Since the system launched in Mutant: Year Zero, Free League Publishing has used the Year Zero engine in several games, but Mutant remains my favorite. Of course, Mutant: Year Zero itself has generated additional supplements/spin-offs, and this has most recently continued with Elysium, a 250+ page, full-color hardcover standalone(ish) follow-up.
Mutant: Year Zero was not just a system and a generalized post-apocalyptic setting. It was a specific apocalypse and a guided campaign that involved the characters starting out as fairly ignorant residents of a wasteland settlement who would in general explore the surrounding area and help build up the settlement, but would also start to find key locations and evidence that would lead them to learn about what had happened to their world and what might come next. Some of the supplements that followed Mutant: Year Zero, such as Genlab Alpha and Mechatron, were also full-size books that re-presented the core rules, but gave the players the chance to see what was going on in the wastes from a different point of view (genetically engineered humanoid animals and robots, respectively). Like the original Mutant (where the characters are, well, mutants of one sort or another), Genlab Alpha and Mechatron included guided campaigns.
Elysium follows in this model. As noted above, Elysium is a full-length hardcover. It is ostensibly a stand-alone book, including a full presentation of the rules (the character creation options are fairly narrow, but that’s because the book is very focused on the guided campaign and there’s just the one locked-in party concept). I say that Elysium is “standalone(ish)” for two reasons. More generally, Elysium is fairly tied in to what happened in the broader world – unlike the characters in Mutant (who have no clue), the characters in Elysium do have some knowledge of history. Plus, there are events in Elysium that directly tie in to events from the pre-existing lines – recognizing those events isn’t required to play, but the players would miss out on the extra ‘cool’ factor involved. If the players don’t know the broader Year Zero world, I’d probably be inclined to cut down the relevance of that to the minimum possible – the specifics aren’t really important to the central themes of Elysium anyway. More specifically, there are some small mechanical aspects of Elysium that are references to Mutant – a piece of gear that is only written up in Mutant, or a psychic NPC who can only be used if you have the rules for Mutant.
But, while in the same world and the same core system (you can check out my review of Mutant for a full write-up of the system, which I won’t repeat here), Elysium presents a radically different sort of story than the original Mutant: Year Zero. While Mutant presented a story that was, ultimately, hopeful – despite the dangers and the savagery and the possible death – Elysium presents a story that is … not. And a lot of what I have to say about Elysium is about that story. But that’s very full of spoilers, and I’ll address it more lower down.
For now, in the player-friendly section, I can say that Elysium was created before the apocalypse by people who knew that it was coming, and wanted somewhere to ride it out … along with their most important servants, of course. The route taken by the four super-rich families who created Elysium was to go down – a mile down, if you go all the way. Levels closer to the surface are bigger and more spacious for the inhabitants. Levels further from the surface … well, not so much.
Players take on two roles. Their main, normal sort of role, is as a judicator (police, basically) – the characters are tasked with investigating problems and keeping law and order. There are six professions available (investigator, officer, prosecutor, scholar, soldier, and technician), but they ultimately add up to different ways of approaching that same problem. Character creation will show a technology level that’s up and down. Elysium no longer has working long-range personal communication technology and has limited computer storage, but they have developed cutting edge cybernetics.
But each of those judicators is also from one of the four ruling houses of Elysium. They seem to be on the very, very low end of the totem pole within their respective houses, but there’s still a significant legal divide between them and the 80% of the population who are in a minor house (about 30% of the population) or who aren’t in a house at all (the other 50%). Each judicator is from a different ruling house (the game really wants four players so that all four houses are represented in the party; it doesn’t work without at least three players).
The second role that each of the characters takes up is that of their ruling house itself. Before each mission as the squad of judicators, the houses will attempt to stage incidents (a kidnapping, censorship, sabotage, etc.). These incidents will, generally, advance the cause of the house, at a cost of reducing the production, security, science, and culture of Elysium (yes, the four things that you’re raising in Mutant will be going down in Elysium). Three of these incidents will simply be rolled. One of these incidents, based on player vote, will become the mission for that game session (it is hidden which player/house instigated which incident). Three of the characters will be trying to stop the incident. One of the players will be trying to look like they’re trying to stop the incident (the character wants the mission to fail, but there is a significant mechanical incentive for the player to make sure their character is not identified by the other players as a saboteur of a mission).
From a physical perspective, the quality of the book is good – except for the part where several pieces of art are used in more than one place in the book. Which seems Not Cool. In addition to the book itself, two available accessories are a map of Elysium and a deck of cards. The map is almost more of a poster (16×22). One side is the cover art, which is pretty sweet. The other is the map itself, which is a blow-up of a map in the book, depicting the entirety of Elysium. Now, that’s a pretty vague map, so it’s good for giving players an idea of how Elysium generally is laid out (see the nice places up top and the huddled masses near the bottom?). Which is a valuable thing to provide. So the poster/map has a happy medium of being something that’s nifty without in any way necessary. If you like that sort of things, you can make it easier for the players to ‘grok’ the setting and have a nice poster to frame when you’re done. If it isn’t your sort of thing, you can skip it and your game won’t be lacking something for it.
