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Saturday, 18 January 2020

Escaping the End of the World

In classic post apocalypse gaming—by which we mean Gamma World—players get to roleplay a variety of character types Humans, Mutants, Mutated Animals, and Mutated Plants. Although it seems highly unlikely that players will get to roleplay Mutated Plants in the Mutant: Year Zero series, so far in the Swedish post apocalypse roleplaying game, Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, players have got to play Mutants, leaving the Ark that is their home to explore the Zone beyond and the metaplot which underlies the setting—a search for Eden and perhaps the fate of the Ancients. Then with Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, they got to play mutated animals, living in Paradise Valley under the careful eye of the metallic Watchers from their base in the Labyrinth. This was followed by Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying in which the players roleplayed not Androids, but robots, suddenly self-aware sent out to prevent other robots from achieving self-awareness, in a giant undersea manufacturing dome whose facilities have long begun to deteriorate. This only left the Humans. Just where are the Humans in the future of Mutant: Year Zero? All that is explained in the setting’s latest expansion and fourth standalone roleplaying game in the line, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium. Like those previous expansions and roleplaying games, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium includes everything necessary to play—character generation, rules, and a complete campaign, all of which leads up to the start of something new…

The last of humanity has ridden out the worst of the apocalypse in an enclave dug deep into the bowels of the earth. This is Elysium I—named after the meadows of eternal Spring of Greek mythology—founded by four powerful industrial and financial dynasties that continue to rule the enclave to this day. Decades after the end of the world, contact has been lost with the other enclaves, resources are growing scarce, the enclave is close to losing its manufacturing capabilities, and the four great houses—Warburg, Fortescue, Morningstar, and Kilgore—plot and feud against each whilst other putting on a public face of co-operation and optimism. Meanwhile, the workers agitate for better conditions, criminal gangs seem to have free reign, acts of sabotage seem to go unchecked, and rumours abound that the surface might be safe to walk upon and the air clean enough to breathe, a paradise awaiting the first footsteps of humanity once again. In response, the four houses have established a force of Judicators tasked with preserving law and order in the enclave.

The players take the role of members of the four houses—junior members or heirs—who have been assigned to the Judicators, every Judicator patrol consisting of at least one officer from each of the houses. Their loyalties are, of course, to their patrol and the Judicators, but in secret, they report to, and take orders from their house, which often means they have to follow agendas at odds with the rival houses, if not the fellow Judicators in their patrol. Effectively, this means that at any one time, one of the player characters in a patrol will be a double agent! In essence, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium has much in common with Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron. The player characters are tasked with policing and dealing with an issue that they are either part of or responsible for. In Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron it is dealing with difficult situations caused by self-aware robots, whilst also being self-aware, whilst in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, the Judicators are investigating acts of sabotage, whilst one of their number is supporting or conducting similar acts of sabotage in the name of their House. If Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium can be described in terms of other roleplaying games, it is Mongoose Publishing’s Paranoia meets EN Publishing’s Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000AD and Contested Ground Studios’ Cold City. All of which is played out in a giant inverted underground city equipped with advanced, but increasingly decrepit technology and infrastructure and the look and style of late-nineteenth century, though more central Europe than the Victorian era of Great Britain.

As with player characters in the other Mutant: Year Zero roleplaying games, characters in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium have four attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. Each attribute has three basic skills associated with it. Instead of the Mutations of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, the species of Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, and chassis and models of Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron, characters or Judicators in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium are all Human. They belong to one of the houses—Warburg, Fortescue, Morningstar, and Kilgore—each of which favours one of the four attributes. They also belong to one of six professions—Investigator, Officer, Procurator, Scholar, Soldier, and Technician. A seventh option is a Psionic, but the playing group will need access to Mutant: Year Zero in order to use such powers of the mind. Each profession provides a single professional skill, for example, Investigate for the Investigator and Command for the Officer, plus options in terms of a Judicator’s appearance, talents, relationships to the other player characters and NPCs, objectives, and equipment.

Unlike the previous roleplaying games and expansions in the Mutant: Year Zero family, the Humans of the Enclave I in general do not have any ‘special’ powers, such as the mutations of the mutants in Mutant: Year Zero. Exceptions to this are the aforementioned Psionics from Mutant: Year Zero and Biomechatronics—cybernetic implants, such as Data Banks, Polygraph, or Heat Vision. Their use though has the potential to cause Machine Fever in those implanted with them. It could be argued though, that the Contacts that each Judicar has, for example, ‘Deadbeat Child’, ‘Grandfather’s Trove’, or ‘Loan Shark’, are the equivalent of ‘special’ powers, but with more social rather than physical or mental effects. Similarly, like the use of Biomechatronics, the use of Contacts is not without its potential backlash.

