Melodramatic Mutants & Masterminds

Melodramatic Mutants & Masterminds are variant rules for Steve Kenson's Mutants & Masterminds RPG. The Melodramatic rules encourage dramatic, soap-opera-like stories and gives players a greater degree of control over the game. These rules are also inspired by several small-press RPGs with more avant-guard styles of game play, most notably "With Great Power…", an excellent superhero RPG by Michael S. Miller.

The original M&M rules encourage drama by rewarding players with hero points when their characters suffer. The Melodramatic rules uses playing card to integrate gaining and spending hero points directly into the game's core mechanics. Melodramatic gives players more input into the direction of the story by letting them influence how and when their heroes suffer defeats and complications. Enough suffering will give the heroes the backbone (and the cards) to triumph when they really need to.

Unlike the rest of the site (which has an free for reuse under the Creative Commons license), these rules are copyright Paul Strack with all rights reserved, because I am still considering publishing them.

Changes to the Core Mechanics

The Melodramatic rules makes three major changes to the M&M core mechanics:

  • Card Based: These rules use playing cards (54-card decks including Jokers) instead of a d20.
  • Opposed Checks: All checks are opposed checks: trait + card versus trait + card.
  • Bonus Cards: The rules use Bonus Cards in place of Hero Points. Bonus cards are discussed fully in a later section.

Making Checks

Whenever a character performs an action, choose the most appropriate trait for that character, play a card and add the trait bonus to the card value. The opposition does the same. The character with the highest total wins and is successful.

Check = your trait bonus + card value
vs. opponent's trait bonus + card value

Both your card and your opponent's card should be played face down and revealed at the same time. The card values are:

Ace Value = 1 Queen Value = 12
2-10 Face Value King Value = 13
Jack Value = 11 Joker Value = 15

Example: Your ninja (Stealth +10) tries to sneaks past a guard (Notice +5). You play a 6 for a total of 16, and the GM plays a 9 for a total of 14. Your total is higher, so the ninja is successful. If the GM played a Queen for a total of 17, the guard would be successful and would spot your ninja.

Difficulty Class: If you have no active opponent, you are "opposed" by the Difficulty Class (DC) of the task itself. The GM plays a card and adds its value to the DC:

Unopposed Check = your trait bonus + card value
vs. Difficulty Class + GM's card value

Easy DC -5 Formidable DC +15
Average DC +0 Heroic DC +20
Tough DC +5 Superheroic DC +25
Challenging DC +10 "Impossible" DC +30

Example: Your hero is using Disable Device (+8) to open a Tough lock (DC +5). You play a 6 for a total of 14 but the GM plays a King for a total of 18. The lock is too tough for your hero to open.

Unopposed checks are the exception in the Melodramatic rules. Most checks are opposed checks.

Compatibility Note: Difficulty Classes in the Melodramatic rules are 10 points lower than they are in the original M&M rules. To calculate the DC in the Melodramatic rules, subtract 10 from all DC in the original rules. Many DC in the M&M rules are of the form "opposing trait bonus + 10". In these cases you can simply neglect to add 10 to the trait bonus.

Handling Ties

If both sides get the same total, the active character wins the tie.

  • If an attacker is trying to hit a defender, the attack hits in the case of a tie.
  • A ninja who was sneaking past a standing guard would win ties.
  • A guard searching for a hiding ninja is "active" and therefore would win ties.

Saving throws are the big exception to this rule. A character making a saving throw always wins in the case of a tie. This helps balances checks in combat. The attacker wins ties when trying to hit his target but the defender wins ties when making her Toughness save. This is also consistent with how saving throws are handled in the original M&M rules.

Example: Your hero Blue Static (Attack +10) zaps Evilorcus (Defense +8). You play a 5 (total 15) and the GM plays a 7 (total 15). Blue Static hits. Evilorcus makes a Toughness (+12) save against your damage (+10). You play a Jack (total 21) and the GM plays a 9 (total 21). Evilorcus is successful and is bruised but not stunned.

