All Flesh Must Be Eaten
All Flesh Must Be Eaten Capsule Review by Dan Davenport on 24/04/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
The game that proves that a mind is a terrible thing to taste. A must for zombie lovers everywhere.
Product: All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Author: Al Bruno III, CJ Carella, Ricahrd Dakan, Jack Emmert, M. Alexander Jurkat, George Vasilakos
Company/Publisher: Eden Studios Inc.
Line: All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Page count: 232
Year published: 1999
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Dan Davenport on 24/04/02
Genre tags: Horror Post-apocalyse
[Editor's note: As you can tell, this is another review that was too large for the submission form. Actual word count is about 5,200. - Allan]
Unlike many of those who've reviewed this game for RPGnet so far, I'm not a huge zombie fan. I mean, I like a good zombie movie as much as the next guy, but not so much that I ever thought I'd be interested in an RPG with zombies as the sole antagonist.
And yet, a combination of repeated praise for the game, a desire for a zombie sourcebook for WitchCraft, and interest in upcoming AFMBE genre sourcebooks finally got the better of me. I wanted to give this book a try.
So here goes...
Foreward: Everybody Loves Zombies
An amusing and insightful essay regarding why everybody loves zombies, by Shane Lacy Hensley of Deadlands fame, who certainly knows a thing or two about the subject.
Chapter One: The Dead Rise
In addition to the usual Eden book intro chapter information on book organization and content, this chapter features two entertaining essays: one on the historical development of the zombie, and another, shorter one discussing why we call these creatures "zombies" in the first place.
Chapter Two: Survivors
In game mechanics terms, AFMBE defines characters in terms of five aspects: Attributes, Qualities, Drawbacks, Skills, and Metaphysics. There are three basic character types, each defined by the size of the point pools assigned to these aspects:
(Players of WitchCraft and Armageddon should note that AFMBE character types are weaker than those found in these games -- much weaker, in the case of Norms. For comparison's sake, if Ripley is an AFMBE Survivor, then most "Ah-nuld" characters would be WitchCraft Mundanes.)
The Attribute scale is 1-6 for humans, with 6 considered extremely rare and costing more points. The Primary Attributes are nothing revolutionary: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception, and Willpower. Derived from them are four Secondary Attributes: Life Points (i.e., hit points), Endurance Points, Speed, and Essence Pool. The latter is a measure of the power of the character's soul and will come into play most often as it is reduced due to fear or (for the Inspired) to power Miracles.
Qualities and Drawbacks are simply the Unisystem's version of advantages and disadvantages. Points gained from taking Drawbacks may be added to any of the character creation point pools. Although the list is very generic, most of the Qualities could find use in any Deadworld -- the Artistic Talent Quality increases the Essence Pool by "strengthening the soul," for example. A separate list offers Supernatural Qualities and Drawbacks, half of which are only available to the Inspired.
The skill list is fairly broad -- possibly a little too broad, in fact, since many of the more civilization-oriented skills will serve little practical purpose in places under full-scale zombie attack. Still, considering the wide range of Deadworlds possible, I suppose it's best to have too many Skills than too few. Skills, like Attributes, become more costly after 5 points. In addition, certain "Special" Skills (such as Martial Arts) are harder to learn and so cost more to purchase.
Of the character types presented in this book, only the Inspired can purchase Metaphysics. And the only Metaphysics available in this book are Miracles, the gifts of benevolent Divine powers to the faithful.
The mechanics for Miracles appear to be lifted directly from WitchCraft. The Inspired purchase Miracles at a flat point cost during or (at a higher cost) after character creation. The list of Miracles includes such standbys as Divine visions, healing touches, holding the undead at bay, and even calling down fire from Heaven. To use a Miracle, the Inspired simply spend as much Essence as the Miracle requires. (Or that they think the Miracle requires, in the case of Miracles with variable Essence costs.) The Miracle automatically takes effect, although a Willpower-vs.-Willpower challenge may be required in some cases. The drawback? Lose your faith, and you lose your powers.
Also included are rules governing the use of prayer and holy symbols by Norms and Survivors.
I suspect that the relative simplicity of the Miracle rules -- and therefore the relatively small amount of space required for them -- was the reason for their inclusion in AFMBE in lieu of other previously published Metaphysics; however, I don't think they were the best choice thematically. Sure, there's that whole clerics-vs.-undead thing, but how often do you see holy men in zombie movies calling down fire from Heaven or laying healing hands on victims? Furthermore, Magic (as in Evil Dead/ Army of Darkness), Seer powers (a.k.a. psionics), and Necromancy (a great source of zombies!) would all fit in a wider range of Deadworlds, and all of them, unlike Miracles, might be used by the forces of Evil.
