From my previous columns, one might think I live in the past and never play anything new. But, recently I did play something new, er, newish, sorta new. That is was a player in a session of Modiphius’s: Mutant Year Zero which was released around 2014, I think. It has a lineage way back to 1984 but, in language’s I don’t know. I’d never heard of it. That’s new right?
Please bear in mind that what I am writing here is based solely on a single session playing the game and that I neither own nor have read the rules of the game. It will then necessarily be impressionistic. That is, the experience of the typical new player learning a role playing game from the GM who actually owns the game.
A couple years ago, I resolved that should opportunities, of whatever sort, arise to say “yes” provided I didn’t have prior commitments and it wasn’t obviously dangerous (too much at least). Through the miracle of the internet (and specifically the Google+ OSR community), an opportunity arose that a fellow Northwest gamer was planning on running a game of Mutant: Year Zero within a short walk of where I live. So, “yes” it was. I was there.
Prior to attending, I did some research about the game – which was, interesting. The concept I was down with. Post-apocalyptic setting, that’s the story of my childhood. Nothing I like better than another viewing of The Road Warrior or A Boy and His Dog. Back in the ‘80s I was that weird kid always ordering books by Herman Kahn through inter-library loan. Yeah, I could use a little apocalypse about now. But, the system? It’s full of warning signs for me. I mean: special dice and cards, game mechanics designed to push certain styles of play. From my previous columns you might guess that I tend toward simulation rather than systems that push particular outcomes. And, you’d be right. Of course, I’m not fool enough to think simulation doesn’t also push particular outcomes. A simulation only produces what it simulates after all. And, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to see a Modiphius game in action as I had never bought one of theirs and I have been eyeing their new Conan game. Now, the Conan game, as I understand it is a different system, so don’t think my experience here describes it. But, what I did see from Modiphius in terms of production value was top notch.
The background of the game is a non-specific post-apocalyptic time. The players characters don’t know what wrecked things but, they do know they need to scavenge from their environment (the zone) to survive. Game mechanics revolve around scavenging and building up the character’s community to create some semblance of civilization. Character creation is easy. First we had to pick a role. There are several pre-defined classes. In this case we had three players: a stalker (skilled at moving through the wastelands and finding useful artifacts); a gear-head (who can fix and create useful items); and a dog handler (me, who is good at scouting). We had 14 points to distribute among four attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy). And, 10 points to distribute among skills (e.g fight, sneak, move, shoot, manipulate, etc.). Oh, and everyone’s a mutant. Each character starts drawing one mutation from a deck of cards. My character’s mutation what mind terror – a psionic skill that allowed the character to project fear, confusion, or (with extra effort) illusions onto an NPC. Our stalker drew a mutation that made them part plant – that is, she could draw nourishment from the sun and had bark skin that acted like armor. I don’t remember what our gear-head drew, or perhaps, he kept it secret. Mutations are used by spending mutation points and each character starts with one mutation point. I chose the role of dog handler with a dog named Bloodfang. I named my character Don – extra points for those who get the reference.
After character creation there is a key step. And, while I am not sure the step is entirely unique, it is the first time I’ve done this as a character in a game. The characters get to design their Ark. The Ark is essentially the village the characters start from and return to and support. The Ark is located on the map. Our GM had a really nice map: on one side a wrecked London; on the reverse, a wrecked and flooded New York. We chose the New York Map. Our Ark we located in the outskirts – out on Long Island (Lon-Guy-Land as an old girlfriend of mine coached me) somewhere near a large structure cryptically marked on the map as “the Barrier” perhaps near Rockaway Beach. The Barrier appeared to be the remnants of an old dike or wall that forlornly attempted to hold back the flood waters. Each ark is unique but, has common elements: a chronicler who records the Ark’s accomplishments, various Bosses who represent the different factions and powers in the Ark, and the Elder who is a survivor from before the Fall. We brainstormed drawing a map for our Ark. It could be anywhere such as a fallout shelter, bridge, the old fuselage of a crashed jet but, in our case we chose an abandoned subway tunnel. Most people camped on the tracks and platform but, the Elder had a separate refuge in a utility closet. Most of the Bosses also had special (and defensible enclaves). Players picked alliances with various bosses or enemies with other bosses. My character, Don, wants nothing more than to abandon the Ark for the outside world and, as such, is allied with the Revolutionary boss who lives within a warren of plywood and pipes suspended in the roof of the tunnel separate from everyone. My character also has emnity for another boss, the Bureaucrat, because the Bureaucrat tries to control him and because the Chronicler’s (Astrina) relationship with her interferes with her admitting her love for him. Each player defines similar relationships within the Ark. Each Ark has Development levels in several categories: Food Supply, Culture, Technology and Warfare. Starting arks have 12 points to distribute among these categories. There is a push and pull between spreading the points thinly among all Ark’s attributes or dumping the points into a small number of attributes in order to excel at least in one thing. We dumped ten of our points into technology and the remaining two into food supply, leaving the rest at zero. It remains to be seen whether this was a wise choice. Players will constantly be faced with the choice to keep supplies for themselves or to bring them back to contribute to the Ark.
