Mutant Series: Year Zero vs Genlab Alpha

I’ve gotten some requests to compare/contrast the Year Zero and Genlab Alpha iterations of the Mutant game. So here are some thoughts:

Year Zero

The Year Zero campaign is what I have experience with, and I assume most folks who picked the game up would play it as well. A lot of the game’s underpinnings feed into the campaign: the artifact deck is seeded with necessary keys/clues, the book’s “special zone” entries are all hooked into aspects of the campaign, and the Threats to the Ark deck pull in campaign-necessary NPCs. As you generate the Zone and Ark Threats, odds are good that you’ll either eventually stumble into representatives of the campaign-necessary groups (i.e. various wandering gangs, cults, warbands) and/or extract important campaign artifacts from the encounters. Basically it’s a target-rich sandbox environment, where eventually you get the bits and bobs needed to work your way toward the finale.

Feels like it organically resolves in 12-15 sessions, doing nothing more than pulling from the Threat deck, which more often than not requires a trip to the Zone, which you generate on the spot. It’s absolutely the best perpetual motion machine I’ve ever seen.

Beyond the campaign, I think you just keep doing more of the same. It’s arbitrarily lethal enough that even your really, really awesome mutants will fall victim to dumb shit like falling off a building or getting shanked by some kid with a sharpened screwdriver. But to my eye at least, the best/highest use of the game is to keep the baked-in campaign percolating the whole time. 12-15 sessions is, to me, A Long Game, so it’s a good form factor.

Genlab Alpha

Okay so ostensibly it’s a standalone game. And it is but it’s also obviously an on-ramp to Year Zero. It also runs on a built-in campaign, and it also times out, I think, to about 12 sessions. But the entire thing runs on a different engine: Rather than threats and random encounters organically feeding you clues toward the grand finale, the players engage in a purposeful strategy wargame, tribes versus the Watchers. There are five Key Events that get triggered at certain specific points in the strategy wargame (i.e. when the Watchers’ capacity is degraded to 50%, 20%, 10%, etc.).

You don’t generate locations in the habitat, but you do still generate threats as you move around the map. It’s less exploratory and more of a hexcrawl grind: getting through the forest and under the fence and into the Lodge will cost you, you know, healing and food and possible lasting injuries and possibly going feral. But it’s not organically growing the setting or revealing clues. Not directly. It’s more abstract but also feels like you’ve got more control. Contra Year Zero, where it’s organic but also feels a little random.

I think you need to bring more drama to Genlab Alpha than you do to Year Zero. I feel like the tight constraint of the Ark setting, matched to the Ark Threats and the ongoing Ark Projects, constantly generates great dramatic tension between PCs and the PC/NPC triangles of the relationship map. Meanwhile, the default Genlab Alpha setup is that reps from different tribes have come together to form the command cell of the insurgency. You have connections to your own tribe, but the GM has to make it good. In both my Genlab Alpha setups, I ended up with a pretty good selection of NPCs to start, but they’re scattered across the map, mostly waiting either for a visit to their habitats or for a failed roll, and maybe one of your “hates” shows up to make your life miserable.

A pure Genlab Alpha game after the end of the campaign seems like it would be either less rich, or less easy, than the same in Year Zero. The Genlab Alpha campaign is obviously, purposefully greasing the skids to pull animals and the new playbooks into Year Zero. In fact it would not surprise me at all if there are players who just skip the Genlab Alpha campaign and straight dump the tribes and playbooks into Year Zero. Going the other way — mutants invading Paradise Valley — seems like you have to give up a lot of the hot Zone-generating tech, and everything that grows out of that.

Useful? Need something different? I know I went on long here but I am such a fan of the series. And the zany-seeming material I think is a turnoff to the more serious-minded players out there. I don’t know what to say to that other than it works so, so well when you play it absolutely straight. Genlab Alpha, to its credit, does a really good job of explaining that it’s a fable and not a comedy, and I think anyone who’s read Watership Down or played Marshall Miller​’s The Warren will know exactly what this means.

