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Sunday, 5 April 2015

Can the dead not stay dead?

The End of the World is a new line survival horror RPGs published by Fantasy Flight Games. Licensed and adapted from quartet of titles originally published in Spanish by Edge Entertainment as El Fin del Mundo, each of the four titles explores four different types of apocalypse. The first, Zombie Apocalypse, deals with the rise of the dead; the second, Wrath of the Gods, with the return of deities intent on mankind’s destruction; the third, Alien Invasion, with the arrival of little green men; and fourth, Revolt of the Machines, with robots that strikes back. At the heart of each title in the line is a simple question… “Could you survive the apocalypse?” For the key feature of the line is that players create not ‘fantasy’ modern characters through which they experience the end of the world, but create versions of themselves and see how they might survive.

So, as the title suggests, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is all about the rise of the dead and how you—that is, the ordinary gamer sat reading this review—would survive. Further, it asks this again and again, presenting five ‘scenarios’ that take the player characters through the rise of the  dead and beyond. The inference is that this is done right from where you are sitting—round the gaming table with your friends—and into the neighbourhood where you live (and game). The question is, can this be done again and again with the players starting anew to face yet another performance by the cadaver cavalcade? Further, does The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse bring anything new to the zombie sub-genre?

To create a character—or rather to create a version of himself—a player assigns ten points across six attributes, each rated between one and five and paired into three Aspects. Each aspect consists of an offensive and a defensive attribute. So the Physical aspects are Dexterity and Vitality, the Mental aspects are Logic and Willpower, and the Social aspects are Charisma and Empathy. Once this is done, the process gets slightly complicated in that every other player gets to take a secret vote on each of a player’s pairings. A positive vote for an Aspect allows a player to raise one of the Aspect’s attributes by one whilst a negative vote forces him to lower an attribute by one. An equal number of positive and negative votes results in no changes being made.

The player then assigns a Feature to each Aspect. A Feature can be positive or negative, for example ‘Crack Shot’, ‘Deaf’, ‘Athlete’, or ‘Arachnophobe’. Only a few Features are listed in the rules, so the players may be on their own if they want fuller inspiration. A character can gain extra Features during the voting process for Aspects—if the group voted to improve an Aspect, then the player must accept a negative Feature and improve the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to improve the Aspect. Conversely, if the group voted to reduce an Aspect, then the player must either a positive Feature and reduce the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to reduce the Aspect. (Similarly, the only way in which a player character can improve is by the rest of the group voting for such changes).

Next, a player gets to write down his equipment he already has with him, that is, whatever he has on his person and perhaps in his bag—which in the case of most gamers is going to be dice, gaming books, and pens, plus a mobile telephone (and whatever might be to hand, depending on his location). Lastly, a player records any Traumas, the equivalent of wounds—physical, mental, or social—that he may be suffering from at the start of the game. This might be a broken arm, diabetes, depression, or acute shyness, but unless the Trauma is obvious, a player is under no obligation to  reveal any.

So the sample character is essentially me (and no, there was nobody around to vote on this when I wrote it up) and that really is what I have on me at the moment. I can also count myself lucky that I really do not have any Traumas.

A sample Player Character
Physical Aspects
Dexterity 2
Vitality 3
Mental Aspects
Logic 3
Willpower 3
Social Aspects
Charisma 2
Empathy 3

Features
Physical: Shortsighted
Mental: Decently educated
Social: Smartarse

Equipment
Backpack containing pens, business cards,  copies of Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, Doctor Who The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, and Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime; warm clothing (great coat, woolen hat, gloves, and scarf); wallet (travel passes, cash card, £30 in notes and coins) and keys

To undertake any action a player rolls a handful of six-sided dice in two colours—white for positive dice and black for negative dice (of course, the two colours of dice can be any colour, but black and white is nice and simple). Positive dice come from a player’s attributes as well as any relevant Features and benefits from the situation, equipment, assistance from NPCs and other characters, whereas negative dice come from the difficulty of the task, from negative Features and Traumas, and from hindrances from the situation and equipment. Once all of the dice have been rolled, the dice are compared with positive and negative dice of the same value cancel each other out. Any remaining positive dice equal to, or less than the attribute selected for the test count as successes. Typically, only one success is needed, but the GM is free to require more and they are used in opposed tests and combat. Conversely, the number of negative dice leftover counts as Stress and Stress is where The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse gets slightly more interesting.

