Review: Dead Reign Zombie Role-Playing Game

Dead Reign is surrounded by drama and continues to use an outdated system married to a disorganized design, like so much of Palladium Books’ releases. But what surprised and shocked me was that it was the most complete and cleaned-up version of Palladium’s old-school engine, and it presented a game world and ideas that truly captured the breadth of zombie survival-horror genres in a roleplaying setting. As is always the case, Siembieda and his crew are chock-full of ideas, and Dead Reign is more immediately accessible — and perhaps important to many — easily stripped of its system and converted to other games, while remaining an immediately useful reference tool for any modern day or near-future post-apocalyptic setting.

Rating: Content 4/5 and Form 3/5.

Buy the books:

  • Dead Reign Zombie Role-Playing Game core rulebook: PDF at DriveThruRPG and softcover at Amazon
  • Civilization Gone – Dead Reign Sourcebook One: PDF at DriveThruRPG and softcover at Amazon
  • Dark Places – Dead Reign Sourcebook Two: PDF at DriveThruRPG and softcover at Amazon
  • Endless Dead – Dead Reign Sourcebook Three: PDF at DriveThruRPG and softcover at Amazon
  • Fear the Reaper – Dead Reign Sourcebook Four: PDF at DriveThruRPG and softcover at Amazon
  • Graveyard Earth – Dead Reign Sourcebook Five: PDF at DriveThruRPG and softcover at Amazon

Read on for the full review!

Dead Reign Table of Contents

A peak at the Table of Contents

Content (4/5)

Dead Reign is a zombie apocalypse RPG set in modern day Earth, utilizing Palladium’s (in)famous house system. It essentially boils down to Player Characters of interesting and varied Occupational Character Classes (OCCs), defined by their Skills (which operate using a percentile system where higher numbers are better), and some OCC-specific abilities that bleed over into combat ability (mostly a slew of bonuses to strike, dodge, or perform other combat maneuvers) or special interaction abilities (like the Hound Master’s ability to train dogs), try to get by in a world where 80% of the population is now zombies, and a good number of the non-zombies are evil bastards.

Unlike the high-powered hijinks of many recent or popular Palladium games (RIFTS, Splicers, Robotech), this is a straight-up “SDC game,” meaning it’s focused on humans doing stuff that humans can reasonably do (with a healthy dose of ’80s action movie mentality, perhaps). There are no supernatural mechanics regarding magic or psionics, though supernatural elements are lightly touched upon from time to time.

Characters & Zombies

The types of characters available covers your “everyday guys and gals” with the super-broad Survivor OCC, for which there are about 40-ish subtypes like Mechanical Engineer, Law Enforcement (including Beat Cop or Undercover Agent), Journalist/Reporter, Performer and all that other boring stuff, but it’s handled in a manner that suggests relatively realistic people-turned-zombie-apocalypse-survivor, which is exactly the point. But that’s not all! There are several Dead Reign-specific OCCs that show off specialized character roles that really would only be born and bred in a world filled to the brim with zombies.

These are:

