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Mutants & Masterminds - [Review] Supernatural Handbook

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Supernatural Handbook

Vitals: Published By Green Ronin • 152 pages • $15.00 (full color PDF ) • $29.95 (hardcopy pre-order)

Elder Signs and Profane Sigils, or, Cover and Interior Artwork

Art is a highly subjective matter, and I can’t draw much better now than I could when I was in kindergarten, so readers really ought to take these comments with a grain of salt and at face value as my personal opinion. The cover artwork, depicting a three-person team fighting with something tentacle-y in what appears to be an ancient temple really does a good job of setting expectations. The three heroes (one assumes) cover a range from heroic monster, to sorcerer/wizard, to an apparently normal man-of-action type. The style is clearly reminiscent of comics, and the title font helps to accentuate the horror themes within the book.

Turning to the interior artwork, for me, was a mixed bag. Part of that was due to the mixture of styles; some of the interior artwork is in the style of comics, while others are more digital renders, or possibly photo-shopped photography stock (like I said I know nothing of making art), and still others look to be something like watercolor. While all of the styles serve the themes of the book and highlight the greater genre of horror storytelling, they are so vastly different that I found them somewhat jarring in contrast to each other. Thankfully I also found that the artwork seemed to be consistent within a given chapter and never where two style evident on facing pages.

Personal taste aside I would say that the artwork works by a good measure more than it fails, but taste is a subjective thing, and your mileage may vary.

The Chunky Meaty Flesh of the Thing, or, What’s Inside

The book is broken out into five chapters and an introduction. The first chapter covers setting elements and setting up a horror game. The second details player options, discusses player/character roles, and the like. The third, and longest, is the GM advice chapter, giving heaps of help to GMs wishing to run a horror game. The fourth chapter is the GMs toolkit, with sample monster archetypes, suggestions on building terrible things, and the like. Chapter five details A.R.C.A.D.E., the American Research Center for the Arcane Defense of Earth, a sample organization that can be used in an already established setting or used as the starting kernel of a new setting by a GM.

That Creepy Feeling, or, The Introduction

We start out with a piece of short fiction that sets the tone for the book by telling the story of a frightened young boy beginning his fight against the darkness. From there we get a pair of caveats that clarify what the book’s goal is and what horror will mean in the context of the book. A brief rundown of each chapter is then provided before we step into chapter one.

The Z-War, The Darkest Jungles, and the Cursed House, or, Chapter 1: A World of Horror

Chapter one starts off with another short vignette before diving into a discussion of horror as a genre versus horror as a tone used in other genres. A game or story can be science fiction in genre by horrific in tone (example: Alien), or horrific as a genre and yet comedic in tone (ex. Shaun of the Dead). This is an important distinction to be made, and helps to inform the rest of the chapter.

Following this discussion is a breakdown of different styles of series that players and gamemaster may partake in, from monster of the week to post-human tales. Each breakdown quickly details the general meaning of the series and then suggests possible elements to use and how to work those into three different ranges of power levels. The write ups here do a good job of informing the reader of subtle differences between series types (arguably sub-genres or sub-tones), like the difference between Post-Apocalypse and Post-Human, for example.

Closing the chapter are break-outs of various time periods in which to set a horror game, and how to use the elements of those times in determining the horror elements of the story. These time periods range from the far past during the Crusades and before, to the near and far future. Ages are broken down broadly with categories like the Mythic Age and the Pulp Age, and then further broken into specific eras within those ages like the Inquisition or the Weird West, each with a short list of potential elements for use as story seeds. While none of the eras get more than a paragraph or two and each age is only given a few more beyond that this section goes a long way to help a GM establish the beginnings of a series setting.

At a scant fourteen pages long this chapter is packed full of crucial information for gamemasters. That information is delivered in densely packed prose that more than adequately sets a GM on the path toward starting a campaign. Were more space available example setting and campaign kernels would have been and ideal use, but with the information provided their absence is a minor complaint.

Ain’t no Rest for the Wicked, or, Chapter 2: The Player’s Guide to the Supernatural

This chapter is broken out into five major sections. The first section (and part of the chapter introduction) discusses the player (instead of the character). Specifically there is discussion on the duties of the player within a horror game, how to make the game work, and how to avoid derailing it. I think this is some pertinent and useful advice as establishing the horror mood and maintaining it are as much part of the player’s tasks as the Gamemaster’s.

The remainder provides ways to engage the players more fully, by way of allowing them to take limited control over the game through interrupts and external investigation. These options will not work for every game, nor every player or GM, but the do expand on the arsenal of options for a play group to utilize.

The next three sections detail character options, from advice to GMs regarding Power Levels and ability benchmarks, to suggestions for new or expanded Complications and and equipment. Seven archetypes are provided, two at PL 12, two at PL 10, and one each at PLs 6, 8, and 9. While the provided archetypes cover a gamut of options I would have liked to see a little more representation from all three of the series power tiers. A few extra archetypes at the PL 6-8 range would have helped here to fill in the gaps. Following the archetypes are a series of minor “racial” templates for common monsters that can be applied to create reformed creatures as characters.

