Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: Supernatural Handbook for Mutants & Masterminds

I've been gaming on and off since the 80s and I've read a lot of gaming books. I've read good books and bad ones,  books that were so evocative that they've made me want to gather my friends and start a campaign right there. I've read books that were disappointing. There were certainly more than a few stinkers when WOTC opened the door to third party supplements, but, up until now, I mostly responded by closing a bad book when I had finished it, saying, "Well, that sucked," and putting it back on the shelf with a mental note to that effect.

I love Green Ronin. I love Mutants & Masterminds. It's a fantastic system, but also a wonderful setting, with characters that lived and breathed and come alive. The people responsible for the line clearly love the genre and it shows in their work.

I love horror too. In gaming circles, horror increasingly means "Lovecraftian horror", but I embrace all kinds. The first time I encounter something new, the back of my mind is working about the best way to put a horrific twist on it.

So the Supernatural Handbook seemed like a natural fit.  My hopes were high for this book, but not unrealistically so. It's Green Ronin. I don't think they've put out a product that wasn't spectacular.

Up until now.

I didn't merely dislike this book. I hated it so much that I felt an obligation to warn people about it. It is not just the worst book Green Ronin has released. It may be the worst book I've ever paid for. I resent the very existence of this book, because it means we won't get a good horror themed supplement from GR.

Where to start? The art. This is a more subjective area than most, and, as they say on the internets, your mileage may vary, so I won't dwell on this overlong, but I thought it was pretty bad. It never seemed to mesh with the text that surrounded it, and I found it uninteresting even if it did.

The pictures for the player archetypes were especially awful. I would not be surprised if the instructions to the model were, "Put on this fedora and then hold still while I take your picture with my phone."

Chapter 1: A World of Horror 

This chapter sets the tone for the book. The meat of it is a long list of possible horror settings, with examples from media, followed by the a text box that reads: "Horror elements might include:"

If you take nothing else from this review, remember this part, because I think this is sums up everything that's wrong with the book. The examples given for horror elements are broad and obvious, and would have occurred to any reader who has the interest to read a book on horror role-playing. But, there is no guidance for what to do with these concepts for those readers who wouldn't have thought of them. It's just a list with no framework, a problem that pervades the book.

Chapter 2: The Player’s Guide to the Supernatural:

This chapter opens with some pretty general advice.  This kind of stuff has been covered elsewhere extensively, and because of my long interest in horror gaming, there was nothing new for me. I've read a lot of horror gaming material, and, as there are some generally agreed upon guidelines, I think they would be remiss in not including them. They're not for me, but it would be ridiculous to assume that every section of a book is going to be of value to every reader. I certainly won't hold their inclusion against the book.

My problem with this segment is a bit more subtle. The problem is that the advice, like that in the previous chapter, is over-broad. This was billed as a handbook of heroic horror. By trying to cover so much material rather than focusing on how (super)heroic horror is different than other types of horror,  we just get some bland musings on the nature of horror.

This section also some archetypes which, except for the previously mentioned art, which were neither bad nor good. The Cursed Adventurer, she of the fedora and the purple ankh, becomes helpless in 15 minutes if separated from an item with the easily removable flaw, which seems to be a crippling complication. The Infected Hero has the potential to be interesting, (it strikes me as a nod to the Marvel Zombies line), but the thing is, there's no mechanical support for it. He's just a speedster, essentially the same collection of stats as the speedster archetype from the core book, but with different flavor text. The others are pretty generic. The Ex-Cape, for example, isn't offensively bad, but it isn't good either.

This is followed by a couple pages on the investigation process. Again, it strikes me as trivia dressed up a gaming advice and I don't know what it's doing in a book on superhero horror. There were books where this would fit, but this isn't one of them.

Certain classes of creature (arachnids, fungi, etc.) have lists of "scary facts" that read like they were cribbed from "5 Horrifying true facts you won't believe about spiders!"on I actually did find this kind of interesting, but it's information that's widely available elsewhere and, like so much of the book, a collection of trivia with no guidance about what to do with it.

Chapter 3: Mastering Your Fears

The core of this chapter involves applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to game-mastering horror. I think it's an interesting concept, but not a tool that is as broadly applicable to running games as it is presented.

The rest of the chapter is plagued by the flaws that characterize the rest of the work. Advice that attempts to encompass everything and is consequently diluted to the point of meaninglessness, which is too vague for the beginner and old hat to the grognard.

Chapter 4: Misadventures in Horror

This is probably the best chapter. I liked most of the monster archetypes. The prose is ridiculously purple at times (The Dark Emissary has clawed out her eyes because she had seen "things that made angels go mad and demons weep in terror"), but they're interesting from both a mechanical and narrative perspective, and I even liked the art. The author even includes a 150 point, PL 10 trophy hunter for someone who wants to play a Predator, and I really do appreciate things like that.

The chapter concludes with some newspaper clippings, which aren't bad and do a better job than anything in the book of setting the mood and a couple mini-adventures too, which are serviceable.

Chapter 5: ARCADE

The final chapter is devoted to ARCADE, the American Research Center for the Arcane Defense of Earth. Prior to this chapter, I figured that the Supernatural Handbook was a poor resource that I would shelve and never read again. Having a whole chapter devoted to Leroy Dutch and the ludicrously named organization (I've always thought that S.A.V.E. (Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata), the organization to which PC's belong in the Chill RPG was faintly ridiculous, but S.A.V.E. looks like the Mossad next to A.R.C.A.D.E.), the book now offends me by its very existence.

A.R.C.A.D.E. reads like a "let me tell you about my campaign" and Dutch reads like "let me tell you about my character". I don't want to be within a thousand feet of a PC who calls his magical gun "Betsie'.  Dutch's signature quote, which the author evidently felt was so brilliant that we're treated to it twice, is, when confronted to some tentacled monstrosity, is to slap a baseball bat into his palm and declare, “We beat the ever-loving Christ out of that thing until we're up to our eyeballs in calamari." Because nothing sells horror like treating the adversaries like pinatas with a lot of hit points.

Dutch transformed the book from something that was of little use to me to something I actively hated. I felt like Roger Ebert watching North.  "I hated this [book]. Hated hated hated hated hated this [book]. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it..."


  • The scope is far too broad, and consequently spread much too thin
  • Only cursory coverage when it comes to horror as it relates to a superheroic setting.
  • Dutch. Seriously, he's awful.

I hate to rag on the book, because I've enjoyed the author's other work for the line. But I think you should pass on this one.


  1. Oh come on, its not as bad as Freedoms Most Wanted.... Or theThreat Reports series.... Its close, but not quite.

    1. It's kind of funny, because I like Green Ronin a lot, and I felt vaguely guilty that this is my one review of their products on my site. I picked up the Threat Reports at the end of the year in their scratch and dent sale, and not only did it arrive quickly, but it was virtually indistinguishable from a copy which one could be expected to pay full price. I had entertained thoughts of giving it a glowing review here to offset my review of the Supernatural Handbook.