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Friday 27 August 2010

I Got The Altered Morphology Blues

Next January 12th, something strange is going to happen. People around the world start suffering from a flu strain, bad enough that they have to go Casualty. Thankfully, the pandemic proves not to be fatal, and on January 23rd, the symptoms all but vanish. The first manifestation of strange and wonderful abilities will occur several months after the disappearance of the “Ghost Flu.” People are suddenly able to fly, move objects with their minds, and more. It will take a while for people to tie these manifestations back to the “Ghost Flu,” but when they do it will become known as the “Sudden Mutation Event” or “SME.”

In the next ten years approximately 1% of the population will SME. There will be no outbreak of costumed heroes, but the most photogenic of SME suffers will become celebrities, sportsmen, TV and film stars, or politicians. Others will find jobs related to their new found powers, whilst others will just get on with their lives as just members of accepted minorities. Which includes the criminals; because 1% of the population also means 1% of the criminals, and that means that some kind of task force is going to be needed to deal with their crimes. To that end, most big city police forces will have a Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit (HCIU) or similar within a decade after the events of January 12th, 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 the mutants and ordinary folk.

The decade spent assimilating the super abilities of the SME suffers also gave time for the legal ramifications of Power use to be considered. Not just using them to rob a bank, but using them in the course of an investigation. For example, Technopathy allows someone to extract information from digital storage devices, but you need a Search Warrant for it to be admissible in court. Some powers have side effects too. For example, X-Ray Vision lets you see through objects, but because it admits small amounts of radiation, users have been sued because they are thought to cause cancer. In addition, this radiation can wipe camera film, much to the consternation of the paparazzi. Some powers, such as Radiation Projection, are considered illegal and anyone possessing has to be registered under “Article 18,” though not necessarily monitored. The study of superpowers and SME expressive is known as Anamorphology, while members of the HCIU are trained in Forensic Anamorphology.

This is the setting for Mutant City Blues, a super powered investigative RPG by Robin D. Laws that is published by Pelgrane Press and which uses the author and publisher’s GUMSHOE System as seen in The Esoterorists and Trail of Cthulhu. The emphasis on investigation makes Mutant City Blues more of a Police Procedural than a traditional superhero RPG, more NYPD Blue, C.S.I. , or Southland with powers rather than the comic book Gotham Central or the Special Crimes Unit from Superman’s home town, Metropolis. Of course, both cities and their respective versions of HCIU would serve as excellent sources for a Mutant City campaign, and there is nothing to stop the inventive GM running an unpowered game set in either Gotham or Metropolis, but really the focus of Mutant City game is on superpowered cops in a real city. This could be Chicago, Toronto, or the GM’s home city. That said, the feel of the book is very much upon North America, so any GM wanting to set his game in the UK or Europe will have to put a little extra effort in getting the feel right.

For ease of play, Laws provides a complete set of elements that can be added to any large city to push it forward the decade into the world of Mutant City Blues. This includes a look at sport and the arts, a timeline for the GM’s “Mutant City,” new slang and jargon, and new institutes and businesses. The most well known new institute is The Quade Institute, the world’s foremost Anamorphological research centre, run by the renowned geneticist, Lucius Quade. The Quade Institute is also where members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit are trained in Forensic Anamorphology. A complete Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit is described, ready for the player characters to be slotted into. Although many of its members tend towards being clichés, this is a police procedural game after all, and the various HCIU officers are more interesting than some of the NPCs described elsewhere. Lastly, there is “Food Chain,” a complete scenario ready to play, an against the clock race to stop a murder cult. Again, this all feels very North American.

As with other GUMSHOE System games, characters are defined by various abilities, each a pool of points that is spent throughout the game. These abilities are either Investigative or General, with Investigative Abilities divided into Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical. Mutant City Blues being a superhero game, characters also receive points to assign to various Mutant Powers, which are again split between Investigative and General Powers. What defines the split between Investigative and General Abilities and Powers is how they are used.
An HCIU officer is an experienced detective and he knows what to look for at a crime scene. If he has a relevant Investigative Ability or Power, such as Forensic Psychology or Translation, he gets the basic or Core clue. If he wants further information, he can spend points from the Ability or Power’s pool, usually one or two points. What the GUMSHOE System is doing with its Core clues is moving the emphasis to be found in most investigative games away from finding clues to analysing them.
General Abilities and Powers, such as Infiltration or Fire Projection, are more proactive in nature, requiring that their points be spent and added to a roll of single six-sided die against a target if the officer is to be successful. It should be noted that both Health and Stability – the RPG’s equivalent of a character’s mental health, are General Abilities, and so need to be bought. They also need to be spent to withstand some attacks and effects.

