Without Hope (great title!) is a new addition to the zombie/survivalist genre that takes its cues from TV shows like The Walking Dead (of course) and Netflix's recent Black Summer: the zombies come in sizes and shades of decrepitude, their bites infect but ordinary death leads to reanimation too. That’s a recipe for a bleak situation.
Without Hope is for sale on drivethrurpg (click the image); don't expect to survive till the season finale
Chris Medders and Eric Porcellni (Spanish Inquisition Studios) state their design philosophy at the outset:
Don’t make any mistakes as this game is set up to be as realistic and as deadly as possible. It doesn’t matter how great a character is made or how tough or skilled they are.
Character death is going to be frequent here – as often as not, at the hands of your fellow-PCs – and the game is designed to run hot and fast to a desperate and bloody conclusion…
Zombie stories are compelling. Partly it’s the zombies themselves, which resonate because of our fears about death, disease and the loss of faculty with ageing. They’re shambling metaphors for AIDS, coronavirus, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Then there’s the social psychology. Zombie stories are all riffing on Lord Of The Flies, exploring what happens to people when social structures break down and savagery becomes as valid an option as civilisation.
Did you read William Golding's 1954 novel at school? Watch Peter Brook's 1963 film version, not the 1990 one which misses the point whenever it can
Like John Wyndham’s novels, from Triffids to Midwich Cuckoos, they examine what happens when humanity is knocked off its perch at the top of the food chain. The unthinkable becomes thinkable, whether its mandatory breeding programmes or the massacre of a room full of children.
For some reason, triffids are never scary on the screen. The Village of the Damned (1960) on the other hand...? Oooer...
The best zombie stories are about the revelation of character: the mild-mannered housewife is revealed to possess the ferocity to survive, the inner-city gangster has the internalised moral code to reject barbaric solutions, the respectable vicar turns to theft, torture and murder. They’re also about social contracts: do we want to live in a liberal democracy where freedom threatens our security or will we trade liberty for safety in an autocratic community? Does religion offer potent unifying bonds or does it divide us and limit our ability to adapt to threats with its rigid codes?
This is the thoughtful stuff. But there’s a recurring trope in zombie stories that’s less thoughtful, and that’s the nihilistic badass. In the absence of civilisation, you can simply exult in barbarism and power: engage in transgressive acts (murder, abduction, torture, betrayal!), arm yourself to the teeth and let ultraviolence solve your problems: live by the sword and – of course! – die by the sword, but it’s a wild ride till your luck runs out.
Transgressive nihilism doesn’t feature heavily in the films/TV versions – such characters are usually the villains – but it’s a big feature in games. In Zombicide, all the characters are transgressive nihilists, arming themselves will chainsaws then cutting a bloody swathe through the dead. In video games, as far back as Doom and Resident Evil, zombies are punchbags for the gamer’s unfettered id.
Surely no coincidence that Doom was developed by id Software
Without Hope falls into the Transgressive Nihilist camp. It’s a set of combat/skirmish rules with a trauma system added to reflect your unravelling psyche. There are lists of guns and a wide selection of antagonists (zombies of course, also freaks and cannibals and cultists, armed gangsters, soldiers and wild animals) and the rules set out how to kill them.
And the rules do this really well!
You roll four stats (MANIPULATION, MIGHT, MIND and MOVE) on 5d10 – a 5-50 range with the mode in the high twenties. Secondary stats are HIT POINTS (same as your MIGHT), SANITY (twice your MIND) and HUMANITY (twice your MANIPULATION).
There’s a big focus on random rolls (common in RPGs where characters die suddenly and get replaced in 5 minutes) so you roll these stats in order – no tweaking them to create your Optimal Badass. With 30, 18, 28 and 29 I am a bit charismatic but rather out of shape and otherwise unremarkable. With 18 HP, I will need protection, but 56 SANITY and 60 HUMANITY isn’t too bad.
You roll 3 professions from a list of one hundred and combine them creatively to tell a story.
This bit is fun. If I roll 51, 23 and 80 I get to be (flicks pages…): Labourer, Cult Leader, Punk Rocker. So, I’m Nozebliid, part time welder and lead singer of a punk band called Gentle Wartz who was performing a gig when the apocalypse went down. I turned my moshing fans into a loyal cult with the force of my personality. I roll my popularity on d100 and get 53, so as many people hate me as love me; I roll again and if I get 53 or less then I’m a public figure: 63, nope, I never broke into the mainstream before society collapsed.
Do you know three chords? Now go kill a zombie!
