Saturday, February 18, 2017

Design Room: Mutant Future


You can't really talk about Mutant Future without being familiar the early 1980's post-apocalyptic games such as Gamma World and Aftermath. Even TV shows such as Thundarr the Barbarian and movies such as Planet of the Apes or The Road Warrior apply here, and one could throw in the original WestworldThe Omega ManTHX 1138 and even Rollerball or Sleeper in this category.

And then there is the Fallout universe, a lot of which applies here, but I am careful about saying "this is like Fallout" because Fallout is almost too familiar to everybody. Fallout is also a lot less gonzo and wacky as the Mutant Future game, so there is a bit of superhero gaming mixed in with this genre, along with concepts familiar to readers of comic books like the old X-Men comics of the 1970's.

The premise is, "Let us think about that the future could be like, and then let's destroy it and create a new world out of that." We are two steps removed from "today" in these games, one in that we have little idea of the alternate future that was destroyed, and we have even less of an idea of the world that comes after that.

I love this genre because it is totally mind twisting, and you are constantly asking yourself if a place you are encountering is part of the unknown future-past or the maniacally twisted now. I get the "now" part a little better, since survival and the medieval-like state most of the world has devolved into you know from traditional fantasy gaming. A sword is a sword and a village is a village, people ride horses and the blacksmith bangs out horseshoes and other metal objects.

Then things get different. Bits of old technology are passed around, books, magazines, and small household items re-purposed in novel and different ways. You see a mix of the familiar in the everyday use, a record turntable used as a potting wheel, forks and knives, a necklace made of bottle caps, an old wind-up watch, horse carts with automotive tires, and bits of today and a possible tomorrow in everyday medieval life.

And instead of elves and dwarves; we have mutants, talking animals and plants, and even androids and robots living in these places. They live simply off the land, and the society is your typical fantasy medieval world - but the inhabitants are all over the place. A talking lion with bat wings and telepathy. A half-human cyborg. A six-foot dandelion man. And while there are normal humans to ground things, the weird and wacky live here, but yet the "high fantasy" world model mostly applies. Different kingdoms rules the land. Savage tribes live like primitives in forgotten places. Wars and conflicts between feudal kingdoms go on when resources are scarce. Bandits raid settlements. Treaties are made and primitive life, colored a little by strange changes, goes on.

The fun twist is the magic isn't magic, it is the remains of super-technology we do not understand. Also, the forces which destroyed the world mutate and change creatures and even the fabric of reality itself in strange and deadly ways. Swarms of man-eating ladybugs can plague the land. A giant mutated potato plant can lurk under the ground and feast on unwary travelers. A bat with radioactive eyes that eats metal can terrorize travelers. A psychic badger can sit by the side of the road and force people to leave their food on the ground and walk away. A crazed building-sized farming robot could treat all life as pests to be eradicated. Anti-gravity warbots, still fighting the war that destroyed the world, could be flying around out there, somewhere.

And the ruins of civilization are dangerous places that should not be traveled to. The weathered, radiation-blasted, overgrown, nature-reclaimed wastes of giant cities stretch on for hundreds of miles of destroyed land, with mountains of rubble overgrown by forests, giant fissures and canyons blasted through the earth, and changes so drastic they turn the familiar into something that was once organized and civil into a hellish and broken wasteland of civilization tossed in a garbage dump, turned over on itself by terra-forming bulldozers, and turned into a deadly jungle of the broken remains of civilization where deadly creatures live, radiation storms blast, and machines wander the wastes in varying states of disrepair. You should not be wandering around on a map of New York City with a couple spacy looking buildings, this place underwent a tectonic upheaval a couple thousand years into an alternate future from today - you wouldn't recognize the place before it got destroyed, and afterwards you should be worrying about the tectonic plate that created a mountain range, jungle, and ocean through the heart of the city.