Each Aspect of a character—physical, mental, or social—has an associated Stress Track consisting of nine boxes arranged in a three-by-three grid. Damage comes from performing difficult tasks and experiencing traumatic events with damage suffered is marked off the appropriate Stress Track. If all nine boxes on a Stress Track is filled in, then the player suffers a serious trauma or even death. For the Physical Stress Track, this is probably death; for the Mental Stress, track this is irreversible insanity; and for the Social Stress, track this is catatonia. At just nine boxes in a Stress Track, your representation of as a player character feels weak, but as the player suffers Stress, he also builds up a resistance to it. This reduces the amount of Stress he suffers, so effectively the more Stress he suffers, the more he grows inured to it—so for example, the first time that a player loses an ally to a zombie attack, he suffers Stress, but happen enough times and he will be numbed to it.
For example, I and an NPC have gone scavenging in a chemist’s shop for first aid supplies, but whilst I have been successful in my mission, I have attracted the attention of the walking dead. Having raced to the back of the shop, we find the exit locked—and the door is heavy duty! The GM tells me that Dexterity is the involved attribute, so the target is 2. This gives me just two positive dice to roll, but fortunately I gain another for my ally and another for the crowbar I have learned to carry. Unfortunately, the GM hands me three negative dice for the quality of the door. 
I roll 1, 2, 3, and 6 on the positive dice and 1, 3, and 5 on the negative dice. The rolls of 1 and 3 cancel each other out, leaving 2 and 6 positive, and  5 negative. The end result is one success and one negative die—enough to get the door open, but in the process, suffer a point of Stress.
Combat is a little more complex than this. Here the number of successes count and are added as Stress to the target. Weapons add to the number of successes rolled, for example a pistol adds +3, whilst Resistance will reduce them. Stress can be converted into Trauma upon reflection, but the more severe the Trauma, the longer it takes to heal. So a point of Physical Trauma might be a twisted ankle, which takes a day and some simple first to recover from; two points of Mental Trauma could be a dread of the dead, which takes a week and counselling to overcome; and three points of Social Trauma a case of paranoia, which takes over a month to recover from. So the interesting thing here is that a player must maintain a balance between keeping Stress on his Stress Track because it will give him a certain resistance taking further Stress and having to remove it because it will ultimately kill him, despite the fact that removing it converts it into Trauma—and that hinders a player.

The rules are fairly simple, but they are not the ‘elegant narrative rules system’ that the back cover blurb promises. The problem is the difference between the effect of positive dice and the effect of negative dice. In the case of the latter, negative dice rolls are interpreted in narrative terms as Trauma and thus have an effect, but positive dice only generate successes and have no narrative effect. At its most basic in The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse, only the first success counts—what happens to the excess successes, if any? Arguably in an ‘elegant narrative rules system’ these excess success would have an effect. Now extra successes do have a mechanical effect in more complex situations—combat and opposed rolls—but still no narrative effect. Now the guidelines for running tests do discuss determining the results of a roll, but this is only to interpret the result and not apply any other benefit which a narrative rules system might allow for. This gives the rules an imbalance that an actual  ‘elegant narrative rules system’ would ideally lack and weighs an RPG that is already biased against the players further against them. Of course if this is a design feature, then sadly, the RPG does not say so.

In terms of settings, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse offers not one, but five. They are scenarios in the proper sense, each ‘an imagined or projected sequence of events, including in particular several detailed plans or possibilities.’ Each is divided into two sections, the Apocalypse and the Post-Apocalypse. Specifically the Apocalypse details the opening events of the apocalypse—how and when the dead rise, what the players experience and how everyone else is coping with it, the nature of the corpse cortège and how they can be killed, a timeline of events from the start and into the future, a set of locations and possible encounters, and a set sample stats for the members of the undead and various NPCs. The Post-Apocalypse section details what the world is like in three or four years time and again gives a  set of locations and possible encounters and sample stats for NPCs. Each of these scenarios is twenty or so pages in length and in gaming terms is more of an outline for a mini-campaign rather than an actual scenario.