The final section of the chapter goes into deep detail on the investigation process. This information is provided as a player aide as much as a gamemaster aide, in order to help facilitate player engagement and role playing and avoid situations where the GM leads the group through the investigation rather than the players taking control (a.k.a. being on rails, or railroading). Overall the chapter works well and aside from wanting a few more low PL templates it very effectively covers all the options, responsibilities, and character choices players will need.

Your World the Nightmare, or, Chapter 3: Mastering Your Fears

Let me say this upfront: the chapter is a beast. Not only is it the longest chapter by page count, but it is by far the densest chapter texturally. This isn’t a sit down and read through it in one sitting kind of chapter; and that is a good thing. The chapter is broken into a whopping ten major sections but really it breaks down into three major topics: what horror is, how to create horror in your games, and tools to create the setting and background for your games.

The discussion of horror, its themes, its flavors, and how to integrate these into your games is the first part of the chapter. The information here is incredibly useful. These are not just the tools of horror, but of all drama. After reading this part of the chapter the reader will be able to see the building blocks of horror, from the allegories at the heart of Frankenstein, to the sociological implications of the better zombie films and novels.

The next few sections discuss provide the tools to use your new found knowledge. Discussion of how to use descriptions and the lack thereof to enhance the experience. Use of precise touches of horror over the blunt applications; the hints of the xenomorph in Alien, versus the gross out splatter of slasher and exploitation/torture horror for example.

The section on advanced techniques, including the use of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, sends the reader deeper into the mindset of the antagonists and protagonists. The difference in needs of a monster like zombie versus a monster like a serial killer helps to deepen the understanding of what makes each tick, and how to use those to drive a story. Likewise, knowing the difference between the victims of each antagonist helps the gamemaster to understand how to target the horror at the characters effectively.

The final portion of the chapter discusses the methods and tools to create antagonists, be they pantheons of god like power, secret organizations and cabals, alien mythos that threaten the world, or disasters that change the world itself, making it the antagonist as much as nay creature or group. These sections ask good questions, and pose excellent options, covering the subjects at hand in great detail and providing a clear framework from which the GM can build up their antagonists for a game.

Things That Go Bump, or, Chapter 4: Misadventures in Horror

Where Chapter 3 is the blueprints for a horror game, this chapter is the parts and the tools to bring those blueprints to fruition. The chapter is broken into four parts. The first is a series of pre-built packages from which GMs can create quick monsters. These are useful, requiring only a limited amount of quick math to cobble a functional critter from. The only real miss here is a lack of some kind of random roll table to allow a GM to build such monsters without needing to make their own choices.

Monster archetypes follow in the second section. These are greater monsters, while those created using the prior section are useful to serve as minions or perhaps secondary creatures those in this section are meant to be used as the primary foe in a game. Eight archetypes are provided with PLs from 10 to 15.

The last two sections are made up of some sample newspaper clippings and four pre-made mini-adventures (one or more sessions worth). The clippings are a nice way to present story ideas and hook, both to the gamemaster and for GMs to use to give to players. The four mini-adventures provide are well written with plenty for information to guide a GM along while leaving the pacing and specifics open for interpretation, which I find to be a good balance for pre-generated adventure material.

“The Ones Who Bump Back,” or, Chapter 5: ARCADE

The American Research Center for the Arcane Defense of Earth is detailed over the course of seven pages. Here we gain insight into the workings of the organization, from the spell that ensures their secrecy, to the people who run the group from its hidden New Orleans base of operations. We also get a write up of Leroy Dutch whom we first met way back at the start of the book’s introduction. The ARCADE write-up provides a lot of potential to gamemasters looking to incorporate a bit (or a bunch) of the supernatural into their games. Characters could be working for ARCADE, or could be completely ignorant of the organization due to the effects of ARCADE’s memory controlling spell.

Closing Thoughts

This book bills itself as a book of the supernatural, and that is true if one considers the meaning of supernatural as one that includes all things that are beyond or outside the scope of nature. That said the book is not just about otherworldly horrors and dark spirits. This book is just as useful for science fiction games as it is for games of demons and boogeymen, and the means of developing and inciting “horror” are as capable of inciting drama for other tones and genres as they are horror in the traditional sense.

The incredibly information dense third chapter is far and away one of the best GMs resources that I have seen. The techniques, discussion of themes, and the like can be applied to a wide variety of genres and tones above and beyond the horror and supernatural that the book is written around.

Personal issues with the artwork, and some minor quibbles about the lack of low-power templates and options aside this book is one of the best resources for any genre. Don’t let the implication of “horror” color your thinking, the tools and advice in the book can easily open the doors to drama in any form, be it horrific, in the traditional/common sense or in the more personal dramatic sense.

Rating: 95% - The Supernatural Handbook is highly recommended, with a great deal of useful information that would not be out of place in a college literature course. The game specific information is also highly useful with templates and sample groups to help kickstart a GMs next game.

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