What I learned in the Mutant Future

In the world of men, there are few things duller than waiting for a maintenance dude. Waiting for the end is probably one of them. Right now, I’m doing the former and thinking a bit about the latter.

At White Wolf/CCP, we have an informal tradition I call the six shooter. You’ve played one shots, right? This is like that, only spread out over a couple of weeks. We play on our lunch hour, and we get to experiment with different rules and styles. It’s a tradition that’s produced mafia sagas,* Catch 40k, and the epic Pugmeier campaign setting.

The most recent was Eddy’s Mutant Future game. Mutant Future is essentially a Labyrinth Lord homage to Gamma World. It plays up the strange, impossible aspects of post-apocalyptic gaming, rather than Fallout‘s satire or the well-intentioned seriousness of the White Wolf Gamma World.

This was also the first old school experiment I’ve been in that wasn’t firmly rooted in the Dungeons & Dragons subgenre. Eddy built a little section of the irradiated futurescape for us, but he also pushed the game’s random elements hard. I enjoyed this, but I think it grew to annoy him as a GM.

Characters were close to pure random… we got to allocate our ability scores, but I chose to just take them in order. I ended up as a two-headed robot named “Bjorn XL,” with Exceptional Sense (Fashion). My companions were an octopus man, a deaf mutant with a mule sidekick, and Doc Savage.**

In practice, we were subdivided into Team Smart and Team Dumb. Justin’s mutant and Bjorn were both completely clueless with technology, while Doc and the octopus were practically made of knowledge.

Our adventure took us across shanty towns, irradiated suburbs, and a drive-in that had become home to Mants.***

So, what did I learn:

  • Maintaining a GM’s sense of a living world can be as important as maintaining it for the players. Sandbox campaigns are in vogue right now, but I think Eddy felt the encounter table turned it into more of a beach, with the occasional wave washing in and leaving unpredictable flotsam in the game.
  • The turn order of classic D&D produces the occasional stumble with people who don’t use it often, but it’s a lot of fun.
  • Hirelings. Man, these guys are like the cornerstone of high-fatality old school gaming.
  • I don’t like playing characters with highly specific special abilities that I only get to use occasionally. I want to participate frequently, even if my character ends up failing.
  • Narrating failures: still the best part of having a PC.
  • Just listen to the damn octopus.

Randomness really was the key factor here. I generally find random characters liberating, because I don’t have to come up with a killer concept before I know how the game feels. In the friction between mechanical choices and the world I’m exploring, I find my character.

On the other hand, having random, highly specific traits can be a little frustrating. I couldn’t find a single good moment to bring up Bjorn’s second head, something I would have loved to make a signature of the character.

Eddy made the choice to go balls-out on random elements, and I think he found that broke his rhythm as a GM. That’s something I’m keeping in mind as I design the game for the company retreat.

I find I need to build a certain amount of momentum going into a game, at which point the crazy ideas just start pouring out of my head. Random elements are good to help build that momentum, and also for having crazy rebounds build up.

I recognize now, though, that if the world doesn’t stay coherent in my mind, I’m likely to get frustrated and lose momentum.

Does that happen to you folks? Do you find that there are certain places in your game rhythm where chance is more valuable than others?


* Note to my roommate: it was multi-generational, so it really was a saga.

** When given the opportunity, I will always play a thief or a robot. Similarly, John Chambers will always play Doc Savage.

*** Exactly what they sound like. If you ever run into them, you should know that they do have a Mant-queen.

8 thoughts on “What I learned in the Mutant Future”

  1. Once I’m well, I planned to write my own retrospective. I’ll drop a link here when I do that, but the short form is “Rose is pretty much spot on.”

  2. Put me on the board as a guy for whom the nostalgia was greater than the revisit in practice. I appreciate Eddy running the game, but the combination of utter randomness and a setting geared toward slapstick made for a great lunchtime goof-off game, but nothing I’d want to invest real attention in.

    When I ran Moldvay Basic/ Labyrinth Lord last year, the experience was the same. There were no real characters, just dudes with attached stat blocks that were obvious legacies of the genesis of RPGs via wargames.

    Today, my tastes run more toward compelling story than just hoping I survive long enough to bather naming my character something other than Traf. Early D&D really was more of a survey of fiction and mythology than it was an extended look in any direction in particular, and the other games that followed its cues behaved in kind. No surprise, then, to see more “serious” games like H├órn and Runequest leading the charge into those niches.

  3. @Justin
    “There were no real characters, just dudes with attached stat blocks that were obvious legacies of the genesis of RPGs via wargames.

    “Today, my tastes run more toward compelling story than just hoping I survive long enough to bather naming my character something other than Traf.”

    I wonder if there’s a compelling story to be found in characters who are veterans of those war games. I’m not just talking about a wink-and-nod “I fought in the Chainmail Wars” backstory. I’m wondering if something could be gained from taking the wargaming nature of the characters and the environment and fleshing it out with time.

    One of my favorite games of recent years was Cold City, a post-WW2 horror game in which you’re encouraged to start your character out as a stereotype: the brash American, the plucky Brit, the dour Russian. Over time, and through conflicting mission, national, and personal goals, the character becomes something more, if not actually something else.

    I wonder if there’s room for that with the elf, the dwarf and the wizard.

  4. @Justin, I remember you and I talking about how to keep the wonder of a post-apocalyptic setting, and that got my mind spinning toward taking a Gamma-World-like setting and making it more narrative. And a couple of months later, I keep circling around the idea of radiation giving superpowers, which I think is the big disconnect for me. So I’m still pondering.

    Like I said in my own blog, I enjoyed the hell out of the game and it was a great experience, but I’m not sure I’d run it again.

  5. Yes, the radiation superpowers, especially applied randomly, force the whimsy of die rolls through a not-entirely-straight-faced environment (and that was part of its charm, but I was too young to recognize it).

    But neither would I want it too straightfaced. The Sword & Sorcery Gamma World played it too straight, and left a lot of unclaimed fun on the table.

    I want to play an eight-foot-tall psychic fern with claws, but I don’t want it to be too goofy, you know? I think that’s the disconnect, that I’m willing to buy into some part of the environment, but not all its implications.

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