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Sunday, 12 February 2017

A Horrific Incursion

The setting for Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game is a near-future Solar System rent by inter-corporate rivalry and war in the face of a horrifying darkness that sows fear and chaos wherever mankind steps. Its insidious reach undermines the greatest of mankind’s advances and forces a technological regression that sets up the combination of horror and science fiction in the diesel punk sci-fi roleplaying game, now in its third edition, which was published by Modiphius Entertainment in 2015. Since then Modiphius Entertainment has published numerous sourcebooks for the setting, covering both factions and the setting, but only the one campaign, consisting so far of Dark Symmetry and its sequel, Dark Legion. As these titles suggest, their events play out against the backdrop of the RPG’s three different eras. Thus the events of the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book take place against the backdrop of mankind’s Golden Age as it collapses through the Fall and beyond as the Dark Symmetry is freed and unleashed, whilst the Dark Legion Campaign Book is set a thousand years after the Fall. Presumably the third part of the campaign, the Dark Eden Campaign Book will take place during the time of high conflict that is only barely touched upon in the core rulebook.

In fact, the events of the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book take place in two separate periods. The first period is a prelude to the second period and is set right at the start of the Dark Symmetry Era, mere days after the Imperial Conquistadors discover and touch the strange tablet that unleashes the Dark Symmetry on the Solar System and is explored in two connected scenarios, ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and ‘The Fall of von Hölle’. The second period comes near the end of the Dark Symmetry period after the end of the First Corporate Wars and is explored in the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself, which takes up three quarters of the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book. Both the prelude and the campaign proper have the same set-up of the player characters being detectives with, or freelancers working for, Luna PD, and to that end, pre-generated characters are provided. Unfortunately, only the one set of pre-generated characters is provided, which is something of an issue given that they can only be used with one or the other. So the players will need to generate their own characters if they are to play the Dark Symmetry Campaign and when they do so, their choices will be limited to the character types that are only available during that era.

The prelude opens with ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ in which the player characters, as detectives assigned to, or freelancers working for, Luna PD 32nd Precinct Homicide Division, are assigned a call-out to a tenement block, the eponymous ‘Straffar Gatan 39’, where the residents have reported screams and other strange sounds. The investigation takes place entirely in the environs of the tenement block, which becomes very much a character of its own as the scenario proceeds and the influence of the Dark Symmetry seeps into its walls and ducts until the point that the building turns against the investigators as they race to uncover what is going on in Straffar Gatan 39, rescue those still living there, and then get out. The latter is itself a challenge and for much of the scenario, the player characters will find themselves locked in, which may be a frustrating experience for some players. That said, there is a way out that becomes apparent towards the scenario’s end. The building is nicely detailed and its dilapidated state is reflected in it having been chopped open as a train tunnel has been driven past it. The scale of ‘Straffar Gatan 39’, which is relatively small and self-contained within the building itself, makes it a good starting scenario, exposing the players and their characters to the first signs of the Dark Symmetry.

Where ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ begins in a relatively benign fashion and lets the effects of the Dark Symmetry build towards the horror that comes to pervade the future of Mutant Chronicles, ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ exposes the player characters to the effects as they spread throughout the Solar System. Its tendrils reach out and affect pieces of high technology at random, corrupting it and setting it against its creators and users, and as the detectives are told to follow up the leads from their call out at Straffar Gatan 39, it begins to hamper their investigation. This is a much more of a traditional investigation in roleplaying terms and is thoroughly playable, but its best scenes are not the ones that really involve investigation. Instead, they are those that bring the detectives face to face with the effects of failing technology—out of control spaces plummeting to the Lunar surface, oil pipelines rupturing and their content threatening to immolate all and sundry, and so on. There are a couple of oddities in the scenario too, a pirate broadcast station that constantly plays across screens, but how it works is never quite explained and a building with a floor that it is not supposed to be there.

What is noticeable about ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and then ‘The Fall of von Hölle’, is that there is a step up in sophistication from the first to the second scenario, and similarly there is another step up in sophistication as the Dark Symmetry Campaign begins. Divided into six parts, it opens with ‘Appetite for Destruction’, which concerns itself with the day-to-day, shift-to-shift life of being a detective for the Cheapside Division of the Luna PD. The Mutant Chronicles: Luna & Freelancers Sourcebook is likely to be useful here as it lets the GM do ‘Luna Street Blues’, throwing lots of little situations and cases at the player characters whilst laying the foundation for the campaign’s main plot and the seeds for the climax to ‘Appetite for Destruction’, which occurs in the next part of the campaign, ‘Going Underground’. This second part is much shorter and sees the detectives delve into the sewers, tunnels, and ruins beneath Luna City. This is a good contrast to the hustle and bustle of Luna City above and both reveals the plot and brings the campaign to natural break. What is revealed is that a cult has been using the rampant drug trade and culture in the Cheapside sector to seed and implant humanity with alien horrors, this setting up the body and birthing horror themes a la the film Alien that runs rampant throughout the Dark Symmetry Campaign.

