Mutant: Genlab Alpha — Session 4

So I think we just finished our…fourth session? Maybe? We’ve finished 4 months of the strategic turns/campaign thing and they’re in the middle of their fifth month. Just realized I haven’t been talking much about this game.

The Campaign

The campaign rules are working fairly well. I secretly plan the Watcher moves — and I’m playing my hardest to kick their ass — and then the players plan out the Resistance moves. Early on, they lost a couple cells, which is brutal because that directly impacts how much they can get done each turn. There are also really big die pools getting tossed around, which makes the whole thing really swingy as well: they can pull waaaay ahead and recruit tons of cells! And then those cells can get systematically murdered/disappeared.

Overall, the campaign system feels balanced and maybe, just maybe, a little pointless. Some of that is on me: I’m fighting the urge to rush through the strategic turns, and I’m not using that scaffolding enough to shape the fiction inside the game. I mean it does come up on occasion, like Watcher-related consequences crop up in the habitats where the Watchers have been active. I aim consequences away from the Watchers where they haven’t been deployed. It’s subtle and I think the players don’t even notice. Maybe it’s enough. Dunno.

Something that’s really impressing me about MGA that I did not expect is how tightly planned the campaign is. There are eight habitats, five (?) of which are detailed for the GM with their own little substories. They’re very much like the “special zones” in Year Zero! But they’re so smartly written, and I haaaate “module” type content. Basically there’s a social obstacle to be overcome in each location, with opinions about the Watchers/Resistance divided in some unreconcilable way. Every time they’ve shown up at a programmed location, the provided material has worked great. Last night they brokered a coup between factions of the Ape Tribe, which is exactly what they wanted to do anyway.

Relationship Map

Another thing I had to come to grips with was the fact that the relationship map in MGA works differently than in MYZ. In Year Zero, the Ark is the center of the map, and there’s lots of internal strife and conflict in a more typical indiegame kind of way: factions and betrayals and all that. It’s more interpersonal, and honestly I prefer it.

In Genlab Alpha, the Valley is much bigger than the Ark, so I tended to not really think about interacting with the PCs and NPCs they’d called out during character creation unless the PC cell ended up at an NPC’s habitat. Bad idea! It’s fucking up their advancement, since the odds of earning XPs from helping/hindering their called-out NPCs is greatly reduced. Orrr they’re incentivized to go to the habitats where their NPCs are, which isn’t terrible but it often conflicts with the resistance campaign. Again, that’s not terrible, but it’s a thing.

Now, instead, I use the r-map to guide me when it comes to character appearances as a result of travel, or as social failure consequences when they’re otherwise on-mission. A couple sessions ago, they made a huge long journey across the Valley, from the Helicopter way to the west to the rabbit habitat way to the east. And you know what? It only took a couple days. That made me realize the Valley isn’t as big as I think it is. There are reasons for anyone to run into anyone anywhere, not just in their native habitats.

The (Travel) Grind

The travel grind is interesting and much less structured than in Year Zero. Instead of strict mile-by-mile blocks that need to be scouted and cleared, the players work out a route and then I roll for events based on environments they pass through. It’s subtle but very interesting! Like, if they take a road or a trail? They just roll the once when they’re on the path, deal with whatever, and then they’re free and clear. But if they’re sticking to the forest (the lowest-risk part of the Valley), they have to deal with crossing roads and trails, which triggers more high-risk rolls. Makes me think that pathway travel is mathematically much safer. But checkpoints suck and the actual event table on roads can be pretty scary. I like MGA style travel but it took some getting used to.

Because the travel grind isn’t as structured as it is in Year Zero, the food/water/rest requirements feel sort of pointless at first. Like, it only takes a day to get nearly anywhere, big deal, just consume a food and a water. But they’ve also changed the recovery rules for Mutant, so now every point of damage requires a food and every point of fatigue requires a water. Now the grind is damage-oriented rather than time-oriented. That’s backported to Year Zero, and I’m super curious to see if it’s just too brutal. It was hard enough keeping up with food, water, rest and rot recovery!

Conflicts

If I’m iffy about anything in the game, it’s social conflict. It’s not especially well rendered in MYZ, and it is a teeny bit better in MGA in terms of PvP social conflicts, but it’s not awesome. Basically RAW says that the person making the ask rolls Dominate, and gains or loses their biggest benefit depending on the Rank differential between the characters. The defender rolls Sense Emotion. It’s a one-way test, basically either I got my way or I didn’t (it’s more nuanced than that but that’s the basics). I’m thinking about drifting this to allow Dominate vs Dominate when they both want something, and treat the Sense Emotion roll as the just-say-no option. I think they’ll go for that. Right now, you have to build new pools for the counter-attack and it’s pretty time-consuming. It’s a handling time problem for me, not necessarily a procedural/logical problem.

Hm…what else. Combat is getting to be a little samey, and I’ve got five players at the table so it can be slow going. But everyone’s figuring out how to build their own die pools and needing fewer reminders that pushing the roll is a thing. Their talents and animal powers are starting to really ramp up now, too, and they’re becoming pretty formidable.

Last night’s golden moment: the polar bear Hunter swings between being totally bonkers about hunting/defeating dangerous prey — to the point of Dominating the party to go pick fights with giant Watcher bots they have no business fighting. Then he takes a ton of Instinct damage (doubt) and his healing regime is to wander off and be alone for a long while.

So now he’s the bipolar bear.

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0 thoughts on “Mutant: Genlab Alpha — Session 4”

  1. 1. /groans

    2. “I aim consequences away from the Watchers where they haven’t been deployed.” I’m not sure I understand you here. Aim consequences of what away from whom?

  2. When a PC fails a roll, there’s always a consequence in the Mutant games, like in Burning Wheel but you’re not obligated to negotiate it first. Soo if they eff something up in a habitat where I’ve sent a Watcher patrol, well, then it’s the patrol that gives them trouble. But if I haven’t assigned any Watcher squads, then I look at the r-map for a suitable NPC. If the fiction doesn’t fit in either case, then I think about more natural fictional consequences.

  3. Awesome to hear your impressions vis-a-vis MYZ and this. I’m on S4 of the former. This gives me a better sense of the shape and differences. The players may ask to play Genlab after we finish MYZ.

  4. Lowell Francis ooh!

    Consider switching over to MGA at around S6 of MYZ. Then, when MGA is done, you can integrate the animals and new playbooks back into MYZ in progress.

    That’s my plan and I think it’s gonna be hot.

  5. There’s also going to be Elysium and the Robots books over the next year or two. In a perfect world, I’d run the whole fucking thing like that: MYZ -> MGA -> MYZ -> Elysium -> MYZ -> Robots -> MYZ.

    You could play for literally years. I do love the game! But it’d be by far the longest stretch of anything I’ve ever played.

  6. Aaron Berger six is arbitrary; just feels like the game will have coughed up at least one of the major Year Zero campaign clues by then.

    I guess I’d just offer the option of starting a new character at that point. I know at least one of my local players didn’t really like how his PC turned out (related to how mutations get drawn after you choose your playbook, which can result in weirdness).

    Personally I can’t wait to see a mutant seer in MYZ.

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