  • Hound Master: a guy who likes dogs enough to be able to calm them, train them over time, and starts with one as a buddy. They have enough combat training to suggest having been a K-9 unit cop or maybe a really animal-friendly backwoods bear hunter or something. As a slight non sequitur, the stats for dogs, wild dogs, packs of dogs, wolves, packs of wolves, and anything else vaguely dog-related can be found under this class, and not under the Wild Dogs heading of the antagonists chapter, because reasons.
  • Reapers: bikers-turned-humanity’s protectors. Basically, Daryl Dixon meets Sons of Anarchy meets something slightly more heroic. Except for the note that there might be some bad apples in the bunch.
  • Scroungers: people trained at breaking & entering, finding useful stuff, and making nearly useless stuff somehow useful again.
  • Shepherd of the Damned: while presented largely in religious imagery, this character is really just an outstanding leader-type character.
  • Soldier: like Survivors, Soldier is a catch-all OCC with a number of specializations you can choose to get anything from a basic infantryman to law enforcement to combat medics to demolitions experts. There are 13 MOS specializations in the rulebook.
  • Survivor: as mentioned above, this is the “normal person” OCC but with a huge variety of profession-based specializations to give you a huge variety of choices and specializations, many useful in a zombie apocalypse and plenty that are basically useless, which in fairness is absolutely loyal to the genre’s presuppositions. There are about 42 in total, with the likes of Extreme Sports, Contractor, Computer Tech, Con Artist, Engineer, Housekeeper, Paramedic, Store Clerk, Student, and Survivalist/Militia all showing up, plus what was mentioned above, and then some more.
  • The Half-Living: this optional OCC is a person who basically had a near death experience at the hands of zombies but somehow made it out at the last possible second, their life energy (PPE) partially drained and permanently damaged, such that they hover somewhere in undeath. This makes them stronger and slightly supernatural but also not-human-enough to be targeted as a zombie by people who don’t know any better.

In Endless Dead, several new OCCs appear:

  • Sentinel: stealthy, strong protectors who watch over the safe-haven communities and look for other survivors.
  • Survivalist: you know those guys that scream “America! Freedom!” and then basically tell everyone how to live, and point guns at everyone while doing so? Yeah, those guys. Getting this OCC to differ greatly from the Survivor OCC: Survivalist/Militia specialization is an exercise best left ignored.
  • Wheelman: this stunt driver connects with the expanded vehicular combat rules presented in Endless Dead.
  • Zombie Hunter: basically just an excuse for a Punisher-like gun-toting or Michonne-type machete-toting character to exist.
  • Zombie Researcher: a research scientist that is so fully absorbed in figuring out zombies that any other skills they had have atrophied, but their zombie lore is through the roof.

Civilization Gone features specially modified versions of several of the Survivor OCC specializations, geared towards one of three unique character concepts: Bandits, Raiders, and Street Protectors. By adding one of those concepts, the noted Survivor specializations gain a few extra choices among their skills, and/or slightly-less-than-a-handful of added skills that represent their unique place in the world.

Preview artwork from Dead Reign

Preview artwork from Dead Reign

The setting includes a handful of possible variations explaining the zombie apocalypse (viral, supernatural, ecological, etc.), but the zombies themselves are very consistent in that they all have the same perceptive abilities, manner of feeding on life force, the logistics of how they group together into hordes, and mechanics for how they decay/degrade — or not — over time (with only physical damage or deformity providing a rare few exclusions to this). That said, one of Dead Reign‘s biggest selling points is the sheer variety of zombies, something that is expanded upon with nearly every book in the line.

Here’s a list of some of the zombies you can expect (and their source):

