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

Friday, 26 March 2010

Dead Dull Game. Dead Dull Publisher.

In some strange compulsion, every few years I buy myself an RPG published by Palladium Books. It is not even as if I really like the publisher’s titles anyway. Oh I do like some of its games – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness and Systems Failure, the bug invasion millennium RPG for example, but several factors about each of Palladium Books’ other titles irritate me intensely.

The lack of an index is not only an irritant; it also shows that the publisher fundamentally does not know what a roleplaying game actually is. As an artefact itself, an RPG is two things – a work of fiction and a technical reference manual, so in an ideal world it needs to be easily and quickly referred to whilst at the game table. Which would then take something as easy as an index and some kind of logical layout. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world, because in nearly thirty years of publishing, Palladium Books has yet to release an RPG with either.

The very latest RPG from Palladium Books adheres to these, self imposed low standards. The layout might be clean and tidy, but the contents are organised according to some form of logic only understood at Palladium, because no other publisher employs it. The effect of which, when combined with the absence of an index renders the task of finding anything in Dead Reign: Zombie Role Playing Game with any semblance of haste akin to… well if Heracles had been given a thirteenth labour, this would be it. Further to keep Dead Reign to Palladium’s undemanding standards, it also does not come with a character sheet – oh wait – it does come with a character sheet. Now that is an improvement. An unexpected improvement. Pity though about the lack of advice for the GM about running the game, but to expect too many improvements… Anyway, this is a zombie game and we have all seen a zombie movie or two, so who needs advice about running a zombie game?

So yes, Dead Reign is a game set in a post apocalyptic America – and only a post apocalyptic America – following the rise of the dead. These are not the traditional brain munching zombies that spread their love through a bite, but rather they feed on the spark of energy that makes the living human. Should a victim fall prey to their clutches, the zombies will kill them and feed on this energy, released when the victim dies, the new dead victim rising moments later as a member of the corpse cortege. For most of the time, the typical zombie remains dormant, but noise and irregular activity will attract them, and once a zombie can sense that spark, he will let out a moan that will awaken other undead to join the hunt.

The majority of the zombies encountered in Dead Reign are “Slouchers,” shambling and mindless bar the call of the hunting moan. Other more rare types include the limbless “Crawlers,” “Fast Attack Zombies,” and “Flesh Eating Zombies,” for those that like their more traditional shambling undead. Some mimic what they did before they rose, the “Pattern Zombie,” which constantly repeats actions it performed in life, whilst the “Mock Zombie” not only clings to some semblance of its former life, but also believes itself to be still alive. Lastly the “Thinker Zombie” is self aware and capable of using tools including firearms. What these offer is variations upon a theme, and what connects them is not just their collective desire to feed on that special energy that makes us human, but also the fact that you can bash, hack and shoot the crap out of them.

And this being a Palladium Books title, then there are rules and rules, and then some more rules for bashing, hacking and shooting members of the cadaver cavalcade. With the SDC (Structural Damage Capacity) or hit points that don’t matter given for every location coupled with rules for called shots (not sure where they are exactly, because there is no index, but I know I read about them) and lengthy weapon lists and everyone can get really particular about where exactly they want to bash, hack, and slash. Of course this is necessary because the zombies are difficult to stop, the easiest method being to take out the brain.

Zombies are not the only dangers that survivors face in the Zombie Apocalypse. Aside from the obvious – death, disease, and dog packs, Retro Savages are survivors who believe that the Zombie Apocalypse is the wrath of god and spurn their use of modern age technology. Worse still, they consider the zombies to be “God’s Children” and willingly sacrifice survivors who do not hold to their creed to the undead. Even worse are the Death Cults that actually worship the zombies themselves, not only sacrificing to them, but interacting with and controlling them also.

