Neutral and Unfavorable Mutations: Adding Richness to Mutant Year Zero NPCs

myz_mutations_postIn a recent run at DunDraCon of Mutant: Year Zero I needed to create an NPC on the fly. I wanted a quick way to make her distinctive, but what to do? It popped into my head that she could have a mutation where hair covered her entire body. Hirsute isn’t something you need to write up mechanically, it’s just a detail about that particular character. And in a community where people have frog legs and wings growing out of their backs, her “difference” would simply be something that made her unique. In the end it worked perfectly… it fit right into the story arc the way I wanted it to.

After the session I thought about how interesting it would be to find opportunities to use this as a tool in ongoing play. Clearly Mutant: Year Zero is interested in how the broken, the weary, and the left behind struggle to survive even as they pursue sometimes wildly different agendas. What better way to lean into that than by having NPCs who haven’t been as fortunate in the genetic lottery as the PCs?

In the real world, most mutations are neutral or unfavorable for the organism that has them… it’s my understanding that only occasionally does chance offer up a mutation worth passing along. And while in a game of fantasy like M:YZ it’s totally appropriate to let players have cool mutations, what happens if we explore neutral or even unfavorable mutations in the NPCs that they know and care about? There are certainly reasons in the meta-plot (which I will not reveal here) that speak to why all these helpful mutations abound… but with the characters constantly mutating further, perhaps there are some genetic time bombs in the mix as well.

To my way of thinking, it would be very uplifting, and a positive reflection of reality, to show these other mutants using their less than ideal bodies to contribute to the community.

For example, one of my players mentioned the idea of a bespoke clothier in the Ark that disassembles and reassembles clothing for the various bosses. I loved the idea. Most mutants struggle to keep something on their backs, while the bosses actually look put together. And who could this NPC clothier be? The idea of Shia popped into my mind…

She (they?) has no legs, but six strong and flexible arms. Her den/shop is like a spider’s web of thread, buttons, zippers, and bits of old clothing. No rag is too small for her to work with. She does a lively trade in scrap with various Stalkers, and given her long hours, and general lack of mobility, she’s always happy for other people to stop by and chat. It’s said that Shia knows more secrets in the Ark than anyone, but getting her to tell them is a different story.

So there we already have a more interesting figure for the Ark than a few stats and book mutations would provide. And we see an individual that’s made a virtue of the body they’ve been given. There’s something wonderful, too, about peppering the Ark with a few NPCs that probably wouldn’t survive long in the Zone, but that can thrive in a community where everyone has a place. Doesn’t it make protecting the Ark that much more important if the characters know full well that it would be difficult or impossible to evacuate everyone if their community fell?

You can take this approach in lots of different directions. At our table we’ve already talked how the boss Jhammed could have a mutation where he/she cycles back and forth between male and female over the course of a month or two. (After all, such a mutation could be a huge advantage in a survival situation.)

If you are lucky enough to have a player that’s into this style, you could even work a neutral, or even unfavorable, mutation into the back story of their PC. In doing some research for this piece, I realized that one of the players at my convention run gave his character something a lot like Uner Tan Syndrome, so it might be worth exploring these ideas with your players.

Every table will have their own tolerance for the kind of exploration I’m proposing, but it could add real richness and nuance to life in the Ark, and allow for deeper investigations of sexuality and issues like ableism, that are already emergent in the way we play Mutant: Year Zero.