Review: GURPS Zombies – Day One

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page.

I’m going backwards through my collection for these reviews, although I skip all the Pyramids and some of the supplements with which I am unfamiliar. In this case Monster Hunters 5 – Applied Xenology, which I mainly bought to show my support. That brings us to GURPS Zombies Day One – a rather cheesy item (or fluffy if you go by the standard nomenclature).

Title Page from GURPS Zombies - Day One

Now zombies are not my usual fare when it comes to monsters – I like a bit more motivation for my antagonists – but I have to admit that the GURPS treatment of the matter has been excellent so far. Now the question is what does this volume provide that sets it apart from the standard survival scenario – in short: a lot.

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 2015/04/02
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 56 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 1 index page)
Price: $9.99 (PDF), $ 0.19 per page of content; Score of 6/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-zombies-day-one

Review

Please take note that this book is a companion volume to GURPS Zombies, which incidentally was the last hardcover GURPS release back in… 2013 – time really flies. All the meaty rules bits (crunch) are in that volume, while this one presents all the cheesy (fluffy) campaign infos for making use of all the zombie types and biting rules so nicely provided by GURPS Zombies.

As such Day One is structured very differently from Zombies proper. Each of the eight chapters is basically its own campaign setting, although the second the “Fields of Fear” is basically an extended adventure set in the antebellum American South. While those are only 6-7 pages long, the information given is very dense and covers everything the GM needs to know to write their own campaign.

Write? Sure, this is still GURPS and even the densest treatment can’t give you everything you need to know on half a dozen pages. Even if you are completely in love with one of the treatments you still need to fill in the blanks (locations, NPCs, etc.), but the supplement does a very good job at holding your hands, explicitly calling out the parts (pun intended) of Zombies you need for this type of campaign and what other supplements are useful. Power level of player characters, suggested character types and (in)appropriate traits are given for each of the eight campaigns. Of special interest is a section appropriately titled “Tough Calls” that answers questions like “Can I play a zombie?”. The eponymous “Day One” section covers the situation, in which the characters find themselves at the start of the campaign and the “Homework” section covers the most intensive prep work the GM has to do.

Meat

The settings are mainly background information, but there are enough hooks to get the more rules-oriented GM busy looking things up. The setup, rules and character creation sections are rather meaty, but they don’t introduce new rules, just explain how things work in terms of existing ones. The meat isn’t he focus, but – depending on the campaign in question – you end up with 1 to 3 pages that are mostly rules and rules explanation.

It’s the explanations that make this book especially useful to the novice GM. It’s completely possible to run some of the campaigns using  just the Basic Set and Zombies – a definite plus for convention games too. That’s not saying, things can’t be improved by owning every GURPS book, but don’t get carried away; some of the campaigns are better if you don’t get side-tracked.

Meat score: 6 (enough meat to satisfy tinkering GMs, but not a meat-focused book)

Cheese

Each of the campaigns has enough information to set up an atmospheric campaign, but some of the are more focused on the basics and the rules supporting them, while others are more “cheesy”. The campaigns are in order:

Empire of the Necromancer-King: A single bastion of light is resisting the armies of evil, mindless zombies in a setting that’s basically Dungeon Fantasy with some things removed – evil player characters and dubious spells are the first to go, but even the dungeon itself is purely optional. There’s not that much cheesy goodness in this one, but that’s intentional. It is heroic fantasy writ large, after all. The main mystery here is why the evil empire is ruled by a king, of course.

Fields of Fear: The complete opposite on the meat/cheese scale from the Necromancer King, this adventure/campaign is set in the old South where slavery is still alive and well. It is a gentle reminder of the origin of the zombie myth and explores concepts of race, class and gender in an unusually thoughtful way. It can be used as a good starting point for historical campaigns with a little extra.

Savage Streets: This is a more gruesome campaign that still fits a cinematic treatment: A new drug has hit the streets and its users are running amok. Cynical politicians want the problem to “burn itself out” and its up to the PCs – police officers, first responders, vigilantes – to protect ordinary citizens. It’s a bit peculiar in that is still has a safe zone for much of the campaign. If you want to, you can easily run it in a realistic style – and raise a whole lot of moral questions.

Zeta Force: PCs are members of a secret UN force that deals with only one threat. Guess what Zeta stands for! The cinch is that humans are naturally predisposed to become zombies. This is basically a government-founded Monster Hunter group that veers a bit into Black Ops territory, although without aliens and at much reduced proficiency. Anything that could conceivably made to rise from the dead using weird science or psychic powers is fair game here.