The cards are more functional – they aren’t necessary, but they’re really handy. Some are the basic sort of roleplaying card, which I’ve become more fond of over time. There are certain contacts available in the book (e.g., butler, judge, favorite child), and there’s a card for each contact and what they do. There are certain artifacts available, and there’s a card for each of them. There are certain named NPCs during the guided campaign, and there are ‘face cards’ for them, with stats for the GM to read on the back (note that the face cards are the only ones I’ve described so far that have art; the contact and artifact cards just say ‘contact’ or ‘artifact’ on the back). These have the normal sort of utility for cards – they can be very handy, they can make the GM’s job easier, they save the players some writing, but they aren’t vital. But there are also cards that are used to help figure out which house might be executing which incident, and those are vital. If you don’t have the cards, then you have to make something like the cards.
Ultimately, I find it hard to say a lot more about why, as a player, you would or wouldn’t like Elysium. The Year Zero system is still solid, and this is basically still the same setting it was designed for, so things are good on that front. The overall production values are good, although they seem to have cut corners on the art. But I think that the theme/story is going to be the heart of whether players enjoy the experience. The story is about the ruling houses, and a lot of other people in Elysium, being willing to let the place burn in order to be left in charge of the ash heap. And the player’s characters are members of, and working for, those ruling houses – this isn’t a game where the players can just turn on their masters, fix the problems, and lead Elysium to a brighter future. It’s like the players are going down the rabbit hole, but including the part where Alice falls and falls and falls. And there probably isn’t a nice magical cushion to catch them at the bottom. If you’re looking for that experience, Elysium will deliver in spades. If you’re looking for a tale of noble heroes and derring-do, this is probably not the book for you.
Now, speaking of down the rabbit hole …
SPOILERS BELOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
LAST CHANCE …
So, now that it’s just the GMs (and the thoroughly sneaky players), l can fill in a bit more detail. But, throughout, my top-line takeaway is what I ended up with above. The characters in a campaign of Elysium are going to play through a story that is bleak and hopeless. As I said above, the ruling houses are willing to burn the place down so long as they’re in charge of the ashes. That’s not a metaphor – the story is going to end with Elysium destroyed by an unstoppable self-destruct mechanism. In many of the missions, “success” is defined by getting things solved before a military unit shows up and just massacres everyone. Note: the military is one of several places where the broader setup of Elysium did not make a ton of sense to me – the ruling houses are willing to tear the place apart to be in charge, but it’s never explained why the house that controls the military hasn’t just taken over. You just have to be willing to skim past the implausibilities and take it for what it is.
The full campaign of Elysium is a decent length – 11 ‘incidents,’ which probably is 11 sessions if your group stays somewhat on task. One of the incidents is very short, but it’s the penultimate incident so it really just runs into the final incident, and those two together will take two full sessions. So not some epic-length campaign (which would probably fall apart before it finished it up anyway), but also not something that will be over in a couple of weeks.
There are 8 ‘normal’ incidents, and three special ones. The 8 normal incidents are the ones picked by the players. So a ‘murder’ incident might be executed more than once, but whenever the players choose that incident to be the one their team deals with, then there’s a particular murder that they’re going to be investigating (and then the murder incident is no longer available to be picked. Some of the incidents are more focused on combat or investigation or social interaction, but throughout there is a focus on keeping order (for example, succeeding at the ‘murder’ mission just requires identifying a culprit, not the culprit). The houses of some of the characters involved may switch depending on which house instigated the incident, but the substance will not. Through the course of the incidents, the players will start to learn about discontent among the population of Elysium, and will get to know recurring characters, each of whom has personal motivations of their own.
About halfway through the campaign, the first special mission will reveal to the characters that the ruling houses have been covering up about the biggest thing there is to cover up – that the surface is habitable again (note: the opposition to the ruling houses knows this too, but hasn’t spread the word either). Through their missions, the characters will get a better and better idea of how short-sighted and destructive their superiors are – but there’s nothing they can do about it. Until the final act, when there’s an open revolt, and the characters might be able to avoid killing their way through the revolutionaries long enough to broker a truce. Although that just affects how many people end up getting out of Elysium alive. Again, it’s very good at conveying hopelessness and inevitable destruction (it’s called Guardians of the Fall for a reason) – but the players need to be a group who can enjoy that tone.
On a smaller note, some of the incidents will require finesse on the part of the GMs. There are a couple of situations presented where violence is kind of the obvious response, but is entirely the wrong response – the GM will need to come up with some way to make this clear to the players, or hard feelings are likely going to ensue. This is compounded by several situations where there is no generalized way to ‘talk down’ the situation. So there are places where, as written, the players are kind of in a “guess what the author was thinking” sort of situation – unless the GM makes sure to drop hints, the missions will probably crash and burn. And, while the overall tone is bleak, I don’t think that the players are supposed to be wiping out that often on their individual missions.
Just to repeat myself one more time, the bottom line for Elysium is going to be whether the GM and players will enjoy the bleak experience the guided campaign provides, a bleakness that isn’t really conveyed by the description on the back of the book (e.g., yes, there’s guidance about how to move the people of Elysium out onto the surface … but it’s not because the players can lead them in any real way, it’s just that they manage to escape before their rulers fully execute a massive murder-suicide pact). The system is there, the pathos is there – but it will call for the right group of players.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.