The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So, you ever have one of those days?
You know: the kind where a zombie wearin’ a cape and tights comes flyin’ through yer office window?
“Greetings, tasty citizen!” he says. “Faster than a speeding hearse! More powerful than a crematorium! Able to leap tall tombs in a single bound! It is I, Captain Cadaver, the World’s Mightiest Mortality!”
“Great,” I says. “Since I never had a flyin’ zombie bring me a pizza, I’m guessin’ you’ve got a game for me to review.”
“Indeed I do!” he says. “Rotted Capes, the game of a superheroic zombie apocalypse! And before you ask, the answer is yes! Superheroics and zombies can go together!”
He didn’t have to convince of that.
His power of super-stench was workin’ just fine.
Simply put, Rotted Capes presents a more-or-less four-color superhero Earth that has experienced a zombie apocalypse of unknown origin. The catch is that while normal victims of the “Z-virus” turn into “normal” dumb, shambling zombies — well, usually — superhuman victims turn into fully intelligent but totally amoral super zombies. To make matters worse, most of the big-time superheroes fell during society’s collapse, leaving only the “B-Listers” — the sidekicks and understudies and guys with no monthly comic title whose action figures collect dust on the store shelves — to carry on the fight.
These are the PCs.
The book goes into a good amount of detail regarding the default setting of Paradigm City, both before and after “Z-Day”, including a map of important locations. (I particularly like the fact that research at the local comic and gaming stores can provide information on zombie survival techniques at the GM’s discretion.) Also included are details about local A-Listers, B-Listers, and pre-Z-Day artifacts.
I also appreciate the details provided on life for a B-Lister after Z-Day. Groups of survivors (known as “Enclaves”) tend to be no larger than a few hundred people, and the threat of super-zombies means that staying hidden is just as important as staying fortified. The book details Enclave politics and how the B-Listers factor in — everything from running the show to being rivals to the Powers That Be. Among the nice touches are two good reasons for superheroes to keep wearing costumes: (1) it makes them a symbol of hope to the Enclave and (2) it covers up scars from burning, the only way short of amputation to stop the Z-virus.
I generally find one-monster settings to be a bit tedious, but Rotted Capes easily avoids the issue in multiple ways. First, obviously, are the super-zombies. Second, the “regular” zombies come in multiple varieties themselves, including some with weird abilities like phasing. (Try setting up a solid perimeter defense against that.) And third, normal human Z-virus victims who possess the latent potential for superpowers become abominations: monstrous zombie freaks of every shape, size, and capability. (The book includes write-ups of several varieties of normal zombie and a wonderful rogue’s gallery of super zombies, but no abominations, sadly.) And that doesn’t even include the non-zombie adversaries, super and otherwise.
Where the game stumbles a bit is its fuzzy description of just how all-encompassing of a superheroic setting this world was before Z-Day. For example, all of the superheroes seem to be human. Are there alien, robotic, or supernatural superheroes in this setting? I really don’t know, although a careful reading of various sections of the book reveals some degree of alien contact and the existence of threats neither (super)human nor zombie, including demons and a subterranean species. But is it possible that some benevolent deities from another dimension could come to the rescue? Could a malevolent alien empire take advantage of the zombie chaos to invade? Again, I really don’t know. Now, I totally get that the emphasis here is on zombies… but superheroic settings tend to be fairly anything-goes by default. Knowing where Rotted Capes draws the boundary lines in this regard would have been helpful.
On balance, though, this is a minor complaint. The game does a great job of melding four-color superheroics with zombie survival horror.
Creating a superhero in Rotted Capes is a fairly straightforward point-buy process, with starting experience going to purchase Attributes, Skills, and Powers. By default, the PCs are bottom-of-the-barrel B-Listers; however, to the game’s credit, it includes point costs for the creation of everything up to truly cosmic-level superheroes. (Probably not the best choice for even superheroic zombie survival horror, but it’s nice to have the option.) If nothing else, the relative point values showcase the stark power differences between B-Listers (150 starting experience) and A-Listers (600 starting experience).
While the game doesn’t have classes, per sé, players do select a power source (Super-Human, Skill Hero, Tech Hero) and an archetype (Blaster, Brawler, Controller, Infiltrator, Heavy, Transporter). The former gives an Attribute bonus and some unique Advantages and Disadvantages; the latter provides an additional Attribute bonus and discounts a range of relevant powers. The combination can create a very broad range of classic superhero types, although as previously mentioned, nonhuman supers are excluded.
Characters have eight Attributes: four physical (Might, Prowess, Quickness, Vigor) and four mental (Charisma, Insight, Logic, Resolve). Attribute scores correspond to both a base die type and a passive numeric modifier, and the scale is truly impressive — greater than that I’ve seen in many “pure” superhero games. In fact, the scale is open-ended — as all superheroic scales should be, to my mind — and reaches a lifting weight of 524,288 tons and a speed of Mach 368 before resorting to multipliers.
Skills are fairly broad, such as Melee and Pilot. Some skills, like Melee, allow for the application of the skill across the full range uses but with the possibility of purchasing a Focus for a bonus; e.g., a character with Melee can engage in everything from unarmed combat to fighting with a polearm, but the character might be particularly good with swords. Other skills, like Pilot, require a Specialization that is the only allowable use of that skill; e.g., a character with Pilot is not automatically able to fly both a hot air balloon and a jet. This arrangement hits my personal sweet spot on the subject. Helping to speed things along are a small set of skills possessed by every hero in the setting and skill sets that offer a bundle of professional skills (e.g., Detective, Engineer, Survivalist) at a discount.