Every 5 points of MIND gets you a Skill or a Perk (I’m a bit unclear about the distinction – they seem to be the same thing). Nozebliid has 5 of these. I take Brawling and Drug Tolerance (how punk rock is that?) along with Command (my cultists), Conspiracy Theory and Repair (I’m a welder, remember?).
The skills/perks add +10 to your percentage chance of doing something, which otherwise works off a related stat. So ordering people about involves MANIPULATION, which is 30% for Nozebliid, but the Command perk means that goes up to 40%. With that rubbish MIGHT, Nozebliid is only 18% for things like throwing a punch, but his Brawling perk takes it up to 28%.
If Nozebliid survives an adventure, I get to add +1D10 to spread between my stats. Just adding +2 to MIND would take it up to 30 and Nozebliid would acquire a new skill, probably something to help him get by in this zombie-infested world: Survival, Submachinegun or Heavy Melee are all contenders.
Combat has a fluid do-what-feels-right initiative system and rules for dividing or multiplying your chance to hit based on range and rate of fire. On a successful hit you invert the roll and apply it to the Hit Location table. So if Nozebliid punches a cannibal and hits with a 21, that turns into 12 on the table: a lovely throat punch that quadruples the damage! Damage is rolled on d10s, with plusses or minuses, and 10s ‘explode’ allowing you to roll an extra dice. A punch deals a D10 plus MIGHT, divided by 10. So if I roll 8 and add my Brawl-adjusted MIGHT, that turns into 36, rounding to 4 points of damage, quadrupled to 16 because of the throat location. That’s not bad. It would flatten a teenage girl (15 HP) or a child (10 HP), but it’s enough to make other adversaries reconsider messing with me. Weapons deal much more damage, of course, and armour deducts damage if it covers the area that was targeted.
It gets slightly more fiddly with automatic weapons, but there’s a quick’n’dirty system for rounding percentages to the nearest 10, converting them to a D10 roll instead of D100, then rolling a handful of D10s. Everybody loves handfuls of D10s.
SANITY deteriorates in a way familiar to anyone who has played Call Of Cthulhu. Roll d% against your SANITY, if you roll over, it diminishes by a D10. HUMANITY is tested when you have to do unconscionable deeds and drops in the same way. When SANITY hits zero, you’re a fruitcake; when HUMANITY hits zero, you’re a cold-blooded sonofabitch.
There’s a fun rule for games set in the early days of the zombie apocalypse, where your very first zombie encounter costs you 3D10 SANITY and the first loss of a loved one costs 5D10. If you create characters once the apocalypse is up and running, you suffer a 3D10 SANITY deduction to represent past traumas. Having loved ones around you adds a bonus D10 to your Humanity – until they inevitably get taken from you and then it’s bloody bloody revenge.
Nozebliid takes a 3D10 SANITY hit because the apocalypse has been happening for a while now, so his SANITY drops to 44. Since his punk girlfriend Klamija is still alive, he can boost his Humanity to a fairly-sensitive 64.
That is more or less it, as the rules go. The rest is detail. Different types of zombies (regular, rotting, skeletal, massive fatties) and lots of human opponents all get detailed,. The system is simple and the stat blocks won’t frighten anyone. The idea that female NPCs automatically have less MIGHT but more MANIPULATION than males will strike you as a quaint call-back to Old School roleplaying, a candid concession to human biology or a chauvinist dogwhistle, depending on where you sit on some graph of social attitudes. I’ll merely comment that the zombie horror/survivalist genre is full of tough-as-nails female characters and I’m pleased to see that character generation doesn’t impose any such skewing on player stats.
The charm of the game is that little preparation is needed with a set-up like this. Create your characters and decide where you’re holed up. The GM tells you that you need fuel but a bunch of cannibals have taken over the nearest petrol station. Yeah, they’re roasting their hapless dinners on big petrol barbecues. Throw in a cannibal girl who wants to reform and escape and a prisoner who looks like he wants to escape but who has really developed a taste for ‘long pig’ and intends to betray his rescuers – and we have a plot. Tip a herd of shambling zombies into the forecourt, drawn by the racket, and we have a climax. Damn. I really want to play that scenario!
What could go wrong?
The only problem is that Without Hope doesn't aspire to any more than this. It invites you to run through a string of these deadly, chaotic episodes, churning through characters and making grim, transgressive decisions. To what end?
OK, right, nihilism, to be sure, but even nihilism has more to it than that.
