Mutant: Year Zero Review

Mutant: Year Zero is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game by Free Play League and distributed by Modiphius.  This book was recommended to me by Michael Collett from the Friday Night Roleplaying club. I am unabashed in my love of post-apocalyptic games and settings, and while the genre is incredibly popular for video games, published role playing games in this vein seem few and far between. The grandfather of these is, of course, Gamma World, which was a wonderfully weird look at life after the great mistake. Mutant: Year Zero has a darker tone.

This is a grim and unforgiving take on life among the ashes. The technology level is decidedly modern, lacking the fanciful science fiction elements common in Gamma World or Fallout. In some ways, it is even low tech, with the absence of computers and cellular communications. If you have a working vehicle that is a luxury.  You may have a gun, but you rarely want to use it, as bullets are the currency of the world and must be tracked. You also need to keep track of food, water, and your rot level if you hope to survive long. Life is hard in Mutant: Year Zero, and the game is as much resource management and base building as it is exploration and fighting.

The core of the game is rooted in the zone map. This is effectively a hex crawl, where you go in search of food, water, and supplies. There is a mechanic to randomly generate these zones within the map, which is how I first began running the game. I found this to be a shallow way to experience the world. You miss out on the detail and strangeness inherent in such a setting if you are merely rolling dice and populating an area according to tables. After the zone is generated, the players roll dice to navigate the area and the result of that roll determines what they encounter and any items they find. At early levels it is possible to roll up a death trap for the characters, and if they roll poorly in response, wipe the entire party. While this is thematically appropriate, it can be unsatisfying to be victims to the whims of fate to this degree.

In contrast, the book offers a handful of fleshed out zones for players to interact with, and these are where I think the game shines. You can take multiple approaches and handle the situation in smart ways. It encourages and rewards immersive play. I found interspersing these more crafted areas amid the randomly generated squares to be the best approach for running the game. Sadly, the core book does not give you enough of these, so it is wise to supplement with the zone books for the line, invent your own, or find zones other places. Such as, perhaps, a Zine. Like Survivalism, which is available on the Full Metal RPG patreon.

Shameless plugs aside, Mutant: Year Zero feels like it is really two games married together. There is the exploration part, where you are going out and searching for resources, and there is the Ark, your home base. At the start of each session you generate a new threat, by either rolling or drawing from a deck of cards Modiphius will happily sell you. After this is done, you undertake projects. These are things that increase the technology level, defenses, or resource generation abilities of your Ark. You can build a stable, functional society, or opt for a cannibal death cult that destroys anyone they come across.

The Ark is deeply political environment, ruled over by competing bosses and nominally overseen by the eldest, the last true human of which you know. The mind of the eldest has started to go and the future is very uncertain. Further, mutants do not survive past 30, so if a solution is not found soon, your people are doomed to extinction. The bosses are jockeying for position, and a number of the threat cards are centered around the ark, and existential threats to your scrappy society, both internal and external.

It is possible to run entire sessions either in the Ark or out in the wasteland. The flavor of each is very different. In the wasteland everyone cooperates to find resources, fight off monsters, and survive. Back in the Ark the players had a tendency to split apart and each scheme with different bosses and factions. When the end came for players in my game, it was inside the Ark, as a result of their actions or the wheels set into motion by others.

There is a story underlying all of this. I will not get into it, as I want to avoid spoilers and found it slightly underwhelming. It is not terrible, it is simply a tad predictable and uninteresting, all told. I did not use much of this material when I ran the game myself, but if meta plot is your thing, there is a meta plot here you can run with should you so desire.

The core mechanic involves rolling d6 to resolve actions. There are three types of dice needed: Attribute, Ability, and Equipment. It helps to have different colored dice for these, and Modiphius will happily sell you exorbitantly priced custom dice. 6s represent successes, and 1s are potentially bad. If you do not generate any successes, you have the option to push the role, but doing so causes the 1s rolled to have a negative effect. You either take attribute strain, or your equipment suffers damage.

The game is called mutant, and you are playing a mutant. Character creation is a point buy system, where you start by picking your role, and then assigning attributes and abilities based on that role and its special ability and talents. Mutations are randomly generated, which can make things a bit lopsided. In our play through we had several characters who rarely used their mutations, and others who used them every opportunity they had. Mutations are fueled by mutation points. Mutation points are generated when you take attribute strain, or at the start of each session if you are at 0. Using mutations forces you to roll a number of dice equal to the mutation points spent. On a roll of 1, something unexpected happens and you roll again. A further roll of 1 means you permanently lose an attribute point, but gain a new mutation. The other results have their own effect, but the two ones are effectively the death spiral that is built into the game. Once your attributes are low enough your character is no longer playable.

One final quibble is availability. Mutant: Year Zero suffers from a problem that seems all too common among the Free Play League games: Finding a copy can be an absolute chore. You can, of course, order from the publisher over in England, which can nearly doubles the cost of acquiring the game. The alternative is hunting across multiple game shops until you manage to stumble across a copy and then snatch it up like Gollum grabbing the Precious.

I like Mutant: Year Zero quite a bit. It is not as gonzo as I had initially hoped for, and the resource management and bookkeeping portions can be a bit tedious, but it is a really fun game to run and experiment with. I feel like the zone books are almost necessary to get the maximum utility out of the game, and it really could use a games master book to expand on zone building, adversary generation, creating maps, and offer a toolkit for modifying the game. It is a gritty, dark take on a genre that is often portrayed as weird and humorous. There is a lot here to like and you should pick it up if this type of game interests you. Assuming you can find it.

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