  • Slouchers: Typical Romero-style shambling zombies.
  • Crawlers: Damaged slouchers that can often make use of hidey holes slightly better, due to their smaller stature.
  • Fast Attack Zombie: Runner zombies ala many recent zombie flicks. Not quite parkour-level, thankfully.
  • Flesh-eating Zombie: In Dead Reign, zombies don’t absolutely need to eat flesh to recharge, but rather lifeforce.Well, except for these guys, who do eat flesh…and lifeforce.
  • Thinker Zombie: These guys are the zombies from later Romero movies that have just enough of a spark of intellect that they might use tools or tactics.
  • Mock Zombie: More appropriately a “Mock Person,” the Mock Zombie is a perfectly intelligent, fully-capable-of-speech zombie that often doesn’t realize it’s a zombie, and instead thinks it has flesh rotting bacteria and tries to convince humans to help it out and let it come with them. And then at some point, when the urge to kill becomes too great, it mows through survivors, revealing its true nature, even as it cries out that it’s sorry and doesn’t want to do this.
  • Pattern Zombie: These zombies are like the stupidest of stupid zombies, prone to carrying out repetitive actions, possibly to the point of missing out on easy meals.
  • Juggernaut: This is what happens when a linebacker or a 1,000 pound recluse turns into a zombie and becomes more mobile and powerful thanks to zombie strength. Found in Civilization Gone.
  • Trash Crawlers: Crawlers that end up picking up trash and disease-ridden filth by dint of their travels or location, so they might spread disease and infection. Found in Civilization Gone.
  • Pretty Zombie: A freshly rejuvenated, good looking man or woman with no immediately obvious death wounds, that’s actually a zombie. They can’t think like Thinkers or Mock zombies, but seen from afar, they might act like a siren, lulling people looking to help other survivors into a sense of lowered alertness. Found in Civilization Gone.
  • Bug Boy: Bug and parasite-infested zombies. Found in Dark Places.
  • Worm Meat: Similarly gross, infested zombies, like the bug boys. Found in Dark Places.
  • Sewer Crawler: Like a Trash Crawler, only found in sewers, and thus even worse on the “spreads filth” scale. Found in Dark Places.
  • Impersonator Zombie: Zombies that can mimic certain activities, appearing as something other than a zombie until it’s too late. Found in Dark Places.
  • Fast-Slow Zombie: Two zombies either stuck together by wounds, impaling weapons, or whatever else, and thus acting as two creatures living in one deadly package. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Fused Zombie: Zombies of all stripes can end up fused by fire, melting acids or chemicals, or other environmental factors. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Multi-Zombie: Another version of Fused Zombies. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Parasite Juggernaut: A Juggernaut that can spread disease and infection. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Silent Slouchers: Slouchers without the ability to moan properly may not be able to call for backup, but they also can show up without warning. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Spare-Parts Thinker: These Thinkers specifically use tools to make themselves more deadly, sometimes grafting weapons onto themselves in place of other limbs, or to make them more “sticky” when grappling with humans. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Twin Speedster Zombie: A double-whammy of two fast attack zombies fused together. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Walking Grave: Exactly what it says on the tin, these giant masses of multiple zombies are stuck together by earth or whatever else seeps into a mass grave. Found in Endless Dead.
  • Terror Zombie: Yet another horrifying fused zombie, only this time mixed with a Mock zombie to create an intelligent hybrid. Found in Fear the Reaper.

That’s not all you’re going to get for antagonists, though. Humans are the biggest threat to humans in almost all zombie fiction, and thus Dead Reign presents two main sources of living, breathing antagonists — outside of simply creating villains using the player-facing OCCs — and they come in the form of Retro-savages and Death Priests, both of whom get their own villainous OCC.

Retro-savages are human survivors who have taken to blaming technology either for the zombie apocalypse itself or as a key factor in “tainting” humanity such that god used the zombies as punishment for this imagined transgression. While the description of these characters sounds like a militarized Amish character class, there’s a glaring contradiction in the fact that these people happily employ guns when they otherwise are against anything else that “advanced” or “modern” in design. It may be an oversight, or it may be a purposeful way of ensuring Retro-savages aren’t (literally) outgunned in every fight against gun-toting player characters, but either way, it doesn’t make any internal logic.

Death Priests are the leaders of Death Cults that more or less welcome the zombie apocalypse, and they have pretty much the only supernatural ability in the game: they can inexplicably command zombies. Now, it’s not a fool-proof control, and the smarter zombies can outright break control or will manipulate circumstances so they can turn on the Death Priest at some point. Furthermore, the control only extends to a handful or a dozen zombies, so it’s not going to be easy for them to raise massive hordes of zombie followers. Beyond that, though, Death Priests have great leadership abilities over humans, too, so they are likely to be excellent Big Bad End Guys for a campaign, or as the focal point for a rival safe-haven community. Their high stats make them great at disguising their nature among survivors, so they make great traitors and infiltrators, too, which is a fantastic way of providing a slow reveal of who the source of zombie-controlling evil is, and a powerful story twist when it turns out to be someone traveling with the players the whole time!

