Review: I Am Zombie

I Am Zombie

I Am Zombie is a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) that draws on the 1970s grindhouse aesthetic:  A gory avalanche of crime, violence and debauchery set against the landscape of an impending undead apocalypse.

Zombies have – ironically – risen from obscurity in not so recent years as a pop culture and pulp staple, representing everything from an analogy of modern consumerist society to a generic threat shoehorned into an unrelated plot.  It is often argued that the zombie craze is – ahem – dead and buried, but given the ham-fisted enthusiasm with which IAZ approaches the material it’s hard to tell if they are deliberately parodying those who refuse to relinquish the trope or are themselves beating an undead horse.

There was a slight hiccup when we first got the game, as there is ‘the engine the game is built on’ (Axiom Null) and then the comprehensive rules, which was much needed, and we only got the former. Despite claims that the rules are simple, elegant, and easy to read, the Axiom Null is a seventeen page booklet of block text. So be prepared for a slog.
Blurred_AxiomNull
We set our brightest scholar to the task of boiling down the Axiom Null into cliff notes. He distilled it down to a single page of block text. If you were to take that, spread it out a little, throw in some pictures and one or two graphs (it says you won’t need to refer to any graphs – you will need to refer to graphs) you’ll have a much more readable booklet with the exact same information. Not to be too harsh on this, but there are 168 words defining dialogue and at one point it breaks down all the possible ways the writer could think of to randomly deal out five cards to a player. It is pretty wordy.

Game Rules

To make a character you draw five ID cards at random from a deck of what are essentially personality traits. You then choose one of those character cards to be the embodiment of the character you’ll be playing. (The Axiom Null says that it is the fifth card you draw, which seems really arbitrary. But the rules also say that it can be which ever one you like, so basically… do whatever you want?)

Mechanic-Gearhead-Motorhead Fanatic/Modthrax Greaser

Mechanic-Gearhead-Motorhead Fanatic/Modthrax Greaser

Each card features two attributes, an aptitude, a job description, another job description, ANOTHER job description (the third changing depending on if your card is flipped or not), a narrative ability with some name associated with their job description, a short paragraph describing the ability in vague terms, and another ability designed to affect dice rolls. There is a LOT of text on the cards. After all that work and filling out your character sheet (which I suggest you do in pencil since your stats also change when the cards are flipped) you have yourself a character which can be a cohesive badass or somebody going through an identity crisis. Certain things fit together great, like Redneck and Survivalist. Others… not so much. Rogue Cop/Outlaw Biker/Shifty Lawyer is a hard combination to make sense of.

Then there’s the dice – D6 results add points against a number determined by your GM, proceeding from 1, 2, 3, 4, MINUS 10, and 6 + brains. We’re not entirely sure why 5 was chosen to be the critical fail condition and consecutive -10s give the GM license to screw your group over later on. Crits award the team brains, which can be cashed in to save themselves or interact with abilities (but we did so little dice rolling that this never actually came up). The number of dice you roll is determined by your character’s two skills and aptitude in a system of keywords where “guts” is somehow distinguishable from “vigor” and “physical strength” is distinguishable from “physical violence.” It’s up to you and the GM to figure out which would suit best. For example, in an attempt to escape, my teammate rolled Drive+Mental because he was trying to plan and execute the best route for getting around the bad guys. When he failed I rolled Drive+Physical to reach across and grab the wheel from him, steering us out of danger. Speaking of danger, driving and dice rolls, let’s move on to the story we played. My GM was kind enough to write up his experience running the game for us.

The Campaign

GM’s thoughts (spoiler free):
After we got our hands on the rules, I GM’d a game of I Am Zombie using the pre-written intro campaign The Killzone. The campaign itself was sold to me as something you could pick up and run with little pre-reading, so that’s how I ran with it. The story within is based on an interesting concept, but is poorly explained and set out, making it hard to execute well. Overall, I was pretty unimpressed.

The campaign booklet is set out into four acts. However, the information contained in each section is odd, and not wholly relevant to that part of the story, meaning that you constantly have to flick through the booklet to find information. For example, the clues about the town that are necessary to know in order to describe the setting properly are laid out in act four (labelled “Act IV: The Big Reveal”). It would be much better to not organise the booklet as though it follows a four act structure (because it doesn’t) and instead label each section with actual relevant titles such as “The Main NPCs,” “Back-Stories,” “Contingency Plans,” “Puzzles,” etc.

killzone

The Kill Zone Campaign Cover

The biggest problem this campaign faces is that it requires railroading so hard that you’d think the GM worked for Metro. I’m not sure whether it was because of the nature of the story itself, or because the writer thought we’d have a hard time getting across the setting, but I don’t see a problem with saying that having an entire room full of NPCs who only grunt when spoken to, or only repeat a single line of dialogue – including one of the main NPCs – is a massive failure. Look, I get that the town is meant to be run down and dying – I really do – but when you introduce characters for the sake of “look how cold and empty my world is” with absolutely no pay off, you’ve written a terrible story. Too many things in this town are overly limited, and when nothing works what is there really to do? The answer this campaign puts forward is “play exactly the story I want to tell, only.”

