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How much do you remember of the ‘90s? I remember grunge and skateboards, an internet in its infancy, the fashion (Flannel? Tie-dye resurgence? Huge shoulderpads?), the guns (gigantic!), the demons (monstrous!), the action (high-octane!)…
No, I’m not just reminiscing about the first time I played Doom while wearing a plaid shirt and listening to Dinosaur Jr., I’m recalling when that immensely popular UK miniatures game had a plucky Swedish rival, which managed to get two editions of an RPG and a movie out before the former had one of either.
I’m talking about Mutant Chronicles. You may be familiar with the movie that was loosely based on the franchise. You might also be familiar with other movies that shared a spiritual bond with Mutant Chronicles, like Event Horizon, or maybe Alien, or Dredd, or anything John Carpenter did the score to.
A friend of mine found the game Warzone, the miniatures version of MC, in our friendly local game store and hangout spot. We were maybe 13 or 14 at the time and thought it looked pretty cool. Megacorporations, cyborgs, and magical religious soldiers fighting demons and zombie soldiers. It didn’t look like you needed many miniatures either, a constant problem for us with Warhammer. The rulebook was purchased and passed around our group for a while, we may have even given it a shot once or twice, then the guns and swords were put down to rust. I glanced at the RPG but heard it had a complicated system and I was too into Vampire: the Masquerade to give many other game a serious look with Horus’ Eye.
Still, it lingered in my mind. I loved the style and aesthetic and the 1st and 2nd edition of the rpg seemed like a whole lot of awesome that I wasn’t yet ready to take on.
Fast-forward to a few years ago and I see that UK-based game company Modiphius is releasing a 3rd edition. I paid attention. Boy did I pay attention. Maybe this would be it, maybe now I would take the plunge. I’d seen the minis game barrel forth a few iterations in the time between, but I wasn’t playing minis games at the time. The sculpts looked good though (the current Warzone Resurrection look the best in my opinion – some fine craft there).
I saw it released, read some reviews, loved how it looked, but waited still. Then it popped up on the Bundle of Holding. The core book, plus most of the corporation sourcebooks, and The Dark Symmetry Campaign came in a great and easily affordable PDF package and it took only seconds to check out my cart. When the second bundle went up I snapped it up just as quickly. In the time between I also got the core book in print, and while I’ll go into more detail later, it’s a fantastic product. Well designed, well-laid out, and with great production values. Truly a worthwhile purchase.
Now that I have the whole line (except the Savage Worlds conversion) I’m going to review it all, starting with the core book. It’s a big project and hopefully it’ll inspire some of you to check out this chilling, thrilling, necromutant killing rpg!
The high-octane action of Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition takes place in the far future of our solar system- a couple of thousand years from now. Earth is an irradiated wasteland and the inner planets of the system have been terraformed and colonized by the Megacorporations, corporate nations that form the only real governmental and societal structure for humanity in this era. They scheme against each other, infight, and even go to war with one another. Meanwhile, the insidious forces of the Dark Symmetry, a malevolent alien presence, corrupts society and technology from within and assaults it from without with the forces of the Dark Legion.
The game is sold as Techno-fantasy Dieselpunk, and while that classification may feel like a mouthful it’s an apt description of the genre of the game. There are demonic forces, as well as the mystical powers of The Gift (largely controlled by the extra-corporate entity known as The Brotherhood); high-technology that has largely been corrupted by the Dark Symmetry, causing a regression to earlier forms of tech resulting in a noir, Art Deco, Batman: the Animated Series aesthetic; and by and large, all organizations are bastards and you’re only truly free if you operate outside the system, though you’ll still rely on it for most things, like employment.
In the late 21st century, corporate dominance over Earth is higher than ever. Corporate-states are the norm, and a psychic malaise is affecting humanity. Since it looks like the end for the planet, the Corporations develop terraforming technology and colonize the moon, henceforth named Luna, as well as Mercury, Mars, and Venus. As things on Earth get worse and worse they move their “best and brightest” offworld and abandon Earth. The remnants of militaries seize power and threaten Luna, only to be answered with a nuclear assault, devastating the homeworld. So begins “The Golden Age”.
I won’t overwhelm you with setting background here – the long and short of it is that the corporations fight amongst each other, Luna is sort-of neutral ground, with an embassy for each MegaCorp in Luna City, and Conquistadors of the Imperial Corporation break the First Seal on the tenth planet of Nero, allowing the Dark Symmetry to enter our universe. It begins by infecting the high technology humanity relies on, forcing a regression to earlier, more mechanical devices. Over time there’s another Corporate War, another seal is broken and the Dark Legion spills forth with the Dark Apostles, and we find ourselves at the default start point for the setting.
