The Undead Rise to Rule the World in All Flesh Must Be Eaten

The restless dead have risen from their graves. Whether because of interstellar radiation, comet debris, toxic pollution, alien microbes, animated corpses are attacking intent on slaying (at best) or devouring (at worst) the living. And some how, some way, the heroes of All Flesh Must Be Eaten have to find a way to live another day.

All Flesh Must Be Eaten is role-playing game of survival horror, inspired by movies like Night of the Living Dead and — more recently — games like Resident Evil. Created by Eden Studios and based its Unisystem rules, AFMBE is a stand-alone book that provides everything Zombie Masters need to run a campaign.

Character generation is based on a point-buy system, with the number of points available being determined by the type of character played. “Normals” represent the average joes in the post-apocalyptic world and get the least amount of points to spend. “Survivors” — the best (or occasionally the craziest) among us — and the “Inspired” — those who can wield supernatural powers — get the most amount of points.

In the time-honored tradition of point-based character generation, players can buy special abilities — or take special drawbacks. Taking drawbacks — like lazy, zealot or paranoid — gives the player points to spend in other areas. There’s also a smattering of skills that cover most of the tricks players will want to know. Players can equip their characters using lists of common firearms, tools, equipment and vehicles.

But the real meat of the game is its zombies.

It does not present any one kind of zombie. Instead it offers tools for building custom zombies of every variety that’s ever graced the big or small screens — and a few that haven’t. There are the standard dumb-as-nails, flesh-eating zombies from George Romero’s Night/Dawn/Day of the Dead movies as well as the more intelligent variety from Return of the Living Dead 1 & 2, which are capable of simple speech, animal-like cunning, and a hunger for brains. There are neigh-near-invulnerable zombies that can with stand everything short of nuclear weapons, acid baths, or being chopped up into tiny bits, as well as weak, highly-flammable, mindless zombies that are only threatening in large groups. Some are inhumanely fast, others are inhumanly strong, but all are fundamentally creepy.

As far as game mechanics goes, skill checks, tasks, and combat are resolved using a d10. For skill checks, the player rolls a d10, adds in the appropriate attribute and skill scores, the ZM subtracts and modifiers, and if the final number is a 9 or higher, the character succeeds. If its higher than a 9, it may be an even greater degree of success — a player who scores something like an 18 on a check does that task exceptionally well. Tasks and combat are handled similarly, as are opposed checks between two individuals.

The game allows for critical successes — rolling a “10” allows the player to roll again. If they roll another “10”, they get to add five to their result, and roll again. Unfortunately, this gets a little complicated — if the score is 5 or less, then they get no modifier, if its between 6 and 9, they get between a +1 and +4. The principle works in reverse for ones, creating critical failures. This crit option is a nice variation on standard RPGs — I always liked DC Heroes because of exactly this sort of feature — but it will undoubtedly bog down play. I’ve played with folks who’ve played D&D for 10 years and still got confused calculating THACO.

A Night with the Living Dead

I have read and watched a lot of horror in the last twenty or so years. I remember reading Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and The Shining in 6th grade, and devotedly watching every Nightmare on Elm Street film I could find (HBO was a great aid in this). In all that time though, there have been very few movies that have scared me to the point of giving me nightmares, and almost all of those films have featured the living dead.

There’s something about the nature of the living dead that has always terrified me at a very fundamental level, especially the dead from the Romero trilogy. They are a mindless collective hell bent on devouring the living, far more terrifying than any vampire or mummy because they had so few vulnerabilities. In the Dead movies, the only way to stop the creatures was to put a bullet through their heads. Anything else — chopping off a limb, burning them, hitting them with a car — might slow them down, but it would not stop them. And unlike the more popular vampiric boogymen, these creatures didn’t go to sleep during the day. They just lingered near food — constantly probing for weaknesses in their victims’ defenses, always longing for flesh. And when they did catch people, they weren’t aren’t turned into some suave self-aware blood-drinker. No, they joined the undead in their eternal, unthinking torment, stripped of individuality and thought and left only with an insatiable hunger.

When I first heard about All Flesh Must Be Eaten, I knew that it was going to be a winner from its title alone. It evokes the horror at the very core of this genre and brings to mind all the cinema-induced nightmares of my youth.

The game is presented in a fairly stripped-down fashion, but it doesn’t really need to throw too flesh on its bones. Most survival horror is set in the 20th century, especially in the late 20th century, and that means that most of the background information folks need can be found not in a rule book, but in an almanac, or on a web site. The game mechanic is a little clunky, but it looks like it’ll get the job done. What I particularly liked was the fact that the writers weren’t hung up on the rules — if Zombie Masters don’t like the Unisystem rules it’s based on, the book offers card-based and diceless alternatives. And if they don’t like any of it, it still serves as an excellent source of ideas for other campaigns — say Call of Cthulhu or Dungeons & Dragons.

The last portion of the book — after the zombie-creation rules — is dedicated to about a dozen plot ideas for living dead campaigns. They cover all the classic undead warping scenarios, from Armageddon to toxic pollution, and should provide more than enough material to prime the old ZM’s mental pumps.

The other attraction of this game is that it’s easy to run as a one-shot. Most living dead movies are snapshots in time — characters don’t expect to find out what’s causing the problem, they just want to survive through the night (or day). Because it’s set in a modern time period, it’s easy for a ZM to throw together a game based on little more than one of the plots at the back of the book, a map of their town, and knowledge of where the local graveyards are. It’s the perfect game for those nights when you want to run something, but only a handful of the regular game is available to play. Of course, there’s nothing holding ZMs back from running a full-blown campaign.

The post-apocalyptic setting provides many opportunities for warping this world — imagine how your own home town, your own state, or your own country would be changed by this incident, and you start to see the possibilities.

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