Playing the Game

About two decades late, the Palladium System SDC rules in Dead Reign are very “complete” in their presentation, a trend that began with RIFTS Ultimate Edition and continued through the updated Robotech RPG, Robotech RPG: The Shadow Chronicles. What this means is that there aren’t many (any?) instances of a thing being mentioned off-hand and then not having the rules and descriptive text to explain it and understand its use in the game. That’s a nice change for Palladium. Anyway, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

The rules of the game are fundamentally simple, but because of the huge list of available skills and how they interact with the core systems creates a huge number, variety, and range of modifiers and semi-exclusive abilities that players will have access to, which complicates the “pre-calculation” of stuff for player characters and makes on-the-fly modifiers a bit difficult to recalculate on the spot. As long as you get that, and don’t get too crazy about hunting down every single +1 or -1 modifier, the game can play pretty fast, with a lot of give-and-take in combat situations.

Combat is a series of characters and enemies taking turns after establishing an order for all of the characters present via Initiative dice rolls; this is pretty standard fare. Everybody has multiple actions, but you take one, move on to the next person in the initiative order, and so on until everyone’s done something, then start back at the top. Keep going until everybody is out of actions. Roll initiative to start a new round. Simple.

Whether you’re attacking with fists, clubs and baseball bats, or bows and guns, you make a Strike roll by tossing a d20, adding up your 72 “+X to strike” modifiers from various skills (hope you precalculated your strike bonuses for each individual weapon or maneuver you employ, because they all could be different!), and see if you rolled better than…

  • 4 in most situations…
  • the opponent’s Armor Rating in situations where they are wearing body armor (or are a zombie, which we’ll discuss in a bit)…

…in order to hit them.

They get to respond with a defensive 1d20+modifiers die roll, which could be a Parry (in hand-to-hand or melee combat) which doesn’t eat into their actions, a Dodge (in any type of combat) which does eat into their actions, and/or a Roll With Impact 1d20+modifiers roll (if being hit with a hand-to-hand attack, most bludgeoning-style weapons, or the explosion of  grenade or other area-affecting explosive thingy), the last of which doesn’t negate the attack but simply reduces damage. Modifiers to strike tend to be much more common (and at higher numbers) than defensive modifiers, but it’s not hard to pick a good set of Physical skills to crank up either end of things.

The problem here is that the “give-and-take” of comparing two dice rolls with lots of modifiers means there’s lots of misses and multiple chances to reduce or negate damage. It’s worth noting that while Dodges eat up an action, a character can eat into their actions for the next round, too, so even if they are technically out of actions for that combat round, they can just start borrowing from the next round. Ultimately, this leads to combats that aren’t always over very quickly, but do make every single offensive or defensive ability characters take matter, creating the sense that every fight is a duel of skill, wits, speed, power, and all of that. If any of this is off-putting, it’s not quite as hard as it sounds, and I’ve written a few guidelines and options that help keep action management simple and straightforward.

Damage is simply a roll of whatever dice the attack says, some modifiers for excessive Physical Strength scores or skill training, and that all comes off a character’s or thing’s SDC rating first, and once those are all gone, Hit Points. Once you hit zero in both, you’re pretty much a goner (there’s a chance to save vs. coma or death, but it’s not easy). Zombies at this point are disabled or destroyed, provided some circumstances don’t exist that can repair them (and specifically their brains).

Dead Reign RPG preview artwork

One of the iconic images from the rulebook

Outside of combat, Saving Throws and Skills are how you get things done. Saving Throws are basically like a “luck roll” to see if you avoid some fate, like succumbing to poison, being mentally jarred enough by the sight of something horrific (you know, like ZOMBIES!!!) that you give in to fear and terror and become unhinged, or being subjected to some supernatural-type stuff that doesn’t really exist in Dead Reign but might in other games (psychic attacks, magical enchantments, etc.). Roll 1d20 and pray you get higher than a set target number; rarely, you’ll receive bonuses from exceptionally high Attribute scores.

