The Game: Mutant City Blues
The Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Degree of Familiarity: Not much. Bought two weeks ago and devoured it at a surprising rate.
Books Required: Just the corebook. Inspirational material is every season of L&O and SVU in existence.
I’m sorry that it’s come to this, Robin. But will you please just shut the fuck up about how innovative Gumshoe is? Oh, and by the way: it’s not an acronym, so you don’t get to have an allcaps system name. At least not in my damn journal.
By way of explanation, I dislike being preached to. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Mutant City Blues is one part interesting first-season-Heroes-style realistic superpowers, one part Top Ten-esque crime drama, and one part Law & Order special. It’s ten years in the future, and some people have exhibited mutant powers. Rather than a bunch of people wearing crazy pyjamas and beating the shit out of each other, people approach their abilities in a surprisingly realistic way. People who can calm crowds work in the riot squad, transmuters can’t fool scanning electron microscopy but can make good-as materials for industrial use. People with microscopic vision or x-ray hearing or the sense of smell of ten angry alsatians? They work for the HICU, the division of the police that deals with mutant crimes—as victim or perpetrator.
The lack of superheroics actually grates a little, if only because I wanted the game to be more Top Ten, about the perils and insanity of policing a city where every cunt’s a superhero with a costume and a codename. But not everyone’s Alan Moore, and one table’s friendly parody quickly becomes another’s scathing cynicism.
Mutant City Blues is set up to model the police procedural style of storytelling rather than the horror investigations showcased in Esoterrorists or Trail of Cthulhu (disclosure: I have the former, and it’s banged the wall a couple of times. Haven’t yet seen the latter). To that end, the setting’s full of people who want to do bad things to other people without being caught, a house of cards where each card is a razor-blade and someone’s about to sneeze and lose several pints of the crimson stuff. Hell, some powers—phasing, for example, but also self-detonation or radiation emission—are controlled under Section 18, just possessing them without the government knowing is highly illegal.
The setting has two main conceits, and I like both, though they niggle slightly. The first: mutations (and the only source of power is mutation) can be grouped together and often manifest in predictable patterns. The Quade Diagram demonstrates which powers are connected and which aren’t; thus giving clues about the mutant involvement from power-based evidence. This leads to energy-spectrum analysis (think ballistics for people who can shoot microwave blasts) and anamorphic experts who can uncover the presence of powers by testing a subject’s DNA. This grates a little, because it’s a) a rigid structure, and b) not everything’s worth the same as everything else, so the power-selection becomes a winnable minigame. Not fun for me.
The second conceit is that the Mutant City of the title is whichever city the group wants; and it’s always 10 years in the future. That’s great, and the text even mentions a few suggestions: New York, Chicago, London… but from some of the descriptions, London’s the only possible European city that could be the Mutant City, because everything’s described in American terms for American big cities. Embra (f’rex) doesn’t have half the shit they assume fits right in to any major city—nor does Glasgow, for that matter—and the Americocentralism of the setting’s actually enhanced by how versatile it tries to be.
Storytelling advice given in the game is strong, especially notes for players and STs both on how to portray police interrogations with more than a hint of verisimilitude. Other advice highlights the tropes of the genre as applied to television, and how these can have a positive effect on the table when everyone’s willing to buy in to them.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t save the actual system from itself. Frequenters of RPG boards will note that I semi-regularly sing the praises of Aletheia. I of this for a couple of reasons. First is that I really fucking like Aletheia. It’s one of those games that directly speaks to how I think and has directly influenced how I think about roleplaying games in several ways. Secondly, it’s a game that presents itself qua itself; the writers don’t need to reference any other games because they have the confidence that Aletheia will stand on its own. And I love them even more for that.
Mutant City Blues doesn’t do that. Robin Laws seems incapable of describing the investigative facet of the Gumshoe system as though it’s some monumental fucking breakthrough that only cave-dwelling retards could possibly fail to herald as the best thing since human beings developed the representative language. Yes, Gumshoe is innovative. Indeed, the same mechanical principles show up in Aletheia. But I don’t want to punch the writers of Aletheia for wasting space on their own excluded-middle ego trip.
