Developing the Ark: The Satisfaction of Base-Building in Mutant Year Zero

Recently, I started an ill-fated game of Mutant: Year Zero. It started off pretty well, but over time people had scheduling conflicts and things kind of just ground to a halt. It happens. It’s a pity, as it was a lot of fun and it was the first thing in a while I’d gotten to run. It’s also a game that isn’t bloody D&D, and they seem hard to find right now. I miss running games…

Oh well.

Despite the fact that this was a rather short-lived campaign, there was one part of Mutant: Year Zero that really stood out as something that fully engaged the players and acted as a prime motivator during the campaign. I speak of the base-building aspect of the game, wherein you develop the shelter or ‘Ark’ that your people inhabit. In our case, they also fought their way into a suitable location and helped to establish the Ark in the first place, following their tribe’s exodus from their previous home when the water was poisoned.

Base-Building is something I love in video games. I’m not even talking about the obvious candidates here in the form of RTS games like Command and Conquer or Dawn of War. No, I like it when RPGs have base-building elements. There are plenty of great examples. Fallout 4 has a great base-building element. There have been games of X-Com where I’ve had much more fun developing my base than going on actual missions. I loved building my kingdom in Ni No Kuni II. Then there’s Breath of Fire II, the Suikoden series and many, many more.

Returning to MYZ, the base building is a huge part of the game. Your mutants do not exist in isolation and their base, the Ark, is the primary way to ground them in the world. They have families, friends, enemies, and obligations. They are part of a community that can grow and develop, or which can decline and die. It forms a big part of the motivation behind the campaign and players can, as mine did, find Ark development more interesting and rewarding than character advancement. Finally, it’s a way of making a real, substantive, quantified impact on the game world.

So, then, how does it all work?

A game of MYZ is separated into two broad phases: the PC phase and the Ark phase. At the start of the session the players get to decide what projects the Ark will work on. The projects add facilities and features to the Ark which, in turn, contribute to four different metrics that the Ark is measured on. These are Food, Culture, Tech, and Warfare. This is essentially a measurement of your people and their development as a culture.

There are a few ways in which players and their characters actively contribute to the Ark. First and foremost, they can dedicate time when in the Ark to actively work on a project. They could be building barricades, tilling farmland, training hunters, or whatever. If they are in the Ark they can describe how they are actually working, can help one another, and then roll some dice to apply their own skills to their tasks. For many projects you get a choice of two skills that can be applied to make things a bit more open and accessible for more characters to contribute. For every success in the dice pool, a point is granted towards completion of the chosen project. Several of these projects can be active at once. If players are not in the Ark, they can spend a single point, assigned as they wish. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you are guaranteed that point, whereas you could completely flub your dice rolls. On the other hand, you are capped at one point per player, rather than the several points you could potentially get from your rolls.

There are benefits to this development. In completing projects, you’re not just adding stats, at least if done right. The Ark gets tangible things such as generators, workshops, farms, barricades. These help to further develop the ark and prevent people starving. This is important as key part of each session is the dice roll to see how many people from the Ark have died. The Ark can also be steered in particular directions, reflecting the personalities of your players. If they have a particular advanced project they wish to do, they might focus on the pre-requisites of that as a priority, driving their Ark deep into, say, Tech and Warfare at the expense of food. My own group built a slave market very quickly, but they did balk somewhat at the idea of introducing cannibalism to their Ark. There is a line, it seems.

One thing I found useful and engaging was keeping and developing a map of the Ark. This can be done from scratch, with it being drawn as you develop the Ark, or it can be added to existing images. I’ve seen people label parts of a ship that they are using as their Ark, for example. What I did, bearing in mind that my game was set in post-apocalyptic London, was use an isometric map of a tube station, and we based the Ark in the tunnels of the London Underground system. Here is the map we used for the basis of our Ark:

You can click here to visit a site with all of the station maps. The London Underground is a great element to bring into post-apocalytpic games, and these maps are an absolute godsend visualising the potential tunnels and caverns that lie under the surface of London, or the ruins thereof.

The Ark phase is, to me and my group, one of the most interesting parts of Mutant: Year Zero. It grounds the players in the world, gives them self-defined goal to follow, gives lots of opportunity for interesting roleplaying, and is just fun. I’ve been in games where bases and infrastructure-type rules have been relegated to a minor role in favour of combat, and this can be fine. Just make sure you don’t minimise the role of the Ark in your games of MYZ.

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