Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reviews: DC Adventures- From Bad to AWESOME!

With Marvel Heroic Roleplaying on the horizon, I thought it only fair to review the most recent role-playing venture for the DC Universe before I dive headlong into Marvel. But before I do that, I think it might be best to give a historical perspective of the DC game lines.

A History Lesson

DC Heroes - Mayfair Games (1985)

In 1985, to correspond with the release of the massive event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Mayfair Games released the first DC Roleplaying game, DC Heroes. It was meant to directly compete with the already successful Marvel Superheroes RPG.

This game marked the birth of what would eventually be known as MEGS or the Mayfair Exponential Game System. The claim to fame of the system was that it's attributes were measured exponentially allowing characters with phenomenal powers to fight alongside the average street level hero. This worked to a point, but ultimately got a bit annoying to keep track of since it affected EVERYTHING.  The best feature of this game was that it gave you pre-Crisis and post Crisis stats for all the characters to have a point of reference for either style of gaming.

DC Heroes Second Edition - Mayfair Games (1989)

Take two. Second edition refined much of what had come before but excluded the pre-Crisis character writeups. It added gadgetry rules that were a bit fiddly at the time but in my head, I remember it most for adding limitations to powers- which was a necessary evil at the time. The game still had the same dice mechanics- which is not a bad thing, but for my money, failed in light of the better FASERIP game from the house of ideas.

Batman Role-Playing Game - Mayfair Games (1989)

Batman was essentially a pared down version of the second edition DC Heroes game. However, it modified the core game by introducing Advantages and Complications that further defined the characters in much the same way as was being used in the White Wolf games of the time. Mayfair made a point of attempting to improve the annoying gadget rules from second edition and did so to a marginal degree. But considering the limited list of villains in the book, not to mention the timing with this book coming out around the same time as the first Tim Burton Batman movie, it was obvious that the Batman Role-playing game was little more than a marketing move to capitalize on the popularity of the dark knight at the time.

DC Heroes Third Edition - Mayfair Games (1993)

The third edition was really just a retooling of everything that had come before making it a bit more numerically sound. The Hero points mechanic was added to quite a bit allowing it to be more than just a do-over for bad rolls. Eventually, when Mayfair games lost the DC license, they sold this version of the MEGS ruleset to Pulsar games. Pulsar Games released a game called Blood of Heroes, which was more or less the DC Heroes game with the DC characters stripped out.

This was definitely the ultimate version of the DC Heroes line, with refinements that made for a much more balanced game. I still preferred Marvel Super Heroes, but felt that the improvements from the previous editions made it a game that would not be a bad game to have on my shelf.

DC Universe Roleplaying Game - West End Games (1999)

In '99 and into the early 2000's ( I think the game went out of print around 2002), West End Games got their hands on the DC license. West End wisely used their winning formula from games like their fairly successful pre-d20 Star Wars: The Role Playing Game, the D6 system. In the late 90's and into the early 2000's, West End Games' D6 system found it's way into a metric ton of role-playing games (much like GURPS and D20), from Ghostbusters and Men in Black, to Hercules & Xena and Indiana Jones. This was not always a perfect fit and there were variations to the main system.

For DC, the variant referred to as the Legend System was more of a success based game than other D6 games. Success based games work well for most superhero rpg's and though I found myself a far greater fan of DC Universe than it's predecessor's, I still found the game falling a bit flat. Still, West End published some pretty cool expansions like the Metropolis and Gotham City sourcebooks that are still in my collection today.

Smallville - Margaret Weis Productions (2010)

Margaret Weis Productions had already earned a name for themselves with licensed properties by the time they got the Smallville license with games like Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Supernatural. At the time, the existing Cortex system didn't change all that much from game to game, so it would not have fit right in the context of the TV drama that Smallville made of the DC Universe.

This was remedied in a spectacular fashion with the creation of Cortex Plus. With Cortex +, games were more closely based on their source material and though the core mechanics were the same, the games varied greatly from license to license.

I find this game exemplifies the great strides that game design has undergone since the dark days where D&D was pretty much the only way to write a game, but really shows its teeth in its adaptability. The Smallville version of DC is not for everyone, but this game can fit wherever character interaction is important. Now, despite the fact that I love this game, it is really difficult for me to be objective about it since I contributed to it as a writer.

So there that is.

DC Adventures - Green Ronin Publishing (2010)

Which leads us to the most recent game to truly tackle the DC Universe as a whole: Green Ronin's epic DC Adventures. DC Adventures began life with Mutants & Masterminds (or M&M). M&M was a refreshing take on the venerable D20 mechanics released for Dungeons & Dragons a few years earlier born from the mind of the awesome Steve Kenson. Unlike D&D that used a wide range of dice, M&M was a more "pure" D20, using only a single D20 for character actions.   It also included a Hero point system similar to the old DC Heroes mechanic.  M&M second edition refined the game further by making super powers more balanced than the previous edition, though it sacrificed a little of the smoothness of the M&M 1st edition.

When DC Adventures was finally released at Gencon 2010, it was built on the 3rd edition of Mutants & Masterminds. M&M 3rd edition got rid of many of the D20 tropes without sacrificing gameplay. Character creation was much more involved than in previous editions due mostly to the development of powers which was more akin to creating your own powers from scratch in previous editions than it was to pulling from a list. The more involved character creation resulted in a more balanced game with faster, smoother gameplay. Once you had created your characters, it was far easier to understand the character's abilities in M&M 3rd edition than it ever had been before.

However, it was ultimately built on the D20 engine which is full of crunchy numbers rather than less esoteric game systems like FATE. This is not a bad thing for DC, but from the trends I've noticed in modern game design it feels aged,  like it is a step backwards. This puts me in a quandary. I like DC Adventures, and I feel it's the best version of M&M I've seen. And despite the love and respect I have for everyone involved, I think as a game designer, I would have gone a different way.

So let's rate this thing...

Final Rating:

Underwear on the Outside uses a FASERIP rating system derived from TSR's beloved Marvel Super Heroes Role Playing Game from 1984. We will give a numerical score somewhere between 0 (for the REALLY GODAWFUL) and 1000 (for the "slit your wrists because now you can die it's that good"). These numbers fall into categories on the chart above. Through varying degrees of dislike we would likely not recommend things from Shift 0 up to Typical. We feel fairly "Meh" about Good and Excellent. We'd spend money on Remarkable and Incredible but anything above that we get into varying levels of like, love and geeking out.  There's also a little space there numerically. We may give one item a rating of 35 and another 38. Both are considered REMARKABLE, but we think one is a little better than the other. 

DC Adventures is nothing short of the best DC Roleplaying game I've ever seen. It is not, however, in my opinion the best superhero RPG I've seen. (I'll have to review Steve Kenson's brilliant ICONS at some point, I suppose, since I like that game better.) It is a good, maybe great game. I have both books for this game on my shelf and I'm eagerly awaiting the third. I also own every book that has come out for M&M 3rd edition, and will continue to buy them as they come out.

As a DC game, like I said, DC Adventures is the best of the bunch and earns a  55 Amazing  rating in that respect. But Final Rating as a superhero RPG in general? 45 Incredible. Maybe it's the tie to D20, I'm not sure. I still think it is fantastic, but not the best I've seen.