Mutant Year Zero Campaign – Part 1: Reflections on Character Generation

As noted in my last blog post, I’ve recently started a Mutant Year Zero (MY0) campaign with my regular gaming group. This is something I’ve wanted to do for sometime having backed the game when it was kickstarted (I’ve backed everything else by Free League since, so impressed was I by the product and their campaign).

As a GM I have a preference for rules-lite narrative systems with scope for lots of player input. I’m also terrible at getting everything prepared before a session, something I’ve come to embrace rather than get frustrated by, realising part of the reason for my lack of preparation is that I enjoy the creative tension and revelation of a world and story emerge through play and laying my ideas with those of the players and the rules and seeing what happens. Part of the reason for backing MY0 was the suspicion that it would not just tolerate my preferences, but would actively support them. But does it live up to these expectations? So far, superbly!

Our opening session was character generation. I brought to the table playbooks for each of the Mutant roles, a couple of sides of A4 with the options laid out so the players could select a role, tick which options they wanted including role-specific talents, draw random mutation cards and distribute a few points amongst their stats. Nothing terribly novel here, all simple and quick, although I love the roles which are very genre specific, each with their own clear niche (Enforcer, Gearhead, Stalker, Fixer, Dog Handler, Chronicler, Boss & Slave). What made it shine for me, however, was the way it hardwires relationships and setting generation right into the character sheet. Each player describes their relationship to the others. You can do this through your own descriptions, but the book also lists options for each character type which are full of flavour, creating friendships and tension. For example, the Stalker role (a scout-type character) has:

  • [PC name] walked with you in the Zone and lived.
  • [PC name] is a pompous idiot. If he gets in your way, he’s going down.
  • [PC name] might actually understand you. Do you dare to open up?
  • [PC name] is a danger to everyone. Keep your distance.

Straight off there’s plenty of colour as the PCs are connected to each other. In keeping with the post-apocalyptic genre, this creates a disfunctional band of characters thrown together with their own agendas, with the desire to survive maybe being the main thing that binds them.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve described the PC-PC relationships, you then define your relationships with NPCs. The rules provide options here, with each player selecting an NPC they hate and an NPC they need to protect, for example, again from the Stalker:

You hate:

  • The Stalker Yassan, because he went deeper into the Zone than you.
  • The Enforcer Jonats, who killed your only friend.
  • The Chronicler Astrina, who won’t leave you alone.

You need to protect:

  • The Gearhead Pontiak. A pain in the neck, but without you he’s dead.
  • The Slave Eriel. No one deserves a life in chains. Especially not her.
  • No one. If they can’t protect themselves they deserve to die.

By the time the players have all done this, they will have created for you not only a cast of NPCs but also defined their relationships with them, again full of tension and concern, with each statement raising all sorts of stories and questions to be explored.

The fun continues. Having generated our motley band of characters, character generation continues with the group generating The Ark, the place they live in this violent rot-infested world. Using the maps that come with the game, we decided to base our campaign in London, and the players opted to live in the decayed palace of Westminster, influenced no doubt by a real-life connection. Using this insider knowledge, we drew a rough map. Within minutes we knew where the fading Elder lives, hidden away under the care of the Chroniclers. We had two main living areas for the Olders and the Youngers (inspired by the Lords and the Commons). One faction, the Olders, sees survival coming through holding onto the values of The Elder and staying in the Ark, the other, The Youngers, can only see there being any hope if they head on out to explore the Zone, if only to bring back resources to The Ark. Put this with the web of relationships made earlier and there is plenty for the GM to riff off which the players have already bought into. Stats are also assigned to The Ark, which the PCs can develop in projects they take on in play, a nice little metagame which adds further to plot generation. From this it was quickly clear that food will be an immediate driver – they haven’t got any!

All in all, in under an hour we went as players and GM from having nothing to having five well defined characters, a web of relationships, and an Ark full of intrigue and decay. So far, all I could have hoped for!

To finish, I asked an extra pair of questions of the players (inspired from our experience with Microscope in the past).

  1. Tell me one thing about the Ark
  2. Share a rumour you’ve heard about The Zone (the world outside the Ark)

Maybe I’ll post some of their answers another time, but these too were rich in potential. We’re going to have fun!

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Oh goodness, this sounds sooooo great.
A real mix of what I liked about narrative games and a traditional core system.
Is the game more gm led or player led? I like the interactions between pcs. It's good to have some intrigue and personal motivations.
Interesting question. It's a bit of everything, for me it's a sweet spot in the middle. Yes it's a sandbox setting, so the players are free to pursue their own agendas, and that's what they did in our first proper session, each going off and doing their own thing, but there's plenty of room for the GM to also prepare elements beforehand that colour their choices. But if you were to force me to choose, I'd actually say neither, I think it's something else, I'd say it's game led. The game comes with a great set of story generating mechanics through threat generation in the Ark and Zone generation outside. So far, the sessions have been us as players and GM responding to what the game generates as locations, threats, characters etc. and so we discover together and make sense of it together. Some of this I do behind the scenes, some is down to player choices and some we work at together. I'll try and give some concrete examples in later posts.
M:Y0 is a pretty good game. After we had generated PCs I basically ran several weeks of PCs exploring the local area to find out what was there using the generation methods in the book as they moved across the landscape. Very reminiscent of ye olde D&D hexcrawl in a way. After a bit natural patterns emerged which affected how they explore. For example one square was generated with defunct power lines, a whole flock of nasty mutant crows and a wrecked car with interesting gear inside. So they are working out how to get/make area effect weapons to take out the crows. Another was a rail terminus with a military train in the station, still guarded by assault robots. Lots of nice gear to loot but the robots might object. I often let them draw found gear from the card deck or roll on the tables in the book, so I don't know what they will get in advance either.

The other way the PCs can move the game is by the Ark developments - what do they want to work on to improve the Ark? Do you develop farmland and grow extra food to keep the population up - but then when the Max Max raiders appear you might wish you'd build a watchtower instead...