What about the other aspects of the zombie drama? What about the politics, the strained relationships, the moral debate? Without Hope disavows all this stuff. Examples of play from the rules include Jack, gunning down the creep who killed his newborn son. and Ted, assassinating the former-politician who is trying to abduct his 9-year-old girl to sell into slavery. Relationships are there to justify more mayhem. Just let your Id do the thinking.
Of course, you can build these complexities on top of the basic system, adding whipped cream and fruit layers to the simple spongecake that Without Hope offers.
However, Without Hope doesn’t really invite this. The chatty, enthusiastic text urges you to plunge into the viscera and brutality and advocates a GMing approach that is best termed ‘punitive’: if players show weakness, the GM should be merciless in response.
The system provides simple yet flexible combat rules, but no similar rules for interpersonal dealings. Skills that have combat applications are expanded upon, but what do you do with Art or Seduction exactly? A rock-paper-scissors mechanic is implied with a trio of traits called Attractive-Cute-Sexiness but there’s no explanation of how this is works in play. There are no rules for Morale, Loyalty or Love. There are no mechanics for defeating security systems or infiltrating communities, beyond the barebones MANIPULATION test with a Perk. There is no system for extended tasks or cooperative activities. The implication is that players might occasionally make a roll to befuddle a guard or locate a fusebox, but they are going to shoot their way into and out of every problem.
What I’m saying is, there’s room for more development in Without Hope. The publisher promises “a Zombie Survival Horror RPG that has a different take on it all” but that’s not apparent yet. It would be nice to see the core mechanics applied to situations other than combat and the Sanity/Humanity system applied to problems other than people being killed. The setting invites something like Alignment or Personality Archetypes to determine who benefits from finding safe communities and who thrives on solitude, who stands to gain from forming relationships and who thrives on sabotaging them. Of course, you could just improvise all that stuff, but the game’s direction of travel is towards Transgressive Nihilism in which everyone acts in the same, reductive way. It needs a counterpoint to that.
The perception that Without Hope is a work in progress is strengthened by its presentation. On the plus side, the text is clear and written in a sharp, friendly style. It’s got an engaging authorial voice. There’s a lot of art, mostly photographs (of cos-players?) treated with a sort of bleached-out format that adds a satisfying patina of dread. Some of these (like the Watch-Out-Behind-You! scene on p89) are really effective. There’s a great piece of original art on p70 and Victoria Bellard’s cover art (of severed hands and eyeballs!) is striking and professional.
But the layout is cluttered: long paragraphs, a lack of subheadings, processes buried in the text rather than illustrated in charts or tables. There’s a lengthy discussion of Sanity/Humanity before we get round to Skills; combat mechanics get elucidated in detail before we find the Hit Location table. There are no interior page references. The table of contents runs to 4 pages, so it’s functioning more like an index.
Like many RPGs, it makes a fine introductory explanation, but it’s frustrating as a reference tool once you want to find how to do something. How I long to tidy it all up, create box-outs for examples, flow charts for processes and side-bars for the authorialising. I want the lists of gear at the back, on reference pages, along with a summary of character creation and simple stat-lines for each opponent.
Without Hope, ironically, offers a lot of hope for a satisfying survival-horror RPG built on its simple, bloody combat mechanics and loosey-goosey “just go with it” approach to character creation. As it currently stands, it offers an evening of improvised mayhem, in which everyone feels a bit queasy afterwards about the things their characters did and the gruesome ends they came to. Personally, I don’t feel the need to indulge in that more than once. If you want to build a campaign from this rules set, you run into problems. Not least, the questions of: “Why not use Apocalypse World RPG” (if you like things loose and creative) or The Zombie Hack or even good ol’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten?
All Flesh Must Be Eaten (AFMBE) is on the crunchier end, system-wise, but it offers a terrific range of settings and truly inspirational short fiction establishing each variation on the zombie apocalypse. Eric Bloat’s The Zombie Hack is a fast-and-fun 34-page manual for pick-up-and-play zombie-bashing.
Without Hope’s main asset is that it falls between these extremes: it’s more brutal and unforgiving than the cheerful Zombie Hack, with a darker, more disutbing aesthetic and characters who are flimsier and more vulnerable; it’s more spontaneous and improvisational than AFMBE, which can make combat and character creation a bit too arduous.
So there’s a place in the firmament for Without Hope if it cleaves to its grim Nitzchean philosophy but dares to go beyond gunplay in search of survivalist horror. The authors have plans to support the game, including material for campaign play, social conflict and personal development. In the meantime, maybe it's fine as it is, if you want to dive into nihilistic despair and just get soaking wet.
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I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..