Completing ‘Appetite for Destruction’ and ‘Going Underground’ should give the players and their characters a sense of achievement and victory, but there is a greater plot to the Dark Symmetry Campaign that comes to the fore with its inter-corporate rivalry and corporate malfeasance in the third part, ‘Journey to Mars’ and beyond. When their corporate masters learn of what they encountered in and under Luna City, they task the player characters with transporting it to Mars—in complete and utter secrecy of course. It is on this journey that the campaign has the capacity to most closely emulate the film Alien, though there is respite of a sorts if the GM uses the various events that can happen to drive the player characters and their ship, The Pandora, to call in at Fuji Station, a space station between planets.

Unfortunately, if The Pandora does need repairs, the player characters certainly do not have the funds to pay for them. The only option presented is to use their precious, ‘secret’ cargo as some form of payment and there are factions aboard Fuji Station that will be interested in it. No other choices are suggested and as much as it is designed to put the player characters in an awkward situation with their employer, the campaign could have handled it better. Certainly the consequences of the player character actions could have been better explored before they arrive somewhat abruptly on Mars.

If the world of Mutant Chronicles is dominated by corporate interests, then in ‘The Deregulation Zone’, the fourth part of the Dark Symmetry Campaign, both they and capitalism, are allowed to run rampant. Dumped in this free for all zone following their arrival on Mars, the player characters need to navigate this capitalist paradise, following leads up the corporate ladder if they are to gain enough clues to be able to confront the villain of the piece. Where the start of the campaign, ‘Appetite for Destruction’, was free form in its structure, allowing the GM to direct its events, ‘The Deregulation Zone’ is free form in structure, but driven by the decisions and actions of the player characters. There is room here to expand the campaign should the GM decide to do so, but eventually, the detectives should have gained enough information and clues to able to approach the mastermind behind the plot.

‘The Deputy’, the fifth part of the campaign, is almost a slice of light relief after the events of the previous four parts. Essentially, the player characters get to audition for the new series of Don Stevia’s television show, jumping through a series of hoops in order to get to the ‘great’ man. Otherwise, the three scenes here are inconsequential, staged affairs, just as you would expect for reality television. In the final and sixth part of the campaign, ‘The Citadel’, the player characters get to assault the horrors that the all too human evil at the heart of the scenario is protecting. All that the player characters need are guns and the willpower to survive.

Much like certain adventures for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the Dark Symmetry Campaign does suffer from some terrible wordplay in Swedish and German. So the ‘Straffar Gatan’ of ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ actually means ‘Penalties Way’ in Swedish and the ‘von Hölle’ of ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ means ‘of Hell’ in German. This is not so much of a feature in the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself, although wordplay does abound. For example, the name of a hot-dog seller who is an ardent and vocal supporter of capitalism, is Milton Feedman, whilst the name of the reality television series that the player characters participate in is The Deputy rather than The Apprentice.

As good as the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book is, it is not without its issues. The first is the disconnect between the prelude—‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and ‘The Fall of von Hölle’—and the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself. Essentially there is no way for the characters from the prelude to go on to the campaign and perhaps it would have been better had a second set of pre-generated characters been provided to play with the full campaign. Perhaps though, the two scenarios could have been released in a book of their own and that would have allowed room for pre-generated characters in each book. The second issue is that although the campaign has some good set scenes, such as having to rescue the children from imminent immolation and having to ascend a building in a malfunctioning lift in ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ and having to repel a pirate boarding attempt in ‘Journey to Mars’, too often these set scenes, especially the climaxes are predicated on combat over other solutions. There is a lot of investigation to be conducted, but all too often the solution to any problem is a fight. The third issue is that whilst the first two scenarios do come with good handouts, there are almost none in the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself and what there is is instead, is several sections of heavy information that needs to be read out to the players. There is a lot to digest in these pieces and they could have been better handled and presented.

The fourth issue is the weakness of certain parts of the campaign, in particular aboard the space station in ‘Journey to Mars’ where they need to acquire repairs to their ship if they are to continue with their mission. The consequences of the player character actions are not really explored to any great depth in this chapter and the GM is essentially left on his own to handle the various possible outcomes—primarily what happens if the player characters lose their alien cargo?—on his own. Similarly, what happens when the player characters confront the villain of the piece, Don Stevia, is not fully explored. For example, does anything happen if they shoot him?

Lastly, there is the portrayal of Don Stevia himself. Essentially, he is a Donald Trump-like figure—very Donald Trump-like. This is obvious in his portrait in the book and in the name of his television show, The Deputy. Yet, for all his power and wealth, when the player characters do confront him, it is an anti-climax and likely to be unsatisfying. Of course, there is a satirical aspect to this portrayal, but in light of more recent events, there is the possibility that some players and GMs may be offended at such a portrayal.

Physically, the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book is nicely presented in full colour with a lot of visceral artwork. The book does need an edit in places though, and whilst there is a lot of information packed into the book, it means that the text itself is quite small and not always the easiest to read.

Whilst ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ together provide a decent introduction to Mutant Chronicles, the Dark Symmetry Campaign provides a good, if not perfect campaign for the game. It will require a GM with some experience to run properly as some elements of the campaign are not as fully developed as they could have been and so they are not as interesting as others. While it does well in delivering up the body horror and the corporate shenanigans, where the Dark Symmetry Campaign really shines is in the expansive sections that let the GM and player alike explore the world of Mutant Chronicles and allow it to breathe.