Meanwhile, Skills cover a huge range of abilities and are the “meat” of a character, defining their different aptitudes, knowledge, technical abilities, physical prowess, and combat training. While the majority of Skills use a percentile score to determine your proficiency with them — you roll a percentile die (A.K.A. d100 or d%) and try to roll under the score, so higher is better — the combat training and most Physical-category Skills instead provide a slew of bonuses that might bump up Attributes (and therefore modifiers to saving throws and combat rolls), combat modifiers, other Skills, Saving Throws, or sometimes provide percentile score ratings for sub-skills. Similarly, Weapon Proficiency Skills provide a slew of bonuses (usually to strike rolls and defensive rolls) to a specific weapon (like knives) or class of weapons (such as pistols). Finally, Hand-to-Hand Skills — all found under the category of Physical Skills — give you a template that determines the character’s base number of combat actions and modifiers for them, and might open up new maneuvers that give you access to better hand-to-hand combat damage rolls, all new methods of defending yourself, or both.

Skills are the primary means by which characters differentiate themselves and determine their level of proficiency when dealing with challenges the Game Master throws at them, and as such it helps to have a variety of OCCs or Survivor professions, but even with 225-ish skills, a lot of choices just make the most sense, especially in a post-apocalyptic world, unless your GM has a very specific set of circumstances planned that require esoteric skills. For example, it pays to use Secondary Skills — which almost never receive any OCC-related bonuses to their score — to purchase Physical category skills or Weapon Proficiencies, since such skills don’t have a percentile score. Skills like Cryptography, Demolotions: Underwater, Electronic Countermeasures, or Military Etiquette may be very limited outside of campaigns where military tech is still operational and in the hands of the player for more than just a single scene. Skills like Recycle and Artificial Intelligence (when there are already other Robotics skills) just seem nonsensical. Seemingly shrug-worthy skills like Meditation actually have far-ranging or nearly over-powered usefulness in a setting where zombies drain the PPE stat. ID Undercover Agent — a Rogue category Skill — seems useless unless you stretch it to cover situations where someone infiltrates your safe-haven community as a rival or antagonist who seeks to undermine or destroy the group from within.

The final method of customizing your character is your gear, and like most Palladium games, Dead Reign is gear-happy, but this is a huge boon for a game about scrounging and trying to piece together enough stuff to survive just one more night. Somewhat page-wastingly, weapons and their statistics are described both in the individual Weapon Proficiency Skill listings as well as in the gear section of the book, but most stats are pretty compact anyway, made up of listing some real-world examples, caliber, damage dice, ammunition, and maybe a price (useless in a world without money) and some random unique modifiers (a sniper rifle is really accurate, for example). Dead Reign puts a lot of stock in lists of mundane items, but generally includes notes that are helpful either to the mechanics of the game or to the “fluff” of how these items help keep people alive in a world of undead hordes trying to eat you every time you turn a corner. Thanks to the scores of tables on items, as well as all those tables of Random Stuff You Find In Location XYZ™, gear will not only be a major point of telling characters apart, but also be a major prize for the Scrounger OCC to stay busy with.

Back to zombie combat rules for one second: located about 100+ pages before the combat rules are the rules on how to fight zombies (and some info is either repeated or newly presented in the Combat section, inexplicably). While there are a few intricacies — the vast majority of which are both sensible within the realm of most zombie fiction, but also are pretty obvious rules-wise — the biggest thing is that zombies operate differently than any other character and any other version of the Palladium system with regard to (1) hitting them in general, and (2) making called shots. Simply put, they have an Armor Rating just to damage them, which is weird, because they still have bodies and limbs and all that stuff, which can be hacked away; why do they have an inherent A.R., and why is it so high at 15? More bizarre, called shots automatically happen on a natural strike roll of 17+, while for non-zombies called shots are both the subject to extreme hit penalties as well as being modified by certain Hand to Hand Skill levels. But recall that characters of all types have a ridiculous number of strike bonuses with any weapon they are trained in, making skilled fighters incredibly likely to hit the AR but maybe not so much on the called shots, while unskilled characters are going to be whiffing almost all the time against zombies.

