Mutant: Year Zero Debrief

The tl/dr; goes like this: I have no really good reason to stop playing, but lots and lots of pretty good reasons that all added up.

First off, I really like Mutant: Year Zero. I think it has a hell of a lot going for it, and has provided a lot of fun time for us. Eight sessions, I think? And I wouldn’t even necessarily say we’re never playing it again. But I know me, and odds are against returning to it (about on-par with us picking up the Great Pendragon Campaign again tbh).

But every session, small doubts and problems kind of crept in. 

* The lack of social conflict support undermines Ark drama. I’ve talked about this at some length, no big surprises here. But it definitely cut the legs out from really pursuing the interesting Ark-internal politicking that I think the game’s setup wants.

* The speed of advancement was an even bigger issue, though. An every-session bump is sweet! They like it, I like it. No problems there. But there are a couple issues: for one, the characters get hypercompetent. For another, you just never know when they’ll mutate again. I felt like we got to a place where mechanical competence reached a point where there was no longer narrative uncertainty. They wanted to do something, it got done. Only Zone expeditions continued to be (mechanically) challenging, but tbh it’s kind of boring on the GM side to run those as purely procedurally generated incidents. It’s easy, but easy =/= fun. Not by itself.

* The mutations are all over the place. I get that they’re random and that that’s part of the secret sauce. Buuuuut you also have mutations that are objectively terrible. And you have mutations that synergize in surprising and maybe broken ways. 

* Too much to track, after a while. The big one here is that everyone in the Ark is a mutant. Well goddamn it. That means every single conflict means me either looking up the mutation (for an existing NPC) or drawing something from the deck. Then remembering to use it. This is a minor thing, really minor, but it added up.

* I wish there was a better/easier way to track the Zone stuff. I ended up deploying my Endless Roll of Butcher Paper to create our epic zone map, and it’s like 3′ x 4′ and it’s still not big enough. They’d doodle everything they could but still left out details. And I’d furiously doodle stuff into my own notes — remember, we were generating the Zone on the fly — but like… just coordinates (B11, C10, A10, etc.) do not convey nearly enough context. I don’t have a solution to this. It’s a lot of paper/information handling and it accumulates every session.

Boiling all this down, I think the main deal in the end was that whole “mechanical certainty killed narrative uncertainty” thing up there. They got too good, to the point where there’s even precious little niche protection so they can enjoy being good at the things they’re supposed to be. Example: the ex-slave-turned-stalker was always a better fighter than the enforcer. That’s what the enforcer does! So he was left, more often than not, getting punked early in a fight and then waiting for the real warrior to come along and clean up. Blah.

The whole thing feels like it is not built for the long haul, but the baked in campaign demands that you play probably 15ish sessions before you’re within striking distance of finishing.

There’s so very much to love about this game, though.

* The resource grind is great. I love it. You kind of need to gloss over some stuff, like how “and time passes” time needs to happen narratively sometimes but you can’t be grinding through water and grub.

* I really like the rich dice. I kind of wish they’d gone even further, Edge of the Empire style, but it works well. I think it works a bit too well at a certain point, though. Some tipping point of die pool size where you’re not actually rolling to see if you won/lost but to see how well you won by. Which, you know, it’s fine. That means the skills need more things to spend successes on, though, and except for combat those opportunities are spotty.

* The playbooks/classes are good. I wish there were more of them, and more to explore once you got into them. More niche protection. This is one place where stealing the playbooks but not the moves from Apocalypse World show the weakness in that approach: when everyone can “know the zone” or “comprehend” or “move” at a very high level, everyone acts the same. The single playbook special talent is not nearly enough to differentiate them.

* The ark/zone split is genius. Best in class. I want to see many more games do this. Spend some time in acrimonious angry interpersonal mode, then spend some time in tactical dangerous murdergrind mode, and see how those modes interact and inform one another. The best session we ran was where the PCs worked out their differences with an NPC gang they ran into in the Zone. Gloves are off, no witnesses, let’s get this shit sorted oh no it’s rot worms ruuuuunnnn…

Next up: Motobushido.

27 thoughts on “Mutant: Year Zero Debrief”

  1. The ark/zone split thing seems increasingly common these days. I first encountered it in Bliss Stage, but it seems like different approaches to that have popped up all over the place: Mouse Guard, some 4E adventures, Night Witches, Atlas Reckoning, etc. Dividing play into different phases (whether 2 or more) is clearly powerful tech.

  2. Huh yeah.

    I wouldn’t have thought about those examples as being the same tech, but I guess they are at a certain level. I like it in MYZ because it’s a shift the players choose to make when they want to make it. It just happens, seamlessly, whenever they want. Versus earning checks to buy camp time in Torchbearer for example.

    Oh poop, I’m getting old. I can’t remember how or when you shift to the Player Turn in Mouse Guard. Yikes.

    I’ll need to look into Atlas Reckoning and Bliss Stage. Don’t have either of those in the library yet.

  3. I don’t have anything substantive to add, but I wanted to say how much I enjoy these debriefs — and all of your longer-form RPG thoughts — and that I always get something out of them. I bet they take some time to do, and I appreciate you doing them.

