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In the interest of transparency it’s important to disclose that I published three game articles with Palladium Books quarterly publication the Rifter from 2013-2014. I do not know anyone at Palladium Books personally and if I thought for a moment I couldn’t write a fair review you wouldn’t be reading it. Let’s get to it…
Zombie games, will they ever go away? The darn things just won’t die. What was once considered a fad has morphed into a full blown-movement people! If I had a nickel for every zombie I’ve slain at the gaming table, as the saying goes I’d be a rich man. Instead, I write the occasional game review to supplement my RPG habit...
RPGs are representative of a small but respectable share of the zombie movement. The first table top RPG which comes to my mind was Eden Studios, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, which was published in 1999. Credit to them for being zombie, before zombie was this cool… Fast forward almost ten years (and another 7 for the PDF) with a lot of games in-between and we arrive at Dead Reign.
As a publisher and of the many games under their flag, Palladium Books is known for the strength of its settings. In this regard, Dead Reign doesn’t disappoint. What’s important for any respectable zombie RPG; is that it must remain true to the media that came before it, yet not just settle on the creative common of that which has come before.
Dead Reign encapsulates two popular media tropes; part survival horror, something akin to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and part modernization such as with Max Brook’s World War Z. Though the elements from these media are familiar Dead Reign doesn’t just sit idly upon them. The game defiantly has its own take on the zombie apocalypse and most importantly successfully translates it for the purposes of an RPG.
Palladium Books is also known for their old school approach to game mechanics and rules coined the Megaversal System. Coming up on nearly forty years in the business of publishing games, Palladium Books has never produced what one would consider a major system over haul or second edition. If you’re privy-no, in this reviewer’s opinion -though it did present some updates, Rifts Ultimate Edition doesn’t count. The rules are also slightly tweaked per each setting in which Palladium Books has produced. The Megaversal System is indeed looser (and inconsistent) than most modern gamers are accustomed and not to mention old school.
While Dead Reign continues both traditions (excellent setting/Megaversal System) it also has some useful approaches to help expedite character creation (the length of which to roll a character is usually a criticism) and a lot of interesting tweaks to the zombies you’ll try and head shot.
Creating a character in Dead Reign presents two options, traditional character creation and quick character creation. The quick method is not only as advertised it’s a bit more advantageous for the player character’s attribute scores-that is, if we consider the RPG Dice Gawd’s law of averages.
The traditional method will likely have its appeal to the purest while the quick method will likely have its appeal to those new and most importantly, those wanting to slay some zombies! Characters in Dead Reign have eight attributes three mental, five physical. Rolling attributes involves rolling 3D6, tallying and placing the result in order. The crux of this old school method is that you may get a low score someplace you’d prefer it not to be, while if you happen to roll a total of 16 or higher the player can roll an additional D6 to add to that specific attribute.
The quick method has eight options. The choice of which will leave few rolls but sum up the physical and mental attributives of the character. As with any system that utilizes standard attributes, Dead Reign provides ability and situational benefits (+/-) based on attributes. Utilizing the quick method you can really create the character you want. Want a character who’s physically tough, or one who can think themselves out of the situation? Dead Reign has this covered. Also of note is that the average attribute score using the quick method pushes attribute scores higher than they would be (on average) than using the traditional method. While making character creation a little less random I thought it was an excellent option for an old school system.
Dead Reign supplies two categories of characters to play, Occupational Character Classes (OCCs) and Survivor Occupants. OCCs are well detailed character classes with a range of special abilities and skills catered for the setting. There is even an interesting variant of playing a half-zombie like character. Survivor Occupants are ordinary folks-the cooks, cleaning ladies and TV repairmen; average Joes and Janes trying to survive in a world gone to heck.
Though there isn’t a huge dissimilarity in ability or power between the two sorts of characters you can roll up, there certainly is a difference. Point of fact it’s enough of a difference that it should make for some interesting choices in the sort of characters being played. For instance having a player group comprised of Survivor Occupants is going to necessitate a toughie based game, while choosing to use the Survivor OCCs will facilitate a more heroic or action themed game. Also while the two sorts of character categories are different they aren’t so out of whack that a Game Master (GM) if they so choose, can’t integrate a mix of both with the player group.
The setting of Dead Reign is modern day. The player characters are thrust into the role of survivors who have survived the initial zombie onslaught or wave. Instead of presenting a single theory or as some games often do or no theory in regards to the origin of the zombie apocalypse; Dead Reign presents five open ended scenarios. I liked the presentation in leaving the cause of the zombie apocalypse up to the Game Master (GM). Also, though it’s been left unsaid, offering the setting in this way allows the GM to have a bit of wiggle room. Seeing how the players react to the setting elements of the game may very well shape the overarching campaign in the hands of a forward thinking GM.
What about Zombies? You ask. Dead Reign features seven types. Though for the most part zombies are zombies, Dead Reign has some interesting variants, which in turn will offer some unique challenges. I’m leaving a bevy of excellent setting info out, but the short of it is I could probably write a review twice as long concerning this game.
(Disclosure: This review was originally published in Knights of the Dinner Table and is property of Kenzer & Company. It has been republished here with permission.)
There is a decent section of 101 Hook Line and Sinkers (AKA: Bait and Tackle in KoDT Parlance) which do a great job of bringing all of the setting elements of the book together. What’s also really good about this game is the work the writers put in to not only define the zombies, but the human presence within the zombie apocalyptic setting.
Ok-so what don’t I like…
My criticisms concerning Dead Reign are twofold. Having played Dead Reign as well as being familiar with the Megaversal System for many years, the tweaks for the game are less dice roll friendly than what has been published before. One example of this is the dice mechanics involved in killing zombies. In short, it is pretty difficult to land a head shot at relatively close range or least much more difficult than it should be. I think the tweaks are an attempt to simulate realism (fear anxiety) but as far as a game dynamic I would have liked to see something different in place.
My second criticism is that some of the content and choices include elements of the Megaversal system, though don’t actually apply to the game itself. I see this creating some confusion to any gamers new to the system. One example of this has to do with two attributes Physical Endurance and Mental Endurance. Both include listed bonuses for saving throws that aren’t particular to Dead Reign a save for magic and a save for psionics. Admittedly I’m not sure how big a deal this is but the layout could have been a little better defined-or magic and psionics included with the setting?-hey yeah!
Speaking of content, the illustrators of Dead Reign did an excellent job of setting the mood. The interior art is black and white and like any Palladium Books product there is plenty of it. While usually I like art being more consistent in my RPGs, the contrast in styles (perhaps because of the genre) works really well to my taste. The cover sets the tone and is both horrible and wonderful, illustrated by E.M Gist. If you’re looking for a zombie game, a PDF of Dead Reign is certainly worth the asking price.