The Limits of PL (Now with Examples)

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The Limits of PL (Now with Examples)

Post by Paragon » Sun Dec 07, 2008 1:14 am

(The Following two posts have been updated following feedback later in the thread.)

The Limits of PL

[Note: After a recent PM from Elric pointing this out, I thought I should mention an assumption implicit in this whole line of thought. That assumption is that the PL system assumes that in the vast majority of cases, the character's Attack, Defense, Toughness save and save DCs will be up against PL. This is strongly supported by almost all the core book archetypes, and the majority of the Instant Superheroes archetypes (and most of the latter that don't seem to be doing an ad-hoc version of what I talk about in this thread).
In addition, it should be noted that there are some issues of balance in trade-offs that are outside the scope of this discussion. I recommend looking at Elric's post here ... 99#p622299, as it goes into some detail (with Bonus Math!) as to why even when using the suggestions I make you'll run into some issues with tradeoffs, especially on the shift toward Attack.]

One of the hardest things to do in any game, but particularly superhero games, is to maintain some sense of balance among various characters. Some people don’t care, or figure they can balance spotlight time manually, but for the rank and file user, something a little more objective is desirable. There have been various attempts to approach this over the years: Hero’s active point limits and other character caps, C:TNM’s Rule of X, and M&M’s Power Level.

They never quite work.

The usual problem is that there are too many moving parts in a build point superhero system. Its easy enough to deal with the big coarse parts; in fact, barring the fact you could trade across attack and defense, the Rule of X and Power Level took almost exactly the same tact: deal with offensive accuracy, defense, ability to take damage and ability to do it. But there are too many things that effect the actual practical effects here that such systems never deal with. As a simple example of this, two M&M characters with otherwise identical PL can be widely different in practical combat power because of such simple things as, say, the presence of an Autofire attack and a high Bluff.

(An upfront statement here: PL is about combat. There are a few things that aren’t primarily combat oriented that PL limits (skills and the attributes that contribute to skills primarily) but the PL system isn’t really about noncombat aspects of the character; those are really too subjective to be handled by any real system, and Steve Kenson didn’t waste time by trying).

Now back in the day, I actually put together a detailed system for using something like the Rule of X in Hero. It worked reasonably well when I used it for one campaign, too. But it was difficult, not perfect, and to be honest, Hero is, in some ways, easier to apply such a thing to than M&M.

I thought about doing something for M&M for my next campaign. Had a nice long exchange of messages with Elric about it, in fact. Had every plan to go ahead.

Then, not long ago, I concluded it wasn’t worth doing.

The reason for that is that so much of how problematic these sorts of PL trumping abilities are is dependent on other features of character design. As an example that I’ll enlarge on later, a character who has a single Perception range Will save attack (a Mental Blast for example) isn’t necessarily more dangerous on the whole than most other characters of single PL; add in a couple of array slots with, say, Perception Range Move Object (Psychokinesis), and a normal Blast (psychokinetically accelerated projectiles) is a different story, because of his ability to shop for what’s most effective; he doesn’t have to deal with the limits of the Mental Blast when he doesn’t want to, but has it when it would be effective. His Perception range attacks have become a strong advantage but his regular blast allows him to sidestep its limits, and he has a Will save attack for the Tough, and Toughness attacks for those with high Will.

So what I concluded would be more useful was to put together a list of warning flag abilities, list which abilities they work synergistic wonders with, and suggested “virtual PL” values to associate with them. The rest of this post will be discussing the ideas I have here.

To make it clear, this door swings more than one way: GMs should keep these in mind when establishing the PL of opponents; a GM who has an opponent who he lists as PL 10 but has Concealment and a Subtle Autofire Attack is most likely kidding himself as to the effective PL the villain has.
Additionally, in a few cases, a PC will have a PL that is actually lower than what it appears. This isn’t common, but it can occur with primary PL abilities that are Flawed in certain ways. As an example, a character who has Toughness that includes some Protection that only works against Energy (as happens with default Absorption) will, by the letter of the rules, be up against his PL at a point where he’s actually more vulnerable than his teammates (because he has less protection against a number of common attacks).
I don’t go into these two situations in detail because they’re even more vulnerable to player group and campaign structure issues than the other PL aberration problems, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be kept in mind. Just remember that people will generally play to their strengths, and away from their weaknesses.

“Virtual PL” Values

One of the things you’ll notice if you look over the archetypes in Instant Superheroes is that some of them aren’t up against their PL or otherwise aren’t using their abilities to their full capacity. This is why, in practice, even characters with otherwise questionable abilities among the archetypes are usually fairly balanced (look at the Summoner for an example of this). “Virtual PL” is an attempt to produce this effect by assigning an extra PL point or two on the offense or defense for various abilities in certain combinations. The sections below will address all the cases I can see where there’s a significant PL bypassing combat; for coherence I’ll break it into types of traits.
To be as clear as I can, when I’m talking about “PL points” I’m talking the equivalent of adding one or more to the pre-average total of one side or the other of the PL equation, not full PL points or even full points of defensive or offensive PL; for example if I refer to a power as adding “two virtual offensive PL”, I’m saying that instead of a character having a total of 20 between Attack and the potency of his highest offensive power, he should only have 18 between those two. In most cases I’ll refer to “virtual Attack” or “virtual Toughness” when I think the PL implications apply specifically to one part of the process for the convenience of GMs who might want to base their decisions off this article and either limit or discourage trade-offs.

A caution when looking at these things: be sure that all applicable virtual PL modifiers is actually applicable at once. This isn’t normally an issue with problem attack powers because their virtual PLs only apply to them, but it can be a problem when you have multiple powers that either overlap (Concealment and feint abilities both can leave a target subject to surprise attacks (and thus up the effective Attack value of the user) but doing both of them together usually doesn’t do anything one of them wouldn’t) or can’t be used at the same time (Bluff and Intimidate both do useful things, but they can’t be used together except by precluding an attack that round or surging); in those cases its usually best to just use the stronger of the two and ignore the lesser.

A note about Ultimate Powers: I’m assuming UP is in use in my discussion below; I’ll try to reference what something is about for those just using core, but I make no promises.
On the sub-entries below, there will be a general discussion of the PL problems with the trait, and then a listing of the other abilities one should watch for when these flagged traits are present; most of them will be flagged themselves.

A last, important note: A lot of this material turns on issues of game contract, local game culture, and player intentions; in some cases a player wants certain abilities but doesn’t plan to use them synergistically (and may not want, or be easily able, to make that not possible; they’re just aren’t going to do it). So don’t use these ideas completely blindly; if the player says they are never going to use their Concealment and their Autofire at the same time, take their word for it until they prove themselves wrong; just make it clear that as soon as they do, or at least show they’ll do so regularly, that they’ll have to make the adjustments. Similarly, look at how common certain compensation abilities are before assuming these will be as dangerous as I say; if you throw Sense Motive 10 on half your villains, Bluff and Intimidate aren’t going to have the impact I indicate.


Dexterity: Dexterity doesn’t have too much issues in terms of perturbing PL by itself (other than the effect on the Save issue I discuss farther down) but in combination with certain skills and feats, a particularly high Dexterity can be problematic.
Watch Traits: Stealth, Acrobatic Bluff, Grappling Finesse, Evasion.

Wisdom: Wisdom doesn’t have too much PL implications of itself, but it does contribute to a high Will save, which can be problematic as I discuss below.

Charisma: Charisma is not normally a PL problem; if anything, for routine characters it doesn’t even pay for itself. However, in high levels, it can create problems because of its contribution to interaction skills.
Watch Traits: Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, Set-Up, Startle, Taunt.

Saves; Technically saves are already factored into PL, but observation in the field has indicated in some cases the current limitations are not adequate to address their impact. This is only a problem when characters start to invest in large values in these areas: in the extreme case a character can have all his non-Toughness saves at PL +5; this will make the majority of non-damage effects ineffective, completely so when Hero Points are present. Observation of the archetypes and what works seems to suggest that most characters should average somewhere around PL -2 to at most PL in non-Toughness saves; as the totals begin to exceed that, they become progressively more problematic. Note this will reduce character below what a few of the archetypes have; as such some people prefer averaging at PL.
Unfortunately, this still requires some attention; in particular, its easy to have other character features that make some saves less important. This is uncommon for Fortitude, but its not hard to do with Reflex (a character with Immunity to Snares, an exotic accurate sense, Evasion 2, and Impervious Toughness could get by with a +0 Reflex save and mostly not care), and at least can be somewhat be done with Will (a Concealment character will end up avoiding a lot of Will save powers in many cases because they are usually Perception attacks).


A Note on Challenge Feats: Though not discussed below, those using Challenge Feats from the Mastermind’s Manual should factor those in when assessing to apply virtual PL values for most of the skills below, as they, in practice, make the potential issues much stronger.