This makes zombies extra durable. But that’s not the end of it: if you use the Physical Strength damage bonuses for high scores, you’ll note that those bonuses aren’t pre-calculated for zombies, which makes sense, because they are always listed with a dice range for determining their Physical Strength…but even the weakest zombies are going to have a +2 or more — likely way more! — to their hand to hand damage. Ultimately, zombies are hard to hit, and they can dole out sickening amounts of hand-to-hand damage.

The Sourcebooks

Civilization Gone. This book is a smorgasbord of topics bound by its title as a theme: civilization is dead and gone, and there is only chaos and disorder left amid the ruins. It’s stronger than you’d think, and the book follows suit by adding little in the way of rules — player characters can access the Bandit, Raider or Street Gang specializations for Survivor OCC characters, and there’s some new material to develop Phobias & Obssessions after dealing with some sanity-derailing sights in a world overrun with zombies — but quite a bit in the way of development material. The start of the book is a huge section on how to create memorable and lasting villains with a nod to mechanics but largely focused on the background, personality, motives, and activities of evil doers the players will face. There’s large sections detailing scrounging inside of houses and abandoned neighborhoods, as well as a load of inspirational tables and context for building and running survivor camps and safe-haven communities. It’s clear by how useful this material is that is probably stuff that should have been in the core rulebook, as safe-haven communities were glossed over significantly, and the random encounter and zombie population tables in Civilization Gone provide great preparation material for any session of play, whether it’s a one-shot or a long campaign.

Civilization Gone

Civilization Gone

Dark Places. Sourcebook Two covers locations that are off the beaten path, moving away from urban and suburban environments, and out into the wilderness…or underground. Sewers, the network of railways across the U.S., and the wide-open wilderness all get encounter tables, hazard rules and logistics such as weather, disease, and so on. There’s even coverage of the “dark place” within some survivors’ hearts: using other humans as live bait to escape zombies or round them for easier head-shotting. It’s a surprisingly brutal section to read, and there are at least a handful of pretty specific tactics for using live bait, so campaigns featuring characters of Selfish or Evil alignments are really going to want to employ this.

Dark Places

Dark Places

Endless Dead. Unlike the previous sourcebooks, Endless Dead is a mish-mash of stuff, but it’s by far the largest of the sourcebooks, so it’s a strong release despite the lack of focus. It features a bunch of new zombies and OCCs to fight them, but the larger part of the book is just a cornucopia of random scrounging tables, random encounter tables in different — mostly urban — environments, and expanded rules for vehicular combat. Unfortunately, the vehicle-related stuff is in part just reprinting/revising material on vehicles from the core rulebook, and also lacking some rules material that later shows up in Fear the Reaper (mostly with regard to motorcycles, but not completely), so truly utilizing the material is going to require referencing three books to ensure everything jives properly, and tossing what doesn’t. On a separate note, military bases are the subject of several pages of discussion as well as a handful of very large tables to bring them to life, so if you’re in need of fleshing one of those out, this is the book for you.

Endless Dead

Endless Dead

Fear the Reaper. This sourcebook is mainly a book of “fluff” in that it covers the Reapers in great deal, who are a huge conglomeration of semi-independent motorcycle gangs that now (try to) act as humanity’s protectors. There’s some good discussion of Reaper tactics that are applicable to all zombie-hunting activities, as well as a few random vehicle rules (mostly motorcycle or snowmobile stuff, and hitting zombies with cars), and there’s a couple very small, very tightly focused character creation-related rules for Reaper characters that are specialized at things like scouting, leading motorcycle gangs, or fixing motorcycles. It’s a hyper-specialized book, and while great for what it is, it’s not going to apply to every campaign.

