Zombie Mondays Although the pen-and-paper RPG company Palladium is best known for its flagship product Rifts®, it has also
produced a game based on the concept of a zombie apolocolypse -- Dead Reign®. We chatted with Kevin Siembieda to get his take on flesh-eating living dead and the gamers that love them.
Q: When and how was the game developed?
A: The initial concept for Dead Reign® was the brainchild of two fans with aspirations toward writing and game design, Josh Hilden and Joshua Sanford. Hilden had been running a zombie game using Palladium’s game system for years and approached me about turning it into a role-playing game for us to publish. I was intrigued and gave him and Joshua the greenlight to develop it on spec. As he worked on the writing for the game, he ran several events at the Palladium Open House and we had him run games at our booth at Gen Con. People loved it.
Q: Were there any surprises while you worked on it?
A: Yes, three. The first, was the final manuscript from Josh. To me, it was not the game I had seen him run dozens of time. That’s what brought me into the design and writing of the game. To my thinking, the Dead Reign® that saw publication is the game I saw Josh run a million times and the core concepts he and I had discussed. The end result is a scary and suspenseful game that is fun to play.
The second surprise was myself and my comfort-level writing the game. Some games just flow out of you like magic, and this was one of them. I never thought I was a “zombie guy.” You know, someone who is an uber zombie fan, but it turns out I am. The ideas just poured out of me and I had a blast writing it and the subsequent sourcebooks. I should have known this to be the case, because I love the horror genre. As a kid and into my thirties, I made sure I saw every horror movie that hit the movie screen. And meeting George Romero when I was young had a big impact on me early on and inspired my own creative ventures as an adult.
Q: Wait, you met George Romero?
A: Yeah. George Romero was a guest at a Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic convention in Detroit. This was . . . I want to say, 1970 or 1971. I was a whopping 14 or 15 years old. Romero was a really nice guy, gave the audience a lot of his time, and wowed all of us in the crowd with his behind the scenes stories about the making of The Night of the Living Dead. I was really struck by his courage to follow his dream and make such a dynamic movie that was an instant cult classic. Of course, this seminal work would go on to shape the way we think of zombies and create an entirely new genre of films and fiction. My friend Alex and I were able to ask Romero several questions during the talk and afterward, which was very cool. We also got to see the, at the time, “never before seen director’s cut” of The Night of the Living Dead with a few minutes of gorier material, followed by the pre-movie theater showing of his (then) new movie, The Crazies, which also blew me away. It was a great experience. One I remember decades later. I also had the pleasure of meeting Tom Savini years later at a science fiction convention in Ohio.
Q: Okay. What was the other surprise?
A: The other, big surprise was how the setting and mechanics in Dead Reign® seems to bring about camaraderie and selfless acts of heroism. This manifested time and time again during the many play tests I ran. Players gaming with people they didn’t know and never gamed with before would rush to the aid of fellow survivors under attack by zombies, risking their own characters’ lives. That was the biggest surprise. I had imagined players saying things like, “Okay the zombies are going to get poor Fred trapped over there. That’s terrible, but I’m running for the hills.” Instead, they’d rush over to rescue poor Fred, often against frightening odds. That was awesome and completely unexpected. I hope people act like that if there ever were a real zombie apocalypse.
Q: What in your opinion is the appeal of the zombie genre?
A: I think there is something very visceral about the zombie menace and the idea of surviving an apocalypse. I think there is something fascinating and terrifying about the idea that people just like us have become monsters that we must now fight and hide from. I think there is also that strange appeal of surviving against all odds. The tragedy of seeing fellow humans and loved ones become zombies, the resilience of surviving in a world gone mad and civilization collapsing all around you . . . it’s all very compelling.
Q: How many sourcebooks are planned for the game?
A: We have a new sourcebook by freelance writer Taylor White, sitting in the pipeline right now, and I have ideas for at least three more. I think we’ll keep the sourcebooks coming until we run out of new stories and adventure ideas.
Q: What differentiates Dead Reign® from other RPGs with similar themes?
A: The Zombie Moan is a big difference. In Dead Reign, the moment a zombie sees you, it reaches out and shuffles toward you, moaning loudly. That moan is like a dinner bell to any other zombies in the area, and it causes them to follow the sound toward food – i.e. a living being. The more zombies moaning, the louder that dinner bell gets, and more zombies gather until you have the classic zombie horde surrounding your position, trying to get to you to kill you.
You need to stop the moan as quickly as possible to prevent a zombie swarm surrounding you. As more and more zombies gather, their numbers often increase on a geometric level. 2 becomes 4, four becomes 8, eight becomes 16, sixteen becomes 32, and on and on. The gathering horde and increasing volume of the moan and the zombies’ numbers growing to terrifying levels creates a very real sense of urgency and impending doom unless you act NOW. You really feel the need to be smart and take quick, decisive action or die. Let yourself be surrounded and you may find yourself beyond rescue or escape. You may also put your teammates in jeopardy. It creates this wonderful sense of escalating horror and genuine tension and suspense that gets ratcheted up a notch every melee round. Very fun and realistic. This is one of the most original and dynamic mechanics in the game and truly simulates the fragility of the living and the horror of the zombie apocalypse.
Other things that set Dead Reign® apart is focus on survival and humanity, and player characters that range from ordinary people to the heroic motorcycle warriors who call themselves Road Reapers – think knights-errant. Then there are Shepherds of the Damned and Half-Zombies, people who had a near-death experience but have not completely turned, among others. There is also a selection of different types of zombies, some very unique, but make sense and offer different gaming opportunities.
Q: In zombie films there are often varying explanations as to why the dead would rise up. What is the case here?
A: We deliberately left that question unanswered. I felt the survivors would never be able to find out what caused the zombie plague, and it didn’t really matter. It’s all about survival now. That said, we offer five theories as to what likely happened.