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Sunday, 2 September 2018

Game Like It’s Another 1978

Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic is a barbarians and blasters, mutants and mayhem, AIs as gods, wetware as magic take upon Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Published by Goodman Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game takes the mechanics and set-up of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game maps them onto a post-apocalyptic future a la the 1978 genre pioneer, Gamma World. What this means is that the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is a Class and Level game based on the d20 System, but which uses dice other the standard polyhedrals; that it is possible to play Level Zero characters going out on their first adventure to hopefully survive and return as First Level adventurers; and that it is compatible, so that characters from the one roleplaying game could visit the other and vice versa and the Game Master can mix and match content as is her wont.

The setting for the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is Terra A.D.—Terra ‘After Disaster’—sometime in a future. Sometime in the past, a Great Disaster befell the world—perhaps a nuclear war, perhaps Ragnarok, perhaps the fall of Atlantis—and shattered its continents, its environments, its ecologies, and its civilisations. The world of Terra A.D. might have been our world once, but not it is geographically undefined, awaiting the input of the Game Master. Now many years later, Terra A.D. has been populated by a great number of new species, many of whom have achieved sentience and intelligence, including plants and animals. They have also acquired wondrous mutations which sometimes give them an edge in surviving the dangerous world of Terra A.D. with its ever-constant threat of mutagens and radiation which threaten to twist and alter their genomes even further. Other mutations are detrimental to their survival. Under the ever present ‘Sky Arc’ which glows night and day—though no moon—the descendants of the survivors of the Great Disaster venture out from the safety of their tribes and homes to explore the world of Terra A.D. They are at best Stone Age barbarians, but they are not stupid, for they know that within the ruins of the Ancients lie items of technology which will help them survive, help them defend against predators and rivals, and perhaps help them build a better life. They may find allies in secret societies known as Archaic Alignments, but they may find enemies for not all secret societies their aims.

The Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has four Races or Genotypes—Pure Strain Human, Mutant, Manimal, and Plantient. Mutants—humans with mutations, Manimals—mutated intelligent animals, and Plantient—sentient, mutated plants, all have mutations where the Pure Strain Human does not. The Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game also treats Race—or Genotype—as Class, so that Mutant, Manimal, and Plantient are also Classes. For the Pure Strain Human, there are four Classes to choose from. These are the Sentinel, the Shaman, the Healer, and the Rover—roughly the equivalent of the Fighter, the Wizard, the Cleric, and the Thief. Sentinels are warriors with high Hit Points, extra attacks (eventually), and bonuses to understand artefact arms and armour. Shaman specialise in ancient lore and knowledge and serve an AI patron, who in return will grant wetware programs of great power as well as the Invoke Patron AI program. Healers have a greater understanding of the Ancients’ healing artefacts and can use natural remedies to heal others a little each day. Rovers have a knack for circumventing the computer secured doors and containers of the Ancients. All four Classes have an advantage when being recognised by AIs and all are lucky to varying degrees, able to recover the Luck a player will have his character burn to improve dice rolls and so on. 

Of the other three Classes, they can all suffer from Radburn and evolve by gaining or losing mutations if exposed to other mutagens. They can use ‘Glowburn’ to burn off points of their physical attributes to gain bonuses to their mutation rolls. Mutants can strike fear into their opponents because of their odd appearance and may be easily recognised by an AI Manimals have a natural attack, pack mentality, and are rarely recognised by any AI Plantients also have a natural attack, either thorns or spiny missiles, can emit pheromones to make others like them, and can easily hide in vegetation outside. Plantients are never recognised by any AI All characters have an Archaic Alignment and belong to a secret society of some type. All seven Classes only go up to Tenth Level.

Characters in the Mutant Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, just like in Dungeons & Dragons, have six Abilities – Strength, Agility, Stamina, Personality, Intelligence, and Luck, each rolled on three six-sided dice. These are rolled in strict order, because after all, life in Terra A.D. is simply tough. Each character has a birth sign, which indicates the situation when their Luck bonus comes into play, and a Genotype. If a character is a Mutant, Manimal, or Plantient, then a player gets to roll on an appropriate set of tables to determine their character’s appearance. Lastly, a quick roll determines whether the character is a hunter or gatherer, only sets their base equipment—wooden spear or leather sack respectively.

Our sample character is Fingy, a strong, but somewhat dim and unperceptive sentient plant or Plantient. When roused, he is probably as spikey as his appearance and when he does get into danger, well, he is lucky.

