Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The 'I Got The Altered Morphology Blues' Quartet

The RPG, Mutant City Blues posits a near future in which following the outbreak of ‘Ghost Flu’, approximately 1% of the population exhibits ‘Sudden Mutation Event’ (SME) and subsequently manifests strange and wondrous powers and abilities. Most of these individuals go on to lead normal lives, some of course, become celebrities and politicians, whilst others turn to crime. In response, most big city police forces establish a Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit (HCIU) or similar department, staffed by the super powered and tasked to investigate and solve SME related crimes, whether committed by or against SME sufferers. The HCIU also serves as a combination liaison/bulwark between these mutants and ordinary folk, both civilians and fellow police officers. Written by Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press in 2008, and powered by the GUMSHOE System, Mutant City Blues was not a superhero RPG in the traditional sense, but rather an investigative Police Procedural—such as NYPD Blue or C.S.I.—with and about powers rather than a ‘Four Colour’ affair. Sadly, Mutant City Blues received just the one supplement, Hard Helix.

Hard Helix is an anthology of four scenarios for use with Mutant City Blues designed to follow on from both the setting and the scenario in the core book and involve the player characters, members of the city’s Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit, in the politics of SME and the city. The collection opens with ‘The Hard Helix’. This throws them into the political deep end when they have to investigate the death of Sidney Dorris just before he is to speak at a conference on Anamorphological Research, this the study of the morphology of those who expressed SME—like the investigators. Dorris is a controversial figure because of his radical theories about SME and he was set to announce a new theory at the conference. So suspects include Lucius Quade, the father of Anamorphology as well as members of the anti-mutant and mutant rights movements. This is a good opening scenario that calls for the characters to use their Investigative Abilities more than their superpowers. It also brings them further to the attention of the leading figures in both SME politics and research—and they may be useful contacts to have in the long term.

Where ‘The Hard Helix’ is primarily an investigative ‘murder mystery’ affair, ‘The Vanishers’ is a more physical scenario and involves more traditional crime. A jewellery robbery proves to be hiding something more, but getting to this means playing through a couple of fun scenes, including one straight out of an 80s action cop movie! The clues here reveal that old organised crime is up to its old tricks, but is making it new by mixing it up with new super-powered crime. The cops not only have the opportunity to use their powers in this scenario, they also have the chance to go undercover and this means double roleplaying for the players! The GM does not miss out on the roleplaying though as he is given a fun mix of NPCs to portray in ‘The Vanishers’. These NPCs are a whole lot tougher though and ‘The Vanishers’ is a dangerous investigation.

In the wake of an anti-mutant riot in Helixtown—home to the majority of the city’s enhanced activities—the HCIU is called in to investigate a death. There seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about the victim—he was not part of riot, nor is he a mutant. So why exactly was he killed and who did it? Investigation points to a gang member gone rogue, but why is the Street Interdiction Task Force, a team set up to take down the city’s drug gangs, warning the investigators off? This is the set up for ‘Super Squad’, a grimmer scenario in which the investigators have to investigate fellow police officers. This is much harder and grittier scenario than the previous two because as much as the player characters’ suspicions are raised by the Street Interdiction Task Force, its members seem to be in the good graces of their bosses. This may result in the scenario being a scenario being an exercise in frustration, but this is perfectly in keeping with the type of investigation it handling, ending as it does in a big shoot out as the bad guys make their escape.

The last scenario is ‘Cell Division’. It opens with a bit of comedy and small mutant crime before switching to the big time—mutant supremacists mount a terrorist attack at a tourist site in the city. They are fanatical to the point of suicide, but there seems little to go on until the Mutant Revolutionary Front claims responsibility for the attack. Its announcement also promises further attacks, which causes panic and uncertainty across the city. This combined with political pressure leads to a fun scene for the player characters where they have to calm the public under the questions of a television show host! After this comes the second attack, a major scene in the scenario and one drawn from a similar real world event. The fanaticism of the antagonists in this scenario makes this the most challenging scenario in the anthology and whatever the outcome, relationships between mutants and the public are likely to altered forever…

Physically, Hard Helix is well written and decently presented with some excellent greyscale artwork. Each of the four scenarios comes with a full list of the NPCs involved and included at the end of the book is a summary of the Clues and their values to be found in each of its four scenarios.

One problem with Hard Helix is the setting, or at least the implied setting. This is a city where the police are armed and the criminals have access to heavy firearms. What this means is that these scenarios are easier to place in some cities than others, for example, in the United Kingdom. Of course, Mutant City Blues and these four scenarios are set in the future, so policing could have changed… Perhaps in response to SME?

Hard Helix presents four scenarios that showcase the type of investigations and police stories that can be run in Mutant City Blues. ‘Hard Helix’ is a classic murder mystery, ‘The Vanishers’ feels like an 80s action movie, and both ‘Super Squad’ and ‘Cell Division’ are grittier scenarios of the 90s and 00s. All four involve mutants and superpowers to one degree or another, but at same time they also involve subjects for police investigation—the Mob, the Police themselves, terrorists, and so on. So there is the sense of progression through the themes and elements of genre mash-up that is Mutant City Blues. Ultimately, whilst Hard Helix is a fun quartet, it seems a shame that it was also the last support for Mutant City Blues, itself a fun and engaging twist upon superheroes and the real world.