17 thoughts on “Mutant Series: Year Zero vs Genlab Alpha”

  1. So, to make sure I’m understanding it correctly, MY0 has more antagonistic relationships and you get dramatic conflict as a result of those. Genlab Alpha it seems like your relationships are primarily aligned and the tension comes from those relationships ending at the hands of the Watchers. I could see that being harder to serve up the Drama, although I’m sure there are asshole mutant animals just like there are asshole mutant people. Genlab Alpha would be heartbreaking in my hands.

  2. Yeah, you’ve got it right.

    When you make Genlab Alpha characters, you go through all the same kinds of questions that you did in Year Zero. But you’re not all living under the same roof. Your moose scavenger might have an “I hate the dog seer Armstrong 19, because he has seen my death in battle” and now Armstrong 19 is either gonna need to be a fellow insurgent (legit) or it’s only gonna come up when your scavenger goes to the Lodge. Or, maybe, Armstrong shows up as a failure consequence.

    It’s really fine when you are where your NPCs are, but since the XP schema relies on you fucking around with your hated NPC and helping your friendly NPC, I think advancement kind of stumbles a bit. Probably players will push to do things where their NPCs are if they need/want the XPs, but I haven’t seen that yet.

  3. Having finally read through Genlab Alpha, I can say that “zany” is not a word I would use to describe the game. This is a game about living in occupied territory, about terrorism/rebellion, and heck throw in animal rights, too.

  4. Mark Delsing right?

    Maybe my favorite scene from our RinCon one-shot was when the cell finally made it to the Cabin Village, which is where the cats are holed up. Mark Diaz Truman’s warrior is a badass puma so that’s the cell’s connection. The leader of the cat tribe is already an insurgent sympathizer, but her seer is … not. We don’t know yet! Either she doesn’t want to rock the boat or she’s a Watcher informant. Yikes!

    So they have a Dominance contest (kind of a one-off Duel of Wits) and the seer loses. The leader agrees to send in some of the tribe as a distraction while the PC cell sabotages a checkpoint’s panopticon.

    Anyway, the Dog tribe is well known to be heavily pro-Watcher. They’re such good and loyal doggers! And so the cats show up and start a gang fight to keep everyone tied up while the cell sneaks around. In my head at least, the vibe of racially charged violence was right there on the surface and didn’t even really need to be spelled out as such.

  5. Krister Persson I’m really enjoying the occupation/surveillance state themes of Genlab Alpha. I’m always a sucker for that stuff!

    I’ve settled on the Watcher robots being unerringly paternalistic and “helpful,” as long as that help means maintaining the animals’ usefulness as healthy test subjects.

    Basically my Watchers all talk with the voice of Clippy.


  6. Paul Beakley Yeah, the Cold War/1984 setting is pretty cool. But the flavor of the campaign is so very different from the rest of the game. Would be interesting to see what the Maskinarium camping is like.

  7. Krister Persson I’m curious too! I suppose next year we can expect the sad robots.

    One real concern I have is just how to stage up these lengthy campaigns. Probably what we’re already doing is the right way to go: Run Year Zero for a while and then pause it. Then run Genlab Alpha until the tribes get to the Zone, and then mix it all together. Give the players the option of starting a new tribal character or even a Tainted, or just sticking to their existing Ark and mutant. And then, I suppose, play for a while and stop while you play through Maskinarium. And then roll in the robots and continue.

    That is a lot of material! If 12ish sessions is their go-to model, I can’t tell you the last time I actually got through 36 sessions of anything. A little intimidating.

  8. Mark Delsing I meant to swing back to this earlier: Do you feel like you need advice/best practices on one-shotting Genlab Alpha? I can provide some ideas but I’ve only done it a couple times.

  9. Paul Beakley Playing through 36 sessions is quite daunting. On top of that we have a huge Symbaroum campaign going. Just got the second part of a septology. The first two parts will probably generate some 20-ish sessions.

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