Categorized | RPGs

Mutant City Blues RPG Review

Posted on April 3, 2009 by Flames

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Pulp meets mutants. Can you picture it? Robin D Laws can, and did well.

The opening fiction caught my attention immediately. In two illustrated pages, it manages to cover most pulp detective crime scene tropes, and set the stage for a slightly tongue-in-cheek mutant x-factor (sorry, I had to.) Then the stage is set with a description of the game’s setting. Arbitrarily ten years in the future, the world has undergone the biggest ten years worth of change possible; due to an odd illness, people began exhibiting superpowers. Simple enough statement, but the quality comes from the explanation of how these mutants have changed sports, entertainment, law enforcement, et cetera. It’s serious, while still being able to put a gratifying smile on the reader’s face.

What It Is
MCB is Raymond Chandler meets X-Men. Characters are part of the “Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit,” effectively a group of super detectives.

What I Think
– Legal ramifications for superpowers? Superb. These short writeups are very fun, and draw me in to the game world. There are short blurbs about Supreme Court rulings about emotional control, mind reading, and the like. I eat that kind of flavor up.
– Right when I was about to think it was too narrow for most gamers, they went and tossed everything up and offered a little variety for those needing not completely digging on the high-story detective drama, wanting a little more superhero smashing.
– The game really does what it says. It makes it easy to design an investigation in a roleplaying game, without the annoying, “You failed your notice check… So… No clues,” problem many RPGs face.
– My only solid, make-or-break the product, gripe is the price. Seriously, 49.95$ is a lot to pay for a book that’s less than 200 pages, and two-color. That includes the PDF as well, but the print version alone is still a rather intimidating 39.95$. Still, it clocks in under 200 pages, and is ultimately a two-color hardcover. Is the game worth it? I would say so, but without having read it, I’d probably shy away from it.

Gumshoe is a very innovative system, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and it does it very well. I think there’s a market for a Gumshoe system adaptation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and I think the world is hurting because I’m not writing it.

The Setting
The bigger picture is flawless, but that isn’t hard. MCB is exactly what it’s supposed to be, on the grand scale. It’s exactly what you think of, when you think of the genres meshed. However, who wants to buy something that they could imagine themselves? The real strength in the book comes from the little details. For instance, the police force has a slight prejudice against mutants because of the newly imposed glass ceiling on their careers. In addition, every superpower comes with three slang terms to help build sense of belonging, most fit the mixed genre very well.

Organizational charts for various police departments, guides to procedure then the “unwritten rules of being a cop,” sections hit hard to keep you thinking about the characters, without going too far in the cop direction, or too far in the superhero direction. Interview techniques help with players unaware of police procedure. Interrogation techniques that encourage more roleplay, less torture? Nice. Ideas for how to run a court scene? So very useful. Also, there’s a nice pseudoscience section, that helps give answers about the way mutants work without going in to too much detail as to add holes and illogical answers.

All things considered, the depth of the setting is really the primary strength of this game. Short essays on topics such as politics, sports, media, and the like build the world in very few words. The subcultures all make sense, none are silly. Things such as the “Eighth Day Church” are welcome additions, brewing with tons of stories to tell. The important locations and NPCs are all given open-ended descriptions, made ready to plug in to your fictional future city.

The System
The system is the Gumshoe System. I’m not familiar with the other Gumshoe games, but I imagine it’s probably the same system with the exception of the mutant powers involved.

The first thing I noted is that the “Investigative Points” used in creation are decreased with the size of the player base. That’s an interesting twist, guaranteeing enough points to cover all the bases, while not overbalancing any one character. Also, low level abilities are useful, this is refreshing when compared to some other games.

As an investigative game, there are separate rules relating to investigative tasks than other, unrelated things. This allows investigation to flow smoothly, while random chance determines dramatic elements. I can see a world of use in this.

