OK you’ve read the name, feel free to hum a few bars of the R.E.M. song in your head so that we can get on with the review. You good? Alright, let’s move on.
I’ve always found END OF THE WORLD scenarios to be fascinating. As a kid, I would hear about the apocalypse and think of how strange it was that everything in the world could cease to exist. Back then it was interesting to think about because I was a dumb kid that was mostly concerned with dinosaurs and mega sharks. OK, you got me…I still spend most days ruminating about dinosaurs and mega sharks. Now though, I’m aware of the actual horrors of the world and how humans might just someday wipe themselves off this big blue rock. It might end with a nuclear war, or maybe some horrible disease. I can tell you how it won’t end though…with ZOMBIES!
Unlike most people, I HAVEN'T been completely burnt out by zombies because, frankly, I rarely indulge in the genre unless something brings my attention to it. Well, like some embolden nerd in a John Hughes film, my interest has been piqued. No, Molly Ringwald didn't mosey on past me. However, something else sexy and red did. A sleek and sultry BOOK about the zombie apocalypse. Wait a second, this isn’t a boardgame! It’s an RPG!
I’m gonna come clean with you, RPGs are mostly foreign to me. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea, but rarely have I ever indulged. The concept of being a DM/GM has always spoken to my storytelling soul. So it’s kind of flabbergasting that I haven’t been running campaigns my whole life. For whatever reason sitting around and having a shared storytelling experience, while pretending to be someone else, is a concept most folks shy away from. So I decided that in order to run a RPG I needed a hook to lure in my friends. Here is where the lovable zombies come in. Zombies are like the Nathan Fillion of the nerd realm. Most non-horror enthusiasts are decidedly OK with them. They're the perfect bait.
So The End of the World line is a series of self contained volumes, where everything you need to run a RPG is laid out for you in 150 pages or so. As a neophyte GM this SEEMS absolutely perfect. I can devour the book, get the necessary supplies and be crafting a yarn in no time at all. Except, I think if this was the first RPG book I ever read I would be sort of lost. In an effort to keep this a rules light experience it can leave a first time GM with LOTS of questions. In fact the book is almost too open in regards to the rules. I would venture a guess that of the 150 pages maybe 15 of them are dedicated to running the game as a GM. The rest of the book makes up the different zombies scenarios and player creation.
Someone needs to slap me because I’ve typed roughly 500 words and I’ve yet to explain the big twist of this series. In the End of the World RPG games you don’t create a fictional heroic character to play. Nope, in this game you will be role-playing as YOURSELF! The premise is that you’re heading over to your friend's house for a game night when the world sudden devolves into one of five possible apocalyptic, zombie scenarios. The fact that you’re playing yourself is what really sold me on buying this book, studying it, and unleashing its “splinter of wood to the eyeball “zombie antics on my unsuspecting friends.
So to be clear, players are role playing themselves, in the town that they live in, and a simple dice system is the straw that stirs the drink. Every test is handled with the rolling of D6s in two colors. One color is for positive and one is for negative. You make a roll, cancel any positive and negative dice that match and leftover dice provides the results. If any positive dice are leftover and are EQUAL/LESS than a person’s stat they were testing then the task passes. However, regardless of passing or failing, if any negative dice remain the player takes some sort of “stress". Stress is essentially this system's form of damage. If you ever take too much stress in any one category then you’re dead. I love how idiot-proof this system is to resolve AND for the GM to come up with result based story beats. For a person who was trying to teach this to five players who’d never thought of playing an RPG before this simplicity was a life saver.
It's unfortunate that the book is so damn inconsistent in terms of depth and rules/content. I actually think a complete novice would have a rough time with sorting out some of the vagaries found within the player and GM rules. However, I was savvy enough to use what I felt would work and scrap anything I didn’t like. The book goes into great detail about the timeline, what’s happening, who’s surviving etc… in regards to all five of the scenarios. That WEALTH of information is the book’s greatest asset. It offers no pre-scripted campaigns to run so you need to take the provided paint and create your own blood stained work of art. The book merely provided a potential GM with concepts, ideas, and potential situations that can be SEEDS to grow into a grotesque adventure.
The end result was this quick and dirty elevator pitch to my friends; we’re going to play a game where the zombie apocalypse happens and we’re going to see if you can survive. This review is being published in the fall and during this time of year people’s minds are susceptible to all things horror. In October, convincing people to do a one shot RPG session to see if they can survive a zombie holocaust is like selling water to a dying man in the desert sun.
So who is this book targeted at? I think RPG vets might find the system a bit light while newbies could find the lack of pre-scripted material off putting. Like I mentioned before, it's maddening with how uneven the book is. The player and GM sections are oddly sparse while the different zombie apocalypses are JAM packed with TONS of information. I'm also of the mindset that doesn't think the system would work very well as a long campaign. Even though the books provide each scenario with both pre and post apocalyptic details, I think this system SCREAMS to be one shot sessions where the party simply tries to survive. I think this series is aimed squarely at ambitious GMs who aren't afraid to put in work and get their hands dirty. The overall lack of meat allows for a furtive mind to really go wild. There is nothing stopping you from role playing as other people or in settings outside of your town. Your imagination is really the only limitation. Hell, just typing this review has got my wheels spinning with ideas for my next apocalyptic vision.
If I’m being honest the zombie book would have been the last one in the series I would have grabbed. The ONLY reason I purchased it first was because zombies are an easier sell than say a modern day Viking Ragnarok. FFG currently offers these RPGs in the following flavors: Gods revolting, Rise of the Machines, and my personal favorite…Alien Invaders! I’m not going to lie…I’m probably going to get at least one or two more of these. The books themselves are a breeze to read and I like how they are self contained. Each one contains roughly the same ruleset, with the only difference being the different themes. I'd say if you're intrigued just pick the one that sounds the most interesting to you and your friends. You don’t need a separate player’s manual and Game Master guide. You simple crack open one book, take the information you like, disregard the stuff you don’t need and have fun.
Perhaps my favorite aspect about playing this system is that it works as this weird sort of friendship/bonding device. You will uncover things about your friends that you never knew before. In one of our sessions a player was quite surprised to find out someone at the table had four guns back at his place. Seeing your friends react to coming across a six year old with a broken ankle during the zombie apocalypse is surprisingly soul bearing. Role playing such a stressful and dire situation really brings out the best and worst in people. It's one of the game's strongest selling points in my eyes.
I'll leave you with this - If you’ve ever SCREAMED at a movie screen during a horror film because the characters were about to do something stupid, then this is your chance to show your friends what you’d do. As an absolute horror nut, that kind of experience is something you just can’t put a price on!
What does the Scale-o-matic 6500™ say?
On a scale of Waterworld to Cherry 2000
The End of the World RPG Line rates as Hell Comes to Frogtown
Designer: Tim Cox, Corey Konieczka, Andrew S. Fischer
Year Published: 2015
Player Count: 3+
Length: 60-180 minutes