Acrobatics: Acrobatics is only an issue when Acrobatic Bluff is also present; in those cases, high ranks of it, especially combined with a high Dexterity, can produce a character who can pretty reliably leave most opponents minus their dodge bonus; in extreme cases they can do this round after round, and even still attack the same round because even with the -5 penalty for doing so as a Move action and the accumulated repeated use penalty, few opponents will be able to resist (a character with a total of +25 in his Acrobatics will be making an opponent attempt to resist against a skill check with a +20 modifier with either his Sense Motive or Acrobatics; its going to be uncommon to find opponents with more than a +10 in either). I would recommend applying a +1 or +2 Virtual Attack on those at +15 or above total here; in the majority of cases they will likely be regularly removing anywhere from four up from opponent Defense each round unless their operating procedure forbids it or the GM uses high values on Sense Motive or Acrobatics regularly.
Watch Traits: Dexterity, Acrobatic Bluff.

Bluff: Bluff has the same issues as Acrobatic Bluff above, and also provides additional benefits; again, at modest ranks its fine, but as the ranks mount and outstrip the Bluff or Sense Motive values that can easily be had by routine opponents, it becomes more and more a potential PL trumping problem, and some adjustment seems warranted. See Acrobatic Bluff for suggestions, but also note Intimidate for those with Taunt.
Watch Traits: Attractive, Charisma, Set-Up, Taunt.

Diplomacy: This may seem an odd entry because Diplomacy isn’t usually a combat related skill, but if the GM is willing to allow the full-round Diplomacy check in a combat situation, very high ranks can potentially take opponents and convert them to fighting on your own side. This is only an issue very high ranks and Charisma, or perhaps the Attractive feat.
Watch Traits: Attractive, Charisma.

Intimidate: Intimidate suffers from some of the same issues as Bluff; in fact, in some ways its worse, as it impacts the target’s saves and provides its benefits to anyone attacking them instead of just the user. Targets can use a Will save against it, which helps a little against lower end values, but is unlikely to matter with high ranks and/or very high Charisma values. Its effect isn’t quite as severe as Bluff (being Shaken only takes two off the saves instead of the four or more off defense) but given its effect on the target’s Attack, and the fact all attackers can benefit as much from it as the Intimidator, I think the suggestion under Acrobatic Bluff is still fair here.
Watch Traits: Charisma, Startle.

Stealth: Stealth creates a different kind of problem than the rest of the skill entries. In its higher order forms, it operates much like Concealment.
(Aside: There is considerable disagreement about whether Stealth normally provides concealment against all senses, or only those that can reasonably be understood by the user and that there is something to work with locally; even the latter may be irrelevant in the case of Hide in Plain Sight. I’m rather conservative here and only assume that default normal humans can hide effectively from vision and hearing without specific other skills and preparation, and even there at a penalty; if your interpretation is more generous here, I would recommend looking at the discussion of Concealment when assessing how much penalty to apply).
As with Concealment, Stealth can effectively up both the offensive and defensive capability of a character; an attack by an undetected opponent denies the target his dodge bonus, and return attacks have a 50% of missing. I’d recommend looking at the entry for Concealment for some complicating, and sometimes mitigating issues here, but generally I’d recommend at least a +1 virtual Attack and Defense bonus for those with Stealth in the +15 or higher range; for those with Hide in Plain Sight and +15 Stealth and/or Stealth +25 or more, I’d recommend at least a +2 on both. This is probably being generous in most cases.
Watch Traits: All-Out Attack, Dexterity, Hide in Plain Sight, Power Attack.


Acrobatic Bluff: As noted above, Acrobatic Bluff is the only thing about Acrobatics that is problematic on a PL basis. It mostly is of a concern with high ranks of Acrobatics and/or a very high Dexterity. My suggested adjustments in that case are listed above.
Watch Traits: Dexterity, Acrobatics.

All-Out Attack: Unlike Power Attack, All-Out Attack does not show itself consistently a good idea based on battlefield conditions, and in fact, it only really shines in conjunction with Power Attack or Autofire, and a situation where no retribution is likely; the latter is what its hard to be sure of. As such, I don’t recommend changing PL simply because its present. However it should be a contributor to the decision whether to apply a PL penalty for Stealth or Concealment users.
Watch Traits: Concealment, Power Attack, Stealth, Insubstantial.

Distract: Distract is distinctly a problem. My own opinion is that when attached to a skill at more than modest levels, its simply overpowered. As an example, someone with a total Bluff of +20 and Distract can keep any target without a high Will save or similar Bluff or Sense Motive essentially Dazed for likely the course of an entire fight simply by repeatedly Distracting them. Within a normal range, its possible to do so even as a Move action (and thus attack or do it to two targets). At that level or above, this will even typically work on most master villain types, effectively neutralizing them. The -1 per repeated attempts may or may not even matter; in extreme cases (the character with maxed out values of +30) its unlikely to do so within the time it takes for one’s teammates to pound the opponent flat.
I don’t really think any PL adjustment is adequate to address this problem in most cases; locally we house-ruled Distract to only work once per target per fight, and even with that these builds are still a bit problematic.
Watch Traits: Acrobatics, Acrobatic Bluff, Bluff, Charisma, Dexterity, Intimidate.

Evasion: While there are questions as to the balance of Evasion and Evasion 2, they don’t routinely impact PL particularly noticeably; primarily they are listed because they enhance certain other problem powers, and should thus be watched for when assessing the decision to add virtual PL to other powers. For example, Evasion reduces one of the usual weaknesses of minions, so minions with it are much more powerful than those without; similarly, there are synergies with powers like Concealment and otherwise mostly innocuous Extras like Impervious.
Watch Traits: Dexterity, Impervious, Minions, Summon Minion, Stealth.

Grappling Finesse: Grappling Finesse does two things, one relatively innocuous by itself, the other significant. The first is that it allows the grappler to use his Dexterity instead of Strength to grapple. At worst, this puts a non-Strength based grappler on even footing with a Strength based one; you can have a higher Dexterity than Strength, but since Super-Strength factors into Grapple, the difference is usually negligible.
The more important difference, however, and the one that warrants consideration on PL terms, is that it allows the user to maintain his full Defense while grappling. In combination with other Grappling feats, particularly Improved Grab, and with a high Grapple value (because of Strength, Dexterity and/or size), this will create a character far more effective against the majority of opponents (those that can be grappled) than PL will indicate. In cases where these features start to congregate on a character, a virtual PL addition on offense of anywhere from 1 to 4 (in extreme cases) seems warranted.
Note that in some cases, Grappling Finesse is taken for the simple reason to minimize the negative effects of being grappled; this is mostly harmless, though if it propagates too much through a group, it may indicate there are problems.
Watch Traits: Aura, Dexterity, Improved Grab, Improved Grapple, Growth, Strength

Hide in Plain Sight: HIPS allows a character to use Stealth without cover. With a high Stealth value, HIPS begins to be almost indistinguishable from low-end Concealment, other than the fact the user will likely be briefly fully visible right after attacking with non-Subtle attacks. As such, a character with a very high Stealth and HIPS should almost certainly be treated as suggested under Concealment for the lower-end versions.
Watch Traits: All-Out Attack, Dexterity, Power Attack, Stealth.

Improved Critical: Improved Critical progressively permits the attacker to expect more damage against the majority of opponents in most campaigns. Its not quite as good as regular damage in that it won’t affect constructs, other objects, or characters with Immunity to Critical Hits.
Very roughly, Improved Critical adds about an expected point of damage per two ranks of it purchased; that’s because only those attacks that hit are actually relevant to the increase in average damage. I would suggest charging one Effect PL point per 3-4 ranks Improved Critical (depending on how significant the limitations of the damage are in the campaign; for most campaigns I’d suggest 3, for campaigns with a lot of constructs as opponents or where PC need to break through barriers frequently, 4 might be more appropriate).
Usually characters run into diminishing returns after about eight or so ranks of Improved Critical, and I’d therefore not charge more than a maximum of 2-3 virtual Effect for this. However, a character set up to surprise strike frequently can likely get value out of as much as twelve ranks (as his to-hit number may be abnormally high abnormally often) as will characters heavily attack shifted. In those cases I might allow the charge to increase another one or two depending on various factors.
Watch Traits: Acrobatic Bluff, Attack, Bluff, Startle.

Improved Grab: Likely the single biggest indicator that a character is planning to use grapple frequently–and get more out of it than he normally would–is Improved Grab. It essentially operates a quite cheap way to optionally link a Grapple with a strike, permitting a character to do normal damage with the strike and begin a grapple within a standard action and one attack roll. There has been some controversy as to whether the damage option can be conducted with this grapple in the first round, but in the end that’s almost irrelevant; the ability to do damage and set up your target for other attackers with a pin is, if anything, more severe.
Unless the character is otherwise not set up to get the most out of grapple, its almost certainly desirable to penalize their effective offensive PL for being able to use this feat; it most likely will get used fairly frequently to strong effect. Assuming a good grapple value (+20 or more will make it unlikely most characters can resist the grapple attempt, and is, if anything, rather low for many Paragons, Powerhouses or telekinetics) I would suggest supplying at least +1 virtual offensive PL for the presence of this feat; if Grappling Finesse, Improved Grab or both are present, +2 or more is easily defensible.
Watch Traits: Dexterity, Grappling Finesse, Growth, Improved Grapple, Strength.

