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

Friday 15 April 2016

Super Zombies

The question of how you would survive a zombie apocalypse has been asked so often in the last few years that it has become a cliché. Yet how would you survive a zombie apocalypse if you were not an ordinary member of the public, but a superhero? This is a question asked in Rotted Capes, a superhero/zombie fusion RPG published by Paradigm Concepts that brings the Four Colour superhero genre into violent and bloody collision with the rise of the dead. Four years after ‘Z-Day’, the inhabitants of Paradigm City must survive not only the corpse cortege that roams the city, but former superheroes and super-villains that have fallen to the flesh feasting freaks and risen as Super Zombies, each equally as hungry for the flesh of the living, but without their former morality and still possessing the superpowers they had in life. Worse, the surviving superheroes—that is, the player characters—are not ‘A-Listers’, the equivalent of members of The Avengers, the Justice League of America, the X-Men, or Stormwatch, but ‘B-Listers’, sidekicks or minor superheroes or villains, forced through circumstances to go above and beyond to survive in a ‘Grave New World’. 

Published via Kickstarter, Rotted Capes is a Four Colour superhero RPG brought to flesh wrenching halt by the zombie apocalypse—essentially Mystery Men meets The Walking Dead. It is not a new idea. 2005 ‘s Marvel Zombies explored an alternative universe where the familiar heroes of the Marvel universe were zombies, whilst Peter Cline’s Ex-Heroes series of novels presented a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where super heroes worked to protect the survivors. ‘B-Listers’ being expected to step up when the ‘A-Listers’ are dead—or in the case of Rotted Capes, undead—is not exactly new to gaming either. It is essentially the same set-up as Necessary Evil, the superhero Plot Point campaign from Pinnacle Entertainment Group for use with Savage Worlds, though of course, that sees the minor villains and ex-sidekicks forced to face the aftermath of an alien invasion after the world’s major heroes and villains have been killed defending the Earth against the invaders.

Creating a super-powered character in Rotted Capes begins with selecting a power source and an archetype. The former—Super-Human, Skill Hero, and Tech Hero grants an Attribute bonus and some Advantages and Disadvantages, whilst the latter— Blaster, Brawler, Controller, Infiltrator, Heavy, and Transporter—each grants another Attribute bonus and reduced purchase cost during character creation for certain powers. As a ‘B-lister’, each player character is built on 150 points. In comparison, ‘A-Listers’ are built on 600 points. These points are spent on Attributes, Skills, and Powers. 

A character has eight Attributes; four physical—Might, Prowess, Quickness, and Vigour, and four mental—Charisma, Insight, Logic, and Resolve. Each Attribute has a score value, which has an associated Base Die type and a Passive Modifier. The Die type is rolled when a character takes an action, the Passive Modifier for passive rolls, defenses, and initiative, amongst other aspects of the rules. The average human has a score of four in each Attribute, with ‘B-listers’ having a score as high as nine. Score values scale up, to thirty-six and more, measuring at the same time, how much a character lift, push,  and how fast he can run. Thus the average human can lift 100 lbs., push 150 lbs., and run at 10 MPH, whereas a character with a score of eight can lift 500 lbs., push 10000 lbs., and run at 18 MPH. A character with a score of thirty-six in any Attribute is akin to a god…

Skills reflect the modern setting of Rotted Capes, but whilst fairly broad, most allow characters to focus on certain aspects of a skill, whilst others require a character to specialise. Powers though, do not reflect a true Four Colour setting, as neither magic nor spells are given. For the most part, Rotted Capes keeps its powers relatively straightforward, but it makes a couple of interesting tweaks to gaming superpowers. The first is the capacity to use one power to emulate another, for example, using the Teleport power to move items as per the Move Object power. This grants a fair degree of flexibility when it comes to character design. The second tweak is the concept of ‘Burnout’. Every hero has a Burnout Threshold and many of the game’s powers have a Burnout value. When a character uses powers with Burnout, these values accrue and when they exceed the hero’s Burnout Threshold, there is a chance that all of the hero’s powers with Burnout values will burn out and be unusable for several actions. This is not a rule that particularly fits the Four Colour genre, but rather it makes Rotted Capes much grittier and pushes its tone towards the zombie apocalypse genre.

Our sample character is small, would be villain, Elliot P. Anderson. Before Z-Day, he had been a recent graduate of CalTech who got hired straight out of college by a new start-up company in Paradigm City. Which was going well until it got busted as a cover for the criminal mastermind Professor Gojkovik and Elliot first got zapped when some equipment exploded in the fight and then arrested. Before he could be arraigned, Elliot just vanished out of his cell and found himself back in his apartment. Unable to get work, he was forced to use his newly found powers for burglary. He never got caught, but then Z-Day happened and now he is on his own, looking for somewhere to hide.

