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Sunday 8 January 2012

The 1980s RPG Undead?

With the “Old School Renaissance” barely five years old, the question is, has it grown too old for its inspiration? In those five years, the movement has been exploring fantasy roleplaying as it was played back in the early days of the hobby, but with the hindsight of over thirty years’ worth of gaming experience. In 2011 though, Goblinoid Games, the publisher of one of the major “Edition 0” RPGs, Labyrinth Lord, not only obtained the rights to a game published during the 1980s, but also its associated mechanics. The 1980s publisher in question is Pacesetter, the game is Timemaster, and the Action Table system. Now Goblinoid Games could have just simply republished Timemaster, and whilst it still intends to do so, the publisher has waited to do so in favour of applying the Action Table system to a more modern subgenre derived from the horror movie. The result is Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters.

Inspired by Michael Jackson’s Thriller as much by the films of George A. Romero, Rotworld is a roleplaying game of the apocalypse and its aftermath, in which the dead rise as “rotters” and seek to spread their infection with a single bite. Light in terms of advice for the referee or Corpse Master, the game is essentially a tool kit with which to run a zombie apocalypse campaign. To that end, it includes all of the basics needed for both an RPG and for its subgenre – characters and combat, and then the apocalypse, supernatural abilities for both humans and zombies, locations, and of course zombies.

At the heart of Rotworld, and of course, its raison d'être, is its Action Table. With a roll against this table, a player or the Corpse Master can reasonably quick discover the result and effects of a roll. The system uses ten-sided dice, with percentile rolls for all actions. In most instances, a character can get away with simply rolling under the value of his attribute or skill, but if he needs to know how well he did, he simply deducts the number rolled from his skill to get a Margin of Success. In combat, this Margin of Success becomes his Attack Margin, the result cross referenced against the difficulty or Defence Column. This gets a result ranging from a simple scratch to a crushing or crippling blow that knocks the defendant down.

For example, the first of our sample characters, Ulises, comes to the rescue of our quivering second, Otterlie. She is being menaced by Zak the Zombie and has already failed her Fear check. Ulises attempts to sneak up on Zak, but knocks something over and alerts the menacing member of the corpse cortège. Our hero is weaponless, so must rely upon his superior fists to get the damsel out of distress. Fortunately, he has the initiative. He uses his Boxing skill of 81 which is compared with Zak’s Unskilled Melee Skill of 33. This gives the column upon which Ulises’ player will roll. In this case, column 3, a relatively easy column, the columns starting at 1 and rising in difficulty to 10. Ulises’ player rolls 21 and subtracts this from his Boxing skill of 81 to get his Margin of Success to get a result of 60. Cross referencing on the Action Table, this gives “C” as a result; which for unarmed damage, is a crushing blow that delivers between six and sixty points of Stamina damage. In Ulises’ case, this is 42 points of damage. Although Ulises did not get a “CK” result, which would have indicated that he would have knocked the zombie down as well as delivered a stinging blow, he has inflicted damage equal to almost half of the zombie’s Stamina. So the Corpse Master rules that Zak the Zombie is staggered and cannot attack until the next round.

The mechanics, with their use of the Action Table, look more complex than they are in practice. The problem with both the mechanics and their use of the Action Table is twofold. First, there is an almost bewildering number of conditional rules that apply to the various situations and skills that can come up in play. Second, the Action Table is essentially focused on combat. It is meant to, and it does, work with the use of skills, but to actually interpret the results of any skill role the Corpse Master has to look elsewhere in the book. Which can only slow game play down…

That said, when it comes to combat, perhaps the aspect that players today will find the oddest is that mechanically, no weapon in the game does any damage. Rather, the damage is essentially derived entirely from the results of the skill roll. Thus the weaponry tables in Rotworld are all about range modifiers (which do affect skill), reload time, and rate of fire. One interesting mechanic using the Action Table involves a defendant’s action when being fired upon. When this occurs, the defending character has to roll a ten-sided die to determine the Defence Column that the attacker is rolling against, but can influence this by expending Luck to make it a higher Defence Column and thus make himself harder to hit. This is a pleasing way of handling a character’s attempt to dodge.

Character generation in Rotworld again looks more complex than it is, in part because it involves a degree of arithmetic. Eight attributes, each ranging in value between twenty-six and eighty, are rolled for randomly, with a number of factors being derived from these attributes. These factors include secondary factors such as Penetration Bonus and Wounds, and also the unskilled values for various skills. The most jarring aspect of character creation is that the number of skills a character starts the game with is randomly determined, so that one character might start the game with three skills or as many as six. Like attributes, skills expressed as percentiles, with the unskilled value for any skill being equal to the average of two or three attributes.

The majority of the skills listed would cover any time within the last fifty years, but with the inclusion of the Beam Weapons skill could enable a Rotworld campaign to be set in the future, whilst the inclusion of the Horseman’s Lance, Mounted Melee, and Bow skills mean that it could easily be set in the past. From the skill list there is the one odd omission – that of a Drive skill. Every character has base chance when driving – equal to the average of his Agility and Perception attributes, yet in order to improve upon that, a character has to purchase the Stunt Driving skill.

Our sample character is a Hispanic-American ex-army mechanic who worked in Hollywood as an actor and stuntman. He used to run a boxing gym, but when that went out of business, he became a truck driver. He is used to standing up for himself, but even though he learned how to use guns in the army and then point them menacingly on camera, he does not like them.