Improved Grapple: Improved Grapple allows a grappler to maintain one grapple while being able to strike or start others. A literalist reading of the feat would suggest you can only keep a pin while doing other things, but as I note above, that’s quite bad enough against most opponents. See the note under Improved Grab for my suggestions here.
Watch Traits: Aura, Dexterity, Grappling Finesse, Growth, Improved Grab, Strength.

Luck: Luck is an odd case. It does not directly affect PL functions, but in large amounts its use for Improve Roll or Defense can produce profound swings at both end. In addition, when purchased by those with Luck Control, it can, for short periods, buy the user the ability to make it immensely more likely a target goes down. Bought at or near maximum for PL, I’d at least consider strongly charging 1 to 2 virtual defensive PL; with Luck Control I’d consider charging one on the offensive end, too.
Watch Traits: Luck Control

Master Plan: This is another feat that has some implications to PL that are hard to assess. If allowed to apply to generally, it is a pretty painless way to essentially hand off bonuses to your teammates at no cost to himself except a single feat point; on its simplest level, if the GM is not careful about it, Master Plan is simply a way for a character with high Intelligence to to add a bunch of bonuses to his teammates for for as many as five rounds simply by making an Intelligence roll that takes up no in-game time. Its probably better handled by being a little fussy about how much information is necessary to make a plan than to apply a penalty, but if that isn’t enough of a solution, some sort of virtual PL penalty may be better than letting it be entirely a freebie, even if it is in-genre for certain characters.

Minions: Minions are a very complex case. It is incredibly easy for minions to up the effective power of the character possessing them quite noticeably. Even in basic form, the ability of minions to perform assists to increase the attack value of melee attackers can easily turn into each minion translating into a +2 value each round, and the only limit is how many can get close enough to the target to assist (this is even easier if one permits assist to work with and on ranged attacks). The usual limiting factor on minions is that they’re very ephemeral; a minion will be taken down by a damaging attack equal to its Toughness 70% of the time, they are automatically taken down by a crit from a non-minion, non-minions can Take 10 on attacking them, and they’re particularly vulnerable to Takedown Attack. As such, many minions can probably be disregarded in PL calculation because they won’t be in operation long enough to significantly impact it routinely. In addition, minions bought with the Minions feat have to arrive at the scene and get into useful positions somehow, which can be tricky (this can be particularly an issue with large numbers of them).
That said, there are a number of features that can change this quickly; for example, full PL minions with ranged attacks are on the whole, much more problematic than they otherwise would be, because it is much harder to use most of the methods (area attacks, Takedown Attack) that can usually delete them en masse. Similarly, minions with certain abilities that are sometimes problematic on a full character are much more strongly affected; a set of minions with high Reflex saves and Evasion, or high values of Impervious and Evasion 2 have eliminated one of their single largest vulnerabilities (area damage) by doing so. At the other end, minions with Perception range attacks can potentially swarm fire a villain or hero in a way that would otherwise be next to impossible.
It is very hard to come up with a generic PL adjustment for minions because of these issues; I would, however recommend that an examination of the Watch Traits I list below be examined carefully when present on minions, and if a significant number of them start being present, require the minions to be at least 1 PL down from the campaign, and as much as half of PL in some cases (its hard to overstate just how dramatic an effect they can have if they can be deployed and not immediately taken down). In some cases it may be better to apply this as virtual PL to both ends of the character, if the real function of the minions is to set-up the effectiveness of the main character (minions who aren’t very effective themselves but assist the main character or otherwise reduce the effectiveness of opponents). This is over and above the issue that a GM may want to limit the number that can be brought to the scene in any case, simply on issues of smooth game running.
Note: In particular, I would recommend never permitting minions to have Distract, even at basic levels; this combination can literally shut down a whole encounter, and as the skill value associated with the Distract increases, the likelihood of this increases dramatically.
Watch Traits: Evasion, Reflex save, Concealment, Perception powers, movement powers, Set-Up, Teamwork; in general any other PL trumping Extra, feat or effect is worth watching for on minions too.

Power Attack: Power Attack, while the most attractive of the four trade-off feats, probably too much so (its not a coincidence that after putting it in Blue Rose, Steve Kenson did not carry it over to True20), is probably not a PL trumper by itself; however, it can develop some particularly hideous synergies with any other traits that tend to rip the Dodge bonus off a target, and such combinations should almost certainly receive a higher offensive virtual PL than they otherwise would.
Watch Traits: Acrobatic Bluff, Bluff, Concealment, Startle, Stealth.

Second Chance: Individual examples of Second Chance, like individual low end Immunities, are sufficiently random in their occurrence that they can probably be disregarded in regard to PL. However, if you permit a character to buy several Second Chance feats in regard to damage of different Descriptors, at some point it almost certainly should up their effective Toughness PL. Its hard to give a hard-and-fast rule on this, because the breadth of descriptors permitted here is fairly subjective.
Watch Traits: Second Chance.

Set-Up: Set-Up is not, by itself, a problem; however, it takes a number of other skills and feats and increases their power significantly. As such it should probably be monitored in cases where you’re already thinking of adding a virtual PL to offense because of them; in most cases where I was going to do so, I’d add one more if Set-Up was also present.
Watch Traits: Acrobatic Bluff, Bluff, Dexterity, Charisma, Intimidate, Startle, Taunt.

Sidekick: Sidekicks have much of the same issues as Minions, with one stark difference: they are not minions. This makes them immensely more dangerous in practice. Full PL sidekicks should almost certainly not be permitted; at the least they should be a couple of PL behind, or both they and their main character should be considered to have a virtual PL on both Offense and Defense of one. In the latter case, I’d also watch any increase in numbers carefully.
While some of the deployment issues remain, sidekicks are traditionally about as mobile as their “owner”, so its probably not a big issue; other than that the only thing that limits them is their lack of their own Hero Points. As such you should probably eye any sidekick with Luck with extreme prejudice.
Unlike Minions, Sidekicks are generally superior to their summoned equivalents, as they will keep operating even when the main character goes down or is stunned.
Watch Traits: This whole list should be watched for on a Sidekick. In particular watch for traits that will work synergistically with the main character.

Startle: Startle pretty much turns Intimidate into Bluff when used, and should be watched for accordingly; to the best of my knowledge, there’s nothing that stops someone with a full action from using a regular Intimidate as a standard action and a Startle with as a move action with a -5 penalty. Apply penalties to offensive PL accordingly.
Watch Traits: Charisma, Intimidate.

Taunt: As Startle does with Intimidate, Taunt does with Bluff, and thus has the same issues in reverse.
Watch Traits: Bluff, Charisma.

Teamwork: Teamwork is not an intrinsically bad thing; it ups the effectiveness of characters working in unison, and that’s probably a virtue. That said, at high ranks you can start wondering whether or not its adding a bit much even for a sacrifice of an action. That said, probably a PC is trading off enough not for it to get out of control, but it may be a different story with minions, and as such it is a strong watch trait on such other abilities.
Watch Trait: Minions, Sidekick, Summon Minions.
Last edited by Paragon on Fri May 14, 2010 10:04 am, edited 4 times in total.
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Cosmic Entity
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The Limits of PL (Continued)

Post by Paragon » Sun Dec 07, 2008 1:22 am

The Limits of PL (Continued)


A note about the term Effect: This is a distinction made in Ultimate Power; an Effect is the basic element powers are constructed from; some forms are used essentially as-is (the Damage effect is essentially identical to the Strike power in core for example), and many core powers are used as the Effect base (Snare for example). I use these as the basis, as there are few “powers” that are problematic as such; its usually their core Effects and/or the Extras and such used on them that create problems. Unfortunately, to confuse the issue, its also the best term I can use for the set of attack powers that includes, but is not limited to damage effects. I apologize for the confusion, but I don’t know what else to refer to the set as a group.

A note about attack powers/effects and virtual PL: most virtual PL modifiers apply somewhat across the board to the category of PL contributor they contribute to; attack powers are only overly strong (or overly weak) when viewed as themselves. As such, when I’m referring to a virtual PL hit for such things, I’m only talking about that particular attack; there’s no need to modify the fire controller’s penetrating Blast just because he has a pyrokinetic Perception Blast; just apply the virtual PL to the pyrokinesis.

