System:: All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Creators: M Alexander Jurkat (editor, writer), George Vasilakos (director, writer), Al Bruno III, C.J. Carella, Richard Bakan, Jack Emmert, (writers)
Publisher: Eden Studios
Frank, a mortician, stares, horrified, at the plastic garbage bags that Burt’s two employees just brought in. Whatever’s inside them is wriggling, slowly, almost menacingly.
“Burt, what the hell is in those bags?”
Burt tries for a grin, but it goes all lopsided. “Rabid weasels.”
Return of the Living Dead, Dan O’Bannon’s comedic response to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, is the first time zombies uttered that immortal cry, “Braaaains!” It’s also one of the few times they actually ate ’em; O’Bannon paid a premium to any actor willing to chow down on animal brains, onscreen.
There’s no shortage of zombies in gaming. But if you want a tabletop game with all of Return of the Living Dead‘s brain-munching verve, and a healthy dose of Night‘s paranoia, plus everything else in between, you need look no further than Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten. All the joys of the zombie apocalypse, pulsing with 245 Trioxin, ready and raring to go!
AFMBE pits the characters – or survivors, in the game’s jargon – against the walking dead, whether at the beginning of the apocalypse, or years after civilization crumbled, under relentless assault by brain-munching ghouls. Exactly what kind of apocalypse is up to the Zombie Master; the main book provides eleven different Worlds in Hell, as well as elaborate zombie creation rules to fashion your own apocalypse, and Eden’s since published many other possible backgrounds and settings. Pirate zombies, kung fu zombies, pulp zombies, Wild West zombies … there’s nothing these ghouls can’t do, and that includes putting on the crimson face for a WWE smackdown.
AFMBE uses the Unisystem, originally developed for C.J. Carella’s WitchCraft game; it’s designed to give the Zombie Master as many options as possible. Like dice? The dice system is the default option, but if you’re not a fan of random chance, there’s a diceless version too, or a card-drawing version, or even a story-driven version with no randomizer whatsoever. Pick whichever you need to get your game going.
It’s a system designed to be invisible, says M Alexander Jurkat, one of those involved in the creation of AFMBE from the beginning. “It’s meant to involve a very shallow learning curve, then disappear into the background of the game session and the players’ consciousness,” he says. “Unisystem stories should have an overwhelming story component and a very small rules component.”
Character creation is pretty simple. You’re either a Normal, in which case you get a few generation points and my best wishes for your future, or a Survivor, in which case you get more generation points and might live past the halfway point in the movie, or an Inspired. Inspired are special little snowflakes with access to supernatural abilities, which definitely gives them an edge in the grand lottery of life. Character creation will take a little bit of explaining, and may be difficult for those who’ve never played tabletop before, but once everyone’s got the hang of things it shouldn’t take longer than half an hour to design a character. Then it’s time to meet the zombies! What are they? Where did they come from? Can they be put down, or is this the end for Frank and Burt?
Why does AFMBE exist? It’s all thanks to Resident Evil, says George Vasilakos, the brains behind the operation. Playing through its zombie-bashing action, he realized that something like Resident Evil would make a great tabletop game, and at that time nobody else had tried to bring a full-on zombie apocalypse to the tabletop RPG marketplace. There was some thought he might do it as part of White Wolf’s World of Darkness, but White Wolf’s world really wasn’t calibrated with zombies in mind.
Besides, Vasilakos felt, the zombie apocalypse genre really isn’t about telling just one story. There are a whole bunch of different stories, different settings, to play with. George wanted to give prospective Zombie Masters a toolbox to design as they pleased, not a full-fledged setting with its own rigid backstory, and that meant he needed to go his own way.
“When I talked to other people about this approach,” he says, “Distributors/retailers didn’t think it would sell because at the time it was all about the settings’ story – like 7th Sea, Legends of the 5 Rings, Deadlands – but we wanted to do something a tad bit different.”
How different? Well, let’s take those Wild West gunslingers. Sure, you could play in a zombie version of spaghetti westerns, like A Fistful of Dollars. That’s the fairly obvious, Red Dead Redemption-esque route, but what if you wanted to do a Gene Autry, singing cowboy zombie story? A Maverick-style Mississippi riverboat zombie story? Play during the Alaska Gold Rush, as a Buffalo Solider, or a Sioux veteran of Little Big Horn? Not a problem, and if you come up with some other Deadworld you’d like to take a shot at, AFMBE can take you there, too.
“To me, a zombie movie has very little to do with zombies,” says Jurkat. “Zombies are the relentless background presence and pressure that causes all sorts of human characteristics, emotions, failings, and strengths to be tested.” That’s pretty much the ethos of AFMBE in a nutshell. There are zombies, sure, but the story isn’t just about zombies. It’s about the survivors, the world they live in, and what they’re prepared to do in order to save it. Or just to save themselves.
AFMBE is probably the best-known of all of Eden’s properties, but its success wasn’t inevitable; in fact, when Vasilakos first proposed a zombie apocalypse game, he was met with groans and moans. Eden already had a lot of other products in the pipeline, and not enough warm bodies to tackle all the work. Vasilakos was the game’s only cheerleader; for a while, Jurkat was implacably opposed.
“Once I saw how committed George was to making the game happen,” says Jurkat, “Regardless of what other work was already on the Eden plate, and saw the quality work that everyone was producing, I joined in.” It was a decision he never regretted, particularly from a business standpoint. “Other than a few years of Buffy sales, AFMBE has consistently been Eden’s most popular product.”
Do zombie game designers make good survivalists? Alas, no, says Jurkat. “It always comes up when [my wife] brings home a grocery-shop load of canned/dry goods, batteries, or utility supplies. I say ‘Prepping for the zombie apocalypse?’ and she just shakes her head, saying ‘We are soooo toast.'”
Is AFMBE a title you should seek out? If you’re a zombie fan, definitely. You may prefer it as a short-term break in between longer sessions of something else. It may not be a title suited for long-term play; ultimately, the last character is going to go down kicking and screaming, under a pile of dead meat. That’s kind of the point of the zombie story, after all. You survive as best you can, until you don’t.
Yet there’s something to be said for the Walking Dead style lengthy zombie drama, as an RPG campaign. “There should be no ending to a zombie story,” says Jurkat, “Just as there can be no ending to the threat of death.” Whether that means opting for a Clementine-esque, against the odds kind of tale, or more of a battle-hardened leader saga, or something in between is entirely up to you.
As to what you do with your zombies once you’ve bought the book, that’s also your shout. Nobody’s judging here, and Eden’s put out enough sourcebooks that you should be able to find the zombie apocalypse you’ve been looking for all your life. Maybe you think Hong Kong action with Triads galore is the way to go, maybe gritty Pulp superheroes like the Sandman versus supernatural horror, or maybe you’d rather set this during World War Two, or … you get the idea. Pick your poison. Eden’s almost certainly published at least one supplement for AFMBE that’s going to become your go-to for zombie drama.
Just hold out for as long as possible. Survive. You won’t win – winning may not even be the point – but how you get through the apocalypse says a lot about who you are, and what kind of world you want to build, when everything else has gone to hell.
Or maybe not. “Our plan is to have a party,” says Jurkat. “Use up our supplies, and succumb to the inevitable as soon as possible. Hopefully, we can hold off the zombie apocalypse for another 20-40 years, by which time we’ll be dead or safely inhabiting our robotic bodies.”
Just remember, if the worst happens, and you don’t feel you can take care of it yourself, call the telephone number on the side of the container. The Army will take care of the rest. Good luck!