Complications with Complications

I’ve been spending a great deal of time over at the Mutants and Masterminds forums lately. Since grad school has been really intense this semester I’ve been gaming little and since forum posting is easy and entertaining (sometimes it’s practically a full contact sport) that has been how I’ve been staying in touch with the gaming community (or at least, a corner of it).

As I initially had some dislike for DC Adventures/Mutants and Masterminds 3e, I really have been taking the time to get to know the system well and to work on a lot of character builds, designing with the effects and re-writing some of the book versions of major DC characters. I’m also running a DC game for some friends and it’s getting into full swing soon.

But I have one major issue with the system that continues to plague me – more than anything else about Mutants and Masterminds – and this was a problem in 2E, but for 3E I find it to have become even more pervasive as a part of the system.


Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with these little mechanical creations. Because they aren’t really mechanics at all – but then again, they are. I intend to explore the bad stuff first and then I’ll talk about the good. Basically, the point of them is to try and recreate some of the “genre” elements of superhero gaming, and as a way to have a different reward structure for “flaws” that is not front-loaded. Complications have become an incredibly important part of the game because they are pretty much the only way to get Hero Points, the all-important resource of a Mutants and Masterminds campaign. (In DCA/3e the Luck trait no longer gives hero points.)

Where this becomes weird though is that the game talks specifically about the writer’s disdain for front-loaded design. But then they still included front-loaded design in some cases (such as devices) that could just as easily be handled as complications (at least the regular Removable level) – but that’s not really the problem. The problem is that the argument that there is only so much screen time in an adventure to cover things like, say, a character’s problems, is going to be just as much of an issue with Hero Points as it is with front-loaded “disadvantages.” If a player chooses ‘poorly’ with their complications – by which I primarily mean chooses roleplaying complications that don’t have a chance to come up often, they simply won’t earn Hero Points.

I was looking over Superman’s complication list and honestly, in the course of a routine night’s gaming, I don’t see Superman earning a single Hero Point – unless it involves kryptonite or taking his powers away. And the main downside to the “pay-as-you-go” approach is that it’s also much, much more difficult to “balance” complications. Looking at Superman’s complication list – if he does have one of them trigger, he’s probably in huge trouble – except for his supposed vulnerability to magic, a complication in name only, since his toughness not being impervious is pretty much no disadvantage at all under the new rules. I mean, the guy has an 18 Toughness – any power that his impervious would have stopped anyway is highly unlikely to have any noticeable effect on him anyway. So how are these equal? Even though the reward is equal for each of them? The simple answer – they’re not.

A larger issue as well is that Complications create a possibility for all kinds of ill-will at the table. A GM has to be very careful in adjudicating complications or they’re going to have players annoyed at them all the time. Lasting injuries – well, who really decides when your hero has a concussion or not? Really, you gave my guy a broken arm? Really? Or, as is so often mentioned in the rules of Superhero games – villains escape. Apply hero point balm and get on with the story. Of course, I don’t know about you but most players I know don’t consider that a fair reward for, “you got trashed – but hey, here’s a hero point.” It feels like plot-hammering. Again, a careful, thoughtful GM will have already thought out the villain’s escape to make it plausible and allow the hero’s to feel good about themselves – but the book simply suggests – “The villain leaves, here’s your HP.”

All that said (and I could say more), there are also some really good high-sides to Complications as well. I’ll talk about the good stuff that comes with Complication mechanics next post.


One response

  1. cauldronofevil | Reply

    Complications was a jarring change to me as well, but in the end I kind of agree that front-loaded Complications cause more problems than they are worth (see GURPS and Champions).

    The only other viable solution is the way BASH: Supers handles it – you get points but the points are always much lower than the actual Disadvantage is worth.

    In other words, the value in points you get is so low that you’d ONLY take them if they were REALLY part of your character conception.

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