Every now and again, in amongst the dozens and dozens of games that I get to look at I find something that really piques my interest, something that is suitably familiar or perhaps very different. Every now and again there is a game that I really want to play, or more likely that I really want to run.
Mutant Year Zero is definitely one of those games.
In fact, it is both familiar and yet different. The familiarity comes from the simple nature of the mechanics. It’s a little bit old school; simple archetypes with a point building system for character creation. The numbers are simple to handle, skill levels, attributes and gear denote the number of d6 you roll for success. And for that reason it’s a comfortable system to learn, it takes minutes not hours to pick up the rules and generate your first character.
But then, it’s also sufficiently different and innovative. Your character is a mutant and it is the mutant powers that will most likely keep her alive in the very hostile post-apocalyptic world of Mutant Year Zero. But then, using those powers has a cost and one that will slowly but surely cause you to degenerate and die. Along the way you’ll become more powerful as your body continues to mutate, and this will kill you – if the environment, the deadly Rot, the others struggling to survive in this world don’t get you first.
For me another huge part of this game is its collaborative nature – your best chance of survival is with others by your side. For that reason, character creation includes detailing relationships with the other player characters and also with significant NPC’s. There is a strong community focus, you have grown up in an Ark – a refuge from the hazards outside. You contribute to the development of the Ark, you have a role to play in its society and in decisions that shape how it grows.
I almost passed this game by, there are so many post-apocalyptic survival games and I was suspicious of the fact that you can buy custom d6’s with symbols instead of the 1’s and 6’s. There is also a deck of cards which are referred to in the rules, and I’m always sceptical of games that “need” these little extra expensive goodies to work properly. But whilst having played with them I would recommend the extras (especially the dice), you don’t need them, after all they are just d6’s and everything in the card decks can be found as tables and descriptions in the core book. They are enhancements, not essentials.
I’ve played a few standalone games, (and I’ll be running one at this years ReuniCon RPG Day in Brighton on the 3rd September), and they work really well, but I think the real beauty of this game would be in playing an extended campaign watching the character’s stories unfold as they pursue their big dreams, as they develop their community and as they finally succumb to the inevitability of the environment. This is a very story led game, there is an overarching metaplot detailed within the core book and it is up to the GM as to how much this plays into their specific game.
What will be important is survival, the need to eat and drink regularly, to track your bullets (not just for your weapons but as currency), to look after your health and to balance the use of your mutant powers, the need to “push” your dice rolls against the ongoing impact to and deterioration of your character.
One last thing that I think is worth a mention is the use of maps – not for the purpose of miniatures or pseudo-wargaming, but for discovering, recording and detailing the player’s environment. You’ll start the game with a mostly empty Zone map – there are two provided with the setting, but you might find it interesting to create your own based on your home town or a favourite place. My games have focussed on Brighton, the Palace pier partially collapsed and become the Ark for my adventurers, a defensible sprawl with a population of around 200. The coastline, the towns, cities and the south downs have become the areas to explore and with rumours of a larger city – The Big Smoke – even further North across the Infected Rot lands. Players will note points of interest scribble notes on the maps, share them with other explorers, discovering and creating their game world as they go.
Mutant Year Zero is a great game, it is balanced and intriguing, it makes for good story led collaborative roleplaying. It will appeal across the age ranges and is accessible to both new and experienced players. The core book runs to around 280 pages and the production values are also very high, the quality of the artwork, the comic book styling also makes you want to read it.
Back in 1985 TSR published a sourcebook for AD&D that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on, Lankhmar: City of Adventure. At the time it was something really quite different. At the time almost all published AD&D game material was set to take place in caverns, dungeons and the wilderness, with the Lankhmar source book your characters took a step into a new world of intrigue and adventure.
Now skip forward thirty years to 2015 and once again a Lankhmar sourcebook appears on our, now virtual, bookshelves. New from Pinnacle Entertainment Group comes Lankhmar: City of Thieves. This all-new sourcebook for Savage Worlds contains details on the world of Nehwon and the City of Lankhmar, including Setting Rules, Savage Tales, monsters and foes, and persons of wide renown—including Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and their sorcerous sponsors.