The first of the five scenarios is ‘Night of the Meteor’ in which the radiation from a passing meteor shower causes the dead to rise—and that includes undead animals too! So far so traditional, but the Post-Apocalypse section is a bit more interesting in that a medical corporation finds a vaccination for the problem and leverages this cure into a position of world domination. The second scenario, ‘No Hell on Earth’ sees the dead rise for no known reason and when no known reason can be determined, an Evangelist declares the cause to be due to Hell having filled up with sinners and there being no more so room—so the dead have to go somewhere. Which would be fine were there any connection with Hell in this scenario, but the concept here is that there is no known reason for the dead rise. This leaves ‘No Hell on Earth’ without any real hook or any aspect that might make it stand out from the zombie herd. What is distinctive about the scenario is how bland it is and how nearly twenty pages have been devoted to developing it to such an underwhelming effect when a page or two would have covered it.

Similarly, the third scenario feels just as underwhelming and overwritten for what it is. ‘Pandemic’ introduces rage-filled zombies created through a new virus that essentially makes the undead all but unstoppable. Fortunately the virus burns itself out, but by then it is too late and what is left is essentially a Mad Max-style world with the occasional zombie.

Fortunately, the fourth scenario, ‘It Ends with a Whisper’ turns out to be interesting and original. It draws upon the origins of the zombie myth, rather than from Hollywood, although its interpretation of Voodoo is of course, drawn from Hollywood, and combines it with the classic zombie. So you have both the living zombie and the dead zombie, a cabal of Voodoo practitioners use their knowledge and magic to topple civilisation and return it to an agrarian ideal. This adds more tension to the scenario when the players have to face zombies that are not actually dead and of course the possibility that one of the players might get turned into one a living zombie.

Rounding out the quintet is ‘Under the Skin’ in which deep drilling—or is that ‘fracking’?—has released a parasite that infects mankind and turns them into the living dead. Worse, this affects all creatures, and even worse, dismembering the living dead does not stop individual body parts! The only recourse is for humanity to take shelter in deep bunkers whilst the surface is sterilised, again leading to a slightly more interesting post-apocalypse, somewhat in the vein of 12 Monkeys—although without the time travel.

So physically, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is well presented. The layout is tidy and the artwork decent, and even the index is reasonable—and yet...

The publication of The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse raises a number of questions. The first very obvious one is, “Do we need another zombie RPG?”. Any answer to that would be entirely subjective and is best left to the reader to decide. The second, just obvious one is, “Is The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse better than All Flesh Must Be Eaten?”. Fortunately, the answer to that is not necessarily as subjective and is an absolute, “No.” Simply, whilst All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a more complex RPG, it is also a more detailed, more comprehensive, and more deeper RPG, a better toolkit for creating zombie campaigns, whereas The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not as detailed, not as comprehensive, and not as deep. To be fair, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not trying to be All Flesh Must Be Eaten, but the truth is, the comparison is inescapable and is always going to be made.

There are a number of failures in The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse. One is that it assumes that it takes place in the USA and its scenarios all start in America. The point of the line is that this is the end of the world and no one in their right mind would suggest that the USA is the world. The rest of the world barely gets a mention, which is odd given that The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse was originally a Spanish RPG. Of course, this also highlights the exact, one and only benefit to having an armed society like that of the USA—the survivors would have access to firearms with which to blast the members of the corpse cortège to bits. Another is that it never really addresses the replay value of the game and oddness of playing yourself in one scenario and once it ends, starting all over again in another which means resetting yourself to your base stats. Of course, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not particularly innovative in terms of having the players play themselves. Fantasy Games Unlimited did that in 1979 with Villains & Vigilantes and so did Blacksburg Tactical Research Center with TimeLords in 1987.

A third failing is of the line as a whole and it depends upon if each of the books in the line will follow the same format, that is, forty-seven pages of rules and ninety-one pages of scenarios. If they do, then if you purchase one and then purchase another, then you are paying the same price for just two thirds of new content—and remember, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not an inexpensive book.

Arguably, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is on a hiding to nothing. After all, how many zombie-themed RPGs are there and who needs a new one? Especially one that only brings one interesting situation—‘It Ends with a Whisper’—to the zombie genre. Especially one that employs a conceit like playing yourself which is going to be old once a group has done it twice. Especially one whose mechanics are not developed into the ‘elegant narrative rules system’ that the RPG could have had. Especially one that is overly expensive given how underdeveloped it feels.

There is room on the market for a light, narrative driven zombie RPG, but The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not that. Underdeveloped and and underwhelming in an overdone presentation, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse just does not bring enough fresh ideas to the zombie genre in terms of settings or rules.