Infected is a new tabletop RPG set some five years after a horrific plague has wiped out the majority of human civilization and created ravenous predators that stalk the remaining survivors who are no longer at the top of the food chain. Notice I didn’t use the word “zombie” in the previous sentence. That’s for two reasons. First, even the mention of the word zombie these days elicits more groans than a named extra running into a herd of walkers. Don’t get me wrong, I still love zombies and even prefer the classic fumbling shamble when it’s done well. I just had to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Second, this game steers away from enough (if not most) of your standard zombie tropes to give players something that feels different. Let’s start there.
The first thing I noticed that set Infected! apart is that it takes place YEARS after the outbreak responsible for turning people into bloodthirsty monsters. You could run it in the beginning of the infection, but the post-apocalyptic feel of the later years leaves a lot of potential for more nuanced games over a run and gun action game. For instance, civilization hasn’t collapsed in the future. It may be bleak and unforgiving, but cities exist. People farm, cities trade, everyone keeps going and surviving together . . . mostly. Dangers exist outside major settlements like raiders and the infected, but only lunatics or the desperate would wander the wastes without a fortified caravan.
Speaking of danger, let’s talk a little about the infected. They are significantly more dangerous than your average mindless drone who has to be within arms-length to even be considered a threat. First, the virus in the early stages can be spread through the air meaning a sneeze or cough can infect everyone in the room. This is the reason it spread like wildfire and could not be so easily contained. As the disease progresses, the majority of victims slip into a coma and simply pass away. WHAT?!?!? Everyone doesn’t come back to life and eat the poor living saps taking care of them? No, actually no one comes back to life. Those that survive the coma are still alive. They are just different. The disease causes them to burn through their resources so rapidly that they have an insatiable hunger. If they don’t eat, they die. So to eat, they hunt. Groups of infected work together in packs to track prey, test defenses, and exploit weaknesses. They are smart and much like a PCP addict from an 80’s PSA very hard to take down. Luckily, the game offers difficulty level options to let you choose just how dangerous you want the world to be. Needless to say, the world-building by author Oliver Shead goes above and beyond what you would expect from a debut, indie game. The history of the infection, the struggles survivors endured for years, and how civilization changed is described in such detail that you almost see it happening as you read.
Yikes! That went a bit long on the descriptive, so enough of the “fluff”. Break out your dentures and get ready for some crunch.
Infected! is based on the Immersion system, which was created to be universal like Savage Worlds or Fate. Infected! is the first setting to be published using this system and I think particularly well suited for the genre. Everything is d10-based so you don’t need a bag full of weird polyhedral dice to play. It will help to have a handful of the one specific weird polyhedral die because though many rolls require only a 2d10 roll, circumstances and other character benefits can allow you to roll more. Character creation is fairly straightforward whereby players are assigned a starting experience point pool to purchase levels in Attributes, Skills, Circumstances, Advantages, and Disadvantages. The higher the level, the more experience points you’ll need to spend. The book gives examples of what attribute and skill levels translate into. For instance, someone with a 1 in firearms is barely able to not shoot themselves in the face while a 10 is basically a Gun Kata master. That one is for Jason.
You’ll recognize some of the common Attributes like Strength and Agility on your character sheet, but others like Beauty and Resolve aren’t always as common. Four broad categories make up your Attributes with three individual attributes under each category. For example, your Physical Attributes are Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. The same schema applies to Mental, Social, and Spiritual Attributes. The twist though is that unlike the others, Spiritual Attribute points can be “spent” (reducing your Attribute bonus of that stat for the remainder of the session) to give you bonuses in those situations you really don’t want to botch your roll. I like the diversity of Attributes and feel like they are easy to recognize which one applies to any given roll. They also let you differentiate your character and really tailor them to your concept. Have a former lawyer who can argue his way out of anything but constantly puts his foot in his mouth when trying to smooth talk someone? Can do. Have a brilliant scientist who can’t remember to reload his gun? Yep, that’s easy.
The Skills are probably the most straightforward. Firearms, melee, sneaking, diplomacy, they are all in there (not necessarily named that). I agree with the inclusion of most of the skills, though I feel like Performing might be the one your GM or Narrator as the book calls them has to really shoehorn in to make a difference. You’re on post-apocalyptic America’s Got Talent, the winner gets a can of beans, the loser gets beaten to death and eaten. SING!!!!
The other categories aren’t too hard to understand once you read the short descriptions. Circumstances are external factors that might benefit you, e.g., equipment, vehicles, relationships, status in society, wealth, fame. The problem with a lot of universal systems is that they require you to abstract “stuff” or powers or whatever and find a way to make them scale without one particular category totally trumping all the others. I think the options as provided in Infected! seem to balance fairly well at first glance. Handguns with a reasonable amount of ammo are only a handful of points, whereas, a combat shotgun with a bandolier of shells will cost you a hell of a lot more (and probably a lot more than a Pinto with a half a tank of gas). Advantages and Disadvantages are even more straightforward. They are physical, mental, social, etc. characteristics that can help or hinder your interactions with the world. Taking Disadvantages gives you some points back and the worse the effect, the more you get back. Being an alcoholic is probably less harmful than having a deathwish.
If you don’t want to take the time to make characters, several pregens are included to start the ass kicking ASAP. To be fair, I feel the pregens are tilted toward the “gritty” side of things. They are all fairly combat-focused and are basically severely damaged goods. Before I forget, there is a morality system in the game as well whereby if you do something that is questionable, you may either say screw it I did what I had to and lose morality or go ahead and do it but feel awful about yourself. Not a huge mechanical effect, but it does add to the depth of the characters. So yeah, it has been years since the outbreak and people surely had to do horrible things, but I feel like there should be more of a range in the available pregens as well as in the game world itself. The GM could always make the world a little less bleak or have groups who had it relatively good and didn’t have to eat a baby or anything. Otherwise, you’re just playing Warhammer 40K. Along those lines, maybe it was the scenario I played, but combat skills were a bit over emphasized. In reality, survivors probably would have serious skills to have made it this far. Dramatically though, sycophants, hangers-on, conmen, and other unscrupulous individuals always seem to make it through these apocalypses to feed off the strong a little longer. That is a minor quibble that could easily be rectified with some GM hand-waving.
The fact I’ve written this much should indicate that I liked this game. Author Oliver Shead has produced a very well thought-out, intuitive, and fun RPG that offers equal parts crunch and equal parts fluff. Reading the book inspired me to come up with countless character concepts and scenarios that could make a massive open-world campaign. That tells me it’s good. The one-shot we ran with Oliver was one of the most fun scenarios I’ve played in a long time. That tells me it’s great.
I highly recommend anyone who is a fan of the post-apocalyptic, zombie, survival horro, and/or gritty RPG genres check out this book. The mechanics are straightforward and intuitive, the system is both deep and flexible, and the world is richly detailed and just as unforgiving.
Check out the Kickstarter at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1196986656/infected-zombie-rpg-by-oliver-r-shead
P.S. Kickstarters can scare people but let me assuage those fears. This book is pretty darn close to production quality already. The art is GORGEOUS, the design and layout is great, and it has been extensively playtested. The funding will only serve to improve and expand an already amazing RPG.