I have often wondered why no-one had revisited the worlds of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for source material. I grew up reading Leiber’s stories of this unlikely pair. I was drawn to their almost anti-heroic nature, they were drunks, they were shameless thieves proud of their skills, they had character flaws a plenty. Yet to me they were a breath of fresh air and a break from the all too good fantasy heroes of the time such as Conan or even Tarzan. The seven books containing containing the bulk of the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (Swords of Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, Swords of Lankhmar, Swords and Ice Magic, and finally The Knight and Knave of Swords) remain among my favorites and when I look back the influence that Lovecraft had on Leiber now comes as no surprise to me, although it was many years after I discovered Leiber that Lovecraft began whispering in my ear.
The book from Pinnacle happens to be almost identical in page count with TSR’s earlier offering, but I can assure you that is where the similarities end. Whilst the TSR campaign book devoted many pages to excerpts and summaries of the tales of Lankhmar Pinnacle do no such thing, the focus of their book is much more on how to play a game in that world and to adapt the Savage Worlds system to bring to life the characters and setting of Lankhmar. As you would expect it covers what you need to know in order to create meaningful characters for the genre. It includes details of Races (including Ghouls and Ratlings), Traits, new Hinderances and Edges, Equipment and provides a more than sufficient amount of background for the setting.
The magic system presented in Lankhmar: City of Thieves has been heavily modified to fit the style described by Leiber in his books. This includes two new Arcane Backgrounds which are meant to replace those from the core books, there is also a strong ruleset for ritual magic which fits incredibly well with the dark, subtle and incredibly powerful magic in those original tales.
In the Gamesmasters section there are some 25 pages given over to detailing the setting, introducing key concepts such as the guilds of Lankhmar as well as physical geography, history and necessary background. There are two Savage Tales to get you started with your adventures in Lankhmar and surrounding Newhon. In the first tale “Tears of the Gods” a chance encounter with a drunken courier and the recovery of a mysterious bottle leads to adventure. Whilst in “The Shrouded Corpse” the player characters are tasked with disposal of a body, a task which they soon discover isn’t as simple as it seemed and that very much puts them in peril. Both of these tales are a good introduction to Lankhmar and to the intrigue and danger that players can expect.
In truth I think Pinnacles book with less page space given over to regurgitating the stories that Leiber wrote actually gives you more material with which to create your own, story driven roleplaying adventures in Lankhmar: City of Thieves. The book delivers what you need to play games set in an interesting and very different setting. It might make you want to read Leiber’s stories, but won’t turn doing so into a necessary chore.
Also currently available for pre-order is a detailed map of the city of Lankhmar, the center of the world of Nehwon and likely home to your Lankhmar game. The map is double sided and the flip side features the world of Nehwon as Leiber described it, from the lands of the East to the Steppes of the Mingols, from the Inner Sea to the Parched Mountains. The double-sided poster map (24” x 30”) has a coating that is wet, dry, and permanent marker erasable. As the physical product is only available for preorder we have not had a chance to take a proper look at it, however both maps are available as pdf downloads from DriveThruRPG and the cartography is pleasing although I was slightly disappointed that it was only a general map of the city and did not (as in TSR’s 1985 publication) break out the various districts into more detailed maps providing more than just an enlargement of the map given in the sourcebook. That said it is still a thing of beauty and I am sure would look great gracing the gaming table.
To summarise this ramble through Lankhmar: City of Thieves, the sourcebook provides something different, it pays appropriate homage to among the best classic fantasy of the 20th century in a way that is practical and playable. In short we like this a lot and hope that it reaches as wide an audience as it deserves. If in doing so it introduces some new readers to the classic stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser then that can only be a bonus.
A footnote: Leiber and Lovecraft.
