Game: The Lords of the Night: Zombies
Publisher: Bottled Imp Games
Review Dated: 23rd, July 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 12
Average Score: 6.00
I have to wonder whether the brains behind the Open Gaming License and d20’s involvement with it are happy with the way things have worked out. I wonder whether Wizards of the Coast are happy with it right now. I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that an ideal participant d20 publisher, when D&D 3.0 was first released into the wild, would have been Bottled Imp Games. Bottled Imp Games are not prolific but they’ve been very good. Bottled Imp Games are not going to steal thousands of players from Forgotten Realms (though they probably should). Bottled Imp Games produces those sort of products which offer quality and yet just enough twist on the standard D&D game to wider the scope and appeal of the game. You’ve got to know the industry to know to watch for these guys. If you recognised the name then I imagine you’re already half way to buying the book.
In the past Bottled Imp Games have done very well with The Lords of the Night: Vampires and The Lords of the Night: Liches. It’s pretty hard to find a comment against them. Vampires were a good, solid but somewhat easy target to pick. Vampires was a great book. Liches, nearly as good a book, were a much tougher topic. Zombies are really hard. Nearly 100 pages about zombies without descending into brain eating crunch? Is it possible?
The Lords of the Night: Zombies is very good. Any RPG supplement which begins by finding space to talk about the themes in the book is off to a flying start with me. The book is about hunger, about the tragedy of becoming a zombie, about the consequences of extending your life beyond its natural length. We’re also told that the book expands on every zombie myth ever told – whereas that’s an exaggeration, we certainly do throw off the shackles of the traditional (dull) D&D zombie.
There’s a bit of a campaign world kicking around in the Lords of the Night books but its least obvious in this one. The Darkness Rising (a brand name I suspect people will start fighting over) is a scary place, it lives up to its name and enjoys reoccurring themes and evil forces. You don’t need any of the other Lords of the Night books but there are the occasional references to them. You can use the Black Surgeon class from Zombies without knowing the Vampires presents alternate Black classes for all the core d20 classes.
Take what you know about D&D zombies and toss it away. No. Wait. Don’t do that – I’ve changed my mind. If you do that then you risk campaign world continuity problems, don’t you? You’ve already had zombies in your game. Those zombies are just one type of zombies, the ones without a spark of life, the ones lost to the Decay. The main zombies in Lords of the Night: Zombies have a spark of life and are called Risen.
It’s the spark of life in the zombies which helps to put the spark of life into the book. The Risen need this spark of energy to stay mentally alert and sentient but they also need to spend this very same energy in order to use their powers! That dilemma alone is enough to keep roleplayers on their toes for an entire campaign. It gets worse (or better, depending how you look at it), Risen need to consume a point of Corpus (the name for this spark) every day just to stay, er, unalive. The Risen regain Corpus generally buy eating fresh flesh.
There are six main types of zombies, of Risen, detailed in the book. The background explains why – it’s not a random number, but I’m not going to risk the mild spoiler. The book details six types of zombies suitable for PCs or NPCs (rather than just encounters; they come later) and with them six different paths to becoming or creating such a zombie.
The Path of Alchemy can create the Alchemical Zombie – these are the most “human” of the Risen, kept in their state due to a chemical formula. The Path of Sorcery can lead to an Eldritch Zombie. Ironically, perhaps, Eldritch Zombies make rubbish spell casters – they’re too prone (like it or not) on consuming the magic. The necromancers of the Risen, the Ether Zombies are created by the Path of Ether and the sewn together Golem Zombies are as a result of the Path of Surgery. We can thank the Path of Corruption for Mock Zombies and the Path of Invention for the Revenant Zombies. Each type has their own hunger, set of powers and characteristics. Each type is likely, eventually, to succumb and become mindless, soulless, horrors.
There are powers – Corpus Powers – and new magics in the book too. Towards the end (rather than in the headlines at the front) there are related classes as well. The necromancer, black surgeon, reanimator and spirit reaver. You can use this book to allow PC zombies, have NPC zombies or even have hugely detailed minions for a PC necromancer (or one of the associated prestige classes). There’s surprising scope packed into the 96 pages. It’s a nice balance too. With powers there comes the slide towards death – or that unnatural undeath which gives the Risen their powers. It is easier to slide down the scale the further down the scale you are, the more you’ve succumbed, but it’s also easier to spend Corpus energy and use those powers associated with unlife.
There’s almost always a give and take with zombies. Their powers are bad enough as they might be tempted to use them one too often but there’s an extra catch. The Risen also pick up disadvantages (marks) as their powers mature. In an added twist of the surgeon’s knife – it’s the DM who gets to pick these handicaps. There’s a brief mention of common sense here. The DM can’t go out to thwart the new powers the zombie player just picked. The DM is supposed to pick as appropriate for the character and the player’s gaming style. I think it’ll require close collaboration between the DM and the player to ensure everyone, including the other players, are happy.
In addition to the six Risen and their powers The Lords of the Night: Zombies also presents a short bestiary of zombies which aren’t “alive enough” to be counted as a Risen. Included in this list are what happens to Risen who run out of Corpus energy. Here we find the likes of Gangrel and Hollow Ones. No, that was naughty of me, it might be hard to shrug off White Wolf (as was seen in Lords of the Night: Vampires (but BIG did it)) but there’s no trace of the World of Darkness left in Darkness Rising.
I’m reluctant to mention too much of the history which specifically relates to the Risen – this is because it leaps out of the book as excellent plot material. There’s actually a whole chapter of help and plot ideas for the GM too. I will say that there’s a small geographic location which is closely associated with the Risen – an atmospheric ghost story, if you like – which The Lords of the Night: Zombies embellishes on very well.
Of the three Bottled Imp Games books it is The Lords of the Night: Zombies which is my favourite. It’s my favourite because it’s as gritty and gothic as the other two (without being tragically hip angst) and because it picks a frightfully hard subject to spice up and does it so well. I couldn’t finish the review without mentioning the illustrations either; the front cover is clearly the best BIG cover to date and although I think there’s slightly less artwork inside the book, every one is a winner.
The Lords of the Night: Zombies deserves to fly off the shelves – but I suspect companies like Bottled Imp Games will find it hard to convince retailers that they’re the small d20 publisher which is still worth stocking. I’ve got my copy and I’m going to keep it in my easy-reach rule shelf. That’s enough for me.