Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: The Shotgun Diaries

Review:  The Shotgun Diaries by John Wick
Rating:  ★★★★

I won't deny that I am a John Wick fanboy.  While most people out there first got introduced to his work in L5R and 7th Sea, I will have to admit, I first heard about him through a gamer friend of mine who showed me some youtube videos that he created (which I think was a Play Dirty episode).  The topic back then was the idea of always saying "Yes" to your players.  And when I watched it, I stared at it with my mouth agape because he was talking about gaming in a way which I always felt was right.

I spoil my players rotten, to be frank.  I tend to let players gain god-like powers, or throw them 30 experience points to spend in a single session.  I give freebies and make them the biggest stars of the show each time.  So know that when The Shotgun Diaries hit my radar, I just found myself shocked to see how Wick was able to come up with a game that was elegantly simple yet accomplished its goal.   And at the same time, not feel guilty if you kill the player characters.  While many zombie games out there focused on giving the players options to come up with character types (scientists, policemen, military types, every day people, etc) The Shotgun Diaries distills the concepts to the very archetypes that one finds in Zombie movies.  And from these archetypes, the players immediately have the freedom to further develop their concepts in any direction.  The only real important factor after all is a) how long you can survive and b) what can you do to stay alive.

Some would call The Shotgun Diaries a lite role-playing game, given it has no system for character development, no long list of skills, advantages and the like.  No charts for weapon types and such.  Not even a clear system for dealing with infection.  But to think those are all needed to be fleshed out for an effective zombie game is the first thing you'll learn to let go of.  In this game, you have the following basic rules:
a) Rules on how to do things you are good at
b) Rules that show why sticking together matters
c) Rules on why a place is a sanctuary from zombies, and the importance of supply
d) Rules on when the sanctuary is no longer safe
and finally
e) Rules on playing the zombies if you want to swing that way too.

In many ways, the Shotgun Diaries succeeds in a similar vein in how the computer game Left4Dead succeeds.   It keeps the fear present and the zombies relentless.  It makes the players WANT to stick together.  But at the same time, given player dynamics, it gets players embracing the risks of doing things alone because they feel they can get the job done sooner and faster that way.   Six-sided dice are used in the game, and players get to narrate resolutions if they succeed in a roll.  Given the lite rules, I don't want to give away the system too much (and risk making buying the book unnecessary).  Then there's the Zombie Clock which gives the game the rising tension.  Like the zombie horde moments in Left4Dead, the clock gains tokens with every few real time minutes, and these tokens can be used to trigger frightening moments such as hordes attacking, or defenses being breached and the like.

At eighteen pages, with two being the cover and the ad in the back, one might think for its price the book is too expensive.  But I've run the game three times within the year of getting the book, and I've had more people requesting for it than I thought possible given it was an indie book.  I've run the game for long time players and even for first time ever players, I've even run it for kids who were below legal age and for a mother of two who has never played role-playing games before, and so far, they've all unanimously loved it.  The familiarity of the genre, and how the system nicely captures it and translate it into a playable thing is just incredible.   I've had players who get the basic system at the start, and are soon screaming and having a scary fun time for the next three hours with me.

And lastly, you have the Diary itself.  As the name of the game implies, the Diary is an important factor in the game as players get to write down a "truth" which has a system effect for the rest of the game.  This could range from affirming one's ability to use certain skills ("I can do headshots"), or certain factors about the zombies which they've learned with the passage of time ("They do not hunt during the day").  But the best part is everyone gets a chance to write in it.  So without really realizing it, all the players are co-writing the story.

So yes, if you're looking for a great zombie thrill of a game, I highly recommend The Shotgun Diaries.
If you're hoping for a long term game, under the vein of The Walking Dead, however, you might be better off with other games that allow you to keep tabs on individuals skills and reward players with options to improve their stats.

You can purchase The Shotgun Diaries here.
It is also available at Drivethrurpg.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept:  Definitely familiar and uses that to its advantage.
Crunch:  Very light, making it perfect for one-shot fun.  But lacking if you want a long term chronicle.
Layout:  Nicely laid out and easy to grasp.  I didn't mind not having that much artwork (or practically none).  But some people might.
My favorite part:  Helpless archetype.  You'd be surprised how many people would LOVE to play this in the game.  And the system for it works perfectly in making the game keep moving forward.
What I wish was better:  I'd love to see a The Shotgun Diaries Chronicles, which expands on the game's current set-up for longer term play.  I'd love to see more archetypes as well, so if I have a group that has less or more than the ideal number it can still work well.   Maybe even rules for dual-archetypes (so in a two-player game, you don't exactly feel the game can't function.)  And lastly, I would love more Zombie Clock options.
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