  4. “* The lack of social conflict support was the first one. I’ve talked about this at some length, no big surprises here. But it definitely cut the legs out from really pursuing the interesting Ark-internal politicking that I think the game’s setup wants.”

    I don’t understand this one.  You’ve said it multiple times, so I made a point in my own prep to look into it…but I’m not seeing it.  Looks perfectly functional to me.

    One of the two prerequisites is that you can’t ask for something unreasonable.  Then you have to account for bargaining position, which is where all the fictional factors come in that would make it more or less likely to succeed.

    Then there’s a roll.  If its successful, you do what they want…but you get to demand something in return…a deal…a concession in Duel of Wits terms.  If they are willing, then that’s the end of it.

    Only if they roll high enough to break your wits do you have to concede with no concessions.

    Which part of that didn’t work?  Because it seems completely functional as a social conflict system to me.

  5. “* The speed of advancement was an even bigger issue, though. An every-session bump is sweet! They like it, I like it. ”

    Also say more about this:  How did they manage an every session bump?  It takes 5XPs to level up a skill, and I’m only seeing where 2-3 XPs would be reliable to hit every session.  An occassional “Spot Light” episode I could see a player managing 5 in a single session…but for everyone to get 5 every session?

    Were you perhaps to lenient in what counted as “risking” and “sacrifice”.

    Related:  Were you aggressively tracking Rot?  My concern on reading it would be that the leveling up would be too slow to keep pace with the loss of effectiveness from Rot and that characters would death spiral into ineffectiveness after half a dozen sessions, so I’m surprised that you saw the opposite.

  6. And a follow-up: I’ve discussed this at great length, even got the designer to acknowledge the issues, and at this point it’s kind of tired me out. Many threads, long threads, they’re in my IGRC collection.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with thread fatigue from your Forge years, yeah? 🙂


  7. Well, you get 1 for showing up.  That ones free.  

    You get one for exploring a section of the zone, which seems like an almost every session but maybe not if you’re doing a big ark session, or if you spend a couple sessions in the same zone location.  So I figure that ones like an 80%er

    You get 1 for working on a Work Project, which seems like its another almost every session, but given the rules make a big deal of what happens when players aren’t at the ark at the beginning of a session seems like its intended for that to semi-frequently not be the case, so that’s maybe a 60-80%er.

    But all the rest require you to sacrifice or risk something…to help a friend, pursue your dream, undermine an enemy.  Those strike me as maybe 20%-40%ers to hit one of them.

    I can’t imagine how every players could hit multiple ones of those every session.  What was the bar you used to qualify as having sacrificed something?

  8. Can you point me at a great length one where you discussed the how’s and why’s of the social conflict not working.  I remember multiple threads where you said you didn’t think it did or didn’t like it, but I don’t remember the one where you went into detail as to why.

    Trying to prep for my first session tomorrow, and want to know what to look out for.

  9. Thanks so much for writing about this game, before and now.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading about certain features of it and thinking about it relative to a lot “sandbox” ideas I’ve been playing with.

  10. The lack of competence is what ultimately turned me off of the game, sadly. I’d love to see more up-front character competence paired with more drawn-out advancement. I’m one of those weird players who doesn’t care half as much about getting more stuff as I do about being cool.

    I don’t need to start the game as super Batman competent or anything, but I didn’t work well under the “fail at everything, all the time, unless I hurt myself” flow we experienced in play. Which is fine, I pulled out of that game and let the others continue to have their fun.

    Goddamned gorgeous book, though.

  11. Ralph Mazza We are currently playing this, and yes, we could get a bump nearly every game session if we play it right. In 5 sessions, I leveled up  4 times, I think.

    I personally love Motobushido – looking forward to your thoughts on it.

  12. Seems like I’ll need to be more stringent about what counts as sacrifice and risk, then.  Bumping every other with the occassional every and occassional every third where different characters ping at a different specific rate but a similar overall average seems to be what they’re going for.

  13. I don’t know.  You indicated it was a problem.  But I would think the idea would be to have them advance at a rate that keeps pace with the unfolding meta plot, so they reach peak competancy when tackling Eden.

  14. My problem is that their competency eventually makes all the uncertainty-related tension of the game go away. Which to me is a problem in this kind of game whether they achieve that in the first or tenth session

    Also, the list of traits and skills are short enough that eventually everyone merges their competencies. Not a problem that’s unique to MYZ!

  15. Seems like it should be an easy fix to pace the game such that you get to climax before competancy becomes that bad by regulating XP awards more tightly.  I’ll have to watch that.

    It sounds like skills were going up faster than mutations were taking attributes down in your game, yes?

  16. To try to answer your Mouse Guard question… I believe that the player turn begins when one of two things happen: the players have handled the two problems and things have calmed down or when things just plain calm down and you’ve been playing it for an hour at least. It’s fuzzy and a bit of GM fiat with guidelines.

    Another game that does this that I’m stoked about is Undying.

  17. Jamey Crook​ I’d have to play and see.

    The zone/ark split is special to me because the entire “school of play” shifts within the same game. Interpersonal drama games feel one way, hex crawls feel another, and to deliberately walk between those modes and have the results matter across both gives me tingles.

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