Fear the Reaper

Fear the Reaper

Graveyard Earth. Aptly titled, Graveyard Earth is essentially a world tour of the post-apocalypse world of Dead Reign, covering every region of the globe in broad strokes and providing tons of encounter tables (not all of which are entirely zombie-dominated) to flesh out what sorts of characters, hazards, and scenarios one might encounter in each country. Safe havens, zombie threat levels (basically a general “here’s how many zombies are in a given geographic location”), and random scenario generators are the bulk of the book, so it’s way more about inspiration than it is about stuff you’re going to use in the middle of a game session. The most non-game-prep section of the book is about the dangers and hazards of travel, whether it be by land, sea, or air, but it’s relatively short and generic, so it too will likely serve more as story fodder or crops up only in a very specific situation, rather than as something you need to reference every session.

Graveyard Earth

Graveyard Earth

The Goods

Random Tables Galore

This entire line of books is filled to the brim with tables, and about 99% of them are extremely useful in any zombie apocalypse game, and maybe 50-75% are useful in any post-apocalyptic game, whether modern day or near future, and regardless of the cause of the apocalypse.

Here’s some of the cool, zombie apocalypse-specific tables you can find:

  • 101 Random Scenarios, Encounters and Settings: Each entry is a paragraph or more in length, providing a lot more than just zombie encounters.
  • 100 Random Corpse Searches
  • Zombie Habitation in Homes (from Civilization Gone)
  • Random Table for a Cavalry Rescue (from Dark Places)
  • Death Cult Random Encounter Table (from Endless Dead)
  • Random Encounters by Location: There are nearly a dozen of these, ranging from Police Stations to Suburban Neighborhoods to Farms. (From Endless Dead.)
  • Random Zombie Encounters at Military Bases (from Endless Dead)

And here’s some stuff that’s not zombie apocalypse specific:

  • Common Illnesses, Symptoms & Penalties
  • Resources Common to Most Homes & Houses (from Civilization Gone)
  • 101 Random Structure Searches for Derelict Houses and Homes (from Civilization Gone)
  • Military Base Common Features & Equipment (from Endless Dead)
  • Random Car Problems (from Fear the Reaper)

As you can see, this stuff can be stripped, mined, strip-mined, and slappy-dapped into whatever game you’re playing right now. That’s pretty incredible, and if you think the tables are short or generic, you’d be DEAD wrong, har-har. A majority of the tables take up several pages, and all of them drill down so deep that you’re guaranteed to find dozens of results that work for your particular flavor and tone. At the very worst, they act as great inspiration, and remind you of something you never would have thought of. At the best, you have books filled with useful tables, allowing you to pretty much forego prepping for a game session and just rolling up some terrifying stuff to throw at the players until their characters are deader than a doornail. At which point they hand you their character sheet, you recalculate their Physical Strength score and maybe a couple combat bonuses, and all of a sudden, they are a zombified antagonist the other players have to put down with extreme prejudice.

Pro Tip: At the beginning of the campaign or game session (for one-shots), have the players turn their character sheets over to you for perusal. At this time, write in the re-calculated Physical Strength score, SDC, and combat bonuses (# of attacks and hand-to-hand damage) as if they were turned into a zombie (pick a fun type as a template, but err on the side of using the character’s existing stats so you aren’t rebuilding them from scratch), and boom! When they are dead — which they will be, one day — you now have them ready to run as a slightly more powerful than average zombie to throw at the survivors.

A Mutable Setting

One of the biggest selling points of games like All Flesh Must Be Eaten is that they cover zombies in so many different ways, across multiple genres, so that you can have supernatural stuff and mundane stuff and sci-fi stuff and everything in between. Dead Reign doesn’t quite go that far, sticking to a modern day apocalypse on Earth, but within that constraint, it covers a lot of ground, whether you’re just checking out the rulebook or picking up some/most of the entire line.

