Wednesday, June 4, 2008

REVIEW: Mutant Future


Mutant Future, perhaps fittingly for a game that involves mutants, could be called the next step in the evolution of retro-clone roleplaying games. Written by Daniel Proctor and Ryan Denison, and published by Goblinoid Games, Mutant Future is not a "true" retro-clone such as Proctor's earlier Labyrinth Lord. That is, this game does not restate the rules of an earlier RPG through the use of the Open Game License, but is instead a wholly original game. That's not to say that Mutant Future isn't heavily inspired by Gamma World, particularly its 1983 second edition, because it clearly is. However, unlike D&D, no portion of Gamma World was ever released as Open Game Content, except insofar as Gamma World shared certain mechanical connections to D&D, from which its rules were partially derived. Consequently, even had Proctor and Denison wished to clone Gamma World in the way that Labyrinth Lord cloned the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets, they could not have done so legally. Thus was born Mutant Future.

Mutant Future
is a complete old school science fantasy roleplaying game in 162 pages. The book is laid out cleanly and is well organized and easy to read. The book is nicely illustrated throughout with black and white line art, most of which is quite good and serves to convey the slightly gonzo tone of the post-apocalyptic science fantasy genre. The only piece I didn't especially care for was the cover illustration by Jason Braun, not because of the illustration itself, which is actually quite good, but because of the coloring, which makes it appear more cartoonish than it is. The illustration reappears in black and white form on the title page and I much prefer it there. The text is clear and well edited. I noticed very few misspellings, dropped words, or other such errors. This is a very well put together book and evidence that the gap between "amateur" and "professional," at least when it comes to gaming products, is narrowing with each passing year.

The rules of Mutant Future derive from Labyrinth Lord and I think this was a wise decision for numerous reason. Firstly, LL's rules are simple, straightforward, and well constructed. Mutant Future benefits immensely from being able to draw on the mechanical solidity of its predecessor. Secondly, this ensures compatibility between the two games and promotes cross-pollination. One of the characteristics of old school gaming is its willingness to blur the boundaries between genres. Mutant Future, like Gamma World before it, labels itself as a science fantasy RPG, not a science fiction one. In part, that's because its fanciful treatment of radiation and mutation wouldn't stand up to scientific scrutiny, but it's also because both games arise out of a long pulp tradition that treated fantasy as inherently post-apocalyptic. Howard's Hyborian Age, after all, exists in the wake of the fall of Atlantis. While Conan fights no mutants, the world he trod under his sandaled feet is thematically a close cousin to that of many post-apocalyptic settings. And of course the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide famously included conversion rules for Gamma World, so there is plenty of precedent for mixing and matching between the two genres. With Mutant Future, conversions will be almost seamless, as there are far fewer differences between it and Labyrinth Lord than between Gamma World and D&D.

That said, Mutant Future does diverge from Labyrinth Lord in a few places, most notably in that it has no character classes (just like the early editions of Gamma World). Instead, players choose a race from one of five -- pure humans, mutant humans, mutant animals, mutant plants, and androids (of which there are three sub-varieties) -- each of which has their own characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages. There are six ability scores, as in Labyrinth Lord, but Wisdom is replaced by Willpower. Hit points are (largely) static, being based on Constitution (though CON can increase with experience for all races but androids). Oddly, Mutant Future includes a discussion of the threefold alignment system of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality, but I'm a bit baffled as to its purpose in the game, since it doesn't seem to serve either a thematic or mechanical purpose in the game.

Mutant characters begin the game with a random number of mutations, each of which is randomly determined from one of several tables. As in Gamma World of old, there are physical, mental, and plant mutations and many of these mutations are in fact drawbacks. As written, there is no attempt whatsoever to ensure that a character's mutations "balance out" in any way, meaning that some characters might, from a mechanical point of view, begin the game with either severe advantages or disadvantages over others. This is of course perfectly in keeping with the game's old school philosophy and it's likely that anyone picking up Mutant Future will see this as a feature rather than a bug. Likewise, my own experience playing the original Gamma World showed that mutational drawbacks were often at least as fun to have as purely advantageous mutations, since they tended to cause trouble for the characters and trouble is the stuff of good gaming.

The book includes exhaustive equipment lists, discussions of travel in the wilderness -- very important in post-apocalyptic games! -- guidelines for common physical actions and hiring mercenaries, and figuring out just how to operate and repair the recovered technological devices of the time before the End. These rules, like those in Labyrinth Lord, are not exhaustive, but rather suggestive. They provide the GM (here called the Mutant Lord) with solid examples from which he can extrapolate his own rulings and additions to the game. This approach nicely shows off the strengths of the old school philosophy. Also covered are combat (both physical and mental), saving throws, poison, radiation (including its ability to induce new mutations), and optional rules for ability checks. All of these rules and guidelines take up about 20 pages, a compactness I find refreshing.