After defining our Ark, we got down to play. The setup was that the Ark’s water supply was drying up and so the bosses sent a party out to scout for another water source. When that party did not return, our characters where chosen to both continue the mission of searching for water and to also search for the first party. Setting out, we followed the coast north for a few days until we encountered an island set in a shallow weed choked lagoon. On the island was some sort of industrial plant: round tanks, low buildings, and an enormous chimney maybe two hundred feet tall.
Night was falling as we waded through the weed-choked waters to the island. I failed spectacularly in attempting to scout the tanks and out of the bushes came five zone ghouls armed with slingshots and bicycle chains. A melee ensured resulting in four slain zone ghouls and one escaping into the underbrush. After stripping the bodies for the bicycle chains, which were more durable weapons than our makeshift ones that tended to self-destruct with use, we decided to head away from the Zone Ghouls and investigate the low buildings and smokestack. As we approached the building, there was a crack and a zip indicating that somebody took a shot at us which sent us retreating back. It was decided that I should sneak back and see what was up. This time I made my roll with flying colors. I was able to sneak up to the buildings boarded up windows and overhear people arguing, “You shouldn’t have made me shoot at them.” “We don’t know who they are. They could be Zone Ghouls!” Hearing this I decided to break cover, “Hey, you in there, don’t shoot. We aren’t Zone Ghouls.”
It turned out that it turned out to be the original scouting party holed up against a Zone Ghoul horde. One of their member had been borne off by a giant mutant bird who had made its nest at the top of the stack. They wanted to get the victim’s gear back and I volunteered to climb the stack. On one side of the stack was a rickety and rusted ladder. As I got close to the top, about 150 feet up, I decided to sneak the rest f the way up in order to not wake the predatory bird. I failed. With a giant creak the top of the ladder parted from the tower and I ended up hanging by my arms from a portion of the ladder now bent at 90 degrees from the tower. With a successful move roll, I managed to hand-over-hand it back to the main tower. Using the rope and grappling hook I managed to climb up into the nest to find the remains of the former Ark member and another corpse carrying a book in its arms. After gathering the equipment and book I hightailed it down the ladder.
The thuggish Enforcer who led the original party intimidated me into giving her all the equipment and the book. But, in my first attempt to use my mutant power I influenced her mind to think I handed the book to her only to fall into dust. Sneaking off the read the pages, it turned out that the book was a journal which had a legible page that gave us some clues – the Zone Ghouls stole from the journalist their key card to a place by the name of Eden.
Eden! That sounds promising and a lure to future peril no doubt. And, that’s where we wrapped up for the night.
Now, the above is just the stuff my character did. The other characters had their own challenges and successes. I had a blast. This was my first time in years to play a character rather than run a game. I had nearly forgotten the freedom of not needing to prepare much and relying on the GM to know the rules. The game was not one I’d have chosen for myself. But, having played it has much to recommend it. In particular I like the Ark concept and having the players make it, gives the Ark a personality and any number of GM created village’s lack. It creates a situation where the players have real emotional ties to their community and the game mechanics support this tie. The community really needs the players in order to survive and in the process also nurtures the players. That in itself is huge.
I haven’t even covered how failed skill rolls generate mutation points which can then be burned to use a characters mutant power. So, a failing character often gets something they want. Theoretically, I’m against this sort of artificial mechanic. There is no logical reason why a failed roll should generate mutation points. It just does and does feel a little artificial if you think about it much but, in practice it works well and mitigates some of the downsides of a failed roll and keeps everyone engaged. So, not the way I’d do it, but, I get it, it works, and I enjoyed it.
In summary, Mutant: Year Zero is a fun, engaging game with some unique mechanics and nicely produced components that is well worth playing. Recommended.