To create a Judicator a player selects a House and Profession, making choices from the options that these provide. This includes one of the three talents available for the profession, for example, Defender, Pettifogger, and Public Servant for the Procurator. When a character gains experience, he can choose more of these profession-only talents, as well as talents from a wider selection, such as Double Wielder, Machine at Heart, and Rot Resistant. He also assigns points to both attributes and skills, the points for each varying according to a character’s age. A younger character will have more points to assign to his attributes and fewer to his skills, whilst the reverse is the case for an older character. In addition, a player also selects his Judicator’s contacts and what he thinks of them. These are important because they form the pool of NPCs in ‘Guardians of the Fall’, the campaign in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium.

Our sample character is Horatio Kilgore, a historian who has written a number of books about society before the Titan conflict. The recent circulation of rumours about the surface world being safe made the head of the Judicars wonder where they might be coming from and what they might be based on. So, an expert on the past was requested and unfortunately, Horatio, was reassigned. Much to his dislike, he finds himself having to get out and about instead of spending his days reading and teaching. 

Commissar Horatio Kilgore
House Kilgore
Profession: Scholar
Appearance: Glasses, Hunched build, Smooth and buttoned uniform
Age: 52

Strength 2, Agility 3, Wits 5, Empathy 4

Crucial Insight

Skills 11
Enlighten 4, Fight 1, Shoot 1, Comprehend 3, Know the Zone 3, Manipulate 2

Relationships (Fellow Judicars)
Niamh Warburg is your apprentice and you wish to teach her everything you know.
David Fortescue is ill-mannered and should be disciplined.
Lulu Morningstar has knowledge you thought was unimportant that proved to be otherwise.

Relationships (Contacts)
You hate Theodora Warburg, a fellow Scholar and former colleague. An imbecile, totally undeserving of the career at the academy which should have been yours.
You want to protect Melina Fortescue, a brilliant scholar at the academy and your former teacher.

Your Big Dream
To learn about the surface world and maybe even experience it. You suspect that the Council is not saying everything they know on the subject.

Stun gun, E-pack, emergency rations, Class IV ID card, comm radio, 9 Credits

Mechanically, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium uses the same system as Mutant: Year Zero—a mix of specialised dice and cards, also published by Free League Publishing and distributed Modiphius Entertainment. The content of the cards though, in the main artefacts as in Mutant: Year Zero, are reproduced in the pages of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium and so are not absolutely necessary to play the game. Indeed, arguably, the artefacts do not play as strong a role in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium as they do in other roleplaying games and expansions in the line. The dice are another matter. All six-sided dice, they are divided into three types—the yellow Base dice, the green Skill dice, and the black Gear dice. In addition to the number six, all dice are marked with the radiation symbol on that face. This indicates a success when rolled. On the one face of the yellow Base dice there is a biohazard symbol, whilst on the one face of the black Gear dice, there is an explosion symbol. Rolling either symbol is counted as a failure. The green Skill dice do not have an extra symbol of their one faces. Now a game of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium can be run without using the specific Mutant: Year Zero dice, but it does at least require pools of the three different coloured dice to represent the Base, Skill, and Gear dice.

To undertake an action, a Judicator’s player assembles a dice pool consisting of Base, Skill, and Gear. These should be yellow Base dice equal to the attribute used, green Skill dice equal to his skill, and black Gear dice equal to the Bonus for the item of any Gear used. A roll of six (radiation) on any of the dice rolled counts as a success, but rolling more successes are better as these can be spent on stunts. The types of stunt available are listed skill by skill. So with the Fight, you might inflict extra damage, grab an opponent’s weapon, or knock it over, while with Know the Zone, you would not only work out what a creature or phenomenon is, but also whether or not it could hurt you or you could hurt it. If no sixes are rolled, then the action is a failure. The results are even worse if ones or biohazard symbols on the yellow Base dice or explosion symbols on the black Gear dice are rolled. If a player fails to roll any radiation symbols—or not enough, he can push the roll and reroll any dice that did came up as Biohazard, Explosion, or Radiation symbols. Even if a player makes a successful roll, his Judicator can still suffer trauma for any Biohazard symbols rolled.

For the most part, combat in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium works in the same way as it does in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, with one major exception. Characters have access to advanced healing, although it takes time. Social conflicts use the same mechanics as physical combat.

