Dead Meat: Ultima Carneficina Dello Zombie!
Author: Sean Wipfli
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2000-12-01
Dead Meat is a four-page freebie from a man who knows zombie movies, and who then read Extreme Vengeance. "Hey," he said. "This can be done." The result isn't yet a fully-functional role-playing game, but it's better than half-baked, and with some development we might have something well worth the time.
The game is written with a strict goal in mind: through role-playing, to create a zombie movie. Not to create a world that includes zombies, not to develop player-characters' skills and abilities through fighting zombies, and not to provide any and all mechanics necessary to simulate any zombie concept. No - to create a zombie movie. This distinction shows up later in the review.
Each player sets up one set of attributes (with funny names like WHOMP and GUTS), but gets THREE "personas" who will played more-or-less sequentially. This is a bit like the character-tree concept from AD&D (Dark Sun, wasn't it?), except that it's more gruesome - your trio of personas might well be termed the player's "body count."
With the rules for combat (which are reeeal easy, another dice-pool system, with 5-6 on a die being one success) and one or two add-ons for making tougher zombies, that's about it. There's no meaningful skill list, as each persona simply rolls an appropriate attribute to accomplish anything.
Sketchy as this is, it does provide the one, single thing that a violent horror flick needs in role-playing terms: protagonist death. The classic notion that PC-death is the ultimate failure of the role-player goes right out the window. In Dead Meat, your characters will die, and if one or two manage to make it until the end, well, that's possible.
The game badly needs explicit instructions about this 3-in-1 play throughout the rules. During character creation in our game, one of the players happily made up three very different Personas, without knowing that they were to have the same attribute scores. This really, really upset her - here she'd made these neat characters, each one just right for a zombie movie at a summer camp, and what kind of bullshit said they all had to have the same ZIP score?
Solution: explain right up front that the player really is playing "one type" of character. For instance, if you're playing the high ZIP character, then your three personas might be the track star, the kid who can scramble and scoot, and the speed freak drug dude. Now of course, this means that SOME personality distinguisher among the three personas might be useful as well. In our game, we simply played very different people each time, but an adjective for each one wouldn't hurt at the outset. (So "obsessive," "sarcastic," and "paranoid" might be good for the three I just mentioned.)
The multiple-persona thing is also hard to with during play. In practice, we just kept them apart logistically, but should there be some method or rule about when persona meets persona? The whole point is to concentrate on one at a time until he or she meets his grisly doom, so running a twelve-legged party with three players would seem out of line. Another point is the "marching order" of personas in time, because basically, the one you develop early is probably the one who gets waxed early too.
(I must say, it is pure pleasure to revel in a PC's especially nasty or especially idealistic nature, knowing that their incipient dismemberment is more and more likely with every increase in screen time. To give you an idea, the only personas who lived through our movie were the two little kids who hid in the meat locker. Meat locker. Get it?)
We played Dead Meat in comparison with our session of All Flesh Must Be Eaten. The latter game is absolutely, classically, a model of 1990 role-playing design. (If I point out that the weight of every vehicle is given, you'll get the idea.) I'll admit that I disliked AFMBE intensely, but that is not my topic. What follows are the main points of comparison.
1) Protagonism is totally different. In AFMBE, you carefully work up the nuances of your points and abilities, then go into total "my guy" mode of play, in which character death means exactly what it meant in old D&D.
2) Pacing in AFMBE is based mainly on tactics and recovery of damage, as well as (if one follows the rules faithfully) which vehicles may travel more quickly than others. In DM, pacing is defined by the deaths of main characters.
3) The approach to the setting is totally different. AFMBE is all about setting, and the book provides quite a few possible candidates, mostly based on "zombie explanations." In DM, setting is handled in one phrase at the outset of play - it's defined by default as wherever your PCs and the zombies are.
I am convinced that old-school play is very poorly suited to the zombie genre, but the problem with Dead Meat is that it only strips these assumptions away, but provides no substance to hang content on, beyond the three-persona trick. By "substance," I mean a context for story and character that supports the unique features of the genre into better and more fun play.
Suggestions (warning: opinions enclosed)
It all comes down to the fact that The Night of the Living Dead is not about zombies. It, like many horror and horror-SF flicks, presents the classic "isolated small group under stress" situation. We get to see people cope with one another, to see the conflicts among them fracture into unexpected alliances and antagonisms, such that the Real Person emerges in each character.
I suggest that any further tweaking or work done with Dead Meat rely very heavily on that premise: "Given that all you know about death and life is wrong, and that you are in deadly, gruesome danger, isolated with people you neither trust nor would ordinarily like, what now matters most?"
Here are some notions that might be useful.
1) As each persona dies, pump up the scores of the remaining personas of that play. Not only does it permit escalation of the danger level, it also provides some incentive for the players to run one or two of their personas into exceptionally risky (i.e. fun) circumstances.
2) Combat in Dead Meat works well enough, but needs more personality-driven nuances rather than just roll & compare, roll & compare. Perhaps the rules might allow Monologues of Victory as in The Pool, to toss a little Director stance the players' way. The injury rules aren't bad, and I'm thinking we could have played them up a bit more. Zombies are surprisingly easy to put down, so the GM needs to think in terms of hordes, and also to make use of the "get up again" effect described in the rules. The add-ons help, although in my opinion that leads more to a "toothy monster" than a zombie.
3) Give a better overall structure to the run with "reel" thinking (I'm stealing this notion from [url=http://hardcoreroleplaying.homestead.com/wreckagedc.html]Human Wreckage[/url]). The first reel, which is defined up through three persona deaths, needs to establish a very normal setting at the outset. The second reel lasts until only three (or less) personas are alive, and its only requirement is for someone to provide a bullshit explanation of zombies are lurching about, hungering for human flesh (technobabble, occult, whatever). During the third reel, of course, no new information will be supplied and the Zombie Master (GM) is expected to throw .
4) Our group had quite the post-game discussion after playing. It led us to think about the concept of "Links." We defined a Link as an emotional commitment between player-characters. For Dead Meat, perhaps a Link may be quantified as a bonus, usable by either character, when acting on the behalf of the other. The fun notion is that a character may only have one Link at any time - and to establish a new one, you have to break one of the old ones! This sets up the core of any good zombie flick, as the fiancee of the yuppie forms a bond with the biker guy, breaking her link with the yuppie, which prompts further conflict, and so on.
Dead Meat turned out to be a lot of fun, and it had a "get down to it" feel that all the effort and details of playing All Flesh Must Be Eaten did not. If it were to be developed further and provided with a little metagame structure, with the above suggestions or others like them, then it would be excellent - and especially with three or four really nasty sketches of zombies to round it out.