Concealment: This gets into one of the issues that complicates this whole process enormously; how much Concealment impacts effective PL is very dependent on local game culture in how GMs and players design their characters. On its basic level, the effect of Concealment (and to some extent Stealth) is very striking. On offense, most of the time when it works at all, a Concealed character will be making a surprise attack; with the additional +2, this likely means anywhere from a five to as much as a ten point bonus to the effective to-hit of the Concealed character. On the defensive end, even if the proper square can be located (not a given depending on other features of the user) there is a fifty percent chance of missing, barring melee attackers with Blind-Fighting.
Now, the complicating issue, is, of course, that depending on the rank of Concealment and the senses of the target, it can be completely ineffective. This is why one of the first things the GM has to do is to look at how common exotic supersenses are among the PCs (when assessing villains) or among his villain designs (when assessing PCs).
Based on the usual principal that it isn’t desirable to make the power completely pointless to take (though Concealment has non-combat applications not to be underestimated), the most extreme cases should probably include a +5 virtual Defense and Attack PL. This likely should only be applied at full value for a character with 10 ranks of Concealment. My own recommendation would be to peel off one per each two ranks less of Concealment possessed. That said, you really need to look at the Concealment involved; Concealment that does not effect the visual group seriously loses a big part of its benefit, enough I’m not entirely sure it warrants a PL hit at all; at the most I’d take off one from each end there (though note its possible to be coy here; someone with Concealment to radio, sound and mental, but who has a visual Obscure is probably not going to be hurting on being hit much.)
Note also that Concealment ups the strength of other problematic powers, sometimes quite seriously; there is a significant difference between a Concealed character who only has Perception attacks and one who has regular attacks with either Power Attack or Autofire, for example.
Just to repeat myself, be very cautious looking at the design tendencies of the players/GM and the specifics of Concealment; the difference in the effect of a character with 10 ranks of unflawed Concealment in a campaign where tactile accurate senses are very rare and someone with1 rank of Concealment (normal vision) with the Passive flaw in a campaign where other supersenses are common, including infrared goggles on agents, is vast.
Watch Traits: Autofire, Insubstantial, Power Attack, Subtle, Teleport.

Create Object: Create Object does not normally have a huge impact on PL. However, there is one use for it that can be very problematic in this area, especially with certain accompanying powers. This is when the power is taken as a “force bubble” style defense. Normally this precludes attacking while the bubble is up, but there are a number of dodges around this, including the Selective feat, Indirect on attack powers, Perception powers, and probably others I haven’t thought of. Created Objects don’t directly add to Toughness, but they can in many cases be better, since an Object has to fail a Toughness save by 10 to even have a hole poked in it. This means that an object with a Toughness equal to the attack will only fail enough to allow the attacker to damage those on the other side approximately 25% of the time when fresh. Of course there are issues that as they accumulate injuries, the creator will occasionally need to refresh them, but unless he’s attracting an untoward amount of fire or is protecting others with it too, so attacks directed at them are also hitting it, he shouldn’t need to do so with excessive frequency. For Selective, Tethered Create Objects that can be used with attacks (i.e. are not part of arrays), I would apply at least half the rank of the Create Object as a Virtual Toughness value; the only reason to not apply more is that Indirect and Perception attacks are generally a two-way street, and powers like Insubstantial and Teleport can bypass them most of the time. This should probably be downgraded for Objects which are less convenient; ones unlikely to be attacked from at all can probably be ignored.
Watch Traits: Indirect, Perception attacks, Selective, Tether.

Growth: In theory, Growth is a potential PL breaker because the official take is that its effects are “situational” modifiers, and as such don’t interact with PL at all. In practice, this is only an issue part of the way up. That’s because the defense bonus from Con–and therefore Toughness–fall behind with the Defense Penalty at Gargantuan, and the ones for Strength–and therefore Damage–break-even with the Attack penalties at Colossal. As such, somewhere around rank 14 or so, Growth starts being a PL loser, if anything. Below that, however, its largely a winning way (hitting its strongest point at about 8 ranks most likely). This is even more pronounced if the users is going to use Grapple at all.
Personally, my recommendation is simply not to ignore the modified values when calculating PL. This also sets a precedent with the far more alarming case of Shrinking below.
Watch Traits: Improved Grab, Improved Grapple.

Healing: Healing has straightforward problems because it, in practice, amplifies target’s ability to shrug off damage. Under core this can be particularly problematic because the target doesn’t have to do anything to get the benefit, so a healer can potentially spotweld friends throughout the fight. With the changes in UP, this is somewhat less problematic, as it takes the target time to heal too, time most characters can’t or won’t take out during a fight, and targets other than the power user do not get the benefit of reduction in action time here.
However, even in UP, by the book its easy to get all too much value out of a fast, small Heal, especially for characters with a high Constitution modifier, since the Heal rank adds that modifier when checking for recovery. The extreme case is a character with a 26 or higher Constitution, and 1 rank of Healing, who will automatically recover from his worst condition each time the power is triggered; with a reaction Heal triggered by damage (such as is the case with the Healing variant of Absorption), this can easily peel off most damage as fast as its done. With the Total extra applied, it may well even remove part or all of any particularly bad saves done now, or in the past.
Even without the above exploit (because you have, say, based the effect only on the Healing rank), good self-Heal is very problematic; it can make the character start to approach Immunity to all damage but the Stun component (and makes that somewhat less likely as it will consistently peel off the bruises and injuries that lead to it). Its hard to assess what exactly this is worth, but I think I’d count at least 2-3 virtual Toughness for regular self-Heal at the automatic level, and at least five for versions with the Total extra on it.
Watch Traits: Constitution, Toughness.

Immunity: Immunity is going to be another troublesome power to assess a PL hit for; in its common, minor forms its fairly harmless, easily worked around and only occasionally providing any significant benefit. On the other hand, the 80 point Immunity to all Toughness saves is virtually tantamount to an infinite Toughness, and even though it can be worked around (with non-Toughness effects) is going to have a very profound effect on the defensive potency of the possessor.
It is very hard to evaluate how to rate this sort of extreme Immunity in PL terms; if it actually came up, I would probably treat it as though the character had a Toughness of PL +5 for calculating PL, but that isn’t and can’t be anything but a very rough approximation. Fortunately, its unlike to happen at anything but moderately high PL, or at least point total games.
Much more possible, however, is more narrow versions, versions with the Limited flaw (causing them to only cut the attack in half) or both. These are probably doable with different degrees of pain as early as PL 10 (or even earlier with something like Limited Immunity to Lethal Physical Attacks–that 10 points could probably be shoehorned into a PL 8 character and in many gritty campaigns would likely serve him very well). My basic suggestion would be to treat full blown Limited Immunity to all Toughness saves as half the PL in virtual Toughness, and then downgrade as the Immunity gets narrower (though you need to look at the campaign and be cautious here; Limited Immunity to all Physical Toughness even though it costs the same as Limited Immunity to all Energy Toughness, will likely have far more impact in most campaigns because of the reality of conventional firearms and things like falling and knockback damage)
Note: While I primarily talk about Toughness here, an eye should be given to other sorts of Immunity, too. If using my suggestions about non-Toughness saves up above there, letting someone trade down their Will to get a higher Fortitude and Reflex while still buying Immunity to Mental Attacks is rather missing the point.

Insubstantial: Another power that can vary as to how problematic it is to deal with based on game culture. Anyone can effect an Insubstantial target to some degree with a power stunt (well, anyone who can rationalize one, but that’s a wide range of characters) but by the book it only lasts one round. How common the power feat is as a permanently purchased trait varies from group to group. In any case the bottom rank is fairly harmless (it only effects snares and grapples really), but the other ranks become progressively more effective. Given Insubstantial 4 makes one, in practice, immune to all non-Affects Insubstantial attacks that aren’t sensory/mental, a fairly substantial defensive PL hit seems warranted for that one if the character can attack out of it. (Note this last; without this its far less significant, being more like a combination transport/sensory power). I would suggest a good solid four Toughness PL hit if ways to hit the target are rare in the campaign. Insubstantial 3 probably should take at least a two PL defensive hit, and Insubstantial 2 should take at least one (any energy attacker can sidestep it, but it still excludes harm from a lot of attackers).
Watch Traits: Affect Corporeal

Luck Control: This is another tricky one. All Hero Point usage to some extent trumps PL; but that is largely an issue that if (though this is a big “if”) Hero Point/GM Fiat is kept in balance and under control comes out in the wash. Luck Control, on the other hand, provides some opportunities to do things you ordinarily can’t do. In particular, the last two of the four options provided in UP (cancel a hero point or fiat, or force a reroll taking the lower of the two) can make some pretty dramatic difference; I’d suggest the former is the stronger since it allows the player to take advantage of the inevitable bad rolls that come up with a roll as big and linear as a D20 roll.
What makes it tricky is that it turns so much on the player’s supply of Hero Points; while its nice to be able to put it to the bad guy when he’s had a bad roll and the GM is about to fix it, you have to makes sure you have a hero point to do it with, and you may be cautious about doing so, or using them up earlier. This is why I suggest being particularly cautious of Luck Control users with ranks of Luck, either as a regular or power feat; at moderate to high levels I’d likely charge 1 to 2 virtual PL on both offensive and defensive ends, as I’d be astonished if the character didn’t both outlast other comparable characters and end up being instrumental in opponents going down who otherwise would last much longer.
Watch Traits: Luck

Move Object: Move Object (the base effect of Telekinesis for those of you only using core) is currently not PL capped at all. This primarily turns into a problem because of its capacity for grappling. There’s no tidy way around this, because to permit the higher weight limits that aren’t out of keeping with some users of Move Object effects, the grapple is just going to be an issue. I’d strongly suggest considering capping Move Object routinely at PL +5, but honestly, it can be problematic even at that level, simply because so few opponents have a significant chance to resist it even by then (other than characters like the Paragon, Powerhouse or Battlesuit archetypes, very few character can generate a decent grapple value; this becomes even more true in the field, I expect, as many primarily ranged attackers probably don’t buy their whole attack value with raw Attack, but add in some amount of Attack Focus and/or Attack Specialization). In many respects Move Object is worse than Strength and Super-Strength, as it doesn’t impair the attacker’s defense. In particular, Perception Move Object (often used for psychokinesis) is ugly, as it is a perfect way to neutralize most Defense shifted characters in a way that most of them can do almost nothing about. Area is also problematic, though a bit less so by itself (simply because Defense shifted characters are the most likely to have high Reflex saves and/or Evasion).
Watch Traits: Area, Perception.

