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

Friday, 21 January 2011

It's a Corpse Cavalcade

Remember back in 2010 when zombies were hot? It was all down to the continuing comic book series The Walking Dead, which under the guidance of the film director Frank Darabont made it onto our television screens. It proved what genre fans always knew, that unlike stories about vampires, those about zombies are never about the monster, but always about the survivors. After all, zombies are nothing more than a nameless, unthinking threat with no other motivation than to eat your brains or your flesh, and thus spread the love. The survivors in such situations are invariably ordinary folks pushed to the extreme by growing number of ever hungry dead. It is a situation that has often been explored in gaming, usually by the king of the zombie pile, Eden Studio, Inc.’s All Flesh Must Be Eaten and its range of genre twisting supplements that have done everything from Dungeons & Zombies to Zombies in Space. That said, All Flesh Must Be Eaten has never been supported by a fully campaign that takes the likes of you or I – if you or I were American – from the point before the first appearance of the corpse cortege through a full blown outbreak and into a post-apocalyptic world where the need to survive is utmost in everyone’s mind. Complicated of course, by the constant threat of the walking dead.

Thanks to Daring Entertainment, we now have that campaign, though not for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Published via Cubicle Seven Entertainment, War of the Dead: Chapter One presents the first thirteen parts or weeks, of a campaign written for Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds. The whole campaign is fifty-two weeks in length, so there are another four parts to come, at least in book form. Individual chapters are available as PDFs and it is possible to subscribe to the series. Chapter Two is already available in PDF.

As the campaign opens, the player characters find themselves on holiday, aboard the Pinnacle, one of those massive cruise ships on its maiden voyage. Although they need not know each other, the player characters find themselves together more and more as strange events, and then stranger events take place. As it becomes apparent that there is some kind of contagious disease is spreading throughout the ship and then that the dead are coming back from, well, being dead, they come to the attention of vessel’s head of security, Jason Kirkman. He soon comes to rely upon them as the situation deteriorates and the survivors are forced to abandon ship. When they make it to land, the heroes find that there is no respite. Whatever affected the crew and passengers of the Pinnacle is not confined to the liner and society is already crumbling…

Structurally, War of the Dead: Chapter One quickly takes on a familiar feel. Each “week” does not represent a week of game time, but rather a single session of game play, each consisting of three acts and ending a cliffhanger type of situation. Thus, the campaign as whole is intended to take a year to play, though this will vary from one group to another. War of the Dead: Chapter One represents just two weeks of actual game time. Most weeks consist of the survivors getting to a location, establishing some kind of relationship with various NPCs, and then the living dead, or another threat, arriving to upset this new found situation. It is not until the last three weeks that there is any change in this format, when the survivors have an opportunity to rest and as these last three chapters progress learn something about the new world that they find themselves in. It these three weeks together with the three weeks at the start of the campaign where the player characters are confined to the ship, that the most interesting and the least problematic in terms of running the campaign.

The problem with the campaign is that it is entirely reactive in nature. The players and their characters are constantly being forced to react to events and there is never any let up from this. This issue is part of the genre, but players being players, they do like to have sense of autonomy over their characters, and the constant push, push of the cadaver cavalcade will probably grow wearisome quite quickly. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that on more than one occasion the player characters are captured and forced to do something against their will, and while this might work once or twice, it becomes wearisome very quickly. As do the scenes of confrontation in which the NPCs face off, guns drawn, against the players characters, who still have them holstered or shouldered.

The point is that a tightly scripted campaign such as War of the Dead: Chapter One might not be to the liking of everyone. Nevertheless, the campaign provides some creepy moments, such as being hunted by baby zombies – or is that zombie babies? There are also situations when the player characters are presented with tough choices, for example, between rescuing a mother and child and thus possibly alerting the dead and expending ammunition, and leaving them in favour of survival.

For the most part, the threat faced by the survivors will be “shamblers,” the slow, stumbling type of zombie that will use its hands and teeth to claw and bite at its prey, and which is usually dangerous when in a mob or in an enclosed space. They can be outrun and outwitted, but are attracted by noise, their own moans that indicate that they are on the hunt, also attracting other dead. Of course, the likelihood is that once a survivor, player character or NPC, has been bitten, then he has been infected and will rise again as a zombie. This is something that the player characters will soon learn themselves, as well as the need to take action accordingly. Later on in the campaign, other types of zombie will appear, all of them familiar to the genre.

In terms of rules, Savage Worlds seems a slightly odd choice for this type of setting. War of the Dead: Chapter One is a gritty setting with the only outré element being the zombies. Savage Worlds tends towards being more pulp action in style that allows for player heroics. Players in War of the Dead: Chapter One are expected to create ordinary folk as characters rather than zombie killing machines, and given that they are on holiday at the start of the campaign, are likely to have spouses, children, and other members of the family with them. Having a dependent or as the campaign puts it in the new “Responsibility to Others” Hindrance, is not mandatory, but it does provide a source for character motivation. The campaign also includes several situations where such a dependent can replace a given NPC and tie the responsible player character into its story. A list of suggested character types is given as well as a new Edge and several Hindrances.

The campaign does provide one new rule that allows for player character heroics. Under the terms of the “Heroic Determination” rule a player can expend a Benny – the equivalent of luck or action points in Savage Worlds – to gain the temporary effects of any Combat Edge that his character qualifies for. This only lasts a single round, and should be used sparingly given that Bennies are also used to soak Wounds that otherwise might infect a character. Other rules cover survival, food, and ammunition, as well as a detailed look at the living dead and the threat they represent. There is at least an avenue for heroics in the campaign then, and given the fact that Savage Worlds handles vehicular and mass combat with relative ease, then its use for this campaign is less questionable.

Perhaps the biggest problem in War of the Dead: Chapter One is one of player awareness. There cannot be a gamer alive who does not know what a zombie is, even if he has never seen a film by George A. Romero or more recently, watched The Walking Dead on television. He knows that zombies spread the love by biting their living prey and the likelihood is that he knows that the only way to stop a zombie is to shoot it in the head. In War of the Dead: Chapter One, nobody knows this. In the setting for War of the Dead, George A. Romero never made Night of the Living Dead, and in fact, nobody has ever made a film about zombies. Further, comic book series, The Walking Dead was never written or drawn, so never published, and thus never turned into a television series. In War of the Dead: Chapter One, the players are expected to roleplay the fact that their characters do not know what a zombie is, or the fact that the best way to kill one, is to shoot it in the head. The player characters have to learn this, either from an NPC doing or through random headshots. This is asking a lot of the players, who essentially need to suspend their own knowledge, which is not exactly helped by the fact that two prominent NPCs have the surnames, Kirkman and Romero…

Physically, War of the Dead: Chapter One is disappointing. While the artwork is suitably gruesome, the greyscale book as a whole looks scruffy, and really the book is in need of another edit. Preferably from a professional. If the book lacks for anything, it is maps. Their inclusion might have helped the GM visual and describe several of the campaign’s locations to his players.

To successfully run War of the Dead: Chapter One, the GM needs to ensure that the players and player characters alike are kept motivated. In a setting that is as tightly plotted and as deadly as this, this is not going to be an easy task, one that is complicated by the fact that the campaign initially asks the players to forget a lot of what they already know. Nevertheless, War of the Dead: Chapter One is not without some horrifically horrible scenes of horror and some opportunities to roleplay. For the GM wanting to run a whole campaign based around the rise of the ravaging revenants, War of the Dead: Chapter One is good choice, though not a perfect one.