Q&A: Zombie RPG 'Red Markets'
Hebanon Games has just released 'Red Markets' -- a zombie apocalypse RPG with a twist (the zombies are stand-ins for a gloomy economic climate). We spoke with game designer Caleb Stokes about the game and what inspired it.
Could you describe the premise to the game? Red Markets is a tabletop RPG about economic horror. It's a world in which the zombie apocalypse occurred, but it was unevenly distributed. In Red Markets, characters risk their lives trading between the massive quarantine zones containing a zombie outbreak and the remains of civilization. They are Takers: mercenary entrepreneurs unwilling to accept their abandonment. Bound together into competing crews, each seeks to profit from mankind’s near-extinction before it claims them. They must hustle, scheme, and scam as hard as they fight if they hope to survive the competing factions and undead hordes. Takers that are quick, clever, or brutal enough might earn enough to see retirement in a safe zone, but many discover too late that the cycle of poverty proves harder to escape than the hordes of undead. Red Markets uses the traditional zombie genre to tell a story about surviving on the wrong end of the economy. It’s cut-throat capitalism with its knife on your neck.
What does the game use for mechanics? Red Markets runs off mechanics of my own design called the Profit System.
The system uses 2d10's: one Red and one Black. Skills and bonuses from equipment are added to the Black die, but players must decide how many resources to spend on each check before they roll. The Red die constantly generates a new, unpredictable difficulty number with every throw the dice. If the modified Black number is higher than the Red, the character succeeds because they are "in the Black." If the Red number is equal to or greater than the Black, the character fails because they are in the Red.
That's it. All skills use the 2d10 system, and all rolls are player facing. The Market (the GM) need never roll the dice, but there are a number of randomly generated elements of the story that game runners can consult the dice for if they so choose. The same roll of the Red and Black can generate the wandering zombies and their distance away from the players, aberrant monsters with special rules, supply/demand curves for job prices, random encounters, etc.
There are a series of modular mechanics in the book that can be inserted to change the game's tone, alter its complexity, or adjust the difficulty, but everything comes back to the same 2d10 dice system.
Who are the creative team behind the game? I'm the head writer, designer, and publisher for the book. Ross Payton and Laura Briskin-Limehouse contributed some writing as well. Laura Briskin-Limehouse is also our editor. Layout for the book was done by Kyle Carty and Kat Perez. Artists with work in the book include Przemek Lech, Kim Van Deun, Michael Plondaya, Patsy McDowell, Chris Cirillo, James Bentham, and Darrell Claunch. Could you describe the game's development history? I'm a Marxist at heart. As I got more versed in RPGs and started to develop the urge to develop my own, I began questioning the ideological underpinnings of most games. I'd keep seeing these games with enormous cataloges of gear where the prices remained constantly fixed and the tools never broke or needed upkeep. Even though the fiction was set in a feudal period with magic, all goods had the predictable uniformity found on a Wal-Mart shelf. In the rare instances where the idea of spending resources on housing or food or the care of loved ones came up, it was almost always attached to a system that was too cumbersome to do anything with besides cut. When the idea was expressed simply enough to get play at the table, these daily costs that we all endure were seen as nothing but a source of positive bonuses for the player rather than a captor holding our way of life hostage. Lastly, whereas the idea of "adventure" would be an unending horror to most people, the majority of these games took the desire to risk life and limb as a given. When asked to justify risking the lives of the characters and the well-being of their loved ones, most games that provided an answer at all expressed the motivation in strictly financial terms. Yet those terms held none of the threat found in a real-world economic interaction. Characters went into the dungeon because they wanted to buy castles one day, but nobody was out there risking their neck because they didn't want to see their kids starve to death. The latter, in my experience, is far more common in capitalism, so I wanted to make a game that simultaneously existed within the unexamined capitalist ideology present in most RPGs while still highlighting the horrific inhumanity of such systems.
Another thing I did a little differently during development was document every stage of the process, as it occurred, with a podcast. It's called RPPR's Game Designer's Workshop. It's available for free over at RPPR.
What in your estimation. Is the appeal of the zombie genre?
Monsters and myth structures are used to carry ideas that humanity does not yet have the capacity fully to understand. Ideas of plague and xenophobia found expression in the vampire. The myth of the changeling is often ascribed to a failed understanding of autism and other developmental issues on the part of more primitive cultures. When confronted with a consistent source of horror and dread in our mundane realities, we attempt to place a handle on such unwieldy concepts via a supernatural monster.
Our newest myth structure is the zombie, and it is designed to carry our fears of totality. Globalization, monoculture, postmodernism -- all the incomprehensibly large ideas dominate the contemporary condition. The ever-shrinking borders of the world's boundaries find expression in the faceless, dehumanized hordes of our transformed neighbors.
I wanted to write a game about the economy, and zombies are the only monster with shoulders wide enough to carry that load. When people criticize me for using such a "played out" monster, my response is that the banality of the zombie was exactly why I used them. Zombies are endless, repetitive, banal, and futile to resist...just like your average job. And just like those jobs, none of the "boring" elements will stop them from draining our strength until we are overwhelmed and consumed.