As a general rule, players don’t like being railroaded. Smart players (especially ones who are aiming to survive the campaign) aren’t exactly going to do what the writer very clearly wants them to do and the result is going to suck. My players were cautious, meaning that they never triggered any of the Zombie attacks, which meant that in order for me to push the narrative in the booklet forward I had to play the “dick GM” card and just force things to happen. This is a role I personally despise, and is something I aspire not to do. We barely used any of the game mechanics because, for the most part, players were trying to work out what the hell it was they were supposed to actually do rather than worry about how the surrounding game functioned. The campaign was meant to act as a demo of sorts, to get the players to understand how the game mechanics work. It failed pretty spectacularly, because everything felt way too forced.

After we got to the sequence of events described in Act III (which happened super early because of player frustration), we almost stopped playing. It was ridiculous. My players were very clearly uninterested. One of them basically stopped replying. I gave up. I rewound the action. I took two puzzles, two NPCs, closed the PDF down and ran my own story. I changed the setting to make it more functional. We had fun after that. In the end, that’s probably the best way to run this campaign. I took story elements from Cabin in the Woods and tried to incorporate some intrigue into the world.

The other problem is that one of the major puzzles in the booklet really doesn’t logically work the way the writer wanted it to. Then when you finally solve it, everything else is straight up laid out a little too much, which is anti-climactic. I’m trying to keep this as spoiler free as I can, but if it wasn’t for the fact that – after spending about ten minutes dropping hints – I sighed and said “God damn it” after one of the players destroyed a puzzle rather than trying to read it, we would have been there for days (or until I just gave up and told them what to do, like the booklet probably wanted me to).

There were some good ideas in this game. But it twisted my arm to twist the player’s arm and I really didn’t enjoy doing that. You can’t know what players will do, so you need to have more options than it had. There was one part where an event happens and the booklet said “this will make players [spoilers]”. And guess what? They didn’t go for it. Not because they were being defiant or non-cooperative, but because they’ve played survival games before and know how to survive. So my advice to any GMs reading this thinking of trying it for themselves is this: Look through the entire campaign first. Take what you like, fix what you can, leave the rest and have fun with your players. Trying to follow the booklet won’t work, it’s too restrictive and will cause frustration for you, the players, or both.

My thoughts (full of spoilers):
Forewarning, I wanted to enjoy this game, but it was plagued with problems. I didn’t hate it, but it was a bit of a struggle at times. There were things that didn’t make sense and some parts that just felt broken, but I want to be fair to the writer/s for all the hard work they put in. So let me start off by saying all of what I’m about to go into can easily be fixed, but it does require fixing. I’m going into specific problems the campaign had, so spoilers from here on out.

It was by this point that the urge to start devouring human flesh began to rise.

It was at this point in the ‘assembly’ stage that the urge to start devouring human flesh began to rise.

NPCs are great for story development. Everybody knows this. They add life to the story and bring a unique flavour to the world. The instructions in the booklet say the NPCs don’t say anything. The people in the saloon only grunted at us and then another character later on only had one line of dialogue about not wanting to “turn into a monster”.  As a player I knew he meant zombie, but my character tried to press him for more information and I was met with the same line until we left. That is in no way conducive to the story. To have all characters just refuse to speak at the beginning of the campaign or not serve up any information isn’t, it hinders the players and it is not fun. There’s no real talking, no back and forth. It’s like clicking on an NPC in a video game and just having them stare at you. It was frustrating for both me and the GM, I was getting annoyed that he wasn’t giving me any information to work with and he was getting annoyed because he couldn’t, the booklet wouldn’t let him. And for the sake of the review he had started with every intention to stick to the booklet.

