Character Generation in Year Zero Engine RPGs

Posted: 2021-06-07
Last Modified: 2021-07-07
Word Count: 3914
Tags: character-generation rpg year-zero-system

Having created characters for Free League’s Coriolis and Vaesen, I thought I’d try creating characters for Free League’s other published Year Zero Engine games1:

Rather than walk through the steps as I did for Coriolis and Vaesen, I’ll simply note how character generation differs from Coriolis, Vaesen, or the YZE SRD.

I’ll then review other features that distinguish the six rule sets, and conclude with some commentary.

Characters

MODIFIED (2021-07-07): now uses HTML tables instead of custom CSS.

Below I’ve highlighted Key Attributes and Skills in italics, or underlined if there’s more than one Archetype. I’ve also included one Coriolis and the Vaesen character from previous posts but re-ordered some elements to make comparison slightly easier.

ALIEN: The Colonial Marshal

Pre-written scenarios provid characters for Cinematic Play (i.e. one-shots). For Campaign Play, though, players have to create a character much like this:

Name: Harris Fox
Appearance: Graying hair, impressive mustache, old leather jacket
Career: Colonial Marshal
Attributes: Strength 3, Agility 3, Wits 5, Empathy 3
Skills: Close Combat (S) 1, Manipulation (E) 3, Mobility (A) 1, Observation (W) 2, Ranged Combat (A) 3
Talent: Investigator
Personal Agenda: You dream of putting down the badge and settling down.
Gear: .357 Magnum Revolver, binoculars
Signature Item: dented flask with an inscription
Cash: $300
Health Points: 3 [Str]

Relationships to PCs:

Corolis: The Correspondent

Here’s one character from the Coriolis post, reprinted for comparison.

Name: Fatima Abdelkadir
Appearance: flawless makeup, dark corporate caftan
Concept: Data Spider (Correspondent)
Background: Zenithan Dabaran, Stationary
Icon: The Merchant
Attributes: Strength 3, Agility 3, Wits 5, Empathy 3
Skills: Data Djinn (W) 1, Infiltration (A) 3, Manipulation (E) 3, Observation (W) 2, Technology (W) 1
Talents: Seasoned Traveler (group talent), Merchant's Talent (icon talent), Third Eye (concept talent)
Personal Problem: thrill seeker
Gear: arrash (mild narcotic), personal holograph, proximity sensor, stun gun, tabula
Reputation: 4
Health Points: 6 [Str + Agl]
Mind Points: 8 [Wits + Emp]

Relationships to PCs:

Forbidden Lands: The Half-Elf Druid

As I write this I’m still reading Forbidden Lands. So I won’t say this is a good character, but she is interesting: a weak and inexperienced fighter whose skills, magic, and talents are geared to keeping the rest of the party alive.

Name: Korena Ravenclaw
Age (Group): 23 (Young)
Kin: Half-Elf
Profession: Druid
Attributes: Strength 3, Agility 3, Wits 6, Empathy 3
Skills: Endurance (S) 2, Healing (E) 3, Move (A) 1, Survival (W) 2
Talents: Psychic Power (kin), Healing Path 1 (profession), Herbalist
Pride: You are nobler than other people and the gods love you more.
Dark Secret: As everyone and everything are part of Clay's creation, you lack respect for others' property.
Gear: Knife, bandages, knapsack, waterskin, 2 silver.
Resource Dice: Food D8, Water D8

Relationships to PCs:

Forbidden Lands System and Setting Notes

Mutant Year Zero: The Stalker

As an RPG about mutants in a relatively safe Ark exploring the Zone beyond, no character is more iconic than the “stalker”, the expert in navigating a polluted and dangerous landscape.

Name: Jena
Appearance: hairless, androgynous, always wears backpack
Role: Stalker
Attributes: Strength 3, Agility 5, Wits 4, Empathy 2
Skills: Find the Path (A) 2, Know the Zone (W) 3, Scout (W) 3, Shoot (A) 1, Sneak (A) 1,
Talents: Rot Finder
Mutations: Reptilian (camouflage, contortion, entrance at close range)
Big Dream: To some day stop wandering and find peace.
Gear: 3 bullets, 5 rations of grub, 6 rations of water, bow, 5 arrows

Relationships to PCs:

Relationships to NPCs:

Mutant Year Zero System and Setting Notes

Here’s a perfectly normal stereotypical 1980s kid living next to a mysterious subterranean mad science research facility.

