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Monday 23 February 2015

Aargh! Thar be brains!

The fact is, I have been waiting for years to write that title. I have always liked All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Eden Studios, Inc.’s RPG of horror and surviving the zombie apocalypse—and in particular, its many supplements. From Enter the Zombies and Pulp Zombies to Fistful O’ Zombies and One of the Living, each offered interesting zombified twists upon classic genres—even Zombie Smackdown, a supplement that actually managed to make the subject of wrestling not only interesting, but also palatable and fun. So the news that the publisher would be releasing a pirates and zombies supplement was most welcome indeed—and not only because I could use this particular title.

Unfortunately, by the time Aargh! Thar be Zombies! was published in 2010, it felt as if the premier zombie roleplaying game had missed the boat. After all, the mini-craze of piratically-themed roleplaying games, arguably initiated after the release of the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, had sailed by 2010, no doubt spurred by that film’s decidedly dull sequels. And whilst Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl certainly had a dead hand in raising zombies to the mainstream, it was followed by dull sequels that added nothing to the genre whilst other media has had a stronger, more recent hand in making zombies popular. This is not say that Aargh! Thar be Zombies! is a bad supplement as there are some good ideas within its pages, but the truth of the matter it is not good one either. Which to be honest, is disappointing given the quality of the publisher’s previous support for All Flesh Must Be Eaten.

The main problem with Aargh! Thar be Zombies! A Pirate Sourcebook is the writing. Or rather, not with the writing, but with the editing. In terms of its actual writing, it is overwritten; in terms of if its ideas, it is often underdeveloped; and if anachronisms do not quite abound, they are certainly present. This supplement could have been a solid, if not a stand-out addition to the All Flesh Must Be Eaten line, but fundamentally it never got the edit it deserved or needed. The result is somewhat frustrating book, knowing it could have been just that little bit better.

Roughly half of the book is devoted to the subject of piracy. The history of piracy— including its Golden Age that lasted from 1680s to the 1720s; a discussion of why someone might go on Account—that is, become a pirate; life in the Age of Piracy, including death, disease (nasty they are too!), women pirates, the Pirate Articles, pirate punishments (the latter noting that being made to ‘walk the plank’ was a myth, though a good one), and more. Perhaps the most interesting section here is that devoted to Asian Piracy, which revolved the dynastic wars in Vietnam and the wars between Vietnam and China. This is interesting of course because it is unfamiliar, but it nicely dovetails into the supplement Enter the Zombie. At two pages long it feels a little short and perhaps deserves a chapter of its own, especially as it feels out of place amidst the traditional pirate history.

Mechanically,  Aargh! Thar be Zombies! works around three character types—the Norm, the Survivor, and the Inspired. This of course determines how much a player has to spend on his character’s stats, skills, and Qualities. Most player characters are expected to be Survivors, but the Zombie Master can allow the Inspired if he wants his game to include Vodou. In addition, the Silver Screen Swashbuckler is available if the Zombie Master is running a pulpier, more action orientated game. The supplement gives an array of Qualities and Drawbacks—advantages and disadvantages—to help create all four character types. For example, the ‘Born for the Sea’ and ‘Sea Legs’ Qualities and the ‘Landlubber’ Drawback are there as you would expect, as is the discussion of using the Physical Disability Drawback from the All Flesh Must Be Eaten for doing peg-legs and hooks for hands. Also included are rules for fighting Florentine style, that is with two weapons in true classical style. What is odd here, is that the history of duelling feels out of place in what is otherwise a very mechanical section and it does not help that the history is very Anglo-centric in that it does not present options for learning the art outside of London. 

Rules are included for the creation of ‘Zombie Swashbucklers’ player characters or NPCs. Essentially, these are a cut down version from those given in full detail in Enter the Zombie, though with a piratical slant. Thus the ‘Billy Bones’ Aspect allows for the creation of a fleshless zombie (or skeleton)whilst the ‘Ghostly Form’ Aspect allows for the creation of zombies that can walk through the bulkheads of ships or even a sword blow. As well as full equipment lists, the supplement of course handles ships and their crews in detail, including sample ships such as the galleon, the junk, and the viking longship! The equipment chapter also covers both experienced and cursed ships—plus ghostships, gives Qualities and Drawbacks to  individualise both ships and crews, and of course,  ship-to-ship combat, the latter a solid set of rules.

