This tome clocks in at a massive 330 pages (which is funny when you consider that the original Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition rule book clocks in at only 257 pages). I was amazed and a bit daunted when I saw the size of it. With the enormous amounts of material they have managed to fit into the product, you realize that it could not have received any smaller treatment.
The book begins with an introduction that clearly spells out the author’s intent. Though the book is generic and can be used for a number of genres, its primary focus is on superheroes and other genres at that level of play. It also clearly states that it is not intended as a historical discussion of real world martial arts, rather something influenced by them and their cinematic representations.
The second chapter begins the real ‘meat’ of the book, with a page of guidelines on running a martial arts game. It also includes the ‘Metahuman Threat Scale’ something that Misfit has used in other products. We then proceed to the archetypes. This is where you get a real inkling of the kinds of things possible with this book. Archetypes span the usual suspects such as the Ronin, Brawler, Chosen One, and Fighting Monk. But it doesn’t stop there, we also have some surprises such as the Geomancer, Gimmicked Archer, Heroic Luchador, and Wheelman (yes, a martial artist master of driving).
What I like about the archetypes is that each one is two pages, with lots of details on how such a character might develop in back story and then three different takes on the basic archetypes. Essentially, each one of these could easily be three or more unique characters with the same stats. This makes them very usable by players and gamemasters. There are 17 different Archetypes presented that really demonstrate where the book goes beyond simply people who fight with their fists.
The only concern I had with this section is that, for someone coming fresh to the system (I’m a relative newbie with M&M Superlink), the feat blocks for these characters are so large that I cannot simply read the characters and know how they would play, unlike a standard super archetype. To be fair, the same problem exists with any character that is feat heavy (and years ago its one of the things that drove me away from d20 based systems).
Following the archetypes are a few pages that discuss the various genres that might make extensive use of martial arts, including anime (both dramatic and fantastic), chop sockey cop, fantasy, mystic tournament, and of course, supers.
The next 64 pages of the book are filled with crunch.
First, it provides new skills and expanded uses for old skills. Challenge rules are also included, like those from previous M&M Superlink books. I’m a bit suspicious of the new Martial Arts skill which has so many uses crammed into it I cannot help but think that every Martial Artist would have it at the max their PL will allow. I think some of its abilities could maybe have been broken out and spread among some other skills (such as acrobatics and bluff).
Then we move on to Feats, and hoo boy are there a bunch of them! Over 150 to be precise.
To be fair, many of them (as well as some of the skill rules) will be familiar to those who’ve read books such as Manga and Mecha. They are reprinted here in full, which is nice as it collects many feats from various sources and puts them into a single place. But there are a whole bunch of completely new feats as well. So many in fact that I find it difficult to come to grips with all of them. Superlink’s point based creation allows players to have many, many feats if they wish, which helps prevent the problem that occurs in more static, level based d20 games of needing to completely ‘master’ your build from the beginning. This is a very good thing, as it allows you to create ‘side-concepts’ like Wheel Men who are not useless whenever their primary feat tree cannot be utilized.
But oh my gosh, there are a lot of choices here! I think for players, this will be an absolute boon, but for GM’s, I can imagine it as something of a headache. Depending on your feeling of synergy and optimization, this part of the book has the potential to be a real gold mine… or a mine field.
It’s difficult to evaluate the feats due to the tremendous amount of them and the inability to adequately imagine how they might combine together to unleash some hidden potential. M&M Superlink’s PL limitations will help keep much of the dangers of over optimization down, but this does bring us to another issue with some of the feats. Not all of them that provide bonuses actually spell out if they are designed to fit within, or break, the PL cap. For the most part, I think the decision is common sense, but it could cause problems for some groups. I would have preferred it every feat explicitly spelled out whether it broke or did not break the cap.
On my read through, most of the feats seemed fine and balanced more or less. A few felt weak and a few felt a little over powered (many of the ones that did feel over powered were actually from other sources, to be fair).
Speaking of feat trees, many feats are built with prerequisites of other feats or abilities. So there is some sense of balance for the more potent feats, as they require an additional ‘buy-in’ cost. Whether this degree of added complexity will suit a campaign, however, will be up to the individual groups.