The points given for General Abilities and Mutant Powers do not vary. The number of points a player has to assign to Investigative Abilities will vary according to the number of players. Choosing General and Investigative Abilities is straightforward, choosing your Powers is not. What limits them is the fact that certain Powers appear in the same cluster, so that if a mutant has the Powers Invisibility and Light Control, he is likely to have Light Blast, X-Ray Vision, Illusion, and so on, but not Radiation Immunity or Cure Disease since they do not appear in the same cluster of genes. The dispersal of Powers is tracked by a Quade Diagram, and this is used out of the game to help a player select his Powers and the GM to choose the Powers for his NPCs. It is used within the game by the HCIU officers to determine The Powers used at a crime scene, as many of them leave some form of residue. It can determine the involvement of one Mutant if the residue is clustered, more if there are several clusters.

The point is that in the world of Mutant City Blues, Powers are not gained randomly and they are not the typical abilities of the tradition “Four Colour” game. Most Power use is taxing and there will be a limited number of times that a mutant will be able use his power before they are exhausted.
The sample character is Detective Devon Garkovich, 2nd Grade. He is a reluctant investigator who prefers to go over clues and background in the squad room, where he is known for his appetite and his delight in taking mandated department courses, in particular health and safety and fire safety. Were it not for his way around departmental paperwork and his ability to analyse situations, he would be dismissed as the HCIU boss’ stooge.

Detective Devon Garkovich, 2nd Grade
General Abilities: Athletics 3, Driving 2, Health 15, Infiltration 2, Mechanics 2, Medic 5, Preparedness 6, Scuffling 3, Sense Trouble 6, Shooting 3, Stability 10, Surveillance 4
Investigative Abilities: Bullshit Detector 4, Bureaucracy 4, Cop Talk 2, Data Retrieval 2, Evidence Collection 2, Flattery 2, Interrogation 2, Law 4, Negotiation 2, Reassurance 2
Powers: Cognition 3, Detect Influence 4, Precision Memory 4, Read Minds 5, Telepathy 4
Defects: Erotomania

One drawback or roleplaying opportunity – depending upon how you look at it and I look at it as a roleplaying opportunity – to selecting Powers is that in associating certain Powers and a mutant will suffer from a Defect. For example, if a mutant has Lightning Decisions and Speed he will be prone to Attention Deficit Disorder, while anyone who has Natural Weaponry and Limb Extension is likely to suffer from Arthritis. If a player character begins the game with a Defect, it is only latent. It will express itself or grow worse if the character is placed under stress, after having either failed a Stability check or suffered from a Forced Refresh for a Power that he has exhausted and really needs to use again, straining himself in the process. Defects can also be the subject of a campaign’s sub-plots, these being used in a scenario as a secondary plot that can keep everyone involved in the scenario.

While the police procedural will be familiar to many, how to combine with the superhero genre will not. Fortunately the author addresses this combination in no little depth. There is advice about playing a cop and on being a stand up cop, on HCIU procedures, how to handle interrogations, and a short analysis of the police procedural in comparison to real investigations. In particular, the latter looks at the speed of forensic analysis on the television versus the real world, on certain cops always getting high profile cases, and so. Of course, the world of Mutant City Blues is not meant to be the real world. There is also good advice on structuring a mystery story, needed in part because a GUMSHOE System is structured around a story’s clues more so and more obviously than in other RPGs. Finally, there are several more case seeds beyond the scenario included, and beyond that, there are sources aplenty as far the police procedural genre goes. A pity though, that no bibliography was included, for the police procedural or the superhero genre.

Physically, Mutant City Blues is a pleasing looking book. It has been given a blue wash throughout, including the artwork of Jérôme Huguenin. My initial reaction to that artwork was that it was nowhere near as good as his artwork for the excellent Trail of Cthulhu. Upon reflection this is still the case, but this due to the fact that the artwork in Trail of Cthulhu is just so damned good. Which makes the artwork here decent enough.

Mutant City Blues is not quite perfect. It suffers from being, if not too American, then too North American in its take upon the genre, and some players might find its superpowers to be too low powered to their tastes, but this is purely intentional. Mutant City Blues is a police procedural with superpowers, more than it is a superpowered police procedural. The players have to solve the crime using their Investigative Abilities and Powers before confronting the perpetrators.

Three questions have to be answered in summing up Mutant City Blues. First, has Robin D. Laws created a plausible police procedural? In other words, could you run this game without the superpowered aspect? The answer to that is yes, even though much of the advice is geared towards the staging and solving of superpowered crimes. The second question is, has he created to a good superhero RPG? If you wanted a relatively low powered system, then yes. The emphasis though, is very much on the police procedural. The last question is, has he successfully brought the two genres together? The answer to that is an unqualified yes. Mutant City Blues is a successful melding of two genres without one overpowering the other.


  1. Excelent review. Can i translate it to portuguese and add on my site? http://www.retropunk.net.

  2. Thank you very much.

    You are welcome to translate the review and host on it on your site. All that I ask in return is that you acknowledge both source and author, and link back to this site. I would also be interested in any feedback you receive on the review.

  3. Apart from Trail which has the Mythos to power it, this is my favourite incarnation of GUMSHOE. It's so very immediate to players as to what police officers do.

  4. Steve, I have to agree with you. The genre is very accessible and the super powers do not add all that much more in the way of complications.