Mutants in the Night – Other Worlds

I’m not a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. Or the apocalypse either, for that matter. In my mind, it’s usually portrayed as wish-fulfillment of the worst sort. Everything has gone to hell, things are awful, but hey, you made it through unscathed. And look at all the zombies, raiders, or insert-other-here, just begging for a violent comeuppance. There are the occasional vague gestures towards to how “terrible” things are, and how bad you should feel for enjoying this consequence-free land of violence and pain, but it always rings a bit hollow to me. At least Day of the Dead was honest about it.

For it’s part, Mutants in the Night harkens back to the sentiment and message of Night of the Living Dead more than Mad Max. Your protagonist might be trapped by zombies, but at the end of the day, it’s racist cops that eventually put you in the ground.

Mutants in the Night by DC is a hack of the Blades in the Dark ruleset that positions you as a mutant in a post-apocalyptic cityscape, a member of the downtrodden and legally disenfranchised. Post-apocalyptic might even be a bit of a stretch. The game’s copy doesn’t use the term, and the term “apocalypse” doesn’t show up anywhere in the text. It’s DNA is closer to X-Men than The Walking Dead.

Still, something happened. An apocalypse for some. A nebulous “Collapse” ten years ago that rendered 20% of the population into the eponymous “mutants.” The backstory is intentionally vague and shifting, the reader and player isn’t meant to care too deeply about the science, religion, or x to y to z of how the world got to this point. Only that bad things happened, the world is (mostly?) OK now, at least for the 80% of humanity that isn’t you.

More pressing is three years ago by the game’s chronology, when the political and legal battle for mutant rights was lost. The game is explicit in it’s anti-legalism. The law’s failed, in it’s eyes it has confirmed the long-held prejudice. You aren’t considered “human” anymore, and no amount of legal challenges or proceduralism is likely to change that.

Instead, you find yourself stuffed into a “Mutant Safe Zone” in your city-of-choice. A ghetto by any other name, walled off from “normal” human society. Here is poverty and deprivation, but also flourishing culture. Here is where you live, here is where you struggle. The rules of movement between the MSZ’s and the rest of the world are intentionally confused. A Labor or Education pass might be required to get out, or maybe to get back in? Or maybe you only need one if you’re going to be out past Curfew, which is strictly at 9pm, except when it isn’t, as mutants should know better to be back in the MSZ by sundown. Likely, no pass or rule or law is on your side in this game, and if you get stopped to have your papers checked, no matter what you’re likely not gonna like what happens next.

If it wasn’t obvious from the rest of the text, the author makes it explicit in the Preamble, this is a game where mutants represent the marginalized of our own society, and the active laws that harm real people are translated likewise into the game space. There is a larger discussion Mutants in the Night finds itself in, along with all fiction that positions the fictional marginalized as possessing supernatural or otherworldly powers. Creators catch flak for representing the plight of human beings who have done nothing wrong and pose no inherent threat to others by juxtaposing them with fictional representations who are physically more capable or dangerous by their very nature.

To its credit, Mutants evades these pitfalls. This isn’t Dragon Age, where mages routinely are overtaken by demonic forces, and there’s no mutant-supremacist “Magneto-a-like” to both-sides the conversation about oppressing a group of people. Mutants takes pains to avoid these cliches: using supernatural abilities fills up a “Flare” clock, but filling it doesn’t entirely rob the player of agency or transform them into a mindless liability. The worst of your fellow mutants described in the text is those employed by the Mutant Task Force, a sort of super-powered SWAT that forcefully enlists unwilling mutants into the ranks of mutant-oppressing collaboration.

Factions are a hallmark of ForgedmU in the Dark hacks, and Mutants in the Night has its share. It makes an interesting split, however, between two explicitly hostile “enemy” factions as well as a series of “Communities,” helpful and to-be-helped groupings of would-be allies that exist to populate the world and give the players someone to help. Back on the other side is the local Law Enforcement, as running afoul of corrupt laws is an assumed given for the players, and a racially supremacist group of anti-mutant terrorists described simply as “Purists.”

These Communities and the party’s interaction with them form the core of the play-loop as well as the campaign game. Each Community comes equipped with a clock measuring their progress towards completion of their goals, as aided by the party, as well as a mechanical benefit to the party for filling said clocks. While explicit missions aren’t provided in the text, there’s enough illustration of each Community’s challenges and needs for a competent GM to fill in more tangible goals. The local clinic is chronically short on needed medical supplies. Go out there and get some. That sort of thing.