Ultimate Zombie Fighters: This is your basic zombie apocalypse with the twist that all PCs are immune to the zombie plague; that doesn’t mean they can easily deal with zombies or the apocalypse though. The goal here is to find the truth about the zombie plague and whether it can be cured. It’s very action-oriented and too combat-heavy for my taste, but your mileage may vary.

Alpha and Omega: Supersoldier research created a zombie plague, but also immune metahumans that look just like the zombies. These are the PCs and their job is to prevent the worst of the apocalypse while looking like its four horsemen. It’s an interesting premise that forces the group to deal with understandable prejudice. It gives borderline nods to realism, so that any powers that are physically impossible are off limits (including snazzy Innate Attacks). You don’t absolutely need GURPS Powers to run it, but having it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Time of the Zombies: Pretty much the A Canticle for Leibowitz among the zombie campaigns, this starts off long after the apocalypse that produced living, raging madmen. There are some of these “zombies” left and the pathogen that created them is also there, but there are no raving masses and constant fear of infection. If you liked the Fallout games, that’s the right campaign for you. It might have benefited from some more expansive rules for gear, but that’s the only disadvantage I see. Be advised that taking place so long after the apocalypse it’s even more free-form than the other ones.

Depravity Well: This obligatory SF version takes the zombie apocalypse and places it in a first contact situation. The first species humanity makes contact with (after singular and painstaking effort) turns out to have its own industrialised zombie plague – what an unfortunate step for mankind! The campaign raises the issue of pollution – the aliens were even less concerned about the environment than humans – and reckless use of new technology.

Each of the campaigns has sections on the zombie metaphor used, important turning points, the meaning of sacrifice, replacement characters, mood and pacing. It’s enough to satisfy the majority of GMs, even those for whom the rules are just an afterthought. However, none are as expansive as those for normal campaign settings – even the smaller ones like Infinite Worlds – Brittanica-6.

On the other hand the variety is really nice. You get four campaigns where being zombified is a real danger and four where it isn’t. There’s something for Dungeon Fantasy, SF, history, Monster Hunter, survivalism, tactical shooting and action (the latter twice even). What I’m missing a bit is the supernatural angle. Except for “Empire of the Necromancer-King” there’s nothing that encourages PCs with supernatural abilities and all but two zombie types are of the more or less weird science and psionics variety. I’d have preferred a bit more options for the supernaturally-minded zombie slayer. Still, that might have been difficult to pull off while keeping the genres separated as they are now.

Cheese Score: 9 (satisfying campaign collection)

Sauce

The writing is the usual top-notch style of Dr. Kromm’s, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his Dungeon Fantasy volumes and there’s a lot of technical information to convey for each campaign framework. Sometimes that makes you skip paragraphs you don’t yet need. But that’s still complaining on a high level. The writing is good and so’s the editing. Of course, there’s complete bookmarking for each of the headings and sub-headings and hyperlinks to each item on the content page.

The pull-quotes are fitting and there are some interesting titbits hidden within the text that make you shudder or grin should you research them on wikipedia. So far so good.

Unfortunately the art is pretty bad. You may remember Dan Smith, the guy who illustrated a lot of 3rd Edition books in black and white. While those were mostly okay if a bit sub-par, his illustrations here are a collection of his worst attempts for 3rd Edition. At least the ones for fantasy campaign are pretty evocative. The rest are just ugly. The better illustrations are all pilfered from Horror and Zombies. I’m not sure whether the book wouldn’t have been better without any pictures.

Sauce score: 5 (good writing, mostly annoying art)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Day One pretty much pushes the envelope when it comes to presenting campaigns only united by their theme. You could get more universal than that, but not in the space provided. Still, it might not have hurt to include one more fantasy or supernatural scenario. Most campaigns, even in GURPS, take place in a world where those things matter. That’s nitpicking, however. The book is almost as generic as Zombies itself.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 9 (almost among the most universal)

Summary

If you like zombies or want to explore the themes they’ve come to embody, this book is for you. The same goes for any GM that read Zombies and thought “Now if I only could fit all that into a coherent framework.” It’s not meant for GMs that want their brains served ready-to-eat, but they’ll be hard-pressed to run GURPS anyway. Some of the campaigns can even be started off with just a few hours of work beyond character creation.

Total score: 7.75  (good for your grey matter)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (15%), Cheese (50%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “meaty” rules-orientied book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 6.875 (for its length it’s hard to find better value)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


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