See, Mutant City Blues is written as though up to this point, the only way that investigative systems have existed in games and been used at the table is in the “roll Search to see if you find the clue, if you don’t then the story stalls”. That’s the only other means of investigative roleplaying. Gumshoe’s raison d’être springs fully formed from the denial of this style of gaming. The idea that most people ain’t doing that to begin with is apparently alien. Present your system. Denigrating other systems by comparison is a fucking stupid idea.
Sorry to go on. It's a pet peeve of mine.
Anyway. The basics of Gumshoe: In every scene, you have a core clue, the clue needed to get to the next scene. That clue is gettable by one specific investigative ability (or others if the characters come up with fun uses). If you have the relevant skill and suggest using it, you get the clue. If you want, you can spend points from Investigative Abilities to gather extra clues, which give you a bigger picture and help everything make sense. The key is checking which abilities you have and how they could be used in the scene, and the challenge comes from making everything fit together. Which is cool.
General abilities (i.e., things where failure is a possibility and could affect the direction of the story) are 1d6 roll over, with the ability to spend ability points for a +1. A throwaway note indicates that most general ability tests should be either automatic for having the ability or work of a flat point-spend like investigative abilities. Unfortunately, this is never mentioned anywhere else, and the rules for general abilities act as though it doesn’t exist. Oh well, it’s a neat idea.
See? The system’s not bad at all. The framing just makes me froth.
The game doesn’t include anything about coming up with a concept or an idea of what you want to play or any of that. Whether that’s assumed or just an oversight I do not know. So we go on straight to buying abilities. Though nobody else is making an MCB character that I’m aware of, I’ll act as though two others are. This comes in handy soon.
HCIU characters (that is, cops on the mutant-crimes squad) get two points of Cop Talk for free. As I’m assuming three players showing up regularly, I get 28 points to spend on investigative abilities. The idea is to put one or two points in a lot, so that between three characters we cover off the bases—after all, having the ability is the important thing.
Hrm. One of the Academic abilities is Forensic Accounting. That gives me an idea. I had an old boss who moved to fraud investigation from the Metropolitan Police. No reason someone couldn’t go the other way, a fraud investigator for a big bank who was elbowed out after manifesting non-helpful mutations. The kind of guy that the bank is secretly glad is working for the cops, because he was on the cutting edge. To him, most crimes boil down to either passion (which are easy) or premeditation (which are interesting, because people lie).
Academic abilities. I want Forensic Accounting at 2. Trivia at 2 as well, he’s the guy who saw a documentary on something just a couple of weeks back. Two Languages (Greek and Russian) because they were interesting challenges to learn. Anthropology 1, History 1, Law 1, Research 1—he knows a little about quite a bit.
Interpersonal includes two free points of Cop Talk. Bullshit Detector 1, Bureaucracy 2, Flattery 1, Negotiation 2, Reassurance 2—all these come from working for one of the three biggest banks in the world. Influence Detection 2 (learning how to detect mind control? Cool!). Interrogation 1 as well. He’s good at getting people to admit what they don’t want to.
Technical next. I think he’s got a handle on the technical side out of misplaced fascination, but leaves anything beyond the basics to other people. Ballistics 1, Data Retrieval 1, Document Analysis 1, Electronic Surveillance 1, Evidence Collection 1, Fingerprinting 1.
General abilities come next. These are the things that most people would consider “skills”. 60 points to go, 1 Health for free, and a note that buying 8 points is fairly standard. Okay. Health to 7 (he was a desk jockey). Stability 8 is practically necessary. Shooting 6 (he’s carried a piece for a while). Sense Trouble 8. Surveillance 10 (he was a fraud investigator). Athletics 4. Preparedness 6 (Never know when that’ll come in handy). Scuffling 6 (Police training). Infiltration 6. And that’s my 60 points.
40 points. I pick a starting power on the aforementioned Quade Diagram and get that at 1 point for free. Moving along an unbroken line costs nothing. Either 2 points to skip the next power, or 4 to get it at 1 point (just 1 if it’s investigative). Dotted lines cost 4 points to traverse. Black-background things are Defects, and I can’t skip out on them. Once I’ve picked powers, I can spend the remainder of my 40 points on buying ranks.
