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Mutants & Masterminds is an effects-based system. HERO System is an effects-based system. In character creation, you pick the power effects you want your character to have, and then you add the descriptors that define what kind of powers they're going to be—a fiery blast? Or a blast of magnetic energy? Or acid? Or even gunfire? … yes, if you choose that descriptor, but still, a Damage effect is a Damage effect! And that's what you pay your character-building points for.

What I'm looking for is a superhero game system that is not effects-based, but descriptor-based. Meaning, if I want to build a Human Torch-type character, then I buy his flame as a descriptor, right? And whatever would logically come along with having that descriptor—flight, blasts of heat, etc.—they are included in the cost of buying that “flame powers” descriptor suite for my character.

Are there any superhero game systems that work this way? Any recent ones? Any good ones? I've heard that the old Marvel Super Heroes (MSHRPG) aka “the FASERIP system,” worked that way, but unfortunately for me, I've never had the pleasure of playing it. Can anyone recommend one, preferably one that's out currently?

I grew up on d20/OGL systems, so the closer it is to that “family” of systems—even if it's not even a “distant cousin,” even if it just has a little bit of the same “conceptual DNA”—the easier it will be for me to intuit and learn quickly. Not that it, by any means, must be d20 or point-based. Just that I'm looking for a descriptor-based (rather than effects-based) supers system, and if it's closer to point-based OR d20, that's a bonus. If it's GM interpretation-based, that's fine and good, either way.

Any recommendations would be most welcome and very appreciated.

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Fate Accelerated Edition is a great system for playing transhumans and superheroes at the power levels you typically see in action movies like The Dark Knight or The Avengers. You define powers through aspects, stunts, and approaches: a narrative descriptor, a mechanical benefit, and your style of action (e.g., Forceful or Careful). I’ve used the system straight out of the book to play Shadowrun, which is a blend of The Matrix and Shannara and Doctor Strange.

The Fate System Toolkit has additional rules for superpower and magic systems so that you can tweak things to your liking, plus there are a couple of supers-related settings in the Fate Worlds volumes. My personal experience is that they aren’t necessary for a freewheeling narrative game, but they might help you if you want more mechanics to back up character differences.

The first place I would look for extended superpower mechanics is the Wild Blue setting, which has a powers system that looks good for classic DC heroes like Superman and the Green Lantern. I like it because it works on the same principles and mechanics that I’ve already used successfully in FAE, just ramping up the power level a bit.

In Wild Blue, powers and their limitations are defined by Fate aspects with the form “I have the power to [gift], but [cost].” They also give the benefit of two stunts’ worth of power. Examples (Fate Worlds, vol. 1, p. 252):

I have the power to stir the weather up to violence, but I can't control it once I get it started.

I have the power to teleport from shadow to shadow, but I always leave something behind when I do.

I have the power to read the thoughts and emotions of others, but I can't always separate them from my own.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the feedback. I reorganized my answer to make it clear that my experience is with FAE, which works great out of the box for action movie style transhumans. The Wild Blue recommendation was more of a next place to look if you need to bump up the scope or add a little more structure. I personally don't think it's necessary but of all the options Fate offers I like it the best because it's most like the way I've already used it successfully. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Nov 9 '14 at 0:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, this is sounding like my possible Best Answer here. Out of all of the systems mentioned, this one sounds closest to what I'm actually looking for. I would probably use the Wild Blue setting, (as inspiration—I already am working on my own setting, I'm just looking for rule system inspiration) since I'm going for a higher power level definitely than the Dark Knight movies. Either way, I will probably end up Frankensteining several systems together into a homeruled thing. My big question is: are these [gifts] and [costs] mechanically quantified, or purely narrative in nature? \$\endgroup\$ – thefinalson Nov 10 '14 at 9:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ FYI the Wild Blue setting is supers in a fantasy Wild West – I mention it more as a source for extended mechanics than for the setting itself. The gifts and costs are narrative, but powers also have the effect of a double-power Fate stunt, which provides mechanics for contested actions. I recommend checking out the free Fate Accelerated rule book to get a feel for what that means in practice. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Nov 10 '14 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, thank you very much, Bradd, this does sound like it's going to probably be what I was asking after. As someone who has been reading and playing tabletop RPGs for more than a decade, but is still new to GMing and game design per se, this sounds good for my needs. I am making my own setting so I have no need for that aspect, but yeah this sounds like it will be good for me so, thank you! \$\endgroup\$ – thefinalson Nov 10 '14 at 10:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ And I see that it's even OGL-mentioning, so bonus points for that! This system is great, it's exactly the kind of open-ended, flexible, narrative thing I'm looking for, where your characters are described mostly with words, rather than mostly with numbers. I've heard of Fate before; wish I had looked into it sooner! The Wild Blue setting actually looks awesome too: it's like Firefly mixed with the Dark Tower book series by King, with supers! I'm still creating my own setting, though. I also thought I saw an answer somewhere around about Noun-Verb magic systems, did that get deleted? \$\endgroup\$ – thefinalson Nov 10 '14 at 11:55
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You might take a look at Mutant City Blues.

