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Outbreak: Undead RPG Review – An Awesome Game with a Few Flaws

Posted By Martin Ralya On October 25, 2010 @ 12:38 am In Reviews | 28 Comments

After seeing a preview of Outbreak: Undead (warning: has sound) online, and then again at GenCon, I knew I wanted to review this game for the Stew. I love zombies, horror, survival horror, and all the intersections thereof, and Outbreak: Undead (OU) is a zombie survival horror RPG — right up my alley.

It’s also an “avatar game,” an RPG in which you play a character based on yourself (though you can, of course, also play any kind of character you like), which presents some unique challenges and opportunities from a GMing perspective. So I wrote to the publisher and asked for a print review copy, which I tucked into right away.

So how is it? Here’s the short version: It’s got some flaws, but if you like zombies and want to try a different kind of RPG, you’ll love Outbreak: Undead.

Let’s Get Physical

Outbreak: Undead looks great. It’s a monster hardcover, 452 pages, with a full-color cover and a B&W interior. The cover art depicts a woman in two states, uninfected and zombie, with a polaroid showing her as a zombie with a note on it: “She is still pretty to me.” It’s printed on heavy, high-quality paper, and it looks and feels nice. It’s $45, which is about right these days.

The whole book is presented as if it were a survivor’s journal found after the zombie apocalypse: The background for every page is a lined page from a spiral-bound notebook, and the pages are plastered with sticky notes, taped-on bits of paper, polaroids, and sketches. It’s a slick, immersive presentation that really sets the tone for the book.

The photos are actual photos of scenes that, for the most part, fit the subject matter: empty parking lots, abandoned buildings, blurry people as zombies, shots of weapons, etc.

The sketches are almost uniformly awful, but I think they’re supposed to be — in the context of a zombie survival manual cobbled together in a post-zombie-apocalypse world, they look like what a non-artist would sketch to illustrate the stuff they’re writing about.

Unfortunately, OU uses a handwriting font throughout, interspersed periodically with typewritten text. This was cool for the first few pages, but became grit-my-teeth annoying by the end of the book — handwriting fonts aren’t as easy to read or as conducive to the kind of clarity you need from an RPG rulebook as plain text. (It also means that while this is a ginormous hardcover, there’s a lot less text per page than you might expect, which isn’t necessarily good or bad.)

Organization

OU is broken into 10 chapters: About, Characters, Skills + Traits, The Turn, Zombies, Combat, Vehicles, Equipment, Gamemaster’s Section, and Glossary. It lacks an index, which in a book this large is a huge oversight and a crying shame.

After spending some time with the book, I found it annoying to navigate because of the lack of differentiation between sections within chapters. There are no page-level headers to help you orient yourself within a chapter, so I always found that it took longer to locate specific things than it should have.

Trying to look up specific things is equally aggravating. For example, I wanted to look up how to make a skill check, which isn’t covered in the Skills section. It’s at the front of the book in an unlabeled sidebar in the About chapter, which explains that checks are all based on statistics and are impacted by Difficulties, and it took me several minutes to find. If there were an index, I would have found it right away.

I get the impression that graphic design and staying true to the “survivor’s journal” theme were prioritized over creating a usable, well-organized RPG book. The saving grace is that the system isn’t terribly complicated, so once you’ve looked something up once it shouldn’t be too hard to remember. Still, the end result is a book that’s pretty annoying to read and somewhat annoying to reference.

Braaaaaaiiiiinnnnnssss

Now that you know what OU looks like and how it’s set up, let’s talk specifics:

I want to play me!

Although OU pitches playing a character based on yourself right up front (“avatar play”), the book doesn’t actually include all of the rules for playing yourself. It’s not until page 28 that OU mentions that you need to go to the game’s website to generate a character based on yourself. What the book does include is the rules for creating a template character, IE a normal PC that isn’t based on you.

This is pretty annoying, since one of the selling points on the back cover and in the early pages of the book as that you can create a character based on yourself. Not including those rules feels like a bait-and-switch. That said, the avatar creation system is free, and offering it online has the advantage of letting your players start their avatar characters without needing to own the book.

SPEW-AI

Okay, so how does avatar PC generation work? You go to the game’s website, click on “SPEW-AI,” and take a test designed to measure your physical and psychological capabilities: SPEW-AI, which stands for “Strength – Perception – Empathy – Will Assessment Inventory.” You then answer multiple-choice questions like this one (the first):

Think of exercises that involve being flexible (yoga, rock climbing, etc.) and think of how your flexibility compares to the average person. Which of the following describes you?

Which is followed by five options ranging from “I’m a contortionist” (A) to “I’m not flexible at all” (E). The whole test is 40 questions, took me about five minutes, and is fascinating. Why? Because it’s stated aim is realism: From the introduction to OU: “The purpose of this game is to create a simulation that can quantify and allow for an accurate representation of a person’s ability to survive any possible Outbreak scenario.” (More on the “simulation” thing later.)