I should stress the majority of these feats are usable without the character being martial arts focused. However, a new category of feats is also introduced, the Martial Arts feat. These are different from normal Combat feats in that they require practicing a martial arts style to justify purchasing them. These are often the more powerful feats as well. It is possible that, in a campaign not focused on the differences between styles, that a GM could do away with the style requirement and just rely on the prerequisites of the feats to help balance them. This would allow more easily for the ‘master of all martial arts’ concepts most commonly seen in comics. Considering the martial artist will be up against people who can lift tanks and fly, this does not seem like it would cause many problems.
Interestingly, there is another concern that the plethora of feats creates. Typically, with d20 products, the base concern I would have is that a lack of balancing or awareness of synergistic combos would create super-combos that would make the character far more powerful than intended at a given level. With M&M Superlink’s PL system, this isn’t really a problem (typically). However, since many of these feats are exception based bonuses (meaning they only trigger under specific circumstances) yet are still capped by PL, to get the most benefit out of them, the character will have to be built with those limited exceptions in mind. Consequently, the character will be built to ‘under-perform’ except for during specific circumstances, if they want to see any use out of these bonuses. This issue exists in core M&M Superlink, so it isn’t something unique to this product, but the sheer number of these feats will lead to it being a more pronounced occurrence. There are ways to
fix the ‘problem’, if the GM wishes to, but its something that concerned me in regards to playing these characters within a Super genre game where the majority of characters are built to operate at PL cap consistently. If the campaign were entirely focused on martial arts characters, it would be fine because everyone would more or less work the same way, and there is plenty of mileage in this book for running those kinds of campaigns.
Next we come to New Powers. Again, some of these may be familiar already, such as Chi, Combo Finisher, and (the often reviled) Extra Attack. There are other new powers and even some of the pre-existing powers get some new treatment in power feats or modifiers. A list of recommended powers from other sources, including Ultimate Power and Better Mousetrap by Misfit Studios, that would also fit the motif of Martial Arts. In addition to new powers, there are new power feats, extras and flaws. Most of these are generally useful, regardless of a martial arts focused character or not.
There are also new complications, which while often seen in martial arts style characters, are not intrinsically linked to them and could find uses for other characters.
The next chapter focuses on new or expanded rules. Here we see the rules for skill Challenges, which mostly seems derived from pre-existing rules, but includes a few new challenges, especially for the new skills and alternate uses for skills presented earlier in the book.
There are rules for ‘Team Checks’. These are situations where an entire group needs to succeed at a simultaneous task (such as a group sneaking). They seem quick and easy, far preferable to everyone making a check which tends to be the norm.
Then there are rules for Hit Locations. The benefit of striking a location is detailed as an alternative to the normal save method with different results than those normally given by failed Toughness checks. Also, a random hit location chart is provided for humanoid opponents, with damage multipliers based on the location struck. I find the chart a bit odd since a result of a ‘20’ is a hand, one of the worst possible results, which seems to go against the design of the d20 system (even if numbers have the same probability of showing up regardless of what they are…it just feels odd to roll a ‘20’ and be disappointed).
While I think those rules would work for certain styles of games, the default super setting does not seem like one of them. I can see a gritty fantasy, or even Iron Age game perhaps using them.
There are also hit location charts for types of vehicles (air, ground, and water). This could definitely see some good use regardless of the genre I think.
Following on from that are rules for disabling critical hits (such as tearing off someone’s ear, breaking a nose, or other gruesome specifics). The rules are interesting and again, would fit in a pure martial arts or other gritty setting, but less so for general supers.
Then follows a host of general combat optional rules. These will have different uses depending on the genre you play, but there is possibly something for everyone here. New vehicle chase rules are included, allowing more manoeuvres to spice up a chase scene.
Finally, the rules for martial arts styles. These start with a detailed discussion about styles and whether they are armed or unarmed, and how to bring weapon elements into it. Stances follow on from that, which are an interesting expansion on the stances in the main rules. These provide a lot of flexible options, but require extra Martial Arts skill rolls to move from one stance to the next. It’s an assumption on my part that, like the two basic stances in the rule book, these stances ignore PL caps, but I didn’t see where this was made explicit.
Then we proceed on to Basic Maneuvers. These are essentially separate variations on Strike or a few other basic powers, costing between 1-4 PP each (barring one exception that is based on the character’s strength). I could not help but be reminded of HERO’s martial arts maneuvers, and to me that is a good thing. The martial arts system in HERO was one of my favorite elements. With a few of these maneuvers, a character will have a diverse set of options with which to tackle an opponent.
