Enter the Zombie
Enter the Zombie Capsule Review by Dan Davenport on 27/11/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
The Hong Kong action supplement for All Flesh Must Be Eaten, this book also serves as a solid Hong Kong action supplement for the Unisystem in general. The result is a surprising amount of utility from an ultra-niche product.
Product: Enter the Zombie
Author: Al Bruno III, Richard Dakan, Jack Emmert, Colin Chapman, Derek Guder, and Gerry Saracco
Company/Publisher: Eden Studios, Inc.
Line: All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Page count: 176
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Dan Davenport on 27/11/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Historical Horror Espionage Conspiracy Asian/Far East
Dammit, Eden Studios. Can't you leave a reviewer the slightest shred of dignity?
Okay, so I expressed some skepticism about the very concept of All Flesh Must Be Eaten. What good, I wanted to know, was a game only about zombies? Then I reviewed the game and was forced to admit that (1) a zombies-only game just might be fun and that (2) AFMBE is exactly the way to go about such a game.
But then you started talking about genre-based supplements to the game, starting with Enter the Zombie -- Hong Kong action, but with zombies! What kind of ridiculous combo is that, said I?
Except that Enter the Zombie (hereafter "EtZ") is one of the finer supplements I've read, deftly combining two disparate genres while giving neither short shrift.
I'm running out of hats to eat.
Ah, screw it.
Chapter 1: Corpses Rising
An 18-page short story followed by Eden's standard book introduction (including an excellent list of inspirational action films). I'll comment on the story under "STYLE".
Chapter 2: Tao of the Dead
This chapter is the core of the book, presenting new character types, rules, powers, and weapons.
The only notable omissions are rules covering the wild stunts of HK action movies. Perhaps the author didn't think it necessary due to the fact that the Unisystem is already fairly cinematic and that pushing it just a little farther over the top would be just a matter of adjusting difficulties. Still, some guidance would have been nice. Some version of the Buffy RPG Drama Point system would have been a welcome addition as well, to help encourage such stunts. As things stand, cinematic stunts depend upon the book's style, the GM's generosity, and the application of Chi Techniques (see below).
EtZ introduces two new character types: the Martial Artist and the Shooter. Martial Artists are heavy on Attribute Points (more than Survivors) and Metaphysics Points (more than the Inspired), but very light on Quality and Skill Points. Shooters are equal to Survivors in Attribute and Quality Points and to the Inspired in Metaphysics Points, but have only slightly more Skill Points than do Martial Artists.
What really sets these guys apart, however, is Essence Channeling and Chi Techniques.
One notable difference is the absence of a list of martial arts schools for determining core combat moves -- EtZ simply allows players to choose whatever core combat moves they like for their characters and make up the school that teaches those moves. This was probably a good choice, saving space as it does while allowing for the weird martial arts schools so prevalent in the genre.
A less noticeable but more important change is the lack of "throwaway" moves. In the Mystery Codex version of martial arts, it was pointless for a character to learn the Punch maneuver in lieu of Roundhouse, or to learn Kick in lieu of Spin Kick, for example -- some moves simply were superior to others in every way. The EtZ version corrects this problem, giving every move its own pros and cons. Not being an expert on the martial arts myself, I won't claim to know how realistic this change is, but it does at least make it less likely that you'll have a game in which nobody knows how to throw a plain ol' punch.
EtZ imports the concept of Essence Channeling from WitchCraft into All Flesh Must Be Eaten. The only system tweak involves the use of Essence defensively: while WitchCraft Essence vs. Essence challenges involve a die roll to determine the success of the defense, the EtZ version is a simple and more dependable point-for-point cancellation. Having used the former, I definitely prefer the latter.
The reason for the inclusion of Essence Channeling is the introduction of Chi Techniques: the truly superhuman martial arts tricks -- and gun tricks -- that are the province of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and certain spine-ripping video game gladiators.
