Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Thinking About Feats in Mystery Men!

So, one thing to come out of my little play-test of Mystery Men! yesterday was that my "feats" concept had some serious flaws. Essentially, feats in MM! are meant to be a catch-all ability check, skill check, saving throw system. It was inspired by the old "X in 6" method of old school fantasy games and the "roll under your ability" score concept we also used back in the day. The trouble with Mystery Men! is one of scale.

Traditional fantasy games have ability scores ranging from 3 to 18. This encompasses the whole of human experience, with a 3 being fairly pitiful and an 18 being the human maximum. Characters in old school fantasy are either human or close enough to human that a simple X in 6 chance works pretty well. Most folk have a 1 in 6 chance to do things, extraordinary folk knock this up to 2 in 6 or 3 in 6. For ability checks, you can roll 1d20, with pitiful characters having a 15% chance of success and amazing characters a 90% chance of success.

In Mystery Men! you need a system that will handle both Willy Lumpkin and The Hulk. This makes a flat 1 in 6 chance a problem, because the Hulk can do things that Lumpkin does not have a 1 in 6 chance of doing. Likewise with "roll under ability score".

My first instinct was to roll different dice ranges for different types of tasks, trying to roll under an ability score. Initially, I was going to do 1d10 for normal feats (i.e. things a normal person could do with great effort and a bit of luck), 1d20 for heroic feats, 1d20+10 for super feats (things well beyond the capacity of normal human beings) and 1d20+20 for epic feats (things best left to the gods). This meant that Willy Lumpkin, with ability scores probably ranging from 1 to 3, had no chance of performing super or epic feats, and only 10-30% chance of performing normal feats and a 5-15% chance of performing heroic feats. Okay, problem solved.

And then I started playing out the combat. Resisting a power or attack was going to be classed as normal, heroic, super or epic based on the level of the attacker or power user. With Catwoman being 16th level, resisting her attacks and powers would be a super task, and usually beyond the ability of Invisible Woman. A game where a hero or villain always succeeds or always fails against another one is not terribly playable, especially when Invisible Woman and Catwoman were not that far apart in levels.

In my combat example, I decided to change the dice rolls from 1d10 / 1d20 / 1d20+10 / 1d20+20 to 1d10 / 2d10 / 3d10 / 4d10. That removes the problem of Invisible Woman not being able to resist Catwoman, but it reintroduces the problem of Willy Lumpkin having a slim chance (5%) of performing super feats, like leaping over buildings. So, no solution there.

I could bump the feat bonus a character gets, having it match the character's level. But then level trumps raw ability, and Invisible Woman, with human levels of Strength, can leap over buildings. Not going to work.

I could ditch the idea of using feats for saving throws, and institute a single save value a' la Swords and Wizardry (which means high level heroes are almost never taken down by powers, and low level heroes are almost always taken down by powers) or even institute different types of saves (Death Rays, Poison, etc) with generally the same effect.

What I'm thinking of doing is giving feats a flat number that one must meet or beat by rolling 1d10 and adding ability score bonus and feat bonus (and also ditching the "normal" feat category) -

Heroic Feats  - meet or beat a 10
Super Feats - meet or beat a 15
Epic Feats - meet or beat a 20

Resisting an opponent's powers requires you to meet or beat 5 + your opponent's feat bonus. That would put even 20th level characters in the upper ranges of the heroic level, giving most heroes some chance to resist the powers of their opponents. I'm going to drop the "save vs. attacks" angle, because it's a pain in the rear and easier to just ditch the "instant knockout" idea. This means the more powers you have the lower your level and thus the easier your powers are to resist, and vice versa.

Now, pathetic man, a 1st level hero with an ability score of 1, is rolling 1d10-1, meaning he can't perform heroic feats. I can live with that. Not everyone can be a hero all the time, and if this is a character, he doesn't have a score of 1 in every ability.

Normal woman, a 3rd level hero with an ability score of 3, is rolling 1d10+1, meaning she can perform heroic feats 20% of the time.

Excellent dude, a 6th level hero with an ability score of 6, is rolling 1d10+3, meaning he can perform heroic feats 40% of the time.

Amazing woman, a 10th level hero with an ability score of 10, is rolling 1d10+7, meaning she can perform heroic feats 80% of the time, and super feats 30% of the time.

Maxi-Man, a 20th level hero with an ability score of 30, is rolling 1d10+18. He cannot fail at heroic or super feats, and he performs epic feats 80% of the time. Since this character represents the absolute pinnacle, I think I'm okay with this.

I might also add an optional rule wherein a roll of "1" always introduces a complication to the situation - i.e. you leap over the building, but land on the mayor's car or crash through the street on the other side. That way, Maxi-Man still has to roll for heroic and super feats, and though he'll always succeed, the Referee can introduce a complication of some kind 10% of the time.

I'm open to suggestions on this one - what do you think?


Picture taken from Amazon. I just finished reading Superman: The Dailies, 1939-1940, and it was great.


  1. I didn't notice the problem, but I see why it's a tricky thing to solve. Sounds like you may have it licked though. Then again, there's always the GM to say "sorry, Willy can't even try to leap over the building, why would you even ask that?" But admittedly, that's not too satisfying mechanically.

  2. I agree - common sense has to govern the Ref's decisions, but you want the mechanics to work 99% of the time, especially when you have a situation of new Ref vs. rules lawyer.

  3. My concern here is that you might be looking at ways to distinguish a Willy Lumpkin from a Hulk of the same level. D&D already had a way of distinguishing ordinary people from really powerful people -- it makes them different levels.

    In H&H, a superhero would need to be at least 7th level before he could simulate the Hulk. By 7th level, a character should have enough resources to beat a 0-level character in any contest. Do you really need a mechanic just to make sure he always can?

  4. Well, I think of it this way. Level is primarily a measure of skill, while ability scores are a measure of raw ability. Batman, for example, probably has a high level because he very skillful at many things. The Hulk rarely shows that he is skilled at anything - he relies on raw strength and endurance to get through problems. So, the Hulk might only be a 3rd level hero with a strength 30, while Batman is a 10th level hero with a strength of 6. To keep things simple, you want the level and the ability score to contribute to success, but you also need to set some raw limits to keep Batman's greater skill from allowing him to do things that are physically impossible for him. I think this little system is easy to use - and I want MM to be pretty rules light - and balances skill and raw ability in a way that is realistic in comic book terms. It will still require some Refereeing - i.e. telling the person with normal strength that they cannot beat the Hulk in an arm wrestling contest - but should produce satisfactory results most of the time without requiring hard and fast rulings. Obviously, play testing will be the final judge, and perhaps I'll have to rethink the whole thing.


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