Previously I said this:
Mutant Year Zero would probably be next [favorite] 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.
Since I’ve referred to Mutant Year Zero as one of the RPGs I might want to play (or if necessary run) at some point, I may neeed to drill down into what it is and what I like about it.
The Elevator Pitch
You’re mutants living in an Ark scavenging the Zone around you.
Let’s drill down on that a bit.
Mutants: Each player character has a random mutation that both helps and hinders them. Each non-player character is a mutant, although the Elder of your tribe is a little … not-strange. The world as far as you know is full of mutants. Then again, you’ve only met the people you grew up with and live with.
The Ark: No mere squat, this. It’s a moderately-sized survival module with a few hundred people living here, mostly on preserved MREs that are running out. The leaders – many self-appointed – have sent you out to scavenge for resources. Players alternate between portraying their own characters and the hundreds of mutants trying to decide what to do next now that the Elder is unwell and the worst elements are trying to throw their weight around.
The Zone: Few people have been outside the Ark. It’s mostly a big quiet room with shattered buildings and broken junk from the old world. But it does have dangers, like the Rot: an unspecified mix of radiation, biohazard, and gray goo that can make you sick and keep you sick for the rest of your miserable existence. There’s animals, too, not always the ones you’ve seen in old picture books (if you have any of those), and … are those people? Maybe they’ll be friends with – urk! …
More on the Ark and the Zone later. The elevator is opening.
Making Your Mutant
A while ago I presented a sample character for MYZ. Let’s walk through how I created her, starting at page 17 of the Fourth Printing.
Pick a Role. There are eight roles in MYZ:
- An Enforcer punches people for other people.
- A Gearhead turns scrap and junk into tools and contraptions.
- A Stalker enters the Zone and knows how to get out again.
- A Fixer’ll get you what you want, if you just do a little favor for them …
- A Dog Handler trains a loyal dog(?) to watch his back.
- A Chronicler writes down what happens for future generations, with only a little bias …
- A Boss runs a gang … for mutual protection … yeah, that’s it …
- A Grunt does all the hard labor for little reward.1
I’ll pick Stalker2.
Name: Each role suggests a few names. I’ll pick Jena.
Attributes: The player thend distributes 14 points across the four attributes. Each must be between 2 and 4 except the one listed as “key attribute” for the character’s Role.
I’ll go with Strength 3, Agility 5 (a Stalker’s key ability), Wits 4, and Empathy 2. Not a people person, our Jena.
Skills: The player then gets 10 points to distribute among 12 common skills plus one special skill for the character’s Role.
A Stalker’s special skill is Find the Path, based on (you guessed it) Agility. I’ll add points to that one and a few others:
- Find the Path (A) 2
- Know the Zone (W) 3
- Scout (W) 3
- Shoot (A) 1
- Sneak (A) 1
Skills are based on an Attribute; I’ve abbreviated Agility and Wits for each of these skills.
Talents: Each role gets a choice of three Talents. I’ll pick Rot Finder. That stuff is nasty, and I don’t want to step in it.
Mutation: The player then rolls for (or draws a special card for) their character’s mutation. Let’s pretend I did that and got Reptilian. This gives her three abilities:
- Jena can change the color and pattern of her skin to automatically succeed at a Sneak check and blend into the surroundings.
- Jena can contort herself to squeeze through a small hole.
- Jena can entrance a humanoid with her eyes, confusing them.
Each of these costs Mutation Points, which I’ll get to later.
Relationships to PCs: Next the players define Jena’s relationship to the other PCs. One of them is your Buddy, which gives extra bonuses I’ll (maybe?) get to later.
Relationships to NPCs: Each Role suggests NPCs that the PC has strong feelings about, in both directions. Pick two.
Big Dream: Each mutant has a Big Dream, suggested by the Role, NPCs, or whatever the player wants.
Gear: The Ark has no money, although barter suffices. (Bullets are practically cash.) The Role details starting gear, including the PC’s supply of grub and water. Don’t let those run out!
