A few weeks ago, Dave challenged me to read GenLab Alpha and suggest a campaign. I have not played any Mutant Year Zero games. I created a character for Dave’s campaign, but it was a midweek game on the other side of the capital, and I decided the days of me driving round the M25 for a game on a school night were behind me. I do recall that character’s name though – she was Raven.
The fact that I had chosen such a name for my character perhaps indicates that I would be more keen on GenLab Alpha than the base Mutant Year Zero game. Not that Mutant is a bad game at all – I very much liked the idea of the Arc and the internal politics during that session zero. I was, if I am going to be honest about my recollections perhaps less keen on the random nature of mutations. It was less of a worry in character generation, but I could imagine feeling upset if I built a persona for my character around her mutations, and there another is triggered that works against that persona. Not that such a thing ever happened to me, because I never actually played after that session zero. I don’t even know if such a thing can happen. But I recall that being a worry.
I remember liking the idea of Genlab Alpha because the danger of corruption wasn’t random mutations, but instead a regression to your bestial nature. I preferred the idea because … lets say your Mutant Character has a mutation that makes him a bit Dog-like, and you build the character around that – call him Spot, having him growl a lot, sniff the ground etc. But then a roll of the dice or a draw of the card gives him Dragonfly wings. You suddenly become less dog-like, and you have to take that into account in your playing of the character. If you are playing a Dog character in Genlab Alpha and you roll a 1 on the dice when using Feral Points, you become more animal-like. In this example, more like the Dog concept you built your character around. Which I am more comfortable with.
There are other things I like about this game too. Its a small thing but I LOVE the advice on naming your character. The the labs where the PC were created there was a naming convention for each animal – a name and a number. But the dogs are all named after astronauts, cats after ancient Romans, rats after composers (I bagsy Glass 433 – maybe another mute PC!), apes are physicists, and so on. Its a lovely way of promting a player (who sometimes struggles with naming their character) without being as limiting as an actual list of names. But what is that I hear you say? Maybe you don’t want to name your Rabbit after a football player? Of course you don’t have to. That what the lab calls you is all, its an oppressive slave-name. You can reject it and give yourself a name of your own choosing, any name, at generation or later, by which you are known within the resistance. Boy, I could have a lot of fun with that.
Another thing I like about the system is that damage is specific to each attribute. Pushing your role risks damaging your attributes as it does in Forbidden Lands and the other Mutant games. So damage to Instinct (one of the two mental attributes) is doubt. And you can recover it by indulging in a behaviour specific to your animal origins. Apes pick fleas off each other to recover doubt, and cats lick themselves clean. A lot of the ways of recovering Doubt are socialising (except for the Bear and the Moose who both seek solitude). Something else happens when animals get together too – unlike the mutated humans of the Zone, the residents of the labs can have litters. Which brings a whole new aspect into the adventure.
Of course like many early Free League books, the rules make up only the first third of the book, and the other two thirds are given over to GM exclusive stuff, some of the secrets beyond the PC’s understanding, a range of antagonists, and a short campaign. I won’t reveal too much for fear of spoiling an adventure for any listeners who have been inspired to give it a go as a player. But I do just want to mention the beautiful horror of the Psionic Butterfly.
But what sort of campaign should I run? Dave challenged me to present a campaign concept for this particular bit of homework, and I can’t just stop here, after telling you what excites me about this game. So … let me tell you instead what is missing, what I might have to house-rule and what the (short) campaign is that I would like to run.
What I don’t want to run is Road to Eden, the tactical computer game with similarities to, but importantly not based on, Genlab Alpha. That game features ducks (which is required by law in Sweden) and boars – animal types that don’t feature here – but the changes I want to make are not about adding those. I also considered the recent Netflix success Sweet Tooth, apart from Gus, the hero of the story and Pigtail, most of the hybrids in that show have limited language. Given that the PCs of Genlab Alpha are themselves kind of hybrids, I did briefly consider an adventure based on that. But my influence is a little older.
Back in the early 2000’s Grant Morrison (who is my god) and Frank Quietly produced a limited series comic called We3. It was a version of the Disney children’s classic Incredible Journey, but with a manga aesthetic and … well, plenty of high explosive. Its the sort of campaign I want to run, but the animals in We3 are not as … evolved, not as human (forgive me, I know its an insult among animal-kind), as the PCs in Genlab Alpha. At the risk of spoiling a secret of the last two thirds of the book I would love to create a campaign where the PCs are what this book calls Abominations. An alternative to the process that created the genetically modified animals of Genlab Alpha, Biomechatronics was the creation of mechanically enhanced animals, a bit like the ones in We3. The list of Biomechatronic implants in the GM’s section is pretty limited but I think I would like to try recreating something similar to the armoured animals of We3, and send them out to innocently explore the world of the apocalypse.