When you finish the test, it spits out just four stats: Strength, Perception, Empathy, and Will. The range runs from 5-46+, “weak” to “Olympian.” My stats came out as 15 Strength (low average), 22 Perception (average), 28 Empathy (average), 26 Will (average). IE, tubby zombie bait — which, if I’m being honest, is probably about right. Interestingly, that’s just 91 points — whereas template characters get 120. So clearly my goal should be to get myself killed ASAP so I can stat up a muscular cop with heroic levels of empathy…

So why isn’t this test in the book? I’m not sure why, because it’s not that long, wouldn’t take up much space, and appears to just be assigning points based on your answers — something easily accomplished with a breakdown familiar to every Cosmo reader (ahem). If I’m overlooking some complex element, I don’t know what it is.

The SPEW-AI test is neat, fun to take (if depressing, which is appropriate for a zombie survival horror game!), and unique, but it should be in the book.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me

OK, so I have my stats; now I turn to the “Characters based on Players” section in chapter two, where the game tells me that I can pick a Type (basically a class, like Lawyer, Nurse, or Firefighter, should I happen to be any of those things in real life) or create a Type based uniquely on me. For the latter, the primary draw of the game, I’m told to turn to the section “Yourself as a character”…which doesn’t exist.

No, really.

And on top of that, I’m told that the SPEW-AI test should have generated a recommended skill set for me, which it didn’t — all I got was my stats. At this point, I’m kind of screwed; I have no choice but to wing it, since one of the core elements of the game simply doesn’t exist. I had to triple-check this, since I just couldn’t believe it.

So can I wing it? Sure. The Characters chapter tells me that characters get five Tiers of Skills, which can be sacrificed at a ratio of 1 Tier:5 stat points if I like, and that if I instead pick a Type from the book I get no stat bonuses, two Skill Tiers, and whatever non-stat bonuses are provided by that Type. Plus Gestalt Dice, which are a mechanic unto themselves (more on that later).

But if I’m new to gaming, I’m flipping around not finding what the book tells me should be there and going “What the fuck?!” at this point. Super-lame.

The core mechanic

Moving on, let’s peek under the hood at the game system. The core mechanic is percentile-based, with standard checks being made against your SPEW stat + any bonuses from skills or equipment, roll equal to or under to succeed. For every full 10 below the needed value, you achieve an extra degree of success; ditto for degrees of failure in the opposite direction.

If a check has a higher-than-normal difficulty, that’s applied as a penalty to your stat in 5% increments before you roll. So if you have a Strength + climbing gear bonus total of 40% for a check, but the climb is Difficulty 2, you now have a 30% and need to roll 30 or less to succeed.

This is a simple core mechanic that I suspect would get out of the way and let you focus on the game in actual play, just like it does in other percentile-based games I’ve played.

Mad zombie survival skills

Skills are broken out by Tier, with Tiers representing the amount of training you need to have a basic level of proficiency. There are several dozen skills, and they’re pretty oddball: Agility (1st Tier) gets you a bonus to some skills and checks, while Caged Wisdom (3rd Tier) lets you make shivs because you’ve been to prison, and Sniper (5th Tier) means you’re a trained sniper.

The skills are really a mix of what most RPGs would call two different things: skills and advantages (or traits, or feats, or whatever), with skills letting you do specific things and advantages giving you bonuses. It’s a bit quirky, but it’s workable and gives the game a unique flavor. It also emphasizes that the focus of OU is different than most RPGs.

Those bonuses are important because they’re added to your base stat when you make tests. For example, Agility gives me a +5% bonus to Strength for climbing and jumping, which, with my 15 Strength, would be pretty important. (Unfortunately, I can’t take Agility because my Strength isn’t high enough — unless I pick a Type that grants Agility as a bonus skill, which overrides that prerequisite.)

Gestalt Dice

Gestalt Dice are part of the skill system: If you’re playing an avatar character, you get one Gestalt Die for every year of your age, which represents the fact that the full range of human abilities and specialties can’t be represented by any skill list. (Template characters get them too, but they work a bit differently.)

When making a check, you can add Gestalt Dice to the result (how many depends on your years of experience in that skill). You roll that many six-sided dice, add that number — and that bonus is permanent. So If I’m making a Str – Endurance check and I add Gestalt Dice to the roll, the bonus granted by those dice applies to all future Str – Endurance checks as well. This permanently reduces your Gestalt Dice pool.

This is a neat system that’s unlike any I’ve seen before. Self-applied bonuses aren’t uncommon, but the permanency aspect is new to me. I love this idea, and it introduces a neat fun factor into what’s otherwise a pretty grim game — particularly because the average schlub (like me) is going to have fairly shitty stats to start out with.

Zombies!

As you might expect, the chapter on zombies is lovingly detailed. It opens with the immutable and mutable laws of zombies (immutable: there’s no cure; mutable: only zombie-inflicted wounds transmit the infection), and then provides a solid overview of zombies in general, rules for zombie perception and movement, and zombie traits.