Now, maybe you're wondering why this is such a big deal. After all, what are the chances of foes in a zombie game throwing supernatural powers at the PCs, rather than just shambling up and eating them? Fairly good, apparently -- not only do all Inspired share a Miracle that counters such powers, but two of the featured Deadworlds feature foes who possess them.
This still wouldn't be much of an issue if the powers in question were simply "evil" Miracles. However, they are, in fact, Seer and Magic abilities imported from WitchCraft, presented in only enough detail to govern the specific effects listed for the NPCs in question.
I think that insofar as Miracles were included at all, they should have been the basis for a more generic, all-purpose supernatural power mechanic for AFMBE. After all, their "spend-the-points-and-the-power-works" mechanic bears a strong resemblance to the magic rules in Call of Cthulhu. The Miracles assigned to the Goth Chick character archetype -- hardly a paragon of faith in the Divine, one would think -- leads me to believe that at least one of the authors was thinking in these terms.
As it is, the limited appearance of other powers in this book feels like a bit of a tease, showing how the authors applied rules in Deadworld creation to which the GMs do not have access. (Not unless they own WitchCraft or Armageddon, at any rate.)
The chapter ends with twelve ready-to-play characters -- a nice feature for any game, but particularly important for a game that's designed in large part for one-shot adventures.
The archetypes: Athlete, Biker, Cheerleader, Detective, Goth Chick, Hacker, Police Officer, Priest, Reporter, Scientist, Soldier/SWAT, and Video Store Clerk. Of these, the Athlete, Cheerleader, Goth Chick, Hacker, Video Store Clerk, and (to some extent) Detective seem designed primarily for campy zombie games, while the others are more appropriate for grim-and-gross Romero fare.
Chapter Three: Shambling 101
The Basic Mechanic
AFMBE, like WitchCraft, Armageddon, and the forthcoming Terra Primate and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, uses the Unisystem game mechanics.
The Unisystem uses an Attribute + Skill + 1d10 mechanic vs. a static target number of 9, applying all modifiers to the roll rather than to the target number. An Outcome Chart indicates the degree of success based upon the amount by which the total exceeded 9. Contested rolls simply go to the competitor with the highest total. Pure Attribute rolls come in two types: Simple, which uses the Attribute score doubled, and Difficult, which uses the unmodified score.
The advantage to this system is that it combines the clarity of a roll-under system with the flexibility of a roll-over system. All things being equal, the players can determine the outcome of their characters' actions without GM assistance, yet there is far more room for gradations of success than is possible with roll-under.
It does have two minor drawbacks, however.
The first is a rather odd open-ending mechanic. On a roll of 10 or 1, the player rolls 1d10-5 and adds any positive result (on a 10) or negative result (on a 1) to the total, continuing to open end on further rolls of 10 or 1. (A sidebar option suggests the use of 1d6-1 instead.) It would seem easier to me to just take rolls of 1-5 at face value and treat other outcomes as a zero.
The second is a manifestation of what was known in TORG circles as the "Glass Ninja Effect" -- more on that under "Combat".
The book also offers three other optional task resolution systems: random playing card draws instead of dice, playing card hands (to give the players more control over outcomes, a la Castle Falkenstein), and "story-driven" (nonrandom) play. The direct comparison of ability levels and GM-set target numbers used in the latter seems awfully arbitrary to me, but what the heck? It's just an option.
Melee combat is a simple matter of opposed skill rolls, with each combatant getting one attack and one defense roll without penalty. (Additional attacks and defenses may be made at a cumulative -1 penalty per attempt.) Ranged combat involves an attack roll modified by circumstances such as range, visibility, and cover, with the only possible defense being a dive for cover that precludes other actions that round.
Damage is rated as a die type and a multiplier, with the average roll listed to use in place of the die roll if desired; for example, the damage of a 9 mm handgun is 1D6 x 4 (12). That's merely a starting point, however. Hit location (if factored in at all) can affect the damage multiplier, and certain weapons do more or less damage after penetrating armor -- bullet damage after armor is doubled, for example. With the Life Point value of the average person being 26, it should be apparent that gun battles are things to avoid.
