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

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Zombies? None Today.

Since 1999, when it comes to zombies and RPGs, All Flesh Must Be Eaten from Eden Studios has been the holder of the corpse crown. Yes, there have been contenders, such as the unimpressive Dead Reign from Palladium Games and Goblinoid Games’ interesting and charming Rotworld, but All Flesh Must Be Eaten remains the cadaver king. Much of that is due to the Origins Award winning RPG being supported with some excellent sourcebooks that explored variations upon the classic shambling undead and showed how they could easily be inserted into genres beyond the collapse of our society as the dead rise that we know and love from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and more recently from The Walking Dead television series. Over the years, the RPG has received supplements that covered Martial Arts (Enter the Zombie), Fantasy (Dungeons & Zombies), and even Wrestling (Zombie Smackdown), amongst others, but never Science Fiction. Well, that latter claim is not really true, because All Flesh Must Be Eaten got its very own “Sci-Fi Sourcebook” with the release of All Tomorrow’s Zombies back in 2007. So I have had this book waiting to be reviewed for no little time, and in the meantime, I have picked up a copy of the next sourcebook, Argh! Thar Be Zombies! which is all about zombies and pirates. In order to review that, it behoves me to review All Tomorrow’s Zombies before I get to either Argh! Thar Be Zombies! or the forthcoming World War II supplement, Band of Zombies.

Anyway, All Tomorrow’s Zombies, the supplement that shoves zombies into outer space and into the future, shows the Zombie Master how to do the genre of Science Fiction in the UniSystem, the mechanics used in all of Eden Studios’ RPGs. It has a lot to deal with, primarily how technology works and how it affects both the player characters or members of the Cast, and members of the carcass carnival. Primarily, these technologies are Bioware, Cyberware, and Nanotech, the purchase of the associated Qualities (or Advantages) enables a Cast member to select Enhancements such as Bio Filter, Dermal Armour, and Infravision. Some Enhancements are also available to Cast members who are Robots – similarly available to select for player characters, and also to zombies, which are not available as player characters. Another option for Cast members is Psionics, the rules in All Tomorrow’s Zombies being a streamlined version of those previously outlined in Pulp Zombies.

As well as augmenting themselves with advanced technology, with All Tomorrow’s Zombies, the Cast members get to play with it. The equipment list is not extensive, but it covers all of the genre’s staples, from Motion Sensors and Teleport Anchors to Energy Swords and Pulse Rifles. If the Cast members want spaceships, then they can buy and design them with the Spacecraft Quality, which in effect works like the Bioware, Cyberware, and Nanotech Qualities, but allows the Cast to design a spaceship that is their personal property, fitting it out with Qualities and Enhancements of its own, including an intelligent ship’s computer and a teleporter. Some the supplement’s settings, or Deadworlds, come with their pre-costed starship designs. To accompany the starship creation rules, the vehicle rules for All Flesh Must Be Eaten are expanded to cover space travel and starship combat, whilst other rules handle cyberspace and hacking as well as the hazards of the various different environments that the Cast members might encounter. Over all these rules should handle most situations, but they are not all that hard in terms of the science in “Science Fiction,” tending towards the fiction rather than the science.

Similarly, the discussion for the Zombie Master about how to game the genre of Science Fiction tends to take a broad overview rather than delve into exacting detail. This is primarily because the type of Science Fiction that the supplement draws from, mostly film and television Science Fiction, should be familiar to most of its readers. One interesting aspect of the genre is that for most part, zombies cannot be created through magic, the supplement instead offering some contemporary alternatives, such as Tetrodotoxin or “Zombie Powder,” Scopolamine, and variant-Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease. This is in addition to the new zombie Aspects that have a more modern bent like being Solar Powered or needing to feed on Radiation.

As with other genre books for All Flesh Must Be Eaten, this supplement comes with its own share of settings or “Deadworlds” as they are known, that makes use of genre support presented earlier in the supplement. There are seven in All Tomorrow’s Zombies, which take up just over half of the book. The first of these is “The Cybered Dead,” which essentially takes the entirety of the genre elements discussed in the previous pages and dumps them wholesale into a Cyberpunk style future. Naturally, national governments have weakened as the corporations have risen to power and in many cases, sovereignty. As the rights of the individual has dwindled, some have either sought protection as indentured employees of the corporations, or slipped into the shadows to survive as cybered up street samurai and Cyberweb riding cowboys, working for principles if they can, or the highest bid if they cannot. Where the zombies enter the picture is originally as the victims of a biochemical act of terrorism, but these were then co-opted by various corporations as cybered up undead security and shock troops. Since outlawed, these combat zombies still turn up and they are still created, so finding out is just one aim of those that run the shadows like the Cast. The problem with “The Cybered Dead” is its “kitchen sink” approach to the genre. What this means is that it is all too familiar and too obvious. The only really interesting aspect of this Deadworld is the addition the undead and that is just not quite enough to make the Deadworld stand out.