OU also covers zombie priorities, which fits well with the simulation aspect. Zombies choose their targets in this order: closest, in plain sight, downwind, least infected. Properly enforced, that list will keep you, the GM, on the path to a brutal zombie survival experience — and your players will know it.

The bulk of this chapter is taken up by templates for different zombie types. Each includes stats, a description, special traits, and an illustration or photo. More or less every kind of zombie you’ve ever seen in a movie, comic, book, or game is statted out here, from banshees and titans (Left 4 Dead’s spitters and tanks, more or less) to standard zombies to zombified dogs (Resident Evil) and zombie kids.

This chapter is every bit as good as it should be. If you think a game where you fight zombies 90% of the time would be boring, this chapter will convince you otherwise. There are so many kinds of zombies, special traits, and things you can tweak to surprise your players that you’ll be set for a nice long stretch of play.

The turn

Chapter four, “The Turn,” is where OU’s divergence from traditional RPGs starts to become clearer. Turns are five seconds long and include six phases: surprise, intent, check, resolution, grapple, damage. The wrinkle is that second phase, intent: You go around the table and everyone declares what they’re going to do, then you resolve their actions in the next phase; resolution is simultaneous. Conversation among players is encouraged, and you can change your mind freely until the next phase.

Once you’re locked into a course of action, though, that’s that for that turn. If circumstances change in phase three (resolution), your action could be irrelevant and wind up being wasted. On the flipside, everything happening simultaneously makes it easy to team up against zombies.

This seems like a mechanic designed for maximum realism: In real life, things sometimes happen too fast for you to adjust on the fly. But will it be fun? If you’re in the right mindset to play a zombie outbreak simulator RPG, I think so.

I think of it like the original Resident Evil games, which used absolute controls and a relative camera: up was always forwards, but halfway down a hall the camera would flip to the opposite view — so now pushing forwards meant you were running back towards the zombies. Rather than being bad design, this was deliberate; it nicely represented the fact that in real life, you’d get scared and fuck up periodically.

Combat

Your character’s health is derived from your Strength (+1 per point) and Will (+1 per five points). A standard zombie does 1d6 damage with its bite; an average pistol does 2d6. Degrees of success multiply the number of dice rolled: two degrees = double dice, etc. Zombie bait like me (15 Strength, 26 Will) would get 20 Health.

Damage also inflicts wounds, ranging from zombie infection to internal injuries, and both characters and zombies can be killed outright with a single good blow. For characters, that’s a hit that causes 31+ points of damage; for zombies, it’s a percentage threshold representing headshots and the like.

Combat is pretty straightforward: turns proceed as described above, with all damage being applied simultaneously. Zombies are rarely encountered alone, and that plus their special abilities makes them deadly. Zombie bites can infect characters, too, and pain from your wounds plays a role.

Healing is slow and difficult. First aid restores Health, but it’s based on degrees of success, not a simple roll. And natural healing takes a long time, modified by your activity level and how sanitary the conditions are.

Overall, combat in OU leans towards realism, though it’s not overly crunchy (unusual for a realistic combat system). There are specialized rules for automatic weapons fire, grappling (which zombies do a lot), teaming up, and other situations, but no real surprises.

Your chances of surviving a single gunshot wound or zombie bite are quite good, but healing from those wounds can be difficult — and, of course, you’ll rarely be in a situation to get shot or bitten just once. On top of that, with degrees of success modifying damage rolls, any damage can potentially inflict serious wounds or even kill you outright.

On balance, OU is a deliberately deadly game.

OK, what’s with all the “simulation” stuff?

It can be a subtle distinction at times, but Outbreak: Undead is explicitly a zombie outbreak survival simulator, not a traditional RPG. It’s also an RPG, but one that’s colored by its goal of realistically assessing both your moment-to-moment survival and your overall ability to survive a zombie outbreak.

This is why, for example, your baseline stats aren’t so hot. With a 15 Strength, my avatar character sucks at climbing or lifting things when it matters — without bonuses or Gestalt Dice, I’m going to fail a lot. Similarly, it’s why Health is a precious resource that’s easy to lose and hard to recover.

It’s also why there are some interesting programmatic elements in OU — for example, the game is designed to be played out in missions, with victory conditions for every mission. This isn’t fundamentally different from most RPGs, where every adventure has a successful/failed outcome, but it’s made explicit in OU through subsystems to determine random encounters, by the mechanics for each mission type, and more.

The simulator aspect of OU also means that it’s more focused than other similar games. Take Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten: It’s a much more freewheeling, traditional RPG, with sourcebooks for zombie pirates and zombies in space. By contrast, OU uses the modern world and, by default, your actual players as characters — that provides a lot of focus right out of the gate.

Encounter Checks

Let’s dig into Encounter Checks as a good example of the simulation aspect of OU. Because the world is swarming with zombies, as well as sparsely populated with panicked humans, resilient survivors, and vigilante bastards who want to take your stuff, OU uses a random encounter system to generate a constant sense of danger and ramp up the tension. This is nifty, and I think it will really set the proper tone during play. It also funnels the game into the simulation it’s designed to be — here’s why.

