Critical Design Elements For Mutants & Masterminds Characters
Designing a character for function as well as form
Many times, when building a character for a roleplaying game, the main idea is that the character is meant to be played as a real person. And real people, because of their history, preferences, flaws and perspectives, are never optimized from a young age on.
That said, there are a number of critical features you want to consider when building a character of any kind in a game of the superhero genre, and Mutants & Masterminds in particular.
These aren't just good ideas, but also things that can make playing a character a sour experience, as you find out that you cannot participate properly in some situations, where you could've made a difference. Good examples of these are for instance characters built as Telepaths which excel at social and investigation scenes, but fall flat if they don't have a proper capability to attack and are reduced to giving good advice during combat.
The five critical elements are: An attack, a defense, a special sense, a special utility and a special movement ability. Read on as I go into detail about each of these components.
About the intro image: The three-in-one, the Stepford Cuckoos, (C) Marvel Comics
firmitas, utilitas, venustas - Solid, useful and beautiful - these are the three qualities any structure must possess.— Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Roman architect
Go for the eyes!
Or, how each character should be capable of attacking
It is almost an inevitability that at some point during a campaign, there will be a fight. In fact, it's rare to find a campaign involving the fight against nefarious evil beings and supervillains that does not feature combat regularly. Without a proper form of attack, it's going to be very hard to get through these encounters. Of course you could use various powers to mind control, bind or remove enemies from the playing field, but there is going to be a time that you will need to attack head-on.
In many cases, a power set gives at least a single attack - and even thought it is possibly the most critical element of character design, it's fortunately also the most common. Cosmic rays, elemental damage, controlling the weather are all powers that feature heavy offensive ability.
But even for telepaths, healers and near-pacifists, there are options that do not necessarily mean dabbling in powers unrelated to your character design. Consider the use of offensive gadgets or even common weapons; they might not be glamorous, but they get the job done. And it's hard to question the use of a proper taser by even the most pacifistic among us. For those campaigns taking place in a '90s iron age setting, guns aren't just for use - they are even an accessory.
Weapons and tools might be cheap and easy to get, but if that isn't good enough, then consider a form of unarmed attack or martial art. Your fists are always there (in M&M it's based on Strength) and as anyone can learn martial arts, it also means that superheroes with mental power sets can easily add these to the repertoire without burdening the character with mismatched powers.
Green Ronin published two relevant power profiles (Talent Powers and Martial Powers) which specify exactly these kind of abilities. They are also available bundled into a single "Power Profiles" book.
Not in the face!
Or the joys of a good defense
As likely as your character is to get in a fight, it's equally important to be able to defend against attacks from others. This can take the form of a forcefield or unnatural toughness, depending on your character concept, but also simply being trained to be tough. This is usually represented by a high Toughness save, gained by a high Stamina score (for those who are tough) or the Protection power (for those with other means of deflecting damage).
But those without such powers can protect themselves equally well - bulletproof vests and the Defensive Roll advantage all offer similar (if a bit less powerful) benefits as the Protection power, but require no specific power sets to use. Anyone can, in fact use them, including people marked as skillful rather than powerful.
Another good defense is to focus on the Parry and Dodge saves, completely avoiding damage, rather than soaking up incoming damage directly. As these two methods are mutually exclusive (Parry and Dodge together cannot exceed Toughnessx2 and vice versa) you have to decide this at the start of the design. High saves here will avoid you a lot of powerful attacks, but once someone gets through, you will have a harder time keeping character alive.
This defensive method is best combined with immunities if you have the concept for it - a Telekinetic could easily be immune to Kinetic attacks, which is expensive but also makes the character mostly invulnerable. This makes it a trade-off. Adding regeneration and immortality or a healing power are also good ways of countering a low Toughness save, if this fits your concept.
The last thing to consider are the immunities I already mentioned before. Here you have to look fully at your concept. While your offensive and defensive scores are limited in how high they can be, and there is a mathematical "sweet spot", this is not the case for immunities.
A character able to wield fire is likely immune to it, while a Telekinetic character might be immune to being moved. Robots, undead and aliens might have a whole host of immunities describing their inhuman natures. And as you have more of them, particular base defenses (the Parry, Dodge, Toughness and Will saves) become a little less relevant.
Form versus Function - The eternal roleplaying debate
There are many different roleplaying game systems, mostly because there is a debate about the balance between so called "Fluff" and "Crunch" - namely the story aspects and the game aspects. A character needs to be a person, and have a compelling role in the story - but also needs to be able to be a playable character in the game.
