Let’s face it, the post apocalypse sucks but it’s a good setting for fiction. It’s rife with drama and struggle because things we once took for granted become rare, valuable commodities that once-sane people would gladly rip each other’s throats out to acquire. Naturally, this makes the post-apocalypse a great environment for roleplaying. The players (and the NPCs around them) are rarely comfortable, always on edge, and could run out of vital supplies at any instant; welcome to the future my friends.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at why Mutant: Year Zero by Modiphius Games is the quintessential post-apocalyptic roleplaying game:
System: D6 pool
Complexity: Not very complex.
Is it good?: Yes
The book itself is well presented, with gorgeous art on the cover and throughout the rest of the volume. It’s also well formatted – making it very easy to find what you’re supposed to be looking for during play. Finally, there are flavorful sidebars throughout the book that add some context to what you’re reading; expanding upon the ruined world you’ll be playing in.
In Mutant: Year Zero, players take on the roles of heavily mutated survivors of a cataclysmic event that kills the overwhelming majority of human life on Earth. Nobody alive is over thirty, except the Elder, the boss of your home town. Character creation is pretty much a simple point-distribution affair, starting with your four main attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits, Empathy, pretty self-explanatory), and then you choices from among twelve skills. You also select one of eight classes, which will give you an additional choice of three unique abilities. Furthermore, each character starts with a single randomly-generated mutation with the option to suffer Rot (basically radiation/poison) to take another. The character creation process is not difficult, but by the end, you’ll have a character unlike any of the other players at your table; even if someone else picks the same class.
The game itself is a simple multi-D6 pool system, with three different colours of dice to use: yellow, green and black. You compile your pool based on your relative attribute, skill and gear bonuses respectively. To succeed in a roll all you need is a single 6. That’s it, just one. However, if you don’t roll any 6s (i.e., you fail a roll), the GM has complete control over what happens to you; the only caveat being they can’t just say “you fail”. You could accidentally shoot a rope keeping the walls secured, or you could accidentally murder a hostage you were trying to rescue. This keeps things very interesting because absolutely anything can happen to you as the result of a failed roll. Anything that is, except nothing.
Of course, if you don’t want to fail (and who does?), you can push a roll. This means picking up all the dice that weren’t 6s or 1s and rolling again. While this could result in a success (or a better success), it does have its risks. Any 1s that come up on either of these rolls causes a point of trauma (damage) to the attribute you were rolling, reducing it by that many points. However, they also give you Mutation Points, which are needed to activate the special abilities of that mutation you got at character creation. Since your average starting character is likely to only have a score of three or four in each of his stats, this makes pushing your rolls a game of risk. Do you need that point to activate your fire breath and torch the raiders threatening your party? Is it worth almost killing yourself over? This goes double for combat, where most guns will do a minimum of two points of damage on a successful hit; assuming you’re not wearing armour of some kind.
But the post-apocalypse isn’t all about disabling traps and shooting mutant dogs. In Mutant, you can meet your demise through such simple means as not having enough food or water to drink. Everyone starts with a certain amount of food and water, and different classes get different amounts of the three resources (grub, water and bullets – which double as a standard currency). You must consume at least one unit of grub and water a day, or you start to suffer for it. While it does say that water is exceptionally rare, GMs should be careful not to make it too rare, lest the players spend most of their time simply scavenging for food, instead of exploring the game’s deep and intriguing metaplot (which I won’t spoil here).
In addition to the personal actions undertaken by the players themselves, players in Mutant are also responsible for the development of the Ark; the settlement they live in. An absurd amount of detail is put into the management and development of this ragged, barely-sustainable habitat. Once per game session the players gather and discuss their course of action. Do we start development on one of the numerous projects to make living just a little bit easier? Or do we go into work mode and finish a project we started last session? Although it sounds awkward, Ark development is actually a very enjoyable subsystem for a game like this. It makes the players feel like they have some kind of control over their home town, and heightens the tension when it comes under threat by bandits, wildlife, or internal struggle.
Unfortunately, the Ark system is also a prime example of my only major problem with the game – sometimes Mutant is too dark. Obviously these things can be “houseruled” out or otherwise adjusted on a per-GM basis, but when taken as it’s written in the book, life just seems…hopeless. At the start of every game session, a number of people in the Ark will die due to poverty or violence or something else. No ifs, ands or butts, this is a rule in the game, and there’s nothing the players can do about it. Since the Ark only has a population of around 300, this means that a long running campaign could see the Ark become a ghost town. I know the writers were going for a “humanity is irrevocably, irredeemably screwed (unless the characters solve the metaplot)” vibe, but when I got to this stage in the book, my first thought was “what’s the point, then?” It seems the writers really wanted the metaplot to be a front-and-center point in all games of Mutant, but my immediate second thought was to figure out a way to houserule away the guaranteed deaths in the Ark.
That being said Mutant: Year Zero is still an amazing game of post-apocalyptic survival. It can be adapted to pretty much any post-apocalyptic setting you can imagine, and the system is simple enough to keep RPG newbies interested without having to constantly reread the rules. This is definitely a game I would recommend to anyone looking for a good old fashioned survival story. 9/10
– James Samuel