The One We Made Earlier
And that’s Jena (again) …
Appearance: hairless, androgynous, always wears backpack
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 bullets3, 5 rations of grub, 6 rations of water, bow, 5 arrows
Playing Your Mutant
Like all Year Zero Engine4 games, the basic mechanic is to add your skill rating (even if it’s zero) to the associated Attribute and roll that many six-sided dice. Every six counts as a success.
Pushing Your Roll
In MYZ, dice are color-coded as coming from Attributes, Skills, and Gear. (Any adjustment to dice for circumstances count as Skill dice.) If you don’t like your first roll, you can Push your roll by rolling all the failed dice again … unless they rolled a 1. Those dice, and the ones that came up 1 on the reroll, generate damage based on their source:
- Attribute Dice do damage to the Attribute. When the Attribute goes to zero, the character is BROKEN and unable to act until healed.
- Gear Dice do damage to the Gear being used. If the Gear’s bonus goes to zero, the gear is broken (no caps) and can’t be repaired.
- Skill Dice … are OK. 1s don’t mean anything to them.
On the plus side, if you roll 1s (“banes”) on your Attribute Dice, you get that many Mutation Points to power your mutations. At the start of each session a mutant gets one MP, but obviously you need more, right? All it requires is a little suffering.
Conflict & Combat
Combat works like skill challenges: once players and GM determine initiative order (roll 1D6, on a tie highest Agility goes first), players make Manipulate checks to outfox each other, Intimidate checks to scare each other, Fight checks to punch each other, or Shoot checks … you know.
Each character gets one Action (roll dice or activate an active Mutation) and one Maneuver (to seek cover, draw a weapon, etc.; see p. 80). You can also do two Maneuvers if that works better for you. Combat is what one would expect, but MYZ also has rules for Social Combat – remember Manipulate and Intimidate? – because part of living in the Ark is getting along, or at least not pissing off someone enough that they and a dozen of their friends beat you up with a spiked bat.
Also, remember, your gear is junk. Weapons don’t do much damage. If you wear Armor you roll a number of dice equal to the Armor value; every 6 you roll blocks one point of incoming damage. So your Armor may not do jack.
Damage and Critical Injuries
In combat, physical Damage comes off Strength, Fatigue from Agility, Confusion from Wits, and Doubt from Empathy. Whatever the source, when one of these goes to zero you’re BROKEN. You can’t use any skills, perform any Actions, or activate mutations … but you can do one Maneuver a turn to try to protect yourself. You’ll only recover when someone Heals you. (It’s a skill.)
If you’re broken by Damage, though, you also have to contend with a Critical Injury. Roll two dice on the Critical Injury table and hope you get 11 (Lost Breath) and not 66 (Crushed Skull, die instantly).
Living in the Ark
Life in the Ark isn’t simply about the struggle for canned food and bullets. It’s the struggle to make the Ark a better place.
Development Levels measure the Ark’s capabilities on four important axes:
- Food Supply: How much work does finding food require?
- Culture: How and how easily do the people express themselves?
- Technology: How much of the Old World’s technical knowhow do the People have and use?
- Warfare: How can the Ark defend itself against threats?
Variables start at 0, but each new Artifact brought back to the Ark for study increases one or more of these scores. A Culture rating of 0-9, for example, means hardly anyone can read or write, whereas a rating of 30-39 means the People have begun to form social and political opinions. (Usually a good thing.) Technology 0-9 indicates nothing but scavenged gear while Technology 30 indicates the ability to build generators and breech-loaded guns. And so on.
All four variables are interdependent. Greater Food Supply means more time to understand Culture, Technology, and Warfare. Greater Warfare relies on better Technology. And so on.
At the top of every session, the players portray The Assembly, a group meeting of all the Ark’s residents to decide on important issues. The most important, as Development Levels rise, is what Ark improvement Projects they will undertake.
