You Got Your Peanut Butter in My Chocolate! – A Brief Examination of the Mechanics of Mutant: Year Zero

NYCI’ll start this by saying that if you’ve made it this far you owe it to yourself to have a look at Mutant: Year Zero, the post-apocalypse RPG published by Modiphius a couple of years ago. Go online and find whatever preview freebie you can get, or (better yet) flip through a copy at your local game store. For my money it’s the most thoroughly enjoyable post-apocalyptic themed RPG to come out since D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (about which more later).

Instead of writing a general review of M:YZ, I’m going to do something a little different. I want to talk about how M:YZ effortlessly blends new-school and old-school, story-game and traditional game, into a very tasty gaming treat.

In Mutant: Year Zero you play Mutants trying to eke out a living in a blasted post-apocalyptic landscape. You cling to life in a community, your Ark, where an Elder has guided the life of the community for as long as you can remember. But the Ark is no paradise, and not even that much of a safe haven. The Elder is on his last legs, the food’s running out, and the People (as you call yourselves) are dying off; there’s never been a single baby born in the Ark. It’s in that context that you and the other PCs brave the Zone, and all its myriad threats, to find resources and to dig up answers about your past.

If you want more context than that before you dive in here, please have a look at Lowell Francis’ thorough review on his blog Age of Ravens. (You might not want to come back, but that’s okay. Lowell’s work is topnotch.)

So about this traditional game and story-game business, why should I care?

Right.

Let’s say you’ve got a regular group with a lot of trad gamers and they’re not interested in anything that looks even remotely like it might be a story-game. Bring your big, lovingly produced copy of Mutant: Year Zero to your next session, and they might sing a different tune. Or maybe you’ve done a lot of traditional gaming over the years, but you’d like to test the waters out with something not as daunting and different as the trade paperback-sized games you see over in the cool kids’ rack at the game store.

Call it a gateway game, a Trojan Horse, or whatever, Mutant: Year Zero is one of the best games for bridging the narrative/traditional gamer divide that I’ve had the good fortune to come across. So, let’s get out there and build some bridges, people!

Okay, now that I’m off my soapbox, I’ll get down to some cases…

ark_wallPeanutty Narrative Game Goodness

[When I refer to narrative or story games, I’m talking about games that (and I’m speaking very broadly here) build their mechanics to focus on the unfolding story of the game, rather than mechanically simulating aspects of the game world. These sorts of games have steadily gained popularity in the hobby since the mid-2000s. If you’ve played Fiasco, Dread, Microscope, Dogs in the Vineyard, or any of the growing number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) titles, then you’ve played a story-game.]

On the sheets for the various character roles for M:YZ there are a number of things that will jump off the page if you’ve played any PbtA titles. There’s a list of names to choose from; various suggested descriptors for Face/Body/Clothing; and a block where you choose a special relationship with one other PC (and one NPC). While I don’t think this kind of narrative “pre-seeding” of names and relationships originated in the PbtA design space, I’m fairly certain it comes from the story-game side of things.

Getting Experience (XP), is part of playing M:YZ, so score one for the Trad Game side of things, but, BUT, you only get experience from the following: doing a Day’s Work for an Ark project, making progress towards realizing your character’s Big Dream, exploring at least one new Zone Sector, sacrificing or risking something for your PC buddy, and sacrificing or risking something for that special NPC you want to keep safe. So, you can kill Zone Ghouls, et al, all day long, but it’s not going to help your character advance in the game.

Tough Character Decisions

To me a hallmark of story-gaming is that your character can’t have it all. There’s no way to power-game your way to invulnerability. Many of the games that I like best come with difficult decisions and balancing acts baked right into the mechanics.

This is never more true, or more appropriate, than in a game that focuses on survival. In M:YZ you must:
– Decide whether to keep that cool artifact that you found, or contribute it to the dawnvault where it will improve the characteristics of the Ark;
– Use your powerful Mutant Powers to survive, knowing that they will eventually wear your body out;
– Choose whether to use the precious Bullets you have to shoot something (or someone), or use them to buy things like Grub and Fresh Water that will keep you alive. I doubt the M:YZ design team was thinking about this, but this mechanic is an excellent implementation of comedian Chris Rock’s “Bullet Control” concept.

