Published on August 14th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen1
Half Dead – Still Alive
A Review of I Am Zombie by Mark Rein – Hagen
Zombies, despite their current popularity, are the archetype of the one-dimensional monster. A zombie doesn’t feel or reason- it simply pulls itself to its next meal, one that it doesn’t even need to survive. Sure, zombies come in different flavors (magical, chemical and parasitical) but they rarely get a treatment more complex than “shotgun to the face.”
Mark Rein – Hagen noticed the same thing that Warner Bros. and DC Comics have with their iZombie TV show/comic, namely that there is room for a zombie to tell more complex stories than what we’ve seen thus far. Mark in a press release said that he wanted to make a game that “turns the zombie into a tragic hero,” much in the same way Anne Rice helped make vampires darkly heroic.
To that end, Mark created the first RPG in the Xenocosm universe: I Am Zombie. Further down on the Xenocosm list of settings are: alien abductions, special forces, secret societies, “twisted fantasy” and epic space adventures. In the material I’ve read from Purgatory Press, it seems that these will all exist within the same setting, and as they use the Axiom system, they will be inter-compatible.
At first this sounds like it may be the overly ambitious ravings of an overly ambitious, Kickstarted writer. But if there existed any one person who I thought could pull this off, it’d be Mark Rein – Hagen, creator of the World of Darkness. No doubt others could also do it well, but Mark has already created a weird reflection of our world- so I’m excited to see what new oddities he has in store for me.
Before we jump in, let’s go over what books and resources are out there for I Am Zombie right now.
- Axiom Null Rule Book, 32 pages (future free download)
- I Am Zombie Field Manual, 288 pages ($40)
- I Am Zombie Playkit ($40)
The Axiom Null rule book contains all of the rules you need to play I Am Zombie, and isn’t for sale in print by itself. Once the print version of the game is shipped then the Axiom rules will be a free PDF download from DriveThruRPG.
The Field Manual is almost 300 pages of full color, illustrated, setting material written entirely in setting. There are no rules at all in the Field Manual, though they do go over each of the “powers” from an in-character perspective.
The I Am Zombie Playkit has a hard copy version of the Axiom Null rule book (the only way to get a physical copy) as well as poker chips for tokens, a bunch of special dice and other accessories. It does NOT come with a copy of the Field Manual.
The set of rules that make up what you actually do in a game of I Am Zombie are surprisingly short. The rule book is only 32 pages and that includes all of the base rules, character creation and special powers. The Axiom rules don’t take up a lot of space, and they even include multiple ways to play the game.
The first thing that hits you when taking a look through the I Am Zombie version of the Axiom book is how much it looks like a board game manual. From the diagram showing how a table is laid out with multiple characters, to dissecting the anatomy of the cards, you are told right up front that this game is a little different.
This approach to rules explanations is both much easier to learn from and easier to reference later than conventional RPG rule books. By keeping the rules separate and presented in a more matter-of-fact fashion, Axiom gets tons of points for clarity and style.
Not only does Axiom keep the rules separate, it lets you know whenever you’re switching to a new rules module by numbering them in large font. These rules modules (known as Axioms) usually continue to build off of a common base, adding another slightly thicker layer of complexity for each one you use. That said, some of them are mutually exclusive ways to resolve conflicts- some of which involve rolling dice, some of which don’t.
For example, Axiom #4 tells you how to resolve scenes where a character acts alone (such as searching a room for clues), and also how to resolve simple opposed actions, both without dice. Technically you could use these basic rules to resolve every conflict in your game and run things at a level similar in crunch to Fate Accelerated.
Adding in Axioms #6 and #7 gives you a robust dice rolling system that you can use to determine outcomes. The mechanics are straight forward and rely on a small number of six-sided dice, where 5s are special bad numbers and 6s are special good numbers. You could stop here, but there’s more.
Later on there are more Axioms that introduce things like Fate points, invoking Icons in 13th age and condition tokens. The game has a combat system, berserking rules, detailed skills and a very likable set of zombie special powers. There’s nothing the game leaves out that you’ll want- it even shows you how to use I Am Zombie as a LARP game.
What’s great is that by breaking everything into tiny little sections of rules, you can easily define your campaign. Want a more story based game? Just use Axioms #1-5 and you’re all set. Want a medium crunch game, about the level of FateCore? You’re looking at Axioms #1-18 with maybe #25 (skills), #26 (vectors) and a couple of others tossed in.
The way Axiom separates its rules makes it really easy on game masters to customize their campaign rules to suit their needs, and it helps players understand which rules are in effect during the game. These rules are also infinitely easier to reference when needed, and are less likely to succumb to “page XX” errors in the layout stage (instead, pointing to the Axiom number is sufficient to find it) .
You could even run the game in different ways for different players at your table, depending on their rules involvement- if that’s your jam. This works because all of the game systems are built off of the exact same characters- meaning that even players using only story game rules still have the same meaningful stats as those using the action combat rules. In I Am Zombie you really get to choose your own level of involvement with the system.
Skills in Axiom come with a set of pre-defined examples of ways to use them in a story, along with a suggested amount of required successes to complete the action. I found this to be a great learning tool as well as a useful GM cheat sheet. Some of the skills are more narrative, others are more mechanically inclined and I felt the balance was natural and intuitive.
Did I mention that Zombies in this game get special powers from their infection? There are eight Vectors, which all have three tiers of powers- each power has a set of examples like a Skill, making the powers very broad in scope.
The Vectors are:
• SCRY is extra sensory ability to see through and from the Scourge and the infected.
• BIOFIX is transformation of the body on a cellular level, turning living tissue into new forms of half-life.
• VELOX is speeding up the body’s muscular, endocrine, and nervous systems.
• LEPROX is controlling the Scourge and regulating its ability to affect and infect.
• NECRO is turning flesh into inanimate matter, or even into simple machines.
• TOXO is commanding other Infected by manipulating the Scourge within them.
• DOX is interacting with immune systems, taming the virus, and healing.
• GIZMO is the ability to affect inanimate matter with the Amirani Virus.
If you’re familiar with Vampire the Masquerade you’ll recognize many of the themes and powers, including my favorite: Biofix as a call back to Protean and Vicissitude. The Vectors are all entertaining and useful, and serve to distinguish characters by quite a bit when it comes to their zombie powers.
The Axiom system is a wonderfully modular role playing game with a lot to offer to a wide variety of game masters and players. The complexity level of the game builds on itself so it’s easy to start small and work yourself into more rules at the group’s pace.
I feel that the board game elements of the Axiom system enhance the mechanics they effect. Other genre games use elegant mechanics not derived from a D&D paradigm, but Axiom is giving even Fate a run for its money in terms of rules modularity and the adaptability.
I also like that character sheets are functionally unnecessary and everything can be tracked with cards and tokens. The deluxe box with the playkit looks really tempting in this regard because it’s basically a custom box set of accessories for I Am Zombie. You don’t need them to play, they don’t even make it easier to play, but I bet those huge dice would look great on my table!
If you’re looking for a taste of the setting book, I Am Zombie Field Manual, the official website has a web version that has some excerpts. I”ll also be posting another review that covers the setting material in the days to come.