Argh! Thar Be Zombies

At the risk of losing my nerd card, I have to admit that I am not a huge zombie fan. Zombie stories usually fall apart for me, or end up telling stories that I’m not really interested in. All too often, the zombies are nothing more than a backdrop and trigger for man’s inhumanity to man. Most zombie stories end up being a retelling of Lord of the Flies. With that being said, All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a phenomenal Unistystem game that does zombies better than just about anything. With a system so good, it is hard to pass up even stories that aren’t normally interesting, so I’m pretty willing to look at anything that is done with the system. Besides, I do very much enjoy pirate stories So, Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies piqued my interest. As might be expected from the title, it is a zombie game about pirates. Or a pirate game about zombies, depending on whether you favor zombies or pirates. Either way, it is an excellent toolbox for anyone wanting to run a game in the age of sail and piracy that includes zombies.

Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies begins with a chapter that nicely frames out the age of sail to help both players and ZM’s (zombie masters) understand some of the finer details of the time period and setting. While not exhaustive, it is informative and is a good start at getting everyone involved in the right mindset. Included are a bibliography of books, TV shows and movies as well as more esoteric, but possibly more useful resources like websites and other RPGs. The chapter also includes a small dictionary of naval terms of the era as well as words and phrases used more specifically by pirates. Ever wondered where the term “Bilge Rat” comes from or exactly what it means? Well, look no further. To help both players and ZM’s really understand what is happening and set the scene, there is also a timeline of the era. It is also a good reminder of just how long the age of piracy actually lasted. It begins in 1492 with the discovery of America by Columbus and continues  until 1722 with the hanging of 54 pirates, the last major courtly hearing involving pirates and providing a symbolic end to the Golden Age of Piracy. Of course, a recent Tom Hanks movie has reminded us that piracy will last as long as there is trade on the high seas. There is also a short biography of the writer. This seemed a little weird, honestly, but when I consider that it’s only expected in other forms of writing, it did not seem out of place.

The second chapter fleshes out some of the themes from the first, helping to further define the world. The history given in this section does not just give dates and short descriptions of events as the timeline did but rather discusses the general feel of the historical period. It includes some of the sociological reasons why a person would become a pirate, a tool that can be used to help players flesh out their characters. After all, could there be a more compelling character than a man who was press ganged onto a national vessel who then finds himself facing the undead horrors of the deep? A later section goes deeper into character creation, as well. To keep the veracity of the setting and to enhance the horror that can only come with the familiarity of a real world setting, there are also rules about life at the time that includes some of the more common mundane diseases of the time.

It isn’t all grim and gritty, though and this chapter also includes a section for creating a Silverscreen Swashbuckler, the kind of hero Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp might play if there are players that are not entertained by the more mundane and true to life pirates. Also for those looking to play something more interesting and out of the ordinary, there is a section that provides rules for playing a zombie pirate. These rules utilize the sliders, those variable sets of traits that allow any kind of zombie to be made in an All Flesh Must Be Eaten game, to define just what kind of zombie a players character would be, including the points values to be used to help them balance out against boring, living characters. A really interesting campaign idea would be to have all the characters be zombies and even more interesting to have them all be slightly different types of zombies. This chapter also includes rules for a generic pirate era zombie using these sliders for comparison.

The third chapter begins with information on the assorted pieces of equipment that would be useful to a pirate. This includes both the game stats as well some description of what each piece is and its place on a ship. Of course, the biggest, most important piece of equipment for any pirate is the ship he sails on. For that matter, the ship is one of the most important parts of any pirate story, so this chapter includes extensive rules about ships and all the varieties that exist. In fact, the ship in any good pirate story is a character in and of itself. As such, they can be given qualities much like more traditional characters. For that matter, the living are not the only people who sail the seas. The term “ghost ship” has a deeper meaning in this setting and plenty of the marauders coming out of the mists in Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies are undead. Their ships can be as much characters as the ships of the living and can even be the cause of their undeath. Thus, they, too can have qualities and even use the qualities provided for zombies to make them more dangerous and interesting. But just describing the ships and even giving them qualities are not enough for their purpose in the setting. After all, what is the fun of having a pirate ship full of cannons if you don’t use them on another pirate ship full of cannons? As such, much of the chapter is taken up with simple, but detailed ship-to-ship combat rules. They are diverse enough to handle most situations that might come up without being so detailed as to bog down a story.

While piracy is an important part of the setting, there is no getting away from the core theme of any All Flesh Must Be Eaten game and one that has a strong tie to the Caribbean. It is easy to forget that historical zombies were a part of and originated in voodoo lore. It should be little surprise to those aware of the fact, though, that an entire chapter is dedicated to voodoo. While the author confirms that it is a bit of an exaggerated, stylistic version and pays his respect to the real world religion, it is actually not overy sensationalized. You’re not going to become a houngan by reading this chapter but you will get a reasonable thumbnail of the religion and certainly plenty of information to legitimately run voodoo in an Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies game.

Though a ZM could easily use the tools in this book to develop their own setting from scratch, the creators are kind enough to present several premade ones that are especially suitable to the setting and game. The remaining chapters in the book include 3 fully created and detailed worlds with plots and two smaller settings as well as several small scenarios that can be dropped into any of these stories or those created by ZMs.

The first world is a classic revenge plot enacted through a pirate zompocalypse. This is, perhaps, the most generic of the settings, which is appropriate for being the first. It is little more than a zompocalypse with sailing ships or pirate story with zombies, though the zombies do form a truly dangerous and frightening foe for all the colonizing nations of the world to deal with.

The next sample setting is just as familiar though not as generic. In fact, in its own way, it is likely more familiar as it closely reflects the plot from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. A group of explorers happens across an ancient cursed artifact and are cursed to death and unlife until it is returned to its home. After a short reprieve when they’d returned the artifact to its rightful resting place, the cursed crew is forced back to zombified life when the artifact is stolen by another plunderer and the world has to deal with their violent quest to reclaim it and return it once more to its home.

I am particularly fond of the final, full length setting. It is an alternate history setting that diverges from what we know when Leonardo da Vinci managed to get his famed flying machine to work utilizing a previously unknown type of energy. The machine proved capable of not only flight but also of slipping the bonds of Earth’s gravity and venturing out into space. This discovery is made in a very public manner and a space race between the nations quickly ensues as they all scramble to utilize the energy. The quest for colonization of the Earth that occurred in our history instead not takes place out into space with the countries laying claim to other planets instead of new lands. With the entire universe to explore and colonize, there is less strife on mankind’s home world and things are relatively peaceful with humanity coming together to explore this brave new frontier. At least until they run into a race of space zombies who are intent on conquest and using human bodies to give the souls of their long dead companions new life. All kinds of worlds can be incorporated into this setting and there’s almost boundless room for storytelling. In fact, the example adventure provided for this world brings in a whole other faction with their own types of zombies. These are exactly the aspects that remind me of one of my favorite classic settings, Spelljammer.

Expanding the focus away from Europe, the final chapter, in addition to containing a number of one off scenarios that can be dropped into any campaign, features worlds where Vietnam and the Aztec regions of Earth are the center of the action. Of course, these two settings are not given much space and really not enough to do them justice, especially since the Vietnamese portion takes place during a historic civil war that lasted for several years and undoubtedly contains nuances that could fill a book by themselves. Still, there is plenty to get a ZM started and enough for players to understand the settings. What is not provided in the book can be created by the ZM without too much effort, especially if historical accuracy is not a priority.

Each of the worlds presented includes a number of resources meant to help ZMs and players settle into a campaign. A few of the generic archetypes adapted for the setting are given for characters to modify if they’re not interested in creating a character from scratch. In addition to the game stats, they also include a personality a and a quote to help players get into character. Strangely enough, the Quote is only a sentence or two long while the Personality is a few paragraphs but both are written as though they are a conversation from the character’s point of view. In fact, it is not unusual for the quote to seem like a continuation of the personality. For the ZM’s there are plenty of suggestions on angles that the campaigns can take in the worlds provided and points in the plot that they can focus on.

As can be expected from a supplement that is from the game that does zombies better than any other system, Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies does zombie pirates in a way that is unsurpassed. Even people who are interested in neither zombies nor pirates should find enjoyment in playing this game.

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