Critical Hits

In the Melodramatic rules, a character gets a critical result if (a) you play a King or a Joker and (b) you are successful. Abilities that increase your "threat range", such as the Improved Critical feat, reduce the card value required by 1 for each rank in the feat. For example, a character with Improved Critical +2 would score a critical with Jack, Queen, King or Joker, assuming her attack was successful.

Example: Blue Static (Attack +10) blasts a villain. You play a King (total 23). If this beats the GM's total, you get a critical hit and +5 damage.

Saving Throws

In the Melodramatic rules, saving throws are treated as opposed checks like everything else. A saving throw checks the save bonus against the opposing damage rating or power rank. The saving character wins ties.

Saving Throw = Save bonus + card value
vs. (damage or power rank) + card value

These rules work unchanged for Fortitude, Reflex and Will saves. Toughness saves are bit different in the Melodramatic rules, since they had a higher base Difficulty Class (DC 15) in the original M&M rule. To account for this, the results in the Toughness Saving Throw Table have been changed to bring it in line with other saves:

Result Non-Lethal Lethal
Succeed by 5 Unhurt Unhurt
Succeed Bruised + Injured
Fail Bruised + Stunned + Injured
Fail by 5 Staggered + Stunned + Disabled
Fail by 10 Unconscious + Dying

This means if you are hit, you are generally going to be hurt, unless you are especially successful on your Toughness save (succeed by 5 or more). A failed Toughness save means you suffer worse than normal damage conditions like stunned, staggered or disabled.

Any bruises a character already has are subtracted from the Toughness save as usual. For lethal damage, subtract the number of injuries instead of bruises.

Toughness Save = Toughness + card value - (number of bruises)
vs. (damage or power rank) + card value

Example: A villain hits Blue Static (Toughness +8) with a damage total of 18. If you play a Joker (total 23), you succeed by 5 and take no damage. If you play a 10 or better, you succeed and are merely bruised. If you play a 6 or better, you merely fail and are stunned and bruised. If you play a 5 or less, then you fail by 5 and are staggered and stunned.

Suppose Blue Static (Toughness +8) had 3 bruises and was hit by a damage total of 19. If you played a 4, your total is 8 + 4 - 3 = 9, which fails by 10. Blue Static would be knocked unconscious.

Initiative, Concealment and Rolls without DC

Initiative checks: To make an Initiative check, play a card and add your Initiative bonus. Initiative is one of the few checks in the Melodramatic rules that are completely unopposed.

Initiative Check = Initiative bonus + card value

Concealment checks: You must draw a random card of value 4 or better to overcome partial concealment (20% miss chance). You must draw random card of value 8 or better to overcome full concealment (50% miss chance). If you have a trait like Blind-Fight that lets you "re-roll" a concealment check, draw twice and take the best card.

Random rolls: Some rolls from the original M&M rules that do not have a DC, such as the d20 roll to determine the action of someone affected by the Confuse power. You should still handle these with a d20 roll. If you feeling are ambitious, you can convert the chart to a random card draw.

Trivial Actions and Checks without Cards

Sometimes a character will perform an uncertain but otherwise non-critical action, such as engaging in friendly target practice. To prevent players from dumping low-value cards in such unimportant actions, the GM can ask players to make the check using a random draw off the top of the deck.

Checks without cards: In low-stress situations, a character can automatically succeed if his trait bonus equals or exceeds the opposing trait or DC. This is equivalent to the "Take 10" rule in the original M&M rules. Similarly, if a character takes 20 times as long to perform a low-stress action, he succeeds if his (trait bonus + 10) equals or exceeds the DC. This is equivalent to "Take 20".

Example: Your hero has a Disable Device (+10). If you were in immediate danger, you could open a Challenging lock (DC +10) without playing a card. If you had plenty of time, you could open a lock with a Difficulty Class of up to DC +20.

Card Play

In the Melodramatic rules, both the player and the GM keep hands of cards, which they use to resolve most checks. Briefly:

  • A player's starting hand size is 3 cards. The GM's starting hand size depends on the number of players and the overall difficulty of the adventure.
  • When you play a card normally, you immediately draw to replace it. Normal card play does not change your hand size.
  • The Melodramatic rules represents hero points with bonus cards. Drawing and playing bonus cards does change your hand size.

