palladium rpg

“Creatures that once hid in wild, desolate places far from the reach of man are returning.  They have realized that mankind no longer sees nor hears them.  They know they have become shadows that can slip past us unobserved.”  (Steven R. Bissette illustration from Beyond the Supernatural by Randy McCall and Kevin Siembieda, Palladium Books, 1988, reprinted in ad in Dragon magazine No. 129, January 1988.)

Zombies Unlimited

So, I’m checking out Palladium’s zombie apocalypse setting/world, Dead Reign, and I really have to give them some credit where it’s due. First, they present a series of five competing explanations for the zombie apocalypse, starting with Umbrella Corporation-style shenanigans and ending with magic and wrath of God.

I like both the multiple choice past and the inclusion of explicitly supernatural explanations, and I like them both for the same reason: zombies don’t work

They don’t. 

Any attempt to science things up just ends up emphasizing how impossible the whole thing is, at least to anyone who does more than just recognize the buzzwords being thrown around. 

The seminal work of the zombie apocalypse genre (Night of the Living Dead) adopted a similar “nobody knows, here are some theories but darn are they thin” approach but people want an explanation (even a terrible one that’s full of holes and raises more questions than it answers) that a lot of people seized on a line about an incredibly implausible explanation that was really thrown in to emphasize how little of a clue anybody had about what was happening.

The other thing I like about it is how they’ve managed to use the existing framework of the Palladium Megaverse system to explain the mechanics of zombies. All living things have Potential Psychic Energy. In their fantasy settings, PPE is a wizard’s batteries, and it’s the life force that supernatural creatures like vampires tend to feed on. It also doubles at the moment of death, which is why evil magicians and cults do human sacrifices and why so many supernatural predators are killers rather than parasites.

So zombies in Dead Reign, however they first arose, are animated and sustained by PPE. They can sense it over long distances and see it as a glowing beacon, which is how they home in on humans (who tend to have more PPE than other animals) and how they can operate after their eyes are clearly gone (their spiritual sight functions regardless of their eyes).

The stolen PPE of a zombie victim is broadcast in such a way that all zombies converging on a victim get “an equal portion” of it… since they specifically say that even hundreds of zombies can share one victim and the average adult human has a few dozen PPE at most, I think we’re supposed to take this to mean that it’s not diminished by sharing (i.e., they all get the full amount), but who knows with Palladium writing. The line about hundreds of zombies could have been thrown in without any serious thought about the implications.

Stolen PPE heals and even rejuvenates zombies, slowing the rate of decomposition which they specify is already slower than normal. So this is how zombies manage to last as long as they do.

Zombies, even ones who have recently stolen PPE, don’t have their own PPE aura like living creatures, which is why zombies don’t attack each other even when they’re starving.

Zombies bite people to kill them, for most of them any eating of flesh is incidental, which is how so many partially-eaten people are able to become zombies when zombies “feed” on humans.

All in all, it’s more internally coherent than a lot of zombie ecologies are… which is faint praise, but also really remarkable for a Palladium product.

But it wouldn’t be a Palladium product if it didn’t contain things like this:

“It is important to understand that while humans and other living creatures are seen as radiant beings, that light is limited to the size and shape of their bodies. They do not actually give off light that fills a room like a lightbulb. This means if a character hides behind a piece of debris or an overturned table, etc., and keeps his head down, the walking dead cannot see him and may lose his trail.”

Okay. I’m fine with all of that. The mystical light of PPE isn’t seen with physical eyes so there’s no reason to expect it to actually behave like radiated light. Or maybe it mostly does but non-living matter can’t reflect it at all. And the end result - that zombies can home in on a human in the open but are easily fooled by meager cover, it’s pretty consistent with a lot of zombie movie logic.

But the very next sentence is this:

Note: A human’s aura cannot be contained, hidden by clothing, armor or any other means.”

Ignoring the punctuation problems… this is the sentence that follows the one that explains that hiding your aura is as easy as having any solid matter between you and the zombie. I know why it exists. I know what they’re trying to say. There are players who would read the preceding and go, “Okay, so I wear a full-body covering and I’m invisible to zombies, bam!” Probably one of the first players the author showed this to raised that possibility. Solution? Throw in a sentence that says no, that doesn’t work and call it a day.

Except it seems to directly conflict with the information that precedes it. How hard is this to fix? Not very. Instead of making a point to say the aura conforms exactly with the size and shape of a human body, say it radiates out to a distance of half a foot. That changes the ability of a human to hide behind a life-sized cutout of themselves but has very few implications for actual gameplay situations… most things that one could reasonably hide behind, one could hide an aura behind. But a body suit or even bulky armor you could move around in wouldn’t hide the aura.

To head munchkins off at the pass, you could even declare that anything that is worn for any length of time effectively becomes part of the owner while worn, and radiates/rebroadcasts the aura.

When you break this down to mechanics, I don’t actually have a problem with the existence of a rule that says “anything you hide behind cloaks your aura” and “nothing you wear cloaks your aura”. They’re fine as game rules. They make perfect sense as game rules. But stating them in in-game terms one right after another with no attempt to resolve the obvious conflict… that’s just not thinking.