Obscure: Obscure can run into some of the same issues as Concealment. It can easily reach areas large enough to encompass an entire battlefield, and there is no save. The usual limiting factor is that it harms friend and foe equally, and as such in its vanilla forms is somewhat self-limiting. However, in some cases this isn’t as much of an issue; someone who, for example, carries Obscures with them (simply by repositioning it as they go, or by no range effects or the equivalent of Tether or the like to drag it around them) and has personal immunity can keep it small enough to bother only those near to them, while still reaping most of the benefits; bought as Shapeable (rather than the normal Burst style area) or with Selective Attack, its even worse. In fact, the latter should probably apply a penalty larger than the one for Concealment to the user, as it will benefit not only him, but his friends.
Watch Traits: Selective Attack, Shapeable, Tether.

Regeneration: Regeneration runs into pretty much the same issues as Self-Only Reaction Heals. The slower ones are pretty much a non-issue in most games; but even the one round versions can be problematic, and the no-time ones can be counted on to constantly peel off the accumulated bruises and/or injuries are a good bit of what makes characters go down in M&M games. I would recommend strongly to add a virtual Toughness or two for those who regenerate both injuries and bruises in no time; certainly make it two if they can recover Staggered in one round or less. Disabled and most of the others can be ignored, and a judgement call will be needed in the interim cases (injured only in no-time for example, or bruises and injuries but only with one round (few people will take out the time unless they have nothing better to do, or have simply built up a massive number, in which case its too late).
There is one case that is sufficiently problematic I simply suggest not permitting it at all: Recovery from Unconsciousness. At a single point for the full round, this is sufficiently attractive for many people that you could well end up with characters who never stay down short of exotic methods. Villains who buy this will almost certainly not make the GM at all popular, and may well bring out the more bloodthirsty tendencies of players as they get tired of dealing with it.
Watch Traits: Constitution.

Shrinking: Shrinking isn’t a PL problem in general (though I think it is a cost problem, especially at higher ranks) but if the rule of treating it as a “situational” modifier is in use, it is a massive PL breaking exploit. Even with the UP treatment, and assuming the optional rule for range mod effects from Shrinking, its relatively painless for a ranged attacker to trade-off five basic defense for Toughness, buy Shrinking 20, and shrink down to where he loses that extra 5 Toughness but gains 12 to his attack and defense while not losing any of the potency of his attack (he might need to use it at short range but even with the movement modifier, this is far from expensive to do).
As I commented on Growth, its probably best just not to treat them as non-PL capped; it still leaves Shrinking as an incredibly good deal, but at least it doesn’t completely upend the PL system.
As a minor note, note that Shrinking also enhances Stealth, and official statements have indicated that power based skill bonuses are not PL capped.
One issue that does need to be remembered when assessing the overall build of a Shrinking user is that at 12 or more ranks (Diminutive or smaller) is that they’ll potentially be dealing with an area effect for every attack that misses by the size modifiers; of course that may well be rendered moot by high Reflex and Evasion, not uncommon abilities for shrinkers).
Watch Traits: Hide in Plain Sight, Move-By Action, Stealth.

Summon (Minion): Most of what needs to be said about Summon (Minion) (and its kin Duplication and Animate Objects) is discussed above under the Minions feat. Summon has the advantage that its easier to deploy such minions than it is with the feat, but the same general risks apply. The Instant Superheroes Spirit Caller has heroic summons that are two PL downgraded from his own, and most of them don’t punch any of the warning flags buttons too hard (the shadows and undead ninja are a bit marginal) but there’s five of them; the Duplicator has a very large number of non-heroic minions with warning flag abilities (Set-Up, Teamwork 3), but both the Duplicator and the duplicates are effectively only PL 8.
Watch Traits: See Minions Feat above.

Super Strength: Super Strength is largely an issue because of Grapple. For a character who plans to do any grappling at all, its probably a bad idea to allow the sum of their Strength and Super-Strength bonus to exceed PL +5 (barring tradeoffs). This can create problems when someone wants Super-Strength primarily for lift, but as I realized recently in a discussion with Elric, its easy enough to build an array with Enhanced Strength and Super-Strength in it which pushes up the Super-Strength at the cost of Enhanced Strength when its being used primarily to lift. In some cases this rule can be relaxed, but the more of the Watch Traits are present, the less I’d be willing to do this, as even with the above rule its very hard for most characters to have any significant chance to resist grapples; without it, its entirely possible even other bricks and the like may not be able to.
Watch Traits: Grappling Finesse, Improved Grab, Improved Grapple.


Accurate: Accurate isn’t a PL violation by itself (though I think its a bit of an exploit since it allows the character to trade off its value for other things in an array when accuracy isn’t needed) but its an important Watch Trait when present in arrays that have powers that are PL questionable when in conjunction with other options. This is because it allows someone to gain considerable flexibility in terms of hunting for the attacks that work best on a given target, something that comes up with Perception attacks and some others.
Watch Traits: Perception, Area.

Homing: There’s been considerable back-and-forth on this in the ORQ over time, and at the moment I’m not entirely sure what the last take on how this works is. However, at the very least it allows you to fire at a target, and if you miss, try again next round while turning your attention to a different target. Its obviously not as strong as Linked in this regard, but it still has a significant increase in damage-to-target, with some limitations on how it can be applied. I’d seriously consider at least 1 virtual Attack here; it may be a good idea to apply 2 if the target has a low Attack and has 2-3 ranks (where they’ll likely get the most out of it)

Indirect: Indirect is at best a mild benefit by itself, but see the entry under Create Object above for a place where it provides a strong benefit.
Watch Traits: Create Object

Slow Fade: Slow Fade is, I think, problematic as a feat in a number of areas, but its only PL implications involved Drain (and Transfer); it largely eliminates the single weakness that prevents Drain from being overpowered compared to other attack powers. In particular, it can take core book Drain (which is not staged) and turn it into a one or two hit take-out power to which there is no recovering. In fact, with Slow Fade it can well be harder to come back from than such things as Continuous Transforms in any tactically useful way.
In the case of disabling Drains (such as Drain Intelligence) bought with Slow Fade, I’d strongly consider applying +1 or +2 virtual Effect.
Watch Traits: Drain, Transfer.

Subtle: Subtle is another power feat that is mostly harmless in and of itself but can supercharge certain other operating procedures when applied to attack powers, specifically Concealment and Stealth.
Watch Traits: Concealment, Stealth.


Action: The Action extra can have all kinds of game impact issues that need to be watched, but its particularly problematic on attack powers. This is because it potentially provides the ability to permit multiple attack rolls–and force multiple damage saves–which is something the system otherwise avoids strongly for good reason. I would strongly encourage at least 1 virtual Effect to be applied to attack powers bought as a Move action, and probably two.
Free Action and Reaction Attack powers are potentially such a big can of worms, I don’t know that I’d permit them at all; if you do, I’d suggest limiting how frequently they can be used (a virtual necessity with Free Action ones, since they otherwise can, effectively, be used as frequently as the player wants, every round) and then add at least 1 extra virtual Effect on them.
One non-Attack effect that can create serious problems with Free and Reaction adjustments is Healing; I’d suggest looking at the entry for it if the question comes up.
Watch Traits: Attack powers, Healing.

Affects Corporeal: Affects Corporeal relevant because it makes Insubstantial 4 (the strongest of the three PL impacting levels of Insubstantial) significantly more powerful. As such it should influence how much of a hit one applies to the Defense end of PL for the presence of that effect.
Watch Traits: Insubstantial 4

Alternate Save: Primarily an issue only when talking about damage, Alternate Save is another tricky one to evaluate, as it again partly turns on game culture. In a game where only the core book limitations on exotic save values are in use, and where players routinely buy up their exotic saves, its almost completely harmless. It allows a bit of save shopping, but that’s about it. However, in a game where save patterns follow those of the archetypes, not only is that save shopping possible, but its more effective because it will almost always target against a lower value than Toughness, possibly a considerably lower value. To some extent already present exotic save powers will also do this (such as Stun or Paralyze), but most such powers have at least two downsides; they’re relatively ephemeral in their effects, and they accumulate (if at all) only with themselves; they’re useful because their short term effects are usually stronger than that from damage, but they don’t really put people down. Alternate Save Damage effects, on the other hand, can be considerably stronger in practice; Alternate Save (Will) will normally be much more effective against Paragons and Powerhouses, while Alternate Save (Fortitude) will be significantly stronger against Powersuits and Energy Controllers. As such, 1 virtual Effect is not unwarranted here. Note also that Alternate Save interacts in a complex way with other Extras including Perception and Area.
Watch Traits: Area, Autofire, Damage, Perception.

