Saturday, October 2, 2010

RPGs I Like: Mutant City Blues

What's It About?
Super-powered police detectives.

That's a pretty simple premise, which could be spun fairly broadly, but Robin Laws narrows it to a manageable and detailed level in the third game for the Gumshoe system, Mutant City Blues. I've written before on my overall thoughts on the Gumshoe system (you can read that here). As with my reviews of two other Gumshoe games, Fear Itself and the Esoterrorists, I want to focus on what MCB brings to the table.

The most obvious addition to the system is a fairly robust system for super-powers. Unlike most supers games, MCB takes a narrower approach-- tailored to work with the idea of being able to handle mysteries in a fantastic setting. Most supers games provide a toolkit for building anything-- MCB instead provides a structure for building characters. Super powers arise from genetic mutations in this setting, and having X power means you're more likely to have Y power or Z drawback. This is mapped on a chart called the Quade Diagram. So for example, there's a close connection between Gills, Swimming, and Water Manipulation as powers. In game terms, this means if a player starts on the power map with X-Ray vision, the next cheapest choices for powers are Thermal Vision and Light Control. Players can spend point to hop powers in a line and can pick up related disadvantages.

Beyond limiting the kinds and arrays of powers characters can have, the Quade Diagram has a practical purpose in the game. It means if you find evidence of something like Radiation Projection, you may have to be worried about powers like Transmutation and Self-Detonation. You may also be dealing with a Depressive. If you find evidence of two powers on opposite ends of the diagram, you may also be able determine that there's more than one prep involved.

But It Could Be Albino Mutant Fairies
I think the Quade diagram is pretty brilliant. Players often hit those “...But it could be moments...” in games, especially those with any element of the fantastic. And frankly they should-- if strange powers exist, who is to say that it couldn't have been a strange demonic entity summoned to this plane by pure chance who happened to have murdered your lover and made it look like your rival did it. As a GM I find players who jump to those absurd “what if” scenarios a little frustrating. I know other players find them difficult too. By there ought to be a contract between the players and the GM-- if I put a mystery in front of you as a plot to follow up on, the players ought to be able to solve it without jumping to some bizarre strange assumption.

Side Bar
That requires some trust on the part of the players and a GM who will not abuse that trust. It means once a mystery has been wrapped up in a game, the players aren't going “Huh?”. Given the inherent difficulty of communication at the table, that can be a challenge. At the very least the GM has to avoid what we at our table call the “Rigor Mortis” problem. In this case we were investigating a pair of murders at an apartment complex. The first, a young woman, had been killed at the point of entry of the killer (Rigor Mortis) who had come in through her fourth floor window- suggesting super powers. The killer had then made their way through the complex and murdered a young man in his apartment. He'd then broken into a hidden safe in that man's apartment and had stolen part of a cache of high-tech weapons- revealing the second victim to be an agent of VIPER. You can imagine what details we followed up on-- the case dragged on and one with the bad guy getting away from us and none of our leads panning out. The campaign broke up early and afterwards the GM revealed that the second killing had been a complete coincidence. The young woman had been the target, and the killer just happened to stumble into a VIPER agent's apartment when leaving and found his hidden safe of weapons after killing him.

I'm a little off-topic here-- but a number of us are still sore about that nearly two decades later.

Character Material
The game also provides a rich breakdown of each power-- some of which work as Investigative Skills. What they look like, what evidence they produce, the relative legality of using the powers form the heart of the system. The mechanics seem pretty loose and in play do require some looking up, but with a focus on mysteries, this works. Powers, character creation and discussion of those ideas take up about 70+ pages of this lovely, 192-page hard cover (with an excellent index).

Running Procedurals
Beyond the general Gumshoe rules discussion, MCB provides an great discussion of running police procedurals. There's a nice section on running interviews and how to handle those in connection with the passive and active skills of the Gumshoe system. Most of the material discussing the Heightened Crime Investigation Unit (HCIU) can be applied to other police games. That's complimented with an extensive discussion of the implications of super-powers to forensics and investigation. It is also worth noting that MCB provides more options and details of the physical and combat side of the Gumshoe system. Previous versions dealt with that more abstractly, but given the greater likelihood for odd combat circumstances, the game tries to provide new options.

Mutant City Blues lays out a solid and complete campaign premise. This is an all-in-one rpg and I could imagine playing off of this for some time. We get extensive discussion of the implications of super powers, the history of the world and the key NPCs. In addition to the usual great section on gamemastering mystery stories, the book provides a selection of story hooks, as well as a fully fleshed out multi-session adventure.

I think MCB doesn't work as a straight supers game-- I wouldn't want to use it that way. Laws suggests that GMs could do away with the Quade Diagram and play a more open Supers campaign, but I think that would be throwing away some of the really interesting parts of the game. Some of the ideas might be portable over to an existing supers game, but mostly in the general sense of a Gumshoe approach to core clues and investigation skills. My friend Gene likes MCB, but doesn't care for the way that the diagram is structured. He's been working on a rearrangement of the power relationships and connections.

I think the concept of the Quade Diagram could be adopted to other settings. For example, imagine instead of Super powers we're talking about different schools of structured magic. You might be able to do a Lord Darcy investigates campaign or perhaps a classic fantasy City Guard campaign. Based on the kinds of magics and evidence, players could draw conclusions and connections. You might also use something like this for a Conspiracy X style alien-invasion game. Imagine the PCs as MiB style characters. There are several kinds of aliens, each with different powers and abilities-- based on the evidence and combination of effects, players would have to suss out exactly which species were involved.

This is a great game. If you run a mystery/investigation centered supers campaign, you'll find useful ideas here. If you're looking for a new campaign style to begin, then MCB could easily slot in as something different. If you like Gumshoe and its focus on mysteries, I'd also recommend it-- this book provides a whole set of new tools constructing new Gumshoe campaign frames.