I’ve used the past few Ronin Roundtables to preview products and plug some of our talented and ingenious third-party publishers, but this week I want to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: Making the system work for you. I’m a great lover of homebrew—systems are there to work for you; you’re not there to work for them. If a rule doesn’t do what you want, then change it or toss it. No mercy.
But what if you find another rule you really like, and want to roll it into your Mutants & Masterminds experience? Or you want to add some of your favorite elements of Mutants & Masterminds to another system? For these tasks you need the hands of a surgeon, not the axe of an executioner (an axecutioner, if you will).
Let’s look at one of my favorite elements of Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine (AGE) system: Stunts. Stunts add a lot of cinematic fun to a game, with players able to show off and get creative in the moment. I like running a cinematic table for my superhero games, so I’m interesting in borrowing from AGE for my own M&M games.
I’m going to use the stunt lists from pages 36 and 79 of the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook, but each book for the AGE system (Fantasy Age, Dragon AGE, Blue Rose, and the upcoming Modern AGE) have their own slightly-modified stunt lists to best suit their related genres.
What and Why?
Before we figure out how to import a rule, let’s take a look at what stunts do and why, and see if anything in Mutants & Masterminds is already doing the same thing. The stunt system fleshes out interaction and exploration scenes with new tactics, giving some heft and direction to what is otherwise just a mechanical skill check. It lets the player character do impressive or unexpected things, even with relatively low die rolls. Mutants & Masterminds largely relies on player creativity for that (which is fine) and freeform rulings from the GM. You get a little definition in success by measuring how many degrees of success you score on a check, but even that is largely abstract. So the exploration and roleplaying stunts could shift a little of the power and the burden of creativity from the gamemaster to the players for skill checks. Sounds good.
But the stunts also let PCs try out innovative attacks and strategies in combat, and Mutants & Masterminds already has a fairly robust combat system. Stunts are how the AGE system handles the actions—taunt, disarm, power attack—that M&M handles via actions and maneuvers and Advantages. The stunt lists from Fantasy AGE provide a few additional attack options, like punching through armor and attacking a second time, that aren’t generally options in M&M for balance reasons. Still, they could work if we wanted to drop the maneuvers as options for our heroes, or turn any remaining maneuvers into new stunt options.
So if we import the stunt rules, our easiest option would be to only adopt the roleplaying and exploration stunts. We can import the combat stunts, too, but that means tinkering with the core system a little more under the hood.
The Hookup: Dice
If we want the stunt system to work, then our PCs need to be able to generate stunt points. Obviously we don’t want them to generate stunt points on every roll—that would slow the game down and take away the semi-random element that makes stunts feel like cool stunts and not just a part of your character’s abilities. The AGE system handles this by rolling doubles on 3d6, and the Mutants & Masterminds Gamemaster’s Guide gives us some suggestions for using 3d6 for your games instead of a d20 and the benefits and drawbacks involved, so that could work. We could also use a page from the existing Mutants & Masterminds rules and say that PCs generate stunt points when they score an additional degree of success than they need; they could either roll a d6 to determine how many, or keep it a straight conversion: trade in one degree of success on a skill check for 3 stunt points, or two degrees for 6. This second option means PCs need to roll well to use stunts, losing that feel of doing cool things even with an average roll, but is more in line with how the Mutants & Masterminds rules already reward players.
There’s no one right answer, so weigh the pros and cons of both against your table’s play style.
The Overhaul: Rewriting
If you want to use new rules to replace what Mutants & Masterminds already does, that’s a little trickier. In the case of maneuvers, PCs can plan ahead and accept a penalty to their action to get a different effect. The AGE system reverses the order, letting players look at their dice results before narrating what the exact effects are. Using both AGE-style combat stunts and keeping the existing list of actions and maneuvers is probably the easiest, but then what happens when a PC scores stunt points on their disarm roll? Ignore it? Let them add a stunt? This method will slow combat down a bit, as if gives PCs more choices, but if your table is pretty quick with the rules already it might be the easiest.
If you want to replace certain rules in favor of stunts, you can drop the following actions and maneuvers: Defend, Disarm, Trip, Demoralize, Feint, and Power Attack. You might also want to turn the Grab, Recover, and Smash actions into stunts of their own (costing maybe 4, 3, and 2 stunt points, respectively). Once we do that, how do we handle Advantages like Improved Trip? Do they let you simply use the stunt without spending stunt points? Or is it more balanced to have them reduce the cost of their related stunt by 1 SP? Is that too weak for an Advantage? Should we just eliminate those Advantages? Or it might be cool if they let a player “bank” unused stunt points for that specific maneuver to use when they wanted to—sort of like “charging up” a special maneuver or leading their opponent to give them an opening—but what happens if the PC charges up several feats and unleashes all their special maneuvers in one big disarm-trip-power-attack?