Mutant Future also provides nearly 50 pages of monsters to face off against your post-holocaust adventurers -- approximately 100 mutants and other foul beasts. Because Gamma World's own bestiary is not Open Content, the vast majority of those presented here are entirely original. Some are familiar D&D monsters re-tasked for life in a science fantasy game. What's interesting is how easily many of these creatures make the transition, reminding us that the border between fantasy and science fantasy is truly an arbitrary one. The game also includes a huge number of ancient technological devices -- the "treasure" of this genre. Once again, these devices are mostly new, although they're all easily recognizable staples of post-apocalyptic gaming.

The book concludes with a remarkably good section dedicated to "Mutant Lord Lore," which is to say, GM advice. Although comparatively short, there's a lot of very solid advice packed into these pages about designing both a setting and the adventures that take place within it. Sample traps and other hazards are provided, in addition to a very short adventure locale. There's also a rough outline of a setting in the form of a hex-based wilderness map. Again, it's suggestive rather than exhaustive, but that's a good thing. The final section of Mutant Future includes conversion notes between its rules and Labyrinth Lord, pointing out problem areas and how to reconcile the slightly different mechanical approaches of the two games. As a younger man, I'd have balked at the inclusion of such a thing. Nowadays, though, I am glad for it, because I think genre bending is a key element of old school fantasy gaming.

All in all, Mutant Future is a very impressive game. I find it very inspiring and Daniel Proctor and Ryan Denison have given the old school community a huge gift with this product. Firstly, they have preserved not merely a genre that's not seen much play in recent years but also a style. Mutant Future is exuberantly gonzo. That's not to say that it's a "joke" RPG, because I am certain you could run a dramatically compelling campaign using these rules. However, Mutant Future is not a serious examination of the possible effects of a nuclear war on human civilization. It is a fantasy game that uses pseudo-scientific elements to set the stage. The game must be taken for what it is -- "a science fantasy game of mutants, ruins, and radiation," it calls itself. On those terms, it is a resounding success.

Secondly, I think the authors have done the old community a favor by pointing another path to revival. Because they had no choice but to create a wholly original game in the spirit of its predecessors, Proctor and Denison have, I think, given us a model of how new games in the old school tradition could be crafted. By my lights, I actually prefer Mutant Future to Labyrinth Lord because it is less strongly anchored in the specifics of its predecessor and thus has a chance to grow and evolve -- no pun intended -- in its own way, free from the baggage of the past. I think many people who aren't otherwise inclined to see the virtues of old school gaming might be willing to judge Mutant Future on its own terms rather than as an ape of an older game. Of course, Mutant Future would have been impossible without the foundation laid by Labyrinth Lord, both mechanically and conceptually. And so, while I think the approach taken by Mutant Future is one I'd prefer to see undertaken more often by old schoolers, it's not really and either/or situation. Instead, we have two sides of the same coin: innovation arising out of preservation -- a motto for the old school renaissance.

Mutant Future isn't perfect, but its flaws are so small as to be negligible. If you have any interest in finely and lovingly crafted games in the old school tradition, you owe to yourself to grab a copy of this game.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms

4 comments:

  1. Good review. Mind, I guess you could say something similar about Castles & Crusades with regards to 'a new game in an old school style', but perhaps not everyone would agree. It is a fine line to walk between innovation, reinvention and stagnation. Regardless, I am looking forward to playing Mutant Future sooner rather than later.

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  2. Given that the new game (which I am naturally taking a long and close look at in relation to my own Gamma Hawk project) is not derivative of anything covered by the OGL, then I am completely baffled as to why they felt compelled to include the OGL in it! Publishers should break free, if they can.

    I've gotta say, though, that the spidergoat is a creature that will live on in gaming history. I cannot imagine doing a post-apocalyptic random-mutation game without them.

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  3. It's derived from Labyrinth Lord which is derived from the d20 SRD.

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  4. Mind, I guess you could say something similar about Castles & Crusades with regards to 'a new game in an old school style', but perhaps not everyone would agree.

    C&C is an interesting case. Unlike "true" retro-clones, it's not using the OGL to restate an older rules set. It's more an attempt to instill something of the spirit of an older game into the newer rules of the SRD. I suspect that's one of many reasons why it gets such bad press among some old schoolers: "It's 3e Lite." To some extent, that's a fair criticism, because there's more mechanical similarity between C&C and 3e than between C&C and AD&D. At the same time, C&C diverges hugely from 3e, both in content and in spirit. It may not pass the old school test, but it certainly comes closer than any professionally published game in some time.

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