Shadows of Apocalypse World

I can also see very specific strands of DNA from D. Vincent Baker’s groundbreaking design for Apocalypse World woven into Mutant: Year Zero.

The Ark, with its many potential conflicts and social entanglements, could easily be a Hardhold from Apocalypse World; the Ark’s many bosses trying to usurp the Elder’s power echo Apocalypse World’s NPCs trying to undermine, or knock off, a Hardholder. In fact, most of the things likely to go on in the Ark (jockeying for social position, NPCs playing characters off of each other, misfortunes that reshape the hierarchy) would be the bread and butter of an Apocalypse World session.

Even the implementation of some of the Mutant: Year Zero Skills reflects their counterparts in Apocalypse World’s Move structure.

Take, for example, the Go Aggro move from Apocalypse World (1st Edition)…

When you go aggro on someone, roll+hard. On a 10+, they have to choose: force your hand and suck it up, or cave and do what you want. On a 7–9, they can instead choose 1:
– get the hell out of your way
– barricade themselves securely in
– give you something they think you want
– back off calmly, hands where you can see
– tell you what you want to know (or what you want to hear)

Compare this to the Enforcer’s Intimidate skill from M:YZ.

Everyone in the Ark knows you’re bad news. Often you don’t even need to hit anyone to make them back down. You know exactly which buttons to push to subdue them – or provoke them. Roll for Intimidate when you use your sheer physical presence to get someone to do what you want.
Failure: He won’t be pushed around by a bully like you. He might even attack you now, or hold the grudge for the opportune moment.
Success: Your opponent must choose – either attack you right now (by Fighting, Shooting or using a mutation), or bow to your will.

Both mechanics carry the idea of pushing the story forward by forcing the subject of the action to fight right now or submit.

zone-ghouls

Chocolaty Trad Flavor

Fear not traditional gamer, there’s some crunch skillfully woven into Mutant: Year Zero, too. You’ll find much that’s familiar to you. You get Abilities, Talents, Gear, Mutations, etc., and a d6-based engine to make it all go. There’s even a light, but effective, encumbrance system. (Encumbrance as a game mechanic can be traced right back to the earliest iterations of D&D.) These kinds of systems are typically more honored in the breach than in the observance, but in M:YZ it fits perfectly with the theme. It asks the question: what’s really worth lugging around the wasteland?

If playing scenes in the Ark is analogous to the flavor and style of Apocalypse World, then the Zone fairly drips with the stuff of more traditional games, particularly TSR’s old school classic Gamma World. It takes the traditional Hexcrawl and streamlines it into an exciting sub-game that perfectly balances the social tension in the Ark. There are funky mutant creatures, cults, and environmental hazards that want to chew your characters up and spit them out. There are plenty of ways to die out in the Zone and lots of tough choices for characters to make along the way.

Mutant: Year Zero also has the high production values that the trad gamer has come to expect thanks to the likes of Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Fantasy Flight Games, and others. The M:YZ core book runs to 272 pages in the familiar 8.5 by 11 format that’s just dripping with full color theme. And you can trick your game out with a slickly produced GM screen, a box of cards to simplify in-game book-keeping, and a set of lovely (optional) dice.

Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together? mutant_cup

Sadly, I still haven’t gotten to play M:YZ yet, but the carefully blended and balanced system is right there on the page. It’s got action, intrigue, social drama, high stakes, and high weirdness… everything I could want from a product at this point in my long gaming career.

Your mileage may vary, of course, when it comes to the actual play experience. In default mode, Mutant: Year Zero has a tone that’s roughly equivalent to The Walking Dead TV series. I’ll modulate that by saying that I don’t think it’s quite that bleak, but your players should be ready to see their characters die. If you’re using the game as designed, there’s almost no way every original character (or possibly any original character) will see the silver-lining of the game’s Metaplot come to fruition. As in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, it may take a few generations of brave and unlikely heroes to make it to the end.

