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

Saturday 9 April 2011

Rise of the Dud II

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid is far from dreadful in terms either editing or layout, but unfortunately, just like the scenario that it is sequel to, Rise of the Dead, is dreadful in terms of storytelling and writing.

As outlined in Rise of the Dead, the setting for this series of scenarios lies a year into the future. Within the last twelve months, the world has gone to hell in a handcart. Mass sacrifices have been discovered around the world; the planet suffered a near miss with a red comet; and as fragments of the comet fell to Earth, causing earthquakes and tsunamis, world leaders were assassinated. As the scenario opens on this new post-apocalyptic future, the red comet orbits the Earth and survivors from this unnatural apocalypse face a new threat – the dead can walk. Worse, there are men and women who are capable of controlling and directing these newly arisen members of the corpse cortege. They appear to be members of a cult devoted to a being known as Zaoth.

Much of this most recent information was gained by a group of survivalists who also managed to steal a helicopter from the cultists before fleeing to Morgan Farm, a secluded retreat in Vermont. Since the apocalypse, the retreat has also become to a number of diverse groups, from local residents and an engineering team to a detachment of US Army Rangers and a BBC documentary team. The player characters – and I stress “player characters,” for like Rise of the Dead before it, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid involves no investigation whatsoever – do not come from any of these diverse groups and nor are they the same ones that appeared in Rise of the Dead. Apart from a small time crook, the six pre-generated player characters are either ex-military or wilderness guides. Their task is simple. Obtain equipment and uniforms used by the Cult of Zaoth and disguised as cultists infiltrate a nearby cult headquarters with the aim of obtaining as much information on the cult’s aims and activities as possible.

Designed for four to six players, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid describes itself as “A complete b-movie style convention scenario with highly detailed characters and hand-outs intended for a theatrical style presentation in a single long session.” Unfortunately, and just like Rise of the Dead, this is mostly true. Interestingly, this description also manages to be unhelpful in that it raises the purchaser’s expectations. The scenario is complete in that it comes with everything necessary to play, but as a b-movie style scenario, it fails to evoke anything of that genre’s feel or style, and the only exploitative aspect to Rise of the Dead II: The Raid is the fact that it is sold as a scenario for Call of Cthulhu. Just as with its forebear, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid is actually a zombie apocalypse scenario better suited for use with Basic RolePlay, there being no discernable Cthulhu Mythos present. Of course, if Rise of the Dead II: The Raid was a b-movie, it would be an extraordinarily long one at a five to seven hour second feature.

In terms of theatrical style, the author provides staging advice throughout Rise of the Dead II: The Raid, suggesting how lighting and sound can be used to enhance the play experience. Which seems appropriate because the scenario reads just like a play that the players have to sit through whilst the Keeper doles out thick dollops of dialogue and exposition. Lastly, whilst the scenario does come with both detailed characters and hand-outs, the characters are neither interesting nor engaging, and the hand-outs fail to serve either the scenario or the pre-generated characters. In fact, it is a case of the other way around. The scenario feels more like it serves the hand-outs! The only other function of the hand-outs is to set the scenario up – all seven pages of them. There are no hand-outs to be found during the actual play of the scenario, but then that is no surprise, as already mentioned, the scenario involves no investigation either.

As to the scenario’s actual play, there is surprisingly less combat involved in Rise of the Dead II: The Raid than in Rise of the Dead. Not very much less though, and what there is, is replaced by some sneaking around. The other improvement over Rise of the Dead is that Rise of the Dead II: The Raid does offer some player choice as to their characters’ actions. Or rather, the one choice – the route of their escape from the cult headquarters, because otherwise, the players and their characters have absolutely no choice. They are either pushed or led from one scene to the next, almost as if they following the plot on rails, and it should pointed out that the given provides no opportunity to achieve the aims set during the extensive player character introduction. Escaping from the cult headquarters is seen as successfully completing Rise of the Dead II: The Raid – so its plot can be summed up as “Go over there. Get captured. Run away. No repetition, hesitation, or deviation.”

Rise of the Dead II: The Raid offers no complexity in terms of background, challenges, or roleplaying. The threat faced by the player characters is mundane in terms of the genre, and whilst there is a little more information on Zaoth, the Mythos entity behind the situation described in the series, it still comes across as a “cookie-cutter” creation. Why an actual Mythos entity as described in Call of Cthulhu was not used, is a mystery, though if the entity did not have the name of Zaoth, his followers would not have looked quite so cool with another capital letter on their armbands. Still as with Rise of the Dead II: The Raid, Zaoth might still as well have been named “Debbie” for all of the effect that he has on either the scenario or the player characters.

Physically, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid is an improvement over Rise of the Dead. It is neater and tidier, and is profusely illustrated with photographs of people dressed up as zombies. Not the zombies particular to Rise of the Dead II: The Raid, but zombies none the less. Slightly odd is the fact that the hand-outs were better in Rise of the Dead than in Rise of the Dead II: The Raid, but only because the background for both scenarios is delivered as series of newspaper articles in Rise of the Dead rather than as one long narrative as in Rise of the Dead II: The Raid. Even so, this is all but irrelevant given what little bearing the hand-outs have on this scenario. The maps are decent enough though, and that is probably the best thing that anyone outside of the author can say about Rise of the Dead II: The Raid.

Given how dull Rise of the Dead is, it is no surprise that its sequel is a match in every aspect. Yet because our expectations have already been lowered by Rise of the Dead, the sequel feels worse. Worse because even with such expectations, what scant efforts have been made to improve the scenario – the extensive use of the photographs, for example – have no discernable effect on the end result. If the prequel was dull, the sequel is worse: Rise of the Dead II: The Raid is banal to the point that nobody should be paying for it.

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