If “The Cybered Dead” is all too familiar, the second Deadworld, “The Cycle of Death” probably suffers from the opposite. It depicts a future in which near barbarism following a radical decline in oil supplies has been avoided by genetic engineering enhanced by nanotechnology. Originally developed by engineers from India, the spread and application of this new technology has also been accompanied by the spread and widespread acceptance of Indian culture and Hinduism as a faith. Where it has not completely broken down, society has settled down into a pattern of city states that due to nanotechnology are mostly self-sufficient. Most people have been modified for the better by this technology, and that includes the Cast, each of whom have the ability to modify themselves to a limited extent. The Cast, whether security for a city state or a nanotech engineer, will face bigger problems than the gangs that roam the wilderness in the form of two types of tough zombies derived from the prevailing technology. Beyond facing these new types of zombie – and they are interesting in themselves – “The Cycle of Death” does leave you Zombie Master wondering what quite else to do with this Deadworld because it is never really discussed.

“Cyber Marines and Death Machines” is an even more obvious Deadworld in terms of its inspiration. The “Cyber Marines” part of the title gives it away. This is a Deadworld of pure Survival Horror inspired primarily by the film Aliens, but also by Predator and Resident Evil. When contact is lost with the remote colony of MR-372, a recon unit of colonial marines, along with the usual corporate advisors, is sent in to investigate. As the world reveals its secrets, the team is forced to confront their worst fears, desperate isolation, a hostile environment, and monsters that are every bit as yucky as those from the Alien series. Plus zombies, of course. There is room in this Deadworld for expansion beyond a simple one-shot, both backwards and forwards. The authors suggest that it could be run as a sequel to the “They Came from Beyond” Deadworld to be found in the All Flesh Must Be Eaten corebook, and then use the supplement, One of the Living, for advice and resources on handling the Cast’s survival in the long term. If “The Cybered Dead” is all too familiar, so is “Cyber Marines and Death Machines.” Yet “Cyber Marines and Death Machines” is a more effective piece because its treatment of its genre is more focused and not as broad.

For its inspiration, the Deadworld “Virtual Armageddon” draws from the Matrix series of films as well as the MMORPGs of today. It depicts a future in which the solution to a society riven by disease is upload everyone’s consciousness into a global virtual world known as Neutopia. There some people continue to live an ordinary existence, whilst others see their new existence to play in virtual worlds of the imagination, able to adventure, but never truly die. This is, of course, the perfect excuse for the Zombie Master to get out his other All Flesh Must Be Eaten genre books and run adventures in these genres within Neutopia. Fistful o’ Zombies (Wild West and zombies), Dungeons and Zombies, and Pulp Zombies will all be useful for that, but Enter the Zombie (zombies and martial arts) will be the most useful if the Zombie Master wants to let the Cast employ Matrix-style moves in his games. The introduction of the zombie into this Deadworld is particularly fitting, drawing from the MMORPG playing experience, and the zombie is introduced not just in the virtual world, but the real one too. Overall, this Deadworld offers the most flexibility because it can draw upon many genres, and the Cast get to play some quite powerful characters.

Although its title is not quite as telling, of all of the Deadworlds in All Tomorrow’s Zombies, “The Death of the Alliance” is actually the most obvious in terms of its inspiration. For millennia, the twin empires of Thaxia and Zothia co-existed peacefully; the Thraxian Empire, governed by its Mystic Knights, providing foodstuffs and spiritual guidance whilst the Zothian Empire provided technology in return. Yet an ambitious advisor to the Zothian Emperor and a fallen Mystic Knight subverted the teachings of the Mystic Knights to usurp the throne and declare war on the Thraxian Empire. The latter managed to hold out until Emperor Krauss and Dark Lord Garth used necromancy to turn the inhabitants of Thraxia into zombies and so raise an unstoppable army of the undead. This then, is a Space Opera setting that should essentially be retitled “Star Wars and Zombies!” This could be huge fun and this shows in the well-executed efforts to work the undead into a familiar setting. It is also perhaps the easiest of the Deadworlds to run in All Tomorrow’s Zombies because it is so familiar and so light in feel. Bar of course, the existence of the zombies.

Rounding out the supplement in “Future Shock,” is a pair of Deadworlds that the Zombie Master will have to develop himself. The first of these, “Dead Contact,” is a variation upon “Cyber Marines and Death Machines,” but has the Cast as the inhabitants of a colony that discovers a secret, whilst “I, Zombie” reveals the dangers of a new form of near instantaneous travel.

Physically, All Tomorrow’s Zombies is well presented and well written. The artwork nicely depicts the grim nature of the various settings, and if the book needs a little editing here and there, it is only minor.

In all honesty, one of the reasons that I did not review this book when I first bought it was because I did not enjoy it. There was something about the supplement that was dissatisfying. On reading it for a second time, All Tomorrow’s Zombies is still dissatisfying, but not to the same degree. The source of the dissatisfaction is twofold. First, there is the breadth of the genre that the supplement has to encompass. In terms of rules and mechanics, All Tomorrow’s Zombies does encompass the genre successfully, but in terms of the Deadworlds, less so. Which leads to the second issue, that of uneven Deadworlds. The least interesting and most dissatisfying Deadworlds are too broad and leave the Zombie Master as to what to do beyond facing the members of recently risen retinue, which in some cases are not themselves all that interesting. The better Deadworlds, specifically “Cyber Marines and Death Machines” and “The Death of the Alliance” are better written, and more effort is made to work the undead into both.

Over all, All Tomorrow’s Zombies is still a good sourcebook for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. It does a good job of handling the Science Fiction genre for both the RPG and the UniSystem in general, such that in using its rules you could run a Science Fiction campaign in the setting of your choice or of your own creation. Plus you do get some really creepy, often nasty Deadworlds that bring zombie horror to the genre.