Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/11/01/tabletop-review-high-school-of-the-damned/
When I first made grabby hands for this, I was expecting something along the lines of the High School of the Dead anime in an RPG form. This it is not, but it has a few similar ideas. This is an RPG based around surviving the zombie apocalypse, and it was more in the product description that high school is even mentioned at all as the RPG goes far deeper into the world than the title would have you believe even though you start off as high school students. This isn’t a bad thing, and I do like the material they have presented in the book as far as information goes, but personally, if I was picking up a zombie apocalypse RPG, this one would not be it. There is some good information in here, and while I think the system itself is pretty streamlined and functional, there are other existing RPGs that my particular group of players would work better with. If you’re in need of a sourcebook for expanded information or really love the White Wolf system which this D10 system is inspired from, you couldn’t go wrong with this one. Let’s take a look.
The game itself gives you Green Bay for the setting, which was interesting to me as not many games I’ve played are set in that area. Most would shoot for New York City or Detroit for a game like this. With that there’s lots of information on locations and maps of the city in the book right off the bat to get you invested in the setting and what was there before the dead started taking over. Bear in mind not all of these are real locations as they’ve been changed to protect the innocent from being devoured. It gives some good background on the city, though – how to get around, what you might encounter, and so on depending on when you start your game up. After the extensive look at Green Bay they delve a little bit more into the timeline of the way things went south fast, as well as how one might survive with zombies mucking about. All good info to have.
From there we move into a quick glossary on terms you’d come across in the game world broken down into people places and things, but instead of dwelling on too many things it moves right into weapons and descriptions for all of them and then vehicles. I don’t know that we needed a summary on weapons and then stats on them later instead of marrying the two up as we’re dealing with modern weapons here, so it’s not too far of a stretch for most people who are picking this up to know what’s what. Following that we have the actual glossary of game terms most tabletop players will already know but first time or newer players might need a refresh on. Finally we get to the nitty gritty and what gives this game its name and player creation.
The game uses the D10 System, which is a takeoff of White Wolf’s Storyteller system, which I’m sure many gamers are familiar with. Character creation is based around coming up with the concept of your character and then going about creating a high school survivor to run amok with in the zombie apocalypse. First they have broken down some very basic social archetypes to play with, calling them cliques, that you start with. After that you figure out what kind of personality your character will have and then you can assign your starting points. From there it’s picking skills, advantages and disadvantages, and then rounding out your character. Anyone familiar with White Wolf’s games will be able to do this pretty quick. Even those not familiar with them should be able to make a character with the system fairly quickly, well as long as you have an idea in mind.
After the Character Creation section we move into Weapons and Equipment where we go into more detail, but the weapons get descriptions all over again, making the previous fluff in the quick description section completely unnecessary. Explosives and armor follow with stat blocks for every item detailed. Rules finally come around to making an appearance.
The D10 system uses only D10 dice. You have so many dice that you get in your dice pool along with any skill or stat modifiers which you roll against a difficulty that the GM chooses. Anything above is a success, below is a failure. Instead of using 0 for a ten, 0 is instead a zero, meaning a critical failure instead of the usual one. This means 9’s are good and in fact you re-roll those and keep adding to the total. Combat using a basic phase round with initiative, taking actions, holding actions, and rolling against another person’s or NPC’s dice pool to attack or defend. Finally we get to the part where we find out how to actually increase one of your character’s skills or attributes. While I like the system on paper, I don’t find this system works for my group. It’s too easy to not give out enough points or too many points. I’ve been on the receiving end of a GM that was extremely stingy with points and made it far too difficult to do much of anything after a few sessions even when we were getting extremely creative. Sure it’s a neat way to do it away from the experience model, but it just doesn’t work for the people I run with.
Last but not least, the GM’s section, affectionately referred to as The Director’s Cut. There’s a decent stat block right in the first few pages to try and combat the stingy points GM I was just talking about in here but it’s just as easy for a GM to ignore that entirely. It gives some great suggestions here though and I think it might even apply over to a White Wolf campaign as well, so if I’m running either in the future I’ll definitely be using it. Running a Game is decidedly brief, but the Zombie ‘bestiary’, zombie creation rules, as well as the rules for the disease that’s causing the zombies to rise are all decent with some great detail. The NPC section detailing the People of Green Bay is a bit light however. While there are some decent character descriptions and renderings for each, there aren’t any stats, so any GM running their player’s in a meeting with them is going to have to either have the forethought to do it ahead of time, or make it up on the fly. These are the kinds of people you’re going to run into more than anything else, and while having the combat stats for zombies is a must, a fully fleshed out NPC can really save a GMs bacon.
Overall for the price, it’s not a bad RPG. A lot of the concepts and rules are very straight-forward and fleshed out, which is a good thing. I do think I’ll end up using it as more of a resource of information for other zombie games as I’m not a big fan of the D10 system, but if I had the right group I’d use it. I do think there are slightly better Zombie apocalypse RPGs out there. My probable choice for my own group would be Dead Reign just because it fits the gun-toting, kill everything in sight and loot the corpse, mentality of most of the people I play with. While it can work with High School of the Damned, you need the right kind of group looking to get more into character than waste zombies, and anyway we slice it will be a short campaign, probably an October run as it fits in with Halloween.
I do have a few issues with the book itself. Reprinting the weapon descriptions twice seems a tad strange, even in a PDF. If it was a printed version I’d be really annoyed. The maps look like they were all pulled from Google, which isn’t bad and I can get behind a version made to look like that, except that they look like they were all pulled from Google. There are typography issues throughout the book, and the layout feels strange, almost like this was a rough assemble and it made it loose onto the web and the real version never made it out. It feels like it was put together in Word. Palladium Books has this problem with theirs as well as far as layout goes, but theirs still feel more professional than this. My other issue lies with the artwork. It is all over the place. Bits and pieces of it look like they go to the same game, but then you look at another and it feels completely out of place. There’s just no real cohesion here. Some of the art doesn’t even look like it originated from the idea for the game and instead belonged in a futuristic game instead. The CGI art and the 2D artwork don’t compliment each other at all. None of it is bad or terrible, it just makes the game itself feel very cobbled together into some kind of Frankenstein Monster. I can understand using different artists, but I’d like to see a common theme in there keeping it all together and the book is just missing that. My other problem is with the charts. The yellow highlighting make them very hard to read and that’s not something you really want with your stat blocks when you’re trying to weed out information.
This makes the book a little hard to recommend. The setting itself is great and the detailing that went into laying out a fictitious and yet still real feeling Green Bay to romp in makes this very healthy for use as an extra sourcebook just to have your players romp in a new and unknown area. Unless of course you’re from Green Bay. On the other hand, as an actual RPG book, it feels a little unprofessional and rough around the edges and could use a little more polish. I’ve seen them put it on sale for up to half off, and at that price I’d definitely pick it up, but the full $19.95 would not be in the cards for me even as a PDF.