And this is where EtZ really started to impress me. You see, I figured that this supplement would treat the kung fu aspect as mere flavoring for the zombie aspect. I was expecting a bare-bones martial arts system, with some cutesy fu powers designed specifically with zombies and zombie-bashing in mind. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact is that EtZ features a list of chi powers that gives Feng Shui's schtick list a run for its money. And as if that weren't enough, EtZ actually thinks a little bit outside the box regarding the rules for such powers. First off, as I alluded earlier, the Chi Techniques cover wild martial arts stunts and gun stunts (a.k.a. kung fu and gun fu). This makes the difference between the Martial Artist and Shooter character types purely one of point allocation -- either type can take any mix of kung fu and gun fu Chi Techniques.
More importantly, however, EtZ offers a setting explanation, rather than a genre explanation, for impossible gun fu stunts. In other words, while Feng Shui allows for outrageous gun tricks because they make sense within the genre, EtZ treats those stunts as just another supernatural power. As a result, EtZ gun fu makes sense in settings in which Feng Shui gun schticks would not -- WitchCraft, for example. The only downside is that using Essence as fuel for gun fu means that Shooters can "run out of juice," so to speak, but I think the exportability of the powers into other Unisystem settings is worth the price.
The powers themselves cover a satisfyingly broad range from a variety of sources, including super-leaps (and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style "flying"), instant reloads and quick-draws, rapid-fire punches and kicks, chi healing, two-fisted firing, signature weapons, and even bolts of pure chi power.
The only thing missing is GM guidance regarding which powers are most appropriate for particular types of EtZ settings. Again, since all of these powers form a common pool for Martial Artists and Shooters alike, it's entirely within the scope of the rules for your "El Mariachi vs. the Zombies" game to include flying, chi-bolt-lobbing heroes. Naturally, a little GM common sense goes a long way here, but breaking down the powers by subgenre would have been a nice time-saver.
Note that the Chi Technique mechanic differs greatly from the Tao-Chi power mechanic from The Mystery Codex. Both require Essence expenditure, but while Tao-Chi powers are treated like skills, EtZ Chi Techniques require no roll to use. So, if you're buying this book to expand upon the martial arts powers already available for WitchCraft, you may be disappointed -- you will either have to accept two distinct varieties of martial arts powers or will have to replace one with the other.
Creating Zombie Cast Members
EtZ greatly expands upon the rules for creating zombie PCs briefly touched upon in the main rulebook. These rules differ markedly from the standard character creation rules.
The zombie PC starts out as the basic zombie template for the setting, receiving 90 character creation points for customization. However, the player must spend enough points to bring the basic zombie up to full human intelligence if that isn't part of the basic zombie's abilities. Then, after spending points on the zombie's Attributes, the player calculates the zombie's Power level and subtracts it from 90. The result is the number of points that the player can spend on Qualities, Skills, Metaphysics, and Zombie Aspects (see below), with more points possible by taking up to 10 points of drawbacks.
Note that this gives zombie PCs much more flexibility than living PCs, whose points for these character aspects are compartmentalized. (And who, of course, do not have access to Zombie Aspects.) When you add in the fact that zombie PCs receive 20 more character points than do the other non-Norm character types, zombie PCs would seem to be awfully unbalanced. However, while they certainly are powerful, those extra 20 points will go to purchasing normal human intelligence -- either as part of a template or as an added Aspect to a template.
New Zombie Aspects
From a genre emulation standpoint, the Zombie Aspects featured in EtZ cover even more ground than do the Chi Techniques -- while the latter cover a broad range within the Hong Kong action genre, several of the former actually expand beyond it. Among the Aspects that could fit in any number of Deadworlds are powers allowing zombies to drain Essence, infect victims with flesh-eating parasites, combine their bodies with other zombies, and absorb the memories of victims by eating their brains. (I used a modified version of that body-combining trick for the manifestation of a Mad God in my first WitchCraft adventure.)
The new Aspects also include powers so campy as to make the wackiest Chi Techniques look like something out of The English Patient. Again, a good deal of GM discretion will be required to pick those suitable for any given Deadworld. Among the campier aspects: powers allowing the zombie to extend its ribs and spin them like a buzz saw, merge a pistol into its hand (and reload by swallowing bullets), use its intestines as a deadly whip, and rotate its torso to track targets like a macabre gun turret.
