A whimper, not a bang–Outbreak: Undead 2nd Edition review

Experimentation is a healthy part of any growth, but by its nature leads to some failures. Outbreak: Undead Second edition is not a failure in its entirety, but many of the chances that it takes with game design and presentation are. The basic premise is one with which we have become familiar in recent years: a global pandemic has risen the dead from their graves to seek the flesh of the living, and the scattered remnants of mankind left behind persist in a constant struggle to survive. We have seen this concept approached in films, video games, board games, RPGs, and even exercise events, with a broad spectrum of design philosophies. Outbreak: Undead attempts to add some board game sensibilities that, simply put, do not translate well to the roleplaying genre.

I talk about layout a lot in my reviews, the reason being that RPG sourcebooks are only useful if keen attention is paid to the way that information is presented. Everyone wants to focus on the fun stuff; whether the game revolves around dragons or vampires or political upheaval, and what kinds of conflicts those elements create. But the real meat of any game is its usability at the table, and the buy-in for new players. Even a game with good rules might be weighed down by sloppy presentation, to the point where a simple game becomes incomprehensible and dense beyond usability. The investment required to uncover Outbreak: Undead’s rules, beyond getting to the point where you can intuit them at the table, asks so much of the reader that I would be surprised to hear from people who both got through it and enjoyed the process.

You see, the basic flaw in this game comes in the symbols that make up its rules and terminology. Everything that you do in this game, be it basic rolls, character advancement, exploration, equipment usage, or more (and rest assured, there are many levels of subsystems with which you will need to familiarize yourself) relies on a series of distinct yet crucially important symbols that represent a variety of game mechanics. These generate a number of problems: at the most basic, they clutter the book and make for an inconsistent artstyle. Most of the book is written as if it’s a survivor’s notebook, with pages shoved in at odd angles and handwritten sticky notes or highlighted passages on lined paper. This…sort of works, getting you into the mindset of a survivor, although some of the font changes can make the book harder to read. Regardless, the symbols switch us over to a very gamist mindset, feeling more technical and less natural in the book. Let’s look at a two page spread for an example.

This is not one of the worst ones. This is a set of basic skill descriptions

What the hell are we looking at here? This is busy, confused writing, that is cluttered all over the place with different terms and symbols sandwiched together with natural language rules text. Keep in mind, every time you come across one of these symbols, you have to mentally translate it into whatever it represents, which carries with it rules of its own. Here is a brief cross section of the types of symbols you will come across as you read through this book, and internalize to the point that you will be able to read a page full of them and intuitively understand their nuance: bonuses, more than five types of dice (some d6 and some d10) that work in slightly different ways, multiple types of skill bonuses, equipment effects, infection levels, the passage of time, multiple types of metacurrencies, in-game resource types; I’m not even done here people. Do you see the issue? Do you understand how frustrating and unintuitive this makes the process of reading through the rules, let alone trying to refer to them at the table, while I am trying to manage four or five people, remember my plot threads, and perform different voices for multiple NPCs? It’s absolutely maddening.

By my estimation, this design philosophy came from one of two sources, and neither translate well to Outbreak: Undead. Either this is a play on Fantasy Flight’s Genesys rules, which use a similar set of symbols for various purposes, or it comes straight from board game design, where space is at a premium on cards and tokens. In the former case, they are used as limited, specific set of shorthands for adaptable symbols. You only have to use a few, and you can get past their nuances in about the space of a session. In the latter case, those symbols can still be difficult to master, but they tend to represent simple, definitive rules that you use repeatedly in a shortened timeframe. In an RPG, I have no idea when or how these terms are going to come up in any given game, so I effectively need to master all of them just to understand how to generate a character.

And let’s talk about character generation, now that we are there. First of all, if you want to skip that, you can use one of the pregenerated characters. I always appreciate this, and for new players, I love skipping the task of having them make a character. Look at this sample character sheet for a second.

I wasn’t able to fit the bottom half, which has small pictures denoting skill traits in a number of ways

Again, what is this? What are these symbols and terms and modifiers all over the place? Why in a percentile based skill system does EVERY skill contain TWO percent symbols? Who designed this? And that’s just page one, which doesn’t contain additional equipment, traits, backgrounds, and abilities. Imagine not knowing the rules to the game and being given this character sheet. Worse, imagine trying to refer to this in the middle of a swarm of zombies, and pulling out the difference between a skill, a trait, and a Gestalt skill bonus. But back to character generation.

The book provides two main options for creating a character, which is irrelevant because one of them is essentially the same as the other but with extra steps. You can fill out a questionnaire on the website, which will give you your basic attributes based on the answers you provide. This is a cool idea, but one that is both fruitless and poorly implemented. For one, once you do that you still have to work out skill levels, traits, advantages and disadvantages, and backgrounds, so what is the point of starting with my attributes? The normal rules just say to distribute 120 points between the four of them and keep them all between 15% and 45%, and that is hardly more effort than taking 15 minutes to fill out some questions. Moreover, the questionnaire is far from subtle. The questions tend to be fairly obvious and formulaic, such as “do you think you are as strong, less strong, or stronger than the average person.” If you wanted to game the system you would not be put to much effort, and if you didn’t, the stilted questions would be a pain.

