Apologies for the missing installment of Dreamblade Boogie and Lost Tribe, I've been helping my family prepare for a music festival. To make up for it, have a review!
John M. Stater's Mystery Men! (no, not the 1999 Superhero comedy). Available as a free ebook or a softcover rulebook for the princely sum of $8, this is one game worth your time. It should be noted that for the purposes of the review, I'll be covering the softcover rulebook.
Using Swords and Wizardry as its base, Mystery Men! is a rules light package that clocks in at a grand total of 67 pages. I've dabbled in various Supers games over the years, from my beloved Heroes Unlimited, to Icons, to Mutants and Masterminds. I've even dipped my toe into officially licensed RPGs. None of them, however, have caught my eye and kept my attention like Mystery Men!.
As mentioned earlier, the rules are simple enough for a non-gamer to pick up in roughly half an hour. And for even the complete amateur entering the hobby, character creation and the rules of play themselves, will provide little to no frustration.
Let's cover character creation first. Heroes are created by first picking a power level. The power level provides the Experience Points with which a player will purchase his powers. That's right, XP is used in an actively invested manner, something I first experienced in Fantasy Flight Games' Rogue Trader, and something I feel is sorely lacking in other games. After the power level, a player picks their class from one of the available three options: Adventurer, Scientist, or Sorcerer. An adventurer is the 'baseline' hero. His powers come from within, or from gear which grants him his unique powers. Green Lantern and his Power Ring, Superman, and The Flash are all adventurers (to the best of my understanding). Scientists may purchase powers, and, in addition, they have the option to put points into a "science pool" which they then use to create gear to be used in the adventurer. Sorcerers perform similarly, with the exception that their pool is dedicated to the casting of magical spells, rather than creation of gear.
After class comes ability scores. Here, one finds a deviation from the norm that I just like. When creating a superhero, there's no such thing as a penalty to an attribute. Indeed, an attribute of 1-6 is considered "Human", with anything beyond that point falling into the superhuman range. With the attributes rolled (a single 1d6 per each of the six attributes), the player proceeds to the real meat of any Superhero RPG, the powers.
In the grand scope of RPGs, "Mystery Men!" falls closer to Heroes Unlimited with its preset list of powers than, say, Mutants and Masterminds' "Build Your Own" approach. And how to powers stack up? A full thirteen pages, covering areas such as attack, defense, healing, movement and illusion. These powers mimic, for the most part, spells from Swords and Wizardry. Each is assigned an Experience Point cost, though this cost can be modified by making the power restricted in its use (halving the cost), or increasing its utility (doubling or even tripling the cost). There's a broad selection to choose from, and each power can be fluffed to the player's content. Once the player has purchased his powers, he cross references his remaining XP against a charge to determine his class level. This provides number of hit dice, and attack bonus.
After powers, comes a chapter on rules of play. Anyone familiar with the OSR or Swords and Wizardry will feel right at home here, with the changes made to reflect the Superheroic setting fitting nicely into place. initiative is on a D10, there are rules for special attacks, and a simple task resolution system known as "feats" (feats of strength, feats of will, etc) takes the place of a 'saving throw' or 'skill check'.
A bestiary is included, listing most of the creatures found in the World's Most Popular Role Playing Game, and offers enough to keep a Mastermind (Game Master), stocked for just about any occasion. As an added bonus, a mini-setting and adventure are included in the back of the book, excellent springboards for a beginning campaign.
All in all, a neat little package, one that really should see more love. Thankfully, Mr. Stater posts regularly at his blog, offering new tidbits for Mystery Men! in the form of popular characters and races converted to Mystery Men!, as well as genre dressing. As of yet, however, the core rulebook remains the only compilation of goodies to be had.
Unfortunately, not everything can be perfect, and it's come to my least favorite part of any review... the quibbles. My first complaint is not a reflection on the game itself, but on Lulu's print quality. I've had the book for two days, and I'm already starting to see dings from light handling. This is probably going to be a book that gets disassembled and placed into a binder. Still, at $8, should a copy wear out, replacing it is a trivial matter. Another complaint against Lulu is the placement of the bar code. On the back of the book, there's a blurb advertising Stater's blog, Land of Nod. Unfortunately, the bar code and its white frame cover the greatest portion of the URL. Sloppy, something that needs to be addressed.
On to my final gripe. And this is not so much a flaw in the game, as it is my own personal bias. The artwork in Mystery Men!, while solid and a uniform gray scale (the free ebook is full color, comes in two distinct flavors. Golden Age comic... or a style reminiscent of the Justice League of America animated series. Scattered throughout the book are example heroes, and each one to a T looks like it stepped off the screen of a Justice League episode. While I'm sure some people appreciate the style, it's one I've never cared for.
So, there you have it. A fun game, excellent for when you want a break from heavier systems. And at $8 a copy (or free dollars if you grab the PDF), what's to lose?