Review – Mutant: Year Zero

Mutant: Year Zero fromFria Ligan is a game of post-apocalyptic survival (maybe for a while if you do), exploration, and (if you’re lucky) a little bit of community regrowth. The characters are mutants who reside in a closed community that is starting to explore the surrounding area and rebuild.

(Note: Mutant: Year Zero was a relaunch of the decades-old Mutant RPG franchise, which included the Mutant Chronicles line, and a launching point for the Year Zero mechanical system that Fria Ligan has adapted for its later RPGs. But those later games have gotten or will get their own reviews here on the website and, frankly, I know zilch about the older versions of Mutant. So this review is just going to be focusing on Mutant: Year Zero itself).

The Basics

The characters’ home community (suggested population about 200) is known as the Ark, and its population consists entirely of mutants. None of them are very old, but none of them are very young, because no children have been born in the Ark. The one exception to this is the Elder, who leads the Ark. The Elder is not a mutant and, as his [note: the Elder is not a generic concept, but rather is a specific person who is male, which is why I use ‘his’ here] title might indicate, is significantly older than anyone else in the Ark.

The Ark has been making do with what was left from the Old Age, but these supplies are not going to last much longer. So the People of the Ark have begun to explore the Zone around them (the standard Zone is what’s left of a big metropolitan area; the two sample Zones in the book are based on London and New York).

Out in the Zone, players will explore new areas, running into Zone Ghouls, the Rot (something like radiation or a degenerative disease), inhabitants of other settlements, lost technology, and other resources to help the Ark.

Back in the Ark, players must help guide how the community develops, upgrading buildings and equipment to enhance their chances of survival. They must also navigate politics and interpersonal relationships.

As all of this takes place, characters will gradually mutate more and more, until their bodies can no longer take the strain. In Mutant: Year Zero, player characters come with a built-in a shelf life.

Basic Mechanics

The basic roll in Mutant: Year Zero is a stack of d6s – attribute dice + skill dice + gear dice (if applicable). They are all d6s, but must be different colors, as there are some different rules. A six on any die is a success. only one success is needed, but extra successes can be used for bonus effects (called stunts). Rolling a one on a base die can cause trauma and power mutations. Rolling a one on a gear die can damage the gear. Players can purchase custom dice, which replace these numbers with appropriate special symbols.

If the initial roll is a failure (or less of a success than is desired), the character can “push” the roll. All dice that were not 6 or 1 are rerolled. After that reroll, the character will take trauma (and gain a mutation point) or the gear will take damage for any applicable 1s showing.

Mutant: Year Zero even has a handy table showing exactly what the chance of success is for different numbers of dice, so I don’t have to do the math myself. One die means, of course, only a 17% chance of success on the initial roll. Six dice means a 67% chance of success. Pushing the rolls has the biggest effect at 3 dice.

Exploring the Zone

A lot of time in Mutant: Year Zero will be spent exploring the Zone that surrounds the Ark. At the beginning of the campaign, the players have a mostly-empty grid map of the Zone. Some nearby landmarks (e.g., what used to be Big Ben or Central Park) will be marked and generally known. The map may include notations … which may or may not be accurate.

When launching a journey into the Zone, the players move one sector at a time (unless they’ve already explored and clear a sector; those can just be skipped over with only Rot points to show for it). If the group has a Stalker character, they can roll Find the Path to detect ruins, NPCs, monsters, artifacts, and such. If the party doesn’t have a Stalker … well, let’s just say that this isn’t terribly advisable (unless you enjoy always being ambushed and generally not finding things). Journeys of multiple days into the Zone will require management of grub and water (it’s about 3 sectors per day, although good Find the Path rolls can increase that). But more significantly they will require management of the Rot. Most places in the Zone will assign one Rot point a day (this assumes that the characters are eating and drinking clean food and water). Rot points can deal damage (the more Rot points accumulated the more the potential damage). But Rot points can also become permanent (at random, not due to the accumulation of a lot of points). This makes characters more and more susceptible to the Rot as the campaign goes on.

Developing the Ark

Unless the characters are all out in the Zone, then at the start of every session there will be an Assembly, where the players (not the characters) decide what ‘projects’ the People of the Ark should undertake. Different projects require a different number of ‘Work Points’ to complete, with Work Points being generated by applicable skill rolls (each project identifies two). Early projects might include simple things like Defenses, a Pigsty, Cropland, or Zone Wrestling. The most advanced projects include steam-powered vehicles, economic theories, and electric lighting.