As players move on to the adventure of the week, the Assembly allocates its available manpower – Work Points – to Projects that use and improve each rating. The Assembly can improve its Food Supply, for example, by building a Farm, setting up a Pigsty, sending Hunting Expeditions … or through Cannibalism. Likewise they can choose to erect
As Development Levels increase, Projects can get more ambitious: a Library, a Generator, a Printing Press, and a choice of forms of government like Autocracy or (universal) Suffrage and economic systems like Collectivism and Free Enterprise. Eventually the Ark can spawn a new Settlement and perhaps keep in touch through Radio.
Threats to the Ark
Other survivors are less enlightened. Marauders can come with guns and repaired jeeps to plunder your Ark. The book has a few pages devoted to summarizing these pitched battles and determining the casualties.
The Gamemaster’s section has other possible threats from plagues to mutants bearing gifts to revolution within the Ark.5 Those and much more can befall the players each section. Have fun!
Stalking the Zone
While not a huge part of the Ark’s life, expeditions into the Zone may form a large part of players’ activivities. The Assembly has to approve each expedition: that’s how dangerous it is.
Players start with a rough map – maybe only blank graph paper – of the Zone surrounding the Ark, and must investigate every sector of ruined buildings, deserted parks, wrecked machinery, and flooded or Rot-infested landscape.6
The rules assume the Ark is situated in an urban area. It provides two default maps: the “Rotten Apple” (New York) and the “Big Smoke” (London).
Apart from hunting for food, artifacts the major reason to risk the Zone. Some are immediately useful, like weapons not assembled out of junk. (Compare a zip-gun to a Sig Sauer.) Others, like old books and examples of broken technology, add to the Ark’s development levels and enable Projects that further develop the Ark.
Avoiding the Rot
Yes, one must look out for maurauding mutants, and Zone Ghouls, and mutant monsters … but the biggest danger of the Zone is arguably the Rot. It’s invisible, it’s almost everywhere in the Zone, and it’s hard to get rid of. Immediately upon contamination, the player must roll a number of dice equal to their current Rot Points, and each 1 causes one point of damage. “Temporary” Rot points fade with time out of the Zone, but periodically the player rolls a number of dice equal to their temporary Rot Points; on a 1, a point becomes permanent.
Threats in the Zone
About those other threats, though:
- Other Mutants want what you want, and what you may have, and may not be so picky about getting it.
- Zone Ghouls are mysterious humanoids who seem to avoid the sun. They are very territorial.
- Mutant monsters are varied and sometimes very weird.
Add to that acid rain, unexploded minefields, mysterious magnetic fields, and stranger things, and there’s a reason the People fear the Zone.
This one ran a little long, but to be fair it took me three posts to cover Coriolis, not including excursions into robots and ships.
As this is one of my “non-reviews”, I’m not going to critique the setting, rules, prose style, layout, index, etc. I will merely say that this is the sort of gritty post-apocalypse I’ve been waiting for. Not a Gamma World romp, a game about actually surviving enemies both inside and out and trying to rebuild something like civilization.7
The second edition of Numenera added rules for settling down and building a community in the Ninth World. This is a potentially darker version of that. Dictatorship and cannibalism are distinct possibilities to “improve” the Ark, and the Zone isn’t a fun place. If you’re down with that, though, you may enjoy the challenge and the moodiness of Mutant: Year Zero.
Called a “slave” in previous editions until I guess someone pointed out the Unfortunate Implications. ↩︎
An homage to the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic or the Tarkovsky movie made from it. ↩︎
Used not only as ammo but as currency. ↩︎
Is it OK to still link to this? Bueller? ↩︎
The rulebook provides a random table of threats for those of us who sometimes (often) run out of inspiration during session prep. The optional card deck has the entries as cards. It also has cards for mutations and artifacts. Recommended if you can find them and afford the extra $18+. ↩︎
If you’ve already read Free League’s Forbidden Lands, this is where their hexcrawling rules started. ↩︎
There’s also a metaplot about finding “Eden”, a place where all your needs are met and all your dreams come true. Having read the last chapter of the book, it’s predictably a hollow hope. I’d just as soon leave it out. I hate metaplots. ↩︎