Martial Arts Weapons
EtZ includes an impressive armory of 35 martial arts weapons, from those enshrined in pop culture (the katana, the nunchaku) to the more exotic and obscure (the fu tao seung ngao, the li kwei fu tao). No new firearms are included, but given the breadth of the weapons list in the main rulebook, they aren't really needed.
Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 introduce four EtZ-style Deadworlds, each with four new Archetypes and two scenarios that approach the settings from different angles. Each setting also varies in its expandability beyond a one-shot adventure.
Chapter 3: Hard Boiled Corpses
Inspired by John Woo's Hard-Boiled, this Deadworld deals (pardon the pun) with a powerful new drug hitting the Hong Kong streets with the unfortunate side effect of killing its addicts and turning them into zombies. Even more unfortunately, these zombies aren't the dumb kind, they're addicted to the drug even in death, and eating human brains is a viable alternative to a hit of the drug. Before you know it, there's a four-way struggle between a new and undead Triad organization, the still-living original version, the cops, and the mysterious purveyors of the zombifying drug.
This being a John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat-style setting, it's very Shooter-oriented. I can see some of the moderately flashy kung fu powers working as well, however. Players can take the roles of classic screw-the-rules cops or zombie junkies out to discover who's done this to them.
Because the zombies are the only source of weirdness in the setting and exist due to a very specific set of circumstances, this Deadworld is mostly one-shot material. This isn't necessarily the case, however, if your players like the idea of playing zombies or badass cops in an otherwise mundane world.
Chapter 4: Flesh Eaters in Little China
Strongly based on John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, this Deadworld features most of the elements of its source material. An ancient Chinese sorcerer sets up shop in San Francisco's Chinatown, posing as a legitimate but mysterious businessman and using his mystical might to conquer the city's Asian underworld, with a pesky elderly tour guide/magician named Egg Chin standing in his way. (And the PCs as well, of course.)
The two scenarios involve the PCs as either members of a local martial arts school opposed to the sorcerer or just as some poor schmucks who've stumbled into the middle of the madness (a la Jack Burton).
This one is particularly noteworthy for two reasons.
First, it's the most wide-open of the four Deadworlds. As in the movie that inspired it, the background and setting leave plenty of room for supernatural strangeness of many varieties -- not just zombies. (The fact that this Deadworld doesn't take full advantage of this flexibility is a missed opportunity, in my estimation. Zombies are great, but even the intro story threw in a monkey demon for spice.) And when it comes to PC choices, Inspired, Martial Artists, Shooters, Survivors, and Zombies all fit perfectly well. (Norms would fit, too, so long as you don't mind them getting wiped out.)
And second, Flesh Eaters includes a stripped-down, quick-and-dirty version of the WitchCraft magic system that would have been perfect for inclusion in the main rulebook -- a better choice, in my opinion, than the rules for Miracles. Rules for PC sorcerers aren't included but aren't difficult to extrapolate.
Chapter 5: Once Upon a Corpse in China
Despite the name, this Deadworld doesn't really have much in common with the movie Once Upon a Time in China. (At least, not from what I can tell from the movie's synopsis -- I haven't seen it, so I can't swear to this.)
At any rate, the situation is this: A thousand years or so ago in China (natch), a young martial artist dared to open his martial arts school to women, starting with his five sisters. Taking offense at this policy, the surrounding schools challenged their upstart neighbors to combat and had their asses handed to them for their trouble. The young martial artist and his sisters were subsequently poisoned under mysterious circumstances. (Hmmm...) Now, one of the offended, defeated schools has been wiped out in a particularly gruesome and mysterious manner. (Double hmmm...).
The two scenarios involve the PCs as either Imperial agents sent to investigate the murders or, in an interesting twist, as the five kung fu sisters seeking vengeance from beyond the grave. Martial Artists are the main PC choices for the former, while Zombies (with some extra punch) are, naturally, the only option for the latter. Strangely, only one of the included Archetypes fits with either of these scenarios.
