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Saturday, 3 February 2018

The ‘I Got The Altered Morphology Blues’ Trio

Despite there being being some well-known and highly-acclaimed comic book series about the policing of superheroes—including Alan Moore’s Top 10, Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers, and Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central—it is surprising that few superhero roleplaying games have explored the subgenre. One notable exception is Mutant City Blues, superpowered roleplaying game written by Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press in 2008, and powered by the GUMSHOE System.

Mutant City Blues posits a near future in which following the outbreak of ‘Ghost Flu’, approximately 1% of the population exhibits ‘Sudden Mutation Event’ (SME) and subsequently manifests strange and wondrous powers and abilities. Most of these individuals go on to lead normal lives, some of course, become celebrities and politicians, whilst others turn to crime. In response, most big city police forces establish a Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit (HCIU) or similar department, staffed by the super powered and tasked to investigate and solve SME related crimes, whether committed by or against SME sufferers. The HCIU also serves as a combination liaison/bulwark between these mutants and ordinary folk, both civilians and fellow police officers. The result is a roleplaying game which more an investigative Police Procedural—such as NYPD Blue or C.S.I.—with and about powers rather than a ‘Four Colour’ affair. Sadly, Mutant City Blues received just the one supplement in print, Hard Helix. There is though, another scenario anthology, one which only appeared in PDF.

Brief Cases presents a trilogy of cases to add a Mutant City Blues campaign or a change of pace—with some adjustment—in another superhero campaign. All three cases involve plenty of investigation, just about the right amount of combat, and lots of roleplaying. None of the three scenarios should take more than a good session or two and would work as single cases or scenarios to slip in between longer investigations.

The trilogy opens with ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ and the chance discovery of a bomb-making workshop. Closer investigation reveals a plot against an anti-mutant rally. This cleverly puts the loyalties of the characters and the members of the HCIU to test as they have to protect someone who hides their anti-mutant prejudice under a veneer of respectability and concern. This is Adria Dawson, a former celebrity chef, who is now the motherly face of Families First and passive anti-mutant prejudice. Mutant opposition to her means that there are plenty of suspects and opportunities for the player characters to keep the peace and handle the press. The scenario though calls for solid forensic skills and good use of the Quade Diagram, the means of selecting powers for characters and NPCs alike and of HCIU officers determining what powers are used at a crime scene. The Game Master has some fun NPCs to portray and there is a nicely constructed clue trail for the players and their characters to follow in what is a really enjoyable investigation that in 2018 has some parallels with the prevailing social climate.

The second scenario, ‘Blastback’, starts with an interesting premise, a mutant-only gym and sets a murder there. Playing upon the concept of the Danger Room from the X-Men comics, the Danger Room is a gym where mutants go to practise and exercise their powers and now one of its customers has been killed, stabbed to death by a knife machine despite his having the Blade Immunity power. This is more of a labyrinthine investigation, delving back into the history of both the gym and mutant culture. Getting to one NPC is a bit awkward and could have been better handled as he important clues to pass on, and although lengthy, the investigation is not as satisfying as ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’. The climax is more challenging though, involving organised crime and illegal mutant fights. This is should not be a problem for player characters with combat related skills, but for a group with more investigative skills the final scenes will need police backup and that may not be quite as satisfying an ending.

The third scenario, ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’, takes the investigators back to school when a lawyer falls out of the sky and lands on a car in the local high school’s carpark. It looks like there might be an unidentified mutant in the school, either a student or a teacher. There are plenty of suspects, some of whom are hiding their powers, some of whom they are not. Good interview and interpersonal skills are required to identify suspects and further leads despite a red herring or two, and as the investigators close in on the culprits there are some nicely paced action scenes. Unlike the previous two scenarios, the investigators will be dealing with more mutants than just the one or two perpetrators and as they stick together, getting them to crack is a bit more difficult. The scenario comes to a bit of a clichéd ending, but the consequences to the player characters’ investigation are interesting and have gaming potential in themselves, especially if the HCIU decides to do an outreach programme.

Physically, Brief Cases comes as a thirty-four page, black and white, 5.41 Mb PDF with a good full colour cover. The internal illustrations are few in number and do not always quite fit the scenario. There are no maps, but then none of the scenarios have scenes and locations which are not familiar from television cop shows. Of course, that just makes each of the scenes in the trilogy of scenarios easy to frame. The writing is clear and the scenarios are easy to understand throughout bar the awkwardness of the investigators getting to one NPC in ‘Blastback’.

As an addition to a Mutant City Blues campaign, then the trilogy of scenarios presented in Brief Cases is thoroughly useful. All three are good scenarios and enjoyable investigations which may also be a useful source of ideas for other superhero roleplaying games.