The play of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium differs significantly ways both minor and major. The first and minor difference is that where in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, the player characters were trying to improve their lives and those of their community by inventing new technologies and building devices, here they are attempting to hold back the enclave’s ruin and eventual collapse. Instead of working to raise Development Levels, here the player characters are attempting to prevent them from degrading, though ultimately, this is unlikely. This sets up one half of the conflict that lies at the core of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium. The other is that the player characters, the Judicars, are often expected to place their loyalties to their respective Houses above their loyalty to the enclave and the last of humanity overall. When asked to do so by their House, the Judicar becomes, in effect, a traitor to his patrol and fellow Judicars, and the enclave in general.

This core conflict is supported by the roleplaying game’s set-up and play, which again is different to that of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha. Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium is best played by four players so that their patrol is comprised of one heir from each of the four houses. Play is divided into Strategic and non-Strategic rounds. Strategic rounds are player controlled and are when each represents not his characters, but his whole House. They plan and stage Incidents which will hopefully either increase their respective House’s Control or decrease the Control of a rival House in a sector. By increasing a House’s Control in a sector, the more Influence Points a character has during play, which enables him to bring in more of his contacts into play. Each House’s degree of Control is also used when voting to determine which Incident is assigned to the Judicar squad that the player characters are in. Each Incident will have a starting effect which is unavoidable and a final effect which will take place if the Judicars fail to deal with it—and that is in addition to the final effects of the Incidents which take place at the same time as the Incident being investigated, and which the Judicars do not deal with. Thus there is a constant sense of ongoing decline and decay that the Judicars just cannot hold despite their best efforts—which are often undermined.

At this point, the Strategic round pauses, the non-Strategic round begins, essentially normal play with each player roleplaying his character conducting the investigation of the Incident. This includes one of the squad being a double agent who is following his House’s agenda rather than that of the squad or the enclave. Following the resolution of the Incident, the players get to vote on who they think the double agent is and can get Experience Points if they all do. An exposed double agent is punished for misconduct and can be imprisoned for multiple infractions.

All of this is supported not just by a detailed description of Enclave I, sector by sector, and solid advice for the Game Master, but also the ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign. It is built around fifteen key NPCs and eleven Incidents, divided into eight standard Incidents and three Special Incidents. The eight standard Incidents will occur again and again up and down the Enclave, until such times as the Judicars investigate them and then they do not occur again. As the Incidents pile up and Enclave I begins to degrade, the Special Incidents occur. These tie the events of the  ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign into previous events in other Mutant: Year Zero campaigns and ultimately will push the Judicars out of Enclave I. The ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign is generally very good, but it does feel relatively short at eleven episodes and its constant focus on the debilitating effects of the Houses undermining each other, does make it a bit of grind with no let up. Now the Game Master is provided with the means to create other Incidents, which are really necessary if she wants to run Incidents that are normal in comparison, but it would be nice to see ordinary Incidents as detailed as those in the campaign. Especially as that would also allow the Game Master and her players to involve their characters more in what is the nicely detailed and rich setting of Enclave I. The last part of ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign takes the whole of the Mutant: Year Zero into the future, but hopefully there will be support for that future from Free League Publishing.

Physically, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium is of the same standard as the rest of the Mutant: Year Zero line. Although it needs an edit in places, the writing is decent, the cartography is clear, and the artwork is excellent, the latter including a rather nice pastiche. Lastly, it comes with a good index.

Although, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium bears similarities to Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying, it is a very different campaign in tone and nature. It is divisive—it is House against House, and thus player character against player character; it is collective in nature—each Judicar’s House matters more than the individual or the Enclave; is is oppressive—the Judicators are officers of an autocratic state; the enemies are internal—that is, the inhabitants of Enclave I—rather than external; and ultimately, the Humans of the future of Mutant: Year Zero are committing the errors of the past once again. Also the satirical aspect previously seen in Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is not as strong in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium and there is a darker, more oppressive feel to both setting and campaign. That said, the campaign does end on a wondrous and positive note, and perhaps the fact that it is short at just eleven episodes is something of a relief given its oppressive feel. It will be interesting to see how all of these differences are contrasted and handled in future releases for the Mutant: Year Zero line.

If a Game Master and her players have played through the first three Mutant: Year Zero roleplaying games, then they will certainly want to play Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, but be warned, it is radically different in terms of tone and play than the others. It would also work as a one-shot campaign, but is best played as the fourth part of the Mutant: Year Zero line because it is so different. Darker, decaying, and Dickensian, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium takes the Mutant: Year Zero in a wholly new direction, just as each of the Mutant: Year Zero titles have done before it. This is the Mutant: Year Zero which brings them all together and which sets up what will hopefully be the next chapter. 

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