What’s nice about the 3rd edition is it gives you three eras to play in, as well as a published campaign that spans all of them.
The Dark Symmetry era is just after the fall of technology, as some high-tech elements are around. A few factions are in their infancy and one doesn’t exist yet.
The Dark Legion era is the default, and all factions are present and forces to be reckoned with.
The Dark Eden era covers the return to Earth and what that entails for humanity.
Like many “90s” games there is a metaplot, and while we don’t learn all of it in the core book, the timeline has GM notes that lets the narrator in on the behind-the-scenes elements that may help in fleshing out the setting. I sort-of wish one supplemental book (Mutants and Heretics) had its secrets included in the core, but understand why it didn’t. The secrets revealed would force one path for the metaplot that GMs could ignore without the book.
So now you know a bit about where you’re playing and the circumstances, but what’s society like and who do you play?
I like to think of MC as a bit of a satire – after all, the MegaCorporations are all very much caricatures.
Capitol is descended from the states of North America. It’s a culture that worships the market like a fundamental force of existence, worships celebrities, worships guns, and where you pay for everything.
Bauhaus is the continental European, noblesse oblige aristocracy, complete with noble houses. Everything has its place and there’s a place for everything – efficiency rules all.
Mishima is a cross between 90s Japanese corporate culture and a resurgent samurai culture. With ninjas, of course.
Imperial has its roots in Great Britain, complete with Clans, the SAS/MI5 and 6, freebooting buccaneers, and a monarch.
I feel it’s important to note that while the PCs goals may align with them at times, the MegaCorps are still villains. The Dark Legion may be demonic, alien monsters trying to kill or corrupt humanity, but the MegaCorps are human and made conscious decisions to create their society.
They’re tongue-in-cheek entities- it’s suggested that Clan Murdoch, of Imperial, are descended from the 20th Century Murdochs, so you could argue that the founders are all just titans of industry cosplaying their favorite eras of earth history.
Thankfully the MegaCorps aren’t the only significant powers. By the time of the Dark Legion era, four new factions have fully entered the field (though introduced over the period between the Dark Symmetry and Dark Legion era) who have slightly less contentious histories.
They are Whitestar, a “corporation” from Earth, made up of the remnants of the Russian Federation and Northern Europe, strong enough to have been instrumental in preventing the MegaCorps in gaining a major foothold on the planet.
Cybertronic is a widely mistrusted and misunderstood corporation. Delving deeply into the high technology that brought humanity low, they arose from nowhere and are the closest fit to a traditional cyberpunk corporation, featuring cyborgs and virtual reality.
The Brotherhood is a group of magic-wielding mystics who began as a grassroots organization helping the downtrodden and disenfranchised, and grew into the spiritual guardians of the universe. They get to be magical assassins, inquisitors, and paladins.
Finally, The Cartel is the UN of the MegaCorps, formed to help keep the peace and facilitate joint operations. Their elite units against the Dark Legion are known as Doomtroopers, and are an excellent choice for truly heroic characters.
If you aren’t directly working for one of those factions, or the beleaguered Luna Police Department (the focus of The Dark Symmetry campaign), you’re a freelancer. Mercenaries working for whoever pays enough, they act as the traditional adventurer in the setting, and are your best choice to play someone outside the system.
Let’s approach the core book now. You can actually purchase the Player’s Guide as a separate book, and while I won’t directly review it here, it’s a great product. It’s an affordable and comprehensive book containing just the information and rules a player needs, without giving away setting secrets.
My only complaint is this is a big book with smallish type. That unfortunately may make things difficult to read but it does mean that a lot gets packed into roughly 500 pages.
The first 3 chapters include what I’ve summarized above, introducing you to the setting and the players. Chapter 3 is the timeline from our near future to when the game line starts, and it’s pretty thorough, helping give a good overview of events, as well as marking when the three eras of play begin. What’s especially nice is there are “GM REF” tags at certain entries. These correspond to a section at the end of the timeline that reveals behind-the-scenes events to the GM, to help them keep track of the secrets and the metaplot. Though there is a metaplot, the game itself is no longer in the 90s, and the designers give you a behind-the-scenes look, helping to avoid being blindsided by events in future releases.
One of the things I enjoy most about Modiphius’ 2d20 games is they use Lifepath Character Generation. When you’re coming into a new universe and new set of rules, I find them helpful because they a) give you info about the setting as you progress through the path, b) hopefully balance your character stat-wise so your numbers reflect your choices, and c) make character creation a subgame. I’ve generated tons of characters for the game in idle hours, because it’s simply fun. The Lifepath is random, but has options for player selection. By default you have 5 Life Points to spend, which allow you to choose an option at your current stage of creation, rather than roll it. Unused points are converted into Skill Bonus points at the end of the process. GMs can alternately give the players 12 Life Points and let them make all the decisions, but with that choice unused points are not converted.