You, the GM, make an Encounter Check whenever one of five things happens:

  1. The characters move for one unit of Time or look for a place to rest
  2. The PCs search
  3. After a certain number of turns during an encounter (so zombie “adds” become a real threat)
  4. The characters make a survival check or rest
  5. The PCs flee an encounter at a dead sprint

Taking that first condition as an example, if the party moves at a normal walking pace, you make an Encounter Check once per mile. The check is rolled against the senses of the zombies in the area; for standard zombies that’s 30% (because they can see and hear, 15% each). So after a mile, you roll d100 and on a 30 or less, the PCs run into zombies (or survivors, vigilantes, etc. — but it’s usually zombies); on a 31+, no encounter. The number of zombies is also dependent on a formula.

Are you free to ignore that? Sure thing, just like any aspect of any RPG — but played as written, Encounter Checks set the pace of a game of OU, and that pace is likely to be pretty brutal. After running into a few random packs of zombies, with each bite potentially resulting in one of the PCs becoming a zombie, your group is going to start focusing on finding shelter, fortifying their shelter, etc. pretty damned quick.

In other words, the programmatic elements of OU, especially Encounter Checks, will automatically populate your game with all of the elements of a good zombie movie, will create palpable tension, and will “funnel” your players into doing the kinds of things real people would do in a zombie outbreak.

I usually hate random encounters, but I think this is fucking awesome — it’s perfectly matched to what OU wants to be, and it should happen organically during play. Among the many things that make me want to play OU, this is at the top of the list.

Mission structure

To run OU, you need to determine the outbreak scenario. As the GM, you sit down and determine the type of outbreak, whether the game will start from the first infection or pick up mid-outbreak, what kinds of zombies are involved, what traits and unique properties those zombies have, and whether the goal is survival or stopping the outbreak.

In a nutshell, that’s your campaign. It’s a pretty straightforward process, but one that offers a significant amount of variety. Combined with fairly quick and dirty character creation, this makes OU simpler to pick up and play than the size of the rulebook suggests.

Once you have the world and the zombies all sorted out, you’re ready to run some missions. Each mission type includes a short description, prerequisites (having a stronghold, for example), the objective, how much Time it will take (which influences the number of Encounter Checks), conditions of success and failure, and special stuff (rules, conditions, whatever).

The first mission is a good example: All-out Defense. In this mission zombies are attacking your stronghold, which can be determined by the GM or programmatically by having zombies trailing the PCs after another mission roll higher than the stronghold’s level. The objective is to eradicate all the zombies, which is made more difficult because the population of your stronghold can’t move freely without PC escorts.

The characters get 10d10 rounds to succeed, and if they don’t succeed they have to flee — abandoning the stronghold in the process. There are a few special rules for this mission, including rolling for the time of the attack and a roll to determine if characters begin the mission in Panic (a state that has mechanical consequences).

All of that takes up less than three pages, and all you need to add is a map. Google up some floor plans, doodle a strategic-level map for your players, and you’re off and running. Provided you created the circumstances of the outbreak in advance, you could play this mission at the drop of a hat, which is handy.

On the flipside, this type of formal structure can make some players feel stifled. Provided you set expectations upfront, including an emphasis on the simulator aspect of OU and what makes that so much fun, this shouldn’t be a huge hurdle for most groups.

Not much GMing advice

On the one hand, you don’t actually need that much GMing advice to run OU. Setting it in the modern world, with your players as the PCs, and having systems to programmatically address many aspects of gameplay means that you’re free to focus on improvisation, atmosphere, and other GMing details.

On the other hand, having your players as PCs is unusual, given that most modern RPGs don’t attempt this, and an overview of how that works in practice would have been useful. Similarly, even though OU strives for realism, it’s still an RPG at the end of the day — help me out with some advice on enhancing the tension, setting the right mood, etc.

I can see the decision-making process with regard to avatar characters and the lack of GMing advice revolving around the fact that no one needs advice on playing themselves, and GMs shouldn’t need advice on dealing with PCs who are in fact their friends, but as a GM I would have appreciated some guidance.

Cool little details

OU is full of nifty details that make it clear how much effort and TLC went into making this game the best possible “death by zombies while the world falls apart around you simulator” around.

For example, every character has a bite resist stat (half your Perception + armor/clothing + skills), which is the chance that a given zombie bite will raise your infection level. And every shot you take at a zombie has a chance of killing it outright (Ranged Attack + weapon lethality modified by zombie protection) — headshots!

I also love that noise attracts zombies, with consideration given to whether it’s instantaneous noise (a gunshot) or sustained noise (a chainsaw…), all matched up against the zombie perception subsystem. OU is packed with these kinds of details, and they really make it shine.

Should I buy it?

Assuming your group wouldn’t be turned off by the simulator aspect of Outbreak: Undead, yes.

The lack of organization and the annoyance of the handwriting font are more than offset by everything else about OU, from the badass zombie chapter to the Encounter Check system, simulation elements, and the level of detail and thought that went into creating what’s ultimately a very cool zombie horror RPG.