One of the first important events in the game is a bus ‘crashing’ out the front of the saloon. A few problems arose with this: firstly, there is no mention of the sound of a crash. The booklet describes the sound of a girl screaming, that is what drew our attention to it. I actually had to question if the bus was already on it’s side when we got there and was informed, no, it wasn’t. A bus crashing is a much louder noise than a girl screaming and a lot more noticeable, it really should be what draws our attention outside the saloon first. Secondly, after trying and failing to rally the extremely unhelpful barflies, my character called emergency services (as you do in the event of a crash). Fast-forward 30-ish minutes, the GM has to make an amendment that, no, I couldn’t call the police on the phone because all phone lines are down. He only found out in ACT IV. That is very important information. It needs to be known by the GM at the beginning of the game because it directly affects what players can and cannot do. Not only that, but it could have added to the feeling that something was wrong in the town and plant the seeds of unease.

The puzzle needed fixing as well. This was what we had to figure out: in some abandoned houses (numbers 2,3,5 and 7) there was the number 97 secretly written on the mirror of bathrooms, which we had to fog up to read. The clues for this were… there were mirrors in the bathrooms. That’s it. First problem is if the entire house was old and dusty, the numbers would be clearly legible on the mirror as is. Secondly, a house with only cold water does not prompt you to think of steam and fog up a mirror. It’s such an unrealistic leap in logic. Our GM tried to help by inventing his own hints, like there being chalk hidden under a chair to get our minds thinking about things being written, but it wasn’t until after I decided to start shooting the mirrors that we figured it out (thanks to his exasperated sighs).

Another problem is the motivation to get into the story to begin with. You receive a letter and some money, if you want the rest of the money the letter promises you, you have to get to Dalton. But the letter reads as a scam. There is no date, it only references ‘this Saturday’ with no indication of when it was sent. Suspicious. But then once you are in Dalton, the address given at the top of the letter, 101 Main St., doesn’t exist in the booklet. It isn’t mentioned as any of the locations. There is a Stockyard, cafes, a church, (all empty and useless) but not the location we have an actual address for and would logically go to. Our GM decided that after we meandered around the town (and getting nowhere) that following the street address would lead us back to the saloon. This was the first moment of the game I actually felt a real ping of excited, and mentioned how clever I thought it was. Then he told me he came up with it because the book didn’t supply 101 Main St. and my enthusiasm ebbed out of me.

The way the booklet was set out in order to do it’s ‘big reveal’ there was vital information kept from the GM until we got to that part. This is of course rectified by reading the entire story first, but if you want to label yourself as ‘pick up and play’, the GM needs to be able to actually do that and the game still function correctly. It felt a little broken, and props to our GM for patching up what he could on the fly while we played. It was frustrating at times, pursuing what would usually be a fruitful course of action only to find ourselves blocked by what was written. But not in a ‘now you must think outside the box’ way, more a ‘the NPCs will not speak or react to anything expect to pull their guns on you’ way. I think with more time and more options, maybe more character depth, we wouldn’t have had such a rough time with it. But it just felt… Stunted, I guess. Like everything wasn’t given enough time or room to develop properly.

Useless. Utterly useless. Why can't you have access to a bottle of Scotch or something that will help?

Useless. Utterly useless. Why can’t you have access to a bottle of Scotch or something that will help?

In regards to character mechanics, most of our ID cards were wasted in this story. We used our stats, but the extra things our characters could do had no opportunity to be utilised in a rural ghost town. For instance, it’s more than a little useless to have access to an ambulance and medical facilities or a hearse and a funeral home or a bunker out in the woods when you’re trapped in an impenetrable narrative box (otherwise known as The Walls of Go Back The Story Is The Other Way). The campaign devotes 441 words explaining all the ways players can try to escape and fail and it’s disheartening playing a game when the writer spent so much effort looking for ways to make the players fail. There are plenty of ways we could fail on our own without paragraphs dedicated to it.

The gameplay mechanics, from what we got to experience of them, were good. If you are focused on it being a ‘hardcore mode’ survival style  TTRPG, the 5s being a critical fail will give you that feeling of urgency and make for some catastrophic mistakes. And though I know this has read as quite critical and negative, from both GM and player’s point of view, I do want to play it again, I am looking forward to playing it again. I really want to enjoy this game because I like the concepts and the new mechanics, this campaign just wasn’t the best first impression. I think there is great potential here for very intense storytelling. But it requires work. This campaign probably wasn’t the best first impression. But with a little convincing I hope to get my GM and fellow players to try again with a new story and the Toxicity expansion, which we have ID cards for, but couldn’t incorporate with the story.

I Am Zombie: Toxicity is currently on Kickstater. They are funded and have a week left, so if you’d like to support the Make-Believe Games team and secure yourself a copy, please head on over to their page here.

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