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Throughout every conceivable medium, zombies exist to the point of oversaturation. Society’s love affair with the undead has gradually reduced in intensity in recent years, though some enterprising creators have managed to produce variants of the trope that still delight and satisfy. One such creator is Caleb Stokes, writer and designer of the Red Markets roleplaying game. I recently had the opportunity to GM a session of the game, and found four aspects that help differentiate Caleb’s product from the myriad other zombie titles available.
1) The Market
Many tabletop RPGs create a new title for the gamesmaster, and Red Markets follows this trend. Here, however, the application of the alternative title is apt in that the Market functions somewhat differently than a traditional GM. Much of any given session is determined by random rolls, including encounters. Indeed, nearly all of the encounters in the game are expected to be randomized. What’s more, the difficulty of each action is effectively randomized by the dice system. Players roll a black d10 and add it to their skill plus any bonuses they gain from using equipment, while simultaneously rolling a red d10 to determine the number you have to beat. The only tools the Market has to increase the difficulty are to prevent equipment use to enhance rolls or require they get a critical success (obtained by rolling even doubles).
Luckily, the system plays out surprisingly well. The Market has far less influence over events, and therefore everyone shares in the surprise and mirth caused by the random encounters and rolls. Further into this article, I’ll also explore how even the prices of commodities is randomized, even as the commodities are introduced on the fly.
2) Escalating Tensions
When player characters encounter Casualties (this setting’s name for zombies), they have to make a choice: do they fight and risk infection, or run and miss out on any of the goodies they may be inadvertently guarding? Shambling Casualties are the most common, and typically wander around in herds. They are incredibly silent and react to any sound as if it is a source of delicious living flesh. Therefore, when player characters utilize unsuppressed firearms in their attempts to thin out a herd, more Casualties tend to come to replace them. The fight can become hopeless quickly. This simple fact requires that players be more creative in their approach to the living dead instead of just popping heads at random. Lead the herd one way so one of your buddies can get into a grocery store and grab as many goodies as possible before they start shambling back. Furthermore, PCs may discover other types of undead, such as Vectors (supremely quick zombies, a la 28 days later) or Aberrants (unusual undead of striking variety). There are also human enemies to contend with. Things get messy very quickly, so it behooves the PCs to use stealth and speed in their endeavors.
3) Money Is Everything
The world after the apocalypse is a grim one, primarily due to the shortage of supplies in most areas of the world. The lucky places are referred to as the Recession and are still governed by a centralized leadership. All other locations are collectively known as the Loss and operate as a loose coalition (if that) of enclaves, each struggling to get by every day. Because the remaining government of the United States wishes to figure out what goods they are entitled to after the loss of so much life, they established an economy centered around the recovery of dead people’s identification information, usually in the form of IDs. Player Characters assume the roll of Takers, mercenary entrepreneurs who take contracts in the Loss or strike out on their own to recover valuable goods or a bunch of IDs from the dead. Takers often create their own small businesses to better take advantage of the ravaged economic state of the Loss. This creates endless opportunities for PCs, much of which is determined by random rolls. Valuables are divided into units called hauls, and the price of each haul is determined by rolling a d10 for supply and a d10 for demand and adding the two. The system outlines a way for Takers to drive up the price of their wares, as well as bid for contracts and negotiate the prices. The negotiation minigame proves particularly fun, as it allows for the PCs who aren’t negotiating to pull scams that manipulate the market. If all goes well, you could have your client pay for your group’s expenses as well as adding hazard pay for each leg of your journey. What a deal!
4) Tabletop Hybrid
Other such systems turn Red Markets into a pseudo board game of sorts. The Market has remarkably little impact on the outcomes of events in the game. Even in smaller vignettes featuring Takers’ dependents (NPCs who the PCs support financially and who, in turn, provide stress relief) the other PCs are encouraged to take on the NPC roles. The Market simply designs the contracts and certain NPCs, then manages the random events that occur throughout the journey. As a longtime GM, I found this initially stifling, but ultimately exciting. I got to be on the same level as my players as we uncovered random encounters. There are 100 such encounters in the core book, each one unique and dangerous with multiple possible outcomes. The Market can even randomize clients with some handy tables in the back of the book. It proves a unique and surprisingly refreshing GMing experience.
For any MBA gamer or a GM looking for an alternative way to play with the zombie trope, Red Markets proves to be a fun experience. There’s plenty of variety to be found despite the regimented systems I described. Let me know what you think of the game, and whether what you’ve read has reignited your interest in the ever-growing zombie genre.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact .
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I am become death, destroyer of worlds.