There’s a good variety of zombies covered, as noted, and this expands with nearly every supplement, so you’re not stuck with just “Romero” zombies and a couple “Runner” zombies. You get all sorts of crazy zombies, so you can easily dial up or down the amount of wacky in your game. Similarly, Civilization Gone and Graveyard Earth each cover different stages of zombie outbreak, as well as different locations; Graveyard Earth specifically gives you a bird’s eye view of the entire world and how the zombie apocalypse has played out, along with location-specific encounter tables (not all of which are entirely zombie-focused). Armed thus, you can play out all stages of the apocalypse, from Day 1 to Day 10,000, and you can set the game anywhere in the world, or even feature traveling in a post-apocalyptic world filled with zombies.

Dead Reign Zombie Role-Playing Game core rulebook

Dead Reign Zombie Role-Playing Game core rulebook

Form (3/5)

Typical fare for Palladium Books: all the books in the line are softcover books, black-and-white throughout (aside from the evocative covers), and two-column text. The books are solid enough (for softcovers), but if you’re referencing them every damn day for prep and then every session for play, they aren’t going to last a lifetime, as is the nature of the squarebound softcover format…but they’ll last if you’re not gaming that frequently.

Formatting is generally clean, but rarely consistent. Some tables are in paragraph text form. Some have underscored headers or first lines. There’s random use of boldingitalics, CAPS, and underscore (often TOGETHER) to hand down that uniquely “I’M YELLING AT YOU BECAUSE YOU DON’T FUCKING LISTEN” manner of delivering rules content that Palladium so loves, but in fairness, it’s toned down somewhat from yesteryear.

In truth, the books are easy on the eyes, and while there’s never an index, there’s always a very thorough Table of Contents and “quick-find” resource at the beginning of the book, referencing all the tables and sections in a very clear manner. That’s something a lot of companies get really wrong, and that Palladium gets really, really right. What’s problematic, though, is that subject matter is all over the place, creating a lot of issues even when it comes down to referencing the Table of Contents, because you might find combat info pertinent to zombies in the Zombies section, but that comes about 100 pages before the Combat Rules…which are found sandwiched between Character Creation and Skills. You know, just because.

As for the individual pieces of art, Palladium shines because they choose their artists well for the subject matter, and the zombies, post-apocalyptic scenery, and bedraggled survivors are all very thematically appropriate and well done. The covers, especially, are downright scary. None of those covers are subtle: they are outright terrifying, often showing a zombie in full detail, or — as on the cover of the core rulebook, Civilization Gone, and Dark Places — show people in the last few seconds of their lives. Honestly, the core rulebook is horrifying in all the best (and worst) ways, showing a couple being pulled away from each other right before they get pulled limb from limb, presumably.

Best part? Every single book includes a little blurb on the title page saying “On the cover…” and giving you a one or two sentence description of the event depicted. It’s a fantastic way of acquainting you with these people who are one breath away from being brutally torn to pieces, and highlights everything you want to highlight about a zombie apocalypse game. Well done.

Drama

Nothing Palladium is truly complete without a little drama surrounding it, so I’ve gotta address it insofar as it might relate to your buying decision(s). A thread on Palladium’s own forum, as well as the RPG Site, go into some detail about the original writers of the Dead Reign RPG manuscript getting their credits reduced and burned by Kevin Siembieda during the final stage of rewrites, leading to a game that was pretty different in execution than it was originally conceived. Siembieda himself eventually responded, though his excuse that he was “deeply disappointed with [the manuscript]” wasn’t the first time he completely rewrote a thing (see Bill Coffin’s take on Siembieda’s general practices), so many folks held it against him.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is par for the course with Palladium, and there’s always like 16 sides to a story, so it’s hard to say what the order of events really is. If this sort of thing colors your buying choices, consider looking for Dead Reign and its sourcebooks second hand, or waiting for deep discounts when ©Palladium does their Xmas® Surprise Packages™.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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