Ulises Romero
Strength 70 Dexterity 68 Agility 58 Personality 58
Willpower 52 Perception 61 Luck 58 Stamina 60
Unskilled Melee: 64
Penetration Bonus: +15
Wounds: 14

Boxing 81, Equestrian 78, Mechanics 70, Language (Spanish) 72, Stunt Driving 75

As an option, characters can also possess Paranormal Talents such as the predictable “Precognition,” “Distance Viewing,” and “Telepathic Sending.” These are joined by the Rotworld particular “Corpse Visage,” “Empathy with Undead,” and “Sense Undead.” Unlike skills whose number is randomly determined, the number of Paranormal Talents that a character can have is determined by his Perception and Willpower, up to a maximum of three. It costs Willpower to use Paranormal Talents, and although a character’s Willpower will refresh, the relatively high cost will preclude their being over used.

Our sample character with Paranormal Talents is Otterlie Rios, a doctoral student, who worked in a funeral home to pay her way through college. Her abilities manifested for the first time when the dead rose, enabling her to walk amongst them and survive. She is still shaken by the experience and is reluctant to use either Talent again.

Otterlie Rios
Strength 48 Dexterity 42 Agility 48 Personality 66
Willpower 72 Perception 80 Luck 66 Stamina 60
Unskilled Melee: 45
Penetration Bonus: None
Wounds: 14

Investigation 88, Social Sciences: Anthropology 91, Social Sciences: Psychology 91

Paranormal Talents:
Corpse Visage 73, Sense Undead 71

For the Corpse Master, Rotworld provides a discussion of the cause of the dead rising – from chemicals or toxic waste to radiation or the supernatural – and the effects that these have on a campaign. Similarly, it gives a range of ideas and options for how the zombies work in a Corpse Master’s campaign. Beyond the base corpse chassis, the Corpse Master is free to choose how lifelike or not his members of the corpse cavalcade are, their attacks, their weakness, what they hunger for, and how intelligent they are. If the campaign allows player characters to possess Paranormal Talents, then zombies can also have their equivalent, known as Zombie Talents. Some, such as “Living Visage” and “Sense Living,” correspond to Paranormal Talents, whilst “Absorb Vitality” enables a zombie to repair itself by draining life from the living.

Actual campaign advice examines the practicalities of having civilisation collapse around you, before describing a trio of places of refuge. These consist of a corner grocery, a county airport, and a shopping mall, each essentially a subgenre staple. Each one is fitted into a page and includes a nicely done map. Of course, the survival horror subgenre being what it is, it is relatively easy for the Corpse Master to find other maps or simple enough to set his campaign just in his group’s neighbourhood.

Similarly, the survival horror genre being what it is, Rotworld does not really suffer for its lack of advice on running the game. Certainly, the subgenre should be familiar to almost anyone who purchases Rotworld. If there is an issue with the game, it is that it really could do with an index given both the relative complexity of the rules and the likelihood that the Corpse Master will flipping back and forth through the book. The book also needs another edit and it could do with a re-organisation, as certain elements appear before they need to or away from the sections that they should be in.

Physically, Rotworld is decently written and is infrequently illustrated with some quite heavy art. Another physical problem with the game besides the lack of index is the frequent need to refer to the Action Table as part of playing Rotworld. Such that it really needs to be on the back cover, not just for ease of use, but also because it could have been in colour (which would also be for ease of use). Much of the flipping back and forth will involve looking up the rules that relate to the particular situation, so that the Corpse Master needs to refer to pages twenty-eight through thirty-six as well as the Action Table, and that mostly for combat and actions not directly related to a character’s attributes.

Rotworld feels very much like the archetypal RPG of its period. It obviously moves away from the class and level structure that dominated the decade before and continues to dominate the “Old School Renaissance;” it clearly pushes towards the use and application of a universal mechanic in the form of the Action Table; and its starting point is not necessarily the heroic protagonist, but the protagonist who has the potential to be heroic. Yet it is also archetypal in that its use and application of the universal mechanic is hampered by numerable situational rules and the need to reference individual rules for far too many things. As with so many RPGs of the period, in Rotworld the result is far from perfect and far from perfectly easy to run for the reasons already given, and ultimately, all it would have taken to address this problem is the actual page opposite the Action Table being devoted to notes and references that covered situations outside of combat and the character sheet being moved on a page or so.

Yet for all of its failings, Goblinoid Games should be praised for possessing the drive and desire to look beyond the boundaries of the “Edition 0” movement. Similarly, the publisher deserves praise for doing something more with the Action Table system than just releasing the RPGs that used it back in the 1980s, and whilst the truth is that the game and its treatment of its subgenre is hardly radical by anyone’s standards, its pages do contain a solid survival horror toolkit. Once you get past its all too close an emulation of the 1980s RPG, Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters is quite possibly the start of something new and interesting – the next period of gaming history for revival. Post-"Old School Old School Renaissance," anyone?


  1. Awesome review, as ever.
    I do not know if ROTWORLD has garnered the sale numbers necessary for Goblinoid Games to consider putting a second printing with the changes you mentioned. But I agree wholeheartedly with them and sure hope that GG will address them at some point.

  2. Thanks for the review! I added a color version of the action table for download on the ROTWORLD website.