Then we leave the realm of the realistic and head into Advanced Maneuvers, which is where you’ll find more ‘super’ or ‘mystical’ martial arts abilities. These follow more traditional power builds, and allow for standard martial arts tricks like Wuxia leaps, Dim Mak or Flaming Fists.
There is then a discussion on building new maneuvers, and various base powers, extras, flaws, and drawbacks from M&M Superlink to create effects that feel like super martial arts powers. This section is quite thorough and provides plenty of options for emulating those abilities that the book does not stat up for you.
Then actual styles are presented. A discussion is given about how to add flavor to a style in play, and alter it to taste. An important element of this introduction is a discussion on adjusting the style to different PLs. Because this book is essentially aimed at super level characters, the styles are often built around a lot of power points with the basic assumption that PCs are masters of the style at the beginning of the game. If you are playing a lower PL game and still expect the same degree of mastery, you will need to reduce the number of feats and maneuvers that each style has (unless you do not want PCs to begin as masters of course).
We move on from there to styles, beginning with traditional styles (such as Aikido, Bando, Krav Maga). There are many, many styles here, representing both common and uncommon martial arts (many of the styles I’ve never heard of, but they are all real world styles). I think a martial arts buff will likely find their favorites amongst this list. After that, we have Cinematic Styles, such as ‘Drive-Fu’, ‘Jinzouningen-Dageki’ (a style for mecha pilots), ‘OSOK’ (One-Shot-One-Kill Sniper Fu), ‘Tien Wei Wu Qi’ (absolute mastery of a single weapon), and ‘Wooryu’ (or Gun Fu). There are lots of fun styles here for building all kinds of anime or hong-kong action movie characters.
Finally we have some example styles for different genres, specifically Fantasy (a good creative mix covering everything from Orcish Barbarian styles to Elven Archers), Metahuman Styles (which includes styles for Flyers, Elastic characters, and Bricks among others… oddly missing was a style of dedicated Energy Blasters), and then finally Spiritual Styles (which deals with the more metaphysical and supernatural styles).
Other than the missing Blaster based style, I feel like it would be difficult to imagine a martial arts character that would not be covered by one of these styles (even if you had to file off some serial numbers and reskin it slightly).
A large list of martial arts weapons follows, which include everything from the traditional, to trick arrows and mystic weapons (Devices that drip story possibilities). New headquarter features are presented, which again could be of use to many genres and there is a section on Unorthodox weapons which quite frankly should be mandatory for Super Genre roleplaying games (it is the only place I’ve seen stats for manhole covers, helicopter blades, i-beams and wrecking balls!). A few suits of armor are also presented.
This chapter deals with martial arts based antagonists and starts with several archetypes ready for play. Like the player archetypes, these have several different spins on each, allowing you to easily use a single archetype for several different villains.
After the standard archetypes, there are a handful of individual villains of different power levels. These villains are fully detailed characters that can be used as is. There are solo villains and some groups, including a ninja clan. Good stuff for a martial arts campaign. Finally there is a large group of minions of various types.
The final chapter is dedicated to the good guys that can exist in a martial arts campaign. The mystical city of Shambhala is provided as a place to find or be from, providing the martial arts equivalent of Atlantis.
Like the villains, there are a group of fully stated heroes (who could double as villains of course) that range from various genres (though mostly supers) and power levels.
The book ends with an extremely thorough index.
This book is so large, and is packed with so much stuff, that it is difficult to imagine it not being of some use to every group that plays M&M Superlink games. Whether you simply pull a few feats out, pull the villain organizations, use the new powers, or the alternate combat rules, there is something in here for just about everyone.
Visually, the artwork ranges from good to extremely high quality. The layout is clean, and when you purchase the PDF you get a full color and a printer friendly black and white version.
I do have concerns with the level of complexity this would add to play, as well as the requirement for characters to behave at less than PL cap in order to take advantage of their feats and maneuvers. For my own, fledgling group, I think it would be way too much to throw at them since they have only a bit of experience with the system. For a group that was very familiar with the rules and the interaction of the base feats used to represent martial artists and costumed adventurer types, this book will provide tons of new concepts and characters. I do think that, in many ways, the best use for this book would be in strictly martial arts or anime flavored campaigns, where everyone is built for exception based models instead of sitting at their full PL capabilities. Another use for this book would be creating Exalted or Weapon of the Gods style settings using the M&M Superlink rules. I think it would excel at settings like that.