Welcome to Mutant Future

This is Mutant Future, and this is also the same gaming genre as (to an extent) Gamma World. The one thing I like about Mutant Future is that it keeps the original WTF feeling of crazy science fantasy, where the later editions of Gamma World were more high-fantasy influenced with mutant replacements for dragons, fairies, elves, gnolls, and other fantasy tropes. If I want fantasy elements in Mutant Future I can always put them in, but if I want to keep things less D&D I can without having to say "kodo dragons and the fairy-like lils do not exist." Even for players familiar with Gamma World, Mutant Future is a lot more unfamiliar and unpredictable, and I feel that is actually a strength when playing in the genre.

Though this game is 100% compatible with Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, so if you want extra fantasy based creatures - there they are. Roll some mutations on them and you are good to go. Or just take a normal animal or plant, give it an AC and hit dice, and roll some mutations and you are good to go.

Need an example? Let's take a giant green jellyfish, give it 5 HD and an AC of 7, make it float through the air, and let's roll some mutations - density alteration (self), psionic flight, poison susceptibility, and temperature control (freezing). So these things float through the air in large forms, freeze their food with psionic powers, and they can shrink down and become dense rocks when threatened - and they are also susceptible to different toxins. There, a new monster nobody has ever encountered before, and something completely unique and original.

The same thing goes for robots, technology, hazards, monsters, and everything else in the world. Remember this point, since this will come up later.

Sometimes I feel the unique and iconic D&D monsters (mind flayers, beholders, drow, etc) have gotten so tired and overused the appeal of having them wears off (sometimes, I still think they are classics, but there are other times I want something new). The familiarity may attract players since it is always preferable to play a game you are familiar with, and against monsters you know how to deal with. But those strange floating jellyfish that freeze-dry their food? If I saw those as a character I would have no idea what they can do until the temperature started dropping around my character and they started shrinking down into dense, tiny rocks that sat on the ground like a psionic refrigerator turret. And I wouldn't know what else they could do, or even what their weaknesses were.

I love these moments at the gaming table, where the group of players is sitting there slack-jawed and wondering if a floating green jellyfish is something completely innocent or the beginning of a total party kill. The smart players will find a way far away, while the not so smart ones will start poking and prodding the floating abnormality.

Anything is Right

The fantasy-game compatibility is a huge strength here, since it gives you more to pull from. Mix fantasy and magic in there and enjoy a strange Rifts like mix of everything. Maybe a sci-fi world collided with a fantasy world and all hell broke loose. Replace magic with technology and mutations, or re-color the existing fantasy creatures with mutations and technology. A medusa with robotic, laser-eyed and stunner-eyed snake tentacles for hair? Fine, do it. It is your game.

The only way I feel you can go wrong is by basing this more on grim and gritty realism, and move more towards The Road Warrior and The Walking Dead sort of realistic worlds. I feel when you de-emphasize the strange and fantastical, you lose a lot of the wonder and charm of the game. When you take out the "whatever goes" feeling, it becomes something any modern rules system can do, and you lose that wonder and danger of the unknown. You don't want to make this predictable. You want the ruined world to come alive through that "anything can happen" feeling.

I would avoid traditional high-fantasy magic though when mixing (unless this is a collision of worlds type game), and keep the fantastical powers more mutation and technology based. You want one source of power, and I feel you don't want to all of a sudden throw "magic powers" into the mix as an extra power source that makes everything easy. You want the source to "fantastic power" to be the same for everyone (mutant powers and tech), and avoid giving players the traditional "high fantasy easy out" where fireball, teleport, and magic missile take over the game.

Two Worlds in One

Save the "normal" feeling for the settlements though, since you still want that fantasy medieval model to apply to the character's home bases and the feudal civilization around them. I find this game's focus on medieval construction, travel, and commerce a perfect fit for this genre, since I can create a miniature "feudal world" that coexists alongside the "places of ancient ruin" and have those two worlds collide and compete. I love having little "kingdoms" and "tribes" fight for scarce resources and farming land while the dangerous ruins of ancient cities loom over them. I love having players worry about "that is the red eye kingdom's soldiers, stay away from them" sorts of things. I love having the drama of the survivors play out and influence the adventures of the players - and even have these dramas become adventures themselves.

