Monday, 26 June 2017

Almost a review: Mutant Crawl Classics

Mutant Crawl Classics is here!

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All images in this post are taken from the MCC book, and copyright their respective artists, who all did an amazing job. I mean, just look at that cockroach-guy right there!

I've read a few Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure modules, but I've never read or bought the actual DCC system; I feel I already have enough OSR-style systems for running fantasy dungeon crawls to last me a lifetime. Mutant Crawl Classics, however, was another matter. I mostly backed the kickstarter because of the number of free adventure modules they promised to throw in, but I was also intrigued by some of what was promised for the game itself: a post-apocalyptic RPG which offered the chance to play as a mutant, or an animal-person, or a plant-person, or a shaman who reveres a pantheon of ancient artificial intelligences as divinities. Anyone who's read much of this blog will know that unconventional PC races and post-apocalyptic science fantasy settings are two of my very favourite things in RPGs, so I backed MCC in order to see what its authors would come up with.

MCC is a stand-alone RPG whose core system is very similar to the one in DCC, which is to say that it's basically a variant of TSR-era D&D: 3d6 for stats, classes and levels, d20 vs. AC to hit, and so on. Wisdom is replaced by Luck, which can be spent to gain bonuses on rolls, and your level 1 hit points are added to your level 0 hit points, which makes characters a bit tougher than their TSR D&D counterparts. Magic items are replaced with scavenged items of high technology (complete with rules for figuring out how to use them without killing yourself), while magic itself is replaced by mutations (including psychic powers) and prayers to the aforementioned pantheon of AIs, which may heed your entreaties enough to lob the occasional orbital laser blast in the direction of your enemies. Classes are Sentinel (=fighter), Rover (=thief), Shaman (=cleric or magic user), Healer (=the one that no-one wants to play because all they can do is heal other people's injuries), and three others which have no direct equivalents in standard D&D: Mutant, Manimal, and Plantient. The game's overall vibe is very Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with nods to other sources such as Blade Runner and Red Dwarf, replicants and hard-light holograms being among the artificial lifeforms that the now-vanished ancients left behind them. Hard science fiction this is not.

There's a very lightly sketched-in setting, which casts the PCs as members of a primitive tribe scavenging among the ruins of a fallen high-tech civilisation, complete with an in-setting justification for the 0-level character funnels which DCC is famous for: to become full members of their tribe, young adults must undertake a rite of passage in which they travel out into the ruins and retrieve an item of lost technology. Their status in the tribe will depend upon the value of the item that they bring back: so all you need to do is gather together a bunch of ambitious adolescents willing to risk their lives for an impressive score, and bam, instant excuse for sending a whole bunch of level 0 characters into some meatgrinder of a post-apocalyptic dungeon complex. Those of them that make it back with valuable relics of the ancient world will be promoted to Seekers, whose task it is to procure more such items for their tribe, meaning that sneaking around ancient ruins in search of Sufficiently Advanced Technology is now their actual day job. The whole set-up is designed to provide an excuse for moving the PCs from one post-apocalyptic dungeon crawl to the next with an absolute minimum of fuss. You could run other sorts of adventures with it, but you'd have to do pretty much all the work yourself.

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The mutants are pretty much what you'd expect: they get a random number of random abilities at random power-levels. The manimals and the plantients are a bit disappointing, in that their randomly-assigned plant or animal features are almost entirerly cosmetic: they basically use the same rules as mutants, except they get less mutations and get a few generic animal or plant-based powers to make up for it. The rules don't distinguish between tree-people and vine-people, or between dog-people and beetle-people, which I found a bit of a let-down. Still, all those random rolls will leave you with some memorably bizarre characters, as I discovered when I rolled up one of each as a test:

  • Mary the mutant ended up as a short, squat, heavily-built woman with heightened strength and telekinetic powers. She could also fire electricity bolts from her three-fingered hands, and generate illusions by touching her fingers to her forehead.
  • The dice turned Mike the manimal into a salamander-man with the psychic ability to conjure orange forcefields around himself - which is handy, as he also had a mental block about combat, which forces him to hesitate before engaging in any kind of violence.
  • Polly the plantient turned out to be a human-shaped lump of granite-hard ivy, with red eyes (in her leaves?) that were capable of infravision, and the ability to grow or shrink at will.

This is all good fun, although of the three of them, poor Manimal Mike clearly drew the short straw; but post-apocalyptic RPGs which let you generate weird mutant PCs are nothing new, and the robots-and-mutants-and-animal-people setting implied by MCC is pretty much the default average for the genre. There are some nice ideas in the monsters chapter - I'll probably steal the Beast Things, degenerate humans who remained in their doomed blue cities until they devolved into ape-like beasts with telepathic mastery over rats, and the Gopher-Men, semi-sentient mutants with steel claws who hoard shiny objects within their subterranean burrows - but, again, it's all fairly traditional post-apocalyptic gonzo stuff. (Its take on the ubiquitous radiation zombies is pretty good, though.) It's all solidly done, but it's probably not going to blow the mind of anyone who's already familiar with Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World or Mutant Future.

