5 Tips for Building Mutants and Masterminds Characters
Covering all the bases
When building a character in Mutants & Masterminds, it's easy to lose track of the basics. The system is so open-ended and there are so many choices to make, that before long you're focusing too hard on the goodies to realize that a fun character still needs a solid base in order to be playable. Having a character that is too one-sided, lacks defense or offense, or simply doesn't feel right will only lead to frustration.
This lens covers a few simple basics to keep in mind when building a character. Decide on them when you think out the concept, and revisit them when you are almost done to make sure you covered everything.
Tip 1: Border your concept
Many campaigns using the Mutants and Masterminds system will equate themselves to one of the "Ages" of comics. What age you play in is a good indicator of how superheroes were seen in those times, and also what kind, and how much, power they had at their disposal. While whole lenses could be filled with discussions about the ages, here's a quick overview:
1) Golden Age
Heroes were heroes just because. They had strong moral fiber and were powerful enough to handle almost anything. They had a wide range of powers that didn't really have a connection "theme". Superman, for example, was super-strong, almost indestructible, could fly, had X-ray vision and could shoot lasers from his eyes.
2) Silver Age
Heroes from the Silver Age had a reason to be heroes. Sometimes they fought crime to avenge a murdered loved one (such as Batman) or out of a strong sense of Justice (Spiderman). Others simply were strongly law-abiding to begin with (Fantastic Four) or stood proudly for minority ideals (X-Men).
Their powers were usually themed after animals, philosophical concepts or grouped around a single word or idea. Spiderman's powers are a wide array, but all marginally spider-related. The X-Men each had either a single power which they used in interesting ways (Cyclops' laser beam), or they had a group of related powers (Storm's weather control).
3) Iron Age
These are dark and gritty heroes for realistic times. The Punisher is a vigilante out for the blood of criminals, while the Ghost Rider escapes the deal he made with the devil. Superpowers either became more sinister, or they became very low-key and subtle. Characters from the iron age favor guns and technology over enigmatic energies.
4) Platinum Age
A return of sorts to the Silver Age, with themed powers and a more upbeat storyline. Heroes fight crime and villainy for their own reasons as well as for the greater good. Writers return to making stories about a sense of wonder and discovery, with myriads of alien races and unexplored dimensions. While the powers of the heroes are often themed and grandiose, they are more limited. Powers need to fit in with current thoughts on advanced science, and realism and emotion are key parts of these comics.
When you create a concept for your character, the first tip is to build a character that fits in the age in which the campaign is set. If everyone's building a happy platinum-age do-gooder, then your brooding iron age gunslinger is going to stand out, and not necessarily in a good way. Likewise, a golden age classic hero will seem "flat" and less Human when played in an iron age campaign.
Tip 2: Be flexible!
When making a character, you have many options in Mutants & Masterminds. But in essence, each power can be put in one of a few categories:
1) Offensive - used to attack opponents
2) Defensive - used to protect yourself or allies
3) Movement - used to get around the game world
4) Sensory - Allows you to know something others do not
5) Utility - A special trick that makes you useful to others
When building a new character, if you want to have a solid base, make sure to have at least one power in each category. Of course, certain concepts might not be able to fulfill them all (the movement options for a Telepath are limited) but this gives you perspective on your character's weaknesses. Telepaths cannot teleport, but nothing stops them from driving a really fast car.
Say that we have a superhero based around Fire. A rather common concept, right? Let's see how to make this concept into a few powers:
1) Offensive - Fire in various forms, this is a speciality: flamethrower, fireballs and explosions
2) Defensive - A fiery aura that burns those who touch you, melting weapons before they hit you
3) Movement - Using an explosion to propel yourself, or being able to teleport from one fire to another
4) Sensory - Heat vision would be an obvious one, but also the ability to smell combustibles, for instance
5) Utility - The most difficult category, but even here you could turn into a fiery form, or perhaps animate flames into a flame creature, or welding metal or being an expert glassblower
In this fashion, you are always sure to have an answer in any situation. Some power sets will always be more flexible than others, but basically no matter what concept you pick, you should be able to fill in this short list.
