I'm unabashedly in love with this game. this review is based only on reading the Survivor's Guide and having watched Season 1 of the We're Alive: Frontiers Outbreak: Undead.. web series on Geek and Sundry.
What I like:
- The book is beautiful. The layout is evocative, and it does a good job presenting a narrative and establishing the feel of reading someone’s field notes. The art, the "news" articles, and the hand written notes all add to the sensory texture of the game.
- Simply put, character generation is fantastic. The SPEW AI website where you can derive your own personal capabilities based on a personality quiz is really great. Do keep in mind, the primary conceit for this game is playing yourself - which is not for everyone, especially in the context of survival horror where you can potentially play out the deaths or harm of actual loved ones. While not for everyone, this is a feature to the game for me! For those that don’t want to play yourself there are 2 other options. You can use a point buy system or you can use a set of pre-defined “paradigms” (party role’s) which look to be great for quick pick-up-and-go play.
- While the game is a “zombie” game, the rules only lightly reference zombies. It’s truly a survival horror game and it would be very easy to use for any type of post-apocalyptic game you want. Fallout? Sure. Red Dawn inspired military game? Yup. Post WW3? You bet! Plague outbreak? No problem
- The system is very modular. There are degrees of difficulty in play (Arcade Mode, Weekend Warrior, Survivalist) that tune the various systems and ratchet up the complexity. However, the individual mechanics are also modular. Systems, subsystems and components feel like they were designed by a computer programmer, or accountant . Key words abound, those key words reference Effects, Conditions, Skills, Universal rules and Abilities (pay close attention to the capitalization found within the text). The end result is a feeling of a procedurally driven system that has this built-in internal consistency across all the various systems as they are all referential to one another. But be warned, you will be flipping A LOT of pages until you gain system mastery. For example, you may need to look into 4 or 5 different parts of a book to fire a gun and determine the effects of that single shot.
- The core rules are simple to grasp - even with all the modular subsystems. At its core it’s a skill based percentile system that you roll under to succeed. Degrees of Success and Failure are what matter and outcomes are determined by "spending" those degrees of success and failure to help narrate your story. Skills, kits (equipment), and Effects have specific ways that Successes and Failures can be "spent", but as learned through the We're Alive series, the more powerful, common, and "traditional" way to spend these Successes and Failures is by using them to steer the narrative.
- A slight tangent. I really like dice systems that are narrative, e.g. through the result, the narrative emerges. FFG's Star Wars and Genesys systems are great examples. Building a dice pool, with various different dice each with different meaning and then interpreting the results and fitting the results into the narrative is super awesome. Outbreak: Undead.. does exactly this. While they have produced a set of custom D6’s, it is absolutely not needed to play. The core dice include: d100 for the skill check, and various coloured D6’s (in O:U.. parlance d5!) for various effects. Those are red "Damage" dice for determining harm, white "Depletion" dice to see if a consumable component breaks or runs out of use, black "Difficulty" dice that the GM can use to modify the base chance of success/failure, and blue "speed" dice used to see who acts in what order (initiative). You build a dice pool with some or all of those dice types based on your stated intent. You roll them all together, then you figure out how those dice interact with each other to tell a story. It would be common to roll 5+ dice, and for complicated multi-step tasks you could be rolling 10 or more dice. Who doesn’t like rolling a hand full of dice? For example, Shooting a gun in the middle of a rainy night. Rain and Night would add to the difficulty of the shot due to the Environment, so you would add black Difficulty dice. you are firing your gun, so you would add white depletion dice, due to performing several other tasks at the same time you must add blue Speed dice, and finally because its a gun, if you hit, red damage dice get added. Congratulations, you hit! This means the difficulty of the environment didn't hamper you, you are obviously a cool cat at night! However, your weapon depletes so you fire several times until the click click click of an empty clip sounds, darn, now I need to reload next turn or draw a different weapon. You score a critical hit ("Exploding" Damage) resulting in the death of your foe, all while you acted faster than your opponent did so you got the drop on him. Right there is a GREAT set of narrative queues to weave a story together with the rest of the table. Extra special bonus points go to the fact that your Degree’s of Success and Failure can apply to the entire table and influence the GM’s dice results as well. Complicated? Sure. Potential for evocative storytelling? Through the roof!