Expanding beyond the included scenarios would probably be limited to mystical martial arts adventure. There may be magic and monsters (other than zombies) in this world, but there's little in the scenario to indicate it.
Chapter 6: Undead Kombat
Mortal Kombat, but with zombies! A cabal of immortal wizards find that their powerful undead soldiers need to feed on the souls other powerful undead soldiers in order to survive. The solution? A regularly scheduled martial arts combat-to-the-undeath, winner take all souls! The wizards take turns hosting the event, each one trying to add some new twist. The new twist this time around? The introduction of living contestants!
The chapter includes details of sample combat arenas and the various tricks and traps found therein. These are both very clever and very nasty.
PCs can be members of an elite United Nations task force infiltrating the strange event as contestants or rebellious zombie gladiators tired of fightin' for the Man. Obviously, it's all Survivors and (especially) Martial Artists for the former, all Zombies for the latter. Either way, given the nature of the source material, this is where anything goes as far as Chi Techniques and Zombie Aspects are concerned.
Given the presence of zombies, magic, and wild martial arts powers, Kombat is second only to Flesh Eaters in terms of expandability.
It's hard to imagine a better cover: a kung fu zombie with a dragon tattoo on his chest that reads "Born to Die" and an expression on his face that says "Bring it on, sucker!" The interior art ranges from very good to excellent. (Well, there's an awkward piece or two, but let's see you draw a kung fu zombie in a spin kick that only rotates his lower half.)
The book is a genuinely enjoyable read, making good use of both humor and genre-appropriate "smack talk" without overdoing either.
The story in the introduction does a fine job of showcasing the game's potential, telling the tale of an undead Crow-like warrior summoned to wreak vengeance on a cruel crime lord/sorcerer. It illustrates several uses of powers featured in the book without beating the reader over the head with a "GAME MECHANIC" sign. If it has any flaws, it's the length: Although it's a good story, it goes on a bit longer than necessary to convey the theme of the supplement, taking up space that could have gone to still more kung fu zombie goodness.
The editing is good -- very few typos, none major. The layout is clear and attractive, using Eden's standard combination of fonts and text boxes to set off different kinds of information. The book includes both an index and an appendix, the latter featuring a Character Type Reference Table (including Survivors and the Inspired but excluding Norms -- and who really wants to play a Norm in EtZ, anyway?), a Zombie Creation Chart, and lists of Chi Technique and New Zombie Aspects. An EtZ character sheet and an ammo record sheet appear after the index.
The main issue I had with AFMBE is the utility of a single-adversary game setting. While I'm still not certain that such a setting would interest me in the long run, AFMBE is certainly the right way to go about it. But it seemed to me that the genre supplements for AFMBE faced an even bigger problem: a single type of adversary in the context of a broader setting. In EtZ, for example, if your kung fu ass-kicker isn't kicking undead asses, are you still playing EtZ?
This book answers that concern in several different ways. First, like the Deadworlds in AFMBE itself, the EtZ Deadworlds are beefy enough to use for satisfyingly long one-shot adventures, or even for limited one-shot campaigns. Second, the zombies of EtZ are both intelligent and individualized rather than members of a mindless horde, keeping the opposition fresh (so to speak) over the long run.
But most importantly, EtZ is not a zombie supplement flavored with Hong Kong action; rather, it is a Hong Kong action supplement and a Hong Kong action-with-zombies supplement. It's entirely possible to use this book to run a Unisystem-powered Feng Shui-style game with little or no zombie involvement, relying on the Chi Techniques and perhaps tapping into the magic rules and Zombie Aspects for nifty NPC powers.
The bottom line? Even if the idea of an ongoing game of "Jackie Chan/Chow Yun-Fat-vs.-the-Zombies" doesn't appeal to you, you can still get a lot of mileage out of this book. For an ultra-niche product like this one, that's some quality game design. I highly recommend Enter the Zombie, and I eagerly await the completion of Pulp Zombie and A Fistful of Zombies.