It’s a testament to just how cool this game is that even though it fails to include complete rules for creating yourself as a character — one of its biggest selling points! — I still recommend buying it. Was I pissed to find that out? Yep — but the rest of the game made up for it.

Outbreak: Undead is different from most RPGs (closer in some respects to an indie RPG than to, say, D&D), but I found those differences to be pretty nifty overall. I’d love to play this game with my group, and it seems like it would shine in the convention event format, with its tight scenarios, low prep time, and the sexy, easy-to-describe hook: “It’s a zombie survival horror game where you play yourself as a character.

Questions welcome

As always, I’m happy to answer questions in the comment, and feedback is welcome! Even at over 4,000 words, there was no way to cover everything I could have covered about OU, so if I missed something you were curious about just let me know.

Update: One of the folks behind OU, Ivan Van Norman, emailed me this (thanks, Ivan!):

Outbreak: Undead developer here… Must say, thanks for such an honest review. We appreciate your candor with both our strengths and weaknesses, Martin.

In regards to a couple of of specific questions raised: yes, we are having a PDF available soon (slated for late November) and it will be revised based on the Q&A of our awesome forum members and the extremely insightful reviews such as this one. A complete errata will be available for free on our site, so those who own the book will benefit from the revision as well.

This revision will contain an index. The initial lack of an index was not a style choice, nor was it an oversight… It was unfortunately a sacrificial lamb to the dark deadline gods in order that we meet our GenCon release date.

In regards to the missing ‘Yourself as a Character’ section, that was a glaring oversight in the regard that we deleted the header and moved the contents without realizing that the section itself was still being referenced. What would comprise the “Yourself as a Character” section was distilled into the content at the top of pg. 29 and expanded in the Gestalt Dice section in the Skills chapter. So the content is still in the book, it is just improperly labeled. This is obviously addressed in the revision.

In regards to the SPEW-AI: it is a test that is still in its infancy and, at best, a blunt psychological testing instrument. Its exclusion from the book was so that each improvement we make would not require a re-print of the entire 456 page core rulebook. Such scheduled improvements include the recommended skill set (a feature that we had hoped to have implemented before our release, hence its inclusion in the body copy of our book), built-in lie factors, an expanded question set and gender/age-factored questions. Although, we’re focused more on smoothing out our game mechanics, this test remains a very high priority of ours and demands more than the passing attention we have been able to give it. We would actually feel morally remiss if we didn’t approach this subject seriously. Involving actual player avatars requires that we do our best for honest portrayal especially when the in-game lifespan can be so brutally short. For this reason, the SPEW-AI will never be complete, as it will be improved upon and revised with the passage of time.

We also put out free content each month that we try to make a combination of new material and GM tips that we provide to our community, so we don’t like leaving people in the dark… We know we’re a brand new game and we are generating material accordingly. Anyway, this has gone on long enough. We really do appreciate such an honest review. Thanks again. Take care and prepare.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Outbreak: Undead RPG Review – An Awesome Game with a Few Flaws"

#1 Comment By spenser On October 25, 2010 @ 5:23 am

Yet another book without an index? Really makes you start to wonder if it’s done on purpose for some reason. I mean, I find it hard to believe so many publishers are sitting around going “holy crap, we forgot the index!”

Otherwise, sounds like an interesting game. Not likely that my group would ever try it, but perhaps a Con game somewhere along the line.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 25, 2010 @ 9:18 am

Hmmm.

I love the genre, and I am all for the simulation approach. I really enjoy avatar games as well.

No index? Handwriting type font? Missing content?

I’m thinking I’ll pass and hope for a revised version that addresses those problems.

#3 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 25, 2010 @ 9:45 am

@spenser – Not in reference to OU in particular, but sure this is done on purpose: Indexing costs money and requires a specialized skill set to do well; even paying someone to do a so-so job still costs money.

In an industry where margins are already quite thin, I can see the decision-making process behind taking this shortcut and assuming that it will be the least-missed element of the book — but I don’t sympathize. It’s not the least-missed element of the book for a lot of us. ;-)

@Patrick Benson – Yep, a revised edition that incorporated the avatar content, added an index, and somewhat mitigated the impact of the handwriting font would rock on toast. I hope the folks at Hunters Books do one!

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 25, 2010 @ 10:28 am

@Martin Ralya – I thought to myself that I should at least check out the web site and the SPEW-AI. So I went and took the test. My results:

Strength – 26
Perception – 20
Empathy – 30
Will – 29

So I have a total of 105. Okay, I can accept that.

But I noticed that a) the test did not really ask good questions for what it was measuring, and b) there is no PDF version of the book for sale.

This game seems like it has so much potential, but I just can’t convince myself to get it because I keep running into something that I don’t like about it.