Character creation also features an advantage/disadvantage system that is particularly effective in simulating superheroics, with aspects such as special vulnerabilities, strange appearances, and uncanny knacks with martial arts and weaponry of various sorts.
Of course, it would hardly be a super game without superpowers, and Rotted Capes includes 48 of them, along with 17 perks/flaws to customize them. Adding to the flexibility is the concept of emulated powers: the ability of certain powers to mimic the effects of other powers, albeit at a weaker level. For example, a character with the Force Field power can use the field to strike foes at a distance, mimicking the Elemental/Energy Blast (Kinetic) power. The only omissions that really stand out to me are weather control and any sort of magic/omni-power/”power cosmic”.
The one aspect to powers that may turn players off — so to speak — is the concept of “Burnout”. Heroes have a Burnout Threshold equal to their Discipline (based on Charisma and Resolve) or Fortitude (based on Might and Vigor). Some powers have Burnout values, and if a hero accrues Burnout in excess of his Burnout Threshold, there is a 1-in-3 chance that all of the hero’s powers with Burnout values will shut down for the remainder of the scene. (Burnout levels drop for every possible action during which the hero doesn’t use a power with Burnout.) That’s not something common to either superhero comics or (to the best of my knowledge) superhero RPGs. It does add an extra level of grittiness to the setting but may not be a good fit for those seeking “pure” supers versus zombies.
Equipment warrants a brief mention here, if only because the heroes are apocalypse survivors, superpowers notwithstanding.
First of all, the section makes an important point about the role of equipment. In a campy game, equipment takes a backseat to exploring and kicking ass, while in a gritty game, finding necessities like food, fuel, and medical equipment could be the motivation for whole adventures.
All heroes start play with a few basic weapons and ammo, a “starter pack” of equipment in groupings like “Survivalist”, “Technician”, and “Medic”, and additional “Acquisition Points” equal to their combined starting ranks in Scavenge and Urban Survival. I like this, because it prevents an extended shopping trip through the equipment section while rewarding survival-oriented characters with extra equipment right out of the gate.
Finally, I appreciate the fact that the melee weapons table includes damage ratings for outrageously heavy non-weapon items like light poles, trash dumpsters, and cars, along with rules for hurling such things.
The core mechanic of Rotted Capes involves rolling and adding together the results from the Action Dice (always 2d10) and the relevant Attribute Dice, then adding to the result any modifiers based on Power Ranks, Skill Ranks, Advantages, Tricks and/or Circumstances. Attribute Dice open-end. Action indicate an auto-success on a 20 and an auto-failure on a 2, and if auto-failure would have succeeded anyway, it becomes a Critical Success.
The net effect puts me in mind of Earthdawn’s “step die” system combined with a more conventional roll + attribute + skill system. I really like the fact that Attribute Dice are the ones that open-end rather than the Action Dice, thereby benefiting more powerful characters. And while I’m not a huge fan of auto-successes and -failures, I do appreciate the fact that Critical Successes are at least partially ability-dependant.
In addition to Action and Attribute Dice, PCs starts with a number of Plot Dice equal to their lowest attribute score and equal in size to the PCs’ lowest attribute scores. These dice may be added to rolls (in which case they, like Attribute Dice, open-end) or may be spent for a number of effects that range from ignoring wound penalties to gaining an advantageous complication of some sort. Interestingly, however, Plot Dice cannot be used to directly negate damage. This would seem to tip the scales a notch in favor of gritty over campy.
And speaking of damage…
Rounds of combat in Rotted Capes are broken down into a 12-tick “Clock”. Participants roll a number of d10s equal to their Initiative scores, take the lowest, and then act when that number comes up on the Clock. Actions taken cost 1-6 ticks, and the book provides 14 possible combat maneuvers in addition to simple attack and defense.
Damage is random based upon weapon type, with Might and Quickness adding to melee and ranged damage, respectively. (Basic unarmed damage is simply 1.) Armor reduces damage, and any damage that gets through comes off of Stamina, representing the character’s endurance. In addition, damage that exceeds the character’s Fortitude puts the victim in danger of knockback (including that of the over-the-top comicbook variety), stunning, and Wounds, the latter representing truly life-threatening damage.
I do wish that degree of success had more of an impact on damage, but the fact that the Martial Arts Advantage increases unarmed damage and the fact that Quickness adds to ranged damage helps in this regard.
I should also mention that the presence of Wounds, with their potentially long-term and deadly effects, also serve to make the game more gritty than campy by default. However, the divide between Stamina and Wounds also effectively helps the game simulate combat with zombies. Specifically, zombies don’t take Stamina damage at all and can only be stopped by taking Wounds, which means that they can really take a beating, as it should be.
The art blends superheroes and zombies just as skillfully as does the text. Illustrations match the feel of modern superhero comics with a healthy dose of grisly zombie survival horror. The juxtaposition of comic sans headers with blood-spattered borders give the book the overall look of a comic hastily dropped in the gore during the flight from a zombie attack.
The writing manages to capture the bittersweet feel of a once-glorious four-color world brought low by the zombie plague while maintaining a dark sense of humor. The text and layout make for an easy read, and no errors stood out to me. In terms of organization, the book includes both a detailed table of contents and a large index. My only real issue was the large gap between the basic rules and combat, which necessitated more page-flipping than I’d have preferred.
I confess that Rotted Capes accomplishes what I thought it could not: namely, it serves as both a full-blown superhero game and a full-blown zombie apocalypse game. I honestly could see using it for either, but the true genius of the game comes in its blend of both. In short, this is a game that does exactly what it sets out to do, and it does it well. I can’t offer much higher praise than that.