That last option sounds pretty cool and in-theme for a superhero game, so let’s try that.
The Tweak: Rules Check
Finally, we take our vague idea and read through what exactly we’re doing, and tweak the specific rules where we need to. For the exploration stunts, The Object of Your Attention, The Upper Hand, and With a Flourish all provide a mechanical bonus to other checks, and Mutants & Masterminds using a different difficulty scale than the AGE system. A +3 initiative bonus seems fine, but let’s increase it to +4 to line it up with the Improved Initiative Advantage. But Object of Your Attention and With a Flourish bth seem like they’re adding a circumstance bonus, so let’s say they grant a +2 bonus, or increase a +2 bonus to +5.
The roleplaying stunts have a few more rules elements. For Sway the Crowd, we might say the extra influence in limited to anyone with an Awareness lower than your Presence. Jest seems like a ripe target for a Will resistance check, say with a DC equal to your Presence + 10. Flirt sounds like it would call for an opposed check of your Presence skill against someone’s Will defense or Insight skill. And finally, Tower of Will seems like it’s adding a circumstance bonus, so again we’ll bump that up to +2.
The list of combat stunts are where things start to get a little more challenging. We’ve already talked about replacing the rules for stunts like Knock prone and Disarm with their related action rules. The Rapid Reload stunt doesn’t really apply to Mutants & Masterminds, which doesn’t track ammunition. Stay Aware seems like an easy fix, giving a PC a free Perception check as a stunt. Mighty Blow and Lethal Blow seem like they’d raise the resistance check DC of your attack by +2 and +5, respectively. Pierce Armor could be trouble, as M&M doesn’t have specific armor rules; we could say it lowers the target’s toughness save by –2, but then it becomes mechanically identical to Might Blow, so maybe we can go with ignoring a target’s Impervious rank on the related defense—this will let smaller heroes still have some chance of affecting bricks from time to time and make their efforts feel less futile. Lightning Attack lets PCs unbalance the action economy, so my first instinct is to limit it to a single standard action rather than a full action, and increase the cost to 5 SP (this also lets us figure out about how many SP a Hero Point is worth, if we later want to let PCs trade a Hero Point to generate SP). For Mutants & Masterminds, Dual Strike actually seems less prone to abuse than Lightning Attack, so let’s reduce the SP cost to 3. The Seize Initiative stunt seems good as-is. That finishes out the basic combat stunts, but maybe we want to add stunts for the Grab, Recover, and Smash actions as well, more or less using the rules for the existing actions as-in, but assigning them an SP cost.
Make your own updated list of your stunts and their costs and print out a few spare copies for players so they have quick and easy access during play.
Any time you want to test out new rules additions or changes, it’s best to test them out first with a few friends and quickstart characters. Rules that seem innocuous during the design phase might end up very unbalanced in actual play, and ideas that seemed fun might be confusing or drag things out. For example, in test play, giving PCs with the appropriate Advantages the ability to bank stunt points for later didn’t really see any use; my players felt like they weren’t getting any benefit for the Advantages, because when they generated stunt points, they wanted to use them now, not save them up for a later attack they may never even get.
So back to the drawing board for a tweak, and now let’s say the various combat Advantages give you a 1 SP reduction in a cost of their specific maneuvers. This might means a little tweaking on character sheets (for example, you might break up Power Attack into Improved Mighty Blow and Improved Lethal Blow), but it kept things buzzing along at the table, and even though the Advantage seems minor in its stock description, it let the players have a lot more fun slinging their stunt points around. One PC unleashing a Knock Prone, Mighty Blow, and Taunt for just 3SP sure felt a lot like reading a certain spider-themed masculine hero in my childhood comics.
Over all, they roleplaying and exploration stunts brought a lot to the game and I’d use them again.The combat stunts felt a little less necessary, but were still fun once we got used to them. We ultimately settled on trading in one degree of success for 2 SP, trading two degrees of success for 4 SP, three degrees for 6 SP, or trading in a Hero Point for 4 SP (5 SP let PCs stack a little too much into a single attack, and it meant PCs could spend a Hero Point to “buy up” the DC of their first attack by +5 with lethal Blow, which tended to shut down fights fast).I personally preferred adopting the 3d6 dice pool mechanic for all our M&M rolls, but my players like the swingy-ness of the d20 more, and ultimately it’s about what makes the game more fun for everyone.
House rules aren’t really any different than official rules; the intention either way is to have the best tools to tell the stories you want to tell. So go nuts; pick and choose what you like and makes things more fun for you and your players. Always be ready to adapt, though, and be consistent with changes you make—carrying them forward for the rest of the session and beyond until they prove to not be working or stop being fun.