Find more great holiday gift ideas at the 2009 Game Cryer Gift Guide!
Mutant City Blues by Robin D. Laws, published by Pelgrane Press, 192 pages, $39.95. Book purchased by reviewer (Mark Kinney).
I like a game that scratches multiple itches.
This kind of game can pull flex time, depending on my particular mood, or serve as a gateway from one genre to another. In the case of Pelgrane Press' Mutant City Blues, these are the police procedural and supers genres.
Ten years ago, one percent of humanity developed powers. Since then, society has adjusted around them, with a special police unit formed specifically to deal with these perpetrators, the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit. This combinaton of "Law and Order" and "CSI" with the postmodern supers style of "Heroes" makes for an interesting mix.
The core of the game is the GUMSHOE system, also created by Robin Laws and first seen in Pelgrane's The Esoterrorists. The system has matured over numerous releases, and this is the first GUMSHOE game not based in some horror setting. This point-based system assumes that characters with the appropriate investigative skills will pick up the clues, insuring that a bad roll won't keep information out of the players' hands. Point spends may reveal even more information, and the players must interpret the data they receive. This game does require preparation, though; a GM approaching this should have an idea of what clues are available in a given scene, and where they're pointing.
The non-investigative skills work similarly, as do powers; these are treated as skills, with point spends added to a d6 roll. Combat does get a little clunky, but everything else runs fairly smooth. A few of these work differently -- Health and (mental) Stability, for example -- but when it comes down to it, the meat of the mechanics are in skills.
Best of all is the highly developed background; ten years of study and people living with these odd powers shows in the setting, complete with forensic details of various power usage and legal ramifications of powers ranging from telepathy to emotion control to self-detonation. Society changed in response to the powers arising, and this game doesn't dodge the issue.
In addition, Mutant City Blues never forgets that it is, at heart, a police procedural, and contains guidance at running a police game, and could easily be used just for that by ditching the powers. At the same time, the home city of the game is kept generic enough to be placed in your group's large city of choice.
The powers are relatively low-key (barring things like self-detonation). There are no time-traveling Hiro Nakamuras or power-aborbing Peter Patrellis in this game; in fact, power development is governed by the Quade Diagram, which shows connections between various powers and limits any multiply-powered characters to some sort of theme. Additionally, certain defects tend to crop up as well, making the life of the Heightened just a little more interesting.
As I've said on the podcast, this is not the game that will take the place of your favorite supers game, if you already have one. What it does instead is give you a terrific investigative engine coupled with legal and forensic considerations of powers, something that almost never comes up in a standard supers story. For me, it's more what I go for when I have that police procedural itch. The super powers are gravy.