Name: Shannon, a.k.a. The Queen
Age: 12
Type: The Popular Kid
Attributes: Body 3, Tech 2, Heart 5, Mind 2
Skills: Contact (H) 2, Charm (H) 3, Empathize (M) 1, Lead (H) 2, Move (B) 1, Sneak (B) 1
Iconic Item: Hairspray bottle
Problem: My aunt lives in my basement and she is crazy.
Drive: It's a relief to get away from the burden of popularity.
Pride: Everybod likes me.
Anchor: Melissa, my older sister.
Favorite Song: "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"
Luck Points: 3 [15 - Age]

Relationships to PCs:

Relationships to NPCs:

Tales From The Loop System Notes

Vaesen: The Occultist

Here’s the character from the Vaesen post, reprinted for comparison.

Name: Valentina Konradsdottir
Age (Group): 32 (Middle Aged)
Archetype: Occultist
Attributes: Physique 2, Precision 5, Logic 3, Empathy 4
Skills: Agility (Ph) 2, Manipulation (E) 2, Observation (E) 1, Stealth (Pr) 3, Vigilance (L) 2
Talents: Conjuring Tricks
Motivation: Learning about vaesen.
Trauma: The family farm is being run by a grumpy house nisse.
Dark Secret: Guilty of a heinous crime.
Equipment: Tarot cards, a tinder box, a dagger
Memento: A book in a foreign language
Resources: 3

Relationships to PCs:

System Comparisons

Each of these systems obviously differ in names for Archetypes4, attribute and skill names, what skills default to which attributes, the number and type of talents available especially at character creation, purely roleplaying elements like Relationships and Dark Secrets, and so forth. This sort of “descent through modification” allows the same basic system to adapt to different genres.

But if we stopped to classify all similarities and differences above, this post might be twice as long. Here I wanted to compare and contrast mechanics at the table, systems for supporting genre and theme, and support for goals beyond surviving a single adventure. These factors explain what sets these games apart from each other and from other games that delve into similar genres.

Rolling The Dice

In all current YZE games, to see whether a particular action succeeds, a player (or GM) adds together their ranks in the relevant Skill (if any), the base Attribute for that Skill, any bonuses for gear, and any bonuses or penalties based on circumstances, then rolls that many six-sided dice. If at least one 65 is showing, the character succeeds. Extra sixes indicate higher levels of success, sometimes “spent” for special effects, e.g. higher damage or a Critical Injury in a Combat roll.

The nature of the dice rolled differs between games, and falls into one of three categories.

  1. Mutant Year Zero6 and Forbidden lands require color-coded dice, since 1s7 on dice from Attributes and Gear are called “banes” and may have special effects.

  2. Even custom dice for Coriolis, Tales From The Loop, and Vaesen have no color-coding because 1s have no effect.

  3. ALIEN uses black “Base Dice” for dice from Attributes, Skills, Gear, and other circumstances, and yellow “Stress Dice” for added dice from Stress Points. I’ve already discussed the mechanics in detail here and here, so I won’t dive into them again.

If the roll fails, however, the player has the option to Push the roll or reroll the failed dice. This comes at a penalty, however:

  1. As described more fully in the Year Zero Engine SRD, “banes” on the Base Dice rolled initially or during the reroll inflict damage on the Attribute being used but generate Mutation Points (in MYZ) or Willpower Points (in FL). Banes on a Gear Dice denote damage to the Gear, eventually rendering it useless unless repaired.

  2. In Tales From The Loop and Vaesen, the PC takes a “Condition” when they push the roll. Conditions also result from external physical and mental trauma, and characters can take only a few before they are “Broken” and unable to function.

  3. In Coriolis, every time a player Pushes a roll – or Prays To The Icons as the rules rephrase it – the GM gains a Darkness Point. The GM later spends Darkness Points to visit ill fortune on the PCs, in specific ways alluded to here.

The particular “price” paid for pushing rolls suits the genre in question:

  1. While Mutant Year Zero is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth and Forbidden Lands in a formerly hidden dark fantasy land, both are games of survival and pushing limits in a hostile wilderness. Gear wears out and people wear out.

  2. TFTL and Vaesen are about solving weird mysteries, whether the PCs are 1980s kids in a retro-techno-dystopia or 19th century adults hunting legendary creatures. Explorers of the unkown who push themselves too hard suffer mental and physical breakdowns.

  3. Coriolis gives players their second chance with no immediate consequence … but a karmic debt they will pay eventually, as befits a game about fate and faith.

  4. ALIEN’s Stress mechanics, as said before, mechanically represent the effects of fear; at first adrenaline makes people sharper, but as the tension mounts they begin fumbling, then freaking out, then (if they survive) losing their minds completely.

Combat and Damage

The combat systems of each of these variants uses broadly similar and recurring mechanics, for different ends. Forbidden Lands probably has the most detailed and varied pre-modern weapons, combat options, Talents, and rules. Coriolis and ALIEN cover modern and futuristic weapons and tactics like auto-fire and overwatch, while simplifying close combat. Mutant Year Zero has somewhat simpler rules for both, both because it’s older and because post-apocalyptic weapons are made from junk. Vaesen adapts some rules from previous YZE games, simplified. TFTL effectively has no combat rules because Kids can’t fight very well; NPCs are treated as challenges (“Trouble”), and have no Attributes or Skills.