Inside Man. 
Origin: Super-Human (Power Source), Transporter (Archetype) 
Personality Flaw: Greedy

Might 4/d8/2
Prowess 5/d8/3
Quickness  5/d8/3
Vigour  5/d8/3
Charisma  5/d8/3
Insight  5/d8/3
Logic  5/d8/3
Resolve  11/d12/4

Pace: 3
Initiative: 3
Burnout (Discipline): 19
Avoidance: 18
Fortitude: 17
Discipline: 19
Stamina: 54
Wounds: 4
AR vs. Ballistic: 2 Melee: 2 Energy: 2

Common Attacks:
Glock 19 9mm semi-auto handgun (d8)
Machete (d8)

Personality Flaw: Greedy, Survivor’s Guilt

Powers: Enhanced Attribute [Resolve] 5/20, Teleport 8/24

Advantages: Burglar, Jury Rig

Disadvantages: Physical Flaw [Glasses] (+2)

Skills [Bonus/Passive]:
Drive: 1/16, Empathy: 2/17, Engineering [Computers]: 3/18, Engineering [Programming] 2/17, Firearms: 2/17, Influence: 1/16, Larceny: 2/17, Local Knowledge: 1/16, Melee: 2/17, Perception: 2/17, Scavenge: 3/18, Stealth: 2/17, Technology [Basic]: 1/16, Technology [Programming] 2/17, Urban Survival:1/16

Glock 17 9mm semi-auto handgun, machete, Reinforced Armour, Technician’s Kit

Character creation in Rotted Capes suffers from the same problem that character creation in all Super Hero RPGs suffers from—complexity. This is not as complex as say Hero Games’ Champions or Steve Jackson Games Supers for use with GURPS. By the standards of most modern RPGs, it is relatively complex and involving, requiring a player to balance his somewhat limited budget of points.

So far Rotted Capes has focussed on its superhero half, but this changes with its coverage of equipment. In a superhero setting, this usually one of the least important sections except where one of the player characters is a super scientist or gadgeteer, but here as in any other zombie apocalypse game it is a matter of survival, the player characters having to regularly venture forth to scavenge for supplies. In a zombie infested post-apocalypse, even one where there are superheroes, this is no different. After all, this what Rotted Capes is about. Even so, Rotted Capes nicely streamlines the process of equipment selection, starting characters simply being the initial weapons of their choice, plus a Starter Pack of their choice—’Medic’, Survivalist’, ‘Technician’, and so on. Anything else must be purchased using ‘Acquisition Points’ gained from each character’s Scavenge and Urban survival skills.

To undertake an action, a character rolls his Action Dice—two ten-sided dice—plus Attribute Die and adds to this total any modifiers from his Advantages, Tricks, and the Ranks from his Powers and Skills. The final result is compared to a Target Number, ten for Easy, fifteen for Routine, twenty for Challenging, and so on. Rolls of a maximum on the Attribute Dice—or the Plot Die—mean that the dice explode and can be rolled again, their results also added. Dice types can also be increased or decreased by Die Bumps or Die Penalties.

For example, Inside Man has got inside a big store in order to look for supplies. The Editor-in-Chief—as the Game Master is known in Rotted Capesrules that this establishment has already been picked over several times, so sets the Target Number as Daunting or twenty-five. So Inside Man picks up the Action Dice and rolls them along with his Insight Attribute Die before adding three for his Scavenge skill. So the roll is 2d10+d8+3. Undaunted, the Inside Man rolls 9, 8, and 7 before adding the +3. The final result is 27. More than enough to pass and Inside Man finds some much needed supplies.

Should a character need them, he also has Plot Dice. Equal to the value of his lowest Attribute, they are primarily used to add to action rolls. They can also be used to ignore current Wound penalties or avoid death; the effects of character Flaws when triggered by the Editor-in-Chief; to remove Conditions like Push, Stagger, Stunned, and Crippled; and to create an advantageous complication or even break the rules. Each character starts with a certain number and earns more by accepting the Editor-in-Chief triggering his Flaws or even suggesting Complications within the game.

Rotted Capes employs the same mechanic for combat, but adds two interesting tweaks over other RPGs. The first is the twelve Tick ‘Clock’ used to determine when everyone acts. Each action or combat maneuvre has a cost measured in ‘Ticks’, which when used advances the Clock. Combat in Rotted Capes also does not use Rounds in which the initiative is reset for each new Round—as in almost any other RPG—but rather Actions also roll over. In effect combat in Rotted Capes is handled on a rolling basis and there is potential for more back and forth Four Colour action.

