Over the years I have played quite a few tabletop roleplaying games and I’ve read many more, but there’s one game or rather a series of games which have become my all-time favorite roleplaying games. I am talking about the Mutant games by Free League Publishing. If you haven’t done so already I recommend reading my reviews on Mutant: Year Zero and Mutant: Gen Lab Alpha to get an understanding on what these games are all about if you don’t know them already. I tried to make this post mostly spoiler-free, but there are some things I have to write about to give you some context.
I don’t actually remember when we started playing Mutant: Year Zero, but it was way before the pandemic. What I immediately loved was the fact that Mutant: Year Zero is first and foremost a sandbox game. The players directly influence the development of their home (called the “Ark” in M:Y0), they decide their own goals and where they want to go. Sure, there’s a plot somewhere in the background, but the players decide when to interact with that plot if they don’t randomly stumble upon it. At this point I probably have to mention that the other games in the series like Mutant: Gen Lab Alpha, Mutant: Mechatron and Mutant: Elysium are much more focused on the campaign and more linear, but as I explain later, I see them as “side dishes” while MY:0 is the “main course”.
Mutant: Year Zero is a game that heavily benefits from pro-active players. If you’re more interested in the GM presenting you with a relaxing carnival ride where you stay on rails, Mutant may not be the game for you – or at least not if you intend to use it as planned by its creators. A lot of the things we experienced in this game was initiated by the player characters’ actions. Sure, we followed the bread crumbs towards “Eden”, the mythical place where the mutants came from, but we also created our own factions, forged alliances with other groups in the Wastelands, and basically followed our own paths. It never felt as if we were just reacting to what the campaign threw at us.
Sure, you can have similar experiences in other games. Sandbox games are nothing new, but Mutant: Year Zero makes it extremely easy for players and GMs to have that experience. The game was built from the ground up for sandbox play. The rules are easy enough to get into quickly, but have enough depth to allow for a long campaign. The post-apocalyptic setting also makes it easy to make the world a canvas for the players to paint on. The wasteland the game is set in is an utter mess, dangerous, and – at the beginning – unexplored. Now that I think about it, Free League’s fantasy game using the Mutant system, Forbidden Lands, may actually allow a similar experience in a fantasy setting. But let’s get back on topic.
While Mutant: Year Zero has been our main game, we quickly started playing the other games in the series as well. I was highly skeptical about Gen Lab Alpha at first, because I found the idea of anthropomorphic animals a bit silly, but to my surprise, it works pretty well. Gen Lab Alpha is all about mutant animals escaping from said lab. The characters quickly become part of the rebellion and fight against oppressive robots. As in M:Y0 the players can decide on which actions to take against these robots, but overall the game is not as open as M:Y0. There’s a clear goal and not much time to get to it. What it does however is perfectly support the MY:0 campaign since it gives a lot of background on the mutant animals which the player characters in this game will meet eventually.
Mutant: Mechatron is a game in which the players play self-aware robots in an underwater city built for humans who never arrived. The controlling AI sees self-awareness as a virus and self-aware robots are destroyed or exiled if found out. The player characters are basically troubleshooters tasked with dealing with crises within the city and ironically hunting self-aware robots. From the get go the clock is ticking and the city is clearly declining. The players can decide which crisis they want to deal with, but aside from that, the campaign is much more linear. But what it does perfectly is giving the players a deeper look into another aspect of the Mutant world.
Last but not least there’s Mutant: Elysium which is about investigators in probably the last human city, Elysium, built underground. It could be compared with one of Fallout’s vaults but on a much grander scale, or perhaps the Silo from the Apple TV+ series of the same name. Just like in Mechatron the players get decide on which case they want to investigate. Things get a bit more interesting since each player character belongs to one of the major houses within Elysium and these houses often have their own agendas. While I find Mutant: Elysium very enjoyable in its own right (even though it’s not as open as M:Y0) it provides an insight into one of the major powers of the Mutant world.
I don’t know if that’s how Free League planned things, but at least for me, M:Y0 which is about mutants building their legacy in the wasteland is the main event, while the other games are exploring other parts of the setting and provide context and background. This reminds me of what Marvel has done with its Cinematic Universe and the accompanying TV series.
Of course my enjoyment of the game does not only come from the game as written but also from our great GM or rather GMs since Elysium is run by one of my fellow players. He’s clearly as excited as we are about the game and his NPCs always feel like real people. While I am very excited about the upcoming conclusion to this year-long campaign, I already dread the moment when we stop playing. It has been so much fun over the years that I wish it would go on just a bit longer. I faintly remember that Free League once hinted at Mutant: Ad Astra which sounded like a continuation of M:Y0 and its sister games in space, but that was already years ago and nowadays they are way too busy with designing games for major licenses like The Walking Dead, Alien, or Blade Runner. I have my doubts that they’ll get back at supporting the Mutant games in the near future which is a shame since these games are really, really good.
Hopefully Forbidden Lands will offer a similar experience to M:Y0 but in a sword & sorcery fantasy setting. Since our Mutant GM has already offered to run the game for us after MY:0 has concluded, I haven’t really read the books yet even though I supported all of them on Kickstarter, since I don’t want to spoil myself. But from what I’ve seen so far it should be a close enough experience with the player characters’ decisions driving the actions and a huge sandbox setting to explore.
If you haven’t done so, I really recommend you to check out Free League Publishing’s games. Even though Mutant: Year Zero is my favorite, all of their games are well-written and have extremely high production values. But if you are into post-apocalyptic science fiction and if you are interested in playing a sandbox campaign (without having to do all the heavy lifting yourself as a GM), you owe it to yourself to get a copy of M:Y0.
So what are your thoughts on the Mutant series of games? Do you like them as much as I do? Or do you find them lacking or even boring? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!