Mutant City Blues – Initial Look

So, Simon Rogers over at Pelgrane Press did a nice thing: he sent me an early draft of Mutant City Blues, an upcoming GUMSHOE game. The idea (floated to him by the inestimable Fred Hicks, of Evil Hat fame) is for me to take a look at it, give it a try, and talk about it on my blog here.

Well, that was more than a month ago, and I’m just getting around to it now. I got distracted by the shinies of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and it just kept me from giving Mutant City Blues the attention it deserves.

Mea culpa.

Now I’ve finished a read-through, and I want to talk about my initial thoughts on the game. I plan to run a playtest in the next couple of weeks, though summer vacation time is upon us, and that means it’s a little harder to nail down enough players. I’m working on it, though.


Mutant City Blues is another GUMSHOE game, one that I think I’ll actually be able to get my players to try. Why not the other GUMSHOE games? Because they’re all horror games*, and horror doesn’t rank high on the list of styles my players enjoy**. Fair enough.

Mutant City Blues, though, is a superhero police procedural. If you’ve ever read the comic book Powers, or Alan Moore’s wonderful Top 10, you have a good starting basis for the world. Superpowers are more common than in Powers, and less common than in Top 10, but the feel and style are pretty similar. The setting also has hints of influence from sources like the Wild Cards novel series, Marvel Comics style mutant social issues, police procedurals in the vein of Michael Connelly or Ed McBain, and, of course, the ever-popular CSI and Law and Order TV series.

It’s a pretty rich background, and more space is devoted to it than any of the other GUMSHOE books to date. There are in-depth discussion of how super powers interact with the world of law enforcement, and with society in general, that help to give what could be a very flighty game a solid, grounded feel. In particular, the sections on how super-powered police officers fit in with the rest of the force really shine.

On the super power front, this game takes a very different approach from anything else I’ve seen. First of all, everyone has the same origin: a flu-like virus referred to as SME (Sudden Mutation Event). So, no magic rings, no alien babies saved from doomed planets, no radioactive arachnid incidents, etc. You get a bad cold as a mysterious virus rewrites your DNA, then you can tie people up with your hair.

You also don’t have free rein to pick your powers separately; they are arranged in a special diagram, showing the links between different powers, and the drawbacks generally associated with them. You get a certain number of points, pick one power you want from the chart, then have to spend more points as you move around the chart from that initial choice to take other powers. For extra points, you can skip over intervening powers, but every step costs points. Some of the powers are drawbacks; you can’t skip over them, but at least they don’t cost you any points. They show the types of problems normally associated with the kinds of powers you have.

So, let’s say I want to have super-speed and lightning-fast decision making. I can do that, but I wind up with a tendency to attention deficit disorder, because that drawback is between the two powers I want. I also am very unlikely to be able to command fish, which is way over on the other side of the chart, and it would cost a lot of points to move over there.

This may rankle some players. It sets arbitrary limits on what power groups you can reasonably have, and it can be a little difficult to figure out at first glance. The thing that I find interesting is that the system has been worked out, not so much to balance things, but to simulate the game-world idea that super powers tend to occur together, and that scientists are starting to understand which types are more commonly found together. It creates verisimilitude in the setting, and only incidentally balances the characters.

Very strangely for a superhero game, powers are not really balanced against each other, and this is deliberate. After all, in real life, people are not point-balanced, so why should RPG characters be?***

There’s also a sidebar that talks about what you should do if you don’t want to use the primary game-world conceits of grouped powers, a single origin, and little to no power balance, which is nice.

The largest section of the book (72 pages in the draft I have) is the listing of super powers and explanations of how they work. There’s a nice wide variety, and there are some that can be used as investigative skills, allowing you to find clues, as well as the more common powers that work like generals skills.

I haven’t talked about investigative skills and general skills, have I? Well, I mentioned how the GUMSHOE system works in this post, but maybe a little more detail is in order.

GUMSHOE is pretty focused and optimized for investigative games. It’s all about finding the clues and trying to interpret them.

Notice that I didn’t say “trying to find the clues.”

If there’s a clue available, and you’ve got the right skill to find it, you find it. Period. No rolling, no chance of failure. All you have to do is use the right skill.

That makes sense, right? I mean, the drama in CSI is not about whether or not Hodges is going to be able to identify the gritty white powder on the duct tape holding the victim’s mouth shut. The drama is about how Grissom interprets it and what he does about it.

Same thing here.

Finding clues takes investigative skills. These are pretty granular, with technical ones like Evidence Gathering and Fingerprinting, and interpersonal ones like Flattery and Flirting. You get a fair number of points to buy investigative skills; the number of points you get is based on the number of players in the game, and is balanced to make sure that you can cover all (or at least most) of the investigative skills no matter what size the group. So, you get more points if there are only two players than if there are six.

General skills are things that don’t get you clues. Things like Scuffling and Driving. These work more the way skills work in other games, with rolls and a chance of failure.

Super powers come in both flavours, which is where this little digression started.

So. 213 total pages. 72 pages of super powers. 61 pages of world background. 15 pages of tips for GMs and players. 19 pages for the introductory adventure. 2 pages for the table of contents. That leaves 44 pages of GUMSHOE rules, including character creation, system, lists and explanations for skills, and super powered combat. GUMSHOE is a pretty lean system.

And what do I think of it?

So far, I’m pretty intrigued. The setting and system really appeal to me, and I think I’ll have better luck floating a superhero police procedural game to (most of) my players than a horror game of any stripe. Now, I’ve got to send out the call for my testers and run the intro scenario.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

* As an aside, I think that the system fits very nicely with horror games. Horror games, in general, seem to mesh really well with mystery and investigation modes of play.

**My friend, Michael, just got back from Spain, and he’s a big Cthulhu fan, so I should be able to talk him into playing in a Trail of Cthulhu playtest.

***That’s actually a much deeper argument for another day, having to do with player perceptions of fairness and entitlement rather than anything that is intrinsic to an RPG in and of itself. But, as I say, for another day.