Area: My observation has been that on the whole, areas are not significantly greater in their overall effectiveness except against minions (where they should be) to warrant PL adjustment. There are a fair number of exceptions to this, however. Most of these involve ease of applicability, effectiveness, or both.
Area Type: Not all areas are created equal in their effectiveness. Bursts, Clouds and Explosions can all be hard to apply without effecting your teammates, bystanders and the terrain in ways that are to various degrees undesirable depending on the power involved and whether the user is a hero or villain. Cones, Lines and Trails can be more useful, at the price of some limitations on applicability, with Cone probably being the overall best of the lot. The problem child is Shapeable; in its basic form, with around 10 tiles applicable, its lost enough of its capacity to probably be tolerable, but even one rank of progression will push that up to 25 tiles, and it just goes up from there. By the time two or more ranks of progression is applied, its quite likely the user can apply the power usefully every round without hitting targets he doesn’t want to; at that point I’d charge at least one rank of virtual Effect for the power, perhaps hitting two ranks as the size increased.
Targeting: Ultimate Power introduces the idea of general versus targeted areas. There is reason to have concern about Targeted Areas. Normal targeted areas are usually something of a crapshoot; its not any harder to miss a lot of targets than to hit a lot of them. However, when you do hit a lot of them, unlike regular areas, there’s little flattening effect from the multiple Reflex saves that occur; and Evasion has no effect (though many characters with Evasion will also have a high Defense, making it harder to hit). As such even one Targeted Area can have a pretty profound impact on an encounter if the attacker is lucky. Worse, he can make his own luck; since a targeted area makes an attack roll, Improve Roll can help it.
I’m a bit on the fence with targeted areas, but I think its possible its benefits have come to outweigh its downsides. In the case of Targeted Perception Areas (see below), I’m sure of it.
Perception: Perception areas have all the problems associated with Perception attacks, magnified significantly because they’re areas. The only thing that helps against a normal Perception area is concealment of some sort; other than that, the targets just have to deal with the effect. With the more easily applicable areas this can be used round after round, with little downside. I’d recommend applying at least two virtual Effect to any Perception Area. Targeted Perception Areas are worse; instead of concealment, they’re blocked by cover, and only total cover at that. Given the mobility of M&M characters, this can be almost impossible to produce on demand, except for certain specific builds utilizing Create Object. I suspect at least a three virtual Effect is warranted in that case.
Selective Attack: This extra horrifically increases the utility of almost any area effect; to the point that there’s often very little reason for a character with Selective Attack to ever use anything else, but simply selectively nuke the neighborhood, round after round. Besides being boring, with a decent sized area, this can end up cleaning up the combat in astoundingly short order, unless it is a normal attack and multiple targets have Evasion 2. Combined with some of the above options, its simply obnoxiously overpowered, in a non-specific target sort of way. As an example, consider an attacker with a Selective Perception Burst attack and an exotic sense that (because of Penetrates Concealment or its nature) disregards barriers and most stealth and the like; the character can simply force anyone within the radius of the burst to save against its effect, round after round, and the problem can only be minimized if there’s no need for anyone to get within the radius of the effect from any other target. I would suggest Selective areas take a minimum of a 2 virtual Effect hit in addition to anything else they get (and yes, this means a Selective Targeted Perception area would take a five virtual Effect hit; I can’t imagine too many things in the rules more problematic to regularly deal with).
Watch Traits: Perception, Progression, Selective Attack, Shapeable, Targeted Area.

Aura: Auras are a bit complicated because there is a significant difference between how core and UP treat damaging auras; UP damaging auras are relatively harmless, since they can’t do any more damage than PL and any strike used with them total; the only benefit they get is the retributive strike effect, and the fact they permit someone to grapple and do damage at the same time. Core damage, or either versions non-damaging auras, on the other hand, are similar to Linked in they allow someone to force two saves with one attack. Either of these cases should at least translate into a couple of levels of virtual Effect PL, and I’d consider applying one even with the UP damaging auras with targets set up to grapple efficiently.
Watch Traits: Grapple feats.

Autofire: Autofire is another Extra that simply makes the attack is applied to better than the rank of the attack would imply. There’s normally no special limitations on applying it, and barring a pretty much ad-hoc GM limitation based on firing it into crowds, there’s little reason not to use it all the time (and even with that limitation there are plenty of situations where there’s no more risk than there would be using a form of the attack without autofire). Overall, basic autofire averages increased the expected damage delivered to the target from about 5.5 to 6.75 (not accounting for critical hits), which doesn’t look too impressive; however when looking at just attacks that hit, the increase is from 10 (again, all things being equal and not accounting for crits) to about 12 and three quarters. In addition, the variance is much higher, since a typical rank 10 attack gusts up to 15 (and will actually be worse in the extreme case because it normally comes up on a 20, which will also crit). I haven’t been motivated to try and do the numbers with level two and three autofires, but at least the version that decreases the increment for damage will make this more severe, and the combined version will make it much more severe. In general, and attack with Autofire on it should probably be treated as though it were one more rank of Effect per level of autofire present. There’s a caveat on this, though; because Autofire caps off at either half/full rank of the power or +5/+10, whichever is lower, rank 10 is really the sweet spot for autofire; above 10, while the effect is still strong the cost efficiency starts to decrease (because you’re paying for the autofire on ranks of the power that won’t actually increase the maximum), and below 10 the benefit starts to decrease (because the maximum damage increase goes down). In addition, characters traded for damage/effect tend to get less and less out of it because they’re unlikely to get rolls much above the minimum, and the maximum they can get is lower.
Watch Traits: Improved Critical.

Effortless: For those not familiar with this extra, it is an addition from Ultimate Power designed to work in conjunction with the way most Sustained (Lasting) powers and a few others such as Healing have been changed in that book. Simply put, as of UP, most such powers cannot be repeatedly attempted on a target that has successfully saved against them once in a combat except by use of Extra Effort. Effortless allows them to do so without using Extra Effort. Since one of the points in this change was to reduce the sometimes excessive efficiency of trying these powers again and again until they work, Effortless makes them rather more powerful than their PL would suggest, and I’d suggest treating such powers as having a level of virtual Effect on them.

Independent: Independent is one of those virtual necessities for some effects modifiers that if not watched is grotesque in its effect. For those not familiar with this UP modifier, it is a +0 modifier that’s more or less a combination of Duration (to bring the Sustained powers it works on up to Continuous) and Fades, with the tossed in traits that the user no longer has any control over the power, but neither does it have any connection with the user and as such does not impede him in any way, including preventing him from switching array slots. The primary purpose of Independent is to represent fire-and-forget effects such as smoke grenades or the like that aren’t connected with the user the way even a Continuous power is.
The problem is that Independent can range from a relatively balanced effect to a wildly imbalanced one depending on the exact powers and other modifiers, feats and drawbacks applied. The big balance issue is that there are a number of relatively cheap ways to mitigate and/or completely nullify the downsides of the modifier depending on what you’re doing with it (not the least of which is the in my opinion badly thought through ability of the Reversible power feat to turn off such effects at will). It can be quite expensive to get an attack power to where Independent can be applied, but once it is, Independent is the gift that keeps on giving, and if Slow Fade or Total Fade is applied, most likely will be a gamebreaker if the effect is at full PL. Its hard to figure what level of virtual PL should be applied in those cases, but I’d suggest a minimum of one, and perhaps more depending on the specifics. In some cases I wouldn’t suggest permitting it at all.
Watch Traits: Attack powers, Reversable, Slow Fade, Summon (Minion), Total Fade.

Linked: Linked is another extra that pretty much pummels PL by its nature when applied to attack powers. Again, parts of this are a non-starter, but its entirely possible to have, for example a Ranged Paralyze, a Blast, a Snare and a ranged Stun all linked together; it’d be horrendously expensive (10/rank) but it’d be forcing someone to make four saves every time they were hit. I’d recommend at least taking a level of virtual Effect PL per each additional power linked in. A particularly strong example of this is Corrosion/Disintegrate, where the way the process works the Drain against Toughness applies before the damage. Its incredibly clear in the field that this makes a Disintegrate much stronger than a simple Blast, and its high cost doesn’t really make that any better. Because of the particularly preemptive nature of the drain/damage combination on Disintegrate and Corrosion, I’d suggest adding an extra virtual effect level there and on similar construction is warranted.

No Saving Throw: This extra (from UP) is so problematic I’m not really convinced it belongs in the game, though I can see some use for it. It essentially means that any target that can be effected by an effect at all (i.e. does not have an Immunity or Impervious save value higher than the rank of the power) will always take at least the minimum result from a hit from a power with No Saving Throw.
Part of the problem is that this extra tends to be bottom loaded (since the minimum result occurs whether you’re using 1 rank or 20, though obviously 20 will be more dangerous on the whole), but even that varies depending on what power its applied to. Its relatively innocuous if bought on some powers, obnoxious on some others (Fatigue is probably the poster child for the most abusive case here, as 1 rank will cause any target not immune as indicated above to take a fatigue level every time hit, no ifs, ands or buts. Barring ongoing hero point usage to avoid it, this means the user can take down pretty much anyone with three hits, potentially with a power costing as little as 4 points–which of course means all kinds of additional modifiers can be applied at a low cost to make it worse). With most Lasting powers a larger rank is desirable because of the breakout roll, but even when the bottom-loading isn’t present, this can be unpleasantly efficient (consider what happens when applied to a Continuous Mind Control, for example).
A few uses are fairly harmless: UP staged Drain for example, makes it fairly innocuous, and it likely wouldn’t be overwhelmingly potent on powers like Nausea or Emotion Control. The problem here is that at least part of the virtual PL system won’t help, as reducing the rank doesn’t reduce the problem much in many cases. The best that can be done is to watch for tricks like buying low ranks of damage or Fatigue and applying this and other extras, or buying partial ranks of the Extra (just say no). I’d seriously consider not permitting tradeoffs in characters with this extra on a power and forcing them to buy it at full ranks at the least, and even that might not be enough; with some like a No Saving Throw Stun I might well _force_ a virtual tradeoff (not permitting them to have more than an Attack +8 and a rank 10 in the power), and I’m not sure even that helps.