By the end of the Lifepath you’ll know your character’s life story to date, their financial assets and starting gear, relationships with NPCs, and they will also have had the chance to join the major professions of the universe, the Iconic Careers, like Doomtrooper, Blood Beret, Freedom Brigade, Shadow Walker, Luna PD Detective, Celebrity, and more!
The Core Mechanics are pretty straightforward, and involve rolling d20s and d6s. Mutant Chronicles technically operates on a traditional skill system, but there are a number of metagame features that enhance play and allow more narrative control of the results.
Characters are made up of 8 Attributes, covering the usual spread of physical, mental, and social traits like Coordination, Intelligence, Personality, etc. These are typically ranked between 6-12. To perform a basic test a player rolls 2d20 and compares the results of each die against the relevant attribute. For every die that rolls equal or lower than that number, a success is gained.
Skills are linked to Attributes and are added to the Attribute to increase your success range – the added rating is called your Skill Expertise. Skills also have a Focus rating, typically 1-3 with some exceptions. If a die rolls in the range of the Focus rating, an additional success is generated. For example, a Sciences skill test with Intelligence 9, Expertise 2, and Focus 2 that has die results of 2 and 8 will generate 3 successes. 1 for the roll of 8, below the Expertise+Attribute target of 11, and 2 for the 2, as it’s below 11 and also equal to or below the Focus rating.
Most challenges are D1 (difficulty 1), so 1 success is all that’s needed. More difficult challenges will require more successes. However if your Successes exceed the Difficulty, the difference generates points of Momentum. Momentum can be spent on various additional combat features, adapting the environment, increasing the quality of the success, and more. If a player is left with surplus Momentum, or there’s no clear use for it, it can be contributed to the Group Momentum pool, which maxes at 6 points and can be drawn on by anyone in the group. This is a nice way to mechanically represent group cohesion, leadership, and tactics.
Players also have access to Chronicle Points, which are a personal meta-currency used for additional actions, quick recovery of wounds, and auto-successes. These are awarded through clever plans, good roleplaying, using teamwork, and other meta-events like those.
There’s another metacurrency, provided by players but used by the GM, and these are Dark Symmetry Points. The GM starts with a pool of these points, and players pay points into it in order to gain additional d20s on a skill roll, when they suffer a Repercussion (rolling 20 on a skill test, the equivalent of a Critical Failure), and at other times. The GM then gets to sit on these points until they want to exert the power of the growing darkness in the setting, to activate certain abilities of the terrible foes the PCs will face, or to manipulate events. If you’re familiar with Fate points from the FATE rpg and the economy attached to them, the Dark Symmetry Pool works in a similar fashion.
Combat in Mutant Chronicles functions as a hybrid of traditional RPGs and narrative games. Players have the usual limited number of actions they can perform in a round. Combat avoids the need for a precise map by dividing spaces into “Zones”, to which all movement and weapon/power ranges are relative to. Damage is pretty serious – all attacks have a base damage, modified by your Attributes, Momentum spends, then a number of bonus “Dark Symmetry Dice” (d6s) that are rolled to gain the total, though only results of 1,2, and 6 count. 6s indicate that a Weapon Quality has been activated and will take effect. These are qualities like Armor-Piercing, Knockdown, Burst, Spread and similar effects. These days I’m finding this “reverse-engineering” method of special attacks to be my preferred way of handling them. It keeps combat moving by not slowing down a turn through choice paralysis. Technically that could still happen, but it will reduce the frequency.
A 1d20 roll determines hit location and Armor reduces damage, with the difference applied to the hit location. There are various levels of wounds, with different recovery rates, as well as rules for Critical Injuries. Ammunition is abstracted with “Reloads”, which are expended when Repercussions are rolled, or used in specific attacks.
There’s a healthy variety of gear to choose from, and thankfully nothing is generic – you don’t have a heavy pistol, you have a .55G M15 Ironfist, made by Capitol, complete with an artist’s rendering of the item of bodily harm. The section on noncombat gear is very helpful due to the game’s relationship with technology. You learn that few homes have phones, pagers still exist, cell phones are a new thing only recently sanctioned by the Brotherhood, and personal computers are not very common. It almost feels like it would be helpful to have a page or two describing how day-to-day life is different from our era, as probably not everyone playing grew up in the 80s and 90s and knows what it’s like to rely on public payphones. Or the inability to text. Or always have the capacity to take photos with your phone.