The text points to Entanglements as a way to weave and connect these isolated communities and propel the story forward. Entanglements are common to Blades in the Dark, though shifted significantly in their context. I’m a bit leery of this claim, as most of the entanglements seem to range from mechanical pains, a -1 die here or there, to being so specific as to make repeat occurrences chafe. How many times can a roll of the die end with a kidnapping of a player’s trusted ally before it starts to grate? The game saves it’s most dire Entanglements for a high “Wanted” level, which is typically gained through a willful negligence for how “loud” your crew’s missions are, but damn, these are some doozies. A roll from 1-3 at your highest Wanted level will end with a player character removed from the game entirely, which is an odd thing to put on an interstitial die roll. I’d imagine many is the player and GM that would be irked by their character getting pulled out of the game world in this manner.

Still, the interplay of the Communities does provide the backbone of a campaign on it’s own, one where the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily saving the world or ending oppression, but instead in making your Mutant Safe Zone a significantly better place to live. I’m a fan of games with these sorts of middle-stakes approaches, I’ve left too many dragons unslain, demons unthwarted or worlds unsaved to be upset when a game simply asks me to “make things better where you are.” In another stroke of solid design, the text explicitly calls out how long it expects a campaign to last: 15 “jobs” (give or take a few) to turn things around for your community.

While the text isn’t terribly concerned with the history of how things got the way they are, it is interested in the culture of the world you inhabit, and specifically the Mutant Safe Zones. Here, the parallels to the real-world marginalized experience and the fictional setting come into their most stark portrayal and poignancy. Sports are a way out of the MSV, with mutants competing in high-octane “Extreme” sport variants that are profitable (at least for the player’s managers and the TV broadcasters) but also rife with death and serious injury. The human world is in awe of the Mutant’s fashion stance and bold designs, with Mutant models enthralling the more bourgeois humans with the latest look or fashion. However, the glitz and glamor come with a gag-order, as those who speak out for the plight of mutants nearly always risk losing their wealth, prestige and lifestyle, trapping mutants in a culturally and self-enforced silence.

Lastly, the text makes a distinction between those mutants who can “pass” in human culture, and those who are marked by horns, scales, skin tone, or other physical markers of their otherness. There are government-mandated blood tests, of course, but the wealthiest families can pay to circumvent such things, thus keeping their mutated children out of the MSV.

These fictional elements, as strong as they are, are called out in the GM’s guide as important. The text asks the GM to “Dive into the complexity of your city’s social breakdown,” and provides some questions to be answered to fill in the more specific details. That said, I would have liked more advice on how to weave these themes into stories that are directly about fixing community problems, as most of the Community problems seemed more physical in their immediacy than societal in their solution and conflict. There is value in taking such a nuts-and-bolts approach in that it is clear and direct what the players need to do to move the plot forward, but it can make it a bit harder to grapple with the game’s bigger ideas when those ideas don’t shove their way into the game, either through mechanics or explicit goals.

Mechanically, the game functions similarly to Blades in the Dark, with most of its variation coming from the playbook-based mutant “powers.” The text does call out “Framing Tools”, methods for zooming in and out of the action that will be familiar-ish to the veteran Blades player, but presented in a clean, concise, and detailed manner. It makes for an effective toolset, even separate from the fictional context of Mutants in the Night, and is recommended reading for any designer, GM or player looking for a way to formally and purposefully control the fictional “focus” of their game.

It is also worth mentioning that the text does provide a very good summation and step-by-step approach to the default Blades rules, and is worth a look if only to see how to clearly and sequentially present a sometimes scattered or disjointed ruleset.

The power sets are solid, avoiding the utilitarianism of some Blades hacks and prizing a narrative consistency in their abilities and power set. I can see the bones of some more role-based Powersheets, but there are enough clever ideas and enough fictional consistency to make each Powersheet feel both fully realized, purposeful, and powerful.

At the end of my reading, I’m left with the central question posed by the Preamble. Maybe the best way to evaluate a work is in how it executes on what it set out to do in the first place. Mutants asks it’s players to ask questions and explore experiences, both similar and alien to the player’s own. It represents a world that hits close to the bone of the modern day, and asks you to make it better. As an execution of play and as a representation of the plight of the current era, it succeeds. This is a purposeful game, honed to a knife-edge, ready to strike.

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