High levels of success on the attack roll also increase damage the attack's damage, and that's where that "Glass Ninja" thing I mentioned comes into play. Defense rolls have no effect on the attacker's success levels. So, the more effective a defender, the more devastating the attack will be that finally tags him.
Armor values are expressed in the exact same way as weapon damage ratings and work in the same manner: defenders can roll for the amount of damage their armor deflects or can just take the average roll. Considering how effective armor of any quality will be against the relatively weak damage most zombies will be able to dish out, GMs may wish to make use of called shots and/or the random hit location table for zombie attacks on armored humans.
Like any horror game worth its anti-zombie salt, AFMBE includes a fear mechanic. Fearful situations require a Difficult Willpower test for Norms and Survivors and a Simple Willpower test for Inspired, with modifiers applied for more or less extreme horrors. On a failure, the GM can either mandate the PC's reaction or roll a 1D10, with the PC's Willpower applied negatively and any horror modifiers applied positively. If the roll is a "failure" (i.e., less than 9), the victim quickly recovers. Any success levels are referenced on the Fear Table, with results ranging from the shakes to a total breakdown. Each success level also includes an associated amount of Essence loss -- losing all of one's Essence due to fear indicates that the victim has been permanently scarred by the experience in some manner.
In general, the fear rules are much more forgiving than Call of Cthulhu's Sanity mechanic. The ability to resist fear doesn't degrade as it does in that game, Essence points regenerate on their own fairly quickly (especially for the Inspired), and outright bouts of temporary insanity are much less likely. However, players of tough Survivor types may want to take the fear-resisting Nerves of Steel Quality to keep their heroes from running away like wimps.
The chapter also includes rules for acids, poisons, disease, healing, experience and character improvement, and vehicles.
While not overly complex, the vehicle rules -- which even include air combat -- seem to take up an awful lot of space for a zombie game.
Chapter Four: Implements of Destruction
What good are zombies without ways to blow them into moldy chunks?
Despite the name, this chapter actually covers all equipment, not just weapons and armor. While the weapons and armors run the gamut from medieval to modern, all other equipment is modern. (Well, unless you count horses, included for the sake of the "Dead at 1000" Deadworld.)
Much the equipment receives a full paragraph's worth of description. Whether this is a good use of space is a tough call. On the one hand, does anyone not know what a cell phone does? But on the other, the game mechanics governing that and other devices may become critical when society starts falling to a zombie plague.
More curious to me was (as in Chapter Three) the amount of space dedicated to vehicles. It's not that I can't see them ever being useful; it's just that I don't see them coming into play that often in most zombie games. I mean, sure, zombies may break a pickup truck window and drag away the driver, but that hardly involves the pickup's performance specs. And how often are zombies going to be a threat to an APC or a helicopter?
At any rate, even if the vehicle stats are not a waste of space, I'd argue that the vehicle illustrations certainly are. With the possible exception of the armored personnel carrier and maybe the Humvee, I'm sure everyone is familiar with the vehicle types listed. Including pictures of each of them ends up doubling the size of the section to no real purpose.
Chapter Five: Anatomy of a Zombie
Here's the (rotting) meat of the book: how to make a zombie. And I'm happy to report that the modular system used is as elegant as anything involving shambling undead puss-heads can be.
First we start with a "basic" zombie: a creature that's pretty much like an average human, aside from being flesh-hungry, immune to pain, smelly, and dumb as a stump. Instead of Life Points, zombies get Dead Points ("DPs"). For the unmodified zombie, DPs are determined in the same manner as LPs. (That's actually a bit of minor extrapolation on my part -- the text only says that DPs are "basically the same" as LPs without explicitly stating how they're determined.)
Next is a random hit location table and the effects certain amounts of DP loss have on specific zombie body parts. Most of these effects are pretty obvious: a zombie with no head can't bite, and a zombie with no legs can't walk.
>From there we move on to Zombie Aspects. These are special zombie advantages and disadvantages, each with a positive or negative Power cost that's used to gauge how tough the zombie is. These Aspects are divided into categories that cover weak spots, movement, strength, senses, feeding (frequency and food type), intelligence, infection, and special powers.