I thought that the best bit of the book was the chapter on the AI 'gods'. 'The god of the post-apocalyptic tribe turns out to be an ancient computer' is a well-worn cliche at this point, but I don't think I've ever seen it used with as much thoroughness as it is here: so their god of war is an ancient military computer which controls a variety of space-based superweapons, their nature goddess is a sentient weather control satellite, their god of travel is the AI which once ran a worldwide maglev transport and delivery network, and so on. A shaman bonds with their 'deity' by connecting the relevant cyberware to their brain, receiving seemingly-supernatural assistance (and increasingly extensive physical modifications) from their patrons in exchange for serving the agendas of these various crazy machines. The chapter really takes the whole 'your magic is just highly advanced technology' idea and runs with it: the supernatural warriors you 'summon' are warbots teleported in from ancient subterranean storage facilities, your 'divinations' are information downloads from an extraterrestrial computer, the impossible knowledge you find yourself possessing is due to your patron AI using your brain as backup data storage space, the image of your god who appears before you is actually being projected through your retina by a holographic projector embedded inside your brain, and so on. My single favourite example of this was the bit about their goddess of dreams and madness actually being a leftover VR entertainment system, who keeps trying to encourage her adherents to try out her 3D holo-games - experiences which they, understandably, interpret as baffling vision-quests and visits to the spirit world. For players really willing to get into the spirit of the whole 'low-tech observer of high-tech phenomena' set-up, I think this could be really good fun.

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Overall, I'd say that if you're in the market for an OSR-adjacent post-apocalyptic RPG, then this is a pretty good one. If, like me, you're primarily looking for stuff to swipe for other games rather than a whole new system, then you I'd suggest just reading the gods and monsters chapters, and then flicking through the rest of the book for the sake of the art.

Because the art is fabulous. I mean, who wouldn't want their RPG party to look like this?

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  1. I like it but was a bit underwhelmed - lots of mechanics light on setting. Very similar to my Psychon setting ive used for years and ASE. I like the art but Id say the mutant epoch rpg has amazing density of content and setting supplements and also fits into the gamma world - metamorphosis alpha vibe but slightly nastier.

    Actually my first few looks i didn't notice monsters or setting other than the gods and will have another look. Id also look at goblinoids retro gamma world clone and apes victorious.

    this is a comp pdf of my setting a few years back and there is more on my elfmaids and octopi blog under planet psychon sidebar

    1. Thanks - I didn't realise you'd pdf'd all the Planet Psychon stuff together! A lot of the book did remind me of the stuff on your blog - especially all the mutation tables.

      When I saw that the manimal and plantient rules were basically 'roll to see which animal / plant you're made of, no specific game effects', I thought: 'I could have got that off Chris Tamm's blog for nothing!'

    2. i need to edit update it again as i have added quite a few things to psychon since and someone proofed most of it

      my artist ignored my brief which was a bit of a pain - he turned from planet sf to hard sf which wasn't quite right

    3. Good Maria and Evil Maria as rival gods is great, as were all the different versions of Alpha Complex from Paranoia, but my single favourite bit is the part about Pakumon being a cross-dresser pretending to be his own wife. That's just inspired.

  2. I played in a funnel of MCC the other day. I had a good time but I can't say I enjoyed it as much as DCC.
    A big part of that might be because our DCC group has a couple years into it at this point, but the MCC game (same GM) felt a bit TOO random... but it did remind me of the kitchen sink games of Gamma World I ran long ago.
    While DCC has no inherent setting either it still feels more grounded somehow... but MCC just felt like a big jumble of stuff with no rhyme or reason... and if EVERYTHING is weird, nothing is.
    Maybe that's just the GM's presentation though... or maybe I'd grown out of that sort of thing.
    I think I'd want to start a bit more 'straight'... ala original Fallout, and then let the weirdness build.

    1. I think it'd come down to the adventure - which, admittedly, is something the MCC book doesn't give you much help with. There's no reason why a manimal, a plantient, and a mutant going to look for lost technology in an old bunker should feel any more incoherent than an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard going to look for magic items in an old castle - hell, they're effectively the same story - but if the bunker is just full of lolrandom nonsense rather than something which has its own internal logic then, yeah, I can see it all feeling a bit unsatisfying and pointless...

  3. Unlike The Mutant Epoch which allows for fairly high tech (primarily Human and Android, etc.) characters moving around in an apocalyptic world, MCC at present does not provide for any sort of non-degenerated cultures or tech. I, too, was a bit surprised at how 'lite' it seems. 1e Gamma World had all of the high tech items and robots and a few touches on trade, barter, etc. TME core book has a fairly extensive set of natural hazards and cybernetics, and feels more fully realised than MCC. Also,like most retroclone things, the tendency to hand players a Type, with no real means of customising them beyond 'make it your own' philosophy jarred me, but, it is not Basic Fantasy RPG with loads of optional modifications, but is a traditional 'Basic' RPG. I do find on my first read through, that it feels lighter than DCC.

  4. I have wanted this game since its announcement, but the errata thread on Goodman's forum and announcement that it will be included in the second print run disheartens me. It is Primeval Groves all over again.

    At least the adventures look really interesting and easy to use in Gamma World, Mutant Future and other scions of Metamorphosis Alpha.

  5. And now they are reporting that the errata will be included in the first printing.