I’m afraid that this one is just not going to make it onto my bookshelf, but I’d jump into a game of it at the drop of hat. Perhaps I just need a test drive.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On October 25, 2010 @ 11:53 am

@Martin Ralya – Sorry Martyn, but 35 years experience in the gaming world has shown me that the ONLY way a game designer can safely dispense with an index is if he/she writes the rulebook to the case system – a sort of pre-http “hyperlinking” presentation used by Avalon Hill and SPI in the 1970s but which is regarded as too visually uninteresting these days.

Every, and I mean *every* game book I own that I bought post 1980 that doesn’t have an index has proved to be a monumental pain in the ventral anterior orifice to use.

Indeed the problem is so bad that it prompts keen players to produce their own indexes. I once made one for WH40K Rogue Trader and a friend did one for FFG’s Arkham Horror 1st edition. The only “specialized skills” required were the ability to pay attention and a modicum of interest in the subject matter.

Alternatively, one could make a pdf of the rulebook and index it with a product I found on Google in less than a minute. Cost for a commercial license? 95 bux.

Along with the things you noted in the article, it sounds like someone dropped more than one ball here.

Of special note to me was your comment on the visual presentation getting in the way of the purpose of the book – to be a reference for a game system. I found the same to be true of the Dresden Files books in which the marginalia were infuriatingly distracting and of little actual value to figuring out how to play the bloody game.

It sounds as if you found the actual mechanics of this game system to be interesting, but that the presentation (and omissions from it) were doing their best to turn you off. That can’t be good in a game world in which the Zombie milieu has been almost done to (un)death.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On October 25, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

Another observation: Look at all that whitespace!

Would be game publishers: To cut printing and binding costs, cut down the number of pages by reducing the bloody whitespace and upping the per-page content.

Then, maybe, you can afford an index.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 25, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

@Roxysteve – I don’t mind the whitespace, because this book is obviously meant to recreate a survivor’s notes and journals. I don’t think that I would mind the font either if it wasn’t for the difficulty in reading such fonts for long periods of time. The layout and design of the book is really interesting to me, and if I were to buy the book that would be why. It is almost as much a prop as it is a game. How the book looks is what draws me to it.

If this were a prop I’d probably buy it, but from what Marting has described I can’t envision the game playing very well.

#8 Comment By NPC On October 25, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

This sounds pretty damn awesome. I think the idea of mission-driven game play focus is great. It connects it to an episodic video game audience. Thanks for the review.

I’m always looking for new zombie games. All Flesh just never quite did it for me, and that’s been a big disappointment for me for a while. I understand that even Palladium got on board with the whole zombie craze.

Martin (and everyone else who cares) if you want to check out another zombie game (albeit a very comedic one), my own game Cannibal Contagion will be free to download for a limited time next weekend. And if you have the time to do a review, that would rock =). Details at: http://nathanaelcole.com/.

#9 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 25, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

I noticed that, unless you’ve made a mistake where you discuss zombie senses, there’s a problem with the math involved.

If the zombies have a 15% chance to notice a potential food source per sense, then zombies with 2 senses that apply to a given stimulus don’t (shouldn’t) have a 30% chance to notice it. They (should) have a 28% chance to notice it.

This is because the probability of at least one of event A (they see you) or event B (they hear you) happening isn’t equal to the probability of event A happening (.15) plus the probability of event B happening (.15). Instead it’s the compliment of the probability of neither of them happening.

To figure out the probability that they fail to sense the source at all, you take the probability that an applicable sense fails to detect something (.85) to the power of the number of senses applicable (2) then subtract that value from 1 to find the chance that at least one sense detects you. This gives you a proportion. Multiply by 100 to get a percent. Thus, the probability of a zombie detecting you with at least one of two senses should be (1-(.85^2))*100=28%

That’s for one zombie of course. If there’s more than one, then the chance of at least one zombie detecting you (and alerting the rest) is (1-(proportion one zombie fails to detect you^# of zombies))*100. So if there’s 5 zombies with a 28% chance to detect you, there’s a (1-(.72^5))*100=81% chance you get seen.

So what? Who the hell wants to do that kind of math every damn encounter? No one, that’s who!
The “So what?” is that at higher numbers of senses, the rough estimate of +15% per sense is badly off from what it “should” be. For example, a zombie with 4 senses goes from a rough estimate of 60% to a 48% and a zombie with 7 senses (5 + tremor sense and life sense I assume) goes from a rough estimate of 105% to 68%

AND, since there are a limited number of senses, and these are exponential probabilities, they could all be represented in a small table, especially since, as it turns out, most zombies regardless of number of senses have a 90% or greater chance to detect a source in a group of 4 or more. (two sense zombies need to be in a group of 7 to hit this threshold, one sense zombies need a group of 14)

Thus a small table could have eliminated the gross statistical error, given PCs a better chance against single high-sense undead, and small groups of low sense undead, while easily retaining the danger of small groups of high sense undead, and large groups of low sense undead, all while sticking to the realism you note they’re leaning towards.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 25, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

@Matthew J. Neagley – No offense, but I like the original rule better. It breaks down to you have a roughly 1-in-3 chance of encountering something when you travel for a mile. That is good enough for me, because it is easy to remember and I don’t need to reference a chart at all. After all, the encounters are randomly generated so you don’t know what spotted the PCs to begin with. 1 zombie? 10 zombies? Santa Claus? Santa Zombie? Who knows, but about a third of the time something is attacking you. :)

#11 Comment By Rafe On October 25, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

I think I already know the answer to this, but here goes: My friends play L4D and L4D2. They know tabletop RPGs via Shadowrun and D&D. Would this be a fun game for them, bearing in mind that if the learning curve is steep (doesn’t seem to be, from my reading of your review), they’ll shrug and say “screw it”?