The writers clearly put a lot of thought into these abilities. With them, you can create an amazingly broad range of zombie types, from the slow flesh-eating shamblers of Romero's Dead trilogy, to the fiendishly clever unstoppable brain-munchers of Return of the Living Dead, to the aquatic Nazi zombies of Shock Waves, to oddities such as acid-spitting, fire-breathing, super-leaping, exploding zombies! I could even see using these rules for "psycho killers" like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, although even the toughest zombies will be a little too vulnerable for that -- I'd recommend using the Relentless Dead from AFMBE's fellow Unisystem game WitchCraft for that purpose.
Speaking of vulnerabilities, that brings up one quibble I have with these rules. If zombies are given a Weak Spot Aspect -- the brain, the heart, etc. -- they go from having a variable number of DPs based on Strength and Constitution to having a flat 15 DPs. Now, that's not a huge problem when you're talking about your basic smelly goon of a zombie; however, although it's not spelled out here, the same rule applies to zombie animals as well, as seen some of the featured Deadworlds. In other words, if the zombies have Weak Spots, zombie rats are just as hard to kill as zombie bulls. (Granted, that doesn't factor in offensive capabilities.)
Chapter Six: Worlds in Hell
Rather than one highly detailed setting, AFMBE features no less than eleven "Deadworlds". In level of detail, these are comparable to relatively long adventure outlines, including in-character intro fiction, a brief history of the setting, the status quo, a couple of plot hooks, and applicable NPC and (in some cases) equipment stats.
In going this route, the book loses a bit of utility for more casual gamers for anything beyond one-shots, but its value to do-it-yourself-er GMs increases by leaps and bounds. Since the basic zombie game lends itself strongly to one-shots anyway, this is a wise choice.
Here are the featured Deadworlds, along with my observations on them:
First off, the book is 7.25" x 9.25" and hardcover, and I love that. It's a sturdy little book that's easy to carry around. The pages don't lay flat, but you can't have everything.
The art's almost all excellent, with styles ranging from straight-ahead gore to (as on the cover) hallucinogenic nightmares. As I mentioned before, the illustrations aren't really necessary in the vehicle section, but elsewhere the artwork is very restrained. The layout is remarkably clear, even by Eden's normally high standards.
The writing is delightful, never taking itself too seriously outside of the fiction. And the fiction is damned creepy, with a separate story opening each chapter and illustrating a different Deadworld. The few typos I encountered were of no consequence.
The back of the book features not only two indices -- one general, one for charts -- but also an appendix listing zombie tales in print and film, a glossary, and character and zombie creation tables for easy reference.
After reading this book, I'm still not inclined to run a zombies-only game, either as a campaign or as a one-shot. However, I am very enthusiastic about running a mostly-zombies game and about using this book as a zombie sourcebook for WitchCraft.
My biggest problem with the book is the Metaphysics issue, which I feel could have been addressed either by generalizing the Miracle rules or else by condensing some other areas -- the vehicle rules and stats, for example -- to make room for other powers.
But that's a relatively minor complaint. The main point is that the book does what it sets out to do: It allows for the creation of a wide variety of zombies, and it shows how zombies can be used in a wide variety of settings. And for the most part, it does these things very, very well.
Okay, let's get down to ratings.
Style is an easy 5.0. Great art, great writing.
Content is a trickier matter, since I can see several distinct ways in which the game might be used, and the rating will vary depending upon how you use it.
If you want to use the published Deadworlds for one-shots, it gets a 5.0. There's plenty to keep you busy for a long time.
If you want to use the published Deadworlds for campaigns, my rating drops to 4.0. There's still plenty of information and potential, but using them in this way will take a bit more effort.
If you plan on using the book to create your own Deadworlds for one-shots or campaigns, the rating could be anywhere between 4.0 and 5.0, depending upon how far beyond a "zombies only" setting you want to go. Duplicating the amount of "stretching" done in "They Came From Beyond" or "Dead at 1000" will require other game books or your own rules.
As a zombie sourcebook for another game, I give it a 4.0. The zombie rules a great, but the $30 price tag is a little steep if that's all you get out of the book.
My final Content rating is a strong 4.0, although I can see how others might rate it as high as a perfect 5.0. It all depends upon how much you expect from the book, and I suspect most of the flaws I see are simply a result of overreaching rather than of omission.
Bottom line: This is a rock-solid book, both physically and in content. It kicked my enthusiasm for the subject matter up by many notches, and I look forward to the upcoming supplements. So if I, a merely casual fan of zombies, enjoyed the book as much as I did, then you owe it to yourself to get it if you're a hardcore zombie lover.
(Just be careful not to catch PHADE.)