The choice of genre also affects how each game represents physical and mental trauma.

In most of these games, combat is not only expected but inevitable, so they provide enough detail and tactical tradeoffs to make it interesting. In Tales From The Loop the player characters are children, so the rules provides only a bare-bones mechanic to temporarily hinder them. In Vaesen combat is a possibility, albeit a distraction or misstep, so the rules provides an abbreviated system between the extremes.

Powers

In Coriolis characters can have “mystical powers”, roughly equivalent to psychic powers in other space opera settings. Each counts as a Talent, requires a skill check to activate, provides some ambiguous information or minor help, and generates at least one Darkness Point per use. Mystics are, unsurprisingly, rare and generally persecuted for being “cursed”.

In Forbidden Lands Druids and Sorcerers may learn Talents that allow them to cast all spells associated with that level in the Talent. Once the caster spends time and Willpower Points to cast a spell it takes effect, although the target of some spells may resist. Beyond the cost in Willpower Points – gained through pushing limits – casting a spell, especially one the user tries to “overclock”, can cause Magic Mishaps to the caster and those around them.

In MYZ every Mutant has at least one Mutation. Mutations sometimes have multiple uses. All “mutant powers” require Mutation Points to activate; once activated they “just work”, unless the target uses a Skill to resist. However, each Mutation Point spent increases the chance of a Misfire, which sometimes means an added Mutation at the cost of an Attribute point.

In ALIEN, TFTL, and Vaesen characters have no paranormal powers. As all these games concern people encountering the unknown and terrifying, powers would lessen the mystery, tension, and terror in each scenario. The point is for players to use their wits to solve the problem, not meet an incomprehensible force with even greater force.

In each of these cases – mystical powers, magic spells, mutant powers, or nothing at all – whatever supernatural force the players can command provides an extra tool in their toolbox, but (ideally) does not short-cut the adventure. Using powers also poses some risk to the user and those around them. Even in the case of Forbidden Lands, magic-users aren’t glass cannons that sweep away opposition but a counterbalance to the unknown evil magic lurking in the eponymous Forbidden Lands.

Spaceships

ALIEN’s spaceship generation and combat systems appear to be simplified and streamlined version of Coriolis’s. I prviously described ALIEN’s, and Coriolis’s elsewhere.

To summarize, in Coriolis the PCs' ship is their home and their fortress. Its starship creation rules give characters numerous options to design a ship that matches their needs exactly, along with pre-built examples that are close enough for typical groups. Likewise, the combat rules assign all players a role in combat, albeit by requiring five battle stations on typical PC ships. Going from star to star requires complex calculations which take skill or money, and the blessing of the Icons to avoid misjumps.

In contrast, in the ALIEN franchise spaceships merely act as transport from planet to planet, mostly off camera, or as a way to trap characters with a hungry Xenomorph. The ALIEN RPG’s options to create starships are more prosaic, and I suspect the pre-built spaceships will suffice for most campaigns. Combat rules are simpler, and roles are streamlined or eliminated.8 Travel between stars is mostly handwaved; making enough money to keep up with maintenance is the more pressing concern.

Exploration

In Mutant Year Zero PCs are mutants who dwell in “The Ark”. They must explore the wastelands around them to find extra food, technology, and knowledge to enhance not just their personal stash but conditions in the entire Ark, as described below.

In some ways Forbidden Lands is a reskinned and expanded Mutant Year Zero. Adventurers forge paths through unmapped and hazardous territory, creating roads, base camps, and eventually more permanent settlements. To this end the Forbidden Lands boxed set provides a detailed map, stickers that update the map as the result of the player’s forays, and an entire book of GM-only information to keep the denizens of the Forbidden Lands a complete surprise.

Naturally the other games play with themes of exploration: Coriolis crews discovering colonies and cultures near less explored stars, investigators in Vaesen encountering Mysteries in rural Scandinavia9, Kids in Tales from the Loop exploring a seemingly quiet company town, and characters in the ALIEN RPG poking into the cosmos’s dark corners and hoping not to get eaten. No other YZE games, however, take hex-crawling and tomb raiding so seriously.

Home Base

Nearly all YZE games provide tools and mechanics for building and augmenting one’s home base.

Forbidden Lands allows one or more PCs to stake a claim on a chunk of the Forbidden Lands and build one or more Strongholds. They can enhance it as they like with ‘functions" such as a Forge or a Privy, or “hirelings” like a Miller or a Jailer. Each improvement provides a benefit to all PCs at the Stronghold, and presumably some NPCs as well. Some PCs will establish a single Stronghold and enhance it between expeditions, others will leave a chain of bare-bones Strongholds to mark where they’ve been.