Because of the sheer mind-blasting horror of the entities of the Dark Symmetry, mental health is tracked as well. Depending on the event that triggered the trauma different effects can occur, and the Treatment skill comes in handy when aiding recovery. Among the effects are the accumulation of Dread points, which can increase the range of Repercussions, resulting in them happening on rolls of 19-20, all the way down to 16-20 at its worst.
In any game with a creeping dark presence, rules to govern its influence and ability to corrupt are very useful – especially so in MC, where a large element of the setting is how the Dark Symmetry takes over technology. The GM is discouraged from trivially making Corruption rolls, nobody wants to have their PC worry about it for routine uses of technology, but in the dead of night, in the worst neighborhood in town? That’s an appropriate time to start freaking out the PCs. Technology has a Reliability rating – the more basic, the higher the rating and the easier it is to resist Corruption. Depending which of the 5 Dark Apostles is responsible for the corruption, a different, thematically-appropriate effect takes place. People who become too corrupt can become Heretics, forever forsaking the light, and gain gifts from the Dark Apostles.
But never fear! To counter the darkness, there’s the Art of the Light!
All the sci-fi and horror aside, this is also a fantasy game, and if your character finds a way to unlock the Art of the Light, they will have fascinating mystical powers at their command. Functionally the Art works like other skills, with branches of spells based around Kinetics, Mentalism, Exorcism (Healing), Mental Manipulation, and more. The easiest way to gain access to these spells is through joining the Brotherhood, but there are routes through the other factions.
The adversaries section is very good. You’re presented with some base templates, the chapters detailing the history of the Dark Symmetry and each of the Dark Apostles provides more (very nasty and evocative monsters), and there’s a unique and interesting way of classifiying NPCs. These days it’s common to have “mook” rules in games, especially high-action ones. These are rules for enemies that can be overcome very easily as they’re less important to the overall plot. Mutant Chronicles adds more classifications. While not applicable to every enemy, these are Troopers, who are the mook equivalents, and are capable of less mechanical impact; Elites, who are less common and serious threats; Hordes & Squads, a number of Troopers working in a group – either undisciplined (Hordes) or acting as support for a single leading Elite (Squads); and finally Nemeses, who are the big bads, the mightiest of foes. I really like the use of Hordes & Squads as they seem to be an easy way to run mass combat without being too weighed down by lots of fighters in the battle.
A later chapter covers Luna, a perfect city of adventure. Neutral ground for all the factions, it is a conglomeration of architecture from all throughout human history, where buildings aren’t demolished – instead the street level is raised and new developments built on top, evoking a labyrinth of crossways, undercities, and the perfect place to get lost in. The lifestyle of the average Luna City citizen is also covered, including food, accommodation, and fashion.
Following a section on life as a freelancer, the corporations are fleshed out, with their history and structure detailed, as well as their holdings and attitudes towards the other factions.
The Gamemaster’s section details how to best manage and run Mutant Chronicles using traditional methods and more modern techniques, including the ones specific to MC. It covers the different kinds of games – MC isn’t just about killing monsters with guns, you could also politic in the boardroom, or be intrepid investigators, or work for one of many different factions. The role of technology appears again, which I think is quite beneficial, as the dual nature of tech as benefit and liability is extremely amplified in the setting.
I think there are only a couple of things I would have liked the core rulebook to include more of. First is religion. While it’s not always the easiest thing to work with and develop into the future, with an quasi-religious entity like The Brotherhood taking on such prominence, and an actual battle between Light and Dark, it seems religion would play a more prominent role. I’ve tried to find it but the best I found was a statement about how religions are still around and The Brotherhood doesn’t discriminate.
The other part is an index. There is one, but it’s not incredibly thorough. While I appreciate direction towards the myriad tables for weaponry, as that will be referenced, I don’t think we need all 50 entries for Imperial, and that could be spent indexing other material. While indexes in the industry have gotten better over time, they’re not universally so. A book this size either needs an incredibly detailed Table of Contents, or a great index.
I’ll be honest though, I can look past those parts. Is this a game to check out and/or invest your time in? Do you like action, horror, mystery, sticking it to the man in a future society that could potentially be ours many years from now? If so, this is definitely for you. While it’s on the crunchier side of the 2d20 system, unlike, say, John Carter of Mars, there are enough narrative mechanics to skip over the annoying bookkeeping elements of those games.
I also think you should check this band out. After describing the setting to a friend, he linked me to them and I cannot think of a better soundtrack to accompany your Freelancers. Friends, this is Lazerhawk , and the album is Skull and Shark.
If this has piqued your interest, you can pick up a pdf copy from DriveThruRpg and also help support this site!
When we next return to the universe of Mutant Chronicles, we’ll examine Luna City, and what it’s like to be a Freelancer!
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