Mutant powers relate to an interesting in-character element called the Quade Diagram. At its most simple, it’s a method of “profiling,” or categorizing mutant powers. It does a few interesting things for character creation, including disallowing the traditional “mimic your favorite media superhero” thing, which I can’t argue for a second. For someone who isn’t a big comic book fan, it’s very useful because you can just play around with the chart to come up with things thematically, growing your “super concept” from where the chart leads you. There’s not a lot of inherent room to add custom content, but the game is written in such a way that allows you to easily scrap the Quade Diagram to suit your game’s needs. Visually speaking, the Quade Diagram is a little hard to read, but that’s easily worked around.

The Abilities are vast and very specific. It’s necessary for the type of game, and fortunately they all fit well on the character sheet for ease during creation. They cover almost everything I could imagine doing during a game of MCB.

Defects are essentially the opposite of superpowers, the problems that occur within your body and mind because of the enhancement you enjoy. These are very well fleshed-out, and offer a lot of rp opportunity compared to many “flaw” systems. The system for them gives them gravity, and a nice amount of dramatic flavor.

From a purely mechanical standpoint, the system is super simple, a single d6 resolves all non-investigation challenges, and is modified by spend abilities. The simplicity might be a turnoff for some, but for those who like a little dramatic risk, without tons of math, it’s beautiful. However, there’s a contrasting mechanical section for a little crunch to feed the rabid dice-lovers. The combat system flows quickly, and could make sense to someone’s pet cat. Not only that, but the way abilities are spent to bolster rolls is deceptively easy, while adding a layer of strategy.

Story Telling
Through the whole book, the GM section was the one I crossed my fingers and hoped would be good. Through the entire piece, the book alludes to the fact that the system is made to successfully accommodate an investigation-based game in a way other RPGs don’t. That sort of statement is something I usually read as, “we have high aspirations, but we’ll let you down.” Gumshoe is really good for this. The GM chapter helps a GM build the framework of a mystery/investigation, while still leaving room for a couple of meat-pounding “thuds,” as your character rewards his own fists alongside the table of the culprit’s jaw.

There’s a bunch of nice alternate design ideas ready to tweak the game for a high-action game, for more “bonus clues,” or to let the players wade through the story without focusing on their character sheet traits.

Discussion about the tropes of television crime dramas helps the reader to understand the disconnect between actual police procedure and what is necessary for drama, and coaches the GM to find the right balance for her players.

Lastly, there’s a good number of sample stories and hooks for a GM to just grab and run with. Most sound like perfectly viable, and useable with very little preparation.

Art is relatively rare, but not to a particular fault. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s not bad and it’s not certainly distracting or anti-thematic. The book has a minor editing issue here or there, and some slightly difficult formatting issues. Particularly, the Quade Diagram is difficult to see. This may be different in the print version than the PDF.

From a purely visual standpoint, the book doesn’t try to go above and beyond the call of duty, where it does in other ways. If I had to pick a weakest point of the overall package, the visual presentation would have to be it.

Who Would Like It
Clearly, people who like the elements of the genre will. Fans of superheroes and pulp detectives should dig this game like a shovel. But further, the game takes pains to open itself up to other audiences. I think most gamers, with the exception of the hardcore strategy/simulation crowds, should find some value in MCB. It’s far from the most serious game in the world, but I could see troupes easily adapting the basics to suit their play styles.

Who Wouldn’t Like It
It’s not a tactical simulation, it’s not “balanced.” Some powers are remarkable in effect, and cost the same as powers that do little to nothing “practical.” It’s an investigation game, the system doesn’t really give a lot of tactical depth, it’s made for telling cool detective stories. If you don’t like cool detective stories, this is not the game for you. If you like a lot of gritty realism, it might not be your game either.

Final Assessment
4/5 – It’s a fun read, a versatile and engaging system, and an all-around solid endeavor. The presentation sometimes leaves something to be desired, it’s far from what I’d call a visual work of art. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. The writing is solid, and it communicates clearly and consistently the purpose of the book.

Review By David A Hill Jr

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