In the previous post I reflected from a GM’s perspective on the joy of character creation in Mutant Year Zero (MY0) and how through this quick process not only do you quickly develop flavoursome characters, each with their own genre defined niche and relationships between them, but also a description of the place they live, The Ark, and a host of characters to be found there and a sense of some of these wider relationships. All good so far. But how does this play out once the dice start hitting the table in anger. I pleased to report once again on the whole it does so brilliantly!
Coming from a Pendragon background (now being distributed by Chaosium) I was pleased to see that the game utilises a regular cycle for a game session, a bit like Pendragon’s once scenario per game session/year finishing with a Winter Phase. In MY0, each session begins with an Assembly. This is where the players get to do some meta-gaming and decide what projects the inhabitants of the Ark are going to be involved in to develop the Ark, with each player nominating a new project should they wish to. For us this was partially done in character and partially in a more out of character strategic way. As the game is played out, characters can contribute to these tasks, which over time improve the development stats of The Ark, which brings in game bonuses. In our first session, the players decided to develop some Cropland (food being an urgent need!), construct a Museum (to develop Culture & Technology) and fashion a Statue (increase Culture).
After the Assembly, the GM draws a threat card. These cards describe a threat to the life of The Ark in a general way, with more detail being given for the GM in the rule book. The draw can be on the table in full view, or can be done by the GM in secret. I’m tempted in the future to do it at the time and in full view so that the players can play more of a part in generating the narrative as to what the threat actually looks like, with the group creative process being something I really relish and enjoy as a GM, but for this first session, I drew the card beforehand so that I wouldn’t need to be worrying about the mechanics and working out the ‘plot’ on the hoof. The card I drew was ‘Threat: Missing Person’, with some suggestions as to who they might be and the impact and implications for the members of The Ark.
So who has gone missing? With part of the impetus to MY0 being the Elder becoming frail and unable to care for and guide The Ark as he has done in the past, so that the occupants have to decide how to survive for themselves as their ‘comfortable’ life begins to crumble, I decided to force the issue. The Assembly ended abruptly with the a Chronicler bursting in an announcing that the Elder had gone missing.
And so with the draw of one card, the projects chosen by the players and the web or relationships and tensions generated by character creation, there was plenty to play with and for! Quickly different agendas emerged. Rebeth the Enforcer PC and his slave Dink went off to claim some land on the outskirts of the Ark to start preparing it for planting. Our Gearhead ‘K’ helped out by putting together a plough for them to help speed things up. This of course wasn’t as straight-forward as they hoped, with tension arising between them and Jonat’s, Johammed’s Enforcer (head of the Olders) which ended in a brawl. Despite Rebeth being taken out by Jonat’s parasitic mutation, they managed to roll six points worth of successes towards the goal of twelve points needed to complete the Cropland project, a good solid start.
As well as fashioning the plough, ‘K’ took it upon himself to investigate the Elder’s disappearance, gradually piecing together which of the Chroniclers had been caring for him, had seen him and when.
Toad, our party’s Fixer, decided that the chaos caused by the disappearance of the Elder gave him the perfect chance to wrangle some deals and take advantage of folks being distracted. He persuaded Sixter the Fixer to aid him in creating the Statue within which they could have a secret compartment in which they could hide away their own stashes of goods to keep them safe, got Milex the Fixer on board with the concept of the Museum, and sought an audience with both Marlotte (Boss of the Youngers) and Johammed (Boss of the Olders) to support him in building a Statue of them. It is unclear how he was going to pull off double-crossing them in this way, but with the Elder going missing, he switched, with their approval, to the Statue being dedicated to The Elder so that found or not, he would constantly be standing over them, reminding the people of The Ark of his protection and compassion. Through this, one success was achieved out of the four required for the Statue.
All of this took place amidst the heightened tension in The Ark. Marlotte failed to get her people organised in responding to the Elder’s vanishing, Johammed, however, managed to organise a number of search parties. And it was one of these searching along the riverbank next to The Ark, that noticed the snag of white cloth on the Elder’s window, white like the long coat he always wore. The session ended with one search party planning to cross the river at that point in a boat, to see if he had been snatched and stolen across the Thames.
The session cycle ends with the players awarding themselves XP through the answering of questions regarding the activity of their characters such as did they perform a day’s work towards a project in The Ark and did they sacrifice or risk something for their PC buddy. This is a neat way of reinforcing the relationships and projects etc. that are used to create and drive the feel and genre within the game, meaning that decisions taken count mechanically as well as narratively.
And so the background drawn up in character generation, the projects opted for within the Assembly, and the random Threat card quickly and easily created plenty of plot potential and tension for the players and GM in a session that was just under four hours long. This is something as a GM who is never ready and enjoys winging it, I really appreciated. It was easy to come up with colour and detail on the fly with the setting and characters providing plenty of inspiration and details (such as a list of NPCs) to work with. This is not to say that I didn’t have concerns that emerged during gameplay, I did. Firstly, the different personalities, niches and objectives of the players and their characters quickly split the party. I don’t think it detracted from the fun and it did enable us to develop a broader sense of the setting and relationships than if they’d focused on a single area and worked together, but it is one to be aware of going forward and monitor. The other concern grew out of the realisation in play that each skill is very specific in order to feed into and develop the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting and so might not necessarily be what you’d assume the title suggests. Also the Stunts they award, bonuses won by achieving more than one success in a roll, are again very specific, and so we were regularly opening up the rules to check them out, which did hold up the flow a little. I hope these will gradually lodge themselves in our minds over play so it’s less of an issue. (I’ll describe dice rolls with more detail another time, but these too help drive the narrative beyond just dictating whether you are successful or not.)
All in all, it was a highly enjoyable first gameplay session, successfully giving a greater sense of what life in The Ark is like and who the personalities there are. It also opened up all sorts of potential avenues for the characters to explore and exploit going forward, and the big question: where is the Elder and what will they do without him if he is not found?
Oh, and I almost forgot, the final act of the session is to roll 1d6 to see by how many The Ark’s population dropped during the game in addition to any in game losses. By the end of the first evening, the population had dropped from 200 to 199. Not a great change, but enough to warn the players that this is a fragile situation…