Fritz Leiber’s first stories were clearly inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and letters between the pair clearly show that encouragement from Lovecraft during 1936 was instrumental in Leiber’s decision to pursue a literary career. After Lovecraft’s death Leiber wrote several essays on the great man some of which are believed to be pivotal in driving the serious critical appreciation of Lovecraft’s life and work.
“The mystery of the black outer gulfs, and of the deepest cognitive processes within us, must always remain unplumbed – and against these imagination must always frantically pound.”
From a letter to Fritz Leiber by Lovecraft – December 19th, 1936.
With only five days left to run I thought I really should do a small plug for the Thunderbirds Boardgame Kickstarter being run by Modiphius Entertainment. This is an Officially Licensed Thunderbirds Co-operative family friendly boardgame of International Rescue designed by Matt Leacock, the “Brains” behind hit games such as Pandemic, Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island.
The game was an immediate hit upon launching on Kickstarter, blatantly hitting the spot with fans of the show the world over. I was fortunate enough to have a little inside knowledge (more on that later) and had been keenly awaiting the launch of the Kickstarter, even so I was relatively slow off the mark and there were already 112 backers when I entered my pledge, but such was the immediate popularity, that I was the 140th backer by time I clicked done. The project was funded in under two hours and tore through the first two stretch goals by tea-time on day one.
I mentioned above that I had a little inside knowledge, that came from being invited to join the team from G*M*S Magazine when they filmed a playtest for an episode of their Dice & Slice series – you should check it out here (as well as the boardgame there are great recipes and look out for the Millenium falcon brownie!).
The game I played was obviously still in development, but I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, it is genuinely loyal to the TV series, artwork, cards, events, themes, plots all very evocative of the episodes and if you are a fan there are lots of things that will make you remember your favourite bits. Secondly it is truly cooperative, (no surprise given Matt Leacock’s Pandemic pedigree), but I could see myself playing it with friends and family and indeed across a range of ages. Make no mistake this will be a cracking family game. The cooperative element of the game is also incredibly fitting of the subject, the Tracy family working together to carry out complex rescues, save lives and thwart the evil machinations of “The Hood”. Finally I was lucky enough to see some of the original (early) model sculpts and the detail was brilliant.
There is loads of info on the Kickstarter, page and there are a few days to get your pledge in. On a practical note the basic pledge for the core boardgame will cost you £40 plus shipping and it contains some great artwork and models of the fantastic Thunderbirds, for another £25 you can have the expansions that have been unlocked adding many more models, playable characters and an upgrade to allow you to add an extra player to “Play The Hood” adding another level and introducing a competitive, adversarial element.
In a last twist, and one that I am very excited about, there is a £20 add on which adds the rules and components to turn the boardgame into a full roleplaying experience.
I have been trying to write this review for a while now and there are a few reasons it has taken me far longer than it normally would. Normally when a new RPG drops into my lap, especially one based on game mechanics that I am familiar with, that first read through is usually enough to get a feel for the game/setting, but with Mindjammer there was so much more to get to grips with. To start with its huge – the book runs to almost 500 pages and its not just packed with fluff and FATE Core rules reworkings. No, indeed this is something different.
Lets start with where it comes from, because this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Mindjammer. Its origins lie in another game that I was very fond of “Starblazer Adventures” and Mindjammer was a supplement for that game, in fact it won a Judges spotlight award at the ENnies in 2010. However, it has evolved enormously since then, the Mindjammer universe has been developed into a much more complete setting and adapted for the FATE Core ruleset – and it is certainly the best FATE Core implementation I have read to date, but more of that later.
The creative energy behind Mindjammer comes from the magical mind of Sarah Newton. With a stream of successful titles to her credit including the ENnie Award-winning “Zero Point” campaign for Achtung! Cthulhu, and the ENnie-nominated Legends of Anglerre, Sarah is undoubtedly one of the most creative and exciting RPG authors working at present. It’s not just her writing that is exciting; it is the breadth of her work and her understanding of what makes for good, playable game mechanics. This is especially true with Mindjammer where making the right choices around game mechanics was so incredibly important given the nature of the setting.