Part of me wants to start at Cognition, but there’s no way a bank would let a Cognitive mutant go. Not a fucking prayer. A living supercomputer? Fuck that! Right. How about Light Control to start with? Light Blast would be nice and is one step away. Walking up the list, I can grab X-ray and Thermal Vision, bounce off Voyeurism, and grab Spatial Awareness for three points total. Four more for Night Vision, and one more for Microvision. I’ve spent 12 on getting access to powers, which isn’t too bad, as it gives me a lot of investigative oomph.
Light Blast 1, Light Control 1, Microvision 1, Night Vision 1, Spatial Awareness 1, Thermal Vision 1, X-Ray Vision 1
Now. 28 points to spend increasing them. Microvision lets me use Fingerprinting and Ballistics instantly, by being a precision microscope. 2 points there. 3 points in Spatial Awareness—hey, being able to recreate every action that left a trace on a crime scene through precision 3D senses is really kinda funky. And it makes me a better shootist. I’ll bump Thermal Vision to 2 and X-Ray Vision to 3, for utility.
20 points to spread between the active powers of Light Blast, Light Control, and Night Vision. Raise the latter to 3 (half an hour of active night-vision senses). 18 left. Light Control goes to 8, and the remaining points raise Light Blast to 12.
Light Blast 12, Light Control 8, Microvision 3, Night Vision 3, Spatial Awareness 4, Thermal Vision 2, X-Ray Vision 3
I’m setting my Mutant City in London and damn the consequences. To that end, DC Clive Kay used to work in the City as a fraud investigator for a large retail bank. He spent some time in head office, but always volunteered to accompany the investigators in getting on-site evidence. His line manager was more than happy with that. Let’s be honest: Clive is a bit of a git. He’s in his late 40s but still absorbs information like he’s 14. Worse, just like being 14 he refuses to shut up. The only time he’s quiet is when something fully preoccupies his mind, and even then it’s a temporary respite. He’ll talk at length on any subject, will crack painful and tasteless jokes, and generally ends up on the butt of any jokes doing the rounds. He knows, but he just doesn’t care.
After he manifested mutant powers, Clive thought the bank might be interested. Unfortunately, he didn’t realise that they wanted the kind of powers that would increase the bank’s profits. Some of the women in the office already thought him one step from being a sex pest after a spectacularly badly-timed joke (that lead to a three-month leave on “stress”), and the thought of Clive with x-ray vision was just too much. The bank asked him to consider seeking employment elsewhere. And look, the Met have an opening in their Heightened Crime Team. Why not go for it? Your powers would be perfect, Clive, and we’ll give you glowing references. We’ll even waive your notice and not mention that you’re a bit of a cunt who won’t ever shut up. Sound fun? Plenty to learn too. Why not go for it, there’s a good chap. Drinkies at the leaving do are on me!
Detective Constable Clive Kay
Academic Anthropology 1, Forensic Accounting 2, History 1, Languages 2 (Russian and Greek), Law 1, Research 1, Trivia 2 (10)
Interpersonal Bullshit Detector 1, Bureaucracy 2, Cop Talk 2, Flattery 1, Influence Detection 2, Interrogation 1, Negotiation 2, Reassurance 2 (13)
Technical Ballistics 1, Data Retrieval 1, Document Analysis 1, Electronic Surveillance 1, Evidence Collection 1, Fingerptinting 1.
General Athletics 4, Health 7, Infiltration 6, Preparedness 6, Scuffling 6, Sense Trouble 8, Shooting 6, Stability 8, Surveillance 10
Powers Light Blast 12, Light Control 8, Microvision 3, Night Vision 3, Spatial Awareness 4, Thermal Vision 2, X-Ray Vision 3
- One of the women he worked with sues, claiming to have got cancer from Clive spying on her with X-ray vision.
- Someone’s come up with a never-seen-before scam, and his old colleagues want a hand—or think he’s behind it.
- Armed robbers have got hostages, and DC Kay was the one to take the call. Officers on scene are hoping for someone with the power to take out the gang.
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