Review: Mutant Year Zero: Gen Lab Alpha

I was never very fond of anthropomorphic animals. That’s one of the reasons why I never actually played Gamma World. I just found it too childish. When my Mutant: Year Zero GM approached us with the wish to play some Gen Lab Alpha, I was skeptical at first, but – oh, boy – I am having the time of life with my grumpy, old healer cat character called Tiberius and his motley crew of Mutant Animal resistance fighters …

Mutant: Genlab Alpha is an expansion of Mutant: Year Zero but also a standalone game. In MY:0 you play mutant humans with extraordinary abilities trying to survive in the dangerous and irradiated Zone, while in M:GA you take on the roles of mutated animals. You are the result of genetic experiments which gave animals some human traits like being able to speak, use tools and walk upright.

M:GA is a 244-paged hardcover book with a beautiful matte finish and high production values. As with Mutant: Year Zero and the other books by Free League Publishing, it’s a joy just to leaf through the book and admire the artwork and excellent layout. There’s also a PDF version of the rules which is fully bookmarked. This review is based on both the hardcover and PDF versions of the book which have graciously been provided by Free League’s Boel Bermann. Thanks again!

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The animal mutants are still part of an ongoing experiment initiated by some human organization called Elysium. They all live in a mountain valley called Paradise Valley which is surrounded by an impenetrable wall and they are being looked after by robots, they call “the Watchers”. But instead of being gentle caretakers these Watchers often act more like prison wardens. They also seemingly randomly abduct animal mutants who vanish forever, or return modified with cybernetics or exposed to mutagenic drugs. Robots are patrolling the valley and travel is often restricted. While some animal mutants see the Watchers as angels sent by the humans which they consider gods, other want to throw off the Watcher’s yoke and leave Paradise Valley to find a new, free life elsewhere.

There are several tribes living in Paradise Valley and each tribe has its own habitat. There’s the Dog tribe (which consist of mainly dogs, foxes and wolves), the Cat tribe (cats, cougars, lynx), the Rat tribe (rats, mice, squirrels), the Bear tribe (Bears and raccoons), the Ape tribe (Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), the Rabbit tribe (rabbits and hares), the Badger tribe (Badgers, wolverines, and weasels), the Reptile tribe (Lizards, frogs, toads, and turtles), and last but not least the Moose tribe (Moose, deer, and reindeer).

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Rules-wise Genlab Alpha is pretty close to M:Y0 (Check out my review of M:Y0 for more details). In fact it uses the same core rules with just a few adjustments to fit better with the animal mutant society. While all mutants in M:Y0 were basically the same age, animal mutant characters can either be youngsters, mature or elders, which influences both their rank in society but also their starting attribute and skill points. Younger characters have higher attribute value while older characters have more skills. We have played M: GA for a couple of sessions now and I get the impression that characters are pretty balanced.

Instead of M:Y0’s Empathy attribute animal mutants have Instinct. There are also completely new Roles with new role-specific skills and talents. A mutant animal character can choose between the roles of Healer, Hunter, Warrior, Seer, and Scavenger. When we started playing M:GA I decided to play a healer which not only can heal other animals but also brew potions, booze and poisons (with the help of some talents). Seers are somewhat special because they can make predictions. The player character playing a Seer “foresees” a possible event and if this event really takes place, the characters involved get a bonus to their skill rolls. Very cool!

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Instead of mutant abilities animal mutants get animal powers. In order to see in the dark, or use his claws my cat healer for example has to spend Feral points to make use of his powers. Mechanically animal powers work almost like their mutant counterparts but are in general less powerful. Animal mutants also can’t lose attribute points by power use. BUT it’s possible that they lose some of their humanity when relying on their animal powers. Some temporary effects are losing the ability to speak or use tools for a while. The worst case is that the animal mutant runs off into the wilds and lives like a real animal for some time.

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If you have played M:Y0 before getting used to the rules in M:GA basically takes no time at all. All the core rules are the same and both systems are fully compatible. The game also allows you to let Mutants get access to Animal Mutant roles and vice versa if you’ve completed the campaign.

Apropos campaign, let’s now have a look at the campaign included in the book. One of the major strengths of M:Y0 was its campaign. In that game the player characters are exploring the Zone sector by sector. Some sectors are special places which help to tell the story of the Mutants and their search for Eden. A big part of the game was building their home – the Ark – and dealing with randomly generated threats. This kind of campaign is extremly GM-friendly since you don’t need to do a lot of prep but each session is always full of action, drama and excitement.

In M:GA it’s all about rebellion against the machines. While survival plays a role as well, Paradise Valley is not as harsh as the Zone. Pretty early in the campaign the player characters are recruited into the Resistance and the players decide on which actions they want to take in the next month. They may have Resistance cells in each of the habitats which can take actions like “Spreading the Word” to “Assault”. The player characters are a cell in their own right and can take on the most dangerous or important jobs. The GM also decides each month what his robots (aka “the Watchers”) are doing. This creates a strategic meta game which drives the story onwards.

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The gamemaster section of the book contains small scenarios for each of the habitats which can be played out as he or she wishes. Like in MY:0 the game has mechanics in place that allow the game to be run almost without prep. In the “worst” case the GM has to read a few pages of background and NPC info to get things rolling. M:GA also adds new artifacts and monsters to the Mutant universe. In this game the focus is unsurprisingly on robots, laser weapons, and creatures more suited for the mountainous Paradise Valley.

Overall M:GA is quickly becoming one of my favorite games. As I said before I was a bit hesitant to play an anthropomorphic animal at first, but I just fell in love with our motley crew of animal mutants fighting against the Watcher’s tyranny. I am also looking forward towards the future session in which our Mutant: Year Zero characters will first meet our Mutant animal characters at the edge of the Zone. And no, I don’t think we’ll fail to overthrow the Watchers… FOR THE RESISTANCE! Zwinkerndes Smiley

If you enjoyed M:Y0 you definitely should pick up M:GA as well. It adds another exciting facet to the Mutant universe and slowly unveils a couple of secret about humanity which is still missing.

You can purchase the hardcover version directly from Free League Publishing or from your favorite online or brick-and-mortar game store. It will set you back about €25 or your regional equivalent. The PDF version is available through RPGNow/DriveThruRPG and costs about €10.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

One thought on “Review: Mutant Year Zero: Gen Lab Alpha”

  1. I know what you mean about playing anthropomorphic animals.

    I think the free adventure in the quickstart book for MYZ laid the groundwork for GA quite nicely using animals as the opposing forces.

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