Tip 3: Be a team player
An often overlooked issue when building a character is the team dynamic. Characters aren't supposed to be able to do everything, because they have teammates that watch their backs. Everyone deserves a little time in the spotlight, which is what strengths and weaknesses are about. When building a new character, this also means that it pays to see what the other players are building.
If your concept allows for it, you could tweak your powers a bit to support the team and have their strengths cause the weaknesses you develop as a result.
For example, say that everyone decides to build strong and tough combat characters. Then it pays to play a smarter leader-type, perhaps a Telepath. They are good at fighting, but you have the cunning to formulate a battle plan, and you can give them tactical advice in battle. And while you might be less physically strong, you could still have a few tricks up your sleeve (like Concealment or Illusion) to prevent yourself from being caught blind-sided in battle.
When you build characters that form a team rather naturally, you will find the game turns out much better and fast-paced.
Tip 4: Know when to Min-Max
Min-maxing is a habit where players try to make their characters as efficient as possible. While this isn't as prevalent in Mutants & Masterminds as it is in other games, there are still quite a few ways to spend your points more efficiently while getting the same result. In a result-based power game, all that really matters is what you want to achieve in the end.
Defenses are one thing where you don't want to skimp. There are a few limits on how high they can be, and generally you want most of them (especially your Toughness save) to be as close to the maximum as possible. The game actually depends on this, as a low save is quite a weakness.
Let's take Toughness as an example. It is used as the defense against all damage powers. This is quite significant, and having a low save means you either need really powerful defensive powers (Concealment, Illusion, Impervious Create) or the campaign would have to be low on combat (Like an exploration or political setting). Depending on your concept, however, there are many ways to get this save up.
First off, your Stamina adds to your Toughness save, so a high score here can already cover it quite nicely. This is quite appropriate for bulky heroes (The Thing, Hulk) or alien beings who are simply tough or large (Fin Fang Foom). Incidentally, a high stamina can also be reached through Size by taking the Growth Power.
If you are rather agile, instead, then the Defensive Roll advantage is more up your alley. You get its rating added to your toughness save, allowing you to easily dodge lethal attacks. However, you do need to be able to move, or else you only gain half its value. This is great for character concepts in the martial arts style or based on speed (Flash, Daredevil, Elektra).
Those who have more "super" in their hero also have the option of taking the Protection power, which is a blanket for anything that could protect your from thick hide to armor to glowing force fields. When all else fails, put a barrier in front of it!
As you can see, even one defense (Toughness) already has multiple ways of getting the same result, and they can even be mixed and matched. So my advice would be to make sure your Defenses are as high as you can get them, and make sure you spend your points wisely. Also keep in mind that many things like Abiilities, Skills and Advantages are rather cheap to upgrade, so you can make them better after a few sessions. Powers are more expensive usually, so if you have to make a choice, invest in the long run.
Tip 5: Emulate but don't imitate
You will have noticed that throughout this piece I have added examples of existing superheroes when describing concepts. That is because most people will be familiar with these names in general, even if they never really read any comics. When it's time to build your own character, it's very easy to copy a concept wholesale from an existing superhero character - sometimes with background and all. My advice is to never do this.
First off, people are going to know you are basically plagiarising an existing character, which may lead to being ridiculed at the gaming table for lack of originality. Second, you aren't likely to enjoy playing a character you could've put a lot more effort in.
The first step away from imitation is to mix things up: take a few of the powers you like, and replace some with other powers. Pick a background element you like (like an ethnicity, where the character got their power from, family life) and give it a few good twists. The background is very important, as it will determine your character's outlook on life and how they will react to things happening in the game. The character's appearance should be distinct, not to be confused with another character. An easy way to do this is by making a character sketch, and filling it entirely with black. If it looks distinctive from just the outline, the character will be instantly recognizable.
This is also important for later on; say that years later you decide to publish a story about your character. If it's a carbon copy of the Flash, you're going to make a lot less in royalties than you have to pay in plagiarism fines.
Many great characters started as charicatures of politicians or sports people, or were based on people the creators knew in real life. Take inspiration from the world around you to flesh out your character and give it a life of its own.