The book itself is really nicely organized; you don’t need to go jumping around all over the place. All of the main character creation rules can be found in the third chapter of the book, (chapters one and two being a general “welcome to roleplay games and a basic game overview). The next hundred pages or so, (chapters four through eight), cover all the goodies of character creation in detail – its like the reference pages of a players book; Cultures, Genotypes & Occupations, Aspects & Fate points, Skills & Stunts, Extras, Technology.
Chapter nine is the detail of how to play the game, how the rules really work– including how to read FATE dice. Everything from combat and conflict resolution, recovery, movement through to character advancement is covered nicely. This chapter is among the best in the book – its just twenty pages, but really does cover “how to play”, the pitch of it is just right, its not written for the slowest kid in class but it doesn’t assume too much. You need to pay attention, but it’s worth it.
Chapter ten is all about games mastering for Mindjammer and its full of excellent and sage advice for newbies as well as for old timers like me, it advises that as GM “You’re the Chairman, not God”, interpreting and adjudicating the rules, working with your players and so on. It goes on to give good guidance on preparing for your game, how to run it (including the nuances of FATE such as Skills, Stunts, Aspects and dealing with Compels), how to create and run Non Player Characters, dealing with the passage of time and so on.
The remainder of this weighty tome, from page 186 onwards (more than half of the book), is the incredible detail of the setting itself. The setting is certainly complex and wide reaching; this isn’t your average space opera. This is “Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space”.
“In the seventeenth millennium, the New Commonality of Humankind is expanding, using newly-discovered faster-than-light travel to rediscover lost worlds colonised in the distant past. It’s a time of turmoil, of clashing cultures, as civilisations shudder and collapse before the might of a benevolent empire ten millennia old”.
The Mindscape, a core concept, gets a chapter to itself. A vast communication network, data store and collection of virtual spaces, connecting everyone in the commonality, the Mindscape allows users to “Thoughtcast”, a sort of instant techno-telepathy. Indeed the Mindscape facilitates the use of techno-psi, a neat way of managing a sort of psionic power system within the setting. Its possible to have whole adventures within the virtual spaces of the Mindscape, but yet it is much more than the traditional Cyberspace of other sci-fi games. This and the remaining chapters give you all the setting detail you could want covering the New Commonality, history, culture, starships, vehicles, space travel, alien life forms, worlds and civilisations, even a fully fleshed sector of Commonality space is provided (The Darradine Rim).
To give an idea of the size of this book I thought it might help to show it stacked with some other weighty tomes.
It is worth taking a couple of seconds to discuss the “Transhuman” element of the game, basically the use of technology to allow mankind to progress beyond the physical limitations of the species. As noted previously, the Mindscape provides the mechanism for psionic like abilities, but it also allows a persons knowledge and memories to be recorded at the point of death, these “Thanograms” can then be loaded into sentient machines, personal equipment, or synthetic beings known as “Eidolons”. This potential immortality is carefully managed in the game (and described wonderfully in Sarah Newton’s novel “Mindjammer”), by recognizing that people are more than just their knowledge and memories, and by uploading these into another construct you are not preserving the person. In short the game setting doesn’t dodge the ethical issues.
I’ll concede now that you could, should you wish, ignore the setting and use the bare bones of Mindjammer to play your Space Opera your way – it certainly has all the tools that you need in your box to do so. But its not the rules that make this a very special game, it’s the setting itself. If I’m honest it puts me in mind of a game most of my friends and I loved playing back in college – Skyrealms Of Jorune – its not that it shares any particular plot elements and certainly it has no similarities in terms of game mechanics. But what it does have is an incredibly rich and complex setting with historic and cultural elements that are crucial to the success of the storyline. As with Jorune I can imagine that this will put some people off. Certainly I always loved playing Jorune but could never get around to investing the time needed to get to grips with the setting well enough to run it. But now I’m older, wider and a little less interested in beating up Snotlings and frankly Mindjammer is a fantastic read, even if I never run the game I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I said earlier in the post that I’d come back to FATE Core and its importance to Mindjammer. Without FATE Core I’m not sure the game could work. Almost any other games system would end up with you requiring a plethora of “special” rules to cope with the scale of the setting, the sentient technology, armies, fleets, spaceships, weapons, organisations. Yet, by using the FATE fractal ruling it basically means that anything in the game – and I mean anything – can be constructed like a character, with aspects, skills, and stunts and so on. It’s a simple and elegant way to attach mechanics to the more difficult elements, key to FATE and in my opinion crucial in making Mindjammer a successful game without overburdening the players with different rules.