If character death is the sort of thing your group gets all twisted up about, then this isn’t for them. But if it’s for you, find someone, somewhere to play with, because I think Mutant: Year Zero is just about the perfect flavor of grown-up fun.

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Spirit of 77 RPG – Character Creation Handouts

can_you_dig_itWhen I run my Spirit of 77 convention games, I do character creation at the table. I’m always looking for ways to streamline that process. For my run at KublaCon this year I’ve developed a couple of player aids. One is a breakdown of all the Hooks for each character role and another is a breakdown of all the starting character Gear. I think it’s going to save a lot of flipping around and looking stuff up. My hope is to get to the fun parts that much faster!

The friendly guys at MonkeyFun Studios have given me permission to share these documents with you. Even if you’re doing a regular character creation session, I think you’ll find them helpful. Just click on the links to get access to the files…

Spirit of 77 – Gear Breakdown
Spirit of 77 – Hook Breakdown

Use and enjoy!

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Actual Play of Action Movie World, There Will Be Bullets – Part 2 of 2

AMW_RPG_logo(In the first half of the report, we leave off just as the bullets start flying.)

Sami, undercover as Noor, realizes he’s got to fire his machine-gun some to make it look good, so he aims a little high and lets the lead fly. The hovercraft column fans out into the oasis and start mowing down the boats of the idle rich.

Being hugely outgunned sends the heroes into frantic action.

Ali runs around looking for more firepower. A guy brings a case but it’s just full of, you know, 9mm pistols. Ali shrieks, “That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?”

Back on his hovercraft, Sami does a lot of property damage, but manages not to kill anyone. Not so, of course, with the rest of the hovercraft. There’s blood in the water.

Danny and DeMont notice Malcolm and Lisa escape into a panic room, just as they see a hovercraft making for a series of staircases at the back of the mansion. Apparently, the driver of the hovercraft plans to bring the monstrosity right inside! Danny sprints at the lead hovercraft to close the distance, while DeMont runs upstairs looking for a bigger gun.

DeMont kicks open a set of double doors to find none other than Sheik Fisal hunkered down behind his desk. He shouts, “I don’t know what they paid you to kill me, but I’ll double it.” DeMont says he’s just looking for a gun, but would be happy with some cash, too. Fisal hits a secret switch, and the wall opens up to reveal the typical action movie wall o’ guns. Grabbing an egregiously large sniper rifle, he heads for the roof.

He gets there just in time to see Danny Wong leap into the air, bounce off the skirt of the hovercraft, and execute a perfect front-flip onto the deck. (As with seemingly every Stunt Move Danny tried for the entire session, Brian rolled a 10+.) DeMont starts lining up the shot with the rifle and realizes he knows the gunner. “Sami? What the F@#K?” he exclaims.

However, the camera stays mostly focused on Danny as he kicks all kind of ass. Mooks emerge from the guts of the hovercraft and he takes them out with ease. Danny hurls Sami off the hovercraft, not realizing he’s a possible ally. Eventually the only person left to take on is Zhaglool, who’s still at the helm. Rather than waste his energy. Danny aims the pintle-mounted MG at the pilot’s cabin, and turns Zhaglool into a meatmist-colored memory.

Sami, who’d gotten trapped between a marble column and the skirt of the hovercraft (a rock and a soft place?), slumps to the ground relieved as the vehicle powers down. By this point, our heroes have all made it to the vicinity of the hovercraft, but there’s no rest for the weary!

Their attention is grabbed by the screams of Malcolm back inside the house. A squad of drug dealers is dragging Malcolm towards the front of the compound, and Lisa seems to be trotting along with them. (Apparently she was all too happy to sell out her despicable brother.) The assembled heroes give chase.

The bad guys get to their hovercrafts first, but the heroes discover they have their choice of crazy-awesome valet-parked rides to go after them with. DeMont points to the brand new Tesla and everyone nods. The gang, now assembled in the Tesla, gives chase. They’re going after a two hovercraft column. (With Malcolm and Lisa in the lead hovercraft.) En masse they blaze away at the rear hovercraft. They lads in the hovercraft aren’t idiots, once they realize there’s armed pursuit, they turn off into the desert.

