26 April 2013

A Review of Mutants & Machine-guns

What Is It?

Mutants & Machine-guns is an eight page post-apocalyptic role playing game from Experimental Playground. EP has been around for quite a few years now making print and play board games, but this is their first attempt at an RPG. Like EP's many board games, Mutants & Machine-guns is a completely free download and available in multiple languages (English, French and Spanish).

How Does It Work?

As you would expect from a small game like M&Mg the rules are very basic. Character creation boils down to selecting one of different archetypes: Pure Human, Human Mutant and Evolved Animal.  The archetype choice determines HP, progression rate and number of mutations. Players then distribute four points between Might, Reflex, Wits and Influence. M&Mg is a little unusual in that it allows a character to have zero in one or more of their stats. There is a large list of mutations to round out character creation as well as an equipment list; however, there is no mention on how to decide starting equipment.

All non-combat conflicts in M&Mg are handled by a 2d6+attribute roll vs. target number. It isn't anything special, but it should be accessible to beginner and veteran alike. Combat in this game is strange and has more in common with JRPGs than tabletop RPGs. Characters roll for initiative and then select one action from a list to perform each round. From there it is a back and forth with very little tactical choice. Even escaping from combat is an action choice and it grants an attack of opportunity and then a guaranteed escape. Like I said, it's as if the designers copied a JRPG menu for this game and it makes combat feel  restrictive and repetitive. Luckily characters don't have much health and combat shouldn't normally last more than a few rounds.

The only other thing in the rulebook is a couple of example monsters. There are no survival or exploration sections and no example adventures despite the progression mechanic relying on completing adventures. For my purposes I assumed that an adventure was equal to one session, but since it is not defined it is open to interpretation.

Final Thoughts

Mutants & Machine-guns has nice a cover that belies the poor layout within. My number one complaint about this game isn't regarding the system, although that is also weak. My ire is directed at the font choice, a blocky faux-pixel affair used for heading and text alike. The rules are short and I was still fatigued after the first page thanks to the somewhat blurry font.

Layout problems aside, M&Mg isn't terrible. The author's successfully get the gonzo, post-apocalyptic feel right with what few details are in the game and the 2d6 vs. TN system is about as average as you can get in the tabletop RPG world. Where the game stumbles is with its combat system, which is clumsy and needlessly slows the game down. The game could be significantly improved by dropping the dedicated combat system and using the extra space to add survival, scavenging and exploration rules to the game.

A little more time in the oven is what Mutants & Machine-guns needs more than anything. I think it has the potential to become a very nice little RPG if the designers rethink combat and add a few more post-apocalyptic trappings. Oh, and the layout needs a second pass as well.

If you want to try Mutants & Machine-guns for yourself, it is available as a free download here.


  1. Thanks for the review :)

    This review really helps in improving on the next version. I guess it feels like a console rpg because of the 'menu' driven option and yes after some battles it feels repetitive. One question though, what kind of combat system would be great for a post apocalyptic game? Would a grid based combat be nicer?

    1. RPGs are about giving players the option to do anything they can imagine and that's why I think limiting combat to just several choices is a less than ideal design choice. You could take the system as it is now and add a grid and you are still left with very little choice as a player. To improve the system you need to facilitate all of those off the wall ideas that players might have and I think that is especially important in a gonzo setting.

      I think that you are making a basic assumption that there needs to be a dedicated combat system, that there needs to be a transition from one type of gameplay to another. I don't think that is true and since you aren't currently using a grid you don't really have a design need to do so.

      Right now everything you do in M&Mg, except combat, is handled by a 2d6+attribute roll. Why not extend that to include combat? If I am in combat with a super mutant and my intent is to harm it then the question should be "How do I harm the mutant?" and a roll should follow. If I want to tackle the mutant and stab it with my trusty combat knife then I am clearly trying to overpower it and should use Might. Maybe that isn't how I fight, though. Maybe I circle the mutant, waiting for it to strike and at the last second dodge and try and cut it. In that case I would roll Reflexes.

      For a rules lite game like M&Mg you want to keep things simple. Treat a conflict or challenge as a series of questions:

      What is your character doing?
      What is the goal of the action?
      What happens if you fail?

      Players describe one and two as part of gameplay and the GM tells them which of their attributes is relevant. If they are successful then the goal is achieved, wounding a monster for example, and if they fail then the GM responds with something bad that happens. It could be as simple as them missing to them losing a test of strength with a desert worm and being constricted.

      Further, you could simplify your monsters to only two things: HP/Wounds and Danger. Danger would be their target difficulty in all matters. This causes some problems on a granularity level because Danger would apply versus all attributes, (what do you mean I can't outwit the giant, unintelligent sand worm?) but it is useful in rules lite games. The alternative is to just stat out monsters in the same way as player characters. Which brings me to another possible approach.

      You could treat combat (and everything else) as opposed rolls. That is players roll their attribute vs. monster's attribute, environment's danger level or machine's difficulty and the winner has things go in their favour. Remember also that you can also scale success and failure by how much a roll exceeds another. If I beat someone by 6 that might be better than beating them by 1.

      Ultimately you want to give the player's as much choice as possible in how they approach things, combat included. I think that if you are going to restrict choice there needs to be a solid design reason to do so (see Apocalypse World's moves). Right now there doesn't seem to be a reason to restrict players in combat so I think you should rethink how it works. I think your current system could be expanded to be for satisfying, but in doing so the game would move beyond a small rules lite game and into something bigger, which I believe is contrary to your goals.



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