Mutant Year Zero is one of the games that took me completely by surprise. I faintly remember that I read that Modiphius was running a Kickstarter project for the game, but I for some reason I didn’t give it a closer look. Recently a friend reminded me of Mutant Year Zero. He has been one of the KS backers and was totally blown away by the final game.
So I started doing some research. Mutant Year Zero is the latest edition of a decade-old Swedish RPG franchise. The more well-known Mutant Chronicles RPG has actually been developed from an earlier edition of the Mutant game. The latest edition of Mutant has been created in 2014 and is published by Modiphius, which you probably know from Achtung! Cthulhu.
This review is based on the PDF version of Mutant Year Zero, which has been provided by the publisher for the purpose of said review. Thanks again, Chris! The digital edition is available from DriveThruRPG and contains not only the core rules but also several sheets, handouts, and two Zone maps.
The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up the game is that it looks totally awesome. The comic-style artwork fits the setting perfectly and the layout is top notch. I know that substance is more important than style, but in most cases style is what gets you interested in a game in the first place. The production quality of Mutant Year Zero is definitely on par with Fantasy Flight Games or Paizo products.
So what is Mutant Year Zero about? The subtitle “Roleplaying at the End of Days” actually gives it away. It’s the post apocalypse. Humanity has screwed up big time and the vast majority of Earth is a radioactive wasteland. But some pockets of humanity remain. The “People”, shephered by the Elder, have survived in a place called the Ark. In Mutant you play one of these people. And as you might have suspected every player character is a mutant.
Character creation is quick and easy. You pick one of the different roles: there are Enforcers, Gearheads, Stalkers, Fixers, Dog Handlers, Chroniclers, Bosses, and Slaves. The roles influence how you look, what your talents are, what your key attributes are etc. Each role also has a specialist skill which is only available to that role. In a lot of ways, character creation reminds me of Apocalypse World – which is actually a good thing. Mutant definitely doesn’t want you to get bogged down by details. The important part is to get over with character creation quickly, so that you can start gaming!
Mutant Year Zero uses a simple dice pool mechanic for task resolution. The dice used are 6-sided dice BUT with some special symbols instead of numbers. If you don’t have access to the custom dice you can easily use regular d6, but this makes things slightly more complicated. In most cases you roll your Base dice (for the attribute) plus a number of Skill dice (for the skill you use) plus any Gear dice (if you have any equipment helpful in the situation). Dice that show sixes (or radioactive symbols) are counted as successes.
If you’re not happy with the roll, you can try to push yourself. In that case you reroll any dice that didn’t come up with one of the symbols (or 1s and 6s). Pushing one-self helps to overcome impossible odds, but also comes with a risk of damaging yourself. For each Biohazard symbol that comes up, you get one point of trauma but also one Mutation Point.
Mutation points are used to fuel your mutant powers. When using these powers you have to roll as well. But your powers don’t just simply work or fail. In some cases the results are changing you in a way – temporarily or permanently. There’s a pretty long list of mutations players can pick from, and they are definitely as weird as the ones from similar games like Gamma World. Let me give you one example from the book (p. 76):
You have hidden spore sacs on your body, capable of spraying spore clouds against targets at up to Near distance. The spores can:
- Make your victim’s eyes sting and his skin itch. For every MP spent your victim suffers one point of fatigue.
- Stink so horribly that the victim chokes or suffers severe nausea. For every MP spent your target suffers one point of damage. Armor has no effect
The combat rules in Mutant Year Zero are simple and straigtforward. The damage caused by weapons is static (something which I like a lot) but if you rolled more than one radioactive symbol, you deal extra damage. Armor reduces damage taken. The core rules contain stats for most weapons you expect from a post-apocalyptic game including scrap rifles, flamethrowers and thrown rocks.
Mutant Year Zero has four trauma tracks: one for each of the four attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits, Empathy): Damage, Fatigue, Confusion, Doubt. When someone hits you with a club, the caused trauma is subtracted from your Strength for example. Last but not least there’s an extensive critical injuries table, which is always fun! Critical injuries come into play when Strength drops to 0.
Up until now Mutant Year Zero looks like your garden variety post-apocalyptic roleplaying game. But there are some things which set this game apart. A regular Mutant campaign starts by creating the Ark, the base of operations for the players. After that the Zone – that’s what the wasteland outside of the Ark is called – is created. This can be done by the gamemaster or by the whole group. There are also two pregenerated Zone maps in the book.
After you’ve created the place where all your adventures take place, the campaign can start. At the start of each session – provided the characters are in the Ark at the moment – the players hold an Assembly. During the Assembly the players (not their characters) discuss which project the People should work on. There’s an extensive list of projects in the book including projects like Defenses, Slave Market, Watchtower, Torture Chamber, Suffrage, and so on.
Each project shapes the future of the Ark, might cause problems in the long run, or opens up new adventure opportunities. These projects are what makes Mutant so exciting. If done right, Mutant can easily be a no-prep game. After the Zone is defined and the Ark has been created, it’s in the players’ hands to set goals, start projects and plan expeditions into the Zone. There’s basically no need for the GM to create a campaign beforehand. In a way Mutant Year Zero reminds me of the sandbox campaigns of old aka the hexcrawl campaign. Ok, Mutant uses squares instead of hexes, and there’s also the additional aspect of a player-run Ark, but aside from that, Mutant uses some very old-school concepts while the rules remind me of some more recent indie games.
I guess it’s the mixture of old and new concepts which sets Mutant Year Zero apart from a lot of other post-apocalyptic games. I also love that the players are basically in charge of their Ark and are able to set their own goals. Sure, you need a group of players who are willing to act on their own instead of waiting for the GM to throw them some scraps, but that’s only a minor quibble.
Another highlight of the book is the gamemaster’s section. It contains dedicated chapters on Zone creation, give examples on what kind of ruins the player characters might find, there’s an extensive bestiary, and even weird phenomena you can use to spice up your game. How does Acid Rain sound to you, or perhaps a nice Inertia Field or everyone’s favorite the Unexploded Ordnance.
The GM’s section also includes extensive details on special zone sectors, artifacts, other factions like the Nova Cult, and the history of the setting. I won’t go into too much detail here, in order not to spoil anything for prospective players, but trust me, there’s a lot of content for your money.
I recently also had a chance to look at a printed copy of Mutant Year Zero. It’s hardcover and looks and feels perfect. If you have the chance to pick it up at a local shop, you definitely should get it. Alternatively the Modiphius Shop offers several Bundles including the book, and additional material like the custom dice. Highly recommended! The PDF edition is available at DriveThruRPG and sets you back $24.99.
I have to admit I am extremely excited about Mutant Year Zero. It looks great, is fun to read, and should be perfect for any GM with a tight schedule. After the Ark and Zone have been created it’s basically a no-prep game as long as the GM is willing and able to improvise. Luckily the GM section of the book provides you with various tools to make the GM’s job much easier. If you are into post-apocalypse RPGs you definitely should give Mutant a chance!