But that done, you have to contend with training bonuses, which mostly raise your skills, motivations and backgrounds, disadvantages (which seem to give you no incentive to take, but I could be wrong), advantages, equipment, and Gestalt level. But for the final term, all of those are fairly self explanatory, at least once you get your PHD in Outbreak: Undead’s hieroglyphics. The Gestalt level is a design concept that some baggage underlying an interesting idea. It basically represents anything your character should know or be able to do, but is not encompassed by their skill list. Some people would say this falls under basic common sense for the GM, but I am attracted to the concept of putting some limitations on what a character can do mechanically. The book’s prime example is someone with a background as an electrician being able to read a complicated electrical schematic, which might not fall under some sort of science or engineering skill. The Gestalt level also ties into some other things, like language and skill advancement, in ways that takes a little bit to parse. However, the basic idea is there, and I would like to see some syncopation on this idea in more games. This part I did like.

The scrapbook style can give you a well-crafted sense of immersion, as if you have found the last artifact of an already dead group

But once that is done, and you are nearly eighty pages into the book, you get to the game’s base mechanics. Or so it would seem at first. You see, the entire point of a percentile based game, such as Warhammer Fantasy or Basic Roleplaying, is the simplicity that sits at the core of the rules. For most of what you will be doing, you will roll a d100 and check to see if it’s under the relevant trait. I especially like these for new players because the chances of failure or success are readily apparent: if you have a 37% in a skill and some smart play has gotten you a 10% bonus, you know you have exactly a 47% chance of success. Everything else tends to modify or play off of that system, but essentially allow the core mechanic to speak for itself.

Not Outbreak: Undead though! Oh no. Once you get to page 78, which I will remind you is after the character creation section, and learn what the base mechanic is, you are subjected to another ~150 pages of intricate subsystems, all of which introduce new symbols and use them at nauseum. It may seem strange that I have spent so much time talking about symbolism and so little the actual rules, but that is only because the two are inextricably linked to one another. There are no basic concepts that you can get down and move onto playing the game. Rather, the rest of the book is subsystem after subsystem explaining in nuanced detail the rolls, bonuses, and penalties you need to complete every conceivable action.

Exploration, combat, equipment, base building, et cetera all rely on their own specific set of rolls and costs that you need to check the book to understand. It’s impossible to memorize all of these, especially because of how specific they are, and the rules are not philosophically cohesive enough that you could approximate them with a house rule. This leaves you with two basic options: 1. Be ready to check the book at a moment’s notice for any situation your players will encounter. 2. Ignore the rules as written. The first is time consuming and frustrating, as you have to constantly stop to reexamine a lengthy tome to make sure you are connecting the right bonuses, costs, and subsystems. The latter raises the question of why you paid for the book to begin with. We as gamers are used to having sections on specific information like environmental hazards or equipment tags. What we don’t care for is those rules being based on completely disparate sets of mechanical underpinnings.

This reads like a board game manual, the more you get into it. Everything has a specific cost, set of parameters, and special symbols it requires. But unlike a board game, which is structured around a specific set of interactions, this throws them all together into a blender and assumes you will know the difference.

Even knowing what these mean, it hurts the brain to get through this.

And look, let me admit outright that I am not a person with a lot of patience. Maybe that taints my opinion as a reviewer, which you would be well within your rights to believe, but I would also posit the following: you know who else doesn’t have the most time or patience and may not want to stray from familiar systems in order to learn a game with dubious at best quality? The target audience. Every person I game with is a working professional with an active social life, who has at least one RPG system reasonably under their belt. Those people are, by and large, not going to pay money to wade through this. Not when some of them know GURPS and Savage Worlds, and not when I can teach them All Flesh Must Be Eaten in under a minute. I don’t take issue with complexity in my games. I don’t begrudge a company trying to do something different with its game design. All that said, Outbreak: Undead has too many flaws to recommend it.

Outbreak: Undead Second Edition

Designed by: Christopher J. De La Rosa
Published by: Hunters Entertainment
Players: 2+
Age Rating: 14+
Mechanics: Roleplay
Weight: Heavy

Outbreak: Undead Second Edition has an ambition that outweighs its ability to deliver. The game is based on a set of symbols that are as numerous as they are unintuitive. The only thing more arduous than reading this system is playing it, and you would be hardpressed to do either. I admire the vision that tried to guide this game, but somewhere along the line it was overrun with too many undeveloped ideas, much like the ravening hoard the game sets against its players.

John Farrell is a legal aid attorney specializing in domestic violence, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at:
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