In Mutant Year Zero the players just have one Ark. The players, doubling as the Ark’s vox populi, commit labor to Projects that range from farming and marketplaces to an armory and/or an electrical generator to democracy and its rivals. Once completed a Project will raise the Ark’s numerical Development Levels10 (which unlock potential future Projects), augment the Ark’s facilities and defenses, and/or provide personal benefits to PCs and NPCs alike. One of a MYZ campaign’s long term goals is to transform the Ark from a simple shelter to a civilized community.

Vaesen starts PCs with a Headquarters. Every Mystery solved gives PCs Improvement Points with which they can acquire (or “discover”) useful spaces and personnel in their HQ. The aim, however, is not to create a whole new minigame but to support the solving of further Mysteries by improving the investigators’ circumstances.

PCs in Coriolis and ALIEN can upgrade their spaceships, although it might put them in even deeper debt. Naturally the Kids of Tales from the Loop can’t outfit their clubhouse with anything useful; they’re kids and adults rule their lives.

Final Comments

For what it’s worth, if I were to pitch Year Zero Engine games to a group, I’d be most enthused for Coriolis and Vaesen, and least enthused for ALIEN and Tales from the Loop. This should surprise no one who’s read my other posts.

Coriolis provides a rich if slightly daunting setting. Vaesen offers the sort of investigative horror I liked in Call of Cthulhu, only with Norse folklore instead of tentacle monsters. Coriolis also has several published adventures, and a book of adventures was part of the Vaesen Kickstarter.

Mutant Year Zero would probably be next as the progenitor of the rest. Post-apocalyptic settings with “mutants” have become a little cliché, but MYZ has solid mechanics and a larger game of rebuilding civilization. Scenarios are fairly straightforward – go out into the Zone and find something, or defend the Ark against something else – and there’s even a random scenario seed table in the core book. (There’s also a metaplot, but in my mind that’s actually a point against it; luckily, I can just ignore that bit.)

At the moment Forbidden Lands seems slightly less appealing than MYZ. Not only because I haven’t finished reading it yet but because dark psedo-medieval fantasy is slightly more cliché. Also, what I have read seems a little too elaborate and complex. For some people that’s a plus, but I’ve found a profusion of options leads to minmaxing, rules-lawyering, and power gaming. Maybe Free League escaped that trap. I hope so.

Conversely, despite the streamlined mechanics of ALIEN and the extreme brevity of TFTL’s rules the settings just don’t excite me. Maybe if I took the time to re-skin ALIEN for another dark SF setting without unstoppable H. R. Giger monsters, or maybe if I reused TFTL’s minimal “players roll all dice” rules for … something else. But I’ve gotten into trouble trying to create too much at once, and the next time I GM – assuming I have to GM at all – I’ll lean on something that’s published and (presumably) playtested.

Coriolis and Vaesen certainly fit those criteria, and if I had to I’d at least take a stab at Mutant Year Zero or (if and when I crack the secret Game Masters' book) Forbidden Lands. Even a one shot with ALIEN or TFTL would be fine; the settings may not thrill me, but Free League did a great job with them.


  1. I’m leaving out Symbaroum which uses d20-based mechanics, Mörk Borg which looks like some sort of Old School retroclone, and the upcoming Twilight 2000 which apparently will use a modified YZE system which rates each Attribute and Skill as D6, D8, D10, or D12. ↩︎

  2. MYZ has “sequel” games for playing as mutated animals, robots, and unmutated humans hiding in an undersea base. From what I can tell from preview and the like, the process (unsurprisingly) looks broadly similar. ↩︎

  3. As with Mutant Year Zero, TFL has a sequel game called Things From The Flood set in the 1990s. I don’t own it, but the character sheet is identical, and the only stated difference is that kids can get hurt permanently. ↩︎

  4. a.k.a. Career, Concept, Kin, Profession, Role, Type. ↩︎

  5. Or a special “success” symbol if using custom dice for Mutant Year Zero, Forbidden Lands, and sometimes others. ↩︎

  6. And its “sequel” games Genlab Alpha, Mechatron, and Elysium↩︎

  7. Or a special symbol in that spot on custom dice. ↩︎

  8. For example, in each turn Coriolis ship combat, the Engineer must allocate Energy Points to power critical systems. In ALIEN engineers just repair the ship; powering systems isn’t a concern … until Major Component Damage takes out the reactor. ↩︎

  9. The “Mythic North” isn’t really historical Scandinavia, but close enough. ↩︎

  10. Specifically “Food Supply”, “Culture”, “Technology”, and “Warfare”. Discoveries in the Zone can improve these a few points, but only sustained effort can give the Ark a defensive wall or a windmill. ↩︎