While some projects have ancillary requirements and ancillary benefits, they mostly interact with the Ark’s Development Levels – Food Supply, Culture, Technology, and Warfare. All but the most basic projects require some minimum level in the applicable category, and most developments generate additional development points. Three of the four categories has a direct mechanical effect on the community based on the level (Culture does not). A higher Food Supply makes grub cheaper to acquire, and reduces community attrition (characters have to eat even in the Ark, not just in the Zone). A higher Technology level allows easy use of more advanced artifacts found out in the Zone. And a higher Warfare provides bonuses if the Ark is attacked (there is a distinct battle roll for this).

The players get to choose how to distribute an initial batch of points as part of character creation, but the Ark will start at the lowest level in each category unless they put almost everything into one category.

Combat and Conflict

In each round of combat, characters get one action (such as attacking) and one maneuver (such as moving), or two maneuvers. Movement uses ‘range categories’ reminiscent of the range bands in recent Fantasy Flight RPGs (Star Wars, the other Star Wars, yet another Star Wars, Legend of the Five Rings, etc.). Attacks are fairly straightforward skill roll (e.g., roll Strength + Fight + any gear bonus from the weapon). As usual, only one success is needed to hits extra successes can activate stunts like extra damage, increasing initiative, or disarming the enemy.

Combat typically inflicts penalties to Strength (damage), but a stunt can also inflict penalties to Agility (fatigue). These, along with penalties to Wits (confusion) and Empathy (doubt) are referred to as trauma. The physical trauma is harder to heal. When a character drops to zero in an attribute, they are ‘broken.’ Being broken by damage is particularly bad, because this will cause a critical injury.

Character Creation

Players will choose a role, buy attributes and skills, pick a talent, and determine a starting mutation.

The eight roles are Enforcer, Gearhead, Stalker, Fixer, Dog Handler, Chronicler, Boss, and Slave. Roles provide access to a specialist skill, a key attribute, starting talent options, and starting gear (bullets, water, grub, a weapon, etc.). But it’s the specialist skill that really defines the roles (only that role can buy ranks in that skill).

Enforcer: The Enforcer is a brute force fighter. Their specialist skill is Intimidate, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Enforcer’s starting talent options are Barge Through (Move with Strength), Mean Streak (better intimidate), and Sucker Punch (better unarmed damage).

Gearhead: The Gearhead loves tech. Their specialist skill is Jury-Rig, which allows the fabrication of items (which default to being one-shots, but can be made normal with only a single extra success). The Gearhead can make a wide array of items, including weapons, armor, and transportation. Jury-Rig can also repair items. Although not as vital as the Stalker, having a Gearhead probably makes the characters’ lives much easier. The Gearhead’s starting talents are Inventor (bonus to create), Tinkerer (bonus to repair), and Motorhead (bonuses when using vehicles).

Stalker: The Stalker is good at exploring the Zone. Their specialist skill is Find the Way, which is almost a necessity, because Zone exploration is such a big part of the game and the Stalker is the only one who can really do it. It seems semi-mandatory to have a Stalker in any game of Mutant: Year Zero. The Stalker’s starting talent options are Monster Hunter (bonus when Scouting beasts), Rot Finder (option to stunt when using Find the Path to reduce Rot level), and Scavenger (bonus to Find a Path to focus on finding artifacts).

Fixer: The Fixer is a trader. Their specialist skill is Make a Deal, which is used for making trades. The Fixer’s starting talent options are Juicy Info (blackmail on one NPC), Vicious Creep (nastier at Manipulate), and Wheeler Dealer (better at some uses of Make a Deal).

Dog Handler: The Dog Handler … well, has a dog. Their specialist skill is Sic a Dog, which is broader than it sounds. The dog can be commanded to fight, scout, or track, and all of these activities use the handlers skill level in Sic a Dog. The Dog Handler’s starting talent options all represent enhanced training for the dog – Bloodhound (better tracking), Fight Dog (better fighting), and Mutant’s Best Friend (use Sic a Dog instead of Endure and Move).

Chronicler: The Chronicler records the history of the People and the Ark. Their specialist skill is Inspire, which allows them to help or hinder another character’s roll, simply adding (or subtracting) successes on the roll (the generic help mechanic is simply to give the acting character an extra die). The Chronicler’s starting talent options are Agitator (bonuses to Inspire in combat), Bonesaw (bonus to Heal critical injuries), and Performer (generate grub/bullets by performing).

Boss: The Boss leads. At least a little bit. Their specialist skill is Command, which provides a gang as well as the means to order them around. The Boss’s starting talent options are Commander (bonus to Command the gant to fight), Gunslingers (gang has ranged weapons), and Racketeer (bonus to Command when racketeering).

