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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Role-playing game review of Dead Reign

Dead Reign is a zombie-apocalypse setting using Palladium's Megaverse system. When you open the book, it's clear this is not a traditional Palladium product. It starts out with a first-person narrative explaining what happened without explaining everything. It's five months after the zombie apocalypse and a biker gang known as the Reapers provides advice on how to deal with the undead plague.

Five months after the apocalypse is significant, as it provides unique opportunities for scavenging. The world is only recently destroyed, long enough to ruin infrastructures and destroy organizations, but not so distant that houses and habits become unrecognizable.

The zombies themselves operate under a very specific set of rules. Specifically, they consume life-force, which keeps the zombie functional; they fear fire; and they have a moan which calls other zombies to them. Zombies see via a form of life-sight that attracts them to living beings, and go dormant when there is no fresh life-force to eat. And yes, they can only be permanently slain by destroying their heads.

In the tradition of Palladium's unabashedly old-style approach to gaming, there are random dice rolls for everything (1d4 cans of soup can be found in a home!) and new rules are made up on the fly to adjudicate the topic at hand. More recent systems have long since moved past this style of game rules, but Palladium embraces it.

What this means is that the game has huge amounts of "crunch" interspersed amongst its ideas. There are rules for how much damage a zombie can take at close range, how many zombies move in a pack, the chances that they will wander off, the odds that one is sleeping in a car, how many will stick around trying to eat you, the chance one is holding something…the list goes on and on. For d20 games and their ilk, this is a game master's treasure trove of material.

Dead Reign covers a range of zombies; Slouchers are your typical horror movie zombie, Fast Attackers run, Pattern Zombies repeat their old lives (just like Romero's mall zombies in Dawn of the Dead), Flesh-Eating zombies are vegetarians – just kidding! – and so on. All the zombie tropes are here too: fundamentalist nutjobs known as Retro Savages, Death Priests who keep zombies as pets, thieves, thugs, soldiers, and scrappy survivors. Because Palladium's system isn't very modular, every form of survivor requires a different set of rules (in some cases, repeated rules).

There are piles of rules on random encounters in this new world, including typical zombie settings; all really useful information for game masters who aren't sure how many zombies are lurking in an industrial park or a corporate high rise building. There's even a random corpse search table.

There's also the obligatory set of rules that most gamers skip, explaining the skills and equipment that are part and parcel of Palladium games. Fortunately, these rules have actually be customized for the setting rather than cut/paste from other Palladium games.

If you are a Palladium fan and love the action horror genre, Dead Reign is an awesome supplement. If you're not a Palladium fan but you enjoy d20-style rules, Dead Reign is an excellent addition to any apocalypse game; the rules and advice on scrounging and scavenging are excellent, and the random tables (assuming you use random tables) are very useful. I plan to use some of the rules in my own d20 Modern game.

But if you're not a Palladium fan and don't play d20-style games, Dead Reign isn't going to change your mind. Kevin Sembedia's writing style is strongly represented here. He tends to list everything in threes (e.g., "People are rivals, enemies and food to be hunted, killed and eaten."), lectures for two pages on how level-based systems reflect his real life experience in "leveling up" as a game designer, and on page 55 he actually includes a parenthetical note to someone named Taylor ("Hey Taylor, this might be something you and I want to revisit.").

If you can ignore that stuff, and it's easy to ignore, there's a lot of great raw material here for any apocalyptic game.



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