Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tommy's Take on AZ: After Zombies

AZ: After Zombies was released late last year by Charles Rice and Apocalyptic Games. Zombies are still big business, and with The Walking Dead going strong, and the (IMO) gold standard of zombie RPGs - All Flesh Must Be Eaten - seemingly dormant, there is certainly room for a new game to satisfy that niche.

Ethics in Gaming Disclosure: I was provided a comp copy of this game for review. In fact, I really should have reviewed this months ago, but you may or may not have noticed that the blog hasn't been updated very frequently. Also, an affiliate code for this book's listing at RPGNow is included. Clicking on that link to purchase AZ may provide my blog with a portion of the sale, which is typically used to purchase RPGs that are often reviewed. Oh, and I am Facebook friends with the author.

Just The Facts: Weighing in at 144 pages, the PDF is $14.99, the hardcover black and white book is $25 and the hardcover color book is $40. All versions can be purchased at RPGNow. All you require to play the game are two 10-sided dice, as the game runs off of a percentile system. The setting, as you may have gathered, is that of a zombie apocalypse.


1) There is only an implied setting. Similar to All Flesh Must Be Eaten, AZ: After Zombies focuses more in providing rules for your game than setting material. It's a largely modern earth, there are scores of zombie variations to fight, an exhaustive equipment list, and rules covering combat, emotional stress and even how your actions may attract more zombies. What is not included are things the state Chicago is in, where the zombie apocalypse started, or prominent NPCs who have created survivor camps. All of that detail is left up to you. Heck, even the extent of the zombie apocalypse is left up to you. Is it all just beginning? The first few zombies in a small town? Or is the world completely overrun? There IS a sample campaign set-up provided, set in Solace, VA, with multiple warring factions including cannibals, ex-Military, drug pushers, a group using zombies as slave labor, a group living in the mall and ex-antigovernment survivalist types, though it's more a city/faction set-up and less of an actual campaign.

2) Semi-random character creation. The first thing every character needs is a background, which sets the basic scores of each character. From there, you select a primary attribute and add 3d10 to it, a secondary attribute that gets 2d10 and three attributes that get 1d10 added to them, though you can always "take the average" in place of the die roll. However, three of them get 2d10 subtracted from their total. Then each character gets a random trait (or one based off of their background). These provide bonuses to skills or attributes, with my personal favorite subset being Potential, which reduces the starting number for a giving attribute, but then allows you to increase it faster when you level up. You can also optionally randomly roll or select a Disadvantage (such as having a Dark Past, an Allergic Reaction, an Addiction, or even being the Glue of the group). The Disadvantages not only have a mechanical effect, but provide bonus experience points whenever they affect your character.

3) Level-based advancement. AZ: After Zombies uses level based advancement, though it does not use classes. Taking the Background in mind, everyone pretty much starts off as who they "were", and as they survive the zombie apocalypse, gradually level up. It is worth noting that there is no true upper cap to the levels. All XP is based off of survival, from basic survival to finding shelter, to surviving in spite of your Disadvantages. On even numbered levels, you get to improve one of your stats, either by rolling 1d10 or taking the average. If you take the average on a Weak Attribute, it's only +2 instead of +4. Seems to me that the die roll should probably have a penalty as well, but that's never mentioned. Alternately, you can remove a Disadvantage instead of improving an attribute. Also on even numbered levels, you make a Learning Check to gain a new Skill. Multiple factors come into play here, including your character's learning aptitude, whether or not you have a teacher, or even synergy from trying to learn new skills that build off of your existing skills. On odd numbered levels, you can take a Perk for an attribute, assuming you have the requisite attribute or skill level, and many of them have multiple levels, which stack. For instance, At 50+ Strength, you can take Apprentice Blocker which imposes a penalty against you. You can take other versions, which also stack, at 75+ and 100+. With Athletics 50+, you qualify for Zig Zag, which makes you harder to hit when sprinting. Others rely on multiple stats working together, like Ground and Pound keying off of both Close Quarters Combat and Strength. There are a ton of options here, so characters aren't in danger of looking the same at all, especially with 8 Attributes and 25 Skills to build off of.

4) Unity Matters. Physical damage and mental stress in a horror game are all well and good, and even expected at this point. And yes, AZ has those things. What it also has, which really makes it stand out, is Unity. Unity is group cohesion, and has multiple mechanical effects. High Unity can lead to combat bonuses, initiative bonuses, skill bonuses and even reducing mental damage sustained as you lean on your friends. There are downsides, though. If Unity starts taking a hit, your group can become disorganized...people miss cues in combat, and a walker slips in on someone, arguments can break out, inflicting mental stress. Some folks won't like effects like these, as it's the rules dictating player behavior at times, but an argument can certainly be made that some situations just don't get handled well in-game without some mechanical heft to them. This is also reflected in Values, which a member of a group can try to instill in the larger community. Of course, the group can also be convinced to abandon a Value, but runs the risk of alienating group members when they do so. Some Values include turning the group into a Theocracy, instilling Gang Rule, devoting the group to Protecting the Past, embracing Frontier Justice and more. The only drawback I see to these rules is that there could be enough modifiers floating around that the table could lose track, so it would definitely be worth having someone in the group specifically tracking the modifiers that affect the group due to Unity and Values.

5) All-purpose zombie apocalypse toolkit. The effects of noise on attracting zombies? Check. Starvation and dehydration? Check. Effects of sleep deprivation? Check. Effects of poison, radiation and extreme temperatures? Check. There's even a slew of random tables for what you might scavenge at a given location, down to the condition (and even attachments on firearms, when relevant). Oh, and zombies. The book provides zombie options for you, from zombies emitting radiation to former soldiers and riot cops who are now zombies running around in full armor, runners, shamblers and even zombies who eat other zombies! Of course, anyone who follows decent zombie fiction knows that humans are the real enemy, and a good variety of those are included as well. Even cannibals, because you know some sick freaks went that route after the apocalypse.

6) The art. This deserves special mention. Jon Gibbons provides the art. If you've never seen Jon Gibbons art, you should. Every picture carries a visceral quality that brings the game alive, whether he is depicting battle hardened survivors facing down death or multiple horrific zombies. The art never dominates the book, either, so don't get me wrong. This book is packed tight full of stuff, and the art just punctuates it gloriously and disgustingly. I got chills when I first saw preview art, and the final product didn't disappoint.

Conclusion: Looking for an all-in-one zombie game that you can get into because nothing else has quite scratched that itch? This could be what you're looking for. I *love* the whole idea of the Unity mechanics and Values. My favorite part of the book, for sure. My only concern is that all the modifiers that can be in play just isn't going to work for some groups (I don't think my group would take to them very well), though this is mitigated somewhat by the percentile mechanic, which is about the simplest thing in the world to wrap your head around. One other thing: I would recommend the black and white version if you're going hardcopy. I say this because a lot of the art in the PDF is black and white anyway, and Jon Gibbons' art is at least as amazing in black and white as it is in color.