeon World hack), and it was a lot of fun. It’s potentially best used in a system like MHR where PC-to-PC balance isn’t heavily defined (i.e., around here it generally leads to hard feelings if one PC powers up way faster than another).

In practice, I worry that the MHR implementation needs a few more guidelines to get milestone frequency at least in the same spectrum. The only technical limitation on them is that the 1 XP milestone can only be triggered once per turn and the 3 XP one can only pay out once per scene. But the example milestones vary drastically in how frequently they’re likely to be claimed. For example, Armor has a 1 XP milestone that can be claimed whenever she supports another hero (which could conceivably award an XP every turn) while Wolverine has a 1 XP milestone that triggers the first time he inflicts physical stress in a scene (so he can only get it once per scene, even if he is pretty much guaranteed to get it every scene). Most of the example 1 XP milestones, in fact, specifically key off of “first time in a scene.” I could definitely see grumbling at the table when one player is happily checking off an XP every time she takes an action while the other players got theirs only once in the scene.

But that’s a fairly minor quibble that can be solved with a social contract and groups working together to make sure their milestones have a similar potential frequency. I’d just encourage GMs to prepare to make that happen if you have players liable to feel XP envy.

Part 3

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