Lastly, the production quality. The book is beautiful, it has some really nice artwork throughout. The paper used is good quality, the watermarked pages add to the look and feel and do not obscure the text. There is liberal and sensible use of tables, sidebars and callouts to enphasise and clarify. Most important of all the text is clear, concise and extremely readable both in terms of its presentation and its content. The hardback binding is solid and the inclusion of a bookmark ribbon is a nice considerate touch. Priced at $54.99 this is not a cheap RPG, but then this is a quality product that represents a considerable body of work by the author.
The Mindjammer Press website (www.mindjammerpress.com) has a wealth of information to help you get into the game. If your appetite has been whetted then you might want to check out a number of previews available here, they are pre-release versions, before proofing and final page references, but otherwise are substantially the same as their final appearance in the book, and will give you a chance to grasp the look, feel and content quality for yourself. If you are ready to jump in and get playing you can also find character sheets and character creation, reference sheets and other templates here – along with pregens for some of the main characters to be found in the Mindjammer novel. I’ve mentioned the novel a couple of times now, its material enough for a whole separate review and like the RPG it is a cracking read.
When I first heard about Mindjammer my instinct was that another science fiction RPG was likely to struggle in a quite crowded niche of the industry – especially alongside some very well established games. But frankly, I think time will prove my first instincts very, very wrong. In fact I would probably go out on a limb and say that Mindjammer is going to raise the bar and set a new standard for the genre.
If you found yourself shipwrecked on a desert island with five friends, a lifetime’s supply of Haribo, Doritos, Jaffa Cakes and Mountain Dew, a set of Polyhedral dice and you could only have one RPG what would it be? Well I think Mindjammer may just have become my personal Desert Island RPG.
I don’t often mention other peoples websites, blogs etc and to be fair I’m not sure why. Todays interactive communities are a big part of the board game and RPG scene. Hardly anyone I know today will buy a game without first checking it out online for reviews, unboxings, and to get good look at what people are actually saying about it before parting with their hard earned cash. For quite a while now there has been a link over there on the right of my pages to one such site, one where I know I will get a good honest and unbiased view – G*M*S Magazine.
I’m also a big fan of G*M*S Magazine as a result of their Kickstarter for their webshow Dice & Slice. A show which combines my favorite things, games and food. Dice & Slice may actually help get us off of the Doritos and Haribo, (other crispy and gooey snacks are available), and get us preparing some slightly more wholesome food to have with our games. I did a plug for Dice & Slice when the Kickstarter was up and running (you can find it here – watch the video, its good!) and as a result of backing that Kickstarter I got the chance to go and meet up with Paco and Martin from G*M*S Magazine and to film a game unboxing or two. It was great fun, I learnt a lot about what it takes to make a professional looking video (and what the clapboard is really for) and I got to run my hands over a number of really good games.
The first of those games was “Odins Table” from Mindwarrior Games – “Odin’s Table” is a strategic board game where two players, (assisted by the ancient Viking gods), try to move their game pieces to the enemies fortress in order to win in a quite strategic game of tactics and bluff. Take a look at the unboxing video and see what you think – I quite like it!
If you enjoyed the video then make sure to visit G*M*S Magazine and subscribe to their updates – you’ll get some great impartial views on games and be sure to look out for Dice & Slice, I’ve tasted one of the upcoming recipes and I’m looking forward to making it myself.