My gaming history hasn’t included a lot of either post-fall or zombie games. I’ve played one shots of Eden Studios All Flesh Must Be Eaten and one epic game of Tribe 8, but for the most part those aren’t genres I’ve delved deeply into. I like media from both, and enjoyed the two above games, and one is certainly spoiled for choice when it comes to zombie shows, but they’re interesting to translate to the gaming table. In order to communicate the tropes of the genre they rely on semi-disposable protagonists, and most video games in the genres highlight quartermastering to support the bleak, sparse setting, where every bullet counts and you don’t know where your next meal might come from. As narrative games become more popular, there are roleplaying games that show you can play both genres without counting bullets and seeds.
As one way of doing that, Dystopia Rising: Evolution is a post-apocalyptic zombie game that sets its sights on how we cope with the end of the world and rebuild after it, focusing strongly on the benefits and hindrances of community and what makes one human. It supports long-term play by highlighting the connections that we form and how we survive in the long-run — no room for lone wolves here!
The backstory to Dystopia Rising: Evolution is pretty damn dark. It starts in a familiar way: technological marvels create a comfortable and complacent world, but which results in a mass overpopulation. Since the planet can’t handle that, the powers that be manufacture famines and atrocities and poisonous substances that are disseminated and fed to the populace. It’s presumed that the Infection may have spawned from a fungal material created from this attempt at extermination, which then mutated and evolved through interaction with people. The Infection infused into the world and is now present in every aspect of it. Back then, it caused the rising of the dead, to which the response was nukes and further extermination.
Now it’s responsible for the copying and return of people or things to the world, showing that nothing stays dead forever. However each recycle causes things to degrade slightly, which also affects the returned – eventually they lose any semblance of their humanity and join the hordes of undead.
The setting, the world of Merica, is given a good overview, with more detailed focus on Philly del Phia and the Northeast US. There’s still enough flexibility for you to develop as you like, but lots to fall back on if you need a framework and setting seeds. The rest of the world only gets a small portion of detail though, but covering the entire globe might be a big ask for the core book.
There are a great number of factions across Merica and each may become allies or antagonists depending on the makeup of your group. There are some genre standbys, like the “Lone Star Rangers” (bounty hunters and vigilantes) and the nomadic medics of the “Crimson Cross Caravans”, but also the unique “Priests of the Sound”, warriors who scavenge the wastes for music and broadcasting artifacts (they even tattoo their bodies with blueprints for building radios). It is comforting to know that by the time this calamity occurs, the Postal Service doesn’t fall victim to it. Hardened warriors, the “Post Walkers” put their lives at risk to maintain communication between settlements.
Although it has brought on much calamity, The Infection is also responsible for the survival of anything resembling humanity. It mutated inside its hosts and created various “Strains” of new humanity, ready to cope with the new world. They are tougher and able to regenerate quicker than the humans from before and of course, can even return from the dead. As part of character creation you choose a Strain for your character. Each is a mix of biology and community, as they gravitate towards certain social constructs and mores. Mechanics-wise they grant Edges (special advantages or merits) and Conditions to reinforce their unique nature.
Characters have a lot of leeway in construction. Besides Strain, they also choose Roles and Societies to belong to. These three elements constitute Paths, which for those unfamiliar with the Storypath system, give structure to how a player distributes points among their various statistics and determine things like their societal connections and other advantages. It’s a very open system that still provides a solid framework to guide character creation.
Dystopia Rising uses the Storypath system, Onyx Path’s in-house system used in Scion and the Trinity Continuum. Characters are made up of learned abilities (Skills) and innate abilities (Attributes). When facing a challenge, players roll a dice pool of d10s drawn from the sum of an appropriate Skill and Attribute. Any die 8 or higher counts as a success and as long as one success is rolled, the player can apply Enhancements (relevant side factors like equipment or favorable conditions) to receive bonus successes. Successes are then used to “buy off” the Difficulty of the challenge, any Complications in the challenge (maybe the swaying rope bridge you’re crossing is Frayed), and then buy Stunts, which can create Complications for others, add Enhancements or provide other advantages.