For example, if you have a blue kingdom run by a benevolent robot king, you could make his battery running out and the kingdom going to hell a constant worry for them. You could have a totalitarian red kingdom run by a mutated houseplant who thinks he is Napoleon that is well-run but brutal and confiscates any form of technology from subjects or travelers. The conflicts between these kingdoms becomes the backstory and focus of the game, and the "strange world around it" becomes the source of power for the characters (and also unexpected new sources of conflict).

I like the "two world" setup for these games, and I have had many post-apocalyptic games break down because the entire focus of the game was on "go into the city and get loot." There was no other story there, and when the characters found the ultimate weapon and armor upgrade and could beat all the enemies, the game was over. With another story happening that players can invest in, there is a reason to gain character power to influence the outcome of the world's stories and factions.

Keep the cities dangerous though, so dangerous the kingdoms have given up on these places as hellish, forbidden, ancient places where no one should go. I feel you don't really want organized bands of scavengers in these areas, since you want the focus of the conflicts between the factions to center on the scarce resources outside of the cities and the competition for them. Those areas should be so dangerous if a large group moved in to strip it clean, the monsters, hazards, and robots that are there should wipe them all out. You want to keep that "forbidden place" myth strong in both the character's minds and also the inhabitants of the world.

The Shadow of Gamma World

One thing that keeps this game difficult for me is we were big Gamma World fans, so the shadow of that game always looms large over our thoughts. One of the easiest ways to deal with this, I feel, is to say, "Gamma World is dead." If you want to pull in elements from that world into your games that cross the dimensional barrier, do so, and keep it strictly to mystery and lore of 'another world that may have been.' Maybe survivors from that world crossed the dimensional barrier. Maybe their spirits float in the nether and all of a sudden, some of the familiar pops up in the new world.

But celebrate the new like this was a new game. Everything you loved about that world, sans some of the pieces of gear and monsters, is here in one form or another - plus more. In fact, I think this game is better because it is more "anything goes" than Gamma World, which was moving towards a D&D like "iconic monsters and items" sort of marketed and pre-made high fantasy experience.

But in another way, I feel it is a bit unfair to just compare this to Gamma World, since this game is more than that. Where Gamma World was more of a set experience with a defined list of iconic monsters and technology, this is more of an old-school science fantasy post-apocalyptic toolbox where your ideas are more important and celebrated than what the game's designers give you. I feel that is the difference here. Gamma World was more of a World of Warcraft type experience where you played for the lore and iconic features - and I say was because the game has spanned multiple incompatible versions and it is out of print (to the best of my knowledge). It is tough for us to let the game go, but let it go we must.

Your games need to be more than what's in the old books. You need to take what you loved about the old game, and expand and improve on those elements. Love the old Gamma World death machines? Make a better one in the new game. Make two. Call it something else. Don't copy - improve. Make something new. Do something different. Put your creativity into the game. Into this game.

This is more of a game where your creations should shine, your creativity is the reason to play, and your imagination is more important than all the pre-made stuff. This game is in print. This game has a free no-art version available for download. If we support this game, it supports a game in print plus all the future players who may discover it. I feel it is more socially responsible plus forward thinking to support the new and in-print games.

It is tough letting a piece of your gaming history go, but I feel it is ultimately for the better. The original spirit of our first gonzo post-apoc adventures can live on in our games (along with some of the things we love, pick and choose), but this just feels like a better place to be.

A Brand New End of the World

I like Mutant Future. I feel this is one of those new-era old-school forgotten classics. It is an open sandbox you can drop infinite ideas into. It pulls in the fantasy elements directly from Labyrinth Lord, and is 100% compatible with that game. Also, this game starts with a more based and low-level fantasy world than does other games - this game starts in medieval fantasy and then goes into science fantasy. The rules here start with that 'medieval world' assumption with castles, horses, carts, rafts, primitive commerce, and men-at-arms fighting battles. The default world and how it works (in my mind) is the same as Labyrinth Lord, with a couple differences. A feudal society living in the ruins of a more advanced ancient world - and be it magic or technology, this is the same story told by fantasy authors a million times before.

That is the strength of this game, but with the added bonus of being able to put your own imagination in the game through the strange and wonderful creatures, robots, technology, hazards, and places you create. It starts in a familiar place, and then it goes anywhere your imagination can take you.