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 25, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

@Roxysteve – We’re in complete agreement re: indexes and the absolute need for them. All I’m saying is that I see why it’s tempting to not include one. ;-)

@Matthew J. Neagley – It’s a pretty abstract rule, and I don’t think there are any statistical errors involved. Standard zombies have two senses, each of which contributes +15% to their chance to notice you — that’s the rough and simple version. (I see what you’re getting at, though.)

@Rafe – The learning curve is probably steeper if you have a lot of experience as a gamer, since it diverges from the traditional model. But it’s a lot less crunchy than either SR or D&D, and it reminds me a lot of L4D. I know *I* like all three of those things and would enjoy OU. ;-) Perhaps run the concept past your group and see if it grabs them — if it does, I say go for it.

#13 Comment By NPC On October 25, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

Game indexes are a touchy one. I own a handful of games without them, some of which work just fine. The Savage Worlds Explorer Edition, for example, really doesn’t need one. The front table of contents is complete and detailed enough that everything is found with ease.

Then again, the Palladium books almost never have them, and navigating them is a nightmare. Any company that has to publish *for-purchase* system indexes is doing it wrong.

Personally, I look forward to more gaming projects making a greater transition to digital form. PDF seems to be the big thing right now, but I’m looking forward to fully-interactive digital texts, made specifically for ease of navigation and use with the new mainstream array of devices. Turnhing a game product into an actual digital application would rock my world. Indexes would be gone, replaced by built-in referencing and searching.

#14 Comment By Rafe On October 25, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

That’s the thing: they aren’t my group. They’re all friends of mine, but I’ve never gamed with them. So it would be me taking the reins from the current GM for one night to get them to try something different from their usual fare. I’m sure the GM would be all for it, and likely the players would be too, but the question is whether we can do character creation + a one-shot within like 3-4 hours and how that would go over with relatively “we play X and Y and that’s it” players.

I think I’ll give them an elevator pitch and see if they bite. Cheers, Martin!

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 25, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

If the publishers are listening: Create a ‘printer-friendly’ PDF with readable text and the missing section, and I’ll buy whatever bundle includes it.

Searchable PDFs with good bookmarking are a fair substitute for indexes.

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On October 25, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

@NPC – I could not disagree with you more, and as I was writing my post I was thinking specifically of the SW:EE. I own three copies, one for me, two for player manuals. My copy doesn’t have an index – but one was produced as a pdf and put up on the pinnacle website pretty soon after it went on sale. My other two copies have an index on the last page and it is a welcome addition. I’ve had recourse to it often during the games of Realms of Cthulhu I’ve run.

I have some pdfs of games, but for the games I like most I will be sticking with paper. It’s more convenient, cannot be wiped out by a disc failure and doesn’t need batteries.

I’ve got a little revelation for you and Kurt: those full text context searches – all done with an index. Not just an index, but a rather convoluted and hefty thing called a fully inverted index.

Without which a pdf is all but useless as it *cannot* be searched. What you are thinking of when you write of a pdf index is a table of contents, the ribbon of pages that pops up on he left hand side of the reader.

Many game designers cannot tell the difference either. I have more than one publication that purports to have an index but actually has an all-but useless Table of Contents at the back of the book.

Yah. Indexes are a Big Deal and Hot Button Issue with me.

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On October 25, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

And that reads more snippy than it sounded in my head. Sorry. No personal insult intended.

#18 Comment By NPC On October 25, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

Roxy: Guess our groups are different? We all own copies of the book (multiple each, in some cases, for loaners), and have never once had an issue. I have yet to have anything come up in-game that couldn’t be found by referencing the table of contents. Upon first purchase, I was initially hesitant, just noticing it wasn’t there, but after one or two real in-game references, haven’t had a problem since.

As for this one:

“What you are thinking of when you write of a pdf index is a table of contents, the ribbon of pages that pops up on he left hand side of the reader.”

I’m not entirely sure where you are going with that one… I’ve been working extensively in Acrobat as a professional for years. I think I know how to handle bookmarking and cross-referencing, thanks =)

Something else to consider, though, is that as a writer/designer, indexing is actually a pretty difficult task for those who haven’t had professional training in the subject. There are _trained_ professionals in the industry who make bank doing indexing, and nothing but. Some software (like Word and other editors) can be set to auto-index, but it’s shoddy at best, and besides, no good designer in their right mind uses things like Word to design _final_ production templates.

