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.



  1. Interesting, I didn't realise that there were soooo many variations of the DC world in RPGing... although I'm much more favourable about the original DC Heroes edition than you (tis the only one I know BTW). I'm not sure how practical the rules were as I never played it, but the resolution system was an object of beauty in mechanical aesthetics, especially in comparison to TSR's Marvel game mechanics IMO...

    I'm also a little surprised you didn't mention the sub-plot rules, which I think were waaaay ahead of the rest in terms of a structured way of storytelling/character-development in RPGs. I'd be interested to know if the later Mayfair editions keep or expand this idea at all? Also did it not also have hero points or am I imagining that? Anyway, I thought, as a package, this game represented amazing value for money... The GM screen was magnificent!

    I wonder if you are going to review GW's Golden Heroes, which, while a little too modular for its own good, had some interesting/unique approaches to game design...

  2. So yeah, I totally spaced on the sub plot rules, and they remained pretty consistent from edition to edition. They certainly made it nice and easy for gamemasters and were one of my favorite parts of the game.

    Hero points were in every edition of DC Heroes, and I should have explained them a bit. But it was really in third edition that they were fleshed out to more resemble what we've seen in the Mutants and Masterminds games.

    And WOW! Golden Heroes! That brings me back. Considering their business model now, it's hard to remember that Games Workshop used to make Role Playing Games. Yeah, I think I have an independent superhero RPG review coming up with that, Silver Age Sentinels, Capes, Godlike, ICONS, among others... good call!

    And thanks for commenting.

  3. Golden Heroes made a come back a year or so ago under the new (and worse) title of Squadron UK. Alas, it seems to have died a quick death... The game's original author brought out a few new products, one of which I checked out called Finest Hour which was set in WWII, which was utterly brilliant! But yeah, GW made some great RPGs in their day, but never backed them up with enough supplements to keep them alive beyond the initial interest.

    I think what I liked about the subplot system is that it gave a space for GMs and players to create stories, rather than the usual GM as auteur approach that a lot of later storytelling style games seem to encourage.

    All the best


  4. I think you and I look for very different things in a superhero roleplaying game. M&M3 is light-years better than Icons or Marvel's torturous FASERIP system - and I say that having been introduced to the RPG hobby by that Marvel Super Heroes game.

    1. That's cool, everyone should have their own opinion- it's what makes the industry so wonderfully varied and colorful. M&M 3 is a good system, but I feel it suffers under the yoke of d20. It could be that recent years have found me completely disillusioned with the WOTC flagship system, but I also found ICONS to be a breath of fresh air when compared to other super systems- even MnM which came from the same brilliant mind- Steve Kenson.

  5. Just as an aside: the White Wolf games you're thinking of--Vampire and the like--didn't come out until 1991, three years after the Batman RPG.

    1. True, I only inserted it there because most of my readers are more than a little familiar with White Wolf Games and it was important to give them a point of reference. That whole period of time in gaming from the late eighties to early nineties had a lot of the same rules being tossed from system to system much like today with rules from Fate, Cortex, and the like showing up in various systems around the industry.

  6. DCHeroes was never percentile-based. Where did you come up with that? There's not a single mechanic that uses d100. You roll 2d10 and add them together!

    1. You know, you are absolutely right.. been a long time since I've played that game and I was probably mixing Marvel and Hero in with it when I was trying to remember the mechanics.. considering I still have Pulsar on my shelf, I should have known better.Thanks,editing above.

  7. You couldn't be more wrong about Mayfair's game; it's so far superior and so much more elegant than the other licensed products you list that it ain't even funny. The Green Ronin game is not just ugly with it's awful modern comics art, it's D&D-derived in all the worst ways and so densely written as to be almost impenetrable, and even with all those words they seem to have difficulty making basic concepts plain such as what damage does my punch do or how do I make a character like Iceman or Firestorm. Truly dreadful.