Fingy
Zero Level Plantient
STR 16 (+2) AGL 10 STM 12
PER 06 (-1) INT 04 (-2) LCK 15 (+1)
Hit Points: 4
Saving Throws
Fortitude +0 Reflex +0 Willpower -1
Birth Sign: Eco-Bot
Luck Benefit: Hit Points
Weapon: Flint Dagger (1d4)
Equipment: Leather Sack, Leather Rucksack, Bone Necklace, Flint Dagger
Appearance: Cacti (Prickly Pear)

At this point of course, a character is only Level Zero. As in Dungeon Crawl Classics, what a player is supposed to do is roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a Character Funnel. This is a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, this is a’ Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth.

In Fingy’s case, he can zap enemies around him through the ground with electricity, sense enemies and others nearby by tasting the air, and he is fast. The electricity has probably made him jittery, but when he wants to, he can move so fast, he gets two actions per round. (This is represented by the extra action die, a second die that can be rolled to make another attack in a round.) 

Fingy
First Level Plantient (Sprout)
STR 16 (+2) AGL 10 STM 12
PER 06 (-1) INT 04 (-2) LCK 15 (+1)
Hit Points: 10
Saving Throws
Fortitude +1 Reflex +0 Willpower +0
Birth Sign: Eco-Bot
Luck Benefit: Hit Points
Action Dice: d20+d16

Class Abilities: Fragrance Pheromones (gain 2 Luck per point spent, regenerate 2/day), Can’t See the Forest for the Trees (Hide in Greenery 50%), Radburn, Glowburn, AI Recognition (Never)
Archaic Alignment: The Atomic Equinox
Artefact Check: -1

Physical Mutations
Electrical Generation (Fingy’s feet glow and an electrical pulse shoots through the ground to the target)
Extra Senses (Long flicking, extensible tongue that tastes the air)
Increased Speed (Unable to remain still at rest or when sleeping, Move +20’)

Weapon: Flint Dagger (1d4), Thrown Thorny Spines (1d4)
Equipment: Leather Sack, Leather Rucksack, Bone Necklace
Appearance: Cacti (Prickly Pear)

Of the six core Abilities, Luck is the one that needs the most explanation. It is used for various different skill checks and rolls, for each character’s single Luck Benefit—for example, in the case of Fingy, to add to his Hit Points each Level. It also affects critical hit, fumble, and various other rolls. It can even be burned to gain a one-off bonus on a point for point basis. This though, is a permanent use and once used, it is gone. That said, some Classes do regain Luck and some can share it out too. 

Nearly a quarter of the book is devoted to mental mutations, physical mutations, and defects, of which there are some twenty-seven of each, plus eight each of the physical and mental mega mutations. Ranging from Amplimorph to Wings, Absorption to Time Stop, Asymmetrical Body to Weak Willed, the mutations are a mix of the active and the passive. Passive mutations have a one-time, permanent effect, both the effect and manifestation type—there being four per mutation—being rolled for when a character acquires them. So, for example, the Heightened Intelligence mutation might manifest as an overly large head, a completely hairless head and body, an atrophied body, or the character being an advanced future version of himself. To determine the effect, the character’s player rolls a mutation check roll on the accompanying table (there is a table for each mutation or defect) and might get a defect or a cosmetic change, or his Intelligence Ability might go up by between one and seven points and be able to work how artefacts work, and so on. With active mutations, this is rolled each time the mutation is used. So, for example, the Light Generation physical mutation enables a character to generate blasts of photons, which might manifest as the mutant’s hands flashing, his eyes shooting beams of light, his skin incandescing momentarily, or being surrounded by a ball of light which is then discharged at the target. Its effects range from it failing to work and causing a defect or simply failing to blinding someone temporarily, stunning targets, hypnotising them, and more.

A player can spend his character’s Luck to get a better effect for his mutation. He can also though, use ‘Glowburn’. Instead of burning Luck, he can choose to permanently burn points on a one for one basis from his character’s physical Abilities to improve a mutation check roll. This represents the damage done by the character have ingested small amounts of mutagens or radioactive materials to temporarily enhance his mutant ability.

Now essentially, the mutations in Mutant Crawl Classics work and use tables like the spells in Dungeon Crawl Classics. Referring to is okay when making a mutation check roll for passive mutations, but for active mutations, both player and Game Master are going to be referring to these tables quite a lot. This is because every time an active mutation is used, its effect varies enough not make it easy to note them down for easy reference.