Additionally, I’ve heard from others who believe that the reader’s assumption for all books to be indexed is no worse than the writer’s assumption that the reader can just use the ToC and adapt their ways of reading. Many small-press writers experiment with adapting this reader-product paradigm, in a variety of ways: evolving the ToC, conceptually categorizing the index, and sometimes even putting the index in-line, by using extremely detailed page edges that can be easily thumbed-through.

Many people take indexing for granted, but many people are also stuck in ways which can occasionally get a bit outdated. I think indexing will largely fall by the wayside in favor of digital product and built-in searching.

I don’t know how much I agree with those people. Just sayin’. But it is an interesting subject for debate and comparison.

But I do agree that digital products without search are unforgivable. Nowadays it is pretty much impossible, too unless you create the document _by hand_ and then scan it in without OCR – or unless you’re a masochist who just turns it off intentionally.

I think I’m just rambling now. =)

#19 Comment By NPC On October 25, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

@Roxysteve – And yes, I am indeed aware of the concept of “indexing” as used in PDFs and database management as a whole. That’s more of a discussion of semantics, though, as we are discussing actual physical in-your-face user-readable indexes, and not behind-the-scenes arcane digital thaumaturgy that layfolk will never see.

Or at least that’s been my assumption…

#20 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 25, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

@Roxysteve – No personal insult taken. At my SWEX table, most of the players prefer the index, but I haven’t printed one. More valuable (to me) is spiral-binding the book.

Bigger books (like core D&D books) need indexing. Finding the rules on illumination can be frustrating when everything refers to it, but it’s only defined in one place.

But then again, I’m way off topic. The layout of this book looks frustrating. I can see an argument for one section being done like this, but the entire rulebook?

#21 Comment By NPC On October 25, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Spiral Binding! Yes! I so far own the entire collection of Burning Wheel books, and have had each one spiral bound at kinko’s. It’s something that I wish more games would do. The ability to just flop a book open and lay it down without having to use paperweights wasn’t appreciated until I realized it was missing. Now, it’s hard to game without it.

I’m with you on the big books. The more concepts a game has, the more important the index. But in a game with a really tight rule system and a really focused intent, even “decent” layout design will result in the information being in exactly the section where you expect it.

#22 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 25, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

@Rafe – Chargen is short and many of the missions could be short as well. If you sort out the outbreak scenario beforehand, I think you could easily fit a good session including chargen into 4 hours. :-)

#23 Comment By Roxysteve On October 28, 2010 @ 8:49 am

@NPC – Yep, I have all mine spiral bound and I got the idea after reading an article here – one of Martyn’s I think – which had a picture of his spiral bound SW:EE. Lightbulb moment, and an idea I apply to all my books in that format. Fiasco! is another that benefits from the spiral binding.

I can offer some helpful advice too in the case of SW:EE – tell the person behind the counter that you’d like them to use the next size UP from the spiral (some places call this a “comb”) they would normally use. This will make the spine fatter, which is bad, but will make the pages much easier to turn and you won’t ever have an eager player cause the in-the-spine part of the page to fold, eventually to fall off and start the process of rulebook disintegration.

One of the greatest ideas ever, and when people tell me what a good idea it is I always tell them where I got it. Your site advertising went real-world viral the first time I dug out my copies of SW:EE.

#24 Comment By Roxysteve On October 28, 2010 @ 9:21 am

@NPC – “There are _trained_ professionals in the industry who make bank doing indexing, and nothing but.”

Look, we are talking about game rulebooks here, not the Bible or the Harvard Law Review. The largest rulebook I recently bought was 400 pages (had an index, a good one, too) with around 800 words per page at best (lots and lots of whitespace). You don’t need a high-priced professional index writer to deal with this. You just have to keep the need for others who will not remember writing the rulebook in mind and keep notes.

Since just about everything that makes it into print these days ends up as an electronic document of some sort, it *isn’t* hard to construct a useful index as you go. if I can do it (and I have) anyone can.

It isn’t even that hard to invite a group to try using a laser-printed copy of your new RPG and tell you what they needed to find in your rulebook and couldn’t so you can punch it up.

“I think indexing will largely fall by the wayside in favor of digital product and built-in searching.”

This is like saying “I think the need for well-made shoes will fall by the wayside in favor of people driving everywhere”. The need for indexes in printed material is a separate issue from the preponderance of searchable digital media. The fact of one does not preclude the need for the other.

I have PDF game product and print game products. I will buy both in the future, but any print game that does not have an index, or that has an inadequate index will continue to be advertised by yours truly to be Not Fit For Purpose.

Even if I am not in-game, I don’t need to be wasting time when looking for a piece of information. I’ve got scenarios to write, clues to produce and plots to tighten-up. When the need to know raises its ugly head, I want to get the goods and move on.

For boardgames the answer is even easier – just use Case System presentation and you won’t need an index, Only a TOC to the main headings.

#25 Comment By NPC On October 28, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

@Roxysteve: Fair enough. I’m going to agree to disagree (on the index part, that is. I agree wholeheartedly on spiral-binding.)

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