Form Versus Function
Where do YOU think the tipping point lies?
Mobility as a character design principle
Movement, whether for travelling far away (sometimes to other planets) or short distances (like in combat) is a major part of any adventure game. Speed and mobility are key points of a character's view on the world. After all, what effects would it have on you if you could teleport to Paris to visit a boutique, and then teleport to Malibu for some fresh fruit?
For some characters, getting around is the main part of the gig. Flying around, teleporting or running at the speed of a bullet are core aspects of Paragons, Teleporters and Speedsters. But what about strong characters? Telepaths? Beast trainers?
For some, there is the advantage that their power set gives a sideways advantage here. Strong characters might be able to leap for miles, while a martial artist might practice cloudwalking or wall-running. Beast trainers of one kind or another might be able to sit on their pets, especially flying ones, and have them move them around.
Some, however, are stuck on more mundane ways of transportation. Depending on the campaign, an investment in a car, motorcycle or team jet might be an option. For maximum mobility, few things beat a helicopter. If you're on a budget, you can easily buy a bike - and for everyone else there's the modest railpass.
But don't stop there; think outside the box. A telepath might have mind-controlled a minion that has a supermovement power, and takes the character along. Can't beat a teleporting personal secretary, am I right?
Or if you're a smart aleck, perhaps you have built or captured some form of alien technology, like an anti-gravity belt or a teleportal disk. Magical characters might stand on rune-engraved flying disks, or have teleporting cloaks. The sky's the limit when it comes to devices!
Get stuff done!
Utility and being useful outside of combat
Combat is the most risky thing for most characters, which is why most game systems devote so much time to combat rules and benefits. But you need to be able to do things outside of combat as well. Social situations might call on you to talk your way out of trouble, or get into a place without making a scene. Perhaps you might need to stalk a bad guy, or investigate a suspicious company.
So consider first whether your character might be able to do useful things simply by checking his or her background. He or she might've gone to college, and learned a lot about a few subjects that come in handy during the campaign. Or, you might have had a job as a car mechanic, bank teller or police officer. All jobs that give sideways benefits to a character. Not to mention you can make the character come alive by creating colleagues, co-workers, teachers and students that the character has interacted with.
There are also the options provided by the character's powerset. A very smart character may also be very rich because of it, or might have a network of people they tutor across the world - who might feed him information as well. A character who can communicate through networks or satellite links is a living cellphone, capable of talking to people and checking information at a distance.
Think of the many times where you've been frustrated by a common occurrence, from being wet after falling into the water to being late because of a traffic jam - then think how your character would've dealt with it.
Did you SEE that?
Special senses to make the world come alive
A lot of times, I find that a character feels the most special when they are capable of noticing or sensing something no one else could. These could be wholly unique senses granted by their powers, enhanced senses by virtue of training or some "super serum", but also making use of the natural aptitudes Humans have for recognizing patterns in everything they see.
A telepath might be able to not just detect minds, but also their mental state and emotions; many paragons have X-ray vision and can see through walls. A Telekinetic might be able "feel" objects or things moving within a certain distance, and some might have an enhanced Danger Sense. Such powers not only give you a much greater range of investigation, but also can be used to great effect in combat.
Humans often have enhanced senses when another sense is diminished. Blind people might rely on hearing more, and train this further than a normal Human might (we're fairly sight-focused as a species). But consider the pallet of a master chef, capable of distinguishing very subtle flavors in food - and then amped up to superhero levels? He might be able to "taste" the presence of a person in the air at thirty paces! This is especially true if you'd combine it with an enhanced smell - able to track by smell, identify people by smell, and so on.
Senses are most powerful when they logically link together - like smell and taste, above. Characters who have their powers based on some animal aspect (like Catwoman and Spiderman) often inherit senses from what we attribute to them, such as the ability to see in the dark, or react to unseen danger.
For character-building purposes, also consider what having such extraordinary senses does for a character. What changes would you make in YOUR life, if you found out you could see through walls? Or read minds? Depending on whether you'd love or hate that power, you will deal with it quite differently. So consider how these powers changed the character - and in my experience nothing changes a character more than sensing things no one else can...
I prefer my characters to be good in a scrap, have a life outside of combat, and preferably have some unique sense or movement ability to interact with the campaign world better. What are your experiences in your games? How would you choose to build your character?
Many people will say these tips are very basic, and they are - but they are also commonly ignored or forgotten, at the detriment of fun at the table.