For players, Dead Reign offers seven O.C.C.s or Occupational Character Classes. The Hound Master uses loyal dog companions to hunt, forage, search, and fight and defend, whilst Reapers are bikers who are expert zombie killers. Both Scroungers and Shepherds of the Damned are hunters. The first does so for useful items that he can use or trade, while the second sneaks into towns and cities in search of survivors who can be guided back out to Safe Havens. Where the Reaper is dedicated to hunting and killing zombies, the Soldier is defender first, zombie killer second, and lastly, the Survivor represents the ordinary person who has to fight in the world of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Perhaps the most interesting of the seven O.C.C.s is the Half Living – someone who has survived a near-death encounter with zombies and in the process loses some of his former personality and skills. Although most zombies will ignore a Half Living, he much prefers the company of humans and actually hates to be away from them. The Half Living, although very loyal to humans, is not always trusted as once killed he will rise up as a full zombie. The Half Living is available as a full O.C.C. that can be rolled up at game’s start or as a new O.C.C. that can be adopted following an already existing character’s all too close encounter with death via zombie.

The process of creating a character is cumbersome – after all, the last thing a Palladium Books RPG is known for is its finesse – and is hampered by the idiotically illogical layout. The actual rules for character creation are on pages 146 to 159, the actual O.C.C. descriptions on pages 70 through 96, the skill descriptions between pages 189 and 218, and the equipment descriptions start on page 107 and end on page 126. So no logic applied there.

For the player short of time - for the page flipping back and forth does take its time – quick character creation rules are provided. It advises that this should cut the process down to between ten to fifteen minutes. Which begs the question, why does it have to take so long in the first place? After all, a player is merely creating a character through which he beats up the undead, not crafting something via Method Acting. The other benefit of using the quick character creation rules is that they will provide a character with at least one attribute high enough to grant a bonus. An attribute has to be 16 or higher to give any kind of a bonus, and well if an attribute is 15 or below, it really doesn’t have all that much of an influence or use in the game… If you consider the cartoonish nature of the game and the low possibility of high attributes with the normal generation method being to roll three six-sided dice, and there is a disconnect between what the characters are and what they represent in the setting.

There is also something of a design disconnect between the character types. Several of the Zombie Apocalypse O.C.C.s clearly state that what a character did prior to the rise of the dead no longer matters, whereas the Survivor O.C.C. only concerns itself with the skills gained prior to the apocalypse. Which begs the question, to become one of the Zombie Apocalypse O.C.C.s, does a character have to suffer from memory loss?

In terms of support Dead Reign provides a big list of equipment, one hundred encounters, and one hundred things that could be found on a corpse. The encounters do suffer from repetition, but they are nevertheless useful. Before it dives into its extensive equipment list, Dead Reign gives reasonable advice on useful resources, including the use of the telephone directory and maps as well as vehicles and various places in towns and cities.

In terms of background though, Dead Reign is unfocused and underwhelming. It begins by suggesting various reasons behind the rise of the undead -- through biological means, the Wrath of God, and dark magic. In the aftermath of the risen dead, American society (Dead Reign only deals with the USA and even then barely) has collapsed and left the survivors coping in the best way that they can. One group that has survived the Zombie Apocalypse are the Reapers, a biker gang that fought its way into Chicago, earning the reapers both notoriety and respect, although not enough for such a well known event as the “Battle of Chicago” to be mentioned until page 75. Since then the Reapers have been using printing presses to publish and distribute the “Reapers Survival Guide,” a survival handbook and guide to destroying zombies. Extensive excerpts from this Reapers Survival Guide are interspersed between the rules, including advice on fighting zombies, (and repetitively so), choosing the right equipment, and so on. The problem is that this is more advice than it is setting or background material, and coupled with a lack of GM advice, and Dead Reign is all so underwhelming…

Physically, Dead Reign is neat and tidy, inside the artwork is mostly cartoonish in style, though some of it is moody and effective. The cover though, is very good.

Lastly in his afterword, Kevin Siembieda decries he fact that some people’s response to zombies would be to claim that everything has already been done with them. Well Mr. Siembieda might disagree with them, but they are in fact correct. Everything has been done with zombies before, and whilst the publisher might deny this, the fact is that Dead Reign offers nothing either new, or beyond that anything that might attract the fan of zombie gaming is proof of that. Were Dead Reign to come with some kind of background and some kind of advice for the GM then it might have been different, but what Dead Reign offers – as written – is the cartoonish slaughter of the undead and no more.

And that cartoonish nature is why I keep coming back to titles by Palladium Books. Not because I want to be playing in that style, but because I want to discover that the latest title is a sign that Palladium Books has grown up. Unfortunately, Dead Reign is not just cartoonish, but immature, and a sign that whilst I might have grown up, Palladium Books and its books have not.