The other tweak particular to Rotted Capes reflects the grittier setting of  zombie apocalypse. Characters have a fair amount of Stamina and can therefore withstand a fair amount of punishment, but only have a limited number of Wounds. These are lost for suffering Massive Damage or a Critical Success from an Action Roll, but worse, if a zombie bites a character and inflicts a Wound, there is a chance that he will be infected by the Z-virus. The only known cure to the Z-virus is amputation, but it is possible to prevent the infection from spreading by burning the wound area. This inflicts another Wound and also partly explains why heroes and villains from the Glory Days continue to wear their costumes four years on from Z-Day—the costumes hide the burn scars! The other reason why heroes and villains continue to wear their costumes is because in doing so, they better stand as symbols of hope for the ‘Enclaves’ that they protect.

In addition to defending against rival Enclaves and their superpowered protectors, the player characters must also defend against zombies. Not only ordinary zombies, but also zombies with blades instead of hands, zombies who can phase through walls, and zombies that can sneak! This in addition to the bystanders who possess the powerful Ultra-Gene, but never transformed into heroes or villains in the Glory Days, but infected by the Z-virus since Z-Day, have transformed into inhuman Abominations! All zombies are tough because they do not suffer Stamina damage—only Wounds, which only serves to make Super ‘Z’s or Super Zombies even more of a threat. These are former heroes or villains who have been infected by the Z-virus and transformed into a Super Zombie. Typically they retain their superpowers and their intelligence, but not their morality. Occasionally they will form wolf packs, but in general they are extremely territorial lone wolves who enjoy hunting the living. This is one reason why most Enclaves try and remain hidden. 

The default setting for Rotted Capes is Paradigm City, which has the feel of a generic Midwest American city—like a slimmed down version of Chicago. Its description is rather broad, but still with enough details for the Editor-in-Chief to use each of its neighbourhoods and particular locations in a game. Of course Paradigm City is not just any city. Before Z-Day it was home to an array of superheroes and super-villains. Many of these did not survive Z-Day or its aftermath, including the heroes Titan, many members of the Denton Dynasty, and Lady Liberty, and the villains Night Wolf, Blackstalk, Doctor Wraith, and Golden Ram. Others did survive, but the fate of many, such as The Sentinel and Professor ‘the Eternal Man’ Gojkovik, remains unknown. What this means is that there still secrets of Paradigm City waiting to be revealed, both mundane and outre, that is if the surviving characters can get past the cadaver cavalcade between them and those secrets.

Where Rotted Capes really shines is in its discussion of its tropes—both sets of them. One set is of course from the Four Colour subgenres of superheroes, the other the zombie apocalypse horror subgenre, and Rotted Capes not only discusses both, it also looks the tropes created when the two sub-genres merge to form Rotted Capes. The Z-Days of Rotted Capes  present a world where there are no longer good guys—‘White Hats’ and bad guys—‘Black Hats’, but ‘Grey Hats’ instead—including the heroes; there are no longer any Super-Villains, but zombies and ‘Super-Zombies’; where victories are small; where the player characters are forced to deal with the politics and the day-to-day personal relationships of their enclave, and so on. This discussion is accompanied by an equally as good discussion of Rotted Capes scenarios and campaigns, of possible campaign styles, and of the possible types of Enclaves and how they affect play.  Rounding out the book is a collection of write-ups, with full stats, for sample heroes and ‘Super-Zombies’. 

Where Rotted Capes does come up short is that its superhero half is not a wholly Four Colour superhero setting. It is a very humanocentric, pseudo-scientific setting, so there is no magic or rules for magic—despite the colour text suggesting that there should be—and there are no rules for playing aliens, robots, and the like. Again, this despite their being written into some of the background about the Glory Days before Z-Day.

Unfortunately, Rotted Capes does need another edit, though this is not to say that the writing lacks clarity. The fact that it was funded via Kickstarter gives rise to the oddity of the artwork depicting lots of bearded and bespectacled Americans. This does not feel as anachronistic as it does in Deadlands Noir becuase it is a modern set game—and after all, in the here and now of 2015, beards are in—but it does not feel very Four Colour. Nevertheless, Rotted Capes is a nice looking book and the artwork is mix of the bloody and the brutal with the Four Colour.

Rotted Capes could be a superhero RPG and it would be okay. It could be a zombie apocalypse RPG and it would be just about okay. What is surprising is that the combination of both in one RPG actually works, even though mechanically, Rotted Capes does bring the complexity of the superhero RPG to the zombie apocalypse RPG. What the combination does is bring a grittier, more desperate tone to the superhero genre without going down the path of comics’ Iron Age, whilst presenting both a threat that will challenge the player characters—the zombies and the ‘Super-Zombies’ and a reason for them to work together—to survive and to help their enclave survive. Although it may look like a novelty, Rotted Capes brings a freshness to both genres with challenges that will not have been seen in either before.

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