By Chris Nickell
Editor’s Note: Chris is on the Dirtbags of Holding podcast, and has been playing RPGs (and running them as a GM) for years. I recently got a bunch of RPGs to review from Free League Publishing and asked Chris to help me out.
“The Red Plague hits a world already on the brink of collapse. Extreme climate change, global economic crisis, increasing conflict between old and new superpowers. When the pandemic comes, the last thin veneer of stability crumbles. … Yet life remains. Slivers of humanity survive the Apocalypse. In the Ark, a small settlement at the edge of a dead city, the People live. You are a spawn of humanity, but not quite human. You are twisted funhouse images, mutated freaks. Your bodies and minds have incredible powers, but you are unstable. … But the safe days are over. Food is running scarce, and the fight for what’s left is turning violent. “
The post-apocalyptic genre in gaming is one that I hold close to my heart. As a GM I love presenting my character players with their own version of the Kobayashi Maru (no-win scenarios) and watch as they debate the best course of action and roleplay through difficult decisions. Occasionally, I get a Kirk in the party that finds a way to cheat the system and pull a win out of a no-win scenario. Those situations make gaming history in our group and are truly the apex of our collective storytelling.
The post-apocalyptic genre is ripe with conflict, desperation, and hard choices and can create an atmosphere of tension, risk, and reward that, in my opinion, draws the group in, helping to really establish and grow the emotional links, fears, and joys of our collectively created world.
Enter Mutant Year Zero. I started with Mutant Year Zero like any other new and unfamiliar RPG book. Oooo pretty pictures. And let me tell you, I really enjoy the quality and quantity of the art in the book. Yea, I know, well done art doesn’t make a good RPG, but it sure as hell opens the front door. The curb appeal on this book is great and the art does a great job at helping illustrate the general sense and feel of the world.
Once drawn in by the art, I began reading through the fluff (story world) and poking around the mechanics. With a fallout-esk vibe, none of your characters were fortunately enough to be a vault dweller. This world it harsh, and it changes the player. One element that I really enjoyed was how you continue to be changed and mutated by the world around you. In character creation you get a random mutation, that’s right, you chose your character role, name, attributes, talents, and then DRAW a mutation. As a PC with a bit of a power gamer complex, I love this mechanic because it throws a wild card into character creation that helps develop nuance and personality into the player character. Does the character embrace their mutation? Are they embarrassed by it? Will they have frog legs? Develop telepathy? Become a Rot-Eater? Each mutation (and there is a table full of them) have narrative or combat advantages that may or may not match up with the character class that the PC picked. And I love it. I love throwing those curveballs and giving the character utility and skills outside of their character plan as a positive disruption to their character creation process.
Use of these mutant powers, however, comes with risk. When using your mutation (which you can use more often as your player levels up and becomes more mutated), the player rolls a die for each mutation point (MP) used. If you roll one or more biohazard symbol on the custom D6 dice, the mutation can misfire resulting in the mutation hurting the player, using more resources than intended, altering the players appearance in some permanent manner, or even becoming supercharged. This adds an element of desperation, risk, and strategy that amplifies the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the game.
Editor’s Note: Mutant Year Zero plays very similar to Free Realm Publishing’s other RPG: Tales From The Loop, in which you roll a set of dice based on your skills. If you roll at least one 6, you succeed! However, Mutant Year Zero has different colored dice which represent the different types of skills you have. If you ever roll a 1, depending on what color the dice was can determine how you “crit fail”.
In summary, Mutant Year Zero does a great job at establishing the core world, people, conflicts, and opportunities that make creating a deep and engaging game really easy for the GM. It has a diverse set of character classes enabling a lot of player choice and throws in the curveball of the mutation system that I really enjoyed. If you are a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, the world, resources, and game system that Mutant Year Zero offers will take you group through the end of the world and beyond.