Similarly, Shaman have tables to determine the manifestation and effect of their wetware programs. They gain such programs by pledging their service to a Patron AI and finding a more experienced shaman pledged to that Patron AI and who can initiate them. There are eight Patron AIs given in total, ranging from ACHROMA (Ad-hoc Computer Hierarchy with Recursive Optical Memory AI) and GAEA (Global Earth Array AI) to TETRAPLEX (Transcendent Extrapolating Term Research AI, Plexed) and UKUR (Universal Kinetic Underground Rail). Some of these AIs co-operate and so are categorised into three Alliances, the Mainframe of Order, the Grid of Net Neutrality, and the Mainframe of Entropy, which together can be seen as the nearest that Mutant Crawl Classics gets to the traditional Alignment of Dungeons & Dragons.

In return for his service to his Patron AI, a Shaman learns one basic program, Invoke Patron AI. He runs this to contact his Patron and in return is granted further wetware programs and potentially, other benefits. In addition, there is a chance of the Shaman gaining Taint from his association with his Patron AI. These vary from Patron AI to Patron AI, so with Invoke Patron AI, ACHROMA might grant a temporary Intelligence boost (which can be expended as Glowburn), holographic duplicates, advanced hacking abilities, and so on; but the effects of Taint cause the Shaman to become more computer-like. Like all Patron AI, ACHROMA grants three programs—Security Override, Artificial Intelligence Hack, and EMP, available at First, Second, and Third Level. There are a number of issues with this, the primary one being there no programs available once a Shaman reaches Seventh Level and beyond… The other one being a lack of choice in terms of the programs available, which limits the abilities and powers a Shaman has from session to session. Now the option would be to use the spells from the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, but again there are issues with this. Mutant Crawl Classics does not provide a list of Dungeon Crawl Classics spells which are appropriate to each Patron AI and as much as the Arthur C. Clarke adage that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’—or in this case this reverse of it—applies here, the spells from Dungeon Crawl Classics do not have the feel of the wetware programs of Mutant Crawl Classics.

One thing all player characters have is an Archaic Alignment. These are not the Alignments of Dungeons & Dragons and its iterations, but rather semi-secret organisations with common belief systems, interests, and goals. All grant their members benefits, such as safe passage and hospitality for members of the Clan of the Cog. Other benefits are mechanical, so members of Children of the Glow—Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients—gain a +5 bonus to all mutation check rolls. Some nine Archaic Alignments are given, although three are open only to NPCs, such as The Gene Police and The Technorabble.

Mechanically, the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game uses the same rules as the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. It uses the basics of the d20 System, so it will be familiar to a wide array of gamers. There are some relatively minor differences, mainly in the use of Action Dice. To undertake an action, a player rolls an Action Die and adds to the result any of his character’s Attribute bonuses, Luck bonus, and Level bonuses that apply. This is usually against the base Difficulty Class of ten, with difficulties raising or falling by five. In most cases, the Action Die is a twenty-sided die, but this can change. Like the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game uses another seven in addition to those standard six. These are the three, the five, the seven, the fourteen, the sixteen, the twenty-four, and the thirty-sided dice. These are arranged in a ladder or ‘dice-chain’ that goes up from the twenty-sided die to the twenty-four-sided die and then to the thirty-sided, and down from the twenty-sided die to the sixteen-sided die and then to the fourteen-sided die and so on. So, characters gain a second Action Die at Fifth Level, which rises up the ladder as the characters gain new Levels, and this second Action Die can be used to make another attack in combat or another act.

Of course, a major aspect of the post apocalypse genre in roleplaying is the recovery and reuse of the technology of the past. The rules cover a diverse array of items, from arms and armour to vehicles and medical equipment as well as various tools and robots and AIs. The Game Master is given advice on the placement of such devices as well as how to describe them to the players in the way in which their barbarian characters would perceive them. To understand how to operate such devices, a player will need to make an Artefact Check for his character. This is a simple roll on a twenty-sided die rather than following a flowchart as in previous iterations of this roleplaying genre. A character’s Intelligence, Class, and Level will add bonuses to the roll, whilst a device’s Complexity Modifier will add a penalty. In general, a roll of 17 or more on the die will be enough to gain a basic understanding of any one device. This process takes time, a character examining a device in detail over thirty minutes or so, but in an emergency, a Combat Artefact Check can be done in a single Round of action. This is done without the benefit of any modifiers bar the Complexity Modifier and requires a point of Luck to be expended. Once one character knows how to use a device though, he can teach it to others with relatively little difficulty.