- Settlements - oh my god, Settlements seem so very cool. they are essentially a playable "character", that requires you to interact with directly and indirectly. Provide for, support via missions, strengthen morally and defensively, and lead.
What could be better:
- Not enough "survivalist" mode options in the Survivor's guide. I wanted more :). I hope this will be satisfied in the yet to be released GM's guide. While there are some notable "hard difficulty" options, the vast majority of the rules were calibrated to "weekend warrior" - I.E. Normal mode of play. An example. The Diplomacy skill has several well defined “specializations”, like Barter and Persuade. To ramp complexity, the rules could have been written in such a way so that “diplomacy” is used generically in Weekend Warrior mode and the specific specializations used in “survivalist” mode. Instead they were all lumped into Weekend Warrior. Minor, but noticeable.
- While the rules are procedural and for the most part logically laid out, there are rules everywhere and small but critical interactions described will never be found in actual play. For example, there is a special condition called Delay. If your Speed Dice result is equal to or exceeds 24, you cannot act in the round you are in. This however is not described in the Round sequencing order (ICR), nor in describing the general rules on the use of Speed dice. So to use this rule you need to know there is special rule called “Delay”, otherwise trying to find this initiative order exception will be next to impossible because its not in a section that you would expect to find it in.
- There are sections and rules that are very hard to understand on first reading or are incomplete. An example is during character creation. you can "level up" skills by spending a type of player currency called "gestalt Points", its not clear that you spend these during char gen and it took several readings to understand what it means. Be prepared to have an Errata document handy (assuming they will maintain one) to help with navigating the missing information and help with disambiguation.
Neither good nor bad, it just is
- This is a simulator. A true Sandbox. Don't expect a "game world" fleshed out for you. As a GM, you will have a big job ahead in setting up the conditions for your game. You have all the parts laid out in the book but it'll be up to you to put those parts together in a way that'll make sense for your game world. Creating equipment and items, resource catalog's, settlement profiles, locations, encounters, foes, NPC's, will all need to be built from the ground up.
- This is a crunchy game with a STEEP learning curve. To get the whole feel, you do need to play in "survivalist" mode, with all rules turned up to "11". Don't expect to sit down and just start playing, especially if you want the full experience. This isn't D&D. Unlike a lot of games, to get the whole experience, players will need to invest time and energy in learning this game. It’s a tactical game (or can be) and system mastery will matter in your odds of survival. Expect the game to slow to a crawl once all the rule systems are activated. This can be mitigated by: Playing in the different difficulty mode, and utilizing more narrative resolutions rather than specific Effect resolutions. This game is for those who want rules to matter and relish discussing tactical choices at the table, not those who simply want rules to get out of the way.
- You are actually never taught how to play this game. While there are rules (aplenty), and specific examples illustrating many interactions, actually applying these rules in a coherent manner at the table is on you to figure out. You are expected to know how to role play, what skills are used for, how to adjudicate Narrative vs. Mechanical resolutions and what "GM discretion" means when described. This is not an entry level game. My hope is the GM’s guide will have more information about running games.
I love what this game is trying to be! My normal gaming preference leans more towards rules light or rules medium. This is not that, so it had to break through a LOT of internal bias for me to fall in love with it. Typical examples of my preferred games include: 5th Edition D&D, PbtA games, Modiphius 2d20 games etc. Outbreak: Undead.. can be significantly more complex than any of those examples listed. So why did this game work for me, where other “rules heavy” games have failed? In short, the systematic approach to building a procedurally based system, the narrative dice, the simplicity of the core mechanics with layers of difficulty, the "undead" survival default mode of play, and the fact that it's a tool box rather than a built-in setting all seem to have triggered different parts of my gamer brain.
I really want to be a player in this game because there are mountains of meaningful player choices to be made at every turn. I really want to be a GM, because this is a toolkit to build the exact kind of game world that interests me. I really want to see if survival plans would work when pitted against a hostile, relentless, and horrific world, where dice results are brutally unforgiving.
I only struggle with wondering if I'll find interested players for a longer term game and if the complexity, once the rules hit the table, actually makes for a fulfilling game experience.