Slave: The Slave has a place, and they know it. Their specialist skill is Shake it Off, which lets them resist trauma of any kind. The Slave’s starting talent options are Cynic (bonus to use Shake it Off to prevent doubt), Rebel (take forward a bonus when succeeding at Shake it Off), and Resilient (bonus to use Shake it Off to prevent damage).

I don’t really think the role are created equally, in terms of significance to a party. Not having a Stalker really messes with the balance of a central part of the game. The Gearhead, while not vital in the same way, provides a massive amount of flexibility with Jury-Rig. On the other hand, the Fixer, Boss, and Slave all seem like fairly limited concepts.

The four attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy) are scaled from 1-5, but player characters start with values from 2-4 (an average of 3.5). A character’s key attribute can start at a 5.

There are 12 ‘normal’ skills (each directly associated with one of the three attributes), and one specialist skill for each role. They can be bought up to 3 at character creation, but buying just three skills at a 3 will use almost all of the available skill points (Year Zero does not have escalating costs for higher-level skills). The general skills are:

  • Strength: Endure, Force (feats of strength), Fight (close combat)
  • Agility: Sneak, Move, Shoot (ranged combat)
  • Wits: Scout (perception), Comprehend (understanding things from the Old Age), Know the Zone (knowledge of stuff and things out there)
  • Empathy: Sense Emotion, Manipulate, Heal

Each character starts the game with one mutation (or, if the player chooses to take an additional penalty, two mutations). Players do not get to pick their mutations – mutations are chosen at random. Mutations require Mutation Points (MP) to activate (you get more MP when you roll 1s on your attribute dice). Whenever a mutation is activated, it might also misfire (indeed, activating expensive powers makes it likely that there will be a misfire). If there’s a misfire, the effects are typically negative, and typically temporary or minor (lose MP, take trauma, permanent cosmetic effect). But one of the misfires is to permanently reduce an attribute by 1 … and gain another mutation (in addition, during character creation a character can make this trade as well to start with a second mutation). Thus, characters will slowly but surely degenerate. There are 25 different mutations – various attacks, movement powers, being more like a particular animal in some way, and psychic effects.

Characters also define relationships to other player characters, identify an NPC that they hate (and why), identify an NPC that they protect (and why), and their ‘big dream.’

Character Advancement: In addition to the effects of additional mutations, characters can spend xp to buy new talents or raise skills (character usually get 3-5 xp per session). These new talent selections are not limited to the three specific to their role, but can also be taken from a longer list of general talents.

Gamemaster’s Guide

All of the above takes up the first ~125 pages of Mutant: Year Zero. The remainder is dedicated to the GM. Some of this is advice on things like maintaining the proper mood. But much of it is a toolkit for the GM to use. A lot of that is a variety of random events – threats that might face the Ark, ruins that might be discovered in the Zone, encounters in the Zone, or artifacts that might be found. They’re pretty useful for random events – none of this “here’s a table with a three-word description, good luck with that” stuff. In particular, the threats and encounters have just enough flavor and mechanics to strike an excellent balance between how many fit in the book and how useful each individual entry is.

But the random entries also aren’t just random. There are threats that tie into encounters that tie into artifacts. There is a set of five specific non-random locations that the book provides a full write-up for, and some of the random events tie into these. On top of that, there is an actual metaplot to Mutant: Year Zero. It isn’t just there’s an apocalypse, now run around in the radiated landscape for a while – there’s actually a unique story of what happened and the tools for the GM to lay bread crumbs out for the players to follow.

Thoughts

The Mutant: Year Zero core book is a full-color, 256-page hardcover (also available as a PDF, of course). Printing quality is excellent, and the layout and graphic design works well. The art isn’t the sort that I would, in a vacuum, take much of a liking to – but I do think it conveys the tone and flavor of the game really well, which is kind of the point.

Mutant: Year Zero is, of course, going to have the most obvious appeal to someone looking for a post-apocalyptic RPG setting. But I think it’s appeal goes beyond that. I, for example, am not a big post-apocalypse fan, but found a lot to like here. On the player side, the Ark development mechanic is solid, providing a unique component to the game without bogging things down in excessive detail or tracking. But a lot of the best material only becomes apparent when taking the GM section into account, because they’ve put together a presentation that can really help the GM provide both the general post-apocalyptic elements of the game and the more coherent story that makes the world more distinctive.

(Note: The first printing of Mutant: Year Zero was from 2014. There was a second printing in 2015 and a third printing in 2017. Each of the subsequent printings made slight rules adjustments. This review is based on a physical copy of the third printing, a review copy of which was provided by the publisher.)

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