Given how weird the player characters can be, it is no surprise that the monsters of Terra A.D. are just as weird, such as the Cactacea Rex, a mutated cactus with a carapace and regeneration and the Tibbars, mutated rabbits with the ability to drain energy from living creatures and technological devices. They are feared for both this and the fact that that they have foul dispositions. Surprisingly few monsters are given in the pages of Mutant Crawl Classics, but they are enough to support the Game Master writing her own scenarios. Long-time fans of Gamma World will recognise some of the entries, such as the Glazkin and the Yvox, as updates of classics from that game. Others are very modern additions, such as Data Ghosts, Quantum Cats, and Tardigrades.

Optional rules are provided for crossing the settings of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game and the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game; Appendix ‘M’—instead of Appendix ‘N’ provides an appropriate list of reading and watching material; and ‘Assault on the Sky-High Tower’, a Level 0-1 MCC RPG Adventure provides a Rite of Passage for many Zero Level characters or a suitable encounter for Level One characters. It consists of a couple of relatively easy encounters before the characters explore a dungeon-in-the-sky, essentially an apartment. This is a funhouse sort of adventure with lots of detail, plenty of things to find, and a few things to fight. Survivors should certainly come home with artefacts of the Ancients enough to pass their Rite of Passage and so become adults. Lastly, a full colour map of Terra A.D. is provided as an insert. It is pretty, but really is just a blaze of bright colours without a lot of detail.

Physically, the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is well written and well presented. The rules are easy to understand and the index will help the Game Master find everything as needed, although players of both the Shaman and Mutants should definitely note the page numbers where their wetware programs and their mutations are described for quick access during play. Done in black and white throughout, the book is liberally illustrated by a variety of artists. Some of the artwork is a bit cartoony, but it is great to see Russ Nicholson illustrating the book.

Unfortunately, Mutant Crawl Classics is not without its problems and what those problems come down to is the same problem that beset Gamma World in 1978—Mutants versus Pure Strain Humans. Right at the start of a campaign, Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients get the abilities from their Classes as well as their whizz-bang mutations and well, the Classes for Pure Strain Humans get just the abilities from their Classes. Now yes, they do get more Luck in general and they do get bonuses to their artefact rolls, but in comparison to the inherent power of mutations, they are very limited. So the Healer only has the special ability to heal and they do not get very much of that either. Similarly, the Rover can get into things, but essentially, that is really all that makes him special. In comparison, the Sentinel gets to fight better and the Shaman gets to cast some interesting spells—or rather run some interesting pieces of wetware—but he has to work at obtaining them as they are far from a given, and again, they are very limited in number. Now these are potentially not uninteresting character Classes, and each does go some way towards evening things up between the unpowered Pure Strain Human and the three mutated Classes—an imbalance between character types which has existed in post-apocalyptic roleplaying games of this type all the way back to 1978’s Gamma World. It is still not enough though and it is most disappointing that the Shaman is not given enough wetware to play around with and that the Healer is not given in terms of Class abilities.

That said, there is one reason why Pure Strain Humans feel somewhat underwhelming in terms of the possible Races to select from. They are expected to uncover artefacts and then use them to protect themselves and their tribe, to ensure their survival and even build a better world, as they travel in and around the nearby region, exploring the world of Terra A.D. and having adventures. Thus, Terra A.D, should be a dangerous world, but a world where technology can be readily found, its use and purpose determined, and employed.

There are mechanical imbalance issues at the heart of Mutant Crawl Classics, but then there have been mechanical imbalance issues at the heart of every post-apocalypse roleplaying game going all the way back to Gamma World, and Mutant Crawl Classics does a great deal to address those imbalances with the improved Classes and the greater affinity for technology for Purse Strain Humans. Elsewhere it adds mechanical depth and flavour with the rules for mutations and wetware programs, the Archaic Alignments, and for handling artefacts. Yet it never feels complex, but in places it definitely feels as if it needs a companion volume to better develop the setting and provide support for the Classes. Put aside those issues though, and there is a great deal to like about Mutant Crawl Classics, the way it handles mutations and technology, the inclusion of Patron AIs, the implied gonzo nature of Terra A.D., and the use of Archaic Alignments as social rather than personal constraint. Overall, Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic is bonkers fun, not only a love letter to Gamma World, but its spiritual successor too.