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

Monday, 22 October 2012

It's a Corpse Cavalcade II


When the apocalypse comes – and surely it will whether it is tomorrow, next week, or yesterday – and the dead rise to shamble across the Earth, the “lucky” survivors are barely going to have enough time to grab their trusty .45 handguns, first aid kits, complete sets of Elvis Presley on vinyl, iPods and iPhones, and whatnot before the cast of the corpse cortege are upon them. And before they know it, Grandma is down amongst the dead… Only to get back up again and be coming around for a bite out of her late dearest and nearest. Once past their flesh-eating Grandmothers, most survivors are going to looking to the government for help. Then the army. Then anyone. Which is when they discover that their survival is down to them and their decisions. All they can do is hope that their decisions are anything other than stupid, as stupid can get them dead…

So with everyone still occupied with the daily needs for survival and fending off the brain feeding zombies, it will be the rare dreamer or philosopher who has the time or inclination to ask that all important question, “How did this happen?” That might not be a question asked in the zombie apocalypses you might see depicted in books or on television, but when it comes to roleplaying it is a question that not only has to be asked, it has to be answered too. Especially in playing out a zombie apocalypse over the long term. The reason is simple. Whilst in a roleplaying campaign the survival needs have to be addressed, entirely focusing on soon becomes repetitive and quickly lose their drama. Need shelter? Kill zombies. Find shelter. Need fuel? Kill zombies. Find fuel. Need food? Kill zombies. Find food. Need ammunition? Kill zombies. Find ammunition. Wash, rinse, repeat, as necessary. Which is repetitive and dull.

It is an issue addressed and not addressed in War of the Dead: Chapter Two, which as the title suggests is the second release in the series. Published by Daring Entertainment through Cubicle Seven Entertainment, this is a fifty-two part campaign that charts the adventures and travails of a group of survivors in the face of the rise of the dead and the fall of civilisation. Written for use with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, the campaign offers one adventure per week so that a group could play it out over the course of a whole year. Each adventure does not actually represent a week’s worth of game time, but anywhere from a few hours to a few days, essentially enough material that can be played through in a session or two.

The campaign was originally released as a series of fifty-two PDFs, and is now complete. Cubicle Seven Entertainment has divided the campaign into four parts, each collating thirteen episodes. To date, only War of the Dead: Chapter One and War of the Dead: Chapter Two have been released. The campaign began with the player characters – all ordinary men and women – aboard a cruise liner on holiday. It quickly became apparent that the suspected outbreak of an illness aboard the ship was something more, and very quickly the player characters found themselves to be no longer passengers but survivors aboard a vessel of the walking dead. Eventually as War of the Dead: Chapter One drew to a close, the player characters made it ashore only to discover that the infection was not confined to the ship and that everywhere the dead has arisen.

Subtitled “Sanctuary and Loss,” War of the Dead: Chapter Two opens two months into the end of the world. The player characters have been on the road for a month after the events that lead to failure of their first refuge, the town of Dalesbury, as described in the final weeks of War of the Dead: Chapter One. Theirs is a nomadic existence, forced on the road in the search for supplies – food, fuel, and ammunition – that across this Hell on Earth have become increasingly scarce as the cities have become the domain of the Living Dead. As the group makes its way from one desperate situation, it begins to learn of events further afield, including news of where the President went – Colorado, which becomes a much discussed objective as the events of War of the Dead: Chapter Two progress. After all, this is where the government went and it surely must be able to see to the needs of the survivors, right?

In the interim, the group also learns of possible salvation – Sanctuary. A nearby city has been supplying the few outlying communities of survivors with supplies. If the city has been cleared of the Living Dead and is in a position to supply food, could it be the refuge that the player characters have been looking for? Could it be the first signs of government since the characters came ashore? Well, the answer to both questions, is a qualified “yes and no.” Sanctuary is in the hands of UniMed, a pharmaceuticals corporation that has created a safe zone protected by the remnants of a US Army battalion. It is even hinted that the UniMed CEO had information about the Living Dead that the President needed to hear.

Nothing is quite what it seems. Of course it is not. It is true though that Sanctuary offers a degree of respite from the horrors without. Unfortunately, Sanctuary is the focus of new horrors and ultimately, the characters will find themselves on the road again, ready for the events of War of the Dead: Chapter Three.

War of the Dead: Chapter Two wastes no time in getting down to the adventure. There is almost no preamble before the GM and the players are thrown into the difficulty of the apocalypse. It makes a much fuller use of the Savages Worlds rules, in particular the Mass Combat rules, as the battles in War of the Dead: Chapter Two escalate in scale and take a more military feel when compared to the skirmishes of War of the Dead: Chapter One. If there was a lot of combat in War of the Dead: Chapter One, then War of the Dead: Chapter Two ups this, not just in terms of the hardware to hand, but also the foes faced.

Physically, War of the Dead: Chapter Two is somewhat perfunctorily presented. What little art there is, is grim, if sketchy. The writing though, is rough around the edges and it could have done with a closer edit. There is some repetition and inconsistency between sections that the GM will have to adjudicate on. As with the previous chapter, War of the Dead: Chapter Two could do with maps to make it easier for the GM to run.

Similarly, War of the Dead: Chapter Two suffers from many of issues that were a problem in the previous chapter. It is linear in nature and it is heavily scripted in places, and it suffers from repetition in terms of structure and in its encounters. Primarily, it is heavily combative in nature and this becomes both wearisome and grim. Then again, this is a world in which the dead walk the earth… That said, the over arcing plot does introduce several twists to its exploration of the zombie genre and in between the gunfights, there are numerous NPCs to interact with, many of them quite memorable.

At the start of this review, it was stated that War of the Dead: Chapter Two both addressed and failed to address the repetitious play of the genre and the question of why the post-apocalypse came about. It addresses the repetition essentially by replacing it with different forms of repetition, but ones that still revolve around the slaughtering of the Living Dead. It addresses the question of “why” only so far, and that is not really a failure upon the author’s part. After all, this is only the second part of the campaign and as such, is far too early to fully answer such questions.  They will only come in War of the Dead: Chapter Three and War of the Dead: Chapter Four. In the meantime, War of the Dead: Chapter Two is as good as the previous chapter, which means more good, but not quite perfect zombie roleplaying fodder.