This is one game which is entirely built around choosing powers around their descriptive effect, and having related powers follow.

Powers are selected from the "Quade diagram", showing connections between related powers. Character creation strongly encourages you, having selected an initial power, to pick others closely related to it. (This is an in-game tool as well: your characters can make plausible guesses about another character's powers, based on the ones they've seen and the diagram.)

This does come with other constraints, however. As a Gumshoe game, it's heavily focussed on investigation - it's not well suited for games about fighting off alien invasions. It's also set at a grounded, low-key power level - Wild Cards style - and would require some hacking to do an X-men / Avengers level of power. (Some classic tropes are deliberately impossible in MCB - the Colossus / Juggernaut style invulnerable super-strong tank simply can't be constructed, without crippling drawbacks.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It looks very interesting! I like (and am admittedly somewhat amused by) how this diagram relates super powers to various disorders and illnesses hehe, which actually strikes me as almost uncomfortably realistic, since whenever you see those shows like Stan Lee's Superhumans, it always seems like “real life super powers” always exist as some sort of side effect of some disorder or deformity. Unfortunately, the style of play is almost exact opposite of what I'm looking for; which is something more in the vein of Cosmic/Silver Surfer-level characters. What is the actual GUMSHOE system like? \$\endgroup\$ – thefinalson Nov 10 '14 at 9:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thefinalson: As the name implies, Gumshoe is heavily designed around procedural and investigative play. The mechanics essentially guarantee that any clue necessary to the plot will be discovered, while giving players a limited pool of investigative skill points to spend to discover additional information. (Non-investigative skills work on a conventional skill + die roll vs difficulty.) (I'll stop there; more would be off-topic.) \$\endgroup\$ – Tynam Nov 10 '14 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, as I figured. I mean, my game might have some aspects of investigation and mystery, but they'll be few and far between. It is, first and foremost, an over-the-top action affair with lots of explosions, colorful super powers, and most problems being soluble via application of excessive amounts of violence to include aforementioned explosions and colorful super powers! :D \$\endgroup\$ – thefinalson Nov 10 '14 at 10:26
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The "Alternate Effect" Extra in Mutants & Masterminds could allow you to create an an array that would fall closer to the descriptor-based power option you are seeking. You still spend some points for each effect, however it becomes vastly discounted. For your flame power example, you could put the bulk of your points into energy control and then spend a minimal amount of additional points to be able to mimic flight or blast with flame. From the rules text, "Energy Control is further defined by the addition of Alternate Effects expanding what you can do with your control. For example, Cold Control might let you lower the surrounding temperature (Environment – Cold) or trap targets in ice (Affliction, see the Snare version)..."

As an example from personal play experience, I had a Silver Surfer-esque character in M&M for whom I loaded Cosmic Energy Control with points --- which in it's base form is just Blast with a cosmic subtype --- and was able to use it for alternate effects such as teleport, fly, etc. So for 20 points you can grab 10 ranks in Cosmic Energy Control which is essentially a 10 rank Blast. Now for 1 extra point you can now also use Cosmic Energy Control as up to 20 points in Flight and for 1 more point you can also use it as up to 20 points in Space Travel, etc. (22 net points spent to mimic 20 points in each 3 powers). The main drawback is that you can't use all your powers from the array at the same time at full effectiveness; you can't shoot a fully powered cosmic blast while simultaneously also using cosmic energy to fly. You could however fly, land, unload a blast, and fly again all at full rank or use Dynamic Alternate Effect to further hone your abilities.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Josh, you should edit expansions into your answer. Comments are for requests for clarification. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 9 '14 at 10:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah lol, I know all about how M&M works. I was huge into M&M, especially when it was in Second Edition. For me M&M will always be the heart and soul of a superhero system, but what I am looking for here is stuff to expand on the traditional M&M paradigm. For example, with M&M's system, even with all the power stunts, alternate effect arrays, Dynamic, Wide, all those extras, still it isn't flexible enough for me on its own. If you want to have kind of off-the-wall powers, right, everything just ends up being some weird version of Transform, doesn't it? \$\endgroup\$ – thefinalson Nov 10 '14 at 10:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Like for example, earlier I was thinking about a character who was a teleporter and had space-and-time controlling powers, kind of like Hiro Nakamura from Heroes, right? Say my hero here was being shot at with guns, missiles, etc., and he wanted to freeze time and space, grab this whole section of reality with all these weapons flying at him, and flip it around so that when he unfroze it, they would all hit the people shooting at him. Now I don't think Teleport or Time Control or any powers in M&M are going to allow for that! \$\endgroup\$ – thefinalson Nov 10 '14 at 10:21
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GURPS Supers?

Not sure what they're currently doing, but a lot of things were descriptor-based, back in the day: Body of Stone, Density Powers, etc.

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