Aargh! Thar be Zombies! mixes both authenticity and Hollywood in its treatment of the magic and religion of the period. Not ‘Voodoo’, but ‘Vodou’, in which practitioners can invoke and entreat the Loa to gain the benefit of various miracles and rituals. These are powerful without being flashy and go all the way up rituals involving zombies. There is plenty of opportunity here for roleplay by any character who is practitioner, and similarly, for the GM to portray the Loa whom the character may need to do favours for.

Aargh! Thar be Zombies! includes several campaign settings or Deadworlds, just as you would expect with any supplement for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. There are three fully described ones, plus two shorter ones, followed by some scenario ideas. The five begin in somewhat mundane fashion, with ‘Voodoo Queen of the Shrouded Isles’ in which a Vodou Mambo calls for vengeance after she has been wronged and so unleashes a zombie plague from the Caribbean upon the rest of the world. ‘The Black Fleet’ is equally as mundane, having an Aztec curse unleash a plague of black ships upon the world. Both of these Deadworlds feel as if the author was obliged to include because after all, you have to do something based upon a certain series of pirate films. Given just how ordinary they are, it is a pity that so much space was devoted to them.

Fortunately, both are followed by the third, fuller Deadworld, ‘Islands in a Dark Sky’. This is the absolute highlight of Aargh! Thar be Zombies! and describes a Deadworld in which Galileo uses Da Vinci’s flying machine to leave the Earth and sail ‘the Dark Sea’ between the worlds. By 1643 pirates, national navies, and merchantmen now sail ‘the Dark Sea’ in Essence-powered ships, whilst their crews know not to fall overboard lest their Essence is leached out… Another threat are the Necronian Corsairs, fearsome skeletoid humanoids that hover near death and who augment themselves with horns, spines, wings, and more to further instil fear in their continuing drive to drain Essence from other worlds and other species. It is also possible to create Essence-powered devices and weapons, such as flintlocks, lightning swords, and air masks. This is an engaging mix of the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres that transplants all of the piratical elements to between worlds, whilst adding the unknown and the chance to explore new ‘seas’ and ‘strange new worlds’ to the mix. This could almost have been a whole setting all on its own, and certainly more space could have been devoted to it in favour of some of the less interesting Deadworlds.

Of the lesser Deadworlds, ‘Tay Son Rebellion’ draws heavily on the section describing Asian Piracy to give something interesting, a big civil war that spreads beyond the borders of Vietnam to involve China and eventually armies of thinking zombie! There is potential here to mix in Enter the Zombie and thus add in Wuxia zombies, just as there is potential here for something exotic and more flavoursome than the first two Deadworlds. So it is a pity that this is as short as it is. Lastly, ‘The Aztec Lord’s Curse’ is as the title suggests another take upon the Aztecs and curses, and again is more interesting than ‘The Black Fleet’, though not by much. 

Physically, Aargh! Thar be Zombies! feels rushed and not quite up to the standard of previous supplements for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. As has already been mentioned, the editing is lacklustre at best, woeful at worst, whilst an actual feature of Eden Studios, Inc.’s house style actually leads to an annoying anachronism. The publisher alternates gender in terms of ‘he’, ‘she’, and so on, from one chapter to the next. The problem is that in a semi-historical book like Aargh! Thar be Zombies! this just looks anachronistic. Another annoyance is the use of the piratical vernacular. It works in the sections of colour fiction that precede each chapter, but not in the main text where it it is at odds with technical context of the book.

If you were looking to run a game set in the Age of Piracy using the UniSystem, then Aargh! Thar be Zombies! would be a good place to start—and if you wanted to add zombies and Vodou, then again Aargh! Thar be Zombies! would be a good place to start. Yet were you looking for inspiration, particularly from its Deadworlds, then whilst Aargh! Thar be Zombies! is not without its flavoursome and inspiring settings, the majority are uninspiring and uninteresting at worst, at best, just flat—or is that becalmed? The overall effect is to undermine the solid content to be found within the pages Aargh! Thar be Zombies! whose parts are better than the sum of its whole.

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