Thanks to comic book/tv juggernaut The Walking Dead, zombies have been hot for the last few years. Someone more academically inclined than myself could doubtless express why these perennial favourites have captured the zeitgeist, but, in my opinion, I simply think people enjoy stories about people whose lives are relentlessly crappier than their own. That said, I recently had a chance to read The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse by Fantasy Flight Games; in technical terms, this is a 144 page full-colour hardcover book or .pdf.
The book starts off with an introduction which offers an overview of the book as well as the seemingly obligatory “What is a Role Playing Game?” section. Interestingly, the game’s default assumption is that the players will be playing themselves as their hometown is torn apart by, of course, the zombie apocalypse. I like this; it lets people put all of their theoretical preparation for this event into virtual practice.
Next up, we have the rules of the game. Cleverly, the designers have placed the rules of the game before character creation. I like this; it drives me nuts that almost every game I’ve read does the opposite, referencing rules before introducing them. It helps that the system is fairly simple, comprised of pools of opposed positive and negative six sided dice. To perform a task where success is not a given, using lockpicks to open a locked door while zombies are swarming toward you, for instance, a player rolls his two pools together and removes any positive and negative dice that match. If the remaining positive dice contain at least one die that is equal to or lower than the rolling character’s appropriate characteristic, which would be Logic if we continue with the example above, the task is a success. Any remaining negative dice become stress for the characteristic that was rolled against. Stress is bad as it leads to trauma and eventually death. Accruing stress also gives a character resistance to future stress, however; it’s a clever balancing act as players will want to build enough stress to shrug off future stress, but not so much that it becomes actively detrimental to them.
Character creation follows the basic rules, and is likewise, a fairly simple affair. There are six characteristics, Dexterity, Vitality, Logic, Willpower, Charisma, and Empathy, in three categories, Physical, Mental, and Social. The characteristics are rated 1-5 with 1 being the lowest. All characteristics start with a score of 1 and players have ten points with which to create themselves, with each numeric increase costing one point. Characters also start with a positive and negative feature for each of the categories of characteristic; features are short phrases, similar to aspects in FATE, that can be used to add positive or negative dice to a character’s dice pool in specific circumstances. Equipment follows, and similarly adds dice to the two dice pools. There is a process where the players vote on each other’s characters, presumably to keep each other honest, but in practice, I imagine this just prolongs what should be a relatively painless process, and could lead to hard feelings if any of the players are sensitive. Ultimately, the GM knows their players best and should be able to judge whether or not the voting process should be used or not.
As mentioned above, characters accrue stress as they take actions or are hit by enemies, and in that regard, stress acts as hit points in this game. Additionally, as mentioned above, the more stress you accrue in a given characteristic, the more resistant you become to stress in that characteristic. In between scenes, or in downtime, a character can assess and address their stress to trade it in for trauma. Traumas are rated on a three point scale, based on severity, and are used mechanically to add negative dice to the pool. Recovering from trauma takes time, the amount of which is based on the trauma rating, before it no longer affects the character.
The next chapter deals with running the game, and is a brief affair. The chapter touches lightly upon generating scenes, different encounter types, controlling the narrative, managing NPCs, character advancement, and probably most importantly, running tests which includes the information on how to determine how many positive and negative dice need to be rolled to accomplish a task. None of the subjects receives a lot of attention, but given the rules light engine, there is enough here for a game master to effectively run the game. This chapter ends on page 47, which means that the rules of the game take up less than a third of the book, which is not bad in my opinion; it makes picking up and playing a game pretty painless.
The rest of the book is devoted to the scenarios, of which there are five. All of the common zombie tropes are covered, and the text includes an apocalypse timeline for each scenario that starts at the outbreak and stretches for several years. Each scenario also includes information for running it post-apocalypse, after the provided timeline ends. The scenarios are: Night of the Meteor in which radiation from space affects earth after a meteor shower, raising humans and animals alike as flesh-hungering ghouls. Following this is No Room in Hell, which is The Walking Dead in all but name. Following this is Pandemic, in which there are no zombies per se; rather, the disease turns people into frenzied, near mindless, shadows of their former selves a la 28 Days Later. It Ends with a Whisper is the fourth scenario, and deals with the Voodoo zombie apocalypse. Hollywood Voodoo in reality; the scenario includes a sidebar assuring the reader that this scenario is based on pop culture depictions of the Voodoo religion and is not a treatise on any real-world religion or its practitioners. Finally we have Under the Skin, which depicts the zombie apocalypse by way of John Carpenter’s The Thing. I really like this one, and really appreciate its inclusion.
The book itself is a solid feeling hardcover with a matte finish on the cover which is pleasing to the touch. The art is universally fantastic, and is used liberally throughout. As a whole, the book is gorgeous, which isn’t surprising given that Fantasy Flight Games has a reputation for producing beautiful products.
In conclusion, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse offers a very narrative game, more akin to FATE than to any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and whether or not a person will enjoy it will largely be determined by their feelings toward narrative, emergent story driven games. For myself, I really enjoyed this book. I found it easy to read and digest; I was able to read the book in an evening and got my biweekly D&D5e group to play it a few days later… which I will report on in a future post. The focus on playing the game as yourself in your hometown makes it very easy to run the game with little preparation other than setting the stage and Googling a city map. That said, there are a few downsides as well. There is no Strength characteristic, so determining how one of the characters could kick down a door was more troublesome than necessary. Also, as the game is ideally suited for intense one-shots or very short (two to three sessions) campaigns, I found that the characteristics that weren’t Dexterity got short shrift. Overall, however, I feel like The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is a fun game that is well represented by its rule book, and give it 4.5 enthusiastic stars out of 5!