Ali, driving the Tesla, does his best to keep up. He pulls off some very slick maneuvers that allow Danny to get on to the back of the nearest hovercraft. Danny manages to take it out (with some grenades down the hatch if I remember correctly), but the hovercraft with Malcolm and Lisa zooms off into the desert.

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Actual Play of Action Movie World, There Will Be Bullets – Part 1 of 2

ACTION_MOVIE_WORLD_-_First_BloodI discovered Action Movie World, a Powered by the Apocalypse Game by Ian Williams, thanks to a post from D. Vincent Baker. He’s the man who got the PtbA revolution started back in 2010 with the original Apocalypse World rules.

AMW has some interesting features. You play an actor, playing a character, in a big dumb action movie. So, if your character dies, your actor can still come back and play another character in the next flick. Each player gets to pick a playbook representing one of the various action movie stereotypes. Once you’ve got your characters you can pick one of the emblematic action movie script playbooks for your flick. Your movie might take one session, or a few.

I knew our session needed to be a one-off. With my gang’s often busy schedules, I decided to GM a session instead of having a birthday party. If we’re going to go to the trouble of arranging to meet, why not get some gaming in?

Half my group wanted to rock a science fiction script, and the other half wanted some cop movie goodness. Rather than simply break the tie, I had each group pitch me (The Director) on their concept. In the end I picked the Cop flick, which had a distinct Rush Hour tang.

Our Lead actor was Hong Kong action veteran Yuen Lung playing DANNY WONG, an Interpol agent based out of Abu Dhabi. His on screen pal (DeMONT LeTROIT) was played by Lex Fox, part-time comedian, part-time action star, full-time badass. As part of our set-up we discovered that Danny and DeMont had a past together. They’d teamed up to break an international gun smuggling ring out of Atlanta.

Another character, ALI HAZARD (played by the inestimable Schwarzenegger Willis, III) was Danny’s friend, another Interpol officer from the Abu Dhabi office.

David Black played the elusive SAMI. He’s (apparently) all things to all people. He’s an arms dealer, Interpol snitch, war buddy of Ali Hazard, CIA asset, and who knows what else.

So, to take a step back for a moment, we’d established the following cast for our game: 

  • Our Lead actor, Yuen Lung (the Pugilist) playing Danny Wong as run by Brian;
  • Our “second banana,” Lex Fox (the Yeller) playing DeMont LeTroit as run by Cliff;
  • and our supporting cast, David Black (the Thespian) playing Sami (aka Noor) as run by Joe; and, last, but certainly not least, Schwarzenegger Willis, III (the Smartass) playing Ali Hazard as run by Greg.

So, here’s how we put it all together to get our movie going. Please bear in mind that we’re emulating ‘80s movies here, so the following is not exactly over-flowing with politically correct ideas…

In the film’s prologue we meet Sami, posing as one of his many covers, Noor. Apparently Noor owes a big time drug dealer, Jafara (aka Jafara the Butcher), a favor. Jafara’s son, Zhaglool, and Zhaglool’s right hand man, Ikram, come by in the middle of the night to tell Noor it’s time to “pay up.” They drive him out into the desert where there are a number of car’s already parking around a tight cluster of large vehicles covered with camo-netting.

We meet Jafara for the first time as he emerges from the shadows. He’s a wiry and leathery old Bedouin with wild, unkempt hair. He stares at “Noor” with the unnerving combination of one brown eye and one piercing blue eye. Just as Sami starts to get extremely uncomfortable, Jafara embraces him.

He whispers into Sami’s ear that he must watch his son Zhaglool. “Have you read your Freud, Noor? The Son must Kill the Father! But I’m not ready to die.”

Jafara turns to his group of assembled thugs and declaims, “Something has been stolen from us, and this I will not abide! Either we will get what we are owed, or we will sever the thief’s head and hang it on the highest hill!”

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