Starting Hand

At the start of an adventure, each player gets 3 cards. Normal card play does not change your hand size. Your hand size does change when you draw or play bonus cards.

The GM's starting hand represents the overall difficulty of the adventure. Generally 2 cards per player is a good number for a single session of play. Add 1 card per player for each additional session you expect the adventure to last. Adjust as you see fit for longer and shorter sessions and your group's playing style.

If an adventure lasts more than one session, your hand size carries over from one session to the next. Record how many cards you have at the end of the session and draw that many cards at the beginning of the next session. The players' and GM's hand sizes reset at the beginning of a new adventure.

If your have the Luck feat, your starting hand size at the beginning of an adventure goes up by 1 for each rank in Luck. This does not increase the amount of experience you earn.

Normal Card Play

For normal card play, you play a card from your hand and immediately draw to replace it. This way, you hand size does not change. If you are making several checks in a row, such as an attack check followed by a save check, you can play all the cards out of your hand or you can draw after you play each card. Regardless of how you play, draw back up to your previous hand size when you are done.

Example: You have 4 cards. Your hero attacks a villain and you play a card for your attack check. When you are done, you draw to replace the card you played. You still have 4 cards.

Bonus Cards

The Melodramatic rules represent hero points as bonus cards in your hand. Any time you would earn a hero point, you receive a bonus card. Drawing bonus cards increases your hand size. Any time you would spend a hero point, you play a bonus card. Playing a bonus card decreases your hand size, and you do not draw to replace it.

Despite the name, there is no real distinction between bonus cards and normal cards. You do not keep your bonus cards separate from the rest of your hand. The term bonus card is shorthand for both "card that you play but do not redraw" and "extra card that increases the size of your hand".

In the Melodramatic rules, you do not "re-roll" by spending a hero point. Instead, the bonus card you play is added to your total. You can play the bonus card after you see your opponent's total. Since all checks are opposed, bonus cards apply the same way for both attack and defense.

Example: You have 4 cards. Your hero attacks a villain and you play a card for your attack check. Your total is not quite enough, so you play a second, bonus card and add it to your total. You draw to replace the first card but not the bonus card. You are left with 3 cards.

For rules that allow you to spend a Hero Point to make an extra check (such as an extra save, a Recovery check or a Surge action), play a bonus card that becomes the card played for that check. The only difference between this and a normal check is that you don't draw to replace the bonus card. For hero point expenditures that do not involve rolls (such as canceling fatigue), simply discard a card.

You gain bonus cards for all the reasons you would gain a hero point in the original M&M rules. You also receive any bonus cards played by the GM against you.

Example: You have 3 cards. Your hero suffers through a complication in his personal life and you earn a bonus card. You draw an extra card and your hand size is now 4 cards.

GM Card Play

The basic card play rules apply to the GM as well as the players. Each time the GM plays a card from his hand, he redraws to replace it. The GM can play bonus cards from his hand on behalf of the NPCs.

GM random draws: At any time, the GM can choose to make random draws from the deck instead of using cards from his hand. Generally speaking, the GM can make random draws for minor characters and unopposed checks (checks with Difficult Classes) and uses cards from his hand for major characters. If the GM makes a random draw, he cannot use a bonus card to change the results.

Example: The GM is controlling a group of thugs and the villain Evilorcus. He doesn't care much about the thugs and uses random cards for their checks. Since Evilorcus is the main villain, the GM plays more deliberately for that character using cards from his hand.

Group attacks: If the player attacks or is attacked by a group of minor characters, the player uses a single attack/defense card against the entire group. The GM can then calculate the card value needed by each minor character to dodge or hit, and play enough cards at random from the deck to resolve all the checks for the group. This can significantly speed play.

Example: Dawnstar has a Area Blast +10 which she uses against six thugs with Reflex saves +6. She plays a 7 for a total 17. Each thug needs a Jack in order to save against the attack. The GM draws 6 random cards, of which 2 are a Jack or better. The other 4 thugs suffer the full brunt of the blast.

Unopposed NPC checks: Sometimes an NPC performs an action that does not directly oppose a hero. For example, one NPC might attack another or might be disabling some device. The GM can draw a random card for the opposition or simply decide on the result of the action without playing cards.

If a player has a vested interest in the result of an action, the player can volunteer to play a card for the opposition. If a villain attacks the hero's Aunt Maisy, the player can play cards on Maisy's behalf, including bonus cards. The player could also play cards against a villain trying to activate a bomb.

Example: Evilorcus is attacking Aunt Maisy with a Strike +12 against her paltry Defense +2. The GM can play a card from his hand against a random card from his deck to resolve the attack or he can just decide that the attack hits. The player of Dawnstar, Maisy's niece, also has a vested interest and can play a card on Maisy's behalf.

GM Bonus Cards

The GM may play bonus cards for NPCs as a form of GM fiat. When the GM plays a bonus card, give that card to the player opposed by the check. In effect, the bonus card played by the GM becomes a new bonus card for the player, increasing the player's hand size. If the GM invokes some other kind of GM fiat, such as letting the villain get away, he must give a card to the player most strongly affected.

Countering bonus cards: If a player counters a GM bonus card by playing a bonus card of her own, the player does not get the bonus card from the GM. If GM counters a player bonus card by playing a GM bonus card, the player gets back her own bonus card plus the GM's card. Each side is limited to adding one bonus card per check.

Second Wind

In combat, a hero may rest as a full turn action, discard and redraw two cards. The hero is flat-footed while resting and loses his dodge bonus. The hero must be an active participant in the combat and still in real danger to be able to get his second wind. The hero cannot hide, rest and then return to battle. Only heroes can gain their second wind this way; NPCs are not allowed to do so.

A player or GM can spend a bonus card at any time to discard and redraw all her cards. For example, a player with 5 cards could spend one to discard all his cards and redraw 4. For heroes in combat, this requires a turn of rest, but the hero is not flat-footed and does not need to be in immediate danger.

Number of Decks

The GM should have his own deck of cards. Players can share decks, but you should have at least one deck of cards for every 3 or so players.

Remember that the GM will end up giving the player some of his cards as bonus cards. Because card suits don't matter in the Melodramatic rules, you may want to sort your cards so that the GM deck has all black cards and the player deck has all red cards. This will make it easier to separate GM cards from player cards after the game.

Optional: Bonus Cards and Experience

You can link character advancement to earning bonus cards in the game. Total the player's starting hand with any bonus cards earned during the adventure. When this total reaches a certain amount, the hero earns a power point. For faster advancement, award 1 PP for every 5 cards. For slower advancement, award 1 PP for every 10 cards. Extra cards from the Luck feat do not count towards experience.

If you use this rule, you should keep separate records for the number of cards earned (counting towards experience) and the number of cards saved at the end of the session (which determines starting hand size at the beginning of the next session for multi-session adventures).

Under the Covers: Cards as a Randomizer

Cards are a "distributed randomness" system rather than an "absolute randomness" system like dice. Using cards as a randomizer introduces an element of choice into play. Players will get a mixture of both good and bad cards, but can choose when to use them. You must prioritize what is truly important to your hero and play cards appropriately.

Since you don't know what card your opponent will play, there is still uncertainty in any check you make. To play well, you must also guess how important the check is to your opponent so you can play high enough to beat him without wasting a card higher than you need. Even if you are willing to lose a check, you still want your opponent to think the check is important, to get him to play a high card while you dump a low card.

At the start of an adventure, the cards stacked are in the GM's favor. The GM has many more cards than the players and a lot more flexibility in controlling the story. As the adventure progresses, bonus cards played by GM are transferred to the players. Players also earn more cards by playing out complications. By the end of the adventure, the players will likely be in a better position than the GM.

This card-flow mechanism is deliberate. Most heroic stories start with the odds against the good guys. At first the heroes suffer one defeat or complication after another. If the heroes persevere, though, they will almost always triumph in the end.

Optional Rules

You may also want to use the Melodramatic Story Structure rules as a way of giving players more participation in creating subplots for their heroes.

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