Preview: Infected

Infected is an indie tabletop roleplaying game currently live on Kickstarter, that is developed by Australian-based developers Immersive Studios. The game is powered by the Immersion System, newly designed to power Infected, as well as future titles from Immersive. The players take on the roles of survivors after a ‘zombie’ apocalypse, just as the world is starting to pick up the pieces. Unlike most zombie games, Infected has a few twists. Whilst hordes of the infected are still roaming the Earth, they are far from the biggest threat that remains, with the myriad, divided, and isolated communities of survivors all vying for a place in the new world order being the central conflict of Infected. To sum it up in a sentence, I would say: 28 Days Later, infected with The Walking Dead inter-survivor politics set 5 years after the events of that setting (though not everyone in the world is insane and evil, as in TWD).

The final product will be in excess of 250 hard-bound pages, in full colour. The book will contain all necessary rules and setting materials to play a game of Infected straight out of the pages with no additional supplements needed – though Immersive Studios assures us that other supplements will be developed as the game matures.

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Now that the formalities are out of the way, I wanted to talk about the play experience. I had four friends over, and we cracked open the sample adventure (though heavily modified to fit into a smaller timeslot). Everyone grabbed a pre-generated character, and we jumped right in. Within minutes, bullets were flying; one of the characters was shot half to death before themselves shooting a crossbow bolt through the neck of her attacker; another character commando-rolled behind a tree, made disguised noises and failed to throw a rock; and the last two opponents were turned into a cloud of red mist from shotgun rounds. They hijacked a car, caused a gang war, seduced a prisoner held in a high school bike-shed, jumped into an abandoned subway tunnel, ran from infected, and then got brutally attacked. We ended with one of the player characters falling to the infection, one being arrested by a paramilitary group, and the last two being entombed in the subway system.

If that isn’t some Grade-A zombie-apocalypse fun, I honestly don’t know what is. It had all the story beats of a traditional survivor-type adventure, but with a few key differences that made it not only far more thrilling than most games of a similar genre, but also far more entertaining.

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But before I really get into the setting, I want to talk about the mechanics, because they are by far the biggest talking point Infected has to offer. The core mechanic is somewhat irregular, and I admit had me scratching my head at first. Players roll 2d10, adding their Attribute Score to the first d10, and their Skill Score to the second d10, and then count the numbers above 10 that they rolled on each, which equates to their ‘Hits’. These ‘Hits’ then must defeat a Target Number set by the GM for success to be granted. Additionally, modifiers can be applied to one or both of these die rolls, represented as a +1/+1 figure, with the number before the slash relating to the first d10, and the one after for the second.

If this sounds confusing to you, do not be afraid because at its heart, it is. I’m still wondering why the system does not instead have you roll 2d10 and add your Attribute + Skill to this roll, add any static modifiers, and then score ‘Hits’ on anything above 20.

In practice, the system actually works rather well, though perhaps my confusion arose from the rules being poorly worded. Despite this, during my play test of the system using their free-to-download sample, my group and I found combat to be fast-paced, and highly deadly, which modelled well the post-apocalyptic feel of the setting. In one well-placed shot, a character can go from fine to dying, making combat something to be avoided (or approached very carefully). However, we did note the unlikelihood of characters surviving for more than a few sessions if combat is common, making the extensive character advancement rules supplied somewhat unnecessary, with the system perhaps being better for longer session one-shots than extended campaigns (though facets in the full rules well equip the Game Master with tools for changing the difficulty).

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The rules as they currently stand are also remarkably light in some aspects, and then needlessly crunchy and weighed down in others. Weapons have far more statistics than required, with modifiers to hit, to initiative, and to damage – not to mention Hardness Ratings, which determine what armours are effective against them. The attacking and damage systems also encourage a ridiculous amount of die rolls, with a full attack requiring potentially two 2d10 rolls from the attacker, and two 2d10 rolls from the defender per attack. For a small group, this only bogs down combat slightly, but for a group of more than 4 players, and for the Game Master at any time, this means lots of rolling.

Characters seem to have far more Attributes and Skills than could realistically be used in play, and the system could benefit from simplification in this area. There are no less than 12 Attributes, covering everything from the well-known Strength and Dexterity, to obscure Attributes like Tact, Resolve, and Courage, and 27 Skills, including two skills for cooking (Domestic and Wilderness), and a plethora of combat skills. These could be trimmed down dramatically, with the different of Attributes being distributed among the Skills, or vice versa.

Despite my misgivings with the rules system, the setting presented is quite refreshing for an otherwise old-hat topic (zombies). The infected are not the walking dead, and do not massively outnumber the humans in shambling mindless hordes. Instead, they are cunning feral hunters led by Alphas, with an array of specialist types reminiscent of Left4Dead. They are fast, they are tricky, and they are incredibly dangerous – able to infect a victim with every attack, meaning that there are no ‘easy’ encounters with infected characters.

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Additionally, infection isn’t an instant sentence for rising again as one of the Infected. Instead, a small percentage awake to run riot, whilst the majority fall into a coma and die. But the infection is virulent and incredibly contagious, so those who fall victim are summarily executed. However, this whole situation shows a confusing use of terms – I would have preferred if they separated out ones who had specifically awoken again with a different word, as “infected” is used both for someone who has merely got the disease, as well as one who has awoken after their coma with the intent to murder everyone.

The setting holds lots of charm for those seeking more high-level diplomacy and ‘holding management’ style games, and it is here that I can see Infected being used for extended gameplay. If player characters have control of a holding, they will have a greater chance of experiencing the setting than wandering survivors will.

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In comparison to its biggest competitor – All Flesh Must Be EatenInfected performs admirably. Whilst it has some problems that I have no doubt will be buffed out during final editing, the core gameplay is a lot smoother and more satisfying than AFMBE and allows for more true-to-genre gameplay. That being said, the game does definitely feel like the first product from a new studio, and the lack of industry experience may negatively affect the title – though Immersive Studios have proven to be very responsive to feedback, and are willing to admit and own their mistakes, so with a strong enough community I see this becoming a fantastic product.

The game mechanics can be taught in a matter of minutes, and the art that they already have is incredibly evocative and beautiful, making for a truly engaging experience as a tabletop RPG. Whilst Immersive Studios seems confident that their writing is finished on the project and they merely need more art to round it out, it is my hope that they spend more time refining and editing before the final print.

Despite dancing strangely between rules-light and crunch, Infected is a charming system and a wonderfully evocative setting that breathes fresh life into the zombie apocalypse genre. The rules are loose enough to run satisfying one-shot campaigns, and deep enough that, with clever players, longer campaigns could work – though keep an eye out for those infected hunting packs!

Gaming since four, game mastering since six, and augmenting reality with fiction since the First Age of Middle Earth; Ben has a hard time separating reality from fantasy. Can you blame him? Pretty early on, he realised that whilst playing games was great, making them was greater, and has spent the better part of his life corrupting the innocent with polyhedral dice, painted war game miniatures, non-standard playing cards, and lines of C# which have inexplicable comments attached to them. Somewhere between all this, this bearded twit runs a weekly game, a sporadic blog, and works as a game Designer.

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