Range: The only issue here (and its a big one) can be summed up in one word: Perception.
Perception attacks are potentially one of the most problematic attacks in the game. They have, essentially, three benefits over a regular attack, one trivial, one relatively minor, and one potentially major. The trivial benefit is theoretically unlimited range; barring abusive Bathroom Mentalist/Orbital Laser Man builds, this is normally not all that relevant; the situations in a normal superhero game where even a single range category is exceeded are rare. The minor one is the quasi-indirect property of Perception. This can occasionally be important, but barring various cover penetrating senses, will, again, not come up that often.
The last property can, however, be critical. Perception attacks automatically hit any target the user can perceive. Even somewhat Toughness shifted opponents, this means an increase in hits over the course of a fight of somewhere between 20-35%, and with Defense shifted opponents it can be as high as 70% (or theoretically more).
The complicating factor is that its not an entirely unmixed blessing. You cannot land critical hits with Perception attacks, nor apply Power Attack or Autofire. If bought on a damage power, Impervious defenses above your PL are problematic, and by itself, above it by about three ranks are impenetrable. I would be prone to consider this combination of traits somewhat a break even on a character with nothing but a single Perception attack and no other attack forms. Of course the issue is, that’s almost never the case; Perception attacks are normally APs in arrays that include other, non-Perception powers.
Similarly, Perception can interact with other modifiers in unpredictable ways. Normally Alternate Save ups the effectiveness of a power, and applying Perception to it would seem to make them even stronger–but there are whole classes of opponent against whom the combination can be worse in many ways than a simple Blast. For example, a character who has nothing but Perception range Fortitude powers will often be just hell on many Defense builds (though it isn’t a given, since Defense shifting a character doesn’t require you to reduce your Fortitude–but few Defense-centric concepts justify a high Fortitude, so its relatively rare to hit that), but against a Powerhouse its rather suboptimal; the Powerhouse is relatively easy to hit, and his Fortitude is no worse than his Toughness. Similarly most people find a Mental Blast a real problem–but its not hard for a Defense oriented build to justify a high Will save (as many martial artist and costumed adventurer type builds do).
Generally speaking, any time a character has a Perception and non-Perception attack, I would charge at least a virtual Effect PL of 2 for the privilege. Other modifiers should certainly be considered when doing this too (in some ways Perception Damage attacks are the worse in an array, as they’ll frequently target the lowest save for Defense shifted builds, and Penetrating in addition to Perception on that eliminates the biggest weakness against bricks and the like).
Watch Traits: Alternate Powers, Alternate Saving Throw (or simply exotic attacks), Area, Move Objects, Penetrating, Super-Senses.

Secondary Effect: Secondary Effect is a UP addition that’s essentially a weaker version of the Linked/Aura problem; it causes the target to make an additional save one round later, but it doesn’t stack with the same attack. Of course its easy to end run this; shift to a different power or trade-off with a teammate. Given that, while not as severe, this is an effect that clearly ups the effective combat capability of a user noticeably, and warrants some virtual Effect PL; I’d suggest 1 virtual rank here.

Selective Attack: Most versions of this Extra are semi-harmless; however, the single commonest one, which is applying it to area effects, including intrinsic areas like Obscure, is anything but. I’ll just reference my discussion of Areas above for the main discussion, but keep it in mind with powers like Obscure, too.
Check Traits: Area, Obscure.

Total Fade: Total Fade has much the same issues as Slow Fade; its more balanced on cost to value grounds, but it still easily turns Drain into a one or two hit combat ender. It also needs to be considered as a factor on Summon based powers bought Independent, as it turns Summon into a sort of fire and forget power.
Watch Traits: Drain, Independent, Summon, Transfer.

Vampiric: Vampiric turns a damaging attack into effectively a linked Damage/Heal with some limitations, and as such produces largely the same issues for effective Toughness. However, being attached to a power that has to hit and do damage to produce its effect, its somewhat less problematic generally; I’d reduce the suggested virtual Toughness hit I mention under Heal by one or two for that reason. Note the effect that Perception and/or No Saving Throw has here.
Watch Traits: No Saving Throw, Perception.


Ultimate Power breaks down certain special arrangements of powers into three categories: Arrays (sets of related Alternate Powers, including the typical alternate power sets but more specifically quasi-standalone sets like the corebook Magic), Containers (groups of powers treated as a single power for some purposes, like the corebook Alternate Forms and Devices), and Variable Effects (semi-open ended pools of points that can be reconfigured into different powers from round to round such as Shapeshift or Mimic). Container doesn’t have much bearing on the PL discussion but the other two need a little discussion.

Arrays: Arrays don’t have much impact on PL per se (though there is an argument that can be made that they do impact power in a more general way because of versatility) but they do tend to impact the PL balance of certain specific effects that are fairly PL balanced as standalones, but not as options. As an example, a character with nothing but a single Perception attack or Alternate Save attack is a very different character than one who has one as part of an array that containers other attacks with different characteristics. This is a two edged sword, however; a character who has a Concealment power in an array with his Toughness enhancing power is not as overpowered as one who can run them both at the same time.

Variable Powers: Variable Powers simply run into a general procedural issue when dealing with this scheme; since the specific powers a character with a Variable Power has will change frequently, its difficult to assess the above trade-downs for such a character. With some Variable Powers this isn’t too big an issue (Adaptation), or is both manageable easily enough and/or is sort of the point in the power (Nemesis) that it shouldn’t be too much of a problem; with others, its simply another bit of the overhead one has to account for when permitting the power (Mimic, Shapeshift or UP Gadgets).

A final note: One thing when using these suggestions one has to make clear to the players is that these penalties are not just present at character generation: A Perception attack bought with experience still has the same issues as one bought in initial generation. Another is that the GM should remain flexible as to these penalties. If you apply a virtual cost on something that’s marginal, and it seems, in play to not really be as strong, remove the virtual PL allow the character to either adjust the character or make up the difference in experience; similarly, if you notice a particular combination is obviously showing abnormal vigor (other than just from lucky rolls or the like), don’t hesitate to adjust a bit after the fact by applying them then, even if that requires adjustment.

Examples follow later in the thread:
The Flash: ... ash#526852
Zatanna: ... nna#528549
The Martian Manhunter: ... ter#530267
Storm: ... orm#534223
Gambit: ... bit#546990
Last edited by Paragon on Tue Mar 03, 2009 7:02 pm, edited 7 times in total.
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Post by Dirigible » Sun Dec 07, 2008 4:04 am



Seriously, an impressive opus.
“False PL” is an attempt to produce this effect by assigning an extra PL point or two on the offense or defense for various abilities in certain combinations.
I had almost exactly this idea myself - I mentally add 2 PLs to a character with full Concealment, high Regeneration, etc. Your essay is far, far more thought out, fine-grained and nuanced though. I'll definitely be consulting your range of flagged effects and effective PL suggestions in the future.

Does Drain warrant a write-up in the effects section, or are its threats and problems self-evident?

Incidentally, where you use false in the text would be an entirely appropriate place to use the normally overused word 'virtual'.

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Post by SilvercatMoonpaw » Sun Dec 07, 2008 6:48 am

A very nice discussion, but I don't think I'll be using it: the rules already present enough things for me to keep track of, I think I'll just let things be unbalanced that try to cram all this in too. :wink:

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Post by Jackelope King » Sun Dec 07, 2008 9:36 am

Very nice work, Paragon. I'll need to keep a copy of this saved somewhere, as it gives me an idea which, unfortunately, I have zero time to work on in the near future.

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Post by mygamingid » Sun Dec 07, 2008 9:49 am

It reads like the opposite to deck-building strategies in CCGs, and for good reason. Competitive CCG play is all about building synergies that produce an incredibly effective (and hopefully unbeatable) result. Taking that to most other games, including M&M, may create a gamebreaking situation.

If the game system includes any sort of buff/debuff/tradeoff mechanics, then the option exists to build off of synergies and create an unbalanced effect. You've done a great job exposing and describing those effects above.

The problem, then, is how to deal with it. The easiest way is to have the players and GM on the same page. If both are expecting no holds barred creations working off of synergies, then there is no problem. Likewise, if both avoid excessive synergies, then there is no problem. If there is no agreement, then you get problems.

One way to deal with it is to set up the occasional free-for-all battle day. Make your most synergistic build and put it up against the others. This allows the players (and GMs) who enjoy this sort of play to have their day in the sun, while keeping it out of the core game. It also gives players a taste of alternate powersets, which keeps things from getting stale. I plan to work this into my game for next year.

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Post by Elric » Sun Dec 07, 2008 11:15 am

A very interesting read. My initial reactions, on a fairly general level:

You’re using the term “false effect” in places. Is this just a generalized term for saying “False Attack or False Defense, whichever is appropriate for this power?”

Second Question: For powers when you say “a rank of false effect”, do you mean “treat the power as if it was a rank higher?” For a power that requires a to hit roll, compensating for "2 false rank" means taking a combined -2 to hit and rank.

In particular, for a power that doesn’t require a to hit roll (Perception or Area), does compensating for "2 false rank" mean lowering the rank by 1 (making it the equivalent of 1 offensive PL lower, as it would be if the power was subject to tradeoffs), or 2 ranks lower, making it the equivalent of 2 offensive PLs lower?

General Comment on using guidelines like this in play: Different groups consider different character power levels acceptable. In the majority of groups I imagine the characters are at least somewhat stronger than the archetypes. Often this will mean having some of these PL break abilities that you mention while still being at PL in the basic four combat traits (Attack/Defense/Save DC/Toughness).

A GM could easily set a guideline for how high of a PL break a character can have before the player should start building those four abilities below PL. In some groups, this could be 2 combined false Attack and false Defense (e.g., 2 false Offense and 0 false Defense, vice versa, or 1 on each). In other groups it could be 8 false Attack/false Defense.

Requiring a character built at PL 10, 150 pp to have none of these PL break abilities while having the four is likely to be too strict and too binding- particularly when players aren't breaking PL like crazy (at which point even coming up with adequate villains can be very tough for a GM unless he's equally skilled at building effective characters), the key point is parity between characters. Essentially, the weakest character in a group should be no more than bound exactly by these sorts of restrictions.

Frequency Matters on both ends! If Concealment and Insubstantial are worth false PLs, why aren't exotic Accurate senses and Affects Insubstantial worth something as well? If feints are worth false PLs on offense, why isn't high Sense Motive worth something on defense as well?

The answer, I think, is that if any of these aforementioned PL break abilities were common enough in a campaign, the counter-abilities would be worth something as well. Holding the NPCs fixed and just considering things from a player's perspective, you need to invoke pp costs (or perhaps character concept, but I like pp costs better) to explain why despite Sense Motive not factoring into defensive "false PL", everyone doesn't buy a ton of it.

PP costs: When I think about pp costs, it seems to me that guidelines, impressive as they are, are primarily trying to balance characters with certain abilities independently of the cost it took to acquire those abilities. However, costs matter a lot too. If all of these abilities are priced correctly through "false PL" in terms of general combat effectiveness implications, but some of these abilities cost fewer pp and others more, you will end up with a class of abilities that don't remotely justify the pp you spend on them, much like how Super-Movement (Sure-Footed) is worthless due to the cheapness of M&M movement powers.

In particular, can you elaborate on to what extent you think of these guidelines as a mechanism that would balance characters built on unlimited power points vs. a mechanism that balances how effectively characters on a limited pp budget can spend their pp across various abilities?
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Post by Paragon » Sun Dec 07, 2008 11:22 am

Dirigible wrote:tl;dr


Seriously, an impressive opus.
“False PL” is an attempt to produce this effect by assigning an extra PL point or two on the offense or defense for various abilities in certain combinations.
I had almost exactly this idea myself - I mentally add 2 PLs to a character with full Concealment, high Regeneration, etc. Your essay is far, far more thought out, fine-grained and nuanced though. I'll definitely be consulting your range of flagged effects and effective PL suggestions in the future.
I first started thinking of this, in fact, when someone did a list of "warning" abilities a while back; I wish I could remember who it was. I wanted to be a little more thorough because the one risk of this approach is that if you aren't careful, its easy to make the hits so strong that you effectively have just told people "don't use these abilities."

Does Drain warrant a write-up in the effects section, or are its threats and problems self-evident?
I don't actually think vanilla Drain (at least the UP staged version) is, by itself, that big a threat; it can put someone down of course and keep them down, but so can Stun or Damage. Its only when Total Fade or Slow Fade gets into the mix (ramping up the accumulative property of the power) that it starts getting problematic.
Incidentally, where you use false in the text would be an entirely appropriate place to use the normally overused word 'virtual'.

Good point.
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Post by Paragon » Sun Dec 07, 2008 11:24 am

SilvercatMoonpaw wrote:A very nice discussion, but I don't think I'll be using it: the rules already present enough things for me to keep track of, I think I'll just let things be unbalanced that try to cram all this in too. :wink:
Well, keep in mind most of this is only relevant at the time of character generation and to a lesser degree during advancement; you do have to pay some attention during power stunting, and the like, but that's not the main thrust of it.
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Post by Dirigible » Sun Dec 07, 2008 11:30 am

I first started thinking of this, in fact, when someone did a list of "warning" abilities a while back; I wish I could remember who it was.
Was it Ben wossname with the Ars Ludi site?

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Post by Paragon » Sun Dec 07, 2008 11:51 am

mygamingid wrote:It reads like the opposite to deck-building strategies in CCGs, and for good reason. Competitive CCG play is all about building synergies that produce an incredibly effective (and hopefully unbeatable) result. Taking that to most other games, including M&M, may create a gamebreaking situation.

If the game system includes any sort of buff/debuff/tradeoff mechanics, then the option exists to build off of synergies and create an unbalanced effect. You've done a great job exposing and describing those effects above.
Well, to some extent its a virtue of necessity. I play with two different groups; both have a noticeable gamist bent (as I do myself) but one also has a fairly high density of intelligent, long-practiced power gamers; even though they've reached the point in their lives where they're more likely to point out for houseruling a massively game breaking rule than use it, they still do these sorts of build as naturally as a fish swims. My Mutants campaign was essentially a lab exhibit of a lot of these things. The other group isn't as bad, but you still got occasional artifacts of this, and I concluded I simply wasn't going to try to run the game again without getting some control over this.

It can be done completely ad-hoc of course, but its hard for players to put characters together without some idea of what sort of limits they're going to be dealing with here, so I wanted to at least have a set of flags that were going to require attention, and once I was going to do that, I figured I might as well put in some thought to how serious each of the problems was.

The problem, then, is how to deal with it. The easiest way is to have the players and GM on the same page. If both are expecting no holds barred creations working off of synergies, then there is no problem. Likewise, if both avoid excessive synergies, then there is no problem. If there is no agreement, then you get problems.
Actually there are some interim cases; you can, for example, expect some of the synergies (because some of them are viable conceptually) but dislike the impact they have on how the balance of the game goes; even a player who recognizes the problem may not know how to deal with it. And of course you can get this sort of thing largely accidentally; a player who hasn't seen a particularly operating procedure in play before may, if not mechanically analytical, simply not realize what he's making. So even if the player and GM are on the same page, that's no assurance of lack of balance problems here.

A little anecdote: My wife played a character in the Rubber Baron's New Golden Age campaign named Dupe; Dupe was a somewhat busy character (another local tendency) basically being a duplicating light Powerhouse type with Enhanced Charisma and various feats relating to social attacks and similar things. For the most part, she was halfway conservative here, since while doing the social attacks and such was a big part of her operating procedure, she didn't want the to be annoying. D
During generation of her character she bounced a lot of ideas off me. While looking through the list of feats, she glanced at Distract, and mused about putting it on the character. Apparently my look of horror must have been obvious, so she asked what was wrong. I gently explained that it meant that between her and her five duplicates, she'd be able to nearly automatically (since her Bluff was rather high) leave six opponents--often as many supers as you'll find on the opposite side of a villain fight--dazed every round (the penalty for repeated use doesn't rack up fast enough for most characters to be able to expect to beat a +18 Bluff anytime soon enough to matter) for an entire fight, virtually every fight.

She didn't put it on the character.
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Post by Paragon » Sun Dec 07, 2008 11:55 am

Dirigible wrote:
I first started thinking of this, in fact, when someone did a list of "warning" abilities a while back; I wish I could remember who it was.
Was it Ben wossname with the Ars Ludi site?
The first name does indeed sound familiar.
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Post by XLS » Sun Dec 07, 2008 12:06 pm

Thanks Paragon. As a person new to GMing (and still rough at building PCs), it's nice to see some of the dangers of certain combinations.

I think the key, as you hinted at, and as Elric further noted, is the general attitude of the players in the game. When you build a PC with 5 ranks of luck for a concept that has nothing to do with luck, then I think it's a tip-off that some of the problems you talk about are going to arise.

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Post by Ezram » Sun Dec 07, 2008 12:18 pm

You don't need a character theme at all. In fact, I find playing by archetypes rather...limiting.

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Post by Jackelope King » Sun Dec 07, 2008 12:20 pm

Ezram wrote:You don't need a character theme at all. In fact, I find playing by archetypes rather...limiting.
Having a character concept doesn't necessarily mean you're playing an archetypal character by a long shot, but that's for another thread.