Storypath adheres to the fail-forward philosophy of gameplay. Failure grants Consolations, where characters gain some sort of future advantage, including a resource called Momentum. Momentum adds to future die pools or can be used to activate certain advantages like Edges (among other elements).
Gameplay focus on the three areas of Action-Adventure, Procedural, and Intrigue, which arguably covers the spread of RPG arenas. The basic rules are expanded on for each of these areas and presented quite clearly – chase scenes, investigations, and influencing others all work off the same base system, with elements added to each to best execute those challenges. Combat works similarly, with the challenge difficulty determined by the target’s defense roll. Damage is applied as Conditions, causing an increase in the difficulty of challenges. Mental stress is also accounted for, which is appropriate in a brutal zombie wasteland. Weapons and Armor are built by applying Tags to determine their range, encumbrance, the kind of attack, etc. This allows lots of flexibility for your characters to kitbash together gear and create unique items. There are even detailed crafting rules for your use. Considering it’s a zombie post-apocalypse game, it’s also great that there are straightforward and simple rules on handling combat against hordes of zombies. You’re not completely outclassed, but the rules do communicate that eventually you may be worn down.
As mentioned, Death is, of course, not the end, and the Infection will bring the deceased back to life – including your characters. However they are recreated as a copy and there will be differences. Some trauma is inflicted and while memories may be present, any emotional personal connections will be gone. The returned knows how they used to feel but mechanically there’s no longer a link. One can only come back so many times before they return as a proper zombie.
Considering the wasteland setting, players are well-covered for relevant rules. There’s structure for fatigue, finding food and water and preparing meals – as well as what happens when food expires, which is a delightful inclusion. Throw in illness, extreme weather, and radiation and zeds become only one of your problems.
As any game about community should, Dystopia Rising discusses beliefs and faith and how they can be used to tie a group together, or divide it. Nine different and interesting faiths are presented, along with their histories, philosophies, and theologies. Not all are completely altruistic but all have humanity’s (or their adherents’) best interests in mind. Faith can grant you an Edge that allows objectively mystical powers, for example: blasting the undead with a solid lance of light from the sky.
The supernatural doesn’t end there. The nature of the Infection has also allowed Strains to develop psychic powers, so psionicists also roam the world. While they have familiar powers like Tele/Technokinesis, there are also new and unique ones like “Necrokinetics” which functions around the users connection with the dead, allowing such abilities as invisibility to the undead or the creation of the sites where Strains resurrect.
The Storyguide chapter is very good. You can tell there’s a lot of experience behind the words as the chapter focuses as much on how to manage a group as design a story. So much of a gamemaster’s role involves people management and this is has some of the strongest advice on that aspect of a game that I’ve seen in a while. What’s written here is worth taking to heart, regardless of the game you’re playing. It includes discussion of safety tools and prejudice, noting the absence of real-world prejudice in a fallen world of zombies. There’s a strong critique of ableism, mentioning how everyone contributes to the communities in Dystopia Rising. While these elements are becoming more common in gamemastering sections, I especially liked the discussion of mindful use of language.
The bestiary is expansive, covering all sorts of human-ish antagonists and more nightmarish creatures like animated rags or “skin statues” and …Bursters. The foes are creative and creepy and are presented with very simple statblocks so your record-keeping is minimal.
Also included is an introductory episode (story) that utilizes the specific nature of the Infection to highlight the themes and elements of the game.
Dystopia Rising: Evolution is a rich, horrific, and entertaining supernatural post-apocalyptic zombie game. It’s got a unique setting with interesting character types and factions to play with, coupled with a very clean and clear version of the Storypath system. If you’d like to explore the nature of humanity in the wasteland while slowly losing your connection to it, it